Fated to be Free (8)

Home Up Poems Story of Doom Monitions Old Days Poetical Works Allerton and Dreux Allerton and Dreux Off the Skelligs Sarah De Berenger Don John John Jerome A Moto Changed Studies for Stories Stories Told to a Child A Sister's Bye-Hours Mopsa the Fairy Wonder Box Tales Sheet Music Sheet Music Reviews, etc. Main Index Site Search


 

[Previous Page]

 
CHAPTER XXVIII.

MELCOMBE.


"In the pleasant orchard closes
    'God bless all our gains,' say we,
 But, 'May God bless all our losses,'
     Better suits with our degree"

E. B. BROWNING.


THE shade of twilight was but just fleeting, a faint glow waxed over the eastern hills, and the great orchard of pear-trees that pressed up to one end of Melcombe House showed white as an army of shrouded ghosts in the dim solemnities of dawn.  The house was closely shut up, and no one met Valentine, as, tired after a night journey, he dismissed a hired fly at the inn, and came up slowly to those grand old silent trees.

    Without sunshine, white in nature is always most solemn.  Here stillness was added; not a bird was yet awake, not a leaf stirred.  A faint bluish haze appeared to confuse the outlines of the trees, but as he lingered looking at them and at the house which he had now fully decided to take for his home, Mr. Melcombe saw this haze dissolve itself and retreat; there was light enough to make the paleness whiter, and to show the distinct brown trunk of each pear-tree, with the cushions of green moss at its roots.  Formless whiteness and visible dusk had divided themselves into light and shade, then came a shaft of sunshine, the boughs laden with dewy blossom sparkled like snow, and in one instant the oppression of their solemnity was over, and they appeared to smile upon his approach to his home.

    He had done everything he could think of, and knew not how to devise anything further, and yet this secret, if there was one, would not come forward and look him in the face.  He had searched the house in the first instance for letters and papers; there were some old letters, and old papers also, but not one that did not seem to be as clear in the innocence of its meaning as possible; there was even one that set at rest doubt and fear which he had hitherto entertained.  He had found no closets in the wall, no locked chambers; he had met with no mysterious silences, mysterious looks, mysterious words.  Then he had gone to meet the bereaved mother, that if she had anything to say in the way of warning to him, or repentance for herself, he might lay himself out to hear it; but no, he had found her generally not willing to talk, but all she did say showed tender reverence for the dead Melcombes, and passionate grief for her boy who had been taken, as she said, before he was old enough even to estimate at its due value the prosperous and happy career he had before him.  He tried Laura.  Laura, though sincerely sorry for poor little Peter's death, was very sentimental; told Valentine, to his surprise, that it was mainly on her account they had wintered on the Continent, and with downcast eyes and mysterious confusion that made him tremble, at first utterly declined to tell him the reason.

    When he found, therefore, that Mrs. Melcombe did not care at present to return to England, and was far better able than he was to arrange her journey when she did, he might have come home at once, but for this mystery of Laura's.  And when, after cultivating his intimacy with her for nearly a month, he at last found out, beyond a doubt, that it related to a love affair which Amelia had not approved of, he felt as if everything he approached, concerning the matter of his father's letter, melted into nothingness at his touch.

    He acknowledged to himself that he should have been deeply disappointed if he had discovered anything to justify this letter; and when the full, low sunlight shone upon his large comfortable old house, glorified the blossoming orchard and set off the darkness of the ancient yews, he felt a touch of that sensation, which some people think is not fancy only.  Everything about him seemed familiar.  The old-fashioned quaintness was a part of himself.  "The very first time I saw that clean, empty coach-house," he reflected, "I felt as if I had often played in it.  I almost seemed to hear other boys shouting to me.  Is it true that I never let off squibs and crackers in that yard?"

    He walked nearer.  How cheerful it all looked, swept up with extra neatness, and made orderly for the new master's eyes!

    "By-the-bye," he thought, catching sight of a heavy old outhouse door, "there is the ghost story.  Having examined all realities so far as I can, I will try my hand at things unreal―for even now, though I am very grateful to Providence for such a house and such an inheritance, once show me a good reason, and over it goes, as it should have done at first, if my father could have given me one.  That door seems just the sort of thing for a ghost to pass through.  I'll look at the book Laura told me of, and see which door it was."

    So the house being now open, and Mr. Melcombe observed by his servants (who alone were there to give him welcome), he entered, ordered breakfast, which was spread for him in the "great parlour," and having now got into the habit of making investigations, had no sooner finished his meal than he began to look at the notes he had made from what Mrs. Melcombe had told him of the ghost story.

    It was a story that she had not half finished when he recognised it―he had read it with all its particulars in a book, only with the names and localities disguised.

    "Oh, yes," she answered, when he said so.  "It is very well known; it has always been considered one of the best authenticated stories of its kind on record, though it was not known beyond the family and the village for several years.  Augustus Melcombe, you know, was the name of the dear grandmother's only brother, her father's heir; he was her father's only son, two daughters born between died in infancy.  That poor young fellow died at sea, and just at the time (as is supposed) that he expired, his wraith appeared to the old woman, Becky Maddison, then a very young girl.  I am sorry to say the old woman has made a gain of this story.  People often used to come to hear it, and she certainly does not always tell it exactly the same.  People's inquiries, I suppose, and suggestions, have induced her to add to it; but the version I am giving you is what she first told."

    Mrs. Melcombe mentioned the book in which Valentine would find it, and repeated from memory the impressive conclusion, "And this story of the young man's appearance to her had been repeatedly told by the girl before his family became alarmed at his protracted absence.  It was during the long war, and the worst they feared was that he might have been taken prisoner; but more than three years after a member of the family met by accident, when some hundreds of miles away from home, a naval officer who had sailed in the ship to which this young lieutenant belonged, and heard from him, not without deep emotion, that at that very time and at that very hour the youth had died at sea."

    "There is only one mistake in that version," continued Mrs. Melcombe, "and that is, that we do not know the exact time when the young man died.  Cuthbert Melcombe was not told the month even, only the year."

    "But surely that is a very important mistake," said Valentine.

    "Yes, for those to consider who believe in supernatural stories.  It is certain, however, that the girl told this story within a day or two, and told it often, so that it was known in the village.  It is certain also that he was at sea, and that he never came home.  And it is undoubtedly true that Cuthbert, when in London, heard this account, for he wrote his mother home a description of the whole interview, with the officer's name and ship.  I have seen the letter, and read it over several times.  The year of the death at sea is mentioned, but not the day.  Now the day of the ghost's appearance we cannot be wrong about; it was that before the night of the great gale which did such damage in these parts, that for years it could not be forgotten."

    "You have read the letter, you say?"

    "Yes; it was an important one, I suppose.  But I fancy that it was not read by any one but the dear grandmother till after poor Cuthbert Melcombe's sad death, and then I think the family lawyer found it among her papers when she had to inherit the estate.  He may have wanted evidence, perhaps, that Augustus Melcombe was dead."

    "Perhaps so," said Valentine.  "It is just of the usual sort, I see, this story; a blue light hovering about the head.  The ghost walked in his shroud, and she saw the seams in it."

    "Yes, and then it passed through the door without opening it," added Laura, who was present.  "How dear grandmother disliked the woman!  She showed a sort of fear, too, of that door, which made us sure she believed the story."

    "Very natural," said Mrs. Melcombe, sighing, "that she could not bear to have her misfortunes made a subject for idle talk and curiosity.  I am sure I should feel keenly hurt if it was ever said that my poor innocent darling haunted the place."

    "Had anything been said against him in his lifetime?" Valentine next ventured to ask.  "Had he done anything which was likely to put it into people's heads to say he might be uneasy in his grave?"

    "Oh no, nothing of the sort," said Laura.  "And then old Becky is thought to have added circumstances to the story, so that it came from that cause to be discredited of late.  It is almost forgotten now, and we never believed it at all; but it certainly is an odd coincidence that she should have told it of a man who never came back to contradict her, and who really did die, it appears, about that time."

    Valentine accordingly went in the course of a few days to find old Becky Maddison.  The cottage was not far from the village.  Only the daughter was below, and when Valentine had told his name and errand, she went up-stairs, perhaps to prepare her mother, to whom she presently conducted him.

    Valentine found her a poor bedridden creature, weak, frail, and querulous.  She was in a clean and moderately comfortable bed, and when she saw him her puckered face and faded eyes began to look more intelligent and attentive, and she presently remarked on his likeness to his father.

    A chair was set for him, and sitting down, he showed a sovereign in his palm, and said, "I want to hear the ghost story; tell it me as it really was, and you shall have this."

    A shabby book was lying on the bed.

    "Her can tell it no better'n it's told here," said the daughter.

    Valentine took up the book.  It was the same that he knew; the blue light and the shroud appeared in it.  He put the money into her hand.  "No," he said; "you shall have the money beforehand.  Now, then, say what you really saw."

    Old Becky clutched the gold, and said, in a weak, whimpering tone, "'Tain't often I tell it―ain't told it sin' Christmas marnin', old Madam couldn't abide to hear on't."

    "Old Madam's gone," said Valentine seriously.

    "Ay, her be―her wer a saint, and sings in heaven now."

    "And I want to hear it."

    Thereupon the old woman roused herself a little, and with the voice and manner of one repeating a lesson, told Valentine word for word the trumpery tale in the book; how she had seen Mr. Melcombe early in the morning, as she went up to the house on washing-day, to help the servants.  For "Madam," a widow already, had leave to live there till he should return.  He was walking in his shroud among the cherry-trees, and he looked seriously at her.  She passed, but turned instantly, and he had disappeared; he must have gone right through the crack of the door.

    Valentine was vexed, and yet relieved.  Such a ridiculous tale could only be an invention; and yet, if she would have told it in different words, or have added anything, it might have led to some discovery―it might, at least, have shown how it came to pass that such a story had obtained credit.

    "That was it, was it?" he said, feigning content.  "I should like to ask you another question; perhaps your daughter will not mind going down."

    With evident reluctance the daughter withdrew.  Valentine shut the door, and came back to his place.

    Naturally enough, he cared nothing about the story; so he approached the only thing he did care about in the matter.  "I want to ask you this one thing: a ghost, you say, appeared to you―well, what do you think it was for―what did it want―what did it mean?"

    Evident surprise on the part of his listener.

    "It must have come for something," Valentine added, when she remained silent.  "Have you never considered what?"

    "Ay, sir, sure-ly.  He came to let folks know he was gone."

    "And that was all, you think?"

    "What else could he come for?" she answered.

    "Nobody has ever said, then, that it came for anything else," thought Valentine.  "The poor ghost is not accused of any crime, and there is no crime known of concerning the family or place that could be imputed to him."

    "You are sure you have nothing more to say to me?"

    "Ne'er a word, sir, this blessed marnin', but thank you kindly."

    Perhaps Valentine had never felt better pleased in his life than he did when he went down the narrow, dark stairs, after his interview with Becky Maddison.  To find that without doubt she was either a fool or an impostor, was not what should have softened his heart and opened his purse for her; but he had feared to encounter her story far more than he had known himself till now that all fear was over.  So when he got down to the daughter he was gracious, and generously gave her leave to come to the house for wine and any other comforts that the old woman might require.  "And I shall come and see her from time to time," he added, as he went his way, for with the old woman's last word had snapped the chain that had barred the road to Melcombe.  It was his.  He should dispense its charity, pay its dues, and from henceforth, without fear or superstition, enjoy its revenues.

    About this time something occurred at John Mortimer's house, which made people hold up their hands, and exclaim, "What next?"

    It would be a difficult matter to tell that story correctly, considering how many had a hand in the telling of it, and that no two of them told it in the least degree alike; considering also that Mr. Mortimer, who certainly could have told the greater part of it, had (so far as was known) never told it at all.

    Everybody said he had knocked up Swan and Mrs. Swan at six o'clock one morning, and sent the former to call up Matthew the coachman, who also lived out of the house.  "And that," said Swan, when he admitted the fact to after questioners, "Matthew never will forgive me for doing.  He hates to get his orders through other folks, specially through me.  He allus grudges me the respect as the family can't help feeling for me.  Not but that he gets his share, but he counts nothing his if it's mine too.  He'd like to pluck the very summer out of my almanack, and keep it in his own little back parlour."  Everybody said, also, that Mrs. Swan had made the fire that morning in Mr. Mortimer's kitchen, and that Matthew had waited on him and his four daughters at breakfast, nobody else being in the house, gentle or simple.

    Gentle or simple.  That was certainly true, for the governess had taken her departure two days previously.

    After this, everybody said that Matthew brought the carriage round, and Mr. Mortimer put in the girls, and got in himself, telling Matthew to drive to Wigfield Hall, where Mr. Brandon, coming out to meet him with a look of surprise, he said, "Giles, we are early visitors;" and Mr. Brandon answered, "All the more welcome, John."  Everybody said also that the four Miss Mortimers remained for several days with Mrs. Brandon, and very happy they seemed.

    But though people knew no more, they naturally said a good deal more―they always do.  Some said that Mr. Mortimer, coming home unexpectedly after a journey in the middle of the night, found the kitchen chimney on fire, and some of the servants asleep on the floor, nothing like so sober as they should have been.  Others said he found a dance going on in the servants' hall, and the cook waltzing with a policeman, several gentlemen of the same craft being present.  Others, again, said that when he returned he found the house not only empty, but open; that he sat down and waited, in a lowering passion, till they all returned in two flys from some festivities at a public-house in Wigfield; and then, meeting them at the door, he retained the flys, and waving his hand, ordered them all off the premises; saw them very shortly depart, and locked the doors behind them.  It was a comfort to be able to invent so many stories, and not necessary to make them tally, for no one could contradict them; certainly not any one of the four Miss Mortimers, for they had all been fast asleep the whole time.

    Mr. Mortimer held his peace; but while staying with Mr. and Mrs. Brandon till he could reconstruct his household, he was observed at first to be out of spirits, and vastly inclined to be out of temper.  He did his very best to hide this, but he could not hide a sort of look half shame, half amusement, which would now and then steal round the corners of his mouth, as if it had come out of some hiding-place to take a survey of things in general.

    John Mortimer had perhaps rather prided himself on his penetration, his powers of good government, the order and respectability of his household, and other matters of that description.  He had been taught in rather an ignominious fashion that he had overvalued himself in those particulars.

    He was always treated by strangers whom he employed with a great deal of respect and deference; but this was mainly owing to a somewhat commanding presence and a good deal of personal dignity.  When the same people got used to him, perceived the bonhomie of his character, his carelessness about money matters, and his easy household ways, they were sometimes known to take all the more advantage of him from having needlessly feared him at first.

    He said to Giles, "It is very evident now that I must marry.  I owe it to the mother of my children, and in fact to them."

    Mrs. Brandon said this to Mrs. Walker when, the next day, these two ladies met, and were alone together, excepting for the presence of St. George Mortimer Brandon, which did not signify.  "The house might have been robbed," she continued, "and the children burnt in their beds."

    "Giles told you this afterwards?"

    "Yes."

    Emily looked uncomfortable.  "One never knows how men may discuss matters when they are alone.  I hope, if John ever asked advice of Giles, he would not――"

    Here a pause.

    "He would not recommend any one in particular," said Dorothea, looking down on her baby's face.  "Oh no, I am certain he would not think of such a thing.  Besides, the idea that he had any one to suggest has, I know, never entered his head."

    This she said without looking at Emily, and in a matter-of-fact tone.  If one had discovered anything, and the other was aware of it, she could still here at least feel perfectly safe.  This sister of hers, even to her own husband, would never speak.

    "And that was all?"

    "No; Giles said he gave him various ludicrous particulars, and repeated, with such a sincere sigh, 'I must marry―it's a dire necessity!' that Giles laughed, and so did he."

    "Poor John!" said Emily, "there certainly was not much in his first marriage to tempt him into a second.  And so I suppose Giles encouraged him, saying, as he often does, that he had never known any happiness worth mentioning till he married."

    "Yes, dear," said Dorothea, "and he answered, 'But you did not pitch yourself into matrimony like a man taking a header into a fathomless pool.  You were in love, old fellow, and I am not.  Why, I have not decided yet on the lady!'  He cannot mean, therefore, to marry forthwith, Emily; besides, it must be the literal truth that he has not even half unconsciously a real preference for any one, or he could not have talked so openly to Giles.  He does not even foresee any preference."

    "But I hope to help him to a preference very soon," she thought, and added aloud, "Dear, you will stay and dine with us?"

    Emily replied that she could not, she was to dine with a neighbour; and she shortly departed, in possession of the most imprudent speeches John had ever made (for he was usually most reticent), and she could not guess of course that one of his assertions time had already falsified.  He had decided on the lady.

    While the notion that he must marry had slumbered, his thought that Emily should be his wife had slumbered also; but that morning, driving towards Wigfield, he had stopped at his own house to give some orders, and then had gone up into "Parliament" to fetch out some small possessions that his twin daughters wanted.  There, standing for a moment to look about him, his eyes had fallen on his throne, and instantly the image of Emily had recurred to him, and her attitude as she held his little child.  To give a step-mother to his children had always been a painful thought.  They might be snubbed, misrepresented to him, uncherished, unloved.  But Emily! there was the tender grace of motherhood in her every action towards a little child; her yearning sense of loss found its best appeasement in the pretty exactions and artless dependence of small young creatures.  No; Emily might spoil step-children if she had them, but she could not be unkind.

    His cold opinion became a moderately pleased conviction.  This was so much the right thing, that once contemplated, it became the only thing.  He recalled her image again, as he looked at the empty throne, and he did not leave the room till he had fully decided to set her on it.

    When John went back to dinner, he soon managed to introduce her name, and found those about him very willing to talk of her.  It seemed so natural in that house.  John recalled some of the anecdotes of her joyous girlhood for Dorothea's benefit; they laughed over them together.  They all talked a good deal that evening of Emily, but this made no difference to John's intention; it was fully formed already.

    So the next morning, having quite recovered his spirits, and almost forgotten what he had said three days before to his host, he remarked to himself, just as he finished dressing, "She has been a widow now rather more than a year.  The sooner I do it, the better."

    He sat down to cogitate.  It was not yet breakfast time.  "Well," he said, "she is a sweet creature.  What would I have, I wonder!"

    He took a little red morocco case from his pocket-book, and opened it.

    "My father was exceedingly fond of her," he next said, "and nothing would have pleased him better."

    His father had inherited a very fine diamond ring from his old cousin, and had been in the habit of wearing it.  John, who never decked himself in jewellery of any sort, had lately taken this ring to London, and left it with his jeweller, to be altered so as to fit a lady's finger.  He intended it for his future wife.

    It had just been sent back to him.

    Some people say, "There are no fools like old fools."  It might be said with equal truth, there are no follies like the follies of a wise man.

    "I cannot possibly play the part of a lover," said Mr. Mortimer, and his face actually changed its hue slightly when he spoke.  "How shall I manage to give it to her!"

    He looked at the splendid gem, glittering and sparkling.  "And I hate insincerity," he continued.  Then, having taken out the ring, he inspected it as if he wished it could help him, turning it round on the tip of his middle finger.  "Trust her?  I should think so!  Like her?  Of course I do.  I'll settle on her anything Giles pleases, but I must act like a gentleman, and not pretend to any romantic feelings."

    A pause.

    "It's rather an odd thing," he further reflected, "that so many women as have all but asked me―so many as have actually let other women ask me for them―so many as I know I might now have almost at a week's notice, I should have taken it into my head that I must have this one, who doesn't care for me a straw.  She'll laugh at me, very likely―she'll take me, though!"

    Another pause.

    "No, I won't have any one else, I'm determined.  I'll agree to anything she demands."  Here a sunbeam, and the diamonds darted forth to meet one another.  The flash made him wink.  "If she'll only undertake to reign and rule, and bring up the children―for she'll do it well, and love them too―I'm a very domestic fellow, I shall be fond of her.  Yes, I know she'll soon wind me round her little finger."  Here, remembering the sweetness of liberty, he sighed.  "I'll lay the matter before her this morning.  I shall not forget the respect due to her and to myself."  He half laughed.  "She'll soon know well enough what I'm come for; and if I stick fast, she will probably help me!"  He shut up the ring.  "She never has had the least touch of romance in her nature, and she knows that I know she didn't love her first husband a bit."  He then looked at himself, or rather at his coat, in a long glass―it fitted to perfection.  "If this crash had not brought me to the point, I might have waited till somebody else won her.  There goes the breakfast bell.  Well, I think I am decidedly glad on the whole."


 
CHAPTER XXIX.

UNHEARD-OF LIBERTIES.


"If he come not then the play is marred: it goes not forward,
 doth it?"

Midsummer Night's Dream.


MISS CHRISTIE GRANT, sitting with Emily at ten o'clock in the morning, heard a ring at the bell, which she thought she knew.  She pricked up her head to listen, and as it ceased tinkling she bustled out of the room.

    The first virtue of a companion in Miss Christie Grant's view, was to know how to be judiciously absent.

    "Mr. Mortimer."

    Emily was writing, when she looked up on hearing these words, and saw John Mortimer advancing.  Of course she had been thinking of him, thinking with much more hope than heretofore, but also with much more pride.

    When he had stood remote, the object of such an impassioned, and to her, hitherto, such an unknown love, which transformed him and everything about him, and imparted to him such an almost unbearable charm―a power to draw her nearer and nearer without knowing it, or wanting her at all―she had felt that she could die for him, but she had not hoped to live for him, and spend a happy life at his side.

    She did not hope it yet, she only felt that a blissful possibility was thrown down before her, and she might take it up if she could.

    She knew that this strange absorbing love, which, like some splendid flower, had opened out in her path, was the one supreme blossom of her life―that life which is all too short for the unfolding of another such.  But the last few hours had taught her something more, it was now just possible that he might pretend to gather this flower―he had something to learn then before he could wear it, he must love her, or she felt that her own love would break her heart.

    Emily had not one of those poverty-stricken natures which are never glad excepting for some special reason drawing them above themselves.  She was naturally joyous and happy, unless under the pressure of an active sorrow that shaded her sky and quenched her sunshine.  She lived in an elevated region full of love and wonder, taking kindly alike to reverence and to hope; but she was seldom excited, her feelings were not shallow enough to be easily troubled with excitement, or made fitful with agitation.

    There was in her nature a suave harmony, a sweet and gracious calm, which love itself did not so much disturb as enrich and change,―love which had been born in the sacred loneliness of sorrow,―complicated with tender longing towards little children, nourished in silence, with beautiful shame and pride, and impassioned fear.

    Yet it was necessary to her, even in all withdrawal from its object, even though it should be denied all expression for ever―necessary to the life that it troubled and raised, and enriched, with a vision of withheld completeness that was dimmed by the tears of her half "divine despair."

    She rose and held out her hand, and when he smiled with a certain air of embarrassment, she did also.  She observed that he was sensitive about the ridiculous affair which had led to his turning out his household, besides this early call made her feel, but not in a way to discompose her as if she were taken into the number of those ladies, among whom he meant to make his selection.  Yes, it was as she had hoped.  It warmed her to the heart to see it, but not the less was she aware of the ridiculous side of it.  A vision of long-sustained conversations, set calls, and careful observations in various houses rose up before her; it was not in her nature to be unamused at the peculiar position that he had confessed to―"he had not decided on the lady."  She felt that she knew more of this than he supposed, and his embarrassment making her quite at her ease, the smiles kept peeping out as with her natural grace she began to talk to him.

    "Emily, you are laughing at me," he presently said, and he too laughed, felt at ease, and yielded to the charm that few men could resist, so far as to become at home and pleased with his hostess for making him so.

    "Of course I am, John," she answered.  "I couldn't think of being occupied with any one else just now!"

    And then they began to talk discursively and, as it were, at large.  John seemed to be fetching a wide compass.  Emily hardly knew what he was about till suddenly she observed that he had ventured on dangerous ground, she managed to give a little twist to the conversation, but he soon brought it back again, and she half turned, and looked up at him surprised.

    While she occupied herself with a favourite piece of embroidery, and was matching the silks, holding them up to the light, he had risen, and was leaning against the side of the bay window; a frequent attitude with him; for what are called "occasional" chairs are often rather frail and small for accommodating a large tall man, and drawing-room sofas are sometimes exceedingly low.  In any one's eyes he would have passed for a fine man, something more (to those who could see it) than a merely handsome man, for the curves of his mouth had mastery in them, and his eyes were full of grave sweetness.  Emily was always delighted with the somewhat unusual meeting in him of personal majesty, with the good-humoured easy bonhomie which had caused his late discomfiture.  She half turned, and looked up.

    "How charming she is!" he thought, as he looked down; "there will be grace and beauty into the bargain!" and he proceeded, in pursuit of what he considered sincere and gentlemanlike, to venture on the dangerous ground again, not being aware how it quaked under him.

    The casual mention of some acquaintance who had lately married gave him the chance that he thought he wanted.  He would be happy enough―people might in general be happy enough, he hinted, glancing from the particular instance to lay down a general proposition―"if they did not expect too much―if they were less romantic; for himself, he had not the presumption to expect more than a sincere liking―a cordial approval―such as he himself could entertain. It was the only feeling he had ever inspired, or――"

    No, he did not say felt.

    But he presently alluded to his late wife, and then reverting to his former speech, said, "And yet I was happy with her! I consider that I was fortunate."

    "Moderate," thought Emily; "but as much as it is possible for him to say."

    "And," he continued, "she has laid me under obligations that make it impossible for me ever to forget her.  I feel the blessing of having our children about me.  And―and also―what I owe to her on their account―I never spend a day without thinking of her."

    "Poor Janie!" thought Emily, very much touched, "she did not deserve this tribute.  How coldly I have often heard her talk of him!"

    And then, not without a certain grave sweetness of manner that made her heart ache, alike with tender shame to think how little her dead husband had ever been accounted of, compared with this now possible future one, and with such jealousy as one may feel of a dead wife who would have cared as little for long remembrance as she had done for living affection, Emily listened, while he managed quite naturally, and by the slightest hints, to bring her also in―her past lot and opinions.  She felt, rather than heard, the intention; "and he could not presume to say," he went on, "he was not sure whether a man might hope for a second marriage, which could have all the advantages of a first.  Yet he thought that in any suitable marriage there might be enough benefit on both sides to make it almost equally."

    "Equally what?" Emily wondered.

    John was trying to speak in a very matter-of-fact way, as merely laying down his views.

    "Equally advantageous," he said at last; and not without difficulty.

    "John," said Emily, rallying a little, and speaking with the least little touch of audacity,―"John, you are always fond of advancing your abstract theories.  Now, I should have thought that if a man had felt any want in his first marriage, he would have tried for something more in a second, rather than have determined that there was no more to be had."

    "Unless his reason assured him in more sober hours that he had had all, and given all that could in reason be expected," John answered.  "I did not confess to having felt any want," he presently added.  "Call this, since it pleases you, my abstract theory."

    And then Emily felt that she too must speak; her dead husband deserved it of her far more than his dead wife had ever done.

    "I do please," she answered; "this can be only an abstract theory to me.  I knew no want of love in my marriage, only a frequent self-reproach―to think that I was unworthy, because I could not enough return it."

    "A most needless self-reproach," he answered. "I venture to hope that people should never rebuke themselves because they happen to be incapable of romantic passion, or any of the follies of youthful love."

    "Intended to restore my self-esteem.  Shall I not soon be able to make you feel differently?" thought Emily.  "You still remember Janie; you will never let her be disparaged.  I think none the worse of you for that, my beloved―my hope."

    He was silent till she glanced up at him again, with a sweet wistfulness, that was rather frequent with her; turning half round―for he stood at her side, not quite enough at his ease to look continually in her face―he was much surprised to find her so charming, so naive in all her movements, and in the flitting expressions of her face.

    He was pleased, too, though very much surprised, to find that she did not seem conscious of his intention (a most lovely blush had spread itself over her face when she spoke of her husband), but so far from expecting what he was just about to say, she had thrown him back in his progress more than once―she did not seem to be expecting anything.  "And yet, I have said a good deal," he reflected; "I have let her know that I expect to inspire no romantic love, and do not pretend to be in love with her.  I come forward admiring, trusting, and preferring her to any other woman; though I cannot come as a lover to her feet."  He began to talk again.  Emily was a little startled to find him in a few minutes alluding to his domestic discomforts, and his intention of standing for the borough.  He had now a little red box in his hand, and when she said, "John, I wish you would not stand there," he came and sat nearly opposite to her, and showed her what was in it―his father's diamond ring.  She remembered it, no doubt; he had just had the diamond reset.  Emily took out the ring, and laid it in her palm.  "It looks small," she said.  "I should not have thought it would fit you, John."

    "Will you let me try if it will fit you?" he answered; and, before she had recovered from her surprise, he had put it on her finger.

    There was a very awkward pause, and then she drew it off.  "You can hardly expect me," she said, and her hand trembled a little, "to accept such a very costly present."  It was not her reason for returning it, but she knew not what to say.

    "I would not ask it," he replied, "unless I could offer you another.  I desire to make you my wife.  I beg you to accept my hand."

    "Accept your hand!  What, now? directly? today?" she exclaimed almost piteously, and tears trembled on her eye-lashes.

    "Yes," he answered, repeating her words with something like ardour.  "Now, directly, to-day.  I am sorely in want of a wife, and would fain take you home as soon as the bans would let me.  Emily?"

    "Why you have been taking all possible pains to let me know that you do not love me in the least, and that, as far as you foresee, you do not mean to love me," she answered, two great tears falling on his hand when he tried to take hers.  "John! how dare you!"

    She was not naturally passionate, but startled now into this passionate appeal, she snatched away her hand, rose in haste, and drew back from him with flashing eyes and a heaving bosom; but all too soon the short relief she had found in anger was quenched in tears that she did not try to check.  She stood and wept, and he, very pale and very much discomfited, sat before her in his place.

    "I beg your pardon," he presently said, not in the least aware of what this really meant.  "I beg―I entreat your pardon.  I scarcely thought―forgive my saying it―I scarcely thought, considering our past―and―and―my position, as the father of a large family, that you would have consented to any wooing in the girl and boy fashion.  You make me wish, for once in my life―yes, very-heartily wish, that I had been less direct, less candid," he added rather bitterly.  "I thought"―here Emily heard him call himself a fool―"I thought you would approve it."

    "I do," she answered with a great sobbing sigh.  Oh, there was nothing more for her to say; she could not entreat him now to let her teach him to love her.  She felt, with a sinking heart, that if he took her words for a refusal, and by no means a gentle one, it could not be wondered at.

    Presently he said, still looking amazed and pale, for he was utterly unused to a woman's tears, and as much agitated now in a man's fashion as she was in hers,

    "If I have spoken earlier in your widowhood than you approve, and it displeases you, I hope you will believe that I have always thought of you as a wife to be admired above any that I ever knew."

    "My husband loved me," she answered, drying her eyes, now almost calmly.  She could not say she was displeased on his account, and when she looked up she saw that John Mortimer had his hat in his hand.  Their interview was nearly over.

    "I cannot lose you as a friend," he said, and his voice faltered.

    "Oh no; no, dear John."

    "And my children are so fond of you."

    "I love them; I always shall."

    He looked at her for a moment, doubtful whether to hold out his hand.  "Forget this, Emily, and let things be as they have been heretofore between us."

    "Yes," she answered, and gave him her hand.

    "Good-bye," he said, and stooped to kiss it, and was gone.

    She stood quite still listening, and yet listening, till all possible chance was over of catching any longer the sound of his steps.  No more tears; only a great aching emptiness.  The unhoped-for chance had been hers, and she had lost it knowingly.  What else could she have done?

    She scarcely knew how long she remained motionless.  A world and a lifetime of agitation, and thought, and passionate yearning seemed to stand between her and that brief interview, before, casting her eyes on the little velvet-covered table across which he had leaned to put it on her hand, she saw the splendid ring; sunbeams had found it out, and were playing on the diamond; he had forgotten it, and left it behind him, and there was the case on the floor.  It seemed to be almost a respite.

    "We are to dine with Giles and Dorothea to-day, and meet him.  This morning's work, then, is not irretrievable.  I can speak now to Dorothea, tell her what has occurred, and she will see that I have opportunity to return him this―and―-and things may end in his loving me a little, after all.  Oh, if they could―if, indeed, he had not told me he did not.  He did not look in the least angry,―only surprised and vexed when I rejected him.  He cares so little about me."

    She took up the ring, and in course of time went with her old aunt to dine at her brother's house.  She knew John was aware that he was to meet her; she was therefore deeply disturbed, though perhaps she had no right to be surprised when Dorothea said―

    "We are so much disappointed!  John Mortimer has sent this note to excuse himself from coming back to dinner to-day―or, indeed, coming here at all to-night.  He has to go out, it seems, for two or three days."

    "Ay," said Miss Christie, "that's very awkward for him."  Miss Christie had built certain hopes upon that morning's visit.  "It seems to me," she continued, "that John Mortimer's affairs give him twice as much trouble as they used to do."

    Emily was silent; she felt that this was not letting things be as they had been heretofore.  She took up the note.  He did not affirm that he was obliged to go out.  Even if he was, what should she do now?  She was left in custody of the ring, and could neither see him nor write to him.

    "On Sunday I shall see him.  I shall have his hand for a moment; I shall give him this, after morning service."

    But, no.  Sunday came; the Mortimers were at church, but not their father.  "Father had walked over to that little chapel-of-ease beyond Wigfield, that Grand gave the money to build," they said.  "He took Johnnie with him to day."

    "Yes," said Barbara, "and he promised next Sunday to take me."

    "He will not meet me," thought Emily.

    She waited another week, hoping she might meet him accidentally; hoping he might come to her, hoping and fearing she hardly knew what.  But still John Mortimer made no sign, and she could not decide to write to him; every day that she retained the ring made it more difficult for her to return it, without breaking so the slender thread that seemed to hold her to him still.  There was no promise in it of any future communication at all.

    In the meantime curiosity, having been once excited about John Mortimer and his concerns, kept open eyes on him still, and soon the air was full of rumours which reached all ears but those of the two people most concerned.  A likely thing, if there is the smallest evidence in the world for it, can easily get headway if nobody in authority can contradict it.

    All Wigfield said that Mr. Mortimer had "proposed" to Mrs. Walker, and she had refused him.  Brandon heard it with amazement, but could say nothing; Miss Christie heard it with yet more; but she, too, held her peace.

    Johnnie Mortimer heard it, made furtive observations on his father, was pleased to think that he was dull, restless, pale―remembered his own letter to his sisters, and considered himself to be partly to blame.  Then the twins heard it, took counsel with Johnnie, believed it also, were full of ruth and shame.  "So dear papa loved Mrs. Walker, and she would not marry him.  There could only be one reason; she knew she had nothing to expect but rebellion and rudeness and unkindness from them.  No, papa was not at all like himself; he often sighed, and he looked as if his head ached.  They had seen in the paper that he had lost a quantity of money by some shares and things; but they didn't think he cared about that, for he gave them a sovereign the next day to buy a birthday present for Janie.  Father must not be made miserable on their account.  What had they better do?"

    Emily, in the meantime, felt her heart faint; this new trouble going down to the deepest part of her heart, woke up and raised again the half-appeased want and sorrow.  Again she dreamed that she was folding her little child in her arms, and woke to find them empty.  She could not stand against this, and decided, in sheer desperation, to quit the field.  She would go on the Continent to Justina; rest and change would help her, and she would send back the ring, when all was arranged, by Aunt Christie.

    She was still at her desk, having at last managed to write the note.

    She was to start the next morning.  Miss Christie was then on her way to John Mortimer with the ring, and tired with her own trouble and indecision, she was resting in a careless attitude when she heard a knock at the door.

    "That tiresome boy again," she disrespectfully murmured, rousing up a little, and a half smile stealing out.  "What am I to do with him?"  She thought it was the new curate.  "Why, Johnnie, is that you?" she exclaimed as Johnnie Mortimer produced himself in all his youthful awkwardness, and advanced, looking a good deal abashed.

    Johnnie replied that it was a half-holiday, and so he thought he would come and call.

    Emily said she was glad to see him; indeed, she felt refreshed by the sight of anything that belonged to John.

    "I thought I should like to―to―in short, to come and call," repeated Johnnie, and he looked rather earnestly at his gloves, perhaps by way of occupation.  They were such as a Harrow boy seldom wears, excepting on "speech day"―pale lilac.  As a rule Johnnie scorned gloves. Emily observed that he was dressed with perfect propriety―like a gentleman, in fact; his hair brushed, his tie neat, his whole outer boy clean, and got up regardless of trouble and expense.

    "Well, you could not have come at a better time, dear boy," said Emily, wondering what vagary he was indulging now, "for I have just got a present of a case of shells and birds from Ceylon, and you shall help me to unpack and arrange them, if you like."

    "I should like to do anything you please," said Johnnie with alacrity.  "That's what I meant, that's what I came to say."  Thereupon he smoothed the nap on his "chimneypot" hat, and blushed furiously.

    The case was set upon the floor, on a piece of matting; it had already been opened, and was filling the room with a smell of sandal-wood and camphor.

    Emily had risen, and when she paused, arrested by surprise at the oddness of this speech, he added, taking to his lisp again, as if from sheer embarrassment, "Thome fellows are a great deal worse than they theem.  No, I didn't mean that; I mean thome fellows are a great deal better than they theem."

    "Now, Johnnie," said Emily, laughing, and remembering a late visit of apology, "if any piece of mischief has got the better of you, and your father has sent you to say you are sorry for it, I'll forgive you beforehand!  What is it?  Have you been rooting up my fences, or flooding my paddock?"

    "It's a great deal worth than that," answered Johnnie, who by this time was kneeling beside the case, hauling out the birds and shells with more vigour than dexterity.

    "Nothing to do with gunpowder, I hope," said Emily with her usual insouciance.

    "There are the girls; I hear them coming in the carriage," exclaimed Johnnie by way of answer, while Emily was placing the shells on a table.  "No, father didn't send me; he doesn't know."

    "What is it, then?" she repeated, feeling more at liberty to investigate the matter, now she had been expressly told that John had nothing to do with it.

    On this, instead of making a direct reply, he exclaimed, looking very red and indignant, "I told them it was no use at all my coming, and now you see it isn't.  They thaid they wouldn't come unless I did.  If you thought I should be rude, you might make me stop at school all the holidays, or at old Tikey's; I shouldn't thay a word."

    Emily's hand was on the boy's shoulder as he knelt before the case.  Surely she understood what he meant; but if so, where could he possibly have acquired the knowledge he seemed to possess?  And even then he was the last person from whom she could have expected this blunt, embarrassed, promise of fealty.

    The girls entered, and the two little ones.  Emily met them, and while she gave each a kiss, Johnnie started up, and with a great war-whoop of defiance to his sisters, burst through the open window, and blushing hotly fled away.

    Much the same thing over again.  The girls were all in their best; they generally loved to parade the crofts and gardens clad in brown holland and shaded by flapping hats.  The children scorned gloves and all fine clothes as much as they did the carriage; and here they were―little Hugh in his velvet suit, looking so fair and bright-haired; Anastasia dressed out in ribbons, and with a very large bouquet of hothouse flowers in her hand.  The girls pushed her forward.

    "It's for you," said the little girl, "and isn't it a grand one!  And my love, and we're come to call."

    "Thank you, my sweet," said Emily, accepting the bouquet, "I never saw such a beauty!"  She was sitting on a sofa, and her young guests were all standing before her.  She observed that little Hugh looked very sulky indeed.  "It's extremely unfair," he presently burst out, "they made Swan cut the best flowers in the houses, and they gave them all to Nancy to give, and I haven't got none."

    Barbara whispered to him, trying to soothe his outraged feelings, but he kept her off with his elbow till Emily drew him near, and observed that it was not her birthday, and therefore that one present was surely enough.

    Barbara replied that Hughie had brought a present, but he was very cross because it was not so pretty as Anastasia's.

    "Yes, I've brought this," said Hugh, his countenance clearing a little as he opened his small gloved hand, and disclosed a very bright five-shilling piece.  "It's not so pretty, though, as Nannie's."

    "But it will last much longer," said Emily; "and so you meant this for me, my sweet man.  I'll take care of it for you, and look at it sometimes till you want to spend it; that will be a very nice present for me, and then you can have it back."

    "Papa gave it him," said Anastasia; "it's a new one.  And may we go now and look at our gardens?"

    Hugh appeared to be cogitating over Emily's proposal; his little grave face was the image of his father's.  "You may if Mrs. Nemily says so," answered Gladys.  "You always want to do what Mrs. Nemily pleases, don't you?"

    "Oh yes," said the sprite, dancing round the room; and off they set into the garden.

    "And so do we all," said Barbara.

    Gladys was sitting at Emily's feet now, and had a little covered basket in her hand, which rustled as if it contained some living thing.

    "Janie and Bertie don't know―none of the little ones know," said Barbara; "we thought we had better not tell them."

    Emily did not ask what they meant; she thought she knew.  It could make no difference now, yet it was inexpressibly sweet and consoling to her.

    "We only said we were coming to call, and when Janie saw the bouquet she said she should send you a present too."  Thereupon the basket was opened, and a small white kitten was placed on Emily's knee.

    There seemed no part for her to play, but to be passive; she could not let them misunderstand; she knew John had not sent them.  "We should be so glad if you came," whispered the one who held her hand.  "Oh, Janie," thought Emily, "if you could only see your children now!"

    "And when Johnnie wrote that, he didn't know it was you," pleaded the other.

    "My darlings!" said Emily, "you must not say any more; and I have nothing to answer but that I love you all very, very much indeed."

    "But we want you to love father too."

    Unheard-of liberty!  Emily had no answer ready; but now, as she had wondered what their mother would have felt, she wondered what John would have felt at this utter misunderstanding, this taking for granted that he loved her, and that she did not love him.  A sensitive blush spread itself over her face.  "Your father would not be pleased, my dears," she answered lovingly but firmly, "at your saying any more; he would think (though I am sure you do not mean it) that you were taking a great liberty."


 
CHAPTER XXX.

A CHAPTER OF TROUBLES.


"She's daft to refuse the laird of Cockpen."

                                                                                           Scotch Ballad.


AND now John Mortimer had again possession of his ring.  Emily had sent it, together with a little book that she had borrowed some time previously, and the whole was so done up in stiff paper that Miss Christie Grant supposed herself to be returning the book only.

    "So you gave it to John, auntie," said Emily, when Miss Christie came back, "and told him I was going out, and he read the note?"

    "Yes," answered Miss Christie curtly.

    "Is he looking well?" asked Emily with a faint attempt at the tone of ordinary interest.

    "I should say not at all; it would be queer if he was."

    "Why, Aunt Christie?"

    Miss Christie Grant paused.  Confidence had not been reposed in her; to have surprised Emily into it would have given her no pleasure; it would have left her always suspicious that her niece would have withheld it if she could; besides, this rumour might after all be untrue.  She answered, "Because, for one thing, he has had great, at least considerable, losses."

    "Yes, I know," said Emily.

    "But he aye reposed great confidence in me, as a friend should."

    "Yes."

    "And so I would have asked him several questions if I had known how to express myself; but bonds and debentures, and, above all, preference stock, were aye great stumbling-blocks to my understanding.  Men have a way of despising a woman's notions of business matters; so I contented myself with asking if it was true that he was arranging to take a partner, and whether he would have to make any pecuniary sacrifice in order to effect this?  He said 'Yes;' but I've been just thinking he meant that in confidence."

    "You shouldn't tell it to me then."

    "And then he told me (I don't know whether that was in confidence or not), but――"

    "But what?"

    "But I don't want to have any reservations with my own niece's child, that was always my favourite, any more than I suppose ye would have any with me."

    Miss Christie here seemed to expect an answer, and waited long enough for Emily to make one, if she was so minded; but as Emily remained silent, she presently went on.

    "I made the observation that I had heard he meant to sell his late father's house; but lest he should think I attached too much importance to his losses, I just added that I knew his children were very well provided for under the will.  He said 'Yes.'"

    "And that was all?" asked Emily, amused at the amount of John's confidence, and pleased to find that nothing but business had been talked of.

    "Yes, that was all―so far as I know there was nothing more to tell; so I just said before I came away that I was well aware my knowledge of banking was but slender, which was reason enough for my not offering any advice.  Well, if anybody had told me ye could laugh because John Mortimer was less prosperous than formerly, I would not have believed it!"

    Emily made haste to look grave again.  It was no secret at all that John Mortimer meant to take a partner; and as to his losses, she did not suppose they would affect his comfort much.

    Johnnie Mortimer, however, on hearing of them was roused to a sense of responsibility toward his father, and as a practical proof that he and his sisters were willing to do what they could, proposed to them that they should give up half their weekly allowance of pocket-money.  The twins assented with filial fervour, and Johnnie explained their views to his father, proposing that his own pony should be sold, and the money flung into the gap.

    John was smoking a cigar in an arbour near the house when his heir unfolded to him these plans for retrenchment.  He was surprised.  The boy was so big, so clever with his lessons, and possessed so keen a sense of humour that sometimes the father forgot his actual age, and forgot that he was still simple in many respects, and more childlike than some other youths.

    He did not instantly answer nor laugh (for Johnnie was exceedingly sensitive to ridicule from him); but after a pause, as if for thought, he assured his son that he was not in any want of money, and that therefore these plans, he was happy to say, were not necessary.  "As you are old enough now," he added, "to take an intelligent interest in my affairs, I shall occasionally talk to you about them."

    Johnnie, shoving his head hard against his father's shoulder, gave him an awkward hug.  "You might depend on my never telling anybody," he said.

    "I am sure of that, my boy.  Your dear grandfather, a few months before his death, gave his name to an enterprise which, in my opinion, did not promise well.  A good deal of money has been lost by it."

    "Oh," said Johnnie, and again he reflected that, though not necessary, it would be only right and noble in him to give up his pony.

    "But I dare say you think that I and mine have always lived in the enjoyment of every comfort, and of some luxuries."

    "Oh, yes, father."

    "Then if I tell you that I intend to continue living exactly in my present style, and that I expect to be always entitled to do so, you need perhaps hardly concern yourself to inquire how much I may hitherto have lived within my income."

    Johnnie, who, quite unknown to himself, had just sustained the loss of many thousands hitherto placed to his name, replied with supreme indifference that he hoped he was not such a muff as to care about money that his father did not care about himself, and did not want.  Whereupon John proceeded,―

    "It is my wish, and in the course of a few years I hope that I shall be able, to retire."

    "Oh," said Johnnie again, and he surprised his father to the point of making him refrain from any further communication, by adding, "And then you'll have plenty of time to rummage among those old Turanian verbs and things.  But, father?"

    "Yes, my boy."

    John looked down into the clear eyes of the great, awkward, swarthy fellow, expecting the question, "Will this make much difference to my future prospects?"  But, no, what he said was, "I should like to have a go at them too.  And you said you would teach me Sanscrit, if ever you had leisure."

    "So I did," said John, "and so I will."

    To his own mind these buried roots, counted by the world so dry, proved, as it were, appetising and attractive food.  How, then, should he be otherwise than pleased that his son should take delight in the thought of helping him to rake them up, and arguing with him over "the ninth meaning of a particle?"  "The boy will learn to love money quite soon enough," he thought.

    Johnnie then went his way.  It was Saturday afternoon; he told his sisters that "it was all right," and thereupon resolving no longer to deny themselves the innocent pleasures of life, they sent little Bertram into the town for eighteenpennyworth of "rock."

    "Where's the change?" he inquired, with the magisterial dignity belonging to his race, when his little brother came home.

    Bertram replied with all humility that he had only, been tossing up the fourpenny piece a few times for fun, when it fell into the ditch.  He couldn't help it; he was very sorry.

    "Soufflez the fourpenny piece," said Johnnie in a burst of reckless extravagance; "I forgive you this once.  Produce the stuff."

    He felt a lordly contempt for money just then; perhaps it was wrong, but prosperity was spoiling him.  He was to retain his pony, and this amiable beast was dear to him.

    In the meantime Valentine, established at Melcombe, had been enjoying the sweetness of a no less real prosperity.

    From that moment, when the ghost story had melted into mist, he had flung aside all those uneasy doubts which had disturbed his first weeks of possession.

    He soon surrounded himself with the luxury that was so congenial to him.  All the neighbourhood called on him, and his naturally sociable temper, amiable, domestic ways, and good position enabled him, with hardly any effort, to be always among a posse of people who suited him perfectly.

    There were more ladies than young men in the neighbourhood.  Valentine was intimate with half-a-dozen of the former before he had been among them three weeks.  He experienced the delights of feminine flattery, a thing almost new to him.  Who so likely to receive it?  He was eligible, he was handsome, and he was always in a good humour, for the place and the life pleased him, and all things smiled.

    In a round of country gaieties, in which picnics and archery parties bore a far larger proportion than any young man would have cared for who was less devoted to the other sex, Valentine passed much of his time, laughing and making laugh wherever he went.  His jokes were bandied about from house to house, till he felt the drawback in passing for a wit.  He was expected to be always funny.

    But a little real fun goes a long way in a dull neighbourhood, and he had learned just so much caution from his early escapade as to be willing to hail any view concerning himself that might be a corrective of the more true and likely one that he loved to flirt.

    He was quite determined, as he thought, not to get into another scrape, and perhaps a very decided intention to make, in the end, an advantageous marriage, may have grown out of the fancy that his romance in life was over.

    If he thought so, it was in no very consistent fashion, for he was always the slave (for the day) of the prettiest girl in every party he went to.

    It was on a Saturday that John Mortimer received his son's proposal for retrenchment; on the Wednesday succeeding it Valentine, sitting at breakfast at Melcombe, opened the following letter, and was amused by the old-fashioned formality of its opening sentence:―


"Wigfield, June 15th, 18―.


    "MY DEAR NEPHEW,―It is not often that I take up my pen to address you, for I know there is little need, as my niece Emily writes weekly.  Frequently have I wondered what she could find to write for; indeed, it was not the way in my youth for people to waste so much time saying little or nothing―which is not my case at the present time, for your sister being gone on the Continent, it devolves upon me, that is not used to long statements, to let ye know, what ye will be very sorry to hear.  I only hope it may be no worse before it is over.

    "Matthew, the coachman, came running over to me on Monday morning last, and said would I come to the house, for the servants did not know what to be at, and told me that Johnnie, who had been to go back to Harrow by the eleven o'clock train, had got leave to drive the pheaton to the Junction with the four girls in it, and Bertram, who, by ill luck―of I may use such a word (meaning no irreverence)―of this dispensation of Providence, had not gone back to Mr. Tikey's that morning.  So far as I can make out, he thought he should be late, and so he turned those two spirited young horses down that steep sandy lane by the wood, to cut off a corner; and whether the woodman's children ran out and frightened them, or whether he was shouting and whooping himself, poor laddie―for I heard something of both―but Barbara was just sobbing her heart away when she told it, and he aye raised the echoes wherever he went; but the horses set off, running away, tearing down that rough road.  Johnnie shouted to them all to sit still, and so they did, though they were almost jolted out; and if they had been let alone, there might have been no accident; but two men sprung out of a hedge and tried to stop them, and they turned on to the common, and sped away like the wind towards home, till they came to the sand bank by the small inn, the Loving Cup, and there they upset the carriage, and when the two men got up to it Johnnie and all of them were tossed out, and the carriage was almost kicked to pieces by the horse that was not down.

    "This is a long tale, Valentine, and I seem to have hardly begun it.  I must take another sheet of paper.  When I got to the house, you never saw such a scene.  Johnnie had been brought in quite stunned, and his face greatly bruised.  There were two doctors already with them.  Bertram had got a broken arm; he was calling out, poor little fellow, and Nancy was severely hurt, but I was grieved to see her so quiet.  Gladys seemed at first to be only bruised and limping; but she and Barbara were faint and sick with fright.  Janie was not present; she had been carried into the inn; but I may as well tell ye that in her case no bones were broken, poor lamb.  She is doing very well, and in a day or two is to be brought home.

    "It was a very affecting scene, as ye may suppose, and my first words were, 'Who is to tell this to Mr. Mortimer?'  They said your brother has already gone to fetch him and prepare him.  Well, I knew everything that was in the house, and where it was kept; so I'm thankful to think I was of use, and could help the new governess and the strange servants.

    "Dorothea and Mrs. Henfrey soon came in, and by the time John arrived all the invalids had been carried up-stairs, and Johnnie had begun to show signs of consciousness.

    "John was as white as chalk.  He was rather strange at first; he said in a commanding, peremptory way, that he wouldn't be spoken to; he wouldn't hear a word; he was not ready.  Everybody stood round, till Dorothea disobeyed him; she said, 'They are all living, dear Mr. Mortimer;' and then Giles got him to sit down, and they gave him some water to drink.

    "He then noticed Dr. Limpsy, who had come down, and asked if any of them were in danger, and the doctor said yes―one.  So he said he prayed God it was not his eldest son: he could bear anything but that.  And yet when the doctor said he had every hope that Johnnie would do well, but he had great fears for the little Anastasia, he burst into tears, poor man, and said that of all his children she would be the hardest to spare.  But I need not tell ye we did not remind him of the inconsistency, and were glad to think he was not to lose the one he set his heart most upon.  And after that he was perfectly himself and more composed than anybody, which is a wonder, for such a catalogue of broken bones and sprains and contusions as came to light as the doctors examined further, was enough to disturb anybody's courage.  Giles sat up with Johnnie all night; indeed nobody went to bed.  John was by Nancy, and in the morning they spoke hopefully of her.  Johnnie's first words were about his father; he couldn't bear his father near him, because now and then he was surprised into shouting out with pain, and he wouldn't have John distressed with his noise.  He was nothing like so well as we had hoped this morning; but still the doctors say there is no danger.  He got a kick from the horse when he was down, and he thinks he fainted with the pain.  When John came down to get a little breakfast he was very much cheered to have a better account than he had expected of Nancy, and he made the remark that ye would be sorry to hear of this; so I said I would write, which I am doing, sitting beside little Bertram, who is asleep.―I am

"Your mother's affectionate aunt,
                     and always affectionately yours,
                                                        "CHRISTIAN GRANT."


    Valentine read the letter, and thought that if it had not been for two or three picnic parties that he had on hand, he would have gone down to his old home, to see whether he could be of use to John Mortimer.  He wrote to him, and resolved to wait a day or two; but he heard nothing till after the succeeding Sunday; then a telegram came from Emily:―"Two of John's children are extremely ill.  I think your presence might be useful."

    Emily had come home then.

    Valentine set forth at once, and reached John Mortimer's house in the afternoon.  A doctor's carriage stood at the door; a strange lady―evidently a nurse―passed through the hall; people were quietly moving about, but they seemed too anxious, and too much occupied to observe him.

    At last Emily came down.

    "Is Johnnie worse?" asked Valentine.

    "Yes; but I wanted you to help us with John.  Oh, such a disaster!  On the third night after the accident, just before I arrived―for Dorothea had sent for me―every one in the house was greatly tired; but Johnnie and Anastasia were both thought better; so much better that the doctors said if there was no change during the night, they should consider dear little Nancy quite out of danger.  Giles and Dorothea had gone home.  The nurse sent for was not come.  John knew how fatigued the whole household was, and all who were sitting up.  He had not been able to take any sleep himself, and he was restlessly pacing up and down in the garden, watching and listening under the open windows.  It was very hot.

    "He fancied about three o'clock that there had been a long silence in Anastasia's room.  She was to have nourishment frequently.  He stole up-stairs, found the person with her asleep from fatigue, gave the child some jelly himself, and then finding her medicine, as he supposed, ready poured out in the wine-glass, he gave it to her, and discovered almost instantly a mistake.  The sad imprudence had been committed of pouring the lotion for the child's temples into a wine-glass, to save the trouble of ringing for a saucer.  The child was almost out of danger before that terrible night; but when I came home there was scarcely a hope of her life, and her father was almost distracted.  I mean that, though he seems perfectly calm, never loses his self-control, he is very often not able to command his attention so as to answer when they speak to him, and he cannot rest a moment.  He spent the whole of last night wandering up and down the garden, leaning on St. George's arm.  He cannot eat nor occupy himself, and the doctors begin to be uneasy about him.  Oh, it is such a misfortune!

    "And Johnnie is very ill," continued Emily, tears glittering on her eyelashes; "but John seems to take it all with perfect composure.  Everything else is swallowed up in his distress of mind for what he has unfortunately done.  If the child dies, I really think he will not get over it."

    Some one called Emily, and she passed up-stairs again.  Valentine turned and saw John near him; he came forward, but attempted no greeting.  "I thought I might be of use, John," he said, as if they had seen one another but the day before.  "Is there anything I can do for you over at the town?"

    Valentine was a little daunted at first at the sight of him; his face was so white and he showed so plainly the oppression that weighed down his soul by the look in his eyes; they were a little raised, and seemed as if they could not rest on anything near at hand.

    Valentine repeated his words, and was relieved when John roused himself, and expressed surprise and pleasure at seeing him.  He sent Valentine to one of his clerks for some papers to be signed, gave him other directions, and was evidently the better for his presence.

    It was not without many strange sensations that Valentine found himself again in that room where he had spent such happy hours, and which was so connected with his recollections of his old uncle.  The plunge he had taken into the sweet waters of prosperity and praise had made him oblivious of some things that now came before his thoughts again with startling distinctness; but on the whole he felt pleasure in going back to the life that he had elected to leave, and was very glad to forget John's face in doing what he could to help him.

    When he returned to the house John had commenced his restless walk again.  Swan was walking beside him, and he was slightly leaning his hand on the old man's shoulder, as if to steady himself.

    Valentine drew near.

    "And you are sure he said nothing more?" John was saying in the low inward tone of fatigue and exhaustion.

    "No, sir.  'Tell Mr. Mortimer,' says he, 'that his son is considerable better,' and he told Mrs. Walker―I heard him say it―that the blessed little one was no worse, not a morsel worse."

    Valentine paused and heard John speak again in that peculiar tone―"I have no hope, Swan."

    "I wouldn't give up, sir, if I was you: allers hold on to hope, sir."

    "I cannot stand the strain much longer," he continued, as if he had not listened, "but sometimes―my thoughts are often confused―but sometimes I feel some slight relief in prayer."

    "Ay, sir," answered Swan, "the Scripture says, 'Knock, and it shall be opened to you,' and I've allers thought it was mighty easier for one that begs to go and knock there than anywhere else, for in that house the Master opens the door himself."



[Next Page]

 


[Home] [Up] [Poems] [Story of Doom] [Monitions] [Old Days] [Poetical Works] [Allerton and Dreux] [Allerton and Dreux] [Off the Skelligs] [Sarah De Berenger] [Don John] [John Jerome] [A Moto Changed] [Studies for Stories] [Stories Told to a Child] [A Sister's Bye-Hours] [Mopsa the Fairy] [Wonder Box Tales] [Sheet Music] [Sheet Music] [Reviews, etc.] [Main Index] [Site Search]

 

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk