Tales on The Parables (II)

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THE COVETOUS MAN.

――――♦――――


CHAPTER I.


A LONG illness, a lingering death had eaten up everything the Bertrams possessed.  Before Reginald Bertram was buried his family had but five pounds in the world, and four human beings were to be fed and clothed out of that for a quite indefinite time, to say nothing of the landlord, the tax-gatherer, and all the other claimants on a London household.

    So the artist's family had nothing, indeed less than nothing, for the mourning garments which they wore were still unpaid for.  They had nothing but love for each other.  These mourning garments sat on Margaret with a grave majestic grace; but they brought out with startling effect the marvellous beauty of her sisters Alice and May.  Perhaps Mrs. Bertram may be pardoned if she forgot half her grief in looking at them, while the thought lay inarticulate in her foolish heart that the world could hardly use them very badly, so gifted with its most desired, most unattainable gift.

    That they were good to look at, Margaret herself confessed with admiring eyes, for she loved beauty with the passionate artist love.  What slender white throats the black frocks encircled!  What exquisite bloom they set off!  No colours of flower or gem were to be compared to the soft hues of those cheeks, the red glow of those lips, the liquid lustre of those wonderful eyes, expressing of themselves and without the least effort to their owners all that was most brilliant in intellect and tender in love.  Margaret sometimes wondered if they ever looked astonished into their own depths of loveliness.

    Alice, the eldest of "the pretty sisters"—they were called "the pretty sisters" to distinguish them from Margaret, who might have been called the good one—Alice was the tallest and the fairest, a paler rose.  May sparkled more, had more of the gem lustre in her blue eyes, more of the red gold in her hair.  There was more fire in her blood too.  May could quarrel, kiss, and be friends again.  Alice never relaxed from her stateliness, never waived her claims of any kind, never met anybody half-way, and would have taken as her due any amount of homage.  They were very beautiful, yet in repose their faces assumed a look which was not perfectly sweet, a look of discontent.  Their very grief seemed to assume the shape of discontent—a discontent which was overawed by a great solemnity, but ready to burst forth whenever the pressure was withdrawn.

    They had inherited their father's sensuous nature—sensuous, not sensual.  Not a single low pleasure had ever stained Reginald Bertram's soul.  They desired—these daughters of his—as he had done, the seeing of the eye and the hearing of the ear.  They longed for brightness and freshness, and fulness of life—for movement and colour, and dance and song, and pleasant companionship—and they had been condemned to dulness and fadedness, and pinching and scraping; and even worse things were in store for them.  They would have to earn their bread, and what that meant they could guess.  They were as fruit which wants the sunshine, and for lack of it may set men's teeth on edge.  It seemed their natural right, ease and brightness of all kinds—ease for the slower and statelier Alice; brightness for May's quicker and livelier grace.  In smiles May rippled all over—her hair rippled, and her eyes, and her lips as well.  Hers was a laughing loveliness.  Alice only smiled; but neither smiles nor laughter were their lot—only sordid cares and sorrows.

    No servant had been kept in the family since the departure of the maid-of-all-work when her master became seriously ill.  They could not afford a servant; but working at home was one thing, and serving strangers was another; yet something must be done, and done immediately, and done by all, for work as she might—and Mrs. Bertram would not spare herself where her children were concerned—she could not provide for so many.  Happily, though there was "little to earn and many to keep," she did not feel inclined for doing nothing but weeping.

    What therefore was to be done?  The very evening of the funeral-day found Mrs. Bertram taking her family into consultation on the question of ways and means.  She broke down at first, indeed; but necessity was laid upon her—the necessity which seemed so hard, was in reality tender to her.

    "Alice might go out as a governess," suggested May.

    "And be miserable all day in a dingy schoolroom, only to be more miserable out of it," said Alice, but without improving on the suggestion.

    "I don't see that you could do better, Alice," said Mrs. Bertram, soothingly.  "You might get into a good family and be treated as one of themselves.  Your poor dear father always said that it was only the vulgar rich who ill-treated their governesses; well-educated people always made an equal, he said, of a well-educated girl who had charge of their children.  It's better than being a milliner," continued Mrs. Bertram, "and having everybody looking down on you, besides having to work all the hours in hot close rooms.  I know what that is.  I went for a season just to learn to make my own bonnets, you know."

    The alternative of millinery was too shocking.  "I shall certainly not think of that, mamma," said Alice, "so I suppose I must look out for a situation."

    "May will have to help in the house," Mrs. Bertram went on.  "She might get a few hours teaching a day, just to keep her in clothes; and I must take in lodgers."

    "Lodgers!" exclaimed Alice and May, in unfeigned astonishment and disgust.

    "Yes; I would like to know how else I am to live," she replied sharply.  "We must pay house-rent and eat dinners."

    The logic of facts was unanswerable, and Mrs. Bertram went on.  "We can let the drawing-rooms and the best bed-room, or even two bed-rooms.  I can make shift down-stairs.  I shall try and get gentlemen; they are out all day, and then, dears, if any of your friends should call they need never know that the rooms are let."

    "And Margaret?" said May.

    Margaret had sat quivering and blushing.  She loved her mother dearly, but oh, at such a distance from the father she had lost!  She had been silent, and her mother had been silent about her.  Margaret was expected to think and act for herself.

    It had always been thus from her childish days.  So much more was expected of Margaret than of the others.  She had always been ready to give up her most cherished things if "the little ones" wanted them—and these little ones wanted everything they could get.  She had had to struggle hard when it came to parting between her, a tender mamma of six, and her favourite doll-child, in favour of a ruthless tyrant of two, knowing, by sad experience, that in a short space of time her darling would look at her with but one lovely blue eye, while the other rattled ominously within, till the sensitive child could not bear to touch her cherished toy.

    "And what do you think of doing, Margaret?" said her mother.

    "I should like to go on with my work, mamma," said Margaret.  "I should like to try and finish papa's last picture for the exhibition."  Margaret had begun to work at her father's art.  She was very clever at illustrations, but to finish a picture for the exhibition was another thing.  "Papa expected fifty guineas for it," she went on in a hesitating manner.

    "But they won't give you so much," said Mrs. Bertram, discouragingly.

    "Even if it was sold for half of that it would be something," said Margaret, "and it is more than half done; but if—if it is well done"—she had meant to say "equally"—some one may give the same price for it.  Besides, it is really papa's; he sketched it all out, and it is only by his telling me all that he meant to make it that I can carry on the work."

    Mrs. Bertram brightened up the drawing-room and best bed-room in anticipation of a speedy answer to the advertisement, which was hung in a frame suspended at the door of the bookstall in the nearest station, without loss of time.  With new carpets and some fresh chintz and muslin, and much polishing, the rooms had been made to look quite dainty; but as yet no man had hired them.

    At the expiration of a month Mrs. Bertram began to despair; but when Margaret suggested putting a ticket in the window, the idea was rejected with scorn.  To turn the house into a common lodging-house!  Such a thing was not to be thought of.  Margaret, who could see no difference between a house that let lodgings and a lodging-house, held her tongue and went back to her work.

    She had not yet obtained permanent employment, which she soon saw would be the best for her—employment on some periodical was what she sought.  But it was so difficult to get an opening, and she had so much to learn.  She worked on bravely, however, earning a guinea or two here and there, and keeping all her best energies, her brightest moods for the picture.

    At length a lady and gentleman came and looked at the lodgings—looked and were satisfied; at least the gentleman was, for the lady seemed quite indifferent.  At any rate they took the rooms, and almost immediately entered on possession.  They were not young people.  Their respective ages might be forty-two and forty-five, the lady being the elder of the two.  She was a small, a very small, slender woman, with what had once been fine blue eyes; but they were faded, and the expression in them was too keen and vigilant, as if she was given to suspicious watching.  Her features were sharp, and she had a colour in her face which looked as if it had cracked in hardening.  Mr. Grey was a complete contrast to his wife, looking all over soft, sleek, and well-to-do.  There were no cracks on his smooth skin.  His complexion was florid, his teeth white.  He was altogether a good-looking man.  "Still in his prime," people said, "and his wife quite an old woman."

    He had come into the neighbourhood to superintend the building of a fine villa on a piece of freehold land which he had bought.  He was building a wide and spacious and many-roomed mansion for himself and his childless wife, and he wanted to be near enough for a daily visit to it during its erection.  He wanted to see that the men did their work without scamping—a better man than he might have done the same, having been taught suspicion by bitter experience; but this man looked on all other men as brethren in cheating and overreaching.

    He also wanted to look after the laying-out of his spacious garden, at which an experienced gardener was already employed.  He had managed to secure a screen of fine elms for his shrubbery.  He was setting up green-houses and hot-houses, for he intended to grow his own grapes and melons and peaches; and he was planting a rosary, for he meant to revel in flowers, the one taste he had which was not altogether sensual.  In these visits he was never accompanied by his wife.  That he was rather uncomfortable with her was the first observation his new landlady made, and, as away from her he was always pleasant and communicative, Mrs. Bertram's sympathies went with him entirely.

    Mrs. Grey was not a first wife.  Mr. Grey had come up from the country, a black-haired stripling, rather good-looking, and immensely conceited, and bent on making money.  He came up to be assistant to a grocer.

    The grocer was a good, simple, kindly man, a widower, with an only daughter.  The grocer's daughter took a fancy to the young man, and indicated it pretty plainly.  He was steady and well-behaved, and the father did not frown; nay, from the very first he smiled approval.

    The steady, well-behaved young man forgot to say that he had left behind him a young girl, bright and frank and gay, whom he had already promised to make his wife, in token of which they had exchanged prayer-books their last Sunday in each other's company.

    The maiden also had in her possession a heart-shaped gold locket, his parting gift, while she, being poorer than her lover, had placed in the prayer-book a similar shape in white embossed paper.

    The grocer's daughter took a fancy to that identical prayer-book, which had "Gideon Grey," in conjunction with another name, scrawled upon its front board.  She tried to seize it; but he would not give it up, and, strange to say, next Sunday it was missing.

    Gideon went to chapel with the grocer and his daughter.  He had given Miss Semper his arm, and he must have dropped it as they were leaving home.

    What could Miss Semper do but present him with another, ten times as costly, modestly requesting a photograph of himself in exchange, though she could see him every day of her life and every hour of the day, by only peeping through the muslin curtains which screened the door of the back parlour.

    Selina Semper sat in the front drawing-room, above the shop, and sighed for her father's assistant.  What would she have felt if she had seen him stand on the bridge one evening, and deliberately drop the prayer-book she had coveted into the scum of the river, white heart and all?

    Did the girl he had wooed and won, with many a promise and many a kiss, feel the chill that was creeping over her deepen just then?  She was too proud to appeal when his letters grew cold—when they ceased she made no sign.

    So Gideon Grey married the grocer's sickly, sentimental daughter, and the old man blessed them when he died, and thanked God that he left his child and her little fortune in such good hands.

    The unfaithful lover proved a perfectly kind and faithful husband.  He was prosperous, he was good-humoured, and his little wife was happy—only she and her firstborn both died together within a year.

    He mourned in earnest, for the poor girl had loved and flattered him, and given herself to him body and soul, and she died "not knowing" that her money had been the bait that lured him.  And then his child!  Superstitious dread seized upon him as he thought of his faithlessness to his first love, and above all, that deadly sin of his of drowning the prayer-book.  He wondered if it was as bad as burning it.  For his faithlessness he could atone, but how atone for this?  The judgment of heaven had overtaken him.  His prosperity would cease.  His future he dared not think of.  He was not sure that he had not committed the unpardonable sin.  Covetousness, we are told, is idolatry, and idolatry and superstition are akin.

    To his widowed mother he had sent a notice of his marriage and a five-pound note—the first present he had ever sent her.  She had shared in his coldness and neglect, and she had had to tell the girl she loved like a daughter of his final desertion.

    And when little more than a year had passed away, Gideon went back to his village, with a deep band of crape on his hat, and the evidences of prosperity shining upon him in fine broadcloth and thick gold chain; and the poor mother could not help being proud of her son, in spite of his delinquencies.

    She was more than proud when be told her that he had come down on purpose to make it up with Jane, and when he begged her intervention on his behalf.  Jane was asked to tea at his mother's cottage, and a reconciliation was, with some difficulty, effected.

    It was not perfect, that once broken and cemented love.  Both trusted that time might smooth it over, and both repented bitterly that a reconciliation had ever been made.  The husband was afraid of the wife; he knew that she knew him.  He had furnished her with a key which unlocked the secret recesses of his heart, and discovered the falsenesses and meannesses hidden there.

    And the wife distrusted the husband.  Having had such cause to distrust him once, she trusted him even less than he deserved thereafter.  She was often causelessly jealous of him, and she had a fearless tongue, which grew more and more bitter as the days went by.  She had no children, and she made no friends.  She grew harder than he did, more grudging; would neither indulge in fine clothes nor costly food, though they grew richer and richer.  But for all that she had the more generous nature.  It was she who shamed and worried him into supporting his mother, when he would have let her go to the workhouse, or at least pinch on a wretched pittance.

    Jane Grey was a clever woman of business, and helped her husband greatly in the making of money, the task to which they set themselves body and soul.  He sold the little grocery business and entered on a greater.  Then he became wholesale provision merchant besides.  With his surplus capital he lent money to needy tradesmen.  He speculated in house property till he owned whole streets of poor dwellings.  And the tradesmen he helped and the builders he bought of were strangely addicted to bankruptcy, with no assets.  Gideon Grey, however, lost nothing by them.

    With the failure of his wife's health, he had lately given up the shop, and in the wider life he had been living he had acquired other tastes than those which could be gratified in the narrow home of their youth.  It was accordingly left behind.  Jane Grey sneered bitterly, but gave in to every change.  Perhaps she was weary of the strife.  So they changed and changed again, always to their more complete dissatisfaction, till Mr. Grey resolved on his villa, and they came to lodge with Mrs. Bertram.

    While her husband was absent, Mrs. Grey sat long hours in the drawing-room, as still as death; her hands clasped round her knees, or folded in a peculiar fashion over her left breast.

    In the every-day looking room sat the everyday looking woman, idle—for what was there worth doing in the world? loveless—for she had neither love nor sympathy to support her in her pain.  She was suffering sore.  The fierce pangs of jealousy, the ache of loneliness were deadened now by a terrible torture, sharp as the bite of a serpent.  When she came to know what that pain meant she sat down to wait for death, to long for it, sometimes wildly to pray for it.

    Passing that closed door, Mrs. Bertram one day stopped and listened.  She had seen Mr. Grey go out that morning—seen him with her own eyes.  He had given her a cheerful good morrow as he passed, well brushed and well breakfasted; and yet there was some one with Mrs. Grey, and they were quarrelling.  She listened.

    "What is the use of torturing a poor creature like me? oh, what's the use of it?  Let me die, let me die."

    But the words were addressed to no human ear.

    Mrs. Bertram began to tremble, and to think her lodger must be mad.  Mr. Grey was certainly to be pitied to have such a wife—such a dreadful wife.

    Then the voice of reproach sank down into a muttered appeal for pity.  And the next moment when Mrs. Bertram knocked and entered, Mrs. Grey sat there silent and stony, with hard blue eyes and puckered mouth.

    Mrs. Bertram's report made a profound impression upon Margaret, only it was the suffering woman she chose to pity, not the sleek self-indulgent man, and she lost no opportunity of showing her any little kindness.

    Mrs. Bertram, on the other hand, lost no opportunity of picking up a word here and there which might throw light on the characters of her lodgers.  All that she heard tended to confirm her bad opinion of Mrs. Grey.

    "Will you come and see the place?" she heard Mr. Grey ask one day.

    "No, I don't care to see it," replied his wife; "I shall never enter it."

    "Nonsense, Jane! what new craze is this?  But it is just like you.  Whenever I take a pride in anything, you are sure to spoil it for me.  Not enter the house?" and he laughed unpleasantly.  "I say you shall enter it."

    "I shall never enter that, nor leave this alive," she said slowly and clearly.  Then she whispered something, and was silent; and there was silence in the room.

    Next day a physician came and saw Mrs. Grey; but neither she nor her husband said a word concerning his visit

    Whatever was wrong, it smote Mr. Grey with visible compunction.  He was restless.  He came in oftener, though he never stayed long at a time.  He wanted his wife to go abroad in a carriage; one of the girls belonging to the house would go with her.  He sent in fruit and flowers, which lay untouched and untasted, save by himself.  Mrs. Grey would or could accept of no such alleviations, though her husband confessed that it would greatly increase his comfort for her to do so.  He did not cease, however, to take an interest in the building, which went on under his directions as briskly as before.

    After an interval the physician came again.  His prescription was a powerful opiate.  Under its influence she slept by night, and by day sat in her chair, looking numb and strange.

    One day Mr. Grey did not dine at home; did not come home till the late spring twilight was deepening into darkness.  Mrs. Grey had not rung for lights, and he entered the darkish drawing-room while Mrs. Bertram prepared to bring them.

    "Are you there, Jane?" he called out.  There was no answer.

    But his eyes, getting used to the half-darkness, could see her sitting in her accustomed seat.

    Mrs. Bertram came in and lit up the room, and with it the ghastly face of the dead woman!

    Gideon Grey cried aloud, and rushed from the room in uncontrollable fear.  He would not encounter those eyes again for all he possessed in the world.


 
CHAPTER II.


MARGARET had finished her father's picture, and interest had been made for it by her father's friends.  It had been received and hung, and appeared in the catalogue as the work of Reginald Bertram, finished by his daughter.  It sold too, and for the £50 at which it was priced, and Margaret felt more than encouraged.  She planned a picture of her own, but she was wisely working at lower work as well, working and learning too.

    This time she had no subject cut and dry—no materials ready to be worked up—subject and materials had alike to be furnished out of her own heart and brain, and her own slender stock of knowledge and experience.  She was entering the boundless domain of art, in which truth is the only guide.  And that the voice of truth maybe heard, all earthly voices must be silenced.  Injustice, worldliness, above all, bitterness must cease.  The artist must be as the Christian who approaches the chief mystery of his faith—he must be "in perfect charity with all men."

    "Nature interpreted by love is art," and where there is no love there is no art.

    There is a radical difference between work and art, between the artist and the workman, though the workman may have the help of art, and the artist must have the help of work.

    She found it harder work than she had anticipated, for she did listen for the voice of truth.  She could not and would not paint what was not true.  But she was resolute, and sat on day after day, her thoughts sometimes as blank as the paper before her, till at length the images she had conjured up took shape and began to live in the sketch before her.  Day after day she laboured, scarcely allowing herself time for meals.  The summer ripened into autumn, and the shortening days, and morning and evening chills, began to foretell the coming of winter.  She occupied what had been her father's studio, at the top of the house.  Up there, with her task, she led a life so separate that she failed to note the little movements that were going on around her—the preparations for coming change.  The scenes of life will often appear to shift with phantasmagoric suddenness and completeness, when, if we had noted the process by which the change was accomplished, it was slow as the growing of the wheat.

    Margaret did not notice, for instance, that Mr. Grey's footing in the family was becoming more and more friendly—nay, intimate—till one day her mother told her that from being only a lodger and outside the family life, as if were, he was to become a boarder, their daily companion at table and in all their hours of leisure and of rest.

    It was a far more convenient arrangement for her, Mrs. Bertram demonstrated.  Mr. Grey was willing to pay handsomely for the privilege, and she should be able to keep a servant and get rid of the constant drudgery which she underwent, to do her justice, without a murmur.

    Margaret acquiesced, as a matter of course, though she shrank from the idea of sharing with this stranger the sacred home life—doubly sacred since it had been visited by death, which in removing the chiefest link had but drawn the circlet closer.  But she soon became reconciled to Mr. Grey as to any other daily fact.  Indeed, his presence was beneficial in more ways than one.  The family meals were pleasanter, setting aside the material improvement.  They were more carefully prepared and better served.  They sat longer over them, and made them more of a relaxation than they were wont to be.

    Nothing more was said about Alice and May looking out for situations.  They had desisted after a few feeble and ineffectual efforts, and were supposed to give help in the house.  But the help they gave was ridiculously small.  They spent their time in plaiting and adorning, or disfiguring, their wonderfully beautiful hair, in dressing, and dawdling out of doors, and sitting down to play, by way of keeping up their practice.  The piano being in the drawing-room, Mr. Grey generally had the benefit of their company and the music.  He had stipulated for it in the terms he paid.

    The sisters seemed to find these occupations quite sufficient for them.  They were apparently satisfied, and the greatest possible friendship prevailed between them.  Each admired the other immensely, and that without hypocrisy or envy.  They slept together, waked together, dressed together, walked together.  Mr. Grey said any one who wanted to court one of them must court both.  He was very kind to them, but he courted neither.

    At length his grand villa was finished, and Mr. Grey took the ladies to see it—that is, he took Mrs. Bertram, Alice, and May.  He had asked Miss Bertram also, but was told that she was too busy to come.

    May ran from room to room, exclaiming with admiration, while Alice trailed her long black garments after her sister.  They went over the handsome house and really beautiful garden, praising everything, till the heart of their owner was well-nigh content—well-nigh.  There was one thing more he coveted—a fitting mistress for the house he had raised, in whom beauty, goodness, and all good gifts should culminate.

    "I worked very hard," he said, complacently, "and I've made enough, and more than enough, to last my time.  Now I mean to take my ease."

    "Eat, drink, and be merry," cried thoughtless May.

    "Just so," he answered, and no one thought of the gloomy connection in which the words occurred.

    At dinner that day they discussed the villa, and the furniture with which it was to be fitted, and planned an immediate visit to the upholsterer's.

    "You were too busy to go with us to-day," said Mr. Grey to Margaret, "but perhaps you will give me the pleasure of your company some time soon."

    "Yes; he was very kind.  She would go some day."

    The day did not seem to come, but Mr. Grey did not despair.  For some time he had been putting the three sisters to valuation in his covetous mind, and at last he had fixed on Margaret, discovering, what did credit to his taste, that she was even the most beautiful of the three.  She was the tallest and most womanly, thus he appraised her; the most suitable in person and age (he might have been her father); her temper was uncommonly sweet; she was, indeed, yielding to a fault.  Mr. Grey was a shrewd observer, and he had found out that Alice might sulk, and May would certainly scold.  Margaret would do neither.  "How industrious she is, too, over that painting work of hers," he thought.  "She must make money by it."  Mr. Grey could calculate, and knew to a fraction how far he was contributing to the household expenses; although so long as the household existed pretty much for him, and for him alone, he did not mind the cost.  "People did make money at that sort of thing, he supposed," still valuing Margaret and her work, "though what was the use of so many pictures he could not imagine."

    Mr. Grey's villa was at length ready for occupancy, and that gentleman announced his intention of entering it forthwith.  "It's furnished from garret to cellar, and only wants a mistress," he said to Mrs. Bertram, quite jocosely.

    The lady's heart beat quickly.  There are some things which cannot be known.  What Mrs. Bertram hoped for was one of these.

    "I have been thinking of one of your pretty daughters," he went on.  "Margaret would just suit me.  Do you think she would object to a widower?"

    Mrs. Bertram gave a sigh of relief.  Margaret was her least favoured daughter.

    "Would Mrs. Bertram say a good word for him?  There is no hurry, you know," he added, thoughtfully.  "I should like her to see the place first.  She could make herself comfortable there, I should think, and I wouldn't object to her sisters and yourself coming to stay with her now and then."

    Before the man had done speaking Mrs. Bertram hated him—not with the indignant hate of the generous against the mean, but with the deeper hate of the selfish for the selfish.  She kept her own counsel, however, and his too; but she said no word to Margaret.  Things went on as before, and Mr. Grey at length departed and took up his abode at Boundary Lodge, his villa and its gardens skirting the untouched fields.

    He gave a party on entering his new house, at which all the Bertrams were present, Mrs. Bertram doing the honours of the feast.  There were no other ladies among the guests.  These were chiefly men of middle age, remarkable for girth and capacity of stomach.  The only young man among them was remarkable too.  He was a giant in stature and in strength.  No one could deny that there was majesty in the huge muscular form, and even in the rough-hewn massive face; but the former was already wanting in grace, and the latter in graciousness.  Brute was plainly written upon both.

    He was a contractor, this Mr. Tilley, and the son of a contractor, and was fabulously wealthy.  He seemed quite smitten with Alice's stately charms, and kept asking her to play and sing to him all the evening, as if no one else had been there.

    The party passed off better than might have been expected, the unusual beauty of the women having its effect on these rough men.  Curiously enough, Margaret was the favourite with most.  Though far the least showy of the three, there was that in her shining eyes which made them fear her least, though she would know them best—that seemed to look at them from a larger sphere—a sphere in which mercy dwelt supreme.  Their verdict confirmed Mr. Grey in his already overwhelming desire to possess her for his own.

    He therefore constituted himself an almost daily visitor at the Bertrams'.  With his departure, the supplies necessary to carry on the domestic expenditure had ceased, and Gideon Grey knew it and bided his time.

    Again the advertisement was hung out at the station, and again weeks passed away and nothing came of it.  The servant was once more dispensed with, and Alice and May pressed into the household service.

    All this time Margaret was working her hardest, not daring to think how much depended on her exertions.  The thought of it paralysed her, seemed to bind her imagination and stiffen her hand, as the frost binds the river and arrests its flow.

    Neither Alice nor May seemed to make the least exertion to obtain employment.  Their mother did not urge it, and neither did Margaret.  Delicacy kept her silent on the point.  The food they ate, the clothes they wore were to be paid out of her earnings, and it might have seemed like a grudge if she had hinted that they ought not to depend upon her success—a success for which she trembled.  Self-confidence was certainly not one of Margaret's virtues.

    Christmas came, and instead of good cheer it brought actual want to the Bertrams.  The tradesmen of the district desiderated short accounts, and when payment was not forthcoming cut off the supplies.  Butcher, baker, and grocer struck, and called only for their bills.  The rent was in arrears, but the landlord was patient.  In the worst event he was safe: he could seize the furniture.  The greatest misery was, that just at the crisis in the cold frosty weather, fuel had failed, and was not to be had on trust at all.  The last shovelful was burning in the kitchen grate.  Anywhere else in the house there was no fire at all.

    Alice was out, Mrs. Bertram too, an unusual thing for her.  May sat alone by the kitchen fire.  "Margaret must be perishing with cold up there," she thought suddenly, and started off up-stairs to the attic studio, where her sister worked.


"Her hands were clasped idly in her lap,
and her cheek was pale as the snow."


    May burst in, bright and breathless, but she gave a cry of alarm as she did so, for Margaret looked like death itself.  Her hands were clasped idly in her lap, and her cheek was pale as the snow.

    "What is it, dear?" cried May, flinging her arms about her.  "Are you ill?  You shall not stay up here."

    At length Margaret found voice enough to say that the cold had made her feel faint.  May dragged her down-stairs to the fire, at which they sat on one chair, with their arms round each other's waists, and May began to cry.  Margaret thawed too.  "Oh, May," she said, "I feel as though I had lost all power to paint.  I have tried and tried again to-day, and when I look at what I have done, it is worthless.  What will become of us if I fail?"

    "It's the cold," said May, consolingly; "it benumbs one, body and soul."

    "Yes, but all that I have done seems so poor and feeble and colourless," said Margaret.  "I wish I could get enough of the poorest, commonest work to do, but I can't."

    "I suppose it really is hard work, though it looks so easy," said May.  "It's a shame of Alice and me to be so idle.  I'm determined to go and do my share," she added resolutely.

    When Mrs. Bertram returned, she had managed to stave off the financial crisis.  The coals came in, the butcher and baker called as before; there was a bit of roast beef and plum pudding for Christmas day, and a fire burnt brightly in the little stove of the studio.  Margaret did not know that the money which did all this was borrowed on the strength of her labours, and borrowed from Gideon Grey.  Poor foolish Mrs. Bertram!  If Margaret succeeded, she intended to cheat Mr. Grey—to pay him his money and keep her money-making Margaret.

    May kept her word.  She looked out for a situation and found one, not by much seeking, but by taking the first that offered, which was certainly not of the ideal sort which her mother had pictured.

    Margaret had found work off and on, work which paid sufficiently just to keep their heads above water.  The domestic economy had been like to come to a stand more than once; but it had always moved on again without secret intervention.  Margaret's picture, her great stroke, was finished.  With swaying hopes and fears, she sent it off, the little bark on which so much depended—no less than the future of herself and all who were dear to her.

    But Mr. Grey was becoming impatient.  On the occasion when Mrs. Bertram had applied to him, he had said, alluding to Margaret, "If she has no objection to me, as you say—and I think," he added, viewing himself in a mirror, "that she has none—had I not better speak to her at once?"

    And Mrs. Bertram had assured him it was useless.  She was too much bound up in her work to listen to him at present, but she was sure that Margaret preferred no one to him, Mr. Grey.

    A week, a fortnight passed by.  Margaret started now with every knock.  Each post might bring her the secretary's note containing the sentence of her picture.  She could not settle herself to work, as she had no order to execute.  She wandered up and down, restless, and chiding her own impatience.

    At last it came, the longed-for letter.  Her picture was rejected.

    She had wasted her time and her labours; she was of the impressionable temperament, and sensitive and humble spirit, which is so easily discouraged, and she thought so.  The repulse destroyed all her energy, all her little stock of self-confidence.

    Her mother, too, began to speak discouragingly.

    "I don't believe anything will ever come of that work of yours.  It's all nonsense, and I have been a fool to trust to it."

    "I will take a situation as May has done," replied Margaret, humbly.

    That was hardly what Mrs. Bertram desired.  "You needn't do that," she answered.  "You may have a handsome house of your own whenever you please, and help us all into the bargain."

    Margaret looked her astonishment, and did not speak.

    "Haven't you seen through Mr. Grey's attentions?" said her mother.

    "Mr. Grey?" repeated Margaret.

    "Yes, Mr. Grey," replied her mother with some asperity.  "I am sure he has been attentive enough."

    "Not more to me than to the rest of the family," said Margaret.  "Indeed, mamma, I have never in the least appropriated his kindness.  I thought it was meant for you."

    The words were spoken in perfect good faith, but they vexed and angered Margaret's mother, and she was cruel in her vexation and anger.  "But for Mr. Grey we should have starved," she went on inconsequently.

    Another speechless question from Margaret.  "I had to borrow from him at Christmas."

    "And you have not paid him?"

    A speechless answer this time, and Margaret turned white and then red with shame and vexation.  "You never told me this," she said, "but only that you had got the tradespeople to go on supplying us."

    "They would not go on without money," said her mother, "and where was I to get it?"

    "Oh, mamma, let us give up the house and sell everything to pay this man," cried Margaret.

    "And what is to become of me?" asked her mother.  "The house is my only hope of getting a living.  If we give up the house, we must go into a worse, and we can't pay the rent of that any more than we can pay the rent of this."

    "What would you have me to do?" asked Margaret, wearily.

    "The best thing you could do for yourself and all of us would be to marry Mr. Grey," replied her mother.

    "He has never asked me, mamma," said Margaret, only half believing.

    "He is waiting an opportunity," said Mrs. Bertram.

    "Are you sure of this, mamma?" asked Margaret.

    "I have his word for it," replied Mrs. Bertram.  "And if you'll marry him, he won't press us for the money, and he said we should always have a home with you."

    Then it had all been discussed between them.  Her own mother had forsaken her.  "Oh, mamma, I cannot, I cannot!" she cried, sick with dismay.

    "Very well," said Mrs. Bertram, drearily.  "I dare say we shall be sold up, and have to leave our home and go down in the world, for I'm sure you'll never do anything at that painting of yours.  What's to become of us I can't think;" and she turned her back upon Margaret, leaving her to solve the problem.

    The horizon of the girl's life had closed in as with a thick fog.  The last vestige of faith in herself or hope for the future seemed to have left her.  She imagined she saw her mother and her lovely sisters turned out into the streets.  She imagined them sinking lower and lower, and she asked herself what they would do in the end?  What did people do when they were driven from their last refuge—when they had eaten their last meal?

    That very evening Mr. Grey came in to tea.  Mrs. Bertram received him with smiles.  A close observer would have said she overdid her welcome.  Margaret was still and pale.  She hardly looked at him.  Alice it was who entertained him.  She was flattering—almost caressing.  "Poor Alice!" thought her sister, "is she so unhappy in our poverty that this man's wealth tempts her?  I would rather be the victim than let her."

    Happily Mr. Grey was undemonstrative; but when he was going away he spoke of a beautiful bouquet which he had brought with him as "gathered specially for Miss Bertram."

    "Coward that I was, not to tell him that I could not accept it," she said to herself, as soon as he was gone, "for I would rather die than marry him."

    She made a last effort to obtain employment in her art, and failed.  Her style was too severe to be telling.  It had no vulgarities to catch the vulgar.  She acknowledged her defeat.

    Alice fell ill, too, and Mrs. Bertram, in alarm, sent for the doctor, whose bill had never been paid, but who came with alacrity for all that.  He reassured them so far by saying that there was no real disease as yet, but that she ought to have change and a liberal diet—without the latter especially she might develop a consumptive tendency.

    All through this time of trouble Alice had shown more of patience than Margaret could have believed possible—a patience in her illness which was touching in the extreme, seeing that the illness might have been so easily removed.  So easily removed; and yet Margaret could not change plain bread and weak tea into beefsteak and chicken broth, any more than she could work another miracle.

    Then Mr. Grey came and asked the sisters to go to Brighton for a day.  Alice longed to go, and as she could not go unless Margaret went also, the latter consented.  Before their return she had also consented to be the third wife of Gideon Grey.

    After that consent was given Margaret went about the house more dead than alive.  Alice congratulated her with evident sincerity, and only wished it had been her fate to be the widower's choice.  But when May came home and heard the news, she ran up to Margaret and kissed her, and, looking in her face, cried, "Don't, dear, don't.  Mother!  Alice!  She must not marry Mr. Grey.  See, here is my magnificent two pounds ten.  We can each of us earn as much as that surely."

    "And where are your clothes to come from? asked her mother, always alive to the little affairs of life

    "Oh, yes; I must have the odd ten shillings for boots.  I have worn out a pair this quarter, walking with the children.  Master Harry has cut a slit in my best merino, too, but it is under the flounce, so it doesn't matter,"  May ran on.  "Have you found anything to suit you yet, Alice?" she concluded.

    Alice answered, "No."

    "You are unlucky," returned May.

    "I don't think you have been so very fortunate," said Alice.

    "It's better than starving outright," said her sister, "or than marrying Mr. Grey."

    "Hold your tongue, May," said her mother, imperatively.

    "Mamma," said the girl, earnestly, when Margaret had left the room, "Madge looks shocking; don't let her marry this man."

    "Nonsense," said her mother; "Alice has been quite as bad; it's the heat!"


 
CHAPTER III.


THE day of Margaret's marriage dawned at last, and the bitterness, not of death, but of life seemed past to her.  Yes, life was bitter; but she knew the worst of it.  So she thought.  She knew nothing at all about it.  Life came to her veiled, as it comes to most of us.  Not till the supreme moment of agony or bliss is the veil wholly lifted.  Death is not death till the eye has ceased its seeing, and the ear its hearing, to give place to we know not what of wondrous soul-sense.

    Margaret Bertram knew nothing of Gideon Grey's antecedents and character, as we know them.  If she had, even at the altar she might have broken her bond and set herself free.  Above all she did not know, did not conceive or attempt to conceive the relation she was about to enter into—its closeness, its sacredness, the awfulness of its profanation, the misery of its misery, lasting as it lasts till death to one or other.

    But her mother, had she no conception of what she was doing?  Cruel, selfish worldling that she was, do not let us be too hard on her.  She knew only how such a fate as she had prepared for her daughter would affect herself, not how it would affect that other.  She knew not that that other soul would scale the heights of agony and look over into the gulph of madness, where she would make herself comfortable —just as the cow in its meadow, the pig in its sty.

    Margaret took no part in the simple preparations for her wedding.  Alice and her mother did everything.  Gideon Grey made his penniless bride a present of her wedding-dress of white satin, and of a whole set of heavy gold ornaments.  The bracelets were in the appropriate shape of a pair of shackles.  Their cold touch on her feverish flesh, as she had them put on that morning, made her shudder.  Her sisters were the bridesmaids, and decked her out—put on the cold bright satin and the heavy gold, and threw over her a cloud of transparent net, and fastened the orange-flowers in her hair.  The party were to go to church, and from church to Boundary Villa, for the wedding breakfast, where the bride and bridegroom were to be left in possession of their home.  A little later the pair were to go to the seaside, taking Alice with them.

    There was nothing remarkable about the party which drove to church that morning in two plain broughams with the orthodox white horses.  The little crowd collected round the gate to see them alight saw nothing to object to —everything to admire.  First there had entered the stout, well-looking bridegroom and groomsman.  They could not tell which was which.  Now came the ladylike bride's mother, in her lilac silk, and one fair bridesmaid, her golden hair shining under a white cloud fastened with a bunch of blue forget-me-nots, to match her eyes, they said.  Then another of the same, and then the bride, with her pale face and her shimmering satin and gleaming gold, her cold white flowers and her misty veil.  It was all exactly as it should be, down to the great white bouquet which matched the bride's face.  The people who had gathered in the church saw nothing amiss.  The bridegroom was neither wrinkled nor grey, but a middle-aged man, of fine complexion.  The bride was not in hysterics, the bridesmaids were not weeping.  There were no tears among the wedding party; it was the only thing the gazers missed.  Only once there was a smothered sob.  It came from May, and was unheard except by one.  It was when the bride gave up, when told to do so, the flowers she had held tightly, as if they were a support, and her hand, cold and trembling, touched her sister's for a moment.

    There were no tears, as has been said, among the party, but on one sweet face there was a compassion deeper than tears.  Another pair had come to the wedding, friends of Mr. Grey's.  The gentleman who was to give away the bride was chairman of a board of guardians, director of a great company, vestryman, what not; the lady was the gentleman's wife—that and nothing more.  The gentleman was of quite awful ponderosity.  He shook with the weight of his own superfluous flesh, and the earth trembled beneath him when he moved.  His mind, ponderous as his body, was slow as a tortoise in its movements; therefore everybody trusted in his judgment, and he had won in the race of life.  The lady was the smallest of women, delicately formed and delicately featured, with a faint colour on her dear old face, and a hallowed light in her sweet old eyes.  Her perfectly silver hair rested on brow and cheek in almost childish ringlets; but there was nothing childish about her.  There was the power of intellect as well as the sanctification of sorrow in every line which time had written there.

    Yet that huge flesh-heap by her side had held her all her life as an inferior being.  He belonged to the true Asiatic school, and barely allowed that a woman had a soul.  Save in relation to man, her master, she was nothing.  She lived but for his use and his pleasure, and to contribute to these was her highest honour.  She had not rebelled against his creed.  She had accepted it and been in his house as a child, as a servant; but she had feelings he would have failed to fathom, thoughts that were far beyond his reach.

    He knew her not; but, there was the sorrow of it, she knew him, and though she might obey she could not force her heart to love or her soul to honour him.

    But how did two beings so incongruous come together?  That is the wonder.  They had married young, and had grown to be what they were.  From a handsome but rather dull and conceited young man, he had grown to be a pompous, coarse, unfeeling old one.  From a pretty, simple, humble-minded girl, she had grown to be what she was—whole a saint, half an angel.

    She had been a lady's-maid; but no lady ever possessed more of all the qualities which go to make up perfect ladyhood than she.  Her courtesy was of nature as well as of habit; her complete self-command sprang from gentleness and not from pride.  God alone knew the sweetness of the heart which, at its bitterest, had never rebelled.  She had been the mother of many children, and yet was childless.  Each of her dead little ones had left its love behind, as a treasury from which she drew an exhaustless tenderness for the children of other mothers.  She saw Margaret on that day for the first time, but she started and thrilled with emotion as she looked on her.  She started, for she knew Gideon Grey; had known him all his life; and she marvelled how this girl, on whose face nature had stamped nobility, had come to link her fate with his.  She trembled for her and took refuge in prayer, perhaps the one soul under that sacred roof which ascended to the throne of God.

    Mrs. Martyn and her husband had come in their own brougham, and in it they followed the others to the wedding feast.  The order was (as usual) slightly changed.  Mr. Grey carried off his bride.  Mr. Tilley, who was the groomsman, claimed Alice, as May stuck to her mother, and thus they filled up the carriages.

    Alice had to drop her eyelids over her lovely eyes, from the too ardent gaze of Mr. Tilley, but she manifested no displeasure, nor drew back when he bent over her more closely than was at all necessary even to make himself heard, as they rattled over the road.  May broke down and cried, and was seriously rated by her mother for making her eyes red and swollen.  Mr. Grey thought his wife was going to faint, and drew down the windows, but never a word he spoke.  He was glad when the carriage stopped, which it did in less than ten minutes.

    He had never been quite at his ease with Margaret since the day on which she had promised to be his wife.  She had told him then that she did not love him; but he who had slain his first love and lived a lifetime with the corpse of it, had come to have no faith in love at all, to disbelieve in it utterly, as indeed he did in all the higher emotions.  They had no existence for him any more than colour has for the blind.  He told her he did not expect her to love him, and that she would soon cease to believe in that romancing nonsense, and make him a good wife.

    He complained a little to Mrs. Bertram of her coldness and impassibility, but that lady took care that they should be together and alone as seldom as possible.  As for her coldness, it was maidenly reserve, the gravity of a new position and of parting with her sisters and her home.

    She looked a very statue as she sat, crowned and veiled, at the breakfast-table; but then Mr. Grey even, still less his friends, did not know her; did not know how blythe and gleeful she could be, how her speech could flow clear as a river, and her smiles flash like the sunshine on its breast.

    Still Mr. Grey had an undefined sense of discomfort, which imparted none, however, to his guests, save to gentle Mrs. Martyn.

    She felt it, and exerted herself to remove it by keeping up a quiet little stream of talk.

    When the breakfast was over they went out into the garden, which was glowing in its summer splendour.  Mrs. Martyn claimed Margaret's arm, saying playfully that her husband would have enough of her by-and-by.  Alice went off with Mr. Tilley, and the others remained in a knot behind.

    Mr. Grey had secured a noble garden, and had walled it round and round.  The young fruit-trees were green, on the rich red background; the broad gravel walks were banked on each side with flowers after the formal pattern in vogue, but the beds crossing each other in diamond-shaped lines, the effect was not unpleasant.  At the bottom ran a screen of lofty elms, and advantage had been taken of the ground to form a terrace, from which a flight of stone steps descended to a grassy hollow at their feet.

    Down these steps went Alice and Mr. Tilley.  Mrs. Martyn advancing with Margaret lost sight of them for a time.  When they caught a glimpse of them once more, they stole a look into each other's faces.

    Then Mrs. Martyn smiled, and turning to Margaret drew her back a little.  "It's what must happen, I suppose," she said; "you have married, and so will your pretty sisters."

    Something like a moan escaped from the lips of the bride.  Mrs. Martyn looked up in her fixed young face with tender pity.  "He hath appointed us bounds that we cannot pass," the dear old voice murmured on, "only upward to Himself.  When we have but the bare earth for a bed, and the stone for a pillow, He lets down his ladders of angels, and we can make it a house of God."

    Margaret's eyes had rested on her face while she was speaking.  Then she lifted the thin agèd hand from her arm and pressed her lips upon it.  A big tear fell upon the great rose-diamond which Mr. Martyn had placed on his wife's finger in token of his wealth.

    Soon after the few guests departed, and Mr. and Mrs. Grey were left alone.

    Mr. Grey came in rubbing his hands and evidently intending to make himself at home; but there came over him that feeling of inexpressible discomfort which he had experienced in the morning, and after moving about the room in an aimless way and trying to get rid of it in vain, he went out to see the gardener about some plants, telling Margaret that she might like to change her dress now that she was at home.

    He rang the bell, and pompously told the girl who answered it to see her mistress to her room, and give her what assistance she required.

    Nothing loth, for waiting on a bride was interesting work, the girl showed her young mistress up-stairs into a handsome dressing-room, and assisted her to take off her bridal array.  Margaret thanked and dismissed her, saying she would finish dressing by herself, and the girl hastened down-stairs to convey her impressions to her companion the cook.  These were entirely favourable.  "But she do look sorrowful," she added; "for all the world as though she had been crossed in love, 'stead o' being married and 'appy."

    "There's nothink 'ud please some folks," said the cook, who was older than the housemaid, and more inclined to a nil admirari view of human nature in general and mistresses in particular.

    At home!  Margaret stood before the open wardrobe, and the words went echoing through her heart and brain like footsteps in an empty house.  Mechanically she took the dress she had worn the day before, which had been hung up there with the others of her still scanty stock by her sister.  She had put it on, when, glancing at the full-length mirror, she saw herself clad in black.  "I have no right now even to this mourning," she said to herself, and quietly undressed again.

    She chose the brightest she had, telling herself that it was her duty to look bright, that her grief was an insult to the man she had married.  So she put on a pale silvery grey silk, the only one she had, if the truth is to be told; fixed a knot of cherry-coloured ribbon in her hair, and came down again to the drawing-room.

    There she sat alone and in perfect silence.  Margaret noticed that she had never before been in a room so utterly still.  The very time-piece on the mantel-shelf noted the minutes with noiseless motion.  Every object about her was new and strange.  The room was bare as it had come from the hands of the upholsterer.  There were no pictures on the walls; no books—yes, there was one upon the table; no little objects of use or interest, or ornament, such as accumulate in every house, and indicate anything generally but the taste of the owner, and yet indicate so much else.

    She took up the book.  It was on botany, and was filled with magnificent coloured plates.  She spent an hour over it.  Mr. Grey came in again, and they adjourned to the dining-room and had "tea and eating," as ordered by the master of the house.  Margaret poured the tea, Mr. Grey drank it and made a hearty meal with it.  They were a little more at home with each other then, for a meal makes very few words go a long way.

    After tea, Mr. Grey asked for a little music, and they returned to the drawing-room together.  Margaret sat down and opened the yet unused piano, but there was no music.

    "It was a deficiency," he said, "which she could remedy on the morrow; meantime could she play from memory?"

    "A little," she replied, and began to play what she remembered of the beautiful Songs without Words.

    "Could she sing?"

    "Not much; a little sacred music."

    Mr. Grey would like to hear it, whatever it was, and Margaret's voice rose obedient to the request, in solo after solo of Handel's.  She went on till it was growing almost dark, and Mr. Grey rang for light.  The housemaid came and lighted the gas, and then stopped outside to listen.  Mr. Grey had begged Margaret to go on, and she had complied.  "O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart's desire," rang out plaintive, as if the melody had been born of ten thousand sighs.  Margaret had played herself into harmony with the words and the music, which she had often sung, but never with all their meaning until now.

    Mr. Grey was delighted.  He praised her playing, he praised her singing; both were true and sweet, but nothing more.

    "They are not much; but I am glad they please you," she replied.

    Emboldened by her speech—the first free utterance she had made—he drew near her.  He bade her cease playing and come and sit beside him.

    It almost seemed as if it was about to go well with this strange loveless union.  Gideon Grey began to feel at ease and to enter into confidential relations with his new wife.  He told her of his riches, he vaunted his successes, won by fraud and over-reaching.  Unconscious of the disgust he was exciting, he boasted of things that seemed to Margaret little short of villanies.  "I hardly know what to do with my money," he said, "but I have more than will serve my time, so I have made up my mind to take my ease—eat, drink, and be merry."  He probably did not know that he was quoting Scripture; he certainly did not know the terrible context in which the words he had uttered stood.  But Margaret did, and a thrill of horror ran through her.  He was about to put his arm round her, but she started up and recoiled from him step by step.

    "What do you mean?" he said angrily, reading but too plainly the aversion written on her face.

    Her movement of recoil had been instinctive.  As suddenly she came to a stand, and her hands dropped by her side; but she burst into tears.

    "Come, no more of that nonsense," he said, assuming an authoritative tone.  "What do you think I married you for?"

    "Forgive me," she cried, "forgive me.  I ought never to have married you."  In the midst of her own anguish she felt the keenest compunction for the pain she must inflict upon him.

    "Forgive you," he sneered, all the meanness and cold cruelty of his nature breaking forth.  "What am I to understand by that, except that you are unworthy to come into an honest man's house?"

    Margaret looked uncomprehending, but she leant against the wall while her companion lashed himself into fury before her.  He told her that she had been sold to him for so much money, and that he had been cheated; that he had a mind to turn her out into the streets, and a great deal more, which shall not be recorded here.

    She was leaning against the wall and panting like a creature in terror of its mortal foe; but his language roused her to assert her own purity and dignity.

    "I have done no wrong," she said, "save that of marrying you, and I shall go from your house at once."

    She advanced a step towards him as she spoke.  Her looks and manner overawed him.  There was sorrow inexpressible on her face, but neither rage nor shame.  He could not comprehend her.  He coveted her still—coveted her above every earthly possession.  She looked purity itself; but why this horror, this terrible anguish, if she had done nothing wrong—wrong, too, which she expected to be found out?  What wrong could there be in marrying him, even if she did not like him?  Was it not a lawful marriage—according to law; and religious—being celebrated in the church?  The moral sense of this man was gone.  It responded no more to appeal than the dead to mortal touch.  He could quail at the breaking of a law—human or divine—which carried visible, or threatened invisible, penalties—at murder, adultery, theft—but he had kept clear of such offences; of the blood guiltiness, the impurity, the dishonesty of the spirit, he took no account whatever.

    What motive had she for acting thus?  He paused, and then said, "You shall not go.  You shall stay and conduct yourself properly.  I won't be made a fool of in my own house and before my own servants.  You shall stay," and so saying, he left her once more alone.

    Where he left her, in the corner of the room, Margaret sat down, suffering in mute amazement.  The only man she had ever intimately known—her father—had been to her, his daughter, full of tender respect, and to all women he had extended a portion of the same.  He had been chivalrous in his bearing towards them.  The one thing he would not suffer Mrs. Bertram to indulge in was animadversions on the shortcomings of the sex, either small or great.  Margaret was therefore more ignorant than most girls of her age of the evil that is in the world.  What a revelation was the character of the man she had married?  To her excited imagination he seemed scarcely human.  She seemed given over to a fiend in mortal shape.  Then there rushed over her the bitter conviction that she had brought all this upon herself; that she was the author of her own degradation.  Why had she not firmly opposed the marriage, instead of entering into it as she had done?  She had thought herself under the pressure of necessity.  She could not see that necessity now.  She could hardly find a motive for her sacrifice.  And had he not told her that it would be vain, that he would not give a penny to help the family who had united to deceive him, that he would even contrive that they should suffer for it?

    The horror of her position became every moment more unbearable.  She rose as if to fly, and heard just then the sounds of bolt and bar; the master of the house was locking up for the night.



CHAPTER IV.


MR. GREY had not forbidden his wife's mother and sisters to come to his house—that would have created a scandal, and a scandal Mr. Grey held in greater abhorrence than a sin.  But Margaret was ordered never to receive them except in the presence of her lord and master, and never to exercise towards them the smallest hospitality.  They might have come to her hungry, and she could not have offered them a meal.  She wondered if they were in want.  The pallor of Alice's face had grown so fixed and deadly, and her mother was looking so worn and old.  Margaret knew that hunger does not always bide with rags, but may lurk beneath a neat gown and a pretty tucker.  The credit system of the country is not yet quite perfect, so that even the most respectable-looking people must sometimes want things which they have not money to pay for.

    Mr. Grey had gone to Mrs. Bertram and upbraided her in no measured terms, for misleading him as to the state of her daughter's affections.  "But it shall not profit you," he had said, white with rage, "and if you aid and abet her in anything contrary to my wishes, it will be all the worse for you."

    His rage was indeed becoming demoniacal.  It tortured him with a perpetual torture.  Margaret had wounded his vanity, and the wound had festered; for, without acknowledging, he felt that he was wrong.  Nay, sometimes in her presence he caught a glimpse, as in a mirror, of his own ineffable meanness.

    It was a sight to make angels weep to see the queenly and beautiful girl, more and more queenly under her crown of sorrows, ordered about, driven almost like a dumb animal by this man who had undertaken on his part to love and cherish her.  He ordered her to dine, he ordered her to dress, to drive, to receive his company, as he would have ordered a slave.  The men he brought to the house were of a lower order than any she had seen as yet.  He brought them there to see his fine house and his beautiful wife, that they might talk about his grandeur and know that it was no empty boast.

    Margaret had to sit and see them eat, and drink brandy till they looked like a crew bewitched of Circe.  Happily they never thought of invading the drawing-room, but lounged in the dining-room, smoking and drinking late into the night.  Mr. Grey despised them for a pack of fools, for these were not his associates, they were only men with whom he did business, and whose paths were certainly not the paths of prosperity.

    And did Margaret sit down under all this insult, endure all this tyranny with apathy?  No; there were times when she felt it more bitterly, but at no time did she cease to suffer.  She was not constitutionally brave.  Few imaginative people are.  She shrank from insult and tyranny more than most.  She felt surrounded with terrors, dreading she knew not what.  If she fled, whither should she flee?  Her mother would receive her, but he would find her there and bring her back.

    Gideon Grey's invention was not fertile, otherwise he might have inflicted greater suffering than he did.  He had the will to inflict it.  He thought, however, of one added insult.  He would lock her in when he went out.  And he did it.  Margaret nearly went mad over that.

    She has in her possession a handful of that beautiful hair of hers, torn out when the anguish was at its fiercest.  There was not much more than that slender lock between her and madness.  She heard the key turn in the wards, and though it was the key of an elegant dressing-room, and not of a prison cell, following on so much mental suffering, it overthrew her self-control.  Gideon Grey may have had the satisfaction of hearing her wildly weeping before he left the door.  There she crouched in a corner, her spirit abandoned to the full tide of misery, drifting on the rocks of despair.  Hope, the anchor of the soul, had given way.  Belief in goodness, human or Divine, had forsaken her.  Still it was a faith in the invisible that saved her.  It was the thought of her father.  "O that he should see me thus!" she thought, and rose and resumed her right mind.

    She rose, too, strengthened and purified, a calmer, stronger, nobler being.  Her good and gentle father came to her as a revelation of the Father in heaven, to whom she knelt that hour in childlike submission, and like a child that puts away its naughtiness, she put away her disorder and effaced her tears before she knelt.

    Then she felt very wearied and lay down on the couch, where in a little time she would have fallen asleep but for a loud knocking at the door, and the entrance of some one who hastened upstairs.  The key once more turned, and in rushed her sister May.

    When Gideon Grey was leaving the house, he rang for the housemaid, and told the girl not to disturb her mistress that evening.  She had been up-stairs, however, and heard the key turned, and as she passed the door had also heard the sound of weeping.  "I felt all of a tremble," she said, "and I up and told cook I wouldn't stand it no longer, and she said I was a fool for my pains, for every lady and gentleman were bound to have their little tiffs.  But I said, ' 'Tain't a little tiff; it's more like murder.'"

    This was said to May, on the way from Mrs. Money's.  "I on with my bonnet," the girl continued, "for I knew you were governess at Mrs. Money's.  I was nursemaid there myself once, and so I seemed to know more of you, miss, and I thought I would just fetch you.  I don't care though I lose my place for it."

    "Thank you, thank you," said May, as she hurried along.  Misfortune had developed in her a far greater amount of sympathy than she was wont to possess.  Concealing her agitation as well as she could, after the girl's hurried statement that her sister wanted her and was "took very bad," she had gone to Mrs. Morley, and begged leave to run over for an hour or two to Boundary Lodge.  Mrs. Morley, as the children were up-stairs for the night, had given an ungracious assent, and thus May had come, receiving on the way a fuller explanation of the state of matters.

    She burst into the room and ran up to her sister.  "How dare he do such a thing!" she cried, embracing her wildly, "and how can you put up with it?"

    "Hush, May," said Margaret; "why are you here?"

    "Your own servant came for me," replied May.  "She could not bear to hear you crying, locked in here."

    Margaret shuddered.  The remembrance of the anguish through which she had passed almost overpowered her.  "I am glad you have come, and yet sorry," she said.  "I shall not give way again, whatever happens.  Now tell me how you are getting on, and then go," she added.  "Indeed, you must"—for May made a gesture of impatience.

    "I mean to stay as long as I can," said May, recklessly.

    "But Mr. Grey may come in now at any minute," urged her sister.

    "Well," said May, "he can't eat me.  He can only send me away when he does come.  I am getting so used to ill-treatment that I don't mind it."

    "But for my sake," urged Margaret.

    "I could not have believed that he would turn out a wretch like this," said May, taking no heed of her words.

    "Perhaps he would not, if I had not grievously wronged and offended him," said Margaret, in a tone of deep regret.

    "How?"

    "By showing him so plainly that I did not, could not love him," answered Margaret.

    "Nonsense; it must have been in him," replied May, sharply.

    "We none of us know what is in us," returned Margaret.  "I only know too late that I have committed the deadliest sin."

    "You!" exclaimed May.

    "Yes, in marrying this man.  Only think of the falsehood, the dishonesty it involves.  It is like murder itself; it knows no remedy; and it is killing in my heart and his every better feeling.  Being unloved, I think we become unloveable.  I know I never suffered before from the terrible feelings I have had this very night—rage and contempt for him and for myself have drawn me to the verge of madness, and the same evil spirits are tearing him to pieces."

    May Bertram stood aghast at the expression of her sister's face, as she spoke hurriedly, almost breathlessly.  It revealed a misery she had not fathomed.  "I think I would leave him," she said.

    "If only he would bid me go," Margaret answered.  "But don't let us speak of this any more.  How are they all at home?"

    "You know Ally is to be married at Christmas," said May.

    "No, indeed," said Margaret.

    "To Mr. Tilley," May went on to say.

    "Oh, May, she cannot love him—tell her, implore her to draw back while she has the power."

    "She is not like you, Madge," replied May carelessly.  "I love Ally, and if I thought she was going to be miserable, I would go down on my knees to her and try to save her; but she is not, she is going to be quite happy, as a rich man's wife; and Mr. Tilley is not so bad when you know him."

    "You don't like him," said Margaret.

    "No; but he is not mean.  He is to settle a hundred a year on mamma."

    "But he is a coarse-minded, insolent man," said Margaret.  "He will treat her tyrannically."

    "They will have three thousand a year to begin with," said May.

    So the sisters talked together, and the night wore on.  May stayed as long as she dared, and left Margaret still waiting for her husband's return.  It was very late when he came at last, and he did not come near her.  To his question, "Had any one been there?" the housemaid had boldly answered, "Yes, sir; mistress's sister has been, and I took her up-stairs."

    The girl expected her dismissal; but she quailed before her master's wrath.  She had not thought it possible for the smooth-surfaced man to be in such a fury.

    He left her trembling; but he did not go to his wife.  She heard the storm, and trembled too; but she was left in peace.

    Margaret's night was a sleepless one, but so was Mr. Grey's.  He rose early in the morning and went out into his garden; but the flowers had lost their fragrance, the fruit hung ripe upon the boughs in vain.

    Mr. Grey returned to the house; still he would not go near his wife.  He could not bear to look upon her face, with its fixedness of woe; he kept out of her way for a time, till he had made up his mind how to act, and then his treatment of Margaret underwent yet another change.  He told her that henceforth she was free to go and do as she pleased.  He did not tell her to quit the house, for he knew that such a proceeding would give her a legal hold upon him; but in his heart he wished that she might go.  His house, his table, all the good things he had hoped to enjoy were rendered distasteful to him by her presence.

    On the morning after the scene recorded above he dismissed the too-sympathetic housemaid, with her wages and board-wages, of which she demanded payment in full, and he hesitated about finding another in her place.  He had sufficient sense to know that this was but a beginning of domestic troubles; his house was divided against itself, and it could not stand.  He debated seriously whether he should not give up his grand villa and retire once more into lodgings, which, for Margaret's benefit, he would have as cheap and comfortless as possible, and from which he could absent himself as much as he pleased.  No! people would think he was coming down in the world, and such an idea might be but a prelude to the fact.  He always had a presentiment that his riches might take to themselves wings and fly away.  The idea was rejected.  Then came the resolution to tempt her with unlimited freedom—"give her rope enough," he thought, "and she may hang herself."  But when he told her that she was free—absolutely free—to go where she pleased and do what she pleased, that he should never interfere with her liberty again, Margaret perplexed him still more by bursting into tears of thankfulness.

    "We have made an immense mistake," she said, "and one which we cannot undo; but I will be in your house as a daughter, as a servant, if you will, and in time something of peace and happiness may come to us."

    He turned away, muttering that he did not want her services.  As it was not possible for him to believe in nobleness, it followed that he had to believe in lies.  "Humbug," his favourite word, fell from his lips as he went.

    A new resolution had been dawning on Margaret.  Life was strong within her, and it was a struggle for life—not the, life of the body, but the higher life of mind and soul—which was set before her.  She began to think that she must quit her husband at all hazards.  He might leave her free.  He might never again lock her up.  That phase of his petty tyranny—his mean revenge--seemed over; but her better feelings, her nobler energies, would be locked up, to come forth, perhaps, if they should ever come forth to life at all, like that unhappy prisoner who crept back into his prison, rather than face the unfamiliar light of day and walk through the large, free world with eyes and limbs which were accustomed to darkness and to chains.  But what was she to do?  To whom should she go?  She had no money—not a farthing which she could call her own.  Her own ornaments were of the simplest kind; the gold was Mr. Grey's, and she could take with her nothing that was or had been his.  If she took lodgings, she must pay for them—and how?  No one would receive her as a governess—no, nor even as a menial of the humblest kind—without a character.  While she deliberated Mr. Grey returned home, more irritable and gloomy than she had yet seen him.  He actually told her to keep out of his sight, and it seemed as if he was about to offer her the last base indignity of a blow.  Her mind was made up.  Come what might, she would leave him, and that without delay.

    Since the day of her marriage Margaret had set eyes on Mrs. Martyn.  She had written once to say that her husband was ill, and that she could not leave him to pay Mrs. Grey a visit, as she had longed to do.  Lately an intimation of Mr. Martyn's death had reached Boundary Lodge.  Its master had slipped the hideous black and white monumental card behind the dining-room clock.  He did not care to look on such mementoes of mortality.

    But now in her extremity Margaret resolved to seek Mrs. Martyn's counsel.  She found her ill, too ill to rise from her sofa, slowly recovering from the exhausting sickness which had followed her husband's death, and been caused from nursing him up to the very last.  She had been with him day and night, when servants and nurses could no longer endure the loathsomeness of the corrupting flesh, striving not only to allay his sufferings, but to lead heavenward the sluggish, sense-bound, earth-clasping soul.  She held out her thin fair hand to Margaret, saying, "It is good of you to come to me.  I would have come to you long ago, but I have not been able since he died."

    "I am not worthy to come to you," said Margaret, kissing the hand she held, and going down on her knees beside her.

    "Don't say that, dear.  You have something to tell me."

    Margaret told her story.

    Mrs. Martyn heard her patiently to the end, and answered, "I cannot judge for you, dear; none of us can judge for the other.  If, as you say, it is making you wicked to stay with Gideon Grey, perhaps it is better to leave him.  It is very sad, for whichever way you take you must suffer, only it is better to suffer in the right way than in the wrong.  Marriage is a very sacred thing.  There are your vows to God, not to be lightly broken for the sake of many who hold them lightly, and there is your duty to your husband; nothing can alter that, and you must think of these things before you think even of your soul, my dear.  God will care for that.  I don't hold with those," she went on, gently garrulous, "who spend their lives in trying to save their own souls.  That should be left to Him who made them, I think.  But we must not wilfully peril them.  You want freedom.  Ah! that is what I wanted all my married life.  Many and many a time, for instance, I have longed to give the money which was spent on me to those who needed.  I did not want the things it bought—the rich dresses, the jewels, the fine furniture, the handsome plate—did not want them and did not care for them; but I could not do as I liked, I was not free to spend or be spent.  I am free now," she went on, after a pause, "when I feel heart and strength failing, and I have done little enough of God's work in the world.  But that little was what he gave me to do, and it is wonderful how many in the course of a long life one can serve and help and comfort, without going beyond one's own household.  It was different with me.  Yes, for I loved him first, and, thank God, I loved him last, when nobody else would go near him, and he held my hand sleeping and waking for days before he died.  He might have been one of my lost children, so close he clung to me for comforting."

    Her voice broke here, and she wept a little, Margaret weeping with her. "No; I can't advise you to leave your post, dear," she went on; "but I am free now, and rich, and lonely, and if you want a home come to me.  I will make it as easy as I can for you; for you will find your way in the world hard and difficult if you take the step you propose.  When you mean to do good you will do harm."

    She could not imagine living without trying to do good; and by good she did not mean giving, what so often stands for charity, money and goods, but what is charity, thought and care, and sympathy and love, hope and faith, and long-suffering and kindness.

    "Yes, you will do harm; you will find your own desertion of duty a stumbling-block in your path, if you try to lead others to do theirs.  Your good will be evil spoken of, your charity will be set down to want of principle; severity will not be tolerated from you at all."

    "I cannot feel as you do," said Margaret; "I grow more and more hateful to myself every day.  I feel as I never felt before—as if I must go mad."

    "I shall not advise you," said the gentle voice.  "There is nothing in my experience that will help you, but I will receive you if you will come to me, and here you will be at peace.  And if you should ever be willing, I think your husband might not refuse to take you back from me."

    It was late when Margaret got back to Boundary Lodge, later than she had anticipated.  The master of the house had dined, and the cloth had been withdrawn by his orders.  It was some time before Margaret ventured into the dining-room to announce her return.  She was then going to change her dress, take a few necessaries that had been in her possession before her marriage, and go back to Mrs. Martyn that very night, leaving her keys in a note on her dressing-table.  She had parted with Mrs. Martyn on the understanding that she was to return.

    Tremblingly she entered the room where her husband was sitting; but horror almost froze her on the threshold, as her memory went back to the night on which they had found the former Mrs. Grey dead in her chair, in her mother's drawing-room.  There he sat, just as she had sat, livid, staring, dumb.  She screamed out, but he neither moved nor spoke.  She dared not touch him with unloving hands.  She stood screaming in the doorway till the servants came.  One stayed with her, trembling too, till the other fetched the nearest doctor.

    "The patient," he said, "had had an attack of apoplexy, and was totally insensible."  Under his orders he was removed to bed, and then, looking inquiringly at Margaret, he suggested a nurse.

    A great tide of pity had been surging through Margaret's heart: the thought of her own desertion, so nearly accomplished, and of the awful helplessness and loneliness and lovelessness of the being before her, called it forth.

    "Tell me what to do," she said, going up to the bed where they had laid him.  "I will nurse him; I am his wife."

    After that threatened blow, Mr. Grey had left Margaret and walked into the drawing-room.  He had worked himself into a fury, and working himself into a fury was not good for Mr. Grey.  His nerves were getting out of order.  Suddenly he had had a disagreeable illusion which chilled him with deadly fear.  He had seen the late Mrs. Grey sitting just as she sat when he found her dead, staring at him with those awful eyes, only there was a smile of mockery on her lips, and she seemed to be saying, "Thou fool; this night thy soul shall be required of thee."

    He had hastened to consult a physician, calling upon him while Margaret was with Mrs. Martyn, and confessing, in his craven fear, all that he had felt and thought.

    The physician had ordered him to keep quiet and avoid all occasions of excitement, and had promised to call on him later in the day.  When he came he saw at a glance that human aid was vain.  Before the dawn of another day the soul of Gibeon Grey had gone to its great account.


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