Sarah De Berenger (3)

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CHAPTER IX.


OLD Sir Sam, as people called him, otherwise Sir Samuel Simcox de Berenger, was in some respects a particularly agreeable man.  He had some undesirable qualities, but from the first he had been so strangely dealt with by circumstances, by nature, and by providence, so drawn on through the natural openings made by other men’s mistakes, that if he had been any better, he would have been a hero; and that he certainly was not.

    Most people thought he was a great deal richer than he ought to have been, and yet he had never taken a shilling but what the laws of his country accorded to him.

    His own father, having two sons, had taken him, the elder, into partnership, and given him a share in his great brewery business.  The younger had gone into the army, obtaining the father’s consent, though it was very reluctantly given.

    This second son had married very young, and left three children, one of whom was the father of Felix, and another his aunt, Sarah de Berenger.  To her the old grandfather had given a handsome fortune during his lifetime — had, in short, settled upon her a small estate, which had come into the family by the female side, so that she was much better off than her two brothers; for when, after his younger son’s death, the old man also died, it was found that, owing to some fatal informality in the will, the representatives of the younger branch could not possess themselves of that interest in his business and his property which he had always expressed himself as intending to leave them.

    Sir Samuel, without a lawsuit, was evidently master of all.  He took immense pains to get the best legal opinions, and confidently expected that his two nephews would try the case.  Being a pugnacious man, he looked forward to a fair fight, not without a certain amount of pleasure and excitement.

    Perhaps the two nephews took counsel’s opinion also; but however that might be they never gave him a chance of fighting.  Instead of going to law they took themselves off, left him to swallow up all, and maintained themselves independently of him and his business.

    There is little doubt that he would have been, to a great extent, the conqueror, if there had been a suit.  In such a case, he would have held his head high, and also have done something for his late brother’s family; but when he found that he was left master of the situation without a suit, and also without a reconciliation, he felt it.  To win in open fight is never so necessary to the comfort and pride of the winner, if he is right, as if he is wrong.

    While Sir Samuel was considering that, though these nephews could make good no claim at law, yet they ought to have something, one of them chanced to die without a will, and he chose to consider himself the young man’s heir-at-law.  That is to say, he reflected that the dead nephew, having been the elder of the two, ought to have had, if he had lived, a double share; he would certainly have given him a double share.  So he divided off that portion of his possessions as having been destined for his nephew, and he always called it “what I came in for, in consequence of poor Tom’s premature death.”  Thus that claim settled itself.

    The other nephew, the father of Felix, never quarrelled with him, but rather seemed to set him at nought.  Yet he felt that he must do his duty by him.  To that end, he informed him that he should take his second son, then an infant, into the business; which in due time he did, with what results has already been explained.

    He never had any thanks from the father of the baby, who went to India before the future brewer could run alone; but he occasionally called the child “Small-beer,” by which he made it evident that Sir Samuel had leave to carry out his noble intention if he pleased.  Sir Samuel felt that too; for though he retained all the material advantage that had come of the unlucky will, he none the less fretted under a sense of the contempt that he knew his nephew held him in, and was always particularly cautious what he said, lest he should provoke an answer.

    So he lived in the exercise of a certain self-control, feeling it, in general, politic to be bland and obliging to his nephew; and this, to a man of his choleric nature, was galling.  At the same time, he took all opportunities of being affectionate and useful to his niece Sarah, who, being herself very well off, felt her brother’s poverty the less keenly, and was often inclined to identify herself with the rich side of the family, as finding riches a great thing to have in common.  Sarah lost both her brothers in their comparative youth.  As for Felix, her nephew, his was a grievance once removed — an old story.  His great-uncle, for a time, had been very kind to Amias — had, in fact, shown a decided affection for him; it was as well now to let the old great-grandfather’s will be forgotten.

    Felix was helped in his wish to let it pass into the background, by his liking for old Sir Samuel’s sons, the youngest of whom was only one year his own senior; for Sir Samuel had married somewhat late in life, so that his sons and his great-nephews were contemporaries.

    And now two little girls had appeared upon the scene, to Sir Samuel’s great surprise and very natural annoyance.  His great-nephew had been the cause of their coming; and Miss de Berenger had told him pointedly that they were his grandchildren.

    He was secretly enraged with Felix — would like to have had an encounter with him about it; the more so as he felt inclined to believe it was so.

    No one knew so well as himself how utterly in the wrong his favourite son had always been in his quarrels with him.  In fact, his affection for the scapegrace had enabled him to endure a vast deal that any father would have found hard, and in hope of winning, and then retaining him, to be almost subservient and long-indulgent.

    But the favourite had got into debt many times after being brought home and freed.  Finally, the father had been obliged to send him from home on an allowance, and John had actually gambled away a great part of his interest even in that.

    His father knew he had somehow deeply entangled himself, but knew not all.  Sometimes he got a hint from Felix, to whom, at rare intervals, John still wrote, for as boys the two had been friends.  When Sir Samuel found that Felix was arranging for the education of these little De Berengers, he felt how hard it was that his son should confide in a cousin rather than in himself, and he waited a week, in confident expectation that Felix would lay a case before him, declare that these were his grandchildren, and make some demand on him for money; he intended to dispute every inch of the ground, not give a shilling, unless the fact was fully proved, and even then beat Felix down to the lowest sum he could possibly be induced to accept.  But the week came to an end, and Felix said not a word.

    Everybody declared that these two little girls were the image of John.  He felt a devouring anxiety to see them, for he was an affectionate old fellow.  He had vowed to himself that they were none of his, and that, as John had acknowledged no marriage, it could be no duty of his to take upon him the great expense of their maintenance; but here they were at his gates, and he longed to see them.

    He asked Felix whether they had asked after him.

    “How should they, uncle,” exclaimed Felix, “when they never heard of your existence?”

    “Why — why,” stuttered Sir Samuel, “don’t they know anything at all about — the family?”

    “Evidently not.  One of them can talk plainly, and she seems, so far as I can judge, to know nothing about any of us.”

    “I would have done well by them, John,” muttered the old man, as he drove home with an aching heart; “but you never had any bowels towards your old father.  Why, look here; he flings his children at me, without so much as asking me for my blessing on them!”

    The next day, about one o’clock, little Amabel and little Delia were seated on two high chairs at the table, in their tiny cottage, and waiting for their dinner, when an old gentleman looked in at the open door, smiled, nodded to them, and then came inside, taking off his hat and putting it on the window-sill among the flower-pots.  A nice old gentleman, with white hair and white eyebrows.  The little girls returned his nod and smiles, then the elder lifted up her small, high voice, and called through the open door that led to the little back kitchen, “Mrs. Naif, Mrs. Naif!”  A cheery voice answered, and then the younger child tried her skill as a summons.  “Mrs. Naif, dear!  Make haste, Mrs. Naif!  Company’s come to dinner.”

    Mrs. Snaith presently appeared with a good-sized rice pudding, and set it on the table, which was graced with a clean cloth.

    Sir Samuel greeted her when she curtsied.  “Good morning, ma’am.  You are the nurse here, I presume?“

    “Yes, sir, I am.”

    “Will you be seated, and allow me just to look on awhile.”

    Mrs. Snaith sat down, and helped the little ones to their pudding.  The elder was inclined to be slightly shy, the younger, pulling Mrs. Snaith by the sleeve, pointed at Sir Samuel with her spoon, and whispered some loving confidences in her ear.

    “What does she say?” asked Sir Samuel.

    The nurse smiled.  “She says, sir, ‘Give the company some pudding.’”

    “Does she, pretty lamb?” exclaimed the old baronet, with a sudden access of fervour; then recollecting himself, and noticing that the nurse was startled, and coloured slightly, he said, by way of continuing his sentence, “I didn’t exactly catch your name, I think?”

    “Mrs. Snaith, sir.”

    “Yes, her name’s Mrs. Naith every day,” said the little Amabel, “but when she’s very good we call her Mamsey.”

    “Her name’s Mamsey when she gives us strawberries and milk,” the other child explained.  “But she hasn’t got a black face, company,” she continued, addressing him earnestly, as if it behoved him to testify to the truth of her words.

    “A black face!” exclaimed the puzzled guest.

    Mrs. Snaith explained.  “There were some American children with a black nurse, sir, at the seaside where we’ve been.  They called her Mamsey, and so these little dears imitated them.”

    By this time it was evident that the nurse was ill at ease; she perceived the deep interest with which her unbidden guest watched the children’s words and ways.  Her pride as a mother was not deceived with any thought that this was a tribute to their beauty or infantile sweetness; she knew this must be the rich man, the great man of the place, who was held in that peculiar respect which merit and benevolence can never command.  People say of Eastern nations, that those who would hold sway over them must needs make themselves feared, and they do not enough consider that this is almost as true at their own doors as it is at the ends of the earth.  When the villagers had nodded and whispered in her presence, mysteriously hinting that anybody at a glance could see who these children were, though she would not answer any questions, she had inwardly felt that the great and proud man whom they had in their thoughts would know better, that he would write to his son, who would at once reply that he knew nothing about these children, and there would be an end.

    But here sat Sir Samuel, gazing at Amabel and Delia with a scrutiny sometimes keen, sometimes almost tender.  He was making them prattle; he was at last actually drawing his wooden chair to the table, and, at their desire, partaking of the new potatoes which concluded their meal.

    He took so little notice of her that she had no need to speak; and that homely dignity which was natural to her coming to her aid, she rose and began to wait on the children and their guest, moving in and out between the little front room where they were dining and the tiny kitchen behind; marking all the old man’s efforts to please the small coquettes, and how easily they were won, and how engaging they were; and how noisy the canary was, bustling about in his cage, and singing every time they laughed, as if he longed for some attention too; how the pale, overblown roses outside let their dropping leaves float in and drift over the table-cloth.

    For the first time in her life, as she stood in the back kitchen, with hands pressed in one another, listening, she felt a jealous pang, not of her darlings themselves, but of the refined grace and delicate beauty which had so played into her hands as to make the part she had chosen for herself easy.

    It was easy to play the part of their nurse — she had elected to play it — and yet her mother’s heart resented its being always taken for granted that she could be nothing more.

    “I fare almost afraid they’ll despise me when they get a bit older,” she thought, “if they do, dear lambs, I must take them away from these gentlefolks before it’s too late.”

    Sir Samuel calling her, she came in and found Amabel on his knee.  The brown face of little Dick was seen; he was leaning in at the casement, and Delia, leaning out, was kissing him.

    Beautiful little Dick was as happy about that time as anything that breathes can be.  When they saw him Sir Samuel lost the attention of the other children.

    They must have their sun-bonnets on.  Mamsey must reach them down.

    “Did they love him?  Would they like to see him again?”

    Oh, yes, they liked him, they liked him very much, but they wanted to go now with Dick; and presently they all three set forth together down the quiet road to the vicarage, leaving Sir Samuel and Mrs. Snaith alone.

    He was sitting in the Windsor chair, lost in thought, and looking after the children as well as the clustering rose-branches would let him.

    She stood a moment expecting him to speak, but he did not; and, unable to bear inaction, she fetched in a tray, and when he looked round, she was quietly clearing the table, placing the remains of the simple dinner upon it.

    He got up and she paused.

    “You have behaved with great discretion,” he said with energy; “and the reticence which I hear you have displayed — the refusing, I mean, to answer people’s idle questions — has my entire approval, — I may say, commands my respect.”  Mrs. Snaith was silent.

    “I am quite aware,” he continued, “of all that passed between you and Miss de Berenger.  I do not see that even she had a right to expect a full account of matters from you; but — but “— here he paused, baffled by the nurse’s grave silence — “but the excellent care with which you fulfil your trust deserves my thanks, and, as I said before, your refusal to answer idle questions commands my respect.”

    “Thank you, sir.  It is my wish to keep quiet, and I don’t fare to think I have any call to answer questions.”

    “But if I asked you some,” he answered, a little startled, “of course it would be different.”

    “I beg your pardon.  Not at all different, sir.”

    “I am Sir Samuel de Berenger, Mr. John de Berenger’s father.  Now what do you say?”

    “Nothing, Sir Samuel.”

    “Nothing!  You’re ordered to keep silence, even to me?”

    “Sir, I never said I were under orders.  I am not.”

    "Nonsense."

    “And I ask your pardon, sir; but if you know all I said to Miss de Berenger, you know all I ever shall say.”

    “Why, you foolish woman, you are enough to provoke a saint!  You quite mistake your employer’s meaning.  What are you afraid of?  What do you mean?  Do you think you are to deny to me whose and what these children are?  It’s contrary to all reason — contrary to my son’s obvious meaning; clean against their interest.  Why, it’s — I never met with such folly in my life!"

    Here Sir Samuel launched into certain violent denunciations against folly in general, and this fool in particular; but as she did not further enrage him by making any reply, but helplessly gazed at him while he stormed at her, on the other side of the table, he soon managed to calm himself sufficiently to recur to the matter in hand.

    “And whatever may be your motive, I tell you, there’s no more use than there is reason in your present line of conduct.  It’s no use your denying to me that these are my grandchildren, I can see it in their faces.  It’s no use your denying to me that they were thrown in my niece’s way on purpose that I might hear of them.  No, don’t speak, woman — it’s my turn to speak now.  I tell you all that stuff is of no use; I am not to be deceived.”

    In the energy of his indignation he leaned over the table and shook his fist at her, and reddened to the roots of his snowy hair; while she, pale and doubtful, continued to find safety only in silence.  Every moment for thought seemed to be something won; but she won many, and he had checked himself, and sat down again in his Windsor chair, and was fuming there in more quiet fashion, while, still standing with her hand upon the tray, she was searching for some reply.

    At last he said with a sigh, as if something in his own mind had checked him as much as her behaviour, “Perhaps the poor lambs were not born in wedlock.”

    “Oh, yes, they were,” she answered, sharply and decidedly; “that’s a question I’d answer to anybody, let him be who he would.”

    “You can prove your words?”

    “I could, if there was any need, Sir Samuel.”

    “Makes nothing of me — cares nothing what I think.  But you never did, John.  If there was any need!

    “You have a son, sir, by what I can make out,” said the nurse, finishing her sentence with a certain emphasis.

    “Oh yes — a son; his conduct looks like a son.  You know well enough that I have a son.  What of him?”

    “If you’ll give me leave to advise you, sir —

    “Well?”

    “Well, sir, though I don’t know the gentleman, I fare to think that if you wrote to him he would answer like a gentleman, and tell you — “

    “Tell me what?”

    “What would get the mistake out of your head, sir.”

    “I don’t know where to find him.”

    “Indeed, sir,” she answered slowly; “then worse luck for me!  And yet,” she continued, as if in deep cogitation, “there are those not very far off that do know.”

    Sir Samuel did not at all doubt her word, but he answered with the surprise he really felt at her making such an admission.

    “You don’t say so!”

    “Yes, sir, I do.”

    “If I write a letter to my son and bring it to you, will you promise to direct it to him?” exclaimed the old baronet.

    He regarded this admission as tantamount to a confession of all, and she, considering, on the contrary, that the letter would be so answered as to put an end to all, gave her consent.

    "I’m not that certain about it, sir, that I can promise, but I will do my best.”

    He sat a few minutes longer, thinking and calming himself, then rose and put on his gloves, looking at her, meanwhile, almost with a smile in his eyes.  “You are a remarkably inconsistent woman,” he observed, but not at all rudely.

    “Sir!"

    “I said, Mrs. Snaith — But, pooh! what is the good of arguing?  Do you want any money?” he added sharply, and at the same time pulling out his purse.

    “No, sir,” she answered, colouring and drawing back.

    “Well, if you should, you’ll know whom to come to; and I’ll send you down the letter to-morrow.  Good morning.”

    “Good morning, Sir Samuel,” said Mrs. Snaith.  And even to those simple words she seemed to impart an air of thoughtfulness and caution.

    He went away without the shadow of a doubt in his mind that these little girls were his grandchildren; and he did not consider, what was not the less perfectly certain, that if their nurse had made a claim on him, and come to the village demanding that he should acknowledge and assist them, he would have required ample proof of their rights in him, and perhaps not have been at all cordial to them at first, though this had been forthcoming.

    As to the likeness.  His son was a small, fair man.  Absence and love had done a good work for his face in his father’s recollection.  These small, fair creatures were like what he had been in complexion as a child, but their dimpled features and dark eyelashes were far different.  Yet Sir Samuel, reflecting on their sweet little faces, absolutely felt, not only that they recalled his son’s childhood, but that he had almost forgotten, till he saw them, what a pretty and engaging little fellow his son had been as a child.


 
CHAPTER X.


THE next morning Sir Samuel’s carriage stopped again at the door of the tiny cottage.  A footman got down, went in, and soon came back to his master, with “The nurse’s respects, Sir Samuel, and I was to say, if you wished to see the young ladies, they are up at the vicarage doing their lessons.”

    “I should like to see her.”

    “She hopes you’ll excuse her, Sir Samuel; she is making bread, and has her hands in the dough.”

    Sir Samuel alighted, with the smallest of brown paper parcels in his hand, and sought Mrs. Snaith in her little clean back kitchen.  “I thought, Mrs. Snaith, I need not trouble you to go all the way — a mile or more — to the post with this.  I can post it for you.”

    “Oh, sir, it will be no trouble, thank you kindly; I have to walk over to the shop.”

    “If you’ll give me pen and ink, I’ll direct it, then.”  He looked about, but saw nothing excepting the copper before which Mrs. Snaith was standing, with both hands plunged into the bread-pan.

    Mrs. Snaith, blushing, said she had no pen and ink, but, if he would leave the letter, it would go all right.  “It’s not often I have to write anything,” she continued, as if excusing herself; “and my little ladies do their copies at Mr. de Berenger’s.”

    He half smiled, perceiving that his device for obtaining the direction had for the present failed.

    “I’ll see that it go all right, sir,’ she repeated.

    He was too proud to sue for what he wanted.

    “So be it, then,” he answered; took a letter from the brown paper covering and laid it on the clean edge of the copper.  “I shall be much obliged to you,” he said, as he retired.  “You’ll let me pay for the stamp, of course?”

    "How simple she is!“ he thought.  “She might just as well have told me my poor boy’s address, considering how easy it will be for me to find it out at the post office.”

    But it did not prove so easy.  In less than a quarter of an hour, Mr. Bolton passed, with a light cart full of vegetables that he had brought from the parsonage, and Mrs. Snaith, coming out to him, asked him if he would oblige a neighbour by getting that letter sent to Mr. John de Berenger.

    Mr. Bolton turned the letter over and over several times, and looked critically at the paper and curiously at Mrs. Snaith.

    “I’ll never breathe a word to any soul, if you will, Mr. Bolton, how it was, or who it was that got it done for me,” she pleaded.

    Still Mr. Bolton paused and seemed to cogitate.

    So she urged him further.  “I’ve been that annoyed lately about him, that I can’t bear myself till I get things explained.”

    “Well, you’ll observe,” answered Mr. Bolton, answering what he supposed to be her thought, but in fact only his own false supposition— “you’ll observe that there’s no post-office in nature equal to ours for sureness; and likewise, if you want a letter to be forwarded, you must write that in their foreign words; also you should never put ‘esquire’ on a letter that’s to go abroad — they’re apt to mistake the word for a man’s name.  And you’ve always got to prepay a foreign letter.”

    Mrs. Snaith produced a shilling, and to her surprise received only sixpence change, but she was too polite to make any remark; and, having given Mr. Bolton the letter, hastened to escape from a subject almost sure to lead to questioning.

    “And how is your good lady, Mr. Bolton?  I saw her on Saturday in the shop, looking as fresh as a rose.”

    “Fresh she is!“ answered Mr. Bolton with enthusiasm.  He had lately married a wife many years younger than himself.  “Fresh she is, and always pleased.  What her father said has come true. ‘Cornelius,’ says the old gentleman (he’s in the shoe line), ‘Cornelius, you’ll find her a rare one to make you laugh; her cheerful temper is as good as a daily blow out.’”

    Mrs. Snaith, considering this a vulgar compliment, instinctively drew herself up; but the proud husband was spared any observation of her silent disapproval, for at that instant the horse, perhaps thinking he had waited long enough in the sun, suddenly started down the road at a good pace, and Mr. Bolton, after calling to him in vain to stop, had to run after him.  Mrs. Snaith only remained outside till he was seated and had the reins in his hand, then went in, glad to have got the letter forwarded, but with a lowered opinion of Mr. Bolton, as rather countrified and common, considering what a good shop he had, and that he kept the post-office.

    Sir Samuel, who was not at all in the habit of shopping, went into Mr. Bolton’s shop the next day, feigning to want some melon-seed, of which he ordered a ridiculously large quantity, and then asked Mrs. Bolton what foreign letters had been posted that day, or the day before.

    It appeared that no foreign letters whatever had been posted for more than a fortnight.

    Sir Samuel brought himself to say, “I have lost my son’s (Mr. John de Berenger’s) address; if one directed to him should be posted, will you kindly copy the address for me?“

    “I will, Sir Samuel,” said young Mrs. Bolton; and when her husband came in, she related to him what had passed.

    “Lost the address, have the old gentleman?” quoth Mr. Bolton, calmly.  “Well, now, his gardener won’t put those melon seeds in, I know, but they must be sent.  Only think of old Sam’s losing the address!“

    “It’s a pity but what he was more careful,” observed Mrs. Bolton; and so few letters passed through her hand, that it gave her no trouble to keep this request in mind.

    Four days passed.  “John’s not in England,” thought Sir Samuel, “or I should have had an answer before now.”  Two more days passed.  “John’s not in France,” thought Sir Samuel.  A fortnight.  “John’s not in Italy, nor in Germany either.”  Six weeks.  “John’s not in the States — at least, anywhere near the seaboard — nor in Canada.”

    Three more months, and a letter from Ceylon, in John’s handwriting, was lying on his table.  It was dated from a small place up the country, among the coffee plantations; was a very satisfactory letter on the whole, but the father soon saw, both by the date and the contents, that his son had not yet received the important letter.  With a certain moderation of compunction which, however, satisfied Sir Samuel, he expressed his regret that his family, and his father in particular, had no better reason to be proud of him.  He hoped to do better; had got employment that maintained him, and should write from time to time.  This was a very hot place — steaming hot; in fact, he had to have a black boy standing beside him while he shaved, to wipe the dew that every few minutes gathered and clouded the looking-glass.  The boots he took off at night were covered in the morning with mould.  But there was plenty of alligator shooting; he and some other fellows had shot two the week before.  This was on the third page.  His father went on to the end, which, with a description of how the other fellows who were newly come out “funked” when they saw a serpent, ended rather abruptly, “Your affectionate son, JOHN DE BERENGER.”

    Sir Samuel’s heart was appeased; both his pride and his affection soothed themselves over this letter.  “The boy has not forgotten me; and he means to do better.  Well, well, he has sown his wild oats.  He will make me proud of him after all.  Been in Ceylon six weeks after stopping at Heidelberg all the winter.  Ah!"

    In the mean time Ann Thimbleby fulfilled her task of education as well as she knew how; she was lucky enough to take sufficient interest in it to induce her to make experiments, and when one failed she tried another.  At that time her inquisitive mind was much exercised on the subject of etymology, but the pains she took to instil some liking for it into the minds of her two elder pupils, bore no fruit, excepting to make them like playing with words, while the little ones became familiar with a few uncommon expressions, which they used glibly in their childish talk.

    “He’s a greedy, nefarious boy,” said Amabel to Sir Samuel, speaking of Dick; “and we’re not friends with him.”

    Sir Samuel had come to see the children; he was seated in a chair on the parsonage lawn when she said this, and a slight stirring five feet from the ground, in the great fir-tree, made him cast up an inquiring glance, and observe Dick looking out, shamefaced and red.

    “What has he been about?” asked the old man, more to make the fair little creature talk than with any interest in Dick’s delinquency.

    “Coz gave each of us a sugared almond,” said Amabel, pouting.  “I said, ‘Dick, you may take a bite of mine,’ and he — Oh, Dick, you in-principled boy, you gobbled it all up — and now,” she continued, with deep melancholy, ”I can never get it back.”

    Dick felt at that moment as much shame as mortals can feel for any delinquency whatever, shame being born with us full grown, and beginning, as a rule, to wax feeble before we have the truest cause to feel it.  He wondered how it could have come to pass that he had done an action so utterly to be despised — wondered whether it would be forgotten by the time he was grown up — and felt, though he was not equal to the expression of such a thing, that his future prospects were blasted, and his young life nipped as by a spring blight.  How could he ever show his face again!

    He moved uneasily on his branch, hiding himself among the thick greenery, and with dreary compunction listened to the conversation below, which was very friendly and confiding.  But could he believe his ears?  In spite of what had unfortunately occurred, the old uncle in a very few minutes was actually calling to him.

    “Come down, you little scaramouch; come here, I say.  Do you see what this is?”

    A whole shilling!  Not a new one, it is true, but good for buying things with.  Evidently for him!  There was a reprieve.  He descended, blushing with beautiful confusion, took it, darted out of the gate with it to a cottage below Mrs. Snaith’s, and returned, almost able to hold up his head, with a goodly quantity of “bull’s-eyes” screwed up in paper.

    These articles of commerce have almost disappeared from any but village shops.  They are round lumps of sugar, flavoured with peppermint, and marked across with blue and red bands.

    Dick squatted down beside Amabel, and opened the screw of paper.  Sir Samuel was just thinking that she was a far lovelier child than her father had ever been.

    “No,” said the little creature, declining this peace-offering, “I don’t like them, Dick; when I open my mouf they make my tongue feel so cold.”

    She turned away her face — but “how useful it is to have money!

    “You’re cross,” said Dick.  “I’m very sorry.  Do kiss me this once and make it up.”

    “I don’t want to kiss you,” said Amabel.

    "Do," pleaded Dick.  “Well, if you will, I’ll give you the other sixpence!

    There was the sixpence in his hand.  Amabel looked at it — paused, relented.  “If you’ll go with me to the shop to spend it,” she said, “I will.”

    Thereupon the two children kissed each other, and being now good friends again, left the bull’s-eyes on the grass and ran off together through the vicarage gate; while the giver of the shilling was left to amuse himself with little dimpled Delia, who, seated on his knee, answered his questions about the seaside, and her lessons and Mamsey, as well as she knew how.

    A certain tenderness towards the children softened his heart, and made him feel younger again.  The love of money gave way before it to a sufficient degree for the decision which he had formed, that they should never want for anything.  Little Delia’s lisping tongue reminded him of the infantile talk of his own sons in their childhood.  He had taken no interest in, and made few observations on, other children, therefore, when the behaviour of Amabel and Delia stirred in him slumbering recollections of his own nursery, he regarded this as a proof of likeness to his family, and did not know that such were the common ways and wiles, and this was the ordinary English of childhood in general.

    “But the motive,” thought Sir Samuel, when, having mounted his horse, he went slowly along the shady road that led from the vicarage past the nurse’s, and past two or three other cottages, towards his own gate —“the motive.  No human being acts without a motive, and I cannot see the motive, however mistaken, that induces this woman to deny that these are John’s children.  Why, they’re as like him as they can stare; and I could declare, when I see their little ways and hear them lisp, that it’s my own boy’s over again.”  He paused, then went on slowly.  “He might, to be sure, have threatened her that, if she told, he would stop the supplies — for, of course, he was always in imminent danger of being arrested whenever he came to see them; but he sailed about the time that she brought them here, no doubt by his orders.  Well, I must wait.  It is still just possible they may not be his, after all (pooh it’s not possible, though).  However, he will not be long in letting me know.  And considering that I’ve offered to take the whole charge of them, and provide for them too, if they are — Here comes Felix, looking as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. — Well, nephew parson, how are you?”

    Felix observed a certain familiar way in the greeting, a cordiality that he was not accustomed to.  Not to be outdone, he shook hands with his uncle when the old man stopped his horse, and asked where he could have been riding during the hottest hours of such a hot day.

    Sir Samuel told him; went a little from the subject to remarks in a casual way, that one of the little girls looked pale, and then said abruptly, “I suppose I shall have to send her to the sea.”

    Now, Felix knew that John de Berenger had written to his father.  “Has John acknowledged them, then?” he exclaimed with vehemence.

    Sir Samuel admitted that he had not "though, putting this thing and that thing together, nephew parson,” he continued, “I no more doubt the fact than you do.”

    Felix paused; his conduct certainly appeared to show that he did not doubt it.  His aunt Sarah had taught the children to call him coz, and he had not forbidden it.  While he was considering what answer to make, Sir Samuel repeated his former argument with himself.

    “But, then, no human being acts without a motive, Felix.”

    “Certainly not.”

    “What motive can that woman have, nephew parson, in declaring that these children are none of mine?”

    “I do not see that a motive is very far to seek,” observed Felix, “if that is what you want.”

    “Nephew parson, that precise thing is what I do want.”

    “She is all-powerful while she receives whatever John allows the children, and spends it as she pleases.”

    “True — true.”

    “She has an excellent situation, and an almost independent one.  I have a good opinion of her.  I think it probable she does not know the children are anything to you.  John may have chosen her through an agent; through an agent he may correspond with her.  If you take them up, you make her place a sinecure, perhaps in the end dismiss her.  How natural she should be hard to persuade that you have any right to them.”

    “But she knows that John is my son — and — and the fact is, she undertook, before I had his address, to get a letter sent to him.”

    “She did!” exclaimed Felix.

    Sir Samuel nodded.  Mrs. Snaith, in the opinion of Felix, forthwith went down; he was rather sorry.

    “Now, as you are good at motives,” continued the old man, “find me a motive for John’s behaviour, nephew parson; there is that to think of also.”

    “Very true,” said Felix, and he went on slowly.  “John’s motive, I should say, is transparent enough.  It is evident that he has no claim, unless these are the children of a marriage.”

    Sir Samuel seemed to wince a little here.  “The only marriage I ever heard of that John wanted to make was one that you most violently opposed.”

    “I always shall oppose it,” cried Sir Samuel, very red in the face.  “I always will oppose it, to the last breath I can draw.  Why — why, the fools had nothing to live upon — nothing at all.”

    “No,” said Felix, rather coldly; “and yet it may have taken place, and these may be the offspring of it.”

    “A Dissenting minister’s daughter!”

    “Yes.  Well, all that supposed, one may suppose also that John thinks these children have a better chance of pleasing you, if he does not force them on your notice, than if he does; but it is quite a work of supererogation to make out motives either for him or the nurse.  The wisest course, I should say, is to regard everything as absolutely uncertain till next mail day, when all will be set at rest.”

    “Extraordinary!” he thought, when the two had parted, and were going different ways.  “So proud as old Sam is, that he should have demeaned himself to communicate with his own son, through the favour of a-servant!

    “The fools had nothing to live on.  Of course not.  He brought up John to no profession, and made him no regular and proper allowance; now he smarts for it, and perhaps for preventing that marriage as well.  He might have maintained John married, for half what he has cost him single.  As far as I know, John never went wrong till the quarrel about that poor girl.

    “I have never believed there was any instinctive drawing in the heart of a parent towards a stranger child.  Is it possible that I see it here?  He will have it so.  He is determined to believe that these little creatures are his grandchildren.

    “They are no trouble about the place, but I feel, and I suppose I shall feel, that their probably being something to him makes me no better inclined to regard them as something to me.”

    Felix spoke with a touch of bitterness.  Sir Samuel had never so much as asked after Amias, the young nephew whose boyish escapade had deprived him of an excellent opening and future provision.  Felix, being absolutely honest with himself, admitted mentally that, if the boy had settled to the brewery business, it would not have hurt his own conscience: people must have beer, just as they must have money; the abuse of either, or both, is their own affair.  But now that the youth had broken away from his uncle, had given such reasons for the rash act, and was taking the consequences, on the whole, well and humbly, Felix would have denied himself every comfort in life rather than have interfered with his conscience.

    “So you met Uncle Sam?” observed Amias that evening.  “I am glad I did not.”

    “Why?”

    “Because you say he was cordial, and that aggravates me.  I don’t like to think he is happy and jolly, helping everybody to get drunk; and I am not happy because ―"

    “Well?” said Felix, with a smile.

    Amias paused.

    “You, at least, may wish him well,” said Felix; “he has never shown anything but kindness to you.”

    “But I hope it will stick in his conscience,” observed Amias, “how all the judges talk against publicans and public houses.  Why, I was reading only this morning, that in some of the great towns, two-thirds of the public houses are brewers’ property, and that they buy up the rubbishing old tenements and let them out at a low rent, on condition that all the stuff sold in them shall be of their own brewing.  I hate the publicans.”

    “That’s a fine Christian sentiment.  Do you think there’s no such thing as intemperance excepting in the case of strong drink; or can you really think that nobody is to blame for the drunkenness that degrades the country excepting the distillers, the brewers, and the publicans?”

    “Why, what do you think, Felix?”

    “I think they are no worse than other people, excepting when they make direct efforts to keep up the present state of things, after having had the misery of it pointed out to them.  We are all to blame, we and our fathers.”

    “No worse?— the publicans no worse?"

    “Unless they adulterate.”

    “But they do.  We know they put aquafortis in.  And do you call oils of juniper, and cocculus indicus, and photophosphate of iron proper things to drink?  Did you never hear of these drugs?  And are you not aware that at many public-houses you can hardly get such a thing as unadulterated beer, and that they put salt in it on purpose to make people thirsty?”

    “Your voice is a little cracked at present, which makes me think you may be rather young just yet to lecture with good effect, on this or any other subject.”

    “You are always so abominably calm, Felix.  Well, anyhow, what I don’t know yet about temperance, I shall find in my copy of ‘The Publican’s Mixing and Reducing Book.’  I shall learn it all by heart, with its vile receipts for purifying tainted gin, etc.  But you have no zeal; you are always making game of a fellow.”

    “On the contrary, your enthusiastic desire to do some good, and your ardent indignation against evil practices, are the qualities I like most in you.  What I find ridiculous is that you are so positive.”

    “I certainly do wish that most of the breweries and distilleries had accidentally got blown up; and I wish most of the public houses were forcibly shut up — prohibited.”

    “But not all?“

    “No, there must be some.”

    “How the ‘some’ would thrive!  Many people, however, see great danger in legal restraints.  That a thing should be dangerous and wrong, gives it often attraction enough; that it should also be forbidden, so far as is possible, might give it an extra charm.”

    “But that is not your view?”

    “Perhaps not.  Others reason thus.  The French are a very sober people; every man of them may make his own wine, any man may sell it anywhere.  What we should try for, rather than restriction, is freedom.”

    “I never thought of that.”

    “But you should think; and you should learn all that can be known on all points beforehand.  And you must give up wholesale charges and exaggerations.  There is also a certain thing that you would do well to settle forthwith, which is, whether it would give you most delight to reclaim two or three drunkards, or to make old Sam ridiculous in his own neighbourhood, and to know that everybody blamed him, and talked of the feud between you.”

    “Two or three, Felix!  You might at least allow a fellow two or three dozen.  Am I to give up riches and independence, and perhaps a seat in Parliament, for two or three?“

    “You may be fairly said to have given these things up for nothing, for no principle whatever — merely for a ridiculous joke.”

    “Well, it was rather hard upon you, old man; I know that.”

    “And it seems to me that you live upon the hope that you shall one day justify that joke.”

    “So I do.”

    “I consider that a low motive — anything but heroic, anything but philanthropic.”

    “Well, I cannot be such a prig as to pretend that I think of nothing but philanthropy.  ‘There’s a mixter, sir,’ as Bolton said; ‘you can’t expect to find no tares at all in the best bag of seed-corn.’  But perhaps you think the ‘mixter’ consists of a few grains of corn in a bag of tares?”

    “I wish you to go away, not thinking of yourself as a martyr to principle, but simply as having made a joke and paid for it, and having now got to earn a living, if possible, in a manly, commonplace fashion.  As for your zeal in the cause of temperance, I shall think something of it when you propose to begin to work for it in London, and nothing at all, so long as the joy of it depends on some great commotion made in our little town, just at our old uncle’s gates.  As I said to you just now, we are all — that is, all this nation which calls itself Christian — to blame for the present state of things; it is the selfishness of the whole community — the crowding up of the poor in foul air, where they crave stimulus, because they have not enough oxygen.  It is the sordid way in which we have let them live, without any sort of culture, without ennobling amusements, without enough of anything — enough variety of food, enough light, enough warmth, enough joy, enough kindly fellowship with those that are better off,— it is our whole attitude toward them which has helped, not to make them a drunken people — for that they always were — but to keep them one.  Our fathers drank deeply; we have, during the last three generations, been slowly struggling upward toward sobriety.  We had every help; we only give them one help — the pledge.  Do you think that if every drop of whisky, gin, and ale could be sunk into the sea, and the trade in liquor be stopped, it would make people sober?  No.  It might, with every other aid that could possibly be thought of, put an end to half the drunkenness; but it is a natural instinct in man to long for stimulus when he is overworked, or weary, or sick, or sad, or when he has been used to have it; and the other half would all turn brewers and distillers on their own account.  You cannot undo the evil work of many generations with a few rough and ready schemes; you must be patient and painstaking, and you must not, above all, try to shove off the blame on other men’s shoulders.”

    “All right, old man,” said Amias, almost humbly.

    He was to go away to London the next morning, at a very inconveniently early hour, by a third-class train, Felix having, after great efforts, at last got him into a government office, at a salary on which it was hardly possible for him to be wholly maintained.  He was to take with him rather a large hamper of potatoes and other roots, with a few green vegetables also, so as to eke out his first attempt at providing for himself in his lodgings.  Felix was to send him fruit and vegetables now and then.  This was by their aunt Sarah’s advice, and was worth while, as she explained to the brothers, because the lodgings Amias was to occupy were close to the railway station.  “You can give your landlady a vegetable marrow or two,” she observed; “but, whether or not, you will probably, for reasons of her own, find her always willing to send for your hamper.  The children might have gathered you more currants if Ann had superintended properly, but, if you’ll believe me, I found her among the cabbages, telling them that those tiresome white butterflies were considered by the Greeks to be emblems of your soul, and hunting out with dictionaries the derivations of a slug.


 
CHAPTER XI.


SO Amias was gone.  And Sir Samuel, when he quite by chance discovered this, felt somewhat aggrieved.  It was manifest that he ought to have been told, and if the matter had been laid before him in a proper spirit, he should have given Amias something towards the needful expenses.  He said so to his niece Sarah.  “But I am not asked,” he continued, with bitterness, “not consulted at all.  Oh dear, no; that family is much too proud to take any help from me.”

    “Why doesn’t he give it without being asked?  Why doesn’t he send Amias a cheque now?” thought the good lady.  “He always reminds me of an onion (for we all, as it is said, resemble in some degree one or other of the inferior animals).  His conscience is wrapped round with as many layers to cover it from the light, as the heart of an onion.  The outside layer is avarice.  Yes; very thick.  Peel that off, you come to a layer of self-conceit; peel again, you come to his scruples — a sort of mock conscience.  He must not do anything so wrong as to help Felix unless Amias first humbles himself.”

    It never occurred to Miss de Berenger for a moment that she ought to help her nephew Felix herself.  And as he had been used to her all his life, and been accustomed to accept her at her own valuation of herself, it never occurred to him either.  One duty was strongly impressed on her mind; this was the duty of paying her bills.  She generally incurred debts, to the full amount of her income.  Her course was plain; she must pay them.

    But she frequently came and stayed with Felix, kept his house for the time, and paid her exact proportion of the expenses, besides almost always suggesting some plan by which he saved something or gained some advantage.

    She was always welcome.  He found her inconsequent speeches and simple shrewdness in action decidedly attractive and refreshing.  Family affection is so far from following in the wake of esteem, that merely to be sure of it and depend on it, is often to have it.  Those who are loved, not for any special qualities in themselves, but just because they are human beings, and stand near to us, are almost sure to retain affection; for they always will be human beings, and the longer they stand near to us the more at ease we shall feel with them.  What so comfortable, what so delightful, as perfect ease?  Nothing in the world can surpass it but perfect love, and that we cannot all expect.

    When Felix, the very first time he entered his empty rectory house, found his aunt there before him, inspecting the cupboards and having one cleaned out, he did not interfere with her, did not even ask her a question; in a man’s indolent way, he thought she knew what she was about.

    “Yes,” she presently observed, “you’ve got dozens of empty pickle-bottles and empty marmalade-pots over at your lodgings. I shall have those beer bottles saved too, and put in here till we want them.”

    Felix was surprised, but he let her alone, and she locked the closet and took away the key.

    A good while after this she drove up in her pony-carriage, saying she had come to stay a week, and producing a great parcel of sugar, for which Felix was to pay.  “Bolton will not buy the common gooseberries and cherries at all; they are so cheap this year.”  And she forthwith bustled into the garden and set everybody, excepting the rector, to work to gather fruit.  “I shall have a quantity of jam made of the gooseberries,” she observed to her nephew; “it will scarcely cost you threepence a pot.  And the gooseberries could not be bottled, because the beer-bottles have such narrow necks; they would stick in them.  I shall bottle the red currants.  There are sixty bottles; I counted them.  I shall save out one dozen for mulberry syrup.”  Thereupon she produced the big key of the cupboard, and before the week was over, there was a fine store of jam and excellent bottled fruit in the house.

    Felix, of course, was glad; he knew enough about his own affairs to be sure that this would be a saving in his house-keeping, and also make his table more various.  But he did not thank his aunt; he was just as well aware that it was a great joy to her to intermeddle in his matters, as she was that she might avail herself of the privilege, and yet count on his belief that all her intermeddling was for the best.

    But to return to Sir Samuel and his important letter.  The mails had now gone by, and there was no answer.  He wrote again, and in case the first should have miscarried, he entered on all the particulars once more in a second letter.

    Then it occurred to him that Mrs. Snaith might, in all good faith, have sent the first letter to Heidelburg, not being aware of his son’s change of address.  He wrote, and after complying with certain forms, got it back from the poste-restante.  He hardly knew whether to be most annoyed or relieved — so much time lost.  But, then, his son had not received a letter from him that he had neglected to answer.

    It was now Christmas; he knew that he must wait till March, and felt that he must not make himself ridiculous meanwhile by having the two little girls to his house, or by in any other way seeming to acknowledge them before the time.

    But he accepted and returned nods and smiles, even at the church doors; sometimes the parties exchanged kisses in less public places.  The children liked to see his white head.  Once Amabel climbed upon the seat of the pew at church, when the sermon was long, and looked over the high back, as if to ascertain whether he was in his place.  Miss Thimbleby, who was in charge of her and the other two children, quietly took her down, but the entire congregation saw the pretty smile with which she had greeted the old man, and his involuntary answer to it.

    Felix wrote constantly to his brother, and gave him all manner of good counsel, which Amias was assisted to follow by his very straitened circumstances.  He said as little as he possibly could in answer concerning this want of money, but the discipline of life was very strict upon him that winter and spring.  He was poorer than any of the young fellows with whom he was associated.  During the first week of his sojourn his story came out, and he passed for a kind of hero among them; though almost all thought him a fool for his pains, and would have thought him a prig too, but for the open and boyish sincerity with which he made his love of temperance depend on his anger against his old uncle.  Many and many a temperance lecture was rehearsed in the presence of those choice spirits, his companions, without the faintest thought of influencing their habits in regard to strong drink, but simply to delight them by reproducing the ridiculous action and uncultivated language of certain zealots whom he now and then went to hear.  He was a water-drinker, but escaped ridicule, because it was felt that this was not from high principle, but from indignation against his uncle for repudiating him.  In the mean while it came in his way for no better reason than has been given — to accumulate a vast amount of information concerning the misery and crime arising from drunkenness, the almost incredible sums paid by the poor for the drinks that are their ruin, and the constant temptations set before them on all sides.  These facts, when he had time to think them over, sometimes impressed him a good deal.

    Early in April a letter from Felix let him know that old Sam was in great affliction; the news had just reached him that his son John had died of fever in Ceylon, and he could not hold up his head at all.

    “Poor old boy!” thought the inconsequent youth.  “Well, after all, malt liquor (if only it could be got good and pure) is very wholesome; it’s the public houses that want doing away with.”  So he schooled his mind for a little while into less intemperate thoughts upon temperance.

    John de Berenger, in fact, never read his father’s important letter.  The news of his death was communicated by a friend, a young man who was staying with him when his short illness came on, and who wrote of him very kindly, assuring his father that everything had been done for his comfort.  Also, the letter was returned.  The stranger apologized for having opened and read it, as a means of discovering to whom he should send the sad news.  In consequence of the questions asked in it, he had collected every scrap of writing and every letter that he could find among John de Berenger’s effects, and now forwarded them.  He had not read them, but thought it right to tell Sir Samuel that, though the sick man had talked freely of his past life during the earlier stages of his illness, he had uttered no word that seemed to bear at all on such a matter as his father’s letter unfolded.

    Sir Samuel mourned for his son, and said to himself, “In a very short time I shall know all.  The news of poor John’s death will fall on that woman like a thunderbolt.  Has she received it yet?  Evidently not.  I am left to tell it to whomsoever it may concern.”

    He searched the few letters that had been sent through and through; most of them contained pressing requests for payment of certain debts.  There was not one that could possibly have come from Mrs. Snaith, or that seemed to concern the two little girls in any way whatever.

    “But I have the whip-hand of her now,” thought Sir Samuel.  “She will see his death in the paper, even if the whole village is not eager to tell it to her beforehand.  As he has left absolutely nothing behind him, no more supplies can reach her.  She will be glad enough soon to come to me and tell the whole truth.  I shall not make the first move.”

    Mrs. Snaith knew what ample time had passed since the sending of her letter for an answer to reach Sir Samuel from any part of the world.  He had not told her that he had received one—in fact, he had not spoken to her since she had taken the letter from his hand.  She had often met him in the road, but had never accosted him.  If he was quite satisfied now that he had made a ridiculous mistake, there was no need to make him own it, and thus, perhaps, bring on herself the dreaded question, “These children, not being my sons, why are they here?  Whose are they?”

    She always took refuge in silence, and tried to efface herself as much as possible from the thoughts of others.  Sometimes she thought she would steal away from her cottage, and again take the children among strangers; but then careful reflection seemed to assure her that where she now was people had got used to her, and had ceased to wonder at her.  There had seemed to be a mystery, but all the villagers considered that they had solved it, and all the same way; there was no difference of opinion.  What talk there still was, chiefly concerned what old Sam would do, and why the family, who doubtless knew all, were so silent about it.  Besides, the children were well, happy, receiving a very good education, and were already too familiar with these De Berengers ever to forget them.  Moreover, if she fled, it would not only rouse curiosity to the utmost, but Miss de Berenger would be almost certain to start in pursuit, and in all probability would eventually find her.

    The foolish have us far more in their power than the wise.  If it had not been for Sarah de Berenger, Mrs. Snaith felt that she could have confided the whole truth to Felix, got him to keep it absolutely secret, and also help her to get away; but nothing could possibly be confided to Sarah, or it would come out; and if it was not confided, she would search for the children, meanwhile raising such a commotion, that the matter was sure to get into the newspapers as a strange and romantic story.  Sarah would, perhaps, be silly enough to publish descriptions of the children, with their Christian names; these alone would be sufficient to rouse the suspicions of any person whatever among her old friends.  Finally, some hint of it would reach the Dills, and, through them, the dreaded convict husband.

    Sarah was away from her home when the news of John’s death reached her.  She came back and flew to Mrs. Snaith, asking where the darlings were.

    “At the vicarage, ma’am, doing their lessons.”

    “And their mourning — is that ordered?  Sir Samuel will, of course, expect to see them in proper mourning.”

    It was no use pretending to misunderstand, but Mrs. Snaith felt confident of her ground, and was determined to hold it.  “No, ma’am,” she answered.  “You have no call to trouble yourself any further about that mistake.  I take leave to tell you that Sir Samuel expects nothing of the kind.”

    That was on a Tuesday.  Miss. de Berenger considered that there would be plenty of time to get mourning read by Sunday, and she wrote to Sir Samuel about it.

    “The woman wants money already,” he thought; “let her come and ask for it.”  And he wrote to his niece more curtly than kindly, desiring her not to interfere.

    Mrs. Snaith did not apply for money, and at the end of the week Sir Samuel went to London, feeling that this was only a question of time.

    In the mean while, knowing that whatever she did would make fresh talk, Mrs. Snaith dressed the children on Sunday in clean white frocks and white hats as usual, and sent them up to the vicarage, but had not courage to attend the morning service herself.

    When the children came home to dinner, each had a black sash on.  Cousin Sarah had sent them, they said, in answer to her questions, and Miss Thimbleby had put them on.

    Mrs. Snaith shed a few quiet tears of vexation then.  Sarah’s folly had mastered her again.


    To be in London a full year before he could hope for a holiday!  This was the lot of Amias, and what a long, slow, dark, and dirty year it seemed.

    Occasionally, towards the end of it, he began to dream of the old church tower, and the rooks floating high above it in the clear, elastic air, and to dream of scarlet strawberries ripening on their beds, and meadows full of buttercups, and hay being cut in the clear heat of noon, and of other common country sights and sounds which had never impressed him at all while he lived among them.  Also of Felix and of that little monkey Dick.  Like those of many another boy, his affections had slumbered a good deal since his childhood.  They were waking.  He found that he was rather attached to his elder brother; and when Dick sent him letters of wholly intolerable badness, as regarded both the writing and the orthography, he read them over with a certain keenness of pleasure, recalled the beautiful little brown face, imagined that he had always been very fond of Dick, and wondered whether the little fellow was grown.

    April, May, and June went by.  Sir Samuel, still in London, received no application from Mrs. Snaith, “but,” he argued, “she may have been paid a quarter’s allowance for the children just before my poor son’s death."

    He wrote to Felix, requesting him not to lend her any money.

    “She may think,” he considered, “that poor John has left money in the hands of his agent, and that through him she shall receive it.  She cannot know as I do that he left nothing whatever behind him but his debts, and that I have his papers in my hands, which prove it fully.  I wish I knew my dear boy’s motive, though”

    So he deluded himself.  The human mind is always inexorable in demanding a motive for all human actions.  It is only himself that each man permits to act without one, and avails himself of the privilege with astonishing frequency; sometimes letting a momentary caprice push itself in and snatch a reasonable motive out of his hand; sometimes, from mere indolence or inattention, failing to make out what he means to do till the thing does itself, and he, still hesitating, looks on and lets it alone.

    Sir Samuel kept hesitating, and failing to make out what he wanted in this particular instance.  The children were receiving an excellent education, were taken very great care of by their nurse, and — he was not asked for a shilling.  He did not distinctly put this and that together, but waited on occasion and let things drift.  When he thought of future expense, he hardly knew what he believed concerning these little girls; when he thought of his dear dead son, he did know.  But his asking questions would not make them any more his grandchildren, if such they were, while it would, as he thought, bring him their bills to pay.  No, it would be dangerous to investigate.  He should now not encourage that woman to talk.  He elected to leave things alone, and he had to take the consequences.

    Thus the days and weeks went by, till that happy time arrived when Amias was to go home for his destined holiday.

    A slow, third-class train was alone within his means, and the nearest station being seven miles from his brother’s house, he was not to be met, but to send his box on by a carrier, and walk over himself.

    It was about eight o’clock in the evening of a very hot day when he stepped forth for his walk, first across a good many fields, then over the end of a great common, next through Sir Samuel de Berenger’s wood, and finally along the winding country lane that went past his brother’s gate.

    He was still half a mile from it.  The slow dusk had begun to gather; large flowers of the bindweed, trailing over the low wayside hedge, were mere specks of milky whiteness; he could but just distinguish between them and the dog roses, could hardly detect the honeysuckle but for its fragrance.

    "Delightful!“ he thought, as he strode on.  “The smell of things in this lane is worth all the sights in London put together.  Whew! what’s that?“

    He stopped.  No cottage within a hundred yards, and yet a pungent, powerful whiff of something worse than London fog or smoke came past him, and lost itself among the honeysuckle.  A smell of burning.  He wondered — strode on — admitted to himself, almost with fear, that it was odd no one had come even thus far to meet him.  Then, all on a sudden, behold, a great gap!  Some slight thing fell with hardly a sound, and up mounted a shower of sparks.  He ran on, shouting out in the dusk, — “Why — why, there’s something wrong!  What’s up?  What can be the matter?  Mrs. Snaith’s cottage is gone!"

    Mrs. Snaith’s cottage was gone indeed — its place was vacant; it was burnt to the ground.  A few singed hollyhocks leaned forlornly forward to the road, two elms, with all their leaves shrivelled up, held out bare and ghastly arms, a puff of smoke came now and then from a dark heap of ashes, and a few sparks would mount when fanned by evening air.

    Amias rushed on, dashed through a scattered group of people who seemed to be watching the rectory gates, and, encountering his aunt in the hall, demanded vehemently to be assured that Felix was all right.

    “Yes, yes,” quoth Sarah, “he’s in his room, changing his singed clothes.  You needn’t bang at his door like a burglar,” she panted, for she had pursued him upstairs.

    “I knew he would be in the scrimmage,” cried Amias, as Felix, opening his door a little way, let his brother in.  “And where’s Dick?” shouted Amias through the keyhole, having satisfied himself at once that his brother was none the worse.  He opened the door about an inch to receive her answer.

    “He never was near the fire,” quoth Miss de Berenger.  “As soon as I heard of it I ran into the garden, and there I found him, enjoying the prowl of innocence, his cat and his owl after him.  He’s safe in bed now, very sulky to think what fun there has been and he not in it.”

    “Anybody hurt?” asked Amias, as he was proceeding down a passage to look at Dick.

    “Yes; Mrs. Snaith a little, foolish woman.  And old Nanny Fothergill was frightened almost into a fit, seeing the flames through her window.”

    “Oh, she’s alive yet?”

    “Yes,” quoth Miss de Berenger.  “She’s not at all an irreligious woman, though she has lived to be ninety-four.  I don’t know how she reconciles that with ‘the days of our life,’ you know, ‘are threescore years and ten.’  At the same time time,” she continued, falling into thought, “I am quite clear that it would not be right of her to hasten matters.”


 
CHAPTER XII.


THE return of Amias had, indeed, followed closely on the conclusion of an exciting occurrence.

    It was Thursday evening; Felix always had a full service then, and a sermon.

    This was the favourite religious occasion of the week, and (except during the harvest) very well attended.  A time-honoured institution; the ringers ushered it in with a cheerful peal.  Then, when days were long, the outlying hamlets, and not unfrequently the adjacent parishes, contributed their worshippers; and even some people from the little town (former parishioners of Felix) would walk over to join, and see how he fared.  Then every old woman, as she came clattering up the brick aisle, felt some harmless pride in herself; she knew she must be welcome, helping to swell the congregation.  She looked at Felix, as he stood gravely waiting in the desk, and he looked at her.

    Then were given out long-winded hymns, dear to all the people.  Then the rustic choir broke out into manifold quavers, and sang with a will.  Then shrill, sweet voices of children answered, and farmers’ wives put in like quavers (but more genteelly), while the farmers themselves, and the farmers’ men, did their share with a gruff heartiness, not untuneful.  Then, also, the “Methody folk,” having no “Bethel” of their own, came to church, and expressed their assent to the more penitential prayers by an audible sigh and an occasional groan.  They said of Felix that he was a gracious young man, and knew how to hit hard; which two qualities they considered to be strictly harmonious.

    But his own people gave him a good word as well.  He had inherited this service from his predecessor, and finding it at a convenient hour and popular, kept it up with loyal and dutiful care.  They said of him that “he had no pride; he didn’t mind shouting for a poor man.  Preached just as loud and just as long, he did, in bad weather, when he had nobbut a few old creeturs and poor Simon Graves the cripple for congregation, as when the most chiefest draper and his lady walked over from the town to attend, as well as Mr. Pritchard the retired druggist, that kept his own gig, and was said to be worth some thousands of pounds.”

    It is hardly needful to record that Felix did not find the singing ridiculous.  It was far from perfect praise, but he supposed it must be more acceptable than city music led by an organ, and sung by a paid choir.

    There is something very pathetic in the worship of the poor and rustic.  They often think they oblige the clergyman by coming to church.  And the old have a touching humbleness about them; they feel a sincere sense of how worthless they are in this world, which they could hardly have attained unless the young had helped them to it.  The rich mix the world with their prayers, so do the poor; thus — they feel that they come and say them with their betters.

    So this was a Thursday evening.  Felix felt the solemn sweetness of the hour.  It was a clear, hot time of year, and all the doors and windows were open.  He had an unusually large congregation, and had just mounted into the pulpit and given out his text, when, to the astonishment of the people, instead of beginning to preach, he stood bolt upright for an instant; then his eyes, as it seemed involuntarily, fell on Mrs. Snaith (who sat just facing him), with a look of such significance, that she instantly started up and rushed out at the chancel door.

    She thought of the little girls, naturally; what had she in life but them?

    The amazed congregation gaped at him.  He turned to the schoolmistress, and saying, “Keep all those children in their places,” closed his Bible and exclaimed to the people generally, “My friends, remember that there are fire-buckets under the tower, and that the nearest water is in my pond.  Mrs. Snaith’s cottage is on fire.”

    The red light from it was already flaring high, and making pink the whitewashed walls and his gown.  It had passed for a sunset flush, till from his height he saw what it meant; and saw the two little girls running hand in hand down the dusty lane, with loose hair flying.  They were making their way, clad only in their white nightgowns, towards the church, for there they doubtless knew that Mamsey was.

    Thanks to the way in which he had arranged his sentence, the mass of the people, as they rushed out of church, ran round to the, tower, and when he himself descended, he met the two little girls, neither hurt nor frightened, running up to the door.  Each had a great doll — her best doll — under one arm; but when they saw him, with childish modesty they sat down on a grassy grave, and tucked their little feet into their gowns.  It was such a very hot night, that there was no risk of their taking harm from their evening excursion.  Not that any one thought of that, or thought much about them, excepting Felix, who, fearing that Mrs. Snaith might not have seen them, and might risk her life for their sake, followed on after her at the told of his speed, leaving them behind with his aunt Sarah.

    “Yes!” exclaimed Sarah, when describing the scene afterwards to Amias.  “There are occasions when decorum and dignity are forgotten.  If you had seen what Felix looked like, rushing down the lane with his surplice flying!  An exaggerated owl suggested itself, or a ghost pursued by its creditors.  These are the things that give Dissenters such a hold when they cry out for Disestablishment.  However, by the time he overtook the clerk, he had got it off; he flung it over the old man’s arm, who folded it up, and laid it on the grass under a fir-tree.”

    Felix on this occasion found little scope for the exercise of courage, and no opportunity of giving aid.  The dry thatch was sending out an even breadth of flame to the very middle of the road; there was (as he supposed) no approaching.  There was great shouting; men as well as women were eagerly handing on fire-buckets, while he searched the crowd for Mrs. Snaith, and was told, to his amazement, that she was inside the blazing premises.  He had scarcely heard it when she emerged from them, with a box under her arm.  He and Mr. Bolton advanced to help her forward.  Her gown was smoking, and some buckets of water were thrown all over them without ceremony, as their bearers, running up with them from the pond, saw the state of the case.  Mr. Bolton, dripping as he was, could not forbear to moralize.  “Now, didn’t I tell you, ma’am, ‘twas too late?  Your things were all alight.  This is one of the occasions when folks may be glad their goods ain’t worth much, ‘stead of risking their precious lives to save them.  Sit down, there’s a good creature,” he continued, as he and Felix conducted her to a grassy bank.

    Mrs. Snaith put a small box into the hands of Felix, then sat down and wiped her face.

    “Your gown’s no better than tinder,” continued Mr. Bolton, taking a mean advantage of her inability to answer.  “Choked a’most, I can see.  And you’ve got me a good suit of clothes spoilt very near, and the water, that’s black as ink, running over me and Mr. de Berenger, and right into our shoes, just because you must needs save your Sunday bonnet.  There’s nothing better in that box, I’ll be bound.  And I did tell you your Windsor chairs were safe outside, before even we got out of church, and your eight-day clock, and your best fender and fire-irons.”  Here he gave himself a shake, and a pool of water enlarged itself at his feet.

    “Let her alone,” said Felix, compassionately.  “She thought the children were inside.

    “No, sir,” said Mrs. Snaith recovering her voice, ”I didn’t.”

    Having thus dissipated his sympathy, she got back her box from him, and he also felt for the first time how wet he was.  He, too, felt inclined to moralize.

    A good many buckets of water had by this time been flung at the fire, but it seemed to send all out in steam again, and before ever a straw of the thatch was wet and just as the sunset flush faded, all that had once been a habitation had gone up or gone down.  It was not.  A thick black cloud of pungent smoke brooded still among the trees, and a soft, wet heap of ashes was lying in the garden.  The shouting and excitement were over.  It had been a very old cottage, and built of wood and plaster; dry weather had made the thatch ready for a spark, which had come from the chimney.  Well, it had been a strange thing to see how fast it had melted down, or with what a rage of haste the flame and smoke of it had ascended; but, after all, the people considered it had not been what any one could call a tragical sight: nobody was injured, and there was hardly any property in it worth mentioning.

    Felix was a little hoarse the next morning, after his wetting, when Mrs. Snaith knocked at his study door, and asked if she might speak with him.

    She and her children had slept at the rectory; her eight-day clock had been accommodated in the kitchen, and was diligently ticking and striking against the clock of the house.  Her Windsor chairs, also her fender and fire-irons, some bedding, and a few toys, were disposed about a large, empty room.  No need to apologize for their presence in it; they made it look more habitable.

    These things had been saved by the first man who discovered the fire, and who had carried the two little girls down-stairs before he gave the alarm.

    Mrs. Snaith, over and above a sort of contrition for the trouble her goods had caused in their burning — or saving, as the case might be — was much vexed at the drenching Mr. de Berenger had got, and the cold it had evidently given him.

    Felix had fortunately been only arrayed at the time in a rusty old camlet cassock; it was still in course of being slowly dried at the kitchen fire.  Joliffe said it could take no damage; it was past that.  This was a secret source of comfort to Mrs. Snaith.  But she longed to explain matters, and she wanted to know what had been done with her box.  As Felix opened the door to let her enter, she felt a certain hint of disapproval in his voice, hoarse though it was.

    “If you please, sir,” she began, ”might I see if the things in my box are safe?”

    “Oh, your box,” he answered, looking about him.  “What did I do with it?  There it is — just inside the fender.  You risked a great deal for that box, Mrs. Snaith.”

    He was sitting now at his writing-table, and, pointing with his pen at the scorched and smoky article, was surprised to see the eagerness with which she darted upon it, as she replied, “Well, yes, sir; but what else could I do?  If I’d lost that, I should never have forgave myself.  I didn’t ought to have kept it in the copper, but I thought it was a safe place, too.”

    She set it on the table before him.

    “This is a sort of thing that people call a bandbox, is it not?“ he inquired.  “You surely kept nothing valuable in it?”

    “Yes, sir, I did.  I thought, in case of thieves, they would never think of looking in a bandbox for what I’d got.  It’s full of papers and things, sir.  All I have for maintaining the children, and schooling them, and that.”

    Felix was struck with astonishment when she opened it, and began to lay its contents before him.

    “Why, this is property,” he exclaimed, taking up a paper.  “This is a United States bond, payable to bearer.  If this had been burnt, the money it brings in would have been lost, forfeited, and, as far as I know, irreclaimable.”

    “Yes, I know, sir.  I was fully warned.”

    "By whom?“

    Mrs. Snaith was not to be caught; she made an evident pause here, choosing her words.

    “By him that gave them over to me, sir.  He advised me to turn them into another kind of property so soon as I could.  But I never could exactly make out how.  And I was afraid it might be found out.”

    She stopped and coloured, as if vexed with herself, when she had said these last words.  He made as if he had not heard them; and she had such trust in him, and in his gentle manhood, that observing this, she felt safe again, as if she had not made that little slip of the tongue.

    “Where is the list?  You have a list of the papers, of course,” continued Felix; and he had scarcely any doubt that he should be shown his cousin John de Berenger’s handwriting.

    “I have no list, sir."

    Felix, full of surprise, paused again.  He had set a chair for her opposite to himself, and as she took out paper after paper, and handed them to him across the narrow table, he received each and scanned it with curiosity and interest.

    “Would you like me to make a list for you?” he said at last.

    “I should be much obliged to you, sir.  Most of them have numbers — I’ve noticed that; and I have some of the numbers in my memory.”

    “Do I understand that no list, even of the numbers, was given you?”

    “No, sir,” she replied, as if apologizing for the donor.  “It were rather a hasty thing, and a legal document cost money.”

    “A legal document!  Well, Mrs. Snaith” — here he paused; he would not mention a name, she having so carefully and pointedly refrained from doing so — “Well, Mrs. Snaith, he showed great confidence in you that gave these papers over to your charge.”

    “He hadn’t any choice, sir,” she put in, but rather faintly.  (“I’ll be bound he hadn’t!” thought Felix.)  And she continued her sentence, “And it was no more than my due to have them.”

    “Still, as I said, it was a great mark of confidence,” continued Felix, “and far be it from me to show less.  But I may say, and I do, that it was a strange act of imprudence in you to keep this property by you in such a form, specially though (as you admit) you were expressly warned not to do so.  Since you lived here you have, as I remember, taken a journey several times.  Did you carry this box with you?”

    “Yes, sir; I went to get what they call the dividends paid.  I fared to think I ought not to trouble you about this, but now you have come to know――

    “Well, Mrs. Snaith?”

    “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind the trouble of letting me understand how to turn them into something safer — invest them over again.  You see, sir, if I were to die, it would be very awkward.”

    “Very, indeed,” said Felix, gravely; “because, for anything that appears to the contrary, this property is absolutely yours; so that, if you died, not a shilling of it could be claimed for the children.  I say,” he continued, seeing her look amazed, “that the two children, being no relation to you, could not, in case of your death, claim to possess what is only payable to Hannah Snaith.  Your own relations might claim it, you see, and the children would actually be cut out.”

    Mrs. Snaith, on hearing this, turned extremely pale.  She saw that she herself was, in case she died, so acting as to cut her children out of the money which she only cared to have for their sake.  What had she not sacrificed already for them?  How should she learn to do anything more?

    “But surely there is a will,” continued Felix, the strangeness of John’s supposed conduct growing on him.  “No doubt, though you may not be aware of it, some other person, some other guardian, must have been appointed to meet such a case.”

    Mrs. Snaith, still very pale, was silent.  If she had only said so much as “I do not know,” he would have been better satisfied.

    “I take for granted that the person, whoever he was, that made over this property to you, did so in full confidence that it would be faithfully spent on and for these children.”

    To this appeal she still made no reply.  She had for some time seen no cause to fear that her wretched husband would ever find her; she had left behind her, at present divided among her own relations, so much of the income as she felt it her duty to let him take, and she meant the children to inherit the remainder.  “I may die any day,” was the thought now pressing on her, “and so sure as I die, they would advertise for my relations, let them have it, and, unless they found out the truth, which would be still worse, my dears would be left penniless.”

    ”Sir,” she said at last, “if it please the Lord, I hope I shall live to see my —dear—young ladies grow up.”

    The slight, the undefinable air of disapproval, daunted her.  She was so much puzzled, so much agitated by the perception of how nearly she had lost everything, and by his remark as to the children not being related to her, that she had no intelligence at liberty for noticing that disapproval was an odd sensation for a man to exhibit concerning a matter that was no affair of his.  Still less did she think of Sir Samuels former notion, as perhaps shared by Felix.  She never doubted that the old man had received a letter from his son, which had set the matter at rest.  She often thought he had gone away because he was proudly angry that he ever should have been so deceived, and should have demeaned himself to come and question her.

    There was Sarah, to be sure — the children were still allowed to call her coz —but Sarah was so inconsequent, so wrong-headed, that she and her doings hardly seemed to count.

    “I have been very foolish, I own, sir," she said at last in a tone of apology, for, as has just been explained, the reason of his disapproval was hidden from her.  “What do you think it would be best for me to do now?”

    “I am not a very good man of business,” Felix answered, “but I think this property could not be invested in the names of the two children — only by guardians or trustees, for their benefit.”  Then he paused to think.  “I am the more likely to be right in this notion, because it has not been done already; but I can easily ascertain.  If you consent to its being invested for them,” he continued, “I will agree to be one of the guardians you being the other.”

    Amazing kindness! remarkable condescension!  Mrs. Snaith could not hear it and keep her seat.  She rose and curtsied.  “Sir, you are very kind; I am deeply obliged to you,” she answered very highly flattered, and also very much flustered.  “I never could have hoped for such goodness; but it’s just like you, sir.“

    Why was it “like” in Mrs. Snaith’s opinion?  Because Felix stood godfather to half the children baptized in his parish; because he let himself be called, at all untimely hours, to comfort the sick; because he had housed her goods, and helped to carry them in as a matter of course; because she had more than once seen him carry the market-basket of a poor, rheumatic old woman, and lend her the aid of his arm as well to help her home — these were some of the reasons why it was “like him“ to propose being guardian to her little treasures.

    Felix looked up when, again seating herself, she pushed the papers towards him, as if giving them over to his charge for good and all.

    The shadow of a smile crossed his face.  He did not see that it was so very kind; but the tinge of disapproval vanished.

    “You consent, then?”

    “Yes, sir, I consent, and thank you kindly; but I am that circumstanced, as I can only say I consent unless he should interfere that may be able to interfere.”

    “Now what does she mean by that?” thought Felix, still strong in the notion that he was to be guardian to John de Berenger’s children.  “Can she mean old Sam?  I suppose she does.”

    But though his face was full of cogitation, the sunshine of approval had come back to it — he was even feeling that he had wronged her; and when she said would he lock the papers up in some safe place, and do as he pleased about investments, he felt suddenly that he did not want such perfect liberty as that.  “I shall do nothing without consulting a lawyer,” he said, “and you will be so good as to take care of the list I have made.”

    “Hadn’t you better keep it, sir?” she answered, in her simplicity; “it would save you the trouble of making another.”

    “No, Mrs. Snaith,” he answered, and laughed and held out his hand, as he generally did to his parishioners.  So she shook hands with him and left the room, feeling as if she should like to serve him all her days.

    When she had retired, Felix again looked over the papers.  “All made payable to bearer — that bearer, Hannah Snaith.”  Now, if John de Berenger had made that money over to her during his lifetime, it must have been to protect it, so that it could not be recognized as his, and claimed by his creditors.  He must have trusted her; and she had proved worthy of his trust as regarded her honesty.  As regarded her prudence — no!

    Felix leaned his chin on one hand, and turning over those papers with the other, began to puzzle himself with a problem which he stated wrongly, and which, consequently, could have no right answer.

    The problem was this.

    “As John de Berenger had died deeply in debt, could this money (invested in the name of Hannah Snaith) be considered in fairness to belong to his children; was it not the property of his creditors?  Had he not proved, by the course he had taken, in order to conceal or protect it from them, that it was in justice theirs?

    “That depends,” Felix presently thought, “on how John got the money.  Wait a minute.  This woman, Hannah Snaith, has repeatedly declared that she knew nothing about John.  After all, why may not this be true?  Why may not the money have come through his wife, whoever she was?

    “No, that won’t do.  ‘By him that made them over to me,’ she said.  Well, why should it not have been the wife’s father?

    “Let me think this out.  If John did marry, as I suppose is certain (at least, one of the few things Hannah Snaith has positively declared, is that these children were born in wedlock, and that she could easily prove it if necessary) — as he did marry, I will therefore say he must be supposed to have married that poor, pretty young creature, the Baptist minister’s daughter, whom he harped upon to me for years, fell in love with when she was only fifteen, as he saw her passing to and from school — Fanny Tindale (neither child is called Fanny, by-the-by).  Well, let us say that after her father moved away to somewhere in Lincolnshire, I think it was, John went and married Fanny Tindale.  I know she died some time ago.  Suppose her father, a vulgar old fellow, but not particularly poor that I am aware of, saved, or at any rate died possessed of, what I now see before me — I am sure I have heard that he too is dead — of course his care would be to prevent John from ever touching his money; but if he died before his daughter, he may have feared lest somehow it might be got hold of by the creditors, and may have chosen to trust it to a person whom he knew, and no relation, in the faith of her honesty.  Her being more of his class in life than of John’s, is much in favour of the theory.  And this is in favour of it too, that by all I know of her — and I know her now pretty well — I seem to be assured that she is not a person who would lend herself to any scheme that she knew to be dishonest.“

    Felix de Berenger, having thus stated his problem, thought the better of himself for finding an answer to it so convincing and so complete.

    “I wonder I never thought of this before,” he observed, as with a satisfied air he locked up Hannah Snaith’s papers.  “Poor little waifs !  Yes, I see it all.”

    An uncomfortable reflection sometimes presses on us, to the effect that the world is full of people who think they have an answer to most of the problems of life, or at least to such as more especially concern their own lives.  Who think so — but we are sure they are mistaken.  And is it not possible — just possible — though to the last degree improbable, that we, we ourselves, may be?  No, that flash of intelligence crossing the shady chambers of thought, is soon put out; of such reflections the human mind is always impatient.

    Yet a great many of us know no more of the answers to such problems as lie close about us, and most concern us, than did the Reverend Felix de Berenger in this recorded instance, and nevertheless we, perhaps, as he did, bring a great deal of good out of the mistaken circumstances.



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