Esther West (1)

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ESTHER WEST.

CHAPTER I.

ESTHER THE QUEEN.


HURST COMMON was glowing in the golden afternoon.  It was thickly set with furze, which was in full bloom.  At a little distance, it seemed a field of black embossed with gold.  Through the midst of it ran a broad green path, at one end of which, built upon a yellow sand-hill, stood a lonely house called "The Cedars," while at the other was the village of Hurst.

    It was only two hours after noon, and the light that lay on the landscape had only gained in vividness from the touch of shade laid on here and there.  But the low furze bushes cast no shade on that belt of shining green, soft as velvet, and elastic beneath the pressure of the feet.  There was a pool at the village end, flashing like a mirror, and a flock of geese had risen from its margin, and, led by a mother goose of most goose-like solemnity, proceeded up the path, as if out for a constitutional.

    From the other end advanced a young girl—a figure on which the light rested lovingly, as it rests on a water-lily.  There was something singularly pure and cool about Esther West; and yet she was no slender reed of a girl, but a tall and stately maiden, of ample proportions and perfect health.  Perhaps it was to her proportion of face and figure, and also to a certain proportion of mind—which gave strength and calmness to all she did and said—that she owed her peculiar charm.  I will try and describe her, for I do not hold with those who care not to paint the outward form.  There was very little colour about her, yet she was not white.  Though I never paint her mentally, but always sculpture her, if I may say so, she was not at all a marbly woman.  Pure, tender greys predominated in her face; she had masses of shady hair, that was neither fair nor dark; long, lovely eyebrows of the same half-dusky hue, and grey eyes that seemed to swim in light, especially when they laughed.  There was a great deal of shadow in the face; it was almost pensive in repose, but it lighted up marvellously when the grey eyes sparkled and the perfect nostrils quivered, and the mouth, neither large nor small, but of a gracious sweetness, opened, and yet hardly showed the pearly teeth.

    Esther West came across the common in a cool dress of some light, shining stuff of silver grey, lightly trimmed with green.  The white feather of her hat rested on the dusky hair.  The sunshine streamed about her.  She seemed to "walk in glory and in joy."  Her eyes shone their brightest, as she looked up at the blue above and down at the wealth of golden blossoms at her feet; her nostrils quivered as she inhaled the rich, sweet scent of the furze; her lips parted, and her whole face beamed with its brightest illumination.  It was as if her young soul smiled back the smile of the Creator.

    She came up with the flock of geese, who turned tail at her near approach, and waddled off in their ungainly fashion, and with much unreasonable cackling.  At the pond they collected in a closer group, stretched their gossiping goose necks, and hissed insanely as she passed—a feat which she rewarded by a happy little laugh.

    At this point she passed into the village, which nowhere formed what could even by courtesy be called a street.  It made rather a sort of right angle, one side fronting the common, the other the high road.  There was an inn.  To the mere onlooker it was a mystery how it existed, the place was so quiet and retired.  But the sign of "The Maypole" continued to swing in the wind on the grassy edge of the highway; and its owner did not complain of want of custom.  Hurst was, indeed, more populous than it appeared.  There were many little houses hidden away up green lanes and in among orchards and gardens; for Hurst supplied the London market with fruit and vegetables, and throve in its vocation.

    It boasted also of a shop—"the shop," which was likewise the post-office of the district, both concerns being under the management of Mrs. Moss, though "old Moss," as her husband was called, still overlooked the transactions by means of a little square pane of glass let into the wall, through which he surveyed the world from his chimney-corner in the back parlour, to which he was confined by "rheumatiz" and increasing years.

    Out of the sunshine into that dark, low-browed little shop went queenly Esther West, radiant and happy, generous, and gracious, and good.  After a cheerful salutation to Mrs. Moss, she produced a letter.  It was for the Australian mail, and there was no need to ask about it, for each Australian mail bore a similar missive from the post-office at Hurst to swell the great stream of colonial correspondence.

    "There's one a waitin' for you—that is, for your mamma, Miss Esther.  I've hardly had time to look at it yet," said Mrs. Moss, wiping her hands on her apron, and proceeding to look over a little bundle of letters.  "Joe is just gettin' ready to take the letters round," she added (Joe was her son, and did the tailoring of the village up in his attic, besides his letter-carrying), "but maybe ye may like to carry it yourself.  It's got the Australian post-mark on't."  And she very naively had her look at it before she handed it over to its rightful owner.

    Esther took it, hesitating just a little, and turning her face, as she inspected the writing, towards a little woman who stood in a corner, and who had stood back there since Esther entered the shop, with her sharp eyes fixed on the girl's face, and watching her every movement.

    "Yes; I will take it," she said, after the momentary hesitation; and, with a kindly inquiry for Mr. Moss, she left the little shop, without having once looked in the direction of the small woman in the corner, partly out of preoccupation, partly from good breeding.

    There is no knowing what will please or what will offend some people.  The little woman in the corner, who appeared to be dressed in every colour—not in the rainbow—was evidently offended that no notice had been taken of her; for as soon as Esther was out of hearing, she gave utterance to her verdict, with a sniff of her sharp nose and a screw of her shrewish little mouth.

    "That's a haughty madam."

    "No, she aint!" shouted the old man from his chimney-corner, causing the little woman to start in an irritable manner.  The parlour door was left slightly open, and Mr. Moss not only saw but heard all that went on; for, unlike most old people, his hearing was preternaturally acute.

    But Mrs. Wiggett, who was a new-comer, and not aware of this peculiarity, took no notice of the interruption.

    "Who is she?" sharply interrogated the little woman.  "She's an only daughter," replied meek Mrs. Moss.

    "She's a beauty!" shouted the old man.  "Esther West—Queen Esther I call her."

    "Esther West," repeated Mrs. Wiggett; and taking up the letter, she read, "'Henry West, Esq.'—that's Harry, isn't it?  Is he any relation?"

    "They do say," answered Mrs. Moss, "that he's a cousin of Miss Esther, and that he's a comin' home to wed her."

    "There might be two Wests, but there can't be two Esthers, and two Harrys, and two Australias," said Mrs. Wiggett, showing herself a great inductive philosopher, and adding, triumphantly, "I know all about them."

    "Do ye now!" exclaimed Mrs. Moss, with genuine admiration and curiosity; for not much was known about the Wests in the village, nor did there appear much to be known about a widow lady of good means and good manners, who had led a quiet life there for so many years.

    Mrs. Moss waited open-mouthed for further information; but it is doubtful if it would have been vouchsafed but for the interference of Mr. Moss, who once more lifted up his voice with, "I'm thinking, missus, ye've little to say about them; and nothing agin them."

    Mr. Moss was one of those men who can never help making a fight for the veriest morsel of opinion, and who was always taking sides for or against every one who passed in review before the little square pane through which he contemplated the world.  Little as he had seen of Mrs. Wiggett, he had made up his mind against her.  "I'm agin that goody," he had said to his wife: "she's a little wiper, she is."

    His tone of contradictoriness exasperated Mrs. Wiggett, and she burst out with, "That's all you know; but I come fro' the same place, and know all about them; and I can tell you"—and her voice rose as her irritation carried her away— that Miss Esther, as you call her, hasn't any right to the name o' West, no more nor I have."

    A "Ha!—ha!" from the back parlour still further excited Mrs. Wiggett; while Mrs. Moss exclaimed, credulously, "You don't mean for to say that Mrs. West isn't an honest woman?"

    "I do mean to say that she could be gaoled or transported any day for stealing of an honest man's child.  Esther West is no more Esther West than I am; she's Esther Potter—Martin Potter's first—first of ten, and two of them twins; I knew her mother, Mary Potter, as well as I know I."

    "Take care what you say, missis," was growled from the back parlour; and Mrs. Wiggett's excitement cooled down in a moment.

    "You needn't repeat it," she said to Mrs. Moss, in a calmer tone, as she took up several small packets and departed, bestowing a deprecatory nod on Mr. Moss through the pane.

    Mr. Moss had suffered a defeat, and was silent, ruminating on the strange communication, which somehow carried the stamp of truth.  Mrs. Moss had lost all presence of mind to ask the ins and outs of the story, and was speculating wildly.  As for Mrs. Wiggett, she went up the village shaking in her shoes, and wishing she had bitten her tongue off, rather than have given the reins to that unruly member as she had done.  She had reasons of her own, sufficiently strong ones too, for wishing to remain incognito.

    In the meantime, unconscious Esther, after hesitating another moment outside the shop door—as if drawn two ways at once—went on in the direction opposite from home, and towards a house on the other side of the village called Redhurst, where she was expected to join in a croquet party that sunny afternoon.

    While she was still at some distance from the house, through the wicket-gate which opened into its shrubbery came Constance Vaughan to meet her friend.  She had on a hat, but neither cloak nor shawl, and her light dress fluttered as she advanced, with her own eager motion, rather than with the breeze.  The girls met, and kissed each other, and then paused in the midst of the path.

    "I hardly know whether to go back to mamma, or on to your house," said Esther.  "Here is a letter I have just got for her, and I don't like to keep her waiting for it.  I knew you were all waiting for me, and I came on with the intention of asking you to begin without me, and going back to her.  Will you carry a message for me?  Tell them I shall not be long in going and returning, and explain my absence.  You might take my mallet for a while."

    They were eager players, and the delay of the game was quite a serious affair.

    "Couldn't we send a servant over with the letter?" said Constance.

    "It's from cousin Harry," said Esther; which seemed quite sufficient to make it understood that it was too sacred to admit of its being entrusted to a servant's hands.

    "Let's both go together," said eager Constance.  "It is not far to 'The Cedars,' and they are sure to begin without us."

    The girls stood where through the trees, and over the sloping shrubbery, they could be seen by the group assembled on the elevated lawn of Redhurst, and Constance insisted on making some telegraphic signals, by holding up the letter, and pointing in the direction of "The Cedars."  The trees which gave their name to the house, could be seen from where they stood, stretching their dark, level boughs on the golden sky, the very symbols of rooted calm.  The signals were quite intelligible and satisfactory to herself, and utterly incomprehensible to those to whom they were addressed; but a white handkerchief waved in reply was taken for a signal of comprehension; upon which they turned back deliberately, Constance linking her arm in Esther's, and fluttering gaily by her side.


 
CHAPTER II.

A LIFE'S HISTORY.


WHILE they are thus on their way, it may be as well to anticipate any further revelation through the medium of village gossip, and tell the story of Mrs. West's life in a clearer way—a story which, but for one great false step, might have been recorded in fewer words than most.

    She was an orphan, remembering neither father nor mother, and married in early life to a manufacturer in the north of England.  A woman who must have been made timid by the repression of natural affection in childhood and youth, for it was not in her husband's home that she learnt to distrust her power to win and retain the love of others.  Her husband idolised her, childless wife as she was.  She had more than the ordinary share of intellect, but her affections were stronger still, quite preponderating over the powers of her mind.  Her tenderness was of the kind which even borders on pain in its intensity.  After many years of married life, there came to her the promise of a child, and, even by anticipation, the love of the mother sprang up in her heart, with all the power of loving which characterised her.

    Close to the gate of the grounds which separated her large and lonely house from the outer world, stood a pretty cottage, the home of a recently-married pair, which she had often looked at wistfully as she saw the young mother fondle her first-born.  When the little thing began to totter about in the porch, or on the small grass-plot in front of the house, the lady would stop to speak to the child and its mother over the low garden gate.  But now she lingered longer, and almost trembled with joy to hold the yearling in her arms; and, seeing her daily, the little mouth was held up freely for kisses, and a very lovely little mouth it was.

    The mother of this child had been the village schoolmistress, and, herself remarkably handsome, had married the handsomest man in the parish, though he was only a bricklayer.  Neighbours said she might have looked higher, their shades of high and low being of the finest; but Martin Potter was intelligent and ambitious, and they changed their opinion in time.  He was a student in his way, and a saver, and when he married he became a small master, and, with his wife still mistress of the school, they seemed prospering exceedingly.  Then came the baby, and the mother's health failed for a time, and the school had to be given up, and the schoolhouse with it.  But Martin built a pretty cottage for his wife and child, and worked harder for them, and seemed to love them more than ever.

    A great disappointment awaited Mrs. West: her baby was only born to die.  The little pale blossom fell from the tree of life fruitless, unexpanded.  Very slowly the childless mother came back to life and health.  When she began once more to pass the gate of her domain, there was little Esther, lovelier than ever, playing in the porch, and her (in Mrs. West's eyes) most happy mother with one infant in her lap and another in a wicker cradle at her feet: Mr. Potter had been presented with twin daughters.

    At first Mrs. West had to be driven past her humble neighbour's door, with bent head, and clasped hands, and heart aching heavily.  She could not have trusted herself to speak; though she blamed herself for every throb of what seemed so like envy, and doubled her pain by being pained because of it.  But at length she had the courage to stop her pony-carriage, and step into the cottage; and, with tears falling into the bosom of the little white bundle in her lap, pour out her sorrow to a sympathising listener.  Mary Potter was beginning to have her troubles too, and expressed a very sincere wish, concerning the twins, that one of them had been Mrs. West's instead of her own.  "Not that I would like to part with one now," she corrected; "but Martin thinks it hard to have two at a time.  He thinks he'll never get on at this rate."  Thus poor Mary bared her secret hurt.

    After that, Mrs. West would stop at the cottage door, and take little Esther up for a drive.  And from that she got to having her at the house, where she was made much of, amused, and, what is even pleasanter to a very young child, instructed; the instruction being confined, however, to the simple use of words.  She was not two years old; and the twins had left no room for her in the mother's arms—had "put her little nose out of joint," to use the common phrase; therefore it was no wonder that she clung more and more to the gentle lady, who gave her a mother's care, and all the love that she was ready to have lavished on her own.  More and more the unconscious little one was weaned from her mother and her home; till one day, Martin Potter being employed on some repairs at "The House," Mrs. West made him a proposal to keep the child altogether, and to bring it up in her own home.  "You are likely to have a large family"—Martin Potter thought it more than likely—"and you would never miss her; while she would be amply provided for.  I have consulted my husband, and I want you to consult your wife before you answer me."

    "Oh, Martin! it is hard to part with our own flesh and blood to a stranger, even if she were an angel from heaven," pleaded poor Mary, hugging her twins.

    Her husband briefly pointed out the advantages to the child herself, and to the whole family.  Mr. and Mrs. West might die.  They were neither young nor strong, and they would certainly leave a fortune to their adopted child.

    But the more advantageous it seemed, the more it seemed to the mother to separate her from her child.  She was weak and irritable, and not inclined to be reasonable about it.  "She's our first," she sobbed; "and you've never taken to the twins as you took to her."  She appealed to the father's joy in his first-born.  The first and strongest link between them seemed about to be broken; but when Mary Potter found that nothing prevailed against her husband's resolution, she calmed herself, and said, "Take your own way, Martin; but, mind, it's against my will."

    "Take your own way!"  Sad and fatal words for either husband or wife to utter; the way that leads to many a dreary separation.  Those whom God hath joined together have no longer right to a way of their own.  Slowly but surely, Mary and Martin Potter diverged from that day.  There had come


"The little rift within the lute,
 Which by-and-by shall make the music mute,
 And, ever widening, slowly silence all."


    Mary had a little soreness against Mrs. West, but that in time wore away, while the soreness against her husband increased.  Mrs. West was very good to Mary, especially when another baby came; she was good in a way which would have won harder hearts than this young mother's.  It was a deprecating way she had.  Anybody might have patronised Mrs. West, but she could not have patronised the poorest or feeblest.  It was delicate, too.  She did not present her humble friend with stout flannel petticoats or serviceable gowns; all her presents were such as one lady might give to another.  She worked for the twins, with her own delicate fingers, dresses of simple material, but dainty form and ornament, such as she would have had her own child wear, and such as she provided for little Esther; and she contrived, above all, that the mother should see her child every day, except when she was taken away for a few months at a time when they went to the sea for the benefit of Mr. West's health.

    They took little Esther away, and they brought her back again more beautiful and blooming than ever, while the twins were weak, and fretful, and ailing.

    Another daughter had been added to Martin Potter, who felt more aggrieved than ever at the Providence which assigned him the encumbrance of four of the weaker sex.  Indeed, he could hardly be got to look upon the face of his fourth daughter.  Esther seemed, therefore, wholly given up to her adopted parents; indeed, such had been the compact between them and Martin Potter, with the proviso that he should see her from time to time, and that he might claim her again if he chose.

    Another winter drew near, and Mr. West was ordered to the south before it should set in.  Mary Potter, expecting another baby, bade good-bye to little Esther without much concern, while Martin, keeping still better to his bargain, hardly noticed the child at all; but then he had borrowed money from Mr. West lately, who had said to his wife on the occasion, "My darling, I fear that man will be a trouble to us some day."

    They stayed throughout the winter and the long, cold spring at Ventnor; but before the latter season was over Mr. West was too ill to be moved.  Periodically Mrs. West wrote to the Potters concerning their child, and received at equal intervals a letter from Mary.  Number five had turned out a boy; "but," wrote poor Mary, "nothing will please him (her husband), for the business seems going wrong."  And Mrs. West sent the boy a handsome sum of money as a gift from his sister Esther, in answer to the intimation.

    Just before the summer, Mr. West died, leaving all that he possessed to his wife, and after his wife to the son of an only brother in Australia.  The will had been made, according to their mutual wish, years before the adoption of Esther, and had remained unaltered.  "You will take care of the little one," the dying man had said, for he had come to be as fond of Esther as his wife was.  I fear you will find it a hard task to keep her, and I don't quite like Martin Potter, but it would be cruel to give her up now."

    Give her up!  Mrs. West would have given up most things in this life—after her husband's death, life itself—rather than have given up the clasp of those chubby arms, the kiss of those pretty lips, the love of that warm little heart.

    Then came the great temptation to which she yielded.  The Potters left the place where they had lived so many years for a neighbouring town, where small building speculations were rife.  Mrs. West sold her house and furniture through an agent, and thus broke the tie with it at the same time.  Still she remained at Ventnor, but poor Mary grew remiss in writing, and after a longer interval than usual, the fatal step was taken—fatal, at least, to the peace of poor Mrs. West.  She removed from the Isle of Wight, and came into the neighbourhood of London, without communicating to the Potters her change of address.  Her late husband's nephew and heir had been sent to England for education, and she gave to herself the reason that she desired to make a home for him during his stay.  By this, also, she accounted to herself for her frequent changes of residence.  She was always finding out a better school for Harry.  After three years, the young Australian was recalled, having spent a year at three different schools.  He was a bright, handsome, fair-haired, restless boy, and, to do Mrs. West justice, the frequent changes were as much his fault as hers.  He needed a discipline far firmer than any she could enforce to repress his erratic tendencies; but he learnt so rapidly and retentively, that what would have hindered the progress of most lads only seemed to favour his, and everybody seemed satisfied with the result.  Little Esther was Harry's playfellow, or rather plaything, during those years.  He alternately loved her and broke her child-heart by his neglect; but then he was her senior by six years, and it was not to be expected that a boy could make a companion of a mere baby of a girl.  So the only memories cherished of Harry by Mrs. West and Esther were pleasant and happy ones.

    Finally, Mrs. West—all trace of the Potters lost—had settled at Hurst, and Esther had grown up, knowing nothing of her origin, and loving her whom she called mother with an undivided love.  Her memory carried her back to Harry, and to many a little incident of his stay with them, and especially to the day of his departure.  It had been a tradition of her childish days that he was to come back and marry her when he grew a man; and though it was a long time since any one had reminded her of it, she still remembered the promise and the day when it was made: the great ship, and being lifted down into a little boat, and stretching out her arms towards Harry, standing waving his cap round his sunny head, and laughing at her tears and terrors.

    She might have remembered things still further back, even so far back as her parting with her mother, but the memory is capricious in respect of events which occur before one is five years old.  It retains only the merest fragments, and if these are broken off completely from the after series of events and actors, they are speedily effaced.

    The completeness of her success in the appropriation of Esther, had cut off Mrs. West from any retreat from her false position.  If the child had remembered anything, something might have been explained, and a truer position assumed; but how tell the loving and trusting girl that she had no claim to her love and trust!  It was too late! often repeated words of saddest significance, "Too late!"

    Mrs. West's hope lay in Harry.  She, too, remembered his boyish promise, and counted eagerly on its fulfilment.  When he came back—and he was coming soon—she would set all right.  In giving up the love, for whose sake she had sinned, she would unburden her soul of the secret under which it had so long lain trembling.  Everything was left till Harry came; then Esther's future would be secure; then she would seek out the Potters, and make amends for the past.  And at length the time for all these things was at hand.


 
CHAPTER III.

THE GAME BEGINS.


"THERE they are at last," said Kate Vaughan to her sister Millicent, as Esther and Constance again came in sight.

    They had not begun their game, as Constance anticipated, but had sat there waiting for the truants, and speculating on the cause of their absence.  The many-coloured mallets and balls lay on the grass at their feet.  The gentlemen—namely, their father and their father's friend—had strolled to the top of the garden, and were engaged in discussing some topic of the day; and the young ladies were not a little impatient of the delay which had occurred.

    They sat in the sunshine, with a background of roses, which clustered all over the front of the house.  There were roses single and in pairs—roses by threes and fours and half-dozens on a single spray, laying their heads together like girlish gossips. And the sisters did not lose a whit by that background of bloom.  They were themselves as blooming as the flowers; indeed, they had been named in the neighbourhood the Redhurst Roses.  The three sisters were perfect marvels of youthful beauty; the beauty which consists in freshness, and bloom, and all the gloss and glow of health.  Their light summer costume was as fresh and fair as themselves; and as they sat there, ready for their favourite game, in their gay little hats and coquettish boots, they looked like pretty birds who had plumed themselves from pure love of daintiness.

 

 


    Yet they were dainty with a difference.  The sisters, in outward appearance so like—so like in their colouring and in the softness and fairness of youth—were in reality very unlike in character.  The unlikeness was, as yet, only slightly indicated in the outward appearance; still it was there already apparent, and in process of development.  The hats, with their white feathers tipped with blue, were all alike; but they were worn with a difference: Kate's with a slightly imperious air; Milly's with a sweet humility; and Connie's with a careless, roguish grace.  Kate would wear a brooch where her sisters wore only a ribbon.  Kate would also choose her colours a shade brighter, and lay on more of them, than the others; so that now, bright, hard blue predominated in her attire over Milly's greys, just lighted up by the same hue.  Milly's dress also flowed round her in softer folds; and Connie's had the misfortune to soil and spoil the soonest.

    Kate's hair had a golden ripple in it.  Her lips were the reddest, and her eyes the brightest of the trio.  She was also slightly inclined to embonpoint, dimples forming in the corner, of her mouth, and softening the outline of a firm proud chin.  Milly was altogether paler and fairer, with more delicate features, and a more slender frame.  Her greatest beauty lay in a pair of lovely blue eyes, which it was no exaggeration to call heavenly.  They suggested saintliness; and there was, in truth, a deep strain of tender, religious feeling in the nature of Millicent Vaughan, which corresponded to the outward expression.

    As for Constance, she was less ethereal than Milly, and less luxuriant than Kate.  She threatened to be rather large and bony, both in face and figure, and she had no scruple about tanning her bright skin in the sun.  It was a graver face than either of her sisters, though it seldom looked serious.  There was humour lurking in the eye and in the corners of the somewhat large mouth, a something of sweetness which Kate's dimples and Milly's serene smiles failed to yield.

    But the individual characteristics of the girls were as yet overlaid with the softness and the bloom of youth, and of youthful happiness.  They were, indeed, very happy.  It seemed as if they had grown in that garden, enclosed and defended from every blast of ill.  Nothing bad ever came to stunt or to blight these richest growths of nature.  Yet they had been out in the world.  They had lost their mother early, and had all been sent to school, while their father lived a bachelor life in London.  But as soon as it was possible he had had his girls home, and installed the eldest as housekeeper at Redhurst.  At home they had greater freedom than most girls of their age, and a wider culture.  Their father, a literary man of high standing and of small independent fortune, made friends and companions of his daughters.  They read with and for him.  Each had her own opinions about books and things.  Each had also her own ideal of life.

    The young housekeeper's ideal was a fine house and good society, with all their adjuncts of luxurious living—a brilliant and bountiful life, which would help to develop her into a brilliant and bountiful woman, if only it could be attained without any hardening process—for Kate was capable of hardening.  It was a mystery where she got some of her worldly notions, for the home atmosphere was thoroughly unworldly; Milly's ideal, for instance, being the life of a hardworking curate's sympathising helpmate.

    Between two elms, which stood at the foot of the garden, and made the landscape look like a picture in a frame, the girls, as they sat in front of the house, could see a wide stretch of thoroughly English country beyond the bright, breezy common, bounded by its sandy wooded hills.  Esther and Constance came on in quite a leisurely fashion.  "I can't think what those girls get to talk about.  Only see how they creep along, arm in arm.  I do wish they would make haste."

    There was an almost vexed impatience in Kate's tone as she said this.  Then she sighed, and through the singing of the birds she was answered by a great sigh that swept through the hearts of the elm-trees.  The girl was sighing to begin her game, and there was something in her impatience which signified that of the young heart weary of uneventful living, and longing to go forth and meet with mortal fate.  Kate sighed, and rose and went toward her father and his friend to call them to their posts on the lawn.

    Mr. Vaughan was a literary man; not of the fast and loose kind generally to be found figuring in modern novels.  He was a man of good education, of high honour, and of pure life; all, in fact, that a man should be who presumes to teach the truth—be it the truth of science or of life—to his fellow-men.  He was open-minded and open-hearted; and who shall say how many a man in his profession fails for want of the latter, who has no lack of the former; whose clearest insight is at fault for want of a little of that charity which never faileth?  His fine and subtle mind, unlike most of the finest minds of his contemporaries, was unsceptical in its tendency.  His difficulty would have been not to believe, could it have been possible for him to be convinced of the intellectual necessity for non-belief.  His difficulty, believing as he did, being as he was a Christian man, in all manliness, was not that he could not believe more, but that he could not believe less.  His friend, Herbert Walton there, called him an optimist; and would fain have convinced him that things were not even so good as they seemed, and very far indeed from being better, as he believed.

    "Yours is a delightful philosophy, Vaughan," his friend would say; "but with rampant folly everywhere triumphant—to say nothing of wickedness—I can't see how a man like you can hold on to it.  Your cheerfulness is simply unreasonable.  It sometimes strikes me as positively insane."

    "It is quite true that I do not see wisdom and goodness everywhere triumphant," Mr. Vaughan would reply; "but I see in everything the intention that they should.  You will own the inherent weakness of folly, the inherent misery of sin.  All I have to do is to see that I range myself on the side of that intention, and strive to carry it out to the best of my ability."

    At which Herbert Walton would shake his head, proclaim the forts of folly invincible; but own that, if they were ever taken, those who came after would find his friend's body by the wall.

    Mr. Walton was a journalist, and spent most days of his life in a dingy London office, working conscientiously in his vocation.  He went into society as part of his work; his recreation was generally solitude.  Unlike Mr. Vaughan, he was apt to take the gloomiest possible view of things.  Whenever it became evident, from the tone of his writing, that he had become more than usually savage in his mood, Mr. Vaughan arrived at his office on Saturday afternoon, and carried him off for the next two days to Redhurst; and the public benefited greatly, as well as Mr. Walton, the result being a series of more cheerful and more digestible articles for a week to come.

    This friend of their father's was a great favourite with the girls.  They read up all that he wrote, and were ready to come down upon him whenever he broached any particularly dismal theory.  He brought them news of the great world, even to the last new style of hairdressing at his last fashionable party.  "The Watch-dog" was the name he went by among themselves; and personally he had a great resemblance to one of those trustworthy animals, being dark, and thick-locked, and strong-browed, with a pair of mournful, kindly eyes, that had often a wistful look in them, in spite of their angry fires.

    The girls had taught Mr. Walton the game of croquet, and very proud they were of his proficiency, and of the general docility which he displayed.  He was always ready, for instance, to take for partner the young lady assigned to him, and to do her bidding by coming up to her assistance when sent by adverse fate to the furthest confines of the ground.  But to-day, when he had followed Kate to where Milly was seated, he proposed himself on her side.

    "But we are the worst players of the lot," said Milly; "both on one side, we shall be sure to lose the game."

    "I don't like to be too sanguine," he answered; "but I mean to win if possible."

    There was a wistful look in the dark eyes as he said this, which Milly did not notice.

    Only Kate laughed, and said, "You are growing quite independent, Mr. Walton."

    "I hope Constance will give up Esther to us, then," said Milly.  "We can't have you, papa.  You, and Kate, and Constance are more than a match for us, for Connie plays well when she pleases."

    Thus it was arranged just as Esther and Constance came up together.

    "What have you two been about?" said Kate.

    "Didn't you understand my signals?" Constance replied.

    "Not in the least," said Kate; we only saw that you turned back with Esther, and that you had something in your hand."

    "It was a letter for mamma," explained Esther.  "I got it at the post-office, and was coming on to ask leave of absence to take it to her when I met Constance.  We hoped you would begin without us."

    At last the game began in earnest, for the afternoon was already somewhat advanced.  The shadows of the elms were lengthening eastward on the grass.  For the next hour or two there was much running, and laughing, and prompting, and very little conversation.  Only it had gradually passed from one to another of the little circle, till all were aware of the fact, that Esther's Australian cousin was coming home by the next mail.


 
CHAPTER IV.

OUT OF THE GAME.


IT was a well-contested game.  There were many skilful moves on both sides; many a ball neared its goal only to be sent to the furthest corner of the field by an expert enemy; or, even at the winning post, found it necessary to go back in order to bring up lagging friends.

    "It is easy for one to go on alone," said Mr. Walton, who had been unexpectedly successful; "bringing up others is the hindrance."

    And back he went to bring up Esther and Milly, who had fallen into the hands of their enemies.

    "It's very ungrateful of you to complain," said Kate.  "Think of the number of times I have had to bring you up."

    "Ah, that's only human nature!" said the cynic, who seemed, however, to be enjoying his work.

    "Besides, it would be no use winning alone," said Milly; "that is, you could not win alone, but only put yourself out of the game."

    "What I would be tempted to do in most cases," he replied.

    "Ah, Walton, that's it," said Mr. Vaughan; "those who would win the race of culture alone, leaving half the world behind them, will find that they have not won after all—have only put themselves out of the game; or else they will have to go back and bring up their fellows; they will have to go generations back, if need be.  It's one of the conditions of the game of life, that we can't win alone."

    But this time Mr. Walton was on the winning side: he, and Esther, and Milly got the game.  When it was over, the party scattered into groups.  Kate stepped through the open window of the drawing-room to dispense the afternoon tea, which was laid there; and Mr. Vaughan went up to Milly, and drew her away from the rest with a look of unusual tenderness—insomuch that she looked at him questioningly, and said, "Is anything the matter, papa?"

    Nothing was the matter.  Garden chairs were found for the whole party, who seated themselves forthwith, while Kate and Constance handed cups of tea out of the window.

    Then they began to talk of the Australian, and to club together the scattered information they had obtained from Esther concerning him, while they were playing.

    "He is rich," cried Kate, from the tea-table.  Mr. Walton laughed.

    "And young," said Milly, innocently.  A remark which, somehow or other, quenched the light on the dark face beside her.

    "And handsome," said Constance, in playful mockery.

    "And you are all ready to fall in love with him," said Mr. Walton, "for all these qualities in combination."

    Thus they chatted on, as if life were a summer holiday; and the shadows of the elms lengthened on the grass, and the western sky began to glow.  Then Kate declared that Mr. Walton had had six cups of tea, and should have no more on any pretext whatever; and Esther hastened to say good-bye to her friends, that she might be home in time for dinner, for which the others dispersed to dress.

    Esther took her way homewards in the evening glow, with its strange, transfiguring light shining on her face, and bringing out its latent pensiveness; and she was aglow from her innocent enjoyment, aglow with the gladness of the present, and the bright anticipation of the future.  The great event of the day, the announcement of her cousin's return, was still in her mind, had been in her mind all the afternoon, and was perhaps the cause of those gleaming eyes and that pensive mouth.

    To deep and thoughtful natures all great joy is serious.  The greatest joy has something of awe in it.  And this was a great joy.  Not that Esther looked upon her cousin in the light of a lover.  Mrs. West was too delicate a woman to have presented him to the girl in that light; but he was her hero.  She remembered the bright, handsome, impulsive boy, and pictured him perfect in his manhood.  His letters were so frank, so vivid, so full of life, so unlike all that she saw or knew of the lives of men, so much more manly, that he seemed to her the very man of men!  How noble he was in his simplicity, beside some of the literary men she had encountered at Mr. Vaughan's; the sulky young poet, who had taken her down to dinner, and had never once spoken to her, being entirely occupied with his great grievance, an adverse review in the Athenæum; or the enthusiastic one, who had effectually prevented her from getting any dinner at all by speaking the whole time, and leaning the while with his spectacled nose right over her plate; or the young man of the period, sublimely indifferent to everything in the universe except himself.  What a real life it seemed to her, riding over those wide western runs, driving home the herds of wild cattle, counting by thousands, and tens of thousands, more life-like, and better worth living than the lives of any of the men she knew.  Thus had her young imagination been impressed with pictures of a patriarchal life, and in the centre of the pictures there figured a kind of shepherd-king in the shape of Harry West.

    Just then, as if to reproach her with her sweeping depreciation of his sex, there rode up a young man of elegant figure and thoughtful face, who reined in by her side, and saluted her with a respect which had in it a touch of chivalrous devotion.  She returned his salutation frankly, and he walked his horse by her side for the few paces which would bring her to the entrance of "The Cedars."  She walked with her eyes cast down, not from him, but from the light that fronted them, so that he was free for those moments to peruse her face, an opportunity of which he availed himself with ardour.  At the gate she looked up, and bade him good-bye.  His admiring glance was restrained in a moment.  She had not seen it; nevertheless, she made a reservation in favour of her neighbour, Benjamin Carrington, when she passed sentence on the young men of her acquaintance.

    Esther found her mother—for so, for the present, we may call her just as she had left her, seated in her favourite window, looking out among the cedars, her letter still in her lap.

    "Mamma, darling, you look as if you had never moved out of the spot," said Esther, gaily.

    "And I do not know that I have," she answered, still letting her eyes rest on the level boughs, and the lake of molten gold which seemed to swim behind them.  She used to say they stretched out their arms to her, as if to bless her with their peace.  Alas! it was long since the gentle heart had known peace.  All the difficulties in which she had involved herself were present to her mind.  She had poisoned for herself the fountain of her happiness, as, in one way or other, so many of us do ; and the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, the pure and peaceful Spirit of God, could not come unto her, because she had no will to put the evil thing away.

    "I am so glad Harry is coming," she said at last, looking up at Esther.

    "I shall be quite jealous of Harry," said Esther, jestingly.

    "It is not that you are not enough for me," she answered, hastily and nervously.  "My own!—my own!" she almost sobbed as the girl knelt at her feet.  "If you and Harry should love each other, my heart would be at peace."

    She had never said anything like that before; and she said it now because she was overwrought by the emotion of the last lonely hours.

    There was silence in the room after the words had been said; the silence of a reverie which neither seemed to care to break.

    Strangely enough, that very afternoon Mrs. West had thought of Mrs. Wiggett, of whose neighbourhood she was quite unaware.  Not, however, by her present name had she remembered that little woman, who had a hidden history of her own, which might have remained hidden too, but for that fatality which comes upon some people who live themselves in very crystal palaces, in the shape of an uncontrollable mania for throwing stones.

    The weight always pressing on Mrs. West's spirit had been heavier than usual that afternoon.  In vain she had tried to banish it; to forget its very existence; to say to herself, All is, and shall be well.  It was there; it would not be banished: it boded, or seemed to bode, some coming ill.  It was as if the very air bore to the sensitive soul the slightest tremor of approaching fate.  A dread of some unknown impending evil, which might pass her by if she could only cease to dread.  As if Fate were a piercing eye, which she might elude if only she had the strength to resist the fascination of looking that way!  To such a height had the miserable feeling risen, that Esther's unexpected return with the letter was almost more than she could bear; and her heart still beat with sickening faintness as Esther knelt on at her feet in silence.

    It was Esther who broke the silence at last.  "I feel as if I could never love any one as I love you, mamma," she said, kissing the fair thin hand.

    "Do you think you would love me as well if I were not your mother? if—if I were some one else?" said Mrs. West, bending over the girl with an almost agonising look.

    "What a strange question, mamma!"

    "Esther——"

    The name sounded faint and far away, as if it had been uttered by the last breath of a departing spirit.  What might have followed remained unspoken; for the fragile speaker lay back in her chair, and quietly fainted away.

    There was no painful fuss and flutter over the fainting form.  Esther rang the bell for her mother's maid, and stood holding fast the frail hand, while some simple restoratives were used.  The first sign of returning consciousness was the pressure of the thin fingers.  She seemed to keep hold on life by that firm young hand which held hers in its anxious clasp.

    Mrs. West, after lying down for a little while, appeared at dinner as usual; and Esther and she spent their evening together in light work or reading; Esther instinctively keeping aloof from any topic that might excite her companion.

    But there was a vague trouble in her heart; and when her mother had retired, as she did at an early hour, she carried the lamp into a little room beyond, and sat looking out upon the cedars, with the cool night air fanning her forehead, and the silver sickle of the new moon hanging over the dark, solemn trees.

    That same silver sickle hung over the garden at Redhurst, and witnessed a new birth there—the birth of love.  All the stars came out and gazed and trembled over it, and the flowers sent up their sweetest odours, as if breathing the secret to the stars.  The thing was so new, so sweet, so strange, so sudden, nobody could tell exactly how it came to pass, not even Millicent herself, who was the subject and the object of it, except that she devoutly believed in its heavenly origin, and took it as sent from God.

    As far as can be told, this is how it came about: Herbert Walton, during those summer days, had drawn very near to Milly, and had drawn the unconscious girl very near to him.  On the evening after the game he sat next her at dinner, and contrived to surround her with a kind of isolation, as if there had been none there but he and she alone.  Neither could have told the precise moment when heart answered heart under the mysterious spell which it needs no words to weave.  Only when the ladies left the room, Milly, the serene and mild, had grown shy, conscious, and blushing under the gaze of half-triumphant love.  Then, when her sisters had settled themselves to read, she took a book in her hand, and wrapping a light shawl about her pretty figure, stole out into the garden.  But she was not long alone.  She was followed to the leafy nook she had chosen, and caught like a timid bird.  And Herbert spoke of himself and of his aspirations, and how often they were chilled and quenched in the world, needing just such inspirations as she could give.  And the girl who, as a child, had known, and loved, and looked up to him, thrilled through and through with wonder and with tenderness, and the familiar home-garden changed in the starlight into that Eden which still awaits on innocent and happy love.  With every pure sense drinking in the enchantment of the hour, Milly and her lover lingered beneath the stars, and she listened to the fond reiteration of a passion which had suddenly transformed her life, till her fair head sank upon her lover's shoulder, and she trembled into happy tears.

    "Papa has gone into the library alone," said Constance, returning from a search for a book she wanted.  "Have you noticed, Kate, in what an extraordinary manner the Watchdog has been prowling about this time?  I declare, there he is at the top of the garden, and Milly with him!  I can see by her white dress.  They look exactly like a pair of lovers."

    "I wish, Constance," said Kate, "that you would not speak such nonsense."

    But the younger sister's quick sympathy was roused, and in spite of the repulse, she went up to Kate and whispered, "Oh, Kate, I am sure it is so—dear, dear Milly!"  Then the two laid aside their books, and waited with a tender trouble in their hearts.

    But Milly was too shy to enter the now lighted room where her sisters sat.  "Your father knows it already, my love."  This assurance had comforted her concerning him.  While they lingered, the bell rang for prayers, and Milly and Herbert stole, side by side, into the dimly-lighted library, without word or comment, seeing they met for a sacred purpose.  Side by side they took their places in the family circle, and their first act was kneeling together and mingling their voices in the universal prayer, an act in which the heart of the slightly world-worn man became as the heart of a little child.  And somehow it became known to all the household that Milly and Mr. Walton were engaged.

    And when Milly went to the room, it was Constance who followed her, and held her in her arms, and heard the shy confession, of her happiness, and filled up the great need the heart has of being rejoiced with in its joy—a need far keener and deeper in most hearts than that of being wept with in sorrow, but one to which only the most tender and generous natures respond.

    "Child," said Milly, looking in her sister's face, "I seem only to-night to have found out your love as well as his.  And where is Katie?"

    Kate was with her father in the library, alone with him, and giving him more pain than he could well account for.

    "I thought Mr. Walton had been too poor to marry?" she had remarked.

    And her father had answered, "Well, he is not very rich, Katie; but he is one of the ablest men I know, and high-principled, too, as well as able.  I think Milly ought to be proud of his preference."

    "And where are they to live?" asked Kate, in the same hard tone.

    "In a cottage as near us as possible; somewhere that will allow Herbert to go in and out daily."

    "I think Milly has thrown herself away," said Kate.

    "What do you mean by such a speech as that, Katie?  You do not mean that loving Herbert—as she must have done, or why should she have accepted him?—she should have held herself back for a higher bidder.  I cannot imagine a happier lot than has fallen to Milly.  Oh, my child, do not give me cause to fear that you are less worthy of such another."

    And at this little speech, tender as was its tone, Kate had felt herself aggrieved, and had retired to her room with considerable heart-burning.  She was vexed with Milly, who had been quick to perceive her want of sympathy, vexed with her father, and vexed with herself.  Her heart was troubled and stirred to its depth for the first time, and she felt something very like vexation that Milly should be what she considered out of the game—settled down as a poor man's wife.


 
CHAPTER V.

TIMOTHY WIGGETT.


WHEN Mrs. Moss joined her husband in the back parlour, after the departure of Mrs. Wiggett, she looked the very picture of gratified curiosity as she exclaimed, "Well, did you ever hear the likes o' that now?"  The defeated Moss gave a prolonged growl, which ended in the articulate words, "No, an' if ever I hears you repeatin' a word o' what that little wiper has said, it'll make me go nigh to layin' my stick across your back, missis!"

    Mrs. Moss thought it very hard: and what harm had she done, to be spoken to in that way?  It was hard that she was not to be allowed the benefit of priority of information.  Her extensive experience in matters of village gossip led her to believe that priority was all she had obtained, and that the news would be over the whole place before the week was out.

    But Mrs. Moss's experience was destined to fail her on this point.  For the present, Mrs. West's secret depended on the ability of Mrs. Moss to hold her tongue, an ability which was certainly little to be trusted, except under the influence of that keen supervision kept up through the square pane and open door of the back-parlour.  Even if the door had been shut, Mrs. Moss durst not venture on forbidden gossip under the master's eye.  He would have seen her speaking, and have "knowed" all about it directly.  So the worthy gossip comforted herself with the thought that she would at least have the satisfaction, when the story came round to her again, of saying she knew it ever so long ago.

    Meantime, Mrs. Wiggett had gone home and confided her discovery to her lord and master, and the result had been a warning not to burn her fingers with other people's broth—a warning which might not have had much effect upon her, but that it coincided in a remarkable way with certain qualms of her own, in respect of her want of reticence.

    Timothy Wiggett was as big and good-natured as his wife was small and shrewish.  Not that Timothy was by any means what is called in country phrase "a soft"—a man easily put upon; on the contrary, he could be both firm and shrewd, only his health was so perfect, his juices so bland, his feelings so comfortable, that he found it impossible to put himself out of temper.  Mr. Wiggett was brown as a berry—a clear, ruddy brown.  He had the clearest of brown eyes, and the nuttiest of brown hair.  Brown, indeed, seemed his favourite colour, for his coats were brown, too, and he generally wore round his great throat a soft brown silk handkerchief, such as are used for the pocket, with a border of yellow.  His face was broader than its length, when his hat was on quite ridiculously so; he had a very broad, thick nose, and a very long mouth, with a slight droop at the corners, which betokened melancholy, but quite falsely, as it seemed.  His hands were broad and fat, so fat that his forefinger nearly buried the thick gold ring he wore, with T. W. engraved on the square signet.

    Yes, Timothy Wiggett, market-gardener, was sleek and well-to-do, and Sally Brown had done well for herself in the long run.  She had risen in the world, since the days when she and Mary Potter had been companions in one of those girlish friendships which take place between the most unlike and unlikely people.  She had fitted herself very well with Mary's old shoes, people said; for it was well known that Tim, the gay young gardener, had loved the gentle Mary—but that was long ago, and Mary had married, and her disappointed lover had gone away to push his fortune.

    Then Sally, who would have given her eyes for Tim in those days, married too, a young man who was a fellow-worker with Martin Potter, who had set his mind upon going out to Australia, but who cared enough for that quick-witted, smart-tongued, bright-eyed little person, which Sally then was, to give up what he considered his prospects in life, and settle down with her in a cottage next door to her father and mother's.  Sally's parents were both old people, and nearly past work.  They had no other child save her, and she stoutly refused to go out to Australia and leave the old folks at home.  She was a good and faithful daughter, for all her sharp tongue, but she did not make Ned Brown a good wife.  "He hadn't the way with her," that was how the old folk explained it to themselves.  At any rate, he became dissatisfied, resenting having given up so much and got so little.  If she had brought him a child, it might have made a difference; but she did not, and Ned began to get sullen.  He did not relish having to work for his old companion Potter, who seemed to be rising in the world.  One day, working on a job of his, they quarrelled, and he came home declaring that he wished he had gone to Australia.  "If you go, you'll go by yourself," his wife had said.  "You know my mind well enough.  You've known it all along.  I never would have married you, nor any other man, to leave father and mother alone, and be banished over the sea."  The result of such speeches was, naturally, keener irritation and increased resentment, and at length it came to such a pass that Ned Brown resolved to go alone.  He softened as the parting drew near, and tried to excuse himself by saying, "The best of my days are goin' by, and I'll lose my only chance.  You'll come out to me, Sally, when the old folks go."

    But the old folks were in no hurry to go.  They had their daughter again, and Ned was forgotten.  He wrote several times, and with difficulty, for he was no scholar, as Martin Potter was.  The answers he got were not much to his satisfaction, not likely to keep the lamp of love burning in his heart, and at length he ceased writing altogether.

    Seven years slipped away, and nothing was heard of Ned Brown.  "Be sure he's dead," said the gossips, attempting to console the forsaken wife.  "An' if he isn't dead, he ought to be," grumbled the old father.  "But my Sally's quit on him, anyhow; for it's the law of England, that if a man runs away from his wife, and she hears nought on him for seven years, she's free."  The old man did not quote his authority, but he devoutly believed in this reading of the law—"it only stood to reason," he said.

    At last Sally donned a widow's cap.  Ned Brown had died in exile.  The old mother was dead, the old father in his dotage, his daughter supporting him by the labour of her hands, as village dressmaker.  Just then Timothy Wiggett was on a visit to his native place.  He came, with other stalwart sons from other parts of the country, to bury his own old father, the patriarch of the village.  He had found the place sadly and sorely changed, all but Sally Brown, on whose bright hard face the years had made little impression.

    It was difficult to say what attracted Timothy to the little woman.  Perhaps it was the fact of her constancy to her parents that touched him.  Perhaps it was her struggle with adverse circumstances.  Perhaps it was the consciousness that she had cared for him in "the old times" that would never come again.  Whatever it was, the prosperous bachelor was attracted to her, and she became Mrs. Timothy Wiggett, much to the astonishment of everybody not concerned, who envied the quick-witted little dressmaker for having accomplished her end at last, Ned Brown, now "poor Brown," having opportunely taken himself out of the way.

    Timothy made Sally a better husband than his predecessor had done, and she, in return, made him a much better wife.  It was all the better for her that her spouse was not in love with her in the way her young husband had been.  Such a love is by its very nature exacting; and though Sally would have suffered any amount of exaction from her present husband, absorbing love is also sensitive, and she could not, for her very life, have kept from irritating.  As it was, she failed to irritate Timothy.  When she got out of temper, he only soothed and petted her.  His love was too disinterested to find fault.  He had pitied the brave, forlorn creature, and he pitied her still.

    She had carried her old father with her to her new home, but he did not long survive the change.  And when the old man was gone, Sally, in want of some one to rule, as she had been accustomed to rule him, set to work upon her big, burly husband.  But it would not do.  At first, he had played with her usurpations of power, as Gulliver might have played with a bumptious Liliputian; but he got the better of her entirely at last.  One fair-week he had been out oftener and longer than usual, meeting the farmers and gardeners of the neighbourhood at the "Peahen."  It was the time when he generally felt bound to be at home, but just because she had gone beyond bounds in her animadversions the last time he had stayed, he stayed longer still.

    Mrs. Wiggett sat and fretted by her childless hearth, supper was prepared for Timothy—something savoury which he loved—but she left her share untouched, and waited on.  She sent the sleepy servant off to bed, and got wilder and wilder as the hours went on and he did not come.  Then her grief rose to anguish—to a kind of tragic passion of love and fear.  She feared all sorts of improbable events taking her Timothy, her big, generous, manly Timothy, away from her, or taking away his big, generous, manly heart.  Love was throwing its illumination into the dark and crooked corners of her heart, where she read that she was unworthy of him.  She seemed to see a handwriting on the wall against her, which seemed to bid her dread that one day her kingdom would be taken from her.  She put out the light, and sat on in the dark.  If ever he came back alive, she wished that he might find her dead in her misery.  She poured out wild, but true prayers, for his safety and her own sanity.

    There he was at last.  She knew his subdued knock at the bolted door.  Instead of hastening to open it, she rushed upstairs to the room above, and opened the window.  Yes, there he was, safe, and sound, and happy, by the tone of his voice, crying, "Why don't you open, Sally, woman?"

    Her anguish had vanished on the instant, and in its stead this strange creature experienced a fit of ungovernable anger.  She put her head out of the window, and cried, "Is this a time of night for respectable people to be coming home?  You had better go and sleep where you came from."

    "Come, come, Sally, don't go too far," he called out firmly; but the very instant a flash of humour, if any one could have seen it, passed over his face, and he added, "Very well, there's the pool; I had better go and drown myself,"

    Her reply could not be heard.  The night was cloudy, and the moon, riding clear every now and then, was quenched in clouds, like a wave-whelmed barque.  The pool, with its group of willows, was only a stone-cast from the house.  Thither strode Timothy, with a great chopping block that stood near the door, borne in his arms.  Just as Mrs. Wiggett opened the door, there was a tremendous splash.  The clouds closed over the moon, and the waters, to Mrs. Wiggett's distracted ear, over the body of her husband.  "The drink has maddened him," she thought, "and this is the answer to all my fears;" and she flew to the edge of the pool, only to see a dark object bobbing up and down in it.

    Behind the screen of willows Timothy had stolen back to the house, a merry thought, born of spiced ale and warm blood, in his head.  He would turn the tables on the little woman, get inside and lock the door; and ask her if this was a time for respectable people to be abroad.  But he had not reached the house when a despairing cry and another splash broke the stillness of the night, and with a shout which made the dogs bark down in the village, Timothy rushed back to the pool, to find that his wife had thrown herself in, after him as she believed.

    Happily, at that moment the moon came out and hung over the troubled pool, enabling Timothy to lay hold of Sally, and drag her out of the water, which was of drowning depth in the centre.  Her head had come in contact with the chopping-block, which it had been her aim to reach, and when dragged out she was quite insensible, and had to be carried back to the house in her husband's arms.  There was a fire in the kitchen, and Timothy did what he could, sending off the maid for the village doctor.  But a long and severe illness was the result.  The comedy had very nearly turned out a tragedy.

    During this illness there had been tender passages between the husband and wife.  Her very smallness called forth the big man's tenderness.  He could carry her about like a baby.  Her complaints went to his heart as the fretful complainings of a child.  He loved her better than before—this creature who seemed so unlikely either to gain or to keep love: and she did not try to coerce him any more.  She found out that he was easier to lead than to drive, and because the story of Tim's drowning had got wind in the place as a good joke, she persuaded him to leave it, and had her own way.  He found a large garden in the neighbourhood of London to lease.  It suited him exactly, gave scope for his enterprise and skill greater than he had yet enjoyed; and so the Wiggetts had come to settle in Hurst.


 
CHAPTER VI.

THE OLD LOVE.


IN this June weather Mr. Wiggett had more than enough to do.  He had to be up betimes, superintending his men in digging and preparing the ground for the later crops of vegetables, earthing up peas and beans, and making celery ridges, and thinning turnips, onions, carrots, and beets.  At the more delicate operations he worked with his own hands, thinning his thickly set apricots, keeping the mildew from his peaches, netting his cherries, pitting his cucumbers, pegging down his verbenas, and trapping the earwigs on his dahlias.

    Over night the great wagons were piled up as high as the house, with their loads of cabbages, &c., and sent off long before the peep o' day in charge of an under-gardener and the wagoner, who seemed to have the faculty of sleeping on his feet.  The wagons would fall into a line in one of the narrow streets approaching the great market; and the wagoner would sit down on the trams of his cart, and begin to wake up and exchange salutations, flavoured with bucolic wit, with his mates.  While still in the small hours the master started off, with a fast trotting horse and a sleepy lad to hold him, in a wagonette, filled with picked and carefully packed strawberries, or whatever fruit was in season, for the tables of the luxurious in the most luxurious and most squalid city of the world.

    One morning in the week following Mrs. Wiggett's discovery, Timothy set off as usual, promising to be home by dinner-time, meaning by that a little after the hour of noon.  But dinner-time came and passed, and he did not make his appearance.  This delay, however, was evidently not considered a delinquency.  The repast, a cold one, was proceeded with, and a portion laid aside for the master, while the mistress went about her own particular business, which just then was the troublesome one of rearing a tribe of turkey poults.  The master never neglected his business, and as every hour of the day was precious at this season, something in the nature of business must have detained him.

    There he was at last, bowling up the uneven grassy lane, rising in his seat to look over the tall privet hedge, and through the plum trees into the yard beyond, where his wife was scattering a last handful of corn to the common fowls, who had had to wait till their more aristocratic companions had dined on chopped liver and other delicacies.

    "You're late, Wiggett," said his wife, waiting his dismounting at the door.

    He assented, more than usually silent; and he was not at any time a talkative man.  It was not till he had sat down to the table and lifted his knife and fork, that, pausing in the act of helping himself to a huge angle of meat-pie, he fixed his eyes on his wife and asked, gravely, "Guess who I met to-day?"

    "How should I guess?" she answered, sharply.

    "It was somebody you know better than me," he rejoined, in a tone of mock mystery.

    Mrs. Wiggett at once became irritated, almost to the verge of passion.  "You always were fond of tormenting," she burst out, beginning to flush and tremble with her excitement.  "I don't see the fun of it myself."

    "Come, come, Sally, I didn't mean to put you out," said her husband.  "It was Mary Potter."

    "Mary?" repeated Mrs. Wiggett, with her eyes fixed on her husband's mouth, waiting for more.

    "Ah, and lookin' but poor, I can tell you, poor, an' toiled an' moiled, wi such a brood o' young uns as you could scarce count 'em.  I wouldn't have known her, but I saw a white-faced bit of a lass stoop down among our feet to pick up a daisy that somebody had dropped, when one o' them big, lumberin' market women came by, and planted her great dirty splay foot right on the top o't, knocking the little thing clean over.  I thought the woman had trodden on the fingers, and gave her a good shove, and the little un' cried with fright, for she wasn't hurt.  Then a tall woman came up and stood over her, and said, 'What's the matter, Mary?' and I know'd the voice was Mary Potter's, and then I know'd the face was hers too."

    "What was she doin' there?" said Mrs. Wiggett, who had not evinced much delight at the discovery of her old companion.

    "She had promised the children a treat for many a month," she said, "and that was to take them to Covent Garden in the summer.  There were two little chaps carrying a basket between them, and a taller girl with another little un, a three-year old or so, in her arms.  The little chaps seemed jolly enough, but Mary and the girl seemed terribly tired."

    "And how did she like meetin' you again like that?" asked Sally, who knew more about Mary than her husband did, though she had lost sight of her for a year or two.

    "I don't know that she liked it at first.  She looked quite white, and staggered like, up against one o' the fruit-stalls."

    "Is she stoppin' in London then?" was Mrs. Wiggett's next question.

    "She's been stoppin' there this year or two.  I've been to her place."

    There was no further response from Mrs. Wiggett than the interjection, "Oh!"  She was waiting for more still, her husband meanwhile eating and talking at intervals.

    "I was just comin' away, and Mary looked so tired, that I offered to drive them all home in the wagonette; and the young folk looked so happy over it, that she didn't like to say no."  Mr. Wiggett did not add that in going to order the wagonette, which he always put up for an hour or two, he had brought back sundry baskets of his own strawberries, and a handsome nosegay for the little girl who had tried to rescue the daisy.

    "Well, I thought at first it was a goodish place they lived at—out a broad road—Belgrave Road they call it, and past the grandest of houses and the Queen's palace; but it's all outside, London is; beside the big houses that you see, there are little ones you don't see, stuffed away behind backs to hide their poverty; and such stuffin'! hardly room to turn in the places they call back-yards; the very weeds won't grow in them.  In one o' them little houses the Potters live; the yard was full of Martin's things.  Mary keeps a little school, which pays the rent.  And how they all manage to live there, I can't make out.  There's nine beside their two selves, and four o' them girls.  But she frets after the other one yet."

    "And you told her?" broke in his wife, eagerly.

    "Well, I was very nigh telling her, when Martin comes and stops me."

    "How did he stop you?"

    "He looked so sour, I began to think I might make more mischief than I could mend.  The little one danced up to him wi' a bit flower in her hand, and he looked as if he did not see her.  She shrank away behind our backs, and the two little chaps slipped out as if they were afraid of him."

    In truth, Mary Potter had told him, with bitter tears, that Martin was not fond of his children.  He looked upon them as burdens tied round his neck, that had dragged him down, and kept him down.  He was a disappointed man, who hardly cared to struggle, since the struggle could no longer better his position, though it could have rendered it more comfortable, especially to his wife and children.

    Martin Potter had speculated and failed, and speculated again, till he could do so no longer; not being considered a safe man.  The cause of his failure was not want of ability, but want of capital; and he could not see that the want of capital incapacitated him from holding the position of a master.  He would build blocks of houses, and he built them on nothing—a rather insecure foundation, for his fortunes at least.

    Having failed in more ambitious efforts, Potter had become a jobbing builder; working when he had a job, but not with spirit: for his spirit was hankering after what he took—miserable delusion!—for higher things; and strolling about in a discontented fashion when he had nothing on hand; never, when idle, offering the slightest help to his overburdened wife, even to the extent of taking the children out for a walk.

    The bitterness between him and his wife had increased with their increasing burdens.  Mary had never forgiven him for parting with their first-born to a stranger, even with the provision that she should be allowed to see her child as often as she chose.  He had not bestirred himself to recover Esther, when it became clear that Mrs. West had broken the provision, and had taken her away.  It was years now since her name had been mentioned between them, but the whole transaction had rankled in Mary's heart.

    And indeed her lot in life was a rather hard one.  All the little nameless offices which a tender father in Martin potter's rank of life renders to his wife in the care of their offspring, were either neglected or grudgingly performed.  She had constantly to take the children's part against their father, to smother their complaints, to screen their faults from his harsh judgment, when she would gladly have claimed his aid in correcting them.  For instead of each child bringing love with it, each child of poor Mary's seemed to bring with it the reverse of love, as far as their father was concerned.

    It was Martin Potter's general notion that the world was over-peopled.  A very prevalent notion this, and a very terrible one—a loveless, godless notion—the saddest sign of a corrupt and effete civilisation.  There is room and to spare in God's fair, large world for all who are sent into it, if the room were only fairly ordered.  Some take up the notion because they want to grasp and to keep so much to themselves—chiefly the selfish rich; some because they will huddle together, and snatch at what is nearest to them—chiefly the selfish poor; and others from cowardice and poverty of thought and imagination.  Room, room to grow, to become strong and able men and women, capable of moral self-restraint, and all other noble and generous things, is what we want, and then, the more the merrier.  Martin Potter's special idea was that his particular abode was over-peopled, and in that he was right.  And that man's strong right arm and active brain might have won for his children a larger and fairer heritage—would have done so, if he had not been the merest self-seeker.  The power would have come with greater love; it did not come with newer light—of Martin Potter's kind.

    Mary was a quiet woman, not wanting in personal dignity, and her heart must have ached sadly before she had been betrayed into a complaint against the husband of her choice.  It did indeed ache, with a long, dull aching that was telling both on body and mind, and undermining the naturally robust and calm constitution of both.  It was neither the labour she underwent for her children, nor the teaching of her little school, which was making her droop, like a pink hollyhock whose stem has been bruised.  The close rooms might have had something to do with it, seeing that Mary was country-bred.

    The twins, tall, thin girls, were learning the dressmaking and millinery, and Mary's chief help was in her fourth daughter, Sarah, the pale, tired-looking young creature, who had been carrying her youngest brother when Mr. Wiggett encountered them.

    When Timothy had concluded the main facts of this story and his meal at the same time, he said, not without a slight hesitancy, "You'll be glad to see Mary again, won't you?"

    "Is she coming here?" asked his wife, in a half-startled tone.

    "I promised to drive her and some o' the little ones out next Saturday, if they'd meet me at the market.  We've plenty room, and the fresh air will do 'em a world o' good."

    "And will ye tell her where Esther is, then?"

    "I'll think o' that; that's why I put it off to Saturday next.  I can't think all on a sudden; I would like to do for the best."

    Mrs. Wiggett murmured something about children being more trouble than even turkey poults; but at the bottom of her heart she desired to see Mary Potter, especially in the changed circumstances of both; still she had a vague fear of Timothy's old sweetheart, and the recalling of times long gone by, with all their mistakes and disappointments.


 
CHAPTER VII.

THE INEVITABLE.


LEAVING her quiet, thoughtful Sarah to keep house in her absence, Mary Potter took her two youngest, Mary and little Johnny, to meet Timothy Wiggett, as appointed, at Covent Garden Market, and be driven over to Hurst, to stay there till Tuesday morning.

    The two little ones were in a state of the highest glee, which had the effect, just then, of still further saddening their mother, though she was glad enough to see them enjoying themselves, too.  Mary would not have left her post, even for three days, but that she felt her strength failing in the struggle—the struggle to be the cheerful, kindly housemother she felt that she might have been.  It was the "might have been" that haunted Mary; what Martin might have been to her, and she to him.  The sad thoughts had been getting the better of her lately, marring her naturally sweet and gracious temper.  For the sake of her children—her unloved, and sometimes she could not help thinking unlovely children—it behoved her to keep up.  Away for three days, she felt as if she could calm and smooth her ruffled spirits, and get peace into her heart.

    She was very silent during the long drive; but her voice was hardly missed in the incessant chatter of the children, who had thrown off all their first reserve towards Mr. Wiggett, in the delight of rapid movement, to which the cracking of his whip so evidently contributed.

    Mrs. Wiggett was waiting for them, in a black cap with pink roses and velvet streamers, and a gown of plum-coloured silk.  She held out her hand to Mary, mentally exclaiming, "Can that be Mary Potter, who used to hold her head so high?"  And Mary stooped to kiss her, as she used to do when a girl; but the face she stooped to was no longer hard and bright—it was only hard and coarse.  The change struck her sensitive spirit, without wording it even to herself, and she burst into tears.  The two little ones clinging to her gown looked gloomily at Mrs. Wiggett, Master Johnny going so far as to clench his fist at her as the cause of the calamity, his mother sobbing aloud, with her face hidden in her hands.

    Sally's not too tender heart softened towards her old companion, who took on in this way at the sight of her; and Timothy, with a queer sensation in his nose, which caused him to emit some extraordinary gruntings, laid his broad brown hand on her shoulder, and comforted her in an inarticulate fashion, so that Mary was not long in recovering her self-control, and declaring that her cry had done her good.

    Mrs. Wiggett did not take to the children, and naturally the children did not take to her; but Mr. Wiggett did, and so he soon carried them off with him into the garden, where he encouraged them in the eating of a quantity of fruit, which it would have made their mother pale with alarm to see them dispose of.  Then came the early substantial dinner, after which Timothy enjoyed a short period of calm repose; but the restless little creatures, who had already taken possession of him with the sure instinct that he was their slave for the present, body and soul, would not suffer him to rest.  He was trotted out again and set to work, they desiring nothing better than to watch his every movement.

    And while the little folk were thus employed, the two matrons paced quietly along the well-kept walks, in the afternoon sunshine, talking of the days of old.  Mary, in her dark-brown dress, with a slight structure of cheap black lace tucked in somehow behind her ears and falling to her throat, looked handsome still.  The throat was still white and round, and the fully developed figure had a grace of its own, a sober dignity, which contrasted with the woman at her side; the fair brown hair was yet long and abundant, and only beginning to be sprinkled with grey—a woman who looked fit to be a good man's bosom friend—a mother whom sons and daughters might have been proud of and thankful for.

    On the Monday following the last Saturday in June, Mrs. West was to give a dinner-party in honour of Milly Vaughan's engagement.  Indeed, they were going to make a day of it, for there was to be a pic-nic in the woods first, to finish up with the dinner in the evening; in all of which arrangements Mrs. West was only a consenting party, for Esther and the Vaughans had planned the whole, and on Esther fell the burden of the necessary preparations.  There was not much of a garden at "The Cedars."  The ground about the house was laid out in grass, which, with the fine trees about the place, both Mrs. West and Esther preferred to gay parterres.  And now, when the latter wanted flowers for the rooms, there were not enough for her purpose.  Wanting to purchase some, and also fruit, she applied to Mrs. Moss, and Mrs. Moss sent her on to Mr. Wiggett.  Therefore, on this Saturday afternoon, while Mary Potter and Mrs. Wiggett were pacing up and down the garden, Esther was on her way to it in order to make her purchases.  Esther was not driving; for Mrs. West was with her in the Pony-carriage, and was going further on for her daily airing, while Esther made sure of her flowers and fruit.

    "You will call for me in half an hour," said the latter, alighting at the gate in the privet hedge.  "I dare say I shall be some time, and I can stay in the garden till you come."

    As she entered the walk she saw the backs of the two women at their promenade; and at the foot of the garden a man was at work, with two children watching him.  She took the side-walk towards the latter, as in all probability the man was Mr. Wiggett himself.

    She was soon at his side, and ascertaining that he was the gardener, she stated her name and errand; and as he raised a very puzzled red face from his work, and began to speak in a very hesitating manner, she mentioned that Mrs. Moss had sent her, and hoped that she had been right in doing so.

    "Oh, certainly, certainly—that is" and he stared, and grew as red as a peony, till Esther thought she had never seen so strange a man.

    She turned to the children, till this curiously shy man should recover himself, which he seemed to do as he watched the retreating figures of the two women.  At first they, too, were shy; but her beauty and her winning smile conquered little Mary, who soon gave her her hand in token of friendship.

    Might she see the garden, as she had to wait for the carriage and her mamma?  Esther was sure her little friend would show her the way.

    The permission came from the owner of the garden with the same uncertainty of speech, and the same decided deepening of hue.  Esther was glad Constance was not with her, for she would never have been able to keep her gravity.  However, he led the way—not towards the house, but towards another square, walled round with privet.  Within this there was nothing but strawberry-beds and roses; but such strawberries, and such roses!  Mr. Wiggett came to himself more thoroughly in giving Esther the names of his aristocratic favourites; came to himself so far as to ask her the common question, "Are you fond of flowers?"

    But he did not get quite the common answer, with its more or less of real or feigned enthusiasm.

    "I don't know," she answered, "that is, if I am fond of them as I know some are.  I would rather have the green grass and the shadows of trees, without a single blossom, than these great bands of red, and yellow, and blue, like the lines on a target.  I love the daffodils, that come up at the foot of the meadow—'a host of golden daffodils'" (and her face glowed with real enthusiasm), "and I like to discover a bed of violets, a knot of primroses in the woods."

    It was rank heresy to Mr. Wiggett.  He looked upon flowers as the creations of gardening genius, and he considered all those common things, that grew of themselves, as no better than weeds.  Nevertheless, he proceeded to gather a few of his finest specimens for Esther, enlarging, as he did so, on the merits of each.

    "This dazzling creature would go far to make any one a lover of cultured beauty," said Esther, as he added a glorious white rose to those she held already in her hand.

    Just then she looked down at the little girl, who was following silently.  Her eyes were fixed on the flowers with a wistful expression, and at the last gift she had clasped her little hands together, as if she could worship it.  She had been sated with fruit, but the good gardener had not thought of offering her a flower, and the craving for the beautiful thing went out of the child's eyes.

    "I should so like to offer her one, to let her take her choice, if you will not think me rude to dispose of your gifts," said Esther, noticing the look, and having already ascertained that she was not his own child, but a little stranger from the city.

    Mr. Wiggett assented cheerfully, and Esther offered the little girl her choice from the cluster of roses she carried in her hand.  Trembling with eagerness, the child pointed to the newly-gathered white rose, which Esther gave her, first picking off a great thorn, lest it should wound the little hand.  The pretty mouth was held up to the giver with a kiss of grateful thanks.

    "You little darling," said Esther, returning the kiss; "what is your name!"

    "Polly," replied the child, in the sweetest lisping voice.  "What more?" said Esther.

    "Polly Potter."  Then she smiled shyly, and said, with her pretty lisp, "Whath yourth?"

    "Esther."

    "Ethter; what elth?" said Polly, with a gleam of childish humour.

    But Mr. Wiggett just then rose from stooping among the strawberries, his face redder than ever, and a huge berry in his hand, crying—

    "There, Polly, run to your mother, and take her this."  He dropped it into the little open palm, which it quite covered, and the child trotted off, looking back once or twice as she carried her treasures.

    Mr. Wiggett was very happy to escort Esther to the gate, where Mrs. West was now waiting.  As he did so he looked up the path, down which his wife and Mary Potter were again advancing, after having been round all the rest of the garden.  Little Mary was walking by her mother's side, holding her rose to her bosom, and shielding it with one little hand, as one shields from the draught a lighted candle, and repeating to herself the word "Esther."  She had a curious habit of stringing any simple word that pleased her to a tune picked up from one of the numerous street musicians that infest the district bordering on Belgravia.  But just then nobody was paying any attention to Polly.

    Mrs. West, seated in her pony carriage at the garden gate, in the shadow of the trees that rose on each side of it, looked up the broad, sunny path for Esther's coming, and saw, as in a picture, the two women and the little girl.  By instinct she turned away her head, but she had seen enough to make her heart beat faint.  It was some little time before she remembered (for she did not trust herself to look again) the face of the other and smaller woman; it was the tall figure that arrested her, and in an instant flashed upon her brain by the keen sunlight in which it stood, had photographed itself there.  It was Mary Potter.

    The unhappy lady sank back in her carriage in a cowering attitude.  In that moment all power of action seemed to desert her, and she felt like one awaiting some inevitable blow.  She could not rouse herself, even when Esther came and took her place beside her; till, looking in her face, and seeing the fixed and drawn expression which it wore in pain, the girl took her hand, and whispered, "You are ill, mamma."

    Mrs. West gave a gesture of assent, and whispered, "Home."

    "Drive home," Esther repeated, still holding her mother's hand, a look of deep anxiety gathering in her face.  At the same time, Mr. Wiggett, turning his back upon them, began to wipe his forehead with his brown silk handkerchief, and to consider a very hard question "Something will happen if she's not told," he said to himself.  "It's the awkwardest piece o' work that ever fell to my lot; but she must be told this very night,"—a resolve which he took an opportunity of quietly communicating to his wife in the course of the afternoon.



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