Esther West (5)

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CHAPTER XXIX.

RECONSIDERED.


A LITTLE later, Kate was closeted with her father for half an hour, and she came out from the conference with the clearness in her face, as of the sky after a shower, which comes from recent, not too passionate tears.  Mr. Vaughan had dealt very tenderly with his daughter—it was not in his nature to do otherwise—but he had earnestly urged her to reconsider her answer to Harry West.  "I have given my consent," he said, "but only conditionally, and the condition is, that you do not ratify it till to-morrow.  Mr. West acknowledges that he has been precipitate, and he has promised not to see you again to-day.  You know that I have always taught you to consider yourselves free in this matter, and that I would not even influence your choice.  All that I desire is, that you should not choose lightly in a matter of such moment.  Remember, that it is your whole life that is at stake.  Be sure of yourself as well as of him.  A change of mind may come too late.  It is not too late now, Kate;" and with these words he suffered her to go.

    It was not an easy task that had been imposed on her—this reconsideration.  How was she to set about it?  She could not prove that she did not love Harry.  He was certainly attractive to her by outward qualities.  She knew that she would not readily have accepted a poor man; yet that she had not accepted Harry because he was rich.  But the highly fallacious test to which she brought herself again and again was the question, how she would bear her old home life if she went back from this opening into a new and ampler life? for this was the great attraction which marriage offered to her.  She felt herself no longer a girl, and in truth she had reached the full bloom of womanhood.  A daughter's place did not satisfy her strong individuality.  She needed interests and pursuits of her own—a separate sphere to move in.  This active nature of hers had been partly satisfied at the head of her father's household, but she felt that it could be so no longer.  Milly's engagement had, perhaps, something to do in awakening the feelings of dissatisfaction which she had begun to feel with her life as it was: and this dissatisfaction was not wholly selfish in its root.  Refined as it was, her life was after all one of self-seeking; and no human being can be satisfied with that, though many only rush from one form of it to another, and know no other refuge.

    Poor Kate became quite bewildered in her attempt at reconsideration; and the end of it was that when she bade her father good-night, she signified that she had made up her mind in the affirmative—a fact which Mr. Vaughan conveyed to Harry that same evening.

    On the morrow Kate wore her ring.  It was the turquoise engagement-ring which had been bought for Esther.  It had not suggested itself to him that as he had changed the lady, he might have changed the love-token.

    As yet Esther's name had not been mentioned, but now Constance ventured to ask Harry how he had left her and their old friend Mrs. West.  Something very like a cloud of resentment lowered on his face, as he told them that Esther had refused to return, had elected to stay among her own people, "a wretched set, by the place they live in," he added; "but I suppose she has a natural taste for that sort of thing."

    "She has a natural taste for whatever is most noble and unselfish," flashed out Constance, and she would have quarrelled with her brother-in-law elect there and then, but for a look of reproof from her father.  Constance felt sure that Esther had rejected Harry, from that moment, though he had assured Kate that he had never asked her, which was verbally true.

    The small amount of interest with which the tour had commenced had completely evaporated, and all felt that the sooner it was over the better;—all but Harry and Kate, who seemed to enjoy everything, and to become more and more radiant with satisfaction—so much so that Mr. Vaughan became reconciled to his new son-in-law, though no two people could well have less in common.  "They love each other," he thought, "and that is enough."  They might be like two bright rivers flowing together over the sparkling shallows; the channel of their lives would widen and deepen by-and-by.

    But Constance observed more closely, and was not satisfied.  It seemed to her that Kate was too much occupied with the accessories of her position.  That there were too many discussions about where and how they were to live, what they were to do, and where they were to go.  The pleasure-loving element in Kate was showing itself under Harry's fostering treatment, and there were better things in her, as her sister knew.

    At Brussels there was a great buying of lace for the brides, for they had settled to be married on the same day, Mr. Vaughan giving Milly a veil of the same cost as that which Harry bought for Kate: and Constance could not help noticing that though extravagant and lavish, Harry expended chiefly on himself, and had an inward grudge when the extravagance was for another.  Kate, she knew, with all her faults, was generous as the day, and she feared accordingly for her sister's future.  Other people's futures are so much clearer to us than our own.  Kate had no shadow of apprehension.
 

There was a great deal of buying of lace for the brides.


    Kate and Harry caused the party to linger at Brussels longer than they would otherwise have done.  Constance was vehement in her animadversions on the place.  "It is neither beautiful nor interesting," she said.  "Its gaieties have all the effect of dullness upon me.  I wonder why there is always a fete in Brussels.  The people seem to have nothing better to do.  I do dislike people who have nothing to do but to amuse themselves."

    At which severe sally Kate and Harry only laughed, without in the least applying the latter portion of it to themselves.  It did not occur to these two, at this time, to think what they were going to do with their lives, that is, what use they were to make of them.  They only thought what highest kind and amount of pleasure they could get out of them; and, indeed, not what highest kind, but only what highest sensuous kind of gratification they could reach.

    And it is easy to underrate the difficulty of a higher standard of life to a man in Harry's position: it can hardly be over estimated.  He was a rich man, without any depth of culture to awaken the higher intellectual needs—such as the need of a political or social career.  His father had realised a large fortune, partly by sheep-farming, partly by trading, and had left him a noble independence, but had neglected to train him to its uses.  The only career which he had open to him was to follow in his father's steps, and make a still larger fortune; and to this there was nothing to urge him.  Organized as his resources were, money seemed to make money without much help of his.  Then he was amazingly clever at anything he undertook, and this acted as a barrier to his undertaking anything in particular.  He had grown up with no particular fitness for anything, and what is worse, with no particular devotion to anything.  Science, art, letters, require sacrifice from their votaries, and there was no motive to urge Harry to sacrifice for any of them.  Perfection, mastership, in anything demands hard service, and there was nothing to tempt him to serve.  The nature must be noble indeed which can bear the withdrawal of all outward stimulus, and yet exert its highest powers.  Certainly Harry West had not such a nature: and therefore he was, what Constance called him, a do-nothing; and a do-nothing he would remain, unless some great discontent drove him to do a man's work in the world.

    About the end of September the party reached home, Herbert Palmer running down to Dover to meet them, and the first news that greeted them was that of the death of Mrs. West.  She was not only dead, but buried, for Harry had not thought it necessary to tell Mrs. West whither he had gone; all that she or Esther knew was that he had gone abroad for a week or two.  Therefore the lawyer had taken possession of her effects in his absence, the servants had been dismissed, and Esther, after watching by her till all was over, had returned to her mother, not much richer in anything, save culture and refinement, than if she had never been away.

    The lawyer had explained to her that nearly five thousand pounds had been invested for her benefit in the shares of a northern bank.  It was possible that something might be saved, but at present the affairs of the bank had gone to wreck, and would take months, if not years, to wind up.  Happily the bulk of Mrs. West's property, accruing at her death to Mr. Henry West, was perfectly secure.  It was the simple lady's own investments that had failed; the lawyer adding that she had been ill advised.

    Harry West had come into another two thousand a-year, and over his happiness the death of his relative cast a very faint shadow indeed.  Mr. Vaughan and Constance, and Kate herself, held that it would be necessary to postpone their marriage; but Harry diplomatically yielding an inch, gained an ell in the long run, and it was finally arranged that the double marriage should take place at the end of October, instead of the beginning, with the understanding that it should be celebrated with the utmost quietness.


 
CHAPTER XXX.

THE FRIENDS.


THE first thing which Constance Vaughan did on her return was to visit Esther.  During those weeks of separation she had longed for her as it is supposed that women long only for their lovers, for in treating of women, the cynical vein has prevailed so much of late, that many find it hard to credit that they are capable of friendship at all.  Friendships are formed every day, nevertheless, between women—and broken the next, interpolates the cynic—which exceed those of men in intensity, if not in durability.  Be that as it may, Constance was one of those natures, rare in either sex, if you will, in whom friendship is a passion.  She almost flew to find her friend.

    The house she had little difficulty in finding; but Esther was not there.  She was in "the new school," so a rather drooping girl in a soiled black frock informed her.  The building dignified with this title was neither more nor less than the broken-down workshop at the end of the court, which had undergone a thorough repair, and during the last few weeks of Mrs. West's life had been, at her cost, fitted up as a schoolroom for Mary Potter.  It was a longish, low building, with windows on either side, and bare, whitewashed walls.  But it looked clean and well ventilated—that is to say, all the windows were open at the top, and Constance could hear the hum of the school-children as she stood without.

    When she entered, Esther was standing at the end of the room, endeavouring to rouse the minds of a set of very spiritless little girls, while Mary, near the entrance, sat in the centre of a similar circle.  Esther speedily became aware of her presence by an access of inattention on the part of her class, the wandering eyes all turning in one direction, to look at the stranger.

    "Let me wait," said Constance—their greeting restrained by the presence of the children—"let me wait till your lesson is done."

    And Constance sat down, while Esther strove to go on with her task.  But the effort was useless.  It was close upon the hour of dismissal, and the little girls had had their attention roused only to be diverted into quite another channel.  They were busy examining every detail of the visitor's attire—one, to whom the great opportunity had occurred, even taking her dress between her fingers to ascertain of what manner of material it was of.

    Esther therefore gave the welcome signal for dismissal a little before the accustomed hour, and not without a sigh of relief found herself alone with Constance.  She had introduced the latter to her mother; but Mary, after a few sentences of commonplace, had left them together, not without leaving a favourable impression on the mind of her daughter's friend.  Constance had been watching her while she waited, and Mary, with the smaller scholars clustered round her knee, had looked like a statue of Charity teaching.  Then she had glanced from the mother to the daughter, discovering a deep-seated likeness between them, which the years would in all probability make deeper still, though a cultivated mind, or a firmer nature, made Esther appear the grander and nobler of the two.

    Left alone together, to use a sacred phrase, "they fell upon each other's necks and wept."  Both had passed through an agitating period, in which the whole aspect of their lives had changed; and there are some, even among the young, whom change touches strangely, even if it be a happy change.

    Esther was the first to recover, and she led the way into a little room, a portion of the building walled off, and bare as the rest.  To this she introduced Constance as her study.

    "It was not furnished when poor mamma died, and it must remain as it is for the present," she explained, as Constance looked round on the bare walls, the two chairs, and the deal table, heaped with school-books, which constituted its furniture.

    "And are you happy?" was the first question Constance asked, when they had spent some time in telling each other all that had taken place since they had parted.

    "I am busy," Esther answered, with a smile.  "I have a great deal to do before and after school-hours.  I find how much it is necessary to know in order to do anything
well.  I find I must prepare to teach even those children."

    "And do you spend your time here?" asked her friend, in consternation.

    "A good deal of it at present," she answered.  "It is not so uncomfortable as it seems.  I prefer bareness to ugliness; one can paint bare walls with one's own devices, and fill empty corners with images of their own, when you can't banish the horrible devices and deformities invented by other people.  Over the way there, in the parlour at home, there is a hideous paper, huge tea-urns piled on the top of each other, crowned and ornamented with flowers which have the peculiarity of transforming themselves into horrible bloodstained faces.  Will you come with me," she added, "and make acquaintance with the family?"

    "I will come again," said Constance.  "I expect Harry and Kate to call for me," she added, with hesitation.  "It was Harry himself who proposed it."

    Just then the door of the schoolroom opened, and someone advanced.  It was Harry himself, and Kate followed him at a little distance.  They had been shopping, and had driven up to the alley in a carriage and pair, to the great edification of the neighbours.  Kate was unusually radiant, and exceedingly well dressed.  Even before her marriage she had begun to assume the more elaborate toilette, which was her taste, and which suited her.  Harry looked back at her, as she came sweeping up the schoolroom, with evident admiration.  It heightened his good-humour.

    "How pale you are looking!" he cried, turning to Esther, as she advanced to meet them.  "How dismal it must be for you to be shut up here all day.  Won't you come and take a drive with us?"

    His speech was questionable enough in taste, forcing on Esther, as it did, the change in her position; but as he rattled on, his talk had the effect of putting the others at their ease.  Kate and Esther met without much embarrassment.  Harry himself was the least embarrassing of human beings, and so Esther was rather glad than otherwise that he had come, and that a meeting which she had dreaded was over.

    Harry had felt a little sore with Esther.  His self-love had been wounded.  He was capable of resentment, and of making his resentment felt by the object of it.  But Esther had disarmed him.  She had no air of conquest.  In that black nun-like dress, every fold of which, from her white throat to her feet, an artist would have loved, she was such a foil to his brilliant betrothed that Harry was quite satisfied with her.  Perhaps after all she had refused him out of modesty, was a thought just latent in his heart.

    Then, as for Kate, she honestly thought that Esther's loss had been her gain, and she was too good to feel pleasure in another's loss, though she did triumph a little in her own gain.  The meeting with Esther had been rather a trouble to her.  She too was satisfied to get so lightly over it.  Esther did not seem to feel it at all; but then Esther had been always very cool and calm, and she seemed cooler and calmer than ever.  Kate resolved to befriend Esther on the spot.  She would no doubt have it in her power to show her kindness, and Kate liked being kind.

    So they parted quite harmoniously, Esther refusing the drive which Kate had urged upon her, on the plea of having to give a music-lesson to a pupil who came in the evening, and Constance promising to return very soon.

    The preparations for the double wedding had begun in earnest.  Herbert left the arrangement of his modest little mansion entirely to Milly, being called upon occasionally to admire, and duly admiring, whatever was put before him.  And Milly's taste was very pretty, leaning a little too much, Kate would say, to white muslin and simplicity, a fault which she would certainly have avoided.  But Kate and Harry had resolved not to begin housekeeping at once, but to go abroad for some time, spending the winter at Rome, and returning only when they were weary of foreign travel.  So Kate had only her personal appointments to look after, and she entered into the details with a zest which caused Constance no little wonderment.  She seemed to her to bestow more thought on the making of a dress than she had done on the making of her marriage itself.  She seemed determined not to think.

    Then the great question of bridesmaids had to be decided.  There was one bride the more, and one bridesmaid the less, owing to the sisters being married on the same day, and it was agreed, or rather Kate had ruled, that they could not possibly do without four a-piece, though Milly would have been quite contented with Constance and Esther, as at first proposed.  There was some discussion as to whether Esther ought to be asked, all things considered; but it had been decided that she ought, as if it would be painful to her in any degree, she had the option of refusing.  And Esther did refuse.

    "I cannot put off this mourning yet," she said to Constance, who had been deputed to ask her; "and I am not sure of myself.  I do not spend my time in vain regrets, as you know, but I need not court a break-down."

    "Then you will come to us from Saturday till Monday," said her friend.  "You will come and see us all together for the last time.  I am sure we shall never be so happy again."

    "Never so carelessly happy, I dare say," said Esther; "but we may all have deeper joys."

    They were in the schoolroom, empty because it was Saturday afternoon, Constance waiting to be picked up by her sisters and Harry, driving about as usual, when Philip looked in, and would have withdrawn again, seeing that Esther was engaged.  But she recalled him.  It was the first time he had sought her, and he had doubtless some end to accomplish.  She was unwilling that he should be turned away.  He obeyed her recall a little awkwardly, and then only to say, with the fault in his utterance more apparent than ever,—

    "I came to ask you about the schoolroom, Miss Potter; but another time will do as well."

    "My friend is waiting," said Esther.  "I am quite disengaged."

    She waited for him to go on.

    "I have been thinking as the winter comes on that I would like to have a roof over my head, and that perhaps you would let me have the schoolroom on a Sunday evening."

    "To preach in?" said Esther, a ready assent in her smile.

    "No, to teach in," he answered.  "I don't mean to set up an opposition church; though I go out into the highways and hedges, it is only to compel them to come in.  But a Sunday-school is sadly wanted here, and I thought you might let the room to me for a small sum."

    "You may have it for nothing," she replied.

    "I would rather pay for it," he answered, bluntly.

    "We are very much indebted to you, Mr. Ward," rejoined Esther, "and you must not refuse to be indebted to us for so small a favour.  I will make one condition," she added, quickly, as if a bright idea had come to her; "you must allow me to help you.  We shall share the school between us; you shall take the boys, and I shall take the girls."

    The sort of white light, which was Philip Ward's smile, came into his face as he thanked her, without a shadow of his former awkwardness.

    "When shall we begin?" asked Esther.

    "Not to-morrow, perhaps, but next Sunday," he replied.  "Don't you think she works hard enough already?" Constance interposed.

    "Time is very precious," said Philip.  "We must work while it is day," he added, in a low tone; "the night cometh, in which no man can work."

    Constance had heard the sentiment worded before; she had never come across the conviction.  She had never seen a man who would neither spare himself nor others because of it.  She felt almost ashamed to say that she claimed Esther for the Sunday following.

    "Yes, I shall be in the country," said Esther; "but the Sunday after that I shall be at my post."

    Philip bowed to Esther and her friend, and turned to go.  Near the doorway he encountered Kate and Harry, and stood aside, cap in hand, to let them pass.


 
CHAPTER XXXI.

ESTHER DROPPED.


REDHURST wore the russet of October when Esther drove up to its gate on the Saturday following.  Constance had driven to the station to meet her, and had made a slight detour, whose pretext was a rather better road, in order to avoid Esther's old home.  But "The Cedars" made a point in the landscape, and Esther could not help seeing them.  She pointed them out to Constance, dark among the bright, sombre among the gay, but steadfast when all else was changing.  "You must help me to steal away some time," she said.  "I should like to visit the place, and stand under the old trees."

    Constance promised, but with a certain amount of reluctance, which might have been accounted for by a desire to spare the feelings of her friend.  And so, to some extent, it was.  The truth was that Harry had already sold the place, and disposed of its furniture without reservation.  Like everything he did, it was done on the spur of the moment, and with no space left for repentance.  Seeing that the broadest of hints was unavailing, Constance had plainly said that she thought there were many things in the old home which ought to belong to Esther; but Harry had refused blankly to consider that she had the slightest claim.  It was becoming more and more clear that he was not in the least degree generous; that he needed far too much for himself to be a liberal giver; and that, though rich, he was one of those people who are always in poverty.  Constance, in her secret heart, had thought it shameful that Harry should step into Mrs. West's property, and never consider her wishes with regard to Esther.  She had blushed for her sister's future husband when he had sold up everything, even to the books which should have borne Esther's name.

    And what Kate thought of these things no one knew.  It was too delicate a matter to be discussed in the family circle.  "Such discussions only provoke alienation," was Mr. Vaughan's wise conclusion.  Give sufficient light—mental, moral, and spiritual—and then let every nature act itself out freely, was the maxim he had carried out in his family, and hitherto with the best results.  But he, too, was anxious, as he saw more clearly into Harry's nature.  There is such a thing as wilful blindness.  Perhaps Kate was shutting her eyes to the faults of this curious, complex character.  Complex by reason of its very smallnesses and weaknesses, as one knows a riddle or a puzzle may be.  In after-days Mr. Vaughan blamed himself that he had not tried to open her eyes, however roughly, and to change her course, even by the harshest exercise of parental authority.

    Herbert and Harry were with the Vaughans as usual, and Constance and Esther were left a good deal to themselves—more, indeed, than the former thought altogether fair.  She had grown wonderfully sensitive for her friend, and railed at love and lovers till Esther laughed.  But her sensitiveness was caused by a knowledge of the altered position which Esther held in the eyes of the village magnates, and of the possible pain which she might suffer in the course of discovering it, for the pain suffered in such cases is more often proportioned to the sensitiveness of the victim than to the power of the inflictor.  Constance knew by this time—and it was wonderful how the knowledge had shaken that faith in humankind which all generous hearts begin with—that there were few families in Hurst who had welcomed Esther the heiress, who would give a like welcome to Esther the penniless teacher—the daughter of a bricklayer.  In the course of the past weeks many were the stabs, stabs at which her father's hair would have stood on end, which Constance had given to avenge her friend on the dames of Hurst.  They had shown no sympathy with an utterly faultless misfortune.  They had shown plenty of idle, and some ill-natured curiosity, and they had set Constance Vaughan at war with her kind.

    Therefore the Vaughans, who were one and all above this sort of thing, kept Esther entirely to themselves, as far as the families in the neighbourhood were concerned.  They made a large party at morning service at the village church.  There it was inevitable that Esther should encounter these people, out of whose sphere she had dropped, and Constance was prepared to cover her retreat with her sharpest fire.  But she got leave to keep her ammunition.  There was a good deal of furtive staring at Esther, as she sat in her deep mourning in Mr. Vaughan's pew, which Constance diverted by looking the starers straight out of countenance.  But outside the church no one stopped to speak.  A few, whom it behoved to be specially careful, as mothers of grownup sons to whom beauty was still an attraction, had hastened away.  Distant bows were all that greeted Esther on her reappearance.  She felt the coldness of some among them, but not as Constance felt it for her.  As yet she had received no direct repulse.  She hardly knew from what quarter a chill had fallen upon her.  Mr. Moss, hobbling past on his stick, alone gave her his accustomed "Good morning, miss."

    The October sunshine was still warm on that western-fronting lawn, and the party gathered there in the afternoon, with books which they did not read, and which soon lay piled on one of the garden-chairs, a medley of colours and tastes.  They had not been there long, however, when visitors were announced, or rather announced themselves, by the sound of wheels, first on the road without, and then in the gravel within the grounds.  It was Benjamin Carrington and his mother.  They had established the privilege of calling on Sundays after service, and now they had come to pay a sort of farewell visit to the family.

    Mrs. Carrington did not exhibit any surprise at Esther being there—in fact, she was quite aware of it, but she was not one of those who would stay away rather than not encounter anyone whom she did not particularly wish to see.  She was what is called a woman of spirit, which generally means a woman capable of inflicting any amount of pain without wincing.  She met Esther in a perfectly unrestrained way, but without the slightest allusion to anything that had taken place.  She had taken care, however, to make herself fully acquainted with all Esther's doings.  She might even have pitied her had she acted differently, but her unaccountable choice of her own poor relations, seemed to Mrs. Carrington positively disgraceful.  "What an extraordinary girl!" she said to her son; and when she had said that, she had expressed the very acme of disapprobation.  An extraordinary person was in Mrs. Carrington's eyes obnoxious—obnoxious as an Irish giantess or an American dwarf.

    Mr. Carrington wore the languid air, the air of being habitually bored, which was peculiar to him in society, as they went on talking for some time the nothings which people do talk at morning calls, in which the faint germs of interest in the nature of personal experiences are usually nipped in the bud.  But Harry was a child of nature, that most troublesome, if sometimes most interesting, specimen of humanity, and he could not long allow matters to run in the peaceful groove of conventionalism.

    "Do you know that Esther has found a hero in humble life?" he said, apropos of nothing, in order to enliven the conversation.

    "Indeed," said Mrs. Carrington, coldly.  She did not like Harry much, though his sex protected him from her utmost severity.

    "Oh, I hope not," said Mr. Walton.  "We are all done to death with heroes in humble life.  I would like to see a hero in good broadcloth, for a change."

    "What is he like?" said Mr. Carrington, shaking himself up.

    The question had drawn all eyes upon Esther, but she neither coloured nor looked conscious.

    "Like St. Paul a little, I fancy," she replied; and Mrs. Carrington felt that she deserved nothing short of annihilation on the spot.

    "Kate, you saw him the other day," said Harry.

    Kate looked bewildered.  "Was it that grimy little man who stood aside to let me pass?"

    "Exactly," he laughed, and the others laughed with him.

    "His face is certainly noble when it lights up," said Constance, coming to the rescue.

    "What! you have seen him too?" said Mr. Carrington.

    "Seen him, and been rebuked by him for idleness."

    "What an insufferable prig," said Herbert.

    "Oh, I am sick of that word," said Constance.  "Men are so afraid of it, that they have not courage to be serious, far less heroic."

    "I think the subject of your discussion would be the first to deny that there was anything heroic about him," said Esther.  "He is simply penetrated with the idea of Christianity—the spirit of self-sacrifice, till his life seems a new reading of the gospels.  I know that Christianity never appeared so real to me before, such a power to lift and save the world."

    Esther's enthusiasm kindled as she spoke, till her colour rose, and her great grey eyes glittered with its light, confirming Mrs. Carrington's opinion that she was dangerous.  If she had looked behind at her languid and fashionable son, she would have seen a kindred light upon his face, which was quenched by Harry's next remark.

    "He stammers, and drops his h's, does he not?" said Harry.

    Esther blushed with anger.  She had noticed the latter failing herself, and despised herself for feeling it a painful one; though strangely enough, it disappeared in Philip's higher moods.

    Mr. Carrington saved her a reply.  "Oh, that letter h," he said, in a tone of lightly ringing scorn, which was yet full of bitterness, "it outweighs with us the Sermon on the Mount."

    "How can you say such dreadful things, Benjamin?" said his mother, playfully, as she rose to go.  "Use is second nature."  The old lady was interested in the former vapid tittle-tattle.  She would have been dreadfully bored by a discussion, which her son would have enjoyed, on the compatibility or incompatibility of Christianity with modern life, and how to keep the two things, culture and Christianity, from diverging further and further.

    Mrs. Carrington had just taken a house in town, as her son was finding it more and more inconvenient to live at a distance from the scene of his active life.  She was not coming to the wedding, though he was, and, therefore, she was bidding the Vaughans farewell for a season.

    "We shall all be scattered next week," she exclaimed, with an attempt at pathos; "but I hope we shall meet again after a time."  She kissed the brides affectionately, hoped to see them on their return, holding Kate's hand the longest, because Kate was to be absent for the longest period.  Kate, too, had been her favourite among the sisters.

    Then she turned to Constance, who was standing next to Esther.  "You will be sure to come and see me whenever you come to town," she said.  "I hope you will make my house your headquarters.  I shall always be delighted to see you, and you know I am left a good deal alone."

    Last of all she held out her little hand to Esther.  "Goodbye," she said, blandly.  "I believe you are resident in London now;" she added, by way of doing her cutting neatly and deliberately; "but I fear I shall not see much of you."

    "It is not likely," said Esther, quietly, returning her good-bye, and looking down at the little lady, whose quick, bright eyes wavered under Esther's calm gaze, which was sad too, if the other could have met it.  Esther had no resentment for small personal matters.  It hurt her more to think that others were unkind, than to experience an unkindness.

    Esther went home, convinced that she had left her old life completely behind her—that all the pleasant people whom she had known were nothing to her now—had, in fact, dropped her, and would soon be as ignorant of her existence as if she had gone to the bottom of the sea.  It was a bitter enough experience to a large and loving nature, an experience which would have rankled in one less sweet and healthful.  If the winnowing fan of circumstance had blown away the chaff, it had left the wheat.  After a time, she judged them not at all—the surest way to get rid of all bitterness of spirit.  The Vaughans, and especially Constance, remained her friends.

    On the Tuesday following, the two weddings came off with great éclat.  There was no crying, for no mammas were present.  Milly looked charming, so the on-lookers said.  That epithet could hardly be applied to Kate, but she was by far the most moved of the two.  Then the wedded pairs set off in different directions—Milly and Herbert to the Isle of Wight, for a brief holiday; Kate and Harry to Dover, en route for Paris, their first halting-place.


 
CHAPTER XXXII.

THE YEARS.


IT was some time since anything had happened to break in upon the quiet routine of Esther's life.  Two years of the toilsome work of a teacher had tried, but had not broken her spirit.  Often she had felt weary in body and in mind; and sometimes the dark cloud of depression, which from time to time wraps every human soul that looks into the future, would come over her, blotting and blurring the present with mists drawn from the ocean of eternity, and closing in at the gloomy near horizon, and shutting out the light beyond.  But she had never repined.  She was loyal to her lot.  She preferred to remain among her own people, and make their joys and their sorrows her own, rather than go back as a dependent to the sphere she had quitted.  It is true, she missed the refinement of the class in which she had been bred; but she strove patiently to introduce it into her new life.  The soil of poverty nourishes many a nobler growth, and there is no reason why it should not nourish this.

    On the whole, her life was anything but an unhappy one, for she had work to do, and strength to do it.  She did not count the years wasted, spent in teaching others—perhaps the least cultivating of all mental work—though she had powers of mind which would have repaid the highest culture.  If she had been offered the choice between work and culture she would have chosen the former, just as she would have chosen duty rather than pleasure, ay, and found in so doing a still higher pleasure.

    And the years and the work had added to, not diminished from, her beauty.  Her face was several shades paler and thinner, but there was new depth in her deep grey eyes, and lovely spiritual lines had been added round the mouth, which exalted the whole expression.

    She had proved herself a born teacher, hardly any but the very dullest refusing to respond to her teaching, and many of her little scholars striving to follow and lay hold of her mind, simply because they worshipped her.

    At home, too, her influence had been felt.  Sweeter manners than unhappily are the rule in working-class families, prevailed in Mary Potter's home; but Mary wanted firmness especially firmness to resist, and as the younger ones went out into the world, they would have imported its rudenesses but for Esther's influence.  The twins alone resisted her influence; churlish by nature, they were only provoked to envy by her sweetness, and drew more together and more apart from the rest of the family, as she became more to all of them.  They dressed more gaily than ever, keeping back a portion of their earnings for the purpose, while all the others had a common purse.

    Martin and Willie had grown up fine thoughtful lads, already young men, indeed, in strength and appearance.  They were earning fair wages as carpenters, every penny of which they gave their mother; yet, even with the two younger boys earning apprentice wages, Mary found it hard enough to make ends meet.

    There was nothing Esther felt so much as the narrowness of their dwelling, and she had hit upon a plan for increasing the accommodation of the family in one respect, and that was by turning the schoolroom into a sitting-room in the evening, for all who were studiously inclined.  It ended in everybody preferring to sit there; and so study became the order of the day, and anything like solitude, like space for lonely thought, was unattainable as ever.

    They were all seated there, one evening early in the year, when winter most asserts her waning power, engaged as usual in a great diversity of domestic avocations.  A bright fire was burning in the stove at the upper end of the room.  A big, white lamp shed its light on the schoolroom table, round three sides of which the family found room, while the other gave a view of the red glow in the stove grate.  Mary was engaged in darning stockings, there being a marvellous waste of tissue under the heels of the youngsters, especially of Bob.  The twins, home early, were engaged on some articles of dress for themselves.  Bob, who was the buffoon of the family, as ready to cut capers as ever, but who had the most sensitive heart of them all, hiding his affection by a grimace—was engaged in illuminating a text.  The walls were ornamented already with some of his performances, and they did credit to his artistic taste.  The rest were reading, with the exception of Johnny, who was making himself heard now and then from somewhere in the background—a healthy sign, complete silence usually signifying that he had got some more deadly mischief on hand.

    It was time for him to go to bed, however, and Sarah rose and carried him away through the covered passage which now led from the schoolroom to the house, a mere roof of wood supported by posts, but which had been made to look very pretty in the summer-time by the aid of a little trellis-work and a few creeping plants.  It was the work of Martin and Willie, who thought of the far West as a place where they might put up wooden structures without limit.  But to their mother's infinite satisfaction they had given up talking of the time when they should have saved enough money to set sail to their land of promise.

    The interruption consequent on sending off the child was scarcely over when a knock sounded at the door.

    "It's Philip," shouted Bob, and ran to open it.

    But it was not Philip, for a voice was heard inquiring for Mrs. Potter, and Bob in reply ushered in a stranger.

    "You won't remember me," said a bronzed, middle-aged man, advancing into the light and lifting his hat.

    Every one looked up, and the look was his answer.  No one knew him.  It was Mary whom he had addressed, and she looked as blank as the others.

    "I see you don't.  Well, that's coming back to one's own country.  Nobody knows you, and what's more, nobody wants you."

    Mary had risen—was standing, trying to make out who it was.  "Ned Brown," she said, suddenly, and a look of consternation overspread her face, which was quite enough to verify the last clause of his speech, as she had already verified the first.

    "Don't you be put out.  Mr. West has told me all about you and everybody else," he said significantly.  Mary evidently was put out, as he called it.  She sat down, trembling violently; but she asked him to be seated.  "I've only come to say good-bye to my old friends," he went on.

    "You are going back again?" said Mary.

    "Ay, there's no place for me here.  Are these your own?" he asked, looking round the circle.

    "All my own," replied Mary, following his eyes with a thrill of tender pride, and looking more at ease; "and there are another two in the house."

    "What a fine family to take out!" he exclaimed; "just the lads to make their way in the New World."

    Martin and Willie looked up eagerly; they had resumed their task, but in appearance only, for they had been listening to every word.

    "Ah, Australia's the place for such as you; there's no room for men to grow in this old country," he said, with bitterness.  "I wish I had gone when I was like you."

    "We're going," said Martin, with a quiet determination which startled his mother, and showed her that he had never ceased to think of the object of his ambition, though he had ceased to speak of it.  "We're going as soon as we can," he added.

    "It's not that you won't have to work as hard there as here, maybe harder, but there's more to show for it; it's better worth while working hard," said the stranger.

    "We don't mind how hard we have to work," cried both the lads, in a breath.

    "You can turn your hand there," went on the Australian, "and not go round and round like a blind horse in a mill, as you do in England.  Learn everything you can before you go, from building your own house to baking your own bread, and get up the country whenever you can.  Don't stay in the towns—turn squatter, I don't know a better life: plenty to eat and drink (for the working for), a horse to ride on, and room to ride."

    The faces of both Martin and Willie were glowing with excitement, and Bob stood open-mouthed at the mention of a horse.

    "I am afraid there's not much room for a schoolmistress among your squatters," said Esther.

    "Beg your pardon, miss," said the stranger, respectfully, "but in the towns they're greatly wanted, and folks will send in their children from the near stations miles and miles."

    The miles and miles sounded dreary enough to Esther, as he went on talking of the wide wastes of the distant land, of the old, never-ending, patient wrestle with the soil; the subduing of this new earth, and wresting from it abundance for the needs of the body.

    At length he started to his feet.  "You don't mind my seeing you alone for a bit," he said, addressing Mary.

    "No," she replied, leading the way out of the school-room with alacrity, while he nodded good-night to the circle.  Mary had dreaded the revival of the emigration scheme, and was not unwilling to put a stop to further conversation on the subject of Australia, though the subject she had now to encounter was one yet more disagreeable to her.

    "You know who I want to speak about," he said, as soon as they were alone in the little parlour.

    "She thought you were dead," said Mary, on whose tongue lurked no venom.  "It is very hard on her."

    "That I didn't die!" he answered, with a short laugh.  "Well, perhaps, I have no business to be alive, and I will own that what has happened was partly my fault; but I came back to make amends, if she was still alive, and I thought now that we are oldish folks, with nobody to come between us, we might jog along together after all."

    "And what do you mean to do?" asked Mary; "surely you will not bring her into trouble."

    "No, no!  I'll never hurt her.  She's neither his wife nor mine now, but I wouldn't mind leaving her a bit of my money in case he should throw her over, and I thought you'd be the right person to leave it with."

    Mary made haste to decline, with a perception that this was a matter which money could not mend.  Her old friend had not been particularly kind to her in their changed estates, had only once visited her in her widowhood, and yet Mary could not help feeling for her a profound pity.  Out of her own undying love for the husband of her youth, she could not but believe that the wife of the man before her retained some love for him.

    "Have you seen her?" she asked.

    "No, what's the good?  She doesn't want to see me, you may be sure," he answered.

    "Still she is your wife," said Mary.  To her mind nothing could annul that first contract.

    "And you think I ought to see her?"

    "I cannot tell," said Mary, in perplexity.

    "It's all wrong now, and nobody can set it right.  What she doesn't know can't hurt her.  But he knows already," continued Brown, "and maybe he's tired of her."

    Mary bethought herself concerning Timothy; it was just possible that he might be tired of his wife, and that harm might ensue.  "You ought not to leave the country without seeing her, I think," said Mary.  "Somebody most suffer, but it's better to suffer doing right than to suffer doing wrong.  It's better to face the truth of things, and let the worst befall, than live a life of falsehood."

    When Mary returned to the schoolroom, after vainly pressing upon the returned Australian her humble hospitality in the shape of an early supper, she found the whole circle excited by a discussion on emigration; so eager was it that anyone would have thought they were ready to embark in the first ship that sailed.  Mary reminded them that money was needful, and money as yet was sufficiently scarce in the Potter household.  "We can't move without money," said Mary, and her young Martin lifted up his firm, handsome face, and sent a pang to Mary's heart by saying, "No, we can't move without money; but I don't mean to be a slave like that all my life, mother."

    "You won't go and leave us, Martin, surely!" said Mary, sorrowfully.

    "Not as long as I'm needed, mother; but," and he spoke more doubtfully, "some have gone away and sent back enough to bring out their whole family.  I might go first."

    "No, no!" cried Mary, with whitening lips and a gasp in her breath, "we must all go together," and she looked to Esther, as if she should strengthen her appeal.

    "Yes," she answered, sympathising at once with the young man's eagerness and the mother's pain; we must all go together."


 
CHAPTER XXXIII.

AT HOME.


"WE never see anything of the Vaughans now," said Benjamin Carrington to his mother.  They had just returned from a dinner-party, and after their silent drive home both felt inclined for a chat.  It was not often of late that Benjamin had indulged the old lady with a gossip, for he had been in what she considered a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of mind.  He had gone into society, as in duty bound, that is, he had eaten a certain number of good dinners in other people's houses, and presided over about the same number given to the same people in his own; and he had spent an evening every week or so, with more or less discomfort, in what he called "hanging about," standing in doorways, turning over music, handing refreshments, occasionally taking a more active part in the programme.  Invitations were beginning to thicken.  Mrs. Carrington could not conceive a more satisfactory state of things than this, and yet the only human being for whom she cared was utterly dissatisfied.

    "We shall see more of them now that Kate and her husband have returned," she said.  "They called on me the other day, and Kate is looking handsomer than ever.  By-the-bye, we have an invitation to her first 'at home,' this day fortnight."

    "I think I shall give up evening parties, mother, and stick to the dinners.  After all, one must eat, but there's nothing to be got out of the evenings, no amusement certainly."

    "You know it makes me sad to hear you speak in that way, Benjamin," said his mother.  "You care for nothing but your books, and your friends are all men who might have been your father's: you will grow old before your time."

    "I feel old," he said, wearily; "I wish I did care for my work as you think, but I am tiring of that too."

    Kate and Harry had returned from their wanderings, and had been settled some few months in London.  Mrs. Carrington thought that the young wife looked handsomer and better than ever.  But beyond outward appearance the old lady was not very penetrating.  Mrs. West was dressed more handsomely than Kate Vaughan had been; she was arrayed in silk and velvet in the latest Parisian fashion; her colour, too, was as brilliant as ever.  The gold that ornamented her small bonnet was not brighter than her hair, and her cheeks were more rose-hued than ever, but any one who loved her could have detected a change for the worse.  Her father did, and so did Constance; Milly did not, for she was engaged in baby worship all the time of Kate's first visit, and then Kate had softened even to tears over her little nephew, and had quite satisfied the mother by the fervour of her devotion to the king of the cradle.
 

Kate had softened even to tears over her little nephew


    Kate was as bright as ever, but a trifle harder; her colour was harder, her eyes had the weary look of much surface-gazing.  She could not help showing that she was glad to get home.

    "You do not seem to have taken much rest," said her father.

    "We have forgotten the meaning of the word," she said. And it was true. Kate could have enjoyed luxurious activity or luxurious repose. The only other alternative that would have satisfied her for the lack of both of these would have been a life of unceasing benevolent action ; but that part of her nature was for the present entirely suppressed.

    As for Harry, there was no rest either with or for him; he was delighted with mere physical movement, and so they had moved about perpetually.  He exhausted every place in the shortest possible time.  A wide view or a brilliant colour delighted him.  He had no sense whatever of the deeper harmonies of Nature; he had no awe for its grandeur, no yearning to share its repose.  Kate found herself side by side with a man who, to every deeper emotion, or subtler shade of feeling, was irresponsive as a stone.  She had a certain kind of poetry about her.  He had not a particle.  At first there had been a deepening of feeling toward him; the awakening of that real love, which comes to good women after marriage when by misfortune it has not come before, and which causes so many marriages of convenience to turn out so much better than any one had a right to expect.  The solemnity of the tie, which is so binding, and which isolates the newly-wedded wife from all besides; the newness of the life, a tender newness which seems as if it would never pass away; all these feelings came to Kate—feelings so exquisitely sweet to share, and which are the very cement of a true union, for in the mutual experience, spirit draws nearer to spirit in a blessed companionship only possible between those who are thus united.  But Harry did not share them.  He was perfectly kind and affectionate—exuberant both in kindness and attention sometimes; but he was never tender.  The newness for him wore off in a week.  He could not understand why, standing on a vine-wreathed terrace, looking down on the loveliest of Italian lakes, with faint stars twinkling in the blue above and in the blue below, Kate should be sad; why the loveliness of earth and sky should make her weep; why the glow on the distant summits should make her cry out, "Oh, Harry; I wish I could be better than I am.  I wish we could lead nobler and better lives."  And, instead of clasping the hand stretched out to him almost in supplication, standing there silent by her side, and joining in her aspiration, he would tell her gaily that she was tired, and get her supper and wine, and send her off to bed.  And, like buds put out in hot, dry weather, Kate's tenderness and aspiration withered and died; but not without pain, and not without loss.

    And now they were going to try and make a home—had made it, as far as outward appointments were concerned; and for a time they both took an interest in it, which they had never taken in anything abroad.  It was the natural instinct of building a nest and lining it luxuriously which occupied them: that over, they both began to weary.  It was not Harry alone who was restless—Kate was as restless as he.  But then he had liked his roving life, and she had not.

    It required some plotting and planning to get through the wintry days, with their long dark evenings.  Society was their only resource, and they had not yet got into the stream of it—that stream which carries on its brilliant bosom so many dull, weary, miserable lives.  Kate was making her way, however, and Mrs. Carrington, and several such as she, were bent on her success.

    So the old lady returned her visit before many days.  It was some time since she had met Constance, and Constance was with her sister then.

    "You never come to see me now," said Mrs. Carrington to the latter, before rising to go.

    "It is very difficult for me to get away," Constance replied.  "You know there is no one but me to take care of papa now.  I am here only because Milly has taken possession of him, and of Redhurst, for the present."

    "Now that you are in town, you will come and see me?" pleaded the old lady, quite eagerly.  "You will let her come to me?" she added, turning to Kate.  "I am so much alone.  Benjamin is so occupied that I see very little of him.  Between chambers and the courts, and his club, we seldom meet till seven in the evening, close on dinner-time."

    "I will come," said Constance, good-naturedly: and so a day was fixed for her visit, and the old lady took her departure, highly pleased with her early success.

    In the course of the evening she mentioned incidentally to her son that she expected Constance, having met her at her sister's by chance. "It will be a sufficient test of his feelings," she thought, "if he comes home earlier to meet her."

    He did not come any earlier, however.  They had the whole afternoon to themselves; and at last Mrs. Carrington asked about Esther.  They were talking of her when Mr. Carrington arrived, with barely time to dress for dinner, as his mother had said.  Constance had, of course, defended her friend.  "She is the only person I know who is thoroughly contented," was the end of the sentence on her lips as Mr. Carrington entered the room.

    After shaking hands with Constance, he loitered at a table by her side, lifting a book here and there.

    "Of whom were you speaking?" he said, carelessly.  "I heard the last part of your speech, and would like to know who is the happy person."

    "Esther West," replied Constance.  "I dare say you have forgotten her by this time," she added, with a slightly scornful ring in her voice.

    The old lady looked up sharply, but her son had turned his back upon her.

    "She is keeping a school, is she not?" he said, and hardly waiting for an answer, quitted the room, and did not return again till the dinner-bell sounded.  Then he gave one arm to Constance and another to his mother, and they proceeded to the dining-room in silence.

    The dinner was rather dull, an unusual thing when Constance formed a third of the company; but in the evening Mrs. Carrington was recompensed.  Constance played and sang.  She had a very sweet, though not very powerful voice.  It was just the kind of singing Mr. Carrington liked.  He sat down by her side, and turned her music for her, not before she had finished the page, but exactly at the last note.  Mrs. Carrington was satisfied.  The young people found plenty to say to each other under cover of the music.  She sat rigidly upright by the fire, nodding every now and then, and recovering herself just sufficiently to say, "Thank ,you, my dear," at the end of a piece, opening and shutting her eyes, not unlike a vigilant cat, and thinking dreamily that it was a pity Constance was so plain.  She had lost her fresh colour, and she was not very tastefully dressed.  She was hardly handsome enough for Benjamin, but then she could talk well, and he liked that.

    Mrs. Carrington would have been very much astonished and not a little scandalised, if she could have overheard the conversation taking place between them.  He had reintroduced the name of Esther, and taxed Constance with failing to give him an opportunity of seeing her.  And Constance had been obliged to confess that she could not overcome her friend's reluctance to meet either him or his mother, "And indeed," she added, "I really thought you had forgotten her."

    "You think I'm a rather contemptible fellow, I see," he said, before its close; and there was no denial from the lips he was watching.  "And I have been as constant in my devotion as a knight of romance," he went on, half in mockery.

    "Then, if you have not forgotten her," said Constance, "it would be better if you could."

    "My mother wishes me to marry."

    "You have no right to marry anyone else," said Constance, firmly, "till you prefer another woman to Esther."

    "I wish I could see her," he muttered, half to himself.  "I don't mind telling you," he added, bending to Constance's ear just as his mother looked up, "that I've haunted her place at all possible and impossible hours, but the fates have been against me."

    "You will see her on the evening of the twenty-fifth," said Constance, finishing the noisy Italian piece she had taken to playing for the last ten minutes, "at Mrs. West's 'at home."'

    Then Constance crossed over to the side of the old lady, and chatted with her till the carriage was announced, putting a stop to any further private conversation.


 
CHAPTER XXXIV.

A BAD BUSINESS.


MRS. WIGGETT'S temper had not improved with time.  She was like a crab-apple—none the sweeter for the sunshine, and she managed sometimes to set her husband's teeth on edge.  Having once found his old love, Martin Potter's wife, he (Mr. Wiggett) would not let her drop again.  Perfectly conscious of his integrity of heart, he visited Mary in her widowhood from time to time, taking with him little presents of fruit and flowers for the children.  If there was anything Timothy coveted, it was his neighbours' children; and he coveted little Mary Potter more than all the rest, and would have taken her to live with him entirely if her mother would have given consent.  But true and faithful as he was to the vixenish little woman he had married, he could not help making comparisons when he saw Mary take all manner of petty troubles—which would have made his home unendurable—so sweetly, that they only showed like ripples on the surface of a river.  The wind might blow and ruffle the water, it never impeded its deep, harmonious flow.

    At first he had given a strict account of his visits; but his information had always been so ill received, and followed by such an increase of crabbedness, that he ceased to mention them.

    But so surely as he ceased to mention them, Sarah Wiggett, sharp as a needle, suspected that he went without letting her know, and made a far greater grievance of the suspicion.  It was not within Timothy's skill to minister to the diseased mind of his wife, and he shrugged his shoulders and went on his way, a good deal less happy than he deserved to be.

    One day in February—it was the twenty-fifth—Timothy went into town, with the intention of seeing Mary Potter before he came back, and of asking his favourite Polly, and perhaps one or two more, to spend a week at Hurst.  The little girl had been with them at Christmas, and, though Sarah had not been cordial, he thought the child's visit had done her good.  Esther had been staying at Redhurst at the same time, and had brought Constance Vaughan about the place; to all of which proceedings Mrs. Wiggett had, no doubt, objected; but Timothy argued that it was necessary to assert his individual freedom sometimes, and that he could hardly assert it in a more harmless way.  He, however, determined to say nothing in the present instance until it was a settled matter that the little girl should come.

    Mrs. Wiggett happened to know that he had not much business to transact, and drew her own conclusions when her husband named a rather late hour for his return, though on this occasion he was not going to start till after their noonday dinner.  No sooner was he fairly off than she ran up to her room and donned out-door attire—a thick veil and a dark, long-unused cloak—and started in his track.  She had to walk to the station, while he was driving; but if she was lucky enough to catch a train, she would arrive at the place of his destination almost as soon as he.

    The little woman was lucky enough to catch a train, and, having walked from Waterloo Station to the nursery and seedsman's place which her husband had indicated, was also lucky enough to see him alight there, and remain in the back premises long enough, Mrs. Wiggett believed, to transact all the business of the world.

    A patient street boy was holding his horse all the tine.  And what was she to do when he came out and remounted, and drove quietly back?  She had never considered what she would do in any case, and she did not determine that.  Only, as she passed up and down, she got more weary, and crosser than ever.

    At last his burly figure could be seen in the doorway, and she only just checked herself from running up to him and exclaiming against the time he had kept her waiting.  He mounted his seat, and drove away.  She hastened after to the turning-point.  It was the wrong way he went, and the fiercest passion she had ever experienced became as smoke compared to that which burst into conflagration at the sight.  She hastened along the crowded street, sometimes on and sometimes off the pavement, keeping the vehicle in sight.  It was no difficult matter, as, owing to the crowded state of the thoroughfare, Timothy was obliged to drive slowly; but near St. James's Palace her pace became a run, causing the passers-by to stop and stare after her.

    The waggonette entered the park, and went bowling under the leafless trees at a rate which soon left her utmost speed behind.  Still, she kept up her pace, and, when she could no longer see it at a distance, held on her way, with the fixed purpose now of tracking him to his haunt.

    After a time, she was astonished to find that the waggonette had stopped—was stopping, drawn up to the side of the carriage-way.  She walked on.  Timothy had dismounted—was talking to someone.  Dare she venture closer?  Yes; she would risk discovery to gratify her curiosity; march boldly up to Timothy, if need be, and tell him she had started off after him to visit Mary.  She walked up, passed quite. close, taking the side to which Timothy's back was tuned, looked keenly into the man's face who was talking to him, heard a few disjointed words, and hid herself behind a tree which stood close beside them.

    The two men talked for some time in low tones, and then she saw her husband remount, and, instead of going forward in the direction of Mary Potter's house, turn back the way he had come.  But Sarah Wiggett no longer followed him.  She followed his companion across the park, and out at its western entrance, making herself quite sure of his identity, and then she returned and sat down on a bench in the piercing cold of the already darkening day.

    As Timothy Wiggett was driving steadily along, he had been astonished by a shout, which rose from the wayside, and by a stranger, evidently desiring to stop his course.  He had stopped accordingly, and no long time sufficed to discover who the stranger was.  They had never known each other, except by sight; but Timothy Wiggett knew that he confronted his wife's former husband, even before the other had declared his name.  He made haste to dismount, very red in the face, and his mouth falling dismally at the corners.  Latterly, he had persuaded himself that he was not bound to believe in the existence of Ned Brown, except on ocular demonstration; and that was at length forthcoming.

    The two men shook hands as a preliminary.  They had no spite against each other, and it was so far well.  Then Ned Brown opened the conversation, and, alluding to the position, shook his head, and said it was a bad business.

    "A shocking bad business," said Timothy.

    Then each asked the other what was to be done, and both were in utter perplexity.

    "You ought to have her by rights," said Timothy.

    "But I don't know that I particularly want her now—now that she's been your wife for years," said Ned; "a she mayn't want me neither."

    Then a thought came into Timothy's mind for which he would have blushed, if he had been capable of blushing; but nature could not achieve a deeper red than already showed in the honest gardener's face.  If Ned would take Sarah back again, he would be free, and there was Mary Potter, a widow, and with a family—the whole ten were not too many for Timothy.  But Mary's sweet, sad eyes came into his mind to reprove him, and looked down the selfish thought.  What he said was, "Suppose we give her her choice?"

    "How?" said Ned Brown.

    "Why, you go and see Sarah, and don't say I know anything.  I'll give you a chance.  Then you ask her whether she'll go with you or stay with me, and it'll be all right, won't it, whichever way it goes?  You've married her and I've married her, and we've both got a right to do the best we can by her—that's all I can see."

    "No I won't.  If you're so willing to stick to your bargain, I'll not come between her and you.  I thought you might be rather glad to be rid on't.  And I came back only to make amends to her.  She's better off with you than ever she was with me, so I'll take myself off as quietly as I can."

    "It's all right, I suppose?" said Timothy.  If he could have explained, he would have said, not in point of legal but of moral right, "I didn't know, and you didn't know, and she didn't know."  The case was evidently too much for him.  It was bewildering his brain, or else a seizure of apoplexy was threatening him, which seemed probable, for he added, "I would like you to let me know if you die first."

    "I'll send you word," said the other, with a grim smile; "but you can think of me as one gone to another world.  I'm off."  And the two men parted company.

    "No," thought Timothy, as he drove away, "she'll never know anything about it.  If I've done wrong, I mean right by her."  He never thought of appropriating the blessing of the merciful, but only of being made to bear the blame alone.

    Ned Brown, looking after him, said to himself, "That's the best fellow in creation, and Sally's been a lucky woman at last."

    And while Timothy, in no mood to pay his intended visit, was driving back to his home, and with kinder thoughts than usual for his wife, because she stood more in need of kindness, she, unhappy woman, cursed by her jealous temper, as well as by the fear of the retribution which awaited her, was wandering distractedly, driven by the terrible resolution to return no more.  She could not believe in mercy, for she was herself unmerciful—in generosity, for she was herself ungenerous; and she could no more have believed her Timothy capable of the resolution he was even then acting out, than she could have been capable of a similar act.  She believed that from henceforth and for ever he would close his heart and his house against her.  With her wonderful acuteness she jumped to the conclusion that he would at once think of Mary Potter.  He had turned back only to dismiss her.

    How she hated that man who had spoilt her life!  She was mad with rage, and hate, and despair; but in the midst of it she felt faint with hunger.  Going out of the park, she wandered into the Westminster district, on the other side.  There she went into a baker's shop and bought a few cakes; then she wandered back again, and sat down on a bench to eat them, which she did greedily.  She had resolved not to live another night—and the night was fast falling.


 
CHAPTER XXXV.

STREET LAMPS.


THE evening of the 25th was closing in when Esther went up to her little room to dress for Mrs. West's "at home."  She had promised to go early, and be with Kate an hour or two before the other guests arrived.  This party was an ordeal from which she shrank almost with pain, for she knew that she would encounter there some who had known her as Esther West, and who had ignored her very existence as Esther Potter.  But Mr. Vaughan, her firm friend and adviser, was to be there, and Constance, who had held to her with more than a sister's affection, and Milly, whose precious baby was to be accommodated for the night upstairs, while its mother joined in the gaieties below; and they had all united in pressing her to come, till it seemed impossible to refuse without a reason more palpable to them than incongruity of circumstances.  There was in her heart, too, a natural desire to revisit a scene, though the scene was only an evening party, which had been familiar to her—to look upon it with other eyes and from another point of view.

    So from among the treasures of her past, most of which had already been adapted to the uses of the present, Esther took a dress of silvery grey silk, and a set of silver ornaments.  She usually wore her hair coiled up in the simplest fashion; its royal lengths, which, when shaken out, fell below her waist in wavy masses, formed a natural crown.  She did not alter it in any way—only bound it with a band of silver filigree, while another of the same encircled her head a little above the brow.  It was a fashion trying enough to most faces and figures, but it suited perfectly with hers.  It gave to view the full play of the regal neck and shoulders, and the classical beauty of the outlines of cheek and chin.  Her dress was simple to severity—not a touch of colour to relieve it; but the silver bands shone on the lofty head, and the lights and shadows played among the folds of the silvery silk in perfect harmony with her quiet but majestic beauty.

    The cab was waiting in the street, but she had to walk up the court and passage that led to it.  However, it was dark enough to shelter her from prying eyes, and cold enough for everybody to be in-doors.  Just where the cab stood a street lamp threw its light upon the pavement, and as Esther stood for a moment beneath it, Philip, carrying his basket of tools, came up on the other side.  Intent on gathering up her skirts, she did not see him; but he had seen her, with the light shining down on her uncovered head, with its glittering silver braids, and glancing on a lovely arm that gleamed white as snow in the darkness.

    And now she had entered the cab, and the door was shut.  She was about to be whirled away to shine in another sphere—a sphere into which he could not enter, could not follow her; and a fountain of bitterness welled up in his heart at the thought, all the more bitter because of the sweetness of his nature, all the more terrible to him because he could not control it—could not at the moment tell from whence it sprang.

    Esther, looking out at the cab window as she drove away, saw and recognised him, and wondered at the sternness of the fixed white face.  She smiled and nodded, but he had not seen her then.  Was he displeased at her for indulging in the gaieties of the world? she asked herself.  And she carried with her a graver air because of the stern look which he had worn.

    But not for her—all the sternness was for himself, for his own jealous heart, for his own broken peace—the peace which was to him the sign and token of a Divine presence.  He had entered upon a terrible eclipse of the spirit.  This fair moon had come between him and the sun had been coming slowly between him and spiritual light and heat, and now all of a sudden it was total darkness.

    He passed up to his solitary room, and went mechanically through his ordinary evening routine.  He lighted the fire, which was already laid, and prepared his evening meal.  Then he sat down, not with unwashed hands, to eat bread, literally bread, and nothing else.  There was no one to say how tired and ill he looked, no kind eyes to rest upon, or to rest upon him and lighten by sharing his trouble, whatever it was.  He drank the tea he had prepared, but the bread he scarcely broke: it seemed to choke him.  Mechanically he put the meal aside, and sat down at the bare deal table, crossing his arms upon it, and laying his head upon them.

    There he sat, motionless, till the sensation of choking made him start up, with the veins swollen on his fair temples, and a dry glare like madness in his eyes.  Any one who had looked in on Philip then might have thought him mad.  He walked up and down like a caged creature.  He smote his temples with his open palms.  He ground his teeth together.  He stretched his arms out to the empty air, as if to embrace something, and then let them fall, as if lifeless by his side.

    But Philip was not mad; only a long-growing, long-repressed passion had burst forth, and obtained the mastery over him, as a long-smouldering fire breaks into flames at last.  His whole nature was in insurrection—that which was highest in him as well as that which was lowest; and there is a higher and a lower in all.  He felt the tearing pangs of jealous passion.  He felt the black despair of rebellion against what he believed to be the will of God concerning him—his condition in life.  His wounded conscience warred with his senses, and these had struck down the defending will.  A keen consciousness of power awoke in him, of the power of intellect which would have set him in the high places of life, if fate had not bound him in the bondage of labour.  A consciousness of power to know and to be known, and also of power to love and to be loved, which all men of passionate energy have more or less, and in virtue of which they conquer, because their power asserts a real claim, which makes itself felt in the woman's heart.  In the midst of his paroxysm there came upon Philip, born of the peculiar tenderness of his nature, a feeling almost of pity—which was yet not self-pity—that this power of loving should run, as it were, to waste—that she whom he loved should never know its sweetness and its depth.

    He never for a moment imagined that Esther would return his love.  He had never sought it in any way whatever, and passion like his has ways of making itself felt far more potent than speech.  He had sat Sabbath after Sabbath within the same walls, the same atmosphere of youthful religious earnestness around them, and engaged in the same tasks; yet he had contented himself with a few indifferent words at meeting and at parting.  He had refused to look upon her face, though it satisfied him as nothing else had ever done.  She was by far the frankest, the kindliest of the two.  But in her sweet, frank kindliness he knew that there was no love, and he had repelled it, conscious of its danger.

    But this earthly love, which he strove to repress and trample on, had come between him and the love divine, "O God, has it come to this!" he groaned; "that I could give up everything for her, Thy love itself!"

    His heart cried out for the commonest earthly lot with her, with the loves of wife and child, rather than the lot he had chosen—the life of sacrifice, the life of Christ.  He wanted happiness, and not perfection.  His great ideal had become a blank, and on each side stood denial and despair.

    At length he could bear it no longer.  He seized his cap and went out, to soothe himself with motion.  The snow had begun to fall.  All the air was in a giddy whirl of falling flakes, which seemed to freeze as they fell.  He stood on the threshold awhile before plunging into the midst of them—stood looking over to the parlour-window of the Potters' house, from whence a bright light was streaming.  A small figure, in a cloak and veil, came up and stood before it.  The figure attracted his attention.  The woman threw up her veil and looked within.  Philip could not see her face with any distinctness, even when she turned it towards him, because of the whirl of the snow-flakes; but she raised her arm wildly, with a gesture of menace which astonished her involuntary onlooker.

    Then, with a sort of animal cry, which she muffled with her cloak, the woman moved away.  Philip had nothing to do but to follow.  He was filled with pity.  Here was a human being as mad and wretched as himself.  At first she seemed bewildered, as if at a loss which way to take, and Philip was on the point of addressing her, when a small boy passed, whistling, along.  Him she stopped, and evidently asked her way.  Then she hurried on in the direction of the river, so fast that Philip could hardly keep pace with her.


 
CHAPTER XXXVI.

AN ACCIDENT.


MEANWHILE, Esther had reached young Mrs West's fashionable mansion in — Street, and had been admitted behind the scenes to witness the by-play in which most of what is really interesting in human life takes place.  Well-dressed people congregate at parties, crowd together at places of amusement, and stream along the streets of the city, but it is not in public places that their real characters come into play, that their real histories are to be learnt; and yet in such places the by-play is going on continually, for such as have eyes to see it.  Every human being in a crowd would be interesting, if one only knew enough about him or her to give significance to the attitude, the expression, the act of the moment.  It is the staple of humanity that is really interesting, not the exceptional growth of it.  The great people, the clever people whom you covet to know, are, perhaps, not a whit more entertaining than your humdrum neighbours, it you were gifted with the power of understanding them.

    All three sisters were in Kate's dressing-room when Esther arrived, and they were all engaged in the duties of the toilette.  "This is like old times," said Milly, as Esther helped her to the completion of hers, for her dress was only a modification of what she had worn at her wedding, which with care and little party-going had lasted until now.  And yet it was very unlike the old times, when the three sisters and Esther, too, had dressed alike and thought alike; or at least when the substance of their thoughts, like the substance of their garments, was of the same texture.  Now both were alike widely different.  Milly was the least changed,  She had blossomed into motherhood, that was all; she still did "looking good" to perfection, especially when she carried Esther upstairs to admire her boy, and took him in her lap, heedless of white silk and laces.

    Kate arrayed herself with greater elaboration in a dress of green and white brocade, which in its stiffness and splendour revived the mode of the youth of our grandmothers; and when the sunny head and Clyté-like shoulders, with just a little too much of the fair skin visible, rose from their sheath of white and green, she looked as handsome a young matron as any in Belgravia.

    Constance, on the other hand, wore a dress of black velvet, up to the throat and down to the wrists, relieved only by collar and cuffs of lace.

    "How nice you look," she said, kissing her sister's neck.

    "I am sorry I can't return the compliment," said Kate; "I don't like that funeral-looking dress of yours; it makes you look as grim as possible."

    "I mean to be grim," said Constance, in her tone of light mockery; "I am the old maid of the family, and I mean to protest against the vanities of you young matrons."

    "How can you talk such nonsense, Connie?" said her sister.  "You are not three-and-twenty, and you speak as if you were twice that age.  Besides, you will be more conspicuous in that black dress than I shall be in this one; and I know somebody who will single you out in the crowd,'' she added, smiling.

    Just then a voice was heard calling out, half way up the stairs, "Are you not ready yet?"  It was Harry, who had got out of patience pacing up and down the drawing-room alone.

    "Go down, some of you, and keep him company," said Kate, looking annoyed, and Constance drew Esther's arm within her own and obeyed.

    Harry wheeled round in the middle of his promenade, and hailed Esther with pleasure.  She was something fresh to look at for the time, and he did look at her, till she could hardly help laughing.

    "You are looking remarkably well," he said.  "I should have thought you would be fagged to death in that horrid school."

    "No, I am not at all fagged, as you call it.  I am sometimes heartily tired; but I like my work, and begin again fresh every morning.  I don't call that fagging."

    "No," said Constance, "certainly not; when you're fagged you begin by being tired."

    "I know I'm tired enough of this sort of thing," said Harry, dolefully.

    "What sort of thing?" said Esther, laughing, apparently not thinking the roseate young gentleman a fit object of condolence.

    "Of party-going and party-giving," he replied.

    "You're a little impatient, I fear," said Constance.  "Your first season has hardly begun; what will you be before it is over?—what before you have gone through another, and yet another of the same?"

    There was a ring of real weariness in her voice as she spoke in her lightest mood, that made Esther look at her, and for the first time observe that she looked sadder than of old.

    "Oh, I couldn't stand it," he cried, "and I won't try.  I've had enough of it already.  It's the same thing over and over again.  Everybody says the same thing to everybody else, and of course they mean nothing.  That's all you get for listening.  And if you talk"—"Which you are pretty certain to do," said Constance, in a parenthesis "nobody listens.  I see them looking past me into all the corners of the room, in search of somebody they want to see, I suppose.  Such people don't interest me a bit."

    "What does interest you?" asked his sister-in-law, with a little covert sarcasm.  "Everything by turns, and nothing long," she added, answering her own question.

    Esther listened to the little sparring match with serious concern.  "You are tired because you have nothing to do, Harry," she said.  "If I were you I would go into one of the professions yet."

    "I think I shall go back to Australia," said Harry, carelessly.  "I have been speaking to Kate about it."

    Constance started.  "Indeed!" she said; "and what does Kate say?"

    "Oh, she won't go with me."

    "Then, of course, you won't go?"

    "Why?  I think I shall.  She can stay at home till I come back."

    "Go without Kate!" said Constance, indignantly.  "Is that all you care for her?"

    The scene was becoming quite painful to Esther, when Kate in all her splendour sailed into the room.

    Constance, in terror, changed the subject abruptly to Milly's baby, saying she had left him sleeping like an angel, if angels ever slept.

    "I wish we had a baby," remarked Harry, discontentedly—a speech at which Kate's face became for a moment almost convulsed, and Constance looked as if she could have bitten her tongue for her innocent but unfortunate speech.

    "What a dreadful misery it is," she took an opportunity of saying to Esther a little later.  "These two have ceased to care for one another; and I don't know—cannot even guess—how it will end."

    At length the company began to arrive, and everybody became smooth and smiling; everybody but Constance, who had not the faculty of clearing her brow and brightening up her face at command, and looked dismal accordingly.  It was a very gay little gathering, consisting of the youth and fashion of the higher middle class, treading close on the heels of the aristocracy in culture and refinement, and sufficiently aware of the fact to be rather shy than otherwise of any stray member of the great families who found his way into their circle, though ready enough to respect a man of rank on any other ground than that of birth.

    Their weak point was certainly their women.  Esther was by far the finest woman in the room.  Kate—her real beauty always rather lost in a crowd, and overpowered by her dress—passed unnoticed among other dresses equally handsome.  Constance was looking harsh and gloomy.  The other girls in the room were either too heavy—as if, to speak plainly, they were overfed—or they were pale and feeble, as if from inertness and want of exercise.

    But Esther looked superb.  All over the room the eye followed the majestic and yet light figure, and rested on the sweet and yet animated face.  She was evidently finding the party very interesting indeed.

    The Carringtons were early, but the dancing had already commenced, and Mr. Carrington had nothing better to do than to watch the unconscious Esther from the back of his mother's chair, where he had stationed himself.  Then, as soon as that fit was over, he went straight up to Constance, and, to his mother's extreme satisfaction, chatted with her most perseveringly.

    "Why don't you speak to Esther?" said Constance, at length; "your mother has been quite cordial to her."

    That perverse young gentleman had been longing for nothing else the whole evening.  But he was one of those people who can never take the happiness within their reach—one of those who will rather have nothing than have only a portion of that which they desire.  There was always some remote conclusion, some delicate reserve in his mind, which hindered him from acting on those around him.

    Constance's words gave him the impulse to act.  He went up to Esther immediately, and before long launched into a serious topic of talk.

    It was something worth seeing, to an acute observer, the intense seriousness with which Benjamin Carrington went through that tête-à-tête.  And it was serious enough matter to him, as such things often are.  He had once more placed himself within reach of an influence powerful as the attraction which keeps the planets in their orbits.  But it was not the seriousness of thought which he felt.  Thoughtful as he was, all thought had forsaken him.  It was the seriousness of feeling.  They kept up the conversation to the last, and when the evening was over he felt almost powerless to quit her side.

    He had contrived to let her know that for him the enjoyment of the evening had but begun, and the knowledge was strangely sweet to her.  It was dangerous, too, and she felt it—felt the gulf which circumstance had placed between them, with a sudden revulsion of feeling which chilled her tone, as she said, "Excuse me; I must go immediately."

    He expressed his regret almost too strongly.

    "I am like Cinderella," she added; "I must fly when the clock strikes twelve.  My mother is sitting up for me."

    "You will take some refreshment first," he said.  The subtle grace and tenderness of his bearing towards her was exerting its influence upon Esther.  Her impulse was to resist it, to fly from it.  And he was pressing to her lips the cup he himself had drank of, which, when once tasted, rouses a thirst which nothing else will quench.

    It was past the time when Esther's cab was ordered, and she was becoming quite anxious for its arrival.  Pair after pair thronged the supper-room, and among them came Harry, with Mrs. Carrington on his arm.  They came up to where father stood, with Mr. Carrington by her side, and when Harry had helped Mrs. Carrington, Esther contrived to whisper to him her anxiety to get home.

    He offered at once to see if her cab had come, which was what she wanted; and, bidding mother and son a sweet but stately good-by, she crossed the hall to the cloakroom, and was ready in a few minutes.  Her cab, however, was not to be heard of for any amount of shouting and calling.  Harry, of course, was making a tremendous fuss about it.  He was assured that, in all probability, it would not make its appearance at all, cabby having been paid his fare, and not being likely to inconvenience himself by concluding the bargain.  A waiter came back, blue-nosed and breathless, to say that there were no cabs to be had.  The streets were dangerous, and they had been led home.  And Esther, in sad perplexity, was standing in the hall, when Mrs. Carrington's carriage having been announced, that lady, leaning on her son's arm, came out and stood beside her, while Mr. Carrington got a furred cloak from the footman and carefully wrapped her up.

    Harry jumped at the solution of his difficulty.  "It's all right," he whispered to Esther; and before she could interfere to prevent him, he had asked the Carringtons to drop her on their way.  There was no getting out of it for any of them.  Mrs. Carrington was too much a woman of the world to do anything that she could not do with ease and grace, and she could not have refused with either.

    "With pleasure," she replied.

    "We shall be most happy," echoed her son; and for himself he replied truthfully.

    It was certainly not much out of their way; but it seemed to Mr. Carrington that they were hardly seated in the soft rolling carriage when they came to a stop.  He could have wished it to go on for ever, while from his dark corner he could see opposite to him, in the light of the carriage lamps, that sweet, earnest face.  He was drinking the charmed cup to its very dregs to-night, and to-morrow there would be the fatal thirst.

    The carriage had come to a stop—not smoothly, as it ought to have done, but with a shock, and a stumbling, and a slipping of horses' feet, and an exclamation from the coachman.  The next minute Mr. Carrington was standing on the snowy pavement.



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