"My dear, you had better not have that great dog so near you; he is crushing the border of your dress."
"Oh, it is only muslin. I can put a clean one on to-morrow."
"My dear, I wish you could acquire the habit of sitting to a table when you read."
"I will try, ma'am, some time; but it is so comfortable to do as one has always been accustomed to do."
"My dear, let me beg of you to put that book down. You are trying your eyes by the doubtful firelight."
"No, ma'am, not at all; my eyes are never tired."
At last, however, a pale light falls on the page from the window. She looks; the moon is up. She closes the volume, rises, and walks through the room. Her book has perhaps been a good one; it has refreshed, refilled, rewarmed her heart; it has set her brain astir, furnished her mind with pictures. The still parlour, the clean hearth, the window opening on the twilight sky, and showing its "sweet regent," new throned and glorious, suffice to make earth an Eden, life a poem, for Shirley. A still, deep, inborn delight glows in her young veins, unmingled, untroubled, not to be reached or ravished by human agency, because by no human agency bestowed—the pure gift of God to His creature, the free dower of Nature to her child. This joy gives her experience of a genii-life. Buoyant, by green steps, by glad hills, all verdure and light, she reaches a station scarcely lower than that whence angels looked down on the dreamer of Bethel, and her eye seeks, and her soul possesses, the vision of life as she wishes it. No, not as she wishes it; she has not time to wish. The swift glory spreads out, sweeping and kindling, and multiplies its splendours faster than Thought can effect his combinations, faster than Aspiration can utter her longings. Shirley says nothing while the trance is upon her—she is quite mute; but if Mrs. Pryor speaks to her now, she goes out quietly, and continues her walk upstairs in the dim gallery.
If Shirley were not an indolent, a reckless, an ignorant being, she would take a pen at such moments, or at least while the recollection of such moments was yet fresh on her spirit. She would seize, she would fix the apparition, tell the vision revealed. Had she a little more of the organ of acquisitiveness in her head, a little more of the love of property in her nature, she would take a good-sized sheet of paper and write plainly out, in her own queer but clear and legible hand, the story that has been narrated, the song that has been sung to her, and thus possess what she was enabled to create. But indolent she is, reckless she is, and most ignorant; for she does not know her dreams are rare, her feelings peculiar. She does not know, has never known, and will die without knowing, the full value of that spring whose bright fresh bubbling in her heart keeps it green.
Shirley takes life easily. Is not that fact written in her eye? In her good-tempered moments is it not as full of lazy softness as in her brief fits of anger it is fulgent with quick-flashing fire? Her nature is in her eye. So long as she is calm, indolence, indulgence, humour, and tenderness possess that large gray sphere; incense her, a red ray pierces the dew, it quickens instantly to flame.
Ere the month of July was past, Miss Keeldar would probably have started with Caroline on that northern tour they had planned; but just at that epoch an invasion befell Fieldhead. A genteel foraging party besieged Shirley in her castle, and compelled her to surrender at discretion. An uncle, an aunt, and two cousins from the south—a Mr., Mrs., and two Misses Sympson, of Sympson Grove, ——shire—came down upon her in state. The laws of hospitality obliged her to give in, which she did with a facility which somewhat surprised Caroline, who knew her to be prompt in action and fertile in expedient where a victory was to be gained for her will. Miss Helstone even asked her how it was she submitted so readily. She answered, old feelings had their power; she had passed two years of her early youth at Sympson Grove.
"How did she like her relatives?"
She had nothing in common with them, she replied. Little Harry Sympson, indeed, the sole son of the family, was very unlike his sisters, and of him she had formerly been fond; but he was not coming to Yorkshire—at least not yet.
The next Sunday the Fieldhead pew in Briarfield Church appeared peopled with a prim, trim, fidgety, elderly gentleman, who shifted his spectacles, and changed his position every three minutes; a patient, placid-looking elderly lady in brown satin; and two pattern young ladies, in pattern attire, with pattern deportment. Shirley had the air of a black swan or a white crow in the midst of this party, and very forlorn was her aspect. Having brought her into respectable society, we will leave her there a while, and look after Miss Helstone.
Separated from Miss Keeldar for the present, as she could not seek her in the midst of her fine relatives, scared away from Fieldhead by the visiting commotion which the new arrivals occasioned in the neighbourhood, Caroline was limited once more to the gray rectory, the solitary morning walk in remote by-paths, the long, lonely afternoon sitting in a quiet parlour which the sun forsook at noon, or in the garden alcove where it shone bright, yet sad, on the ripening red currants trained over the trellis, and on the fair monthly roses entwined between, and through them fell chequered on Caroline sitting in her white summer dress, still as a garden statue. There she read old books, taken from her uncle's library. The Greek and Latin were of no use to her, and its collection of light literature was chiefly contained on a shelf which had belonged to her aunt Mary—some venerable Lady's Magazines, that had once performed a sea-voyage with their owner, and undergone a storm, and whose pages were stained with salt water; some mad Methodist Magazines, full of miracles and apparitions, of preternatural warnings, ominous dreams, and frenzied fanaticism; the equally mad letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe from the Dead to the Living; a few old English classics. From these faded flowers Caroline had in her childhood extracted the honey; they were tasteless to her now. By way of change, and also of doing good, she would sew—make garments for the poor, according to good Miss Ainley's direction. Sometimes, as she felt and saw her tears fall slowly on her work, she would wonder how the excellent woman who had cut it out and arranged it for her managed to be so equably serene in her solitude.
"I never find Miss Ainley oppressed with despondency or lost in grief," she thought; "yet her cottage is a still, dim little place, and she is without a bright hope or near friend in the world. I remember, though, she told me once she had tutored her thoughts to tend upwards to heaven. She allowed there was, and ever had been, little enjoyment in this world for her, and she looks, I suppose, to the bliss of the world to come. So do nuns, with their close cell, their iron lamp, their robe strait as a shroud, their bed narrow as a coffin. She says often she has no fear of death—no dread of the grave; no more, doubtless, had St. Simeon Stylites, lifted up terrible on his wild column in the wilderness; no more has the Hindu votary stretched on his couch of iron spikes. Both these having violated nature, their natural likings and antipathies are reversed; they grow altogether morbid. I do fear death as yet, but I believe it is because I am young. Poor Miss Ainley would cling closer to life if life had more charms for her. God surely did not create us and cause us to live with the sole end of wishing always to die. I believe in my heart we were intended to prize life and enjoy it so long as we retain it. Existence never was originally meant to be that useless, blank, pale, slow-trailing thing it often becomes to many, and is becoming to me among the rest.
"Nobody," she went on—"nobody in particular is to blame, that I can see, for the state in which things are; and I cannot tell, however much I puzzle over it, how they are to be altered for the better; but I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe single women should have more to do—better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now. And when I speak thus I have no impression that I displease God by my words; that I am either impious or impatient, irreligious or sacrilegious. My consolation is, indeed, that God hears many a groan, and compassionates much grief which man stops his ears against, or frowns on with impotent contempt. I say impotent, for I observe that to such grievances as society cannot readily cure it usually forbids utterance, on pain of its scorn, this scorn being only a sort of tinselled cloak to its deformed weakness. People hate to be reminded of ills they are unable or unwilling to remedy. Such reminder, in forcing on them a sense of their own incapacity, or a more painful sense of an obligation to make some unpleasant effort, troubles their ease and shakes their self-complacency. Old maids, like the houseless and unemployed poor, should not ask for a place and an occupation in the world; the demand disturbs the happy and rich—it disturbs parents. Look at the numerous families of girls in this neighbourhood—the Armitages, the Birtwhistles, the Sykeses. The brothers of these girls are every one in business or in professions; they have something to do. Their sisters have no earthly employment but household work and sewing, no earthly pleasure but an unprofitable visiting, and no hope, in all their life to come, of anything better. This stagnant state of things makes them decline in health. They are never well, and their minds and views shrink to wondrous narrowness. The great wish, the sole aim of every one of them is to be married, but the majority will never marry; they will die as they now live. They scheme, they plot, they dress to ensnare husbands. The gentlemen turn them into ridicule; they don't want them; they hold them very cheap. They say—I have heard them say it with sneering laughs many a time—the matrimonial market is overstocked. Fathers say so likewise, and are angry with their daughters when they observe their manoeuvres—they order them to stay at home. What do they expect them to do at home? If you ask, they would answer, sew and cook. They expect them to do this, and this only, contentedly, regularly, uncomplainingly, all their lives long, as if they had no germs of faculties for anything else—a doctrine as reasonable to hold as it would be that the fathers have no faculties but for eating what their daughters cook or for wearing what they sew. Could men live so themselves? Would they not be very weary? And when there came no relief to their weariness, but only reproaches at its slightest manifestation, would not their weariness ferment it time to frenzy? Lucretia, spinning at midnight in the midst of her maidens, and Solomon's virtuous woman are often quoted as patterns of what 'the sex,' as they say, ought to be. I don't know. Lucretia, I dare say, was a most worthy sort of person, much like my cousin Hortense Moore; but she kept her servants up very late. I should not have liked to be amongst the number of the maidens. Hortense would just work me and Sarah in that fashion, if she could, and neither of us would bear it. The 'virtuous woman,' again, had her household up in the very middle of the night; she 'got breakfast over,' as Mrs. Sykes says, before one o'clock a.m.; but she had something more to do than spin and give out portions. She was a manufacturer—she made fine linen and sold it; she was an agriculturist—she bought estates and planted vineyards. That woman was a manager. She was what the matrons hereabouts call 'a clever woman.' On the whole, I like her a good deal better than Lucretia; but I don't believe either Mr. Armitage or Mr. Sykes could have got the advantage of her in a bargain. Yet I like her. 'Strength and honour were her clothing; the heart of her husband safely trusted in her. She opened her mouth with wisdom; in her tongue was the law of kindness; her children rose up and called her blessed; her husband also praised her.' King of Israel! your model of a woman is a worthy model! But are we, in these days, brought up to be like her? Men of Yorkshire! do your daughters reach this royal standard? Can they reach it? Can you help them to reach it? Can you give them a field in which their faculties may be exercised and grow? Men of England! look at your poor girls, many of them fading around you, dropping off in consumption or decline; or, what is worse, degenerating to sour old maids—envious, back-biting, wretched, because life is a desert to them; or, what is worst of all, reduced to strive, by scarce modest coquetry and debasing artifice, to gain that position and consideration by marriage which to celibacy is denied. Fathers! cannot you alter these things? Perhaps not all at once; but consider the matter well when it is brought before you, receive it as a theme worthy of thought; do not dismiss it with an idle jest or an unmanly insult. You would wish to be proud of your daughters, and not to blush for them; then seek for them an interest and an occupation which shall raise them above the flirt, the manoeuvrer, the mischief-making tale-bearer. Keep your girls' minds narrow and fettered; they will still be a plague and a care, sometimes a disgrace to you. Cultivate them—give them scope and work; they will be your gayest companions in health, your tenderest nurses in sickness, your most faithful prop in age."
AN EVENING OUT.
One fine summer day that Caroline had spent entirely alone (her uncle being at Whinbury), and whose long, bright, noiseless, breezeless, cloudless hours (how many they seemed since sunrise!) had been to her as desolate as if they had gone over her head in the shadowless and trackless wastes of Sahara, instead of in the blooming garden of an English home, she was sitting in the alcove—her task of work on her knee, her fingers assiduously plying the needle, her eyes following and regulating their movements, her brain working restlessly—when Fanny came to the door, looked round over the lawn and borders, and not seeing her whom she sought, called out, "Miss Caroline!"
A low voice answered "Fanny!" It issued from the alcove, and thither Fanny hastened, a note in her hand, which she delivered to fingers that hardly seemed to have nerve to hold it. Miss Helstone did not ask whence it came, and she did not look at it; she let it drop amongst the folds of her work.
"Joe Scott's son, Harry, brought it," said Fanny.
The girl was no enchantress, and knew no magic spell; yet what she said took almost magical effect on her young mistress. She lifted her head with the quick motion of revived sensation; she shot, not a languid, but a lifelike, questioning glance at Fanny.
"Harry Scott! who sent him?"
"He came from the Hollow."
The dropped note was snatched up eagerly, the seal was broken—it was read in two seconds. An affectionate billet from Hortense, informing her young cousin that she was returned from Wormwood Wells; that she was alone to-day, as Robert was gone to Whinbury market; that nothing would give her greater pleasure than to have Caroline's company to tea, and the good lady added, she was quite sure such a change would be most acceptable and beneficial to Caroline, who must be sadly at a loss both for safe guidance and improving society since the misunderstanding between Robert and Mr. Helstone had occasioned a separation from her "meilleure amie, Hortense Gerard Moore." In a postscript she was urged to put on her bonnet and run down directly.
Caroline did not need the injunction. Glad was she to lay by the brown holland child's slip she was trimming with braid for the Jew's basket, to hasten upstairs, cover her curls with her straw bonnet, and throw round her shoulders the black silk scarf, whose simple drapery suited as well her shape as its dark hue set off the purity of her dress and the fairness of her face; glad was she to escape for a few hours the solitude, the sadness, the nightmare of her life; glad to run down the green lane sloping to the Hollow, to scent the fragrance of hedge flowers sweeter than the perfume of moss-rose or lily. True, she knew Robert was not at the cottage; but it was delight to go where he had lately been. So long, so totally separated from him, merely to see his home, to enter the room where he had that morning sat, felt like a reunion. As such it revived her; and then Illusion was again following her in Peri mask. The soft agitation of wings caressed her cheek, and the air, breathing from the blue summer sky, bore a voice which whispered, "Robert may come home while you are in his house, and then, at least, you may look in his face—at least you may give him your hand; perhaps, for a minute, you may sit beside him."
"Silence!" was her austere response; but she loved the comforter and the consolation.
Miss Moore probably caught from the window the gleam and flutter of Caroline's white attire through the branchy garden shrubs, for she advanced from the cottage porch to meet her. Straight, unbending, phlegmatic as usual, she came on. No haste or ecstasy was ever permitted to disorder the dignity of her movements; but she smiled, well pleased to mark the delight of her pupil, to feel her kiss and the gentle, genial strain of her embrace. She led her tenderly in, half deceived and wholly flattered. Half deceived! had it not been so she would in all probability have put her to the wicket, and shut her out. Had she known clearly to whose account the chief share of this childlike joy was to be placed, Hortense would most likely have felt both shocked and incensed. Sisters do not like young ladies to fall in love with their brothers. It seems, if not presumptuous, silly, weak, a delusion, an absurd mistake. They do not love these gentlemen—whatever sisterly affection they may cherish towards them—and that others should, repels them with a sense of crude romance. The first movement, in short, excited by such discovery (as with many parents on finding their children to be in love) is one of mixed impatience and contempt. Reason—if they be rational people—corrects the false feeling in time; but if they be irrational, it is never corrected, and the daughter or sister-in-law is disliked to the end.
"You would expect to find me alone, from what I said in my note," observed Miss Moore, as she conducted Caroline towards the parlour; "but it was written this morning: since dinner, company has come in."
And opening the door she made visible an ample spread of crimson skirts overflowing the elbow-chair at the fireside, and above them, presiding with dignity, a cap more awful than a crown. That cap had never come to the cottage under a bonnet; no, it had been brought in a vast bag, or rather a middle-sized balloon of black silk, held wide with whalebone. The screed, or frill of the cap, stood a quarter of a yard broad round the face of the wearer. The ribbon, flourishing in puffs and bows about the head, was of the sort called love-ribbon. There was a good deal of it, I may say, a very great deal. Mrs. Yorke wore the cap—it became her; she wore the gown also—it suited her no less.
That great lady was come in a friendly way to take tea with Miss Moore. It was almost as great and as rare a favour as if the queen were to go uninvited to share pot-luck with one of her subjects. A higher mark of distinction she could not show—she who in general scorned visiting and tea-drinking, and held cheap and stigmatized as "gossips" every maid and matron of the vicinage.
There was no mistake, however; Miss Moore was a favourite with her. She had evinced the fact more than once—evinced it by stopping to speak to her in the churchyard on Sundays; by inviting her, almost hospitably, to come to Briarmains; evinced it to-day by the grand condescension of a personal visit. Her reasons for the preference, as assigned by herself, were that Miss Moore was a woman of steady deportment, without the least levity of conversation or carriage; also that, being a foreigner, she must feel the want of a friend to countenance her. She might have added that her plain aspect, homely, precise dress, and phlegmatic, unattractive manner were to her so many additional recommendations. It is certain, at least, that ladies remarkable for the opposite qualities of beauty, lively bearing, and elegant taste in attire were not often favoured with her approbation. Whatever gentlemen are apt to admire in women, Mrs. Yorke condemned; and what they overlook or despise, she patronized.
Caroline advanced to the mighty matron with some sense of diffidence. She knew little of Mrs. Yorke, and, as a parson's niece, was doubtful what sort of a reception she might get. She got a very cool one, and was glad to hide her discomfiture by turning away to take off her bonnet. Nor, upon sitting down, was she displeased to be immediately accosted by a little personage in a blue frock and sash, who started up like some fairy from the side of the great dame's chair, where she had been sitting on a footstool, screened from view by the folds of the wide red gown, and running to Miss Helstone, unceremoniously threw her arms round her neck and demanded a kiss.
"My mother is not civil to you," said the petitioner, as she received and repaid a smiling salute, "and Rose there takes no notice of you; it is their way. If, instead of you, a white angel, with a crown of stars, had come into the room, mother would nod stiffly, and Rose never lift her head at all; but I will be your friend—I have always liked you."
"Jessie, curb that tongue of yours, and repress your forwardness!" said Mrs. Yorke.
"But, mother, you are so frozen!" expostulated Jessie. "Miss Helstone has never done you any harm; why can't you be kind to her? You sit so stiff, and look so cold, and speak so dry—what for? That's just the fashion in which you treat Miss Shirley Keeldar and every other young lady who comes to our house. And Rose there is such an aut—aut—I have forgotten the word, but it means a machine in the shape of a human being. However, between you, you will drive every soul away from Briarmains; Martin often says so."
"I am an automaton? Good! Let me alone, then," said Rose, speaking from a corner where she was sitting on the carpet at the foot of a bookcase, with a volume spread open on her knee.—"Miss Helstone, how do you do?" she added, directing a brief glance to the person addressed, and then again casting down her gray, remarkable eyes on the book and returning to the study of its pages.
Caroline stole a quiet gaze towards her, dwelling on her young, absorbed countenance, and observing a certain unconscious movement of the mouth as she read—a movement full of character. Caroline had tact, and she had fine instinct. She felt that Rose Yorke was a peculiar child—one of the unique; she knew how to treat her. Approaching quietly, she knelt on the carpet at her side, and looked over her little shoulder at her book. It was a romance of Mrs. Radcliffe's—"The Italian."
Caroline read on with her, making no remark. Presently Rose showed her the attention of asking, ere she turned the leaf, "Are you ready?"
Caroline only nodded.
"Do you like it?" inquired Rose ere long.
"Long since, when I read it as a child, I was wonderfully taken with it."
"It seemed to open with such promise—such foreboding of a most strange tale to be unfolded."
"And in reading it you feel as if you were far away from England—really in Italy—under another sort of sky—that blue sky of the south which travellers describe."
"You are sensible of that, Rose?"
"It makes me long to travel, Miss Helstone."
"When you are a woman, perhaps, you may be able to gratify your wish."
"I mean to make a way to do so, if one is not made for me. I cannot live always in Briarfield. The whole world is not very large compared with creation. I must see the outside of our own round planet, at least."
"How much of its outside?"
"First this hemisphere where we live; then the other. I am resolved that my life shall be a life. Not a black trance like the toad's, buried in marble; nor a long, slow death like yours in Briarfield rectory."
"Like mine! what can you mean, child?"
"Might you not as well be tediously dying as for ever shut up in that glebe-house—a place that, when I pass it, always reminds me of a windowed grave? I never see any movement about the door. I never hear a sound from the wall. I believe smoke never issues from the chimneys. What do you do there?"
"I sew, I read, I learn lessons."
"Are you happy?"
"Should I be happy wandering alone in strange countries as you wish to do?"
"Much happier, even if you did nothing but wander. Remember, however, that I shall have an object in view; but if you only went on and on, like some enchanted lady in a fairy tale, you might be happier than now. In a day's wandering you would pass many a hill, wood, and watercourse, each perpetually altering in aspect as the sun shone out or was overcast; as the weather was wet or fair, dark or bright. Nothing changes in Briarfield rectory. The plaster of the parlour ceilings, the paper on the walls, the curtains, carpets, chairs, are still the same."
"Is change necessary to happiness?"
"Is it synonymous with it?"
"I don't know; but I feel monotony and death to be almost the same."
Here Jessie spoke.
"Isn't she mad?" she asked.
"But, Rose," pursued Caroline, "I fear a wanderer's life, for me at least, would end like that tale you are reading—in disappointment, vanity, and vexation of spirit."
"Does 'The Italian' so end?"
"I thought so when I read it."
"Better to try all things and find all empty than to try nothing and leave your life a blank. To do this is to commit the sin of him who buried his talent in a napkin—despicable sluggard!"
"Rose," observed Mrs. Yorke, "solid satisfaction is only to be realized by doing one's duty."
"Right, mother! And if my Master has given me ten talents, my duty is to trade with them, and make them ten talents more. Not in the dust of household drawers shall the coin be interred. I will not deposit it in a broken-spouted teapot, and shut it up in a china closet among tea-things. I will not commit it to your work-table to be smothered in piles of woollen hose. I will not prison it in the linen press to find shrouds among the sheets. And least of all, mother" (she got up from the floor)—"least of all will I hide it in a tureen of cold potatoes, to be ranged with bread, butter, pastry, and ham on the shelves of the larder."
She stopped, then went on, "Mother, the Lord who gave each of us our talents will come home some day, and will demand from all an account. The teapot, the old stocking-foot, the linen rag, the willow-pattern tureen will yield up their barren deposit in many a house. Suffer your daughters, at least, to put their money to the exchangers, that they may be enabled at the Master's coming to pay Him His own with usury."
"Rose, did you bring your sampler with you, as I told you?"
"Sit down, and do a line of marking."
Rose sat down promptly, and wrought according to orders. After a busy pause of ten minutes, her mother asked, "Do you think yourself oppressed now—a victim?"
"Yet, as far as I understood your tirade, it was a protest against all womanly and domestic employment."
"You misunderstood it, mother. I should be sorry not to learn to sew. You do right to teach me, and to make me work."
"Even to the mending of your brothers' stockings and the making of sheets?"
"Where is the use of ranting and spouting about it, then?"
"Am I to do nothing but that? I will do that, and then I will do more. Now, mother, I have said my say. I am twelve years old at present, and not till I am sixteen will I speak again about talents. For four years I bind myself an industrious apprentice to all you can teach me."
"You see what my daughters are, Miss Helstone," observed Mrs. Yorke; "how precociously wise in their own conceits! 'I would rather this, I prefer that'—such is Jessie's cuckoo song; while Rose utters the bolder cry, 'I will, and I will not!'"
"I render a reason, mother; besides, if my cry is bold, it is only heard once in a twelvemonth. About each birthday the spirit moves me to deliver one oracle respecting my own instruction and management. I utter it and leave it; it is for you, mother, to listen or not."
"I would advise all young ladies," pursued Mrs. Yorke, "to study the characters of such children as they chance to meet with before they marry and have any of their own to consider well how they would like the responsibility of guiding the careless, the labour of persuading the stubborn, the constant burden and task of training the best."
"But with love it need not be so very difficult," interposed Caroline. "Mothers love their children most dearly—almost better than they love themselves."
"Fine talk! very sentimental! There is the rough, practical part of life yet to come for you, young miss."
"But, Mrs. Yorke, if I take a little baby into my arms—any poor woman's infant, for instance—I feel that I love that helpless thing quite peculiarly, though I am not its mother. I could do almost anything for it willingly, if it were delivered over entirely to my care—if it were quite dependent on me."
"You feel! Yes, yes! I dare say, now. You are led a great deal by your feelings, and you think yourself a very sensitive personage, no doubt. Are you aware that, with all these romantic ideas, you have managed to train your features into an habitually lackadaisical expression, better suited to a novel-heroine than to a woman who is to make her way in the real world by dint of common sense?"
"No; I am not at all aware of that, Mrs. Yorke."
"Look in the glass just behind you. Compare the face you see there with that of any early-rising, hard-working milkmaid."
"My face is a pale one, but it is not sentimental; and most milkmaids, however red and robust they may be, are more stupid and less practically fitted to make their way in the world than I am. I think more, and more correctly, than milkmaids in general do; consequently, where they would often, for want of reflection, act weakly, I, by dint of reflection, should act judiciously."
"Oh no! you would be influenced by your feelings; you would be guided by impulse."
"Of course I should often be influenced by my feelings. They were given me to that end. Whom my feelings teach me to love I must and shall love; and I hope, if ever I have a husband and children, my feelings will induce me to love them. I hope, in that case, all my impulses will be strong in compelling me to love."
Caroline had a pleasure in saying this with emphasis; she had a pleasure in daring to say it in Mrs. Yorke's presence. She did not care what unjust sarcasm might be hurled at her in reply. She flushed, not with anger but excitement, when the ungenial matron answered coolly, "Don't waste your dramatic effects. That was well said—it was quite fine; but it is lost on two women—an old wife and an old maid. There should have been a disengaged gentleman present.—Is Mr. Robert nowhere hid behind the curtains, do you think, Miss Moore?"
Hortense, who during the chief part of the conversation had been in the kitchen superintending the preparations for tea, did not yet quite comprehend the drift of the discourse. She answered, with a puzzled air, that Robert was at Whinbury. Mrs. Yorke laughed her own peculiar short laugh.
"Straightforward Miss Moore!" said she patronizingly. "It is like you to understand my question so literally and answer it so simply. Your mind comprehends nothing of intrigue. Strange things might go on around you without your being the wiser; you are not of the class the world calls sharp-witted."
These equivocal compliments did not seem to please Hortense. She drew herself up, puckered her black eyebrows, but still looked puzzled.
"I have ever been noted for sagacity and discernment from childhood," she returned; for, indeed, on the possession of these qualities she peculiarly piqued herself.
"You never plotted to win a husband, I'll be bound," pursued Mrs. Yorke; "and you have not the benefit of previous experience to aid you in discovering when others plot."
Caroline felt this kind language where the benevolent speaker intended she should feel it—in her very heart. She could not even parry the shafts; she was defenceless for the present. To answer would have been to avow that the cap fitted. Mrs. Yorke, looking at her as she sat with troubled, downcast eyes, and cheek burning painfully, and figure expressing in its bent attitude and unconscious tremor all the humiliation and chagrin she experienced, felt the sufferer was fair game. The strange woman had a natural antipathy to a shrinking, sensitive character—a nervous temperament; nor was a pretty, delicate, and youthful face a passport to her affections. It was seldom she met with all these obnoxious qualities combined in one individual; still more seldom she found that individual at her mercy, under circumstances in which she could crush her well. She happened this afternoon to be specially bilious and morose—as much disposed to gore as any vicious "mother of the herd." Lowering her large head she made a new charge.
"Your cousin Hortense is an excellent sister, Miss Helstone. Such ladies as come to try their life's luck here at Hollow's Cottage may, by a very little clever female artifice, cajole the mistress of the house, and have the game all in their own hands. You are fond of your cousin's society, I dare say, miss?"
"Of which cousin's?"
"Oh, of the lady's, of course."
"Hortense is, and always has been, most kind to me."
"Every sister with an eligible single brother is considered most kind by her spinster friends."
"Mrs. Yorke," said Caroline, lifting her eyes slowly, their blue orbs at the same time clearing from trouble, and shining steady and full, while the glow of shame left her cheek, and its hue turned pale and settled—"Mrs. Yorke, may I ask what you mean?"
"To give you a lesson on the cultivation of rectitude, to disgust you with craft and false sentiment."
"Do I need this lesson?"
"Most young ladies of the present day need it. You are quite a modern young lady—morbid, delicate, professing to like retirement; which implies, I suppose, that you find little worthy of your sympathies in the ordinary world. The ordinary world—every-day honest folks—are better than you think them, much better than any bookish, romancing chit of a girl can be who hardly ever puts her nose over her uncle the parson's garden wall."
"Consequently of whom you know nothing. Excuse me—indeed, it does not matter whether you excuse me or not—you have attacked me without provocation; I shall defend myself without apology. Of my relations with my two cousins you are ignorant. In a fit of ill-humour you have attempted to poison them by gratuitous insinuations, which are far more crafty and false than anything with which you can justly charge me. That I happen to be pale, and sometimes to look diffident, is no business of yours; that I am fond of books, and indisposed for common gossip, is still less your business; that I am a 'romancing chit of a girl' is a mere conjecture on your part. I never romanced to you nor to anybody you know. That I am the parson's niece is not a crime, though you may be narrow-minded enough to think it so. You dislike me. You have no just reason for disliking me; therefore keep the expression of your aversion to yourself. If at any time in future you evince it annoyingly, I shall answer even less scrupulously than I have done now."
She ceased, and sat in white and still excitement. She had spoken in the clearest of tones, neither fast nor loud; but her silver accents thrilled the ear. The speed of the current in her veins was just then as swift as it was viewless.
Mrs. Yorke was not irritated at the reproof, worded with a severity so simple, dictated by a pride so quiet. Turning coolly to Miss Moore, she said, nodding her cap approvingly, "She has spirit in her, after all.—Always speak as honestly as you have done just now," she continued, "and you'll do."
"I repel a recommendation so offensive," was the answer, delivered in the same pure key, with the same clear look. "I reject counsel poisoned by insinuation. It is my right to speak as I think proper; nothing binds me to converse as you dictate. So far from always speaking as I have done just now, I shall never address any one in a tone so stern or in language so harsh, unless in answer to unprovoked insult."
"Mother, you have found your match," pronounced little Jessie, whom the scene appeared greatly to edify. Rose had heard the whole with an unmoved face. She now said, "No; Miss Helstone is not my mother's match, for she allows herself to be vexed. My mother would wear her out in a few weeks. Shirley Keeldar manages better.—Mother, you have never hurt Miss Keeldar's feelings yet. She wears armour under her silk dress that you cannot penetrate."
Mrs. Yorke often complained that her children were mutinous. It was strange that with all her strictness, with all her "strong-mindedness," she could gain no command over them. A look from their father had more influence with them than a lecture from her.
Miss Moore—to whom the position of witness to an altercation in which she took no part was highly displeasing, as being an unimportant secondary post—now rallying her dignity, prepared to utter a discourse which was to prove both parties in the wrong, and to make it clear to each disputant that she had reason to be ashamed of herself, and ought to submit humbly to the superior sense of the individual then addressing her. Fortunately for her audience, she had not harangued above ten minutes when Sarah's entrance with the tea-tray called her attention, first to the fact of that damsel having a gilt comb in her hair and a red necklace round her throat, and secondly, and subsequently to a pointed remonstrance, to the duty of making tea. After the meal Rose restored her to good-humour by bringing her guitar and asking for a song, and afterwards engaging her in an intelligent and sharp cross-examination about guitar-playing and music in general.
Jessie, meantime, directed her assiduities to Caroline. Sitting on a stool at her feet, she talked to her, first about religion and then about politics. Jessie was accustomed at home to drink in a great deal of what her father said on these subjects, and afterwards in company to retail, with more wit and fluency than consistency or discretion, his opinions, antipathies, and preferences. She rated Caroline soundly for being a member of the Established Church, and for having an uncle a clergyman. She informed her that she lived on the country, and ought to work for her living honestly, instead of passing a useless life, and eating the bread of idleness in the shape of tithes. Thence Jessie passed to a review of the ministry at that time in office, and a consideration of its deserts. She made familiar mention of the names of Lord Castlereagh and Mr. Perceval. Each of these personages she adorned with a character that might have separately suited Moloch and Belial. She denounced the war as wholesale murder, and Lord Wellington as a "hired butcher."
Her auditress listened with exceeding edification. Jessie had something of the genius of humour in her nature. It was inexpressibly comic to hear her repeating her sire's denunciations in his nervous northern Doric; as hearty a little Jacobin as ever pent a free mutinous spirit in a muslin frock and sash. Not malignant by nature, her language was not so bitter as it was racy, and the expressive little face gave a piquancy to every phrase which held a beholder's interest captive.
Caroline chid her when she abused Lord Wellington; but she listened delighted to a subsequent tirade against the Prince Regent. Jessie quickly read, in the sparkle of her hearer's eye and the laughter hovering round her lips, that at last she had hit on a topic that pleased. Many a time had she heard the fat "Adonis of fifty" discussed at her father's breakfast-table, and she now gave Mr. Yorke's comments on the theme—genuine as uttered by his Yorkshire lips.
But, Jessie, I will write about you no more. This is an autumn evening, wet and wild. There is only one cloud in the sky, but it curtains it from pole to pole. The wind cannot rest; it hurries sobbing over hills of sullen outline, colourless with twilight and mist. Rain has beat all day on that church tower. It rises dark from the stony enclosure of its graveyard. The nettles, the long grass, and the tombs all drip with wet. This evening reminds me too forcibly of another evening some years ago—a howling, rainy autumn evening too—when certain who had that day performed a pilgrimage to a grave new-made in a heretic cemetery sat near a wood fire on the hearth of a foreign dwelling. They were merry and social, but they each knew that a gap, never to be filled, had been made in their circle. They knew they had lost something whose absence could never be quite atoned for so long as they lived; and they knew that heavy falling rain was soaking into the wet earth which covered their lost darling, and that the sad, sighing gale was mourning above her buried head. The fire warmed them; life and friendship yet blessed them; but Jessie lay cold, coffined, solitary—only the sod screening her from the storm.
* * * * *
Mrs. Yorke folded up her knitting, cut short the music lesson and the lecture on politics, and concluded her visit to the cottage, at an hour early enough to ensure her return to Briarmains before the blush of sunset should quite have faded in heaven, or the path up the fields have become thoroughly moist with evening dew.
The lady and her daughters being gone, Caroline felt that she also ought to resume her scarf, kiss her cousin's cheek, and trip away homeward. If she lingered much later dusk would draw on, and Fanny would be put to the trouble of coming to fetch her. It was both baking and ironing day at the rectory, she remembered—Fanny would be busy. Still, she could not quit her seat at the little parlour window. From no point of view could the west look so lovely as from that lattice with the garland of jessamine round it, whose white stars and green leaves seemed now but gray pencil outlines—graceful in form, but colourless in tint—against the gold incarnadined of a summer evening—against the fire-tinged blue of an August sky at eight o'clock p.m.
Caroline looked at the wicket-gate, beside which holly-oaks spired up tall. She looked at the close hedge of privet and laurel fencing in the garden; her eyes longed to see something more than the shrubs before they turned from that limited prospect. They longed to see a human figure, of a certain mould and height, pass the hedge and enter the gate. A human figure she at last saw—nay, two. Frederick Murgatroyd went by, carrying a pail of water; Joe Scott followed, dangling on his forefinger the keys of the mill. They were going to lock up mill and stables for the night, and then betake themselves home.
"So must I," thought Caroline, as she half rose and sighed.
"This is all folly—heart-breaking folly," she added. "In the first place, though I should stay till dark there will be no arrival; because I feel in my heart, Fate has written it down in to-day's page of her eternal book, that I am not to have the pleasure I long for. In the second place, if he stepped in this moment, my presence here would be a chagrin to him, and the consciousness that it must be so would turn half my blood to ice. His hand would, perhaps, be loose and chill if I put mine into it; his eye would be clouded if I sought its beam. I should look up for that kindling, something I have seen in past days, when my face, or my language, or my disposition had at some happy moment pleased him; I should discover only darkness. I had better go home."
She took her bonnet from the table where it lay, and was just fastening the ribbon, when Hortense, directing her attention to a splendid bouquet of flowers in a glass on the same table, mentioned that Miss Keeldar had sent them that morning from Fieldhead; and went on to comment on the guests that lady was at present entertaining, on the bustling life she had lately been leading; adding divers conjectures that she did not very well like it, and much wonderment that a person who was so fond of her own way as the heiress did not find some means of sooner getting rid of this cortege of relatives.
"But they say she actually will not let Mr. Sympson and his family go," she added. "They wanted much to return to the south last week, to be ready for the reception of the only son, who is expected home from a tour. She insists that her cousin Henry shall come and join his friends here in Yorkshire. I dare say she partly does it to oblige Robert and myself."
"How to oblige Robert and you?" inquired Caroline.
"Why, my child, you are dull. Don't you know—you must often have heard——"
"Please, ma'am," said Sarah, opening the door, "the preserves that you told me to boil in treacle—the congfiters, as you call them—is all burnt to the pan."
"Les confitures! Elles sont brulees? Ah, quelle negligence coupable! Coquine de cuisiniere, fille insupportable!"
And mademoiselle, hastily taking from a drawer a large linen apron, and tying it over her black apron, rushed eperdue into the kitchen, whence, to speak truth, exhaled an odour of calcined sweets rather strong than savoury.
The mistress and maid had been in full feud the whole day, on the subject of preserving certain black cherries, hard as marbles, sour as sloes. Sarah held that sugar was the only orthodox condiment to be used in that process; mademoiselle maintained—and proved it by the practice and experience of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother—that treacle, "melasse," was infinitely preferable. She had committed an imprudence in leaving Sarah in charge of the preserving-pan, for her want of sympathy in the nature of its contents had induced a degree of carelessness in watching their confection, whereof the result was—dark and cindery ruin. Hubbub followed; high upbraiding, and sobs rather loud than deep or real.
Caroline, once more turning to the little mirror, was shading her ringlets from her cheek to smooth them under her cottage bonnet, certain that it would not only be useless but unpleasant to stay longer, when, on the sudden opening of the back-door, there fell an abrupt calm in the kitchen. The tongues were checked, pulled up as with bit and bridle. "Was it—was it—Robert?" He often—almost always—entered by the kitchen way on his return from market. No; it was only Joe Scott, who, having hemmed significantly thrice—every hem being meant as a lofty rebuke to the squabbling womankind—said, "Now, I thowt I heerd a crack?"
"And," he continued pragmatically, "as t' maister's comed, and as he'll enter through this hoyle, I considered it desirable to step in and let ye know. A household o' women is nivver fit to be comed on wi'out warning. Here he is.—Walk forrard, sir. They war playing up queerly, but I think I've quietened 'em."
Another person, it was now audible, entered. Joe Scott proceeded with his rebukes.
"What d'ye mean by being all i' darkness? Sarah, thou quean, canst t' not light a candle? It war sundown an hour syne. He'll brak his shins agean some o' yer pots, and tables, and stuff.—Tak tent o' this baking-bowl, sir; they've set it i' yer way, fair as if they did it i' malice."
To Joe's observations succeeded a confused sort of pause, which Caroline, though she was listening with both her ears, could not understand. It was very brief. A cry broke it—a sound of surprise, followed by the sound of a kiss; ejaculations, but half articulate, succeeded.
"Mon Dieu! mon Dieu! Est-ce que je m'y attendais?" were the words chiefly to be distinguished.
"Et tu te portes toujours bien, bonne soeur?" inquired another voice—Robert's, certainly.
Caroline was puzzled. Obeying an impulse the wisdom of which she had not time to question, she escaped from the little parlour, by way of leaving the coast clear, and running upstairs took up a position at the head of the banisters, whence she could make further observations ere presenting herself. It was considerably past sunset now; dusk filled the passage, yet not such deep dusk but that she could presently see Robert and Hortense traverse it.
"Caroline! Caroline!" called Hortense, a moment afterwards, "venez voir mon frere!"
"Strange," commented Miss Helstone, "passing strange! What does this unwonted excitement about such an every-day occurrence as a return from market portend? She has not lost her senses, has she? Surely the burnt treacle has not crazed her?"
She descended in a subdued flutter. Yet more was she fluttered when Hortense seized her hand at the parlour door, and leading her to Robert, who stood in bodily presence, tall and dark against the one window, presented her with a mixture of agitation and formality, as though they had been utter strangers, and this was their first mutual introduction.
Increasing puzzle! He bowed rather awkwardly, and turning from her with a stranger's embarrassment, he met the doubtful light from the window. It fell on his face, and the enigma of the dream (a dream it seemed) was at its height. She saw a visage like and unlike—Robert, and no Robert.
"What is the matter?" said Caroline. "Is my sight wrong? Is it my cousin?"
"Certainly it is your cousin," asserted Hortense.
Then who was this now coming through the passage—now entering the room? Caroline, looking round, met a new Robert—the real Robert, as she felt at once.
"Well," said he, smiling at her questioning, astonished face, "which is which?"
"Ah, this is you!" was the answer.
He laughed. "I believe it is me. And do you know who he is? You never saw him before, but you have heard of him."
She had gathered her senses now.
"It can be only one person—your brother, since it is so like you; my other cousin, Louis."
"Clever little Oedipus! you would have baffled the Sphinx! But now, see us together.—Change places; change again, to confuse her, Louis.—Which is the old love now, Lina?"
"As if it were possible to make a mistake when you speak! You should have told Hortense to ask. But you are not so much alike. It is only your height, your figure, and complexion that are so similar."
"And I am Robert, am I not?" asked the newcomer, making a first effort to overcome what seemed his natural shyness.
Caroline shook her head gently. A soft, expressive ray from her eye beamed on the real Robert. It said much.
She was not permitted to quit her cousins soon. Robert himself was peremptory in obliging her to remain. Glad, simple, and affable in her demeanour (glad for this night, at least), in light, bright spirits for the time, she was too pleasant an addition to the cottage circle to be willingly parted with by any of them. Louis seemed naturally rather a grave, still, retiring man; but the Caroline of this evening, which was not (as you know, reader) the Caroline of every day, thawed his reserve, and cheered his gravity soon. He sat near her and talked to her. She already knew his vocation was that of tuition. She learned now he had for some years been the tutor of Mr. Sympson's son; that he had been travelling with him, and had accompanied him to the north. She inquired if he liked his post, but got a look in reply which did not invite or license further question. The look woke Caroline's ready sympathy. She thought it a very sad expression to pass over so sensible a face as Louis's; for he had a sensible face, though not handsome, she considered, when seen near Robert's. She turned to make the comparison. Robert was leaning against the wall, a little behind her, turning over the leaves of a book of engravings, and probably listening, at the same time, to the dialogue between her and Louis.
"How could I think them alike?" she asked herself. "I see now it is Hortense Louis resembles, not Robert."
And this was in part true. He had the shorter nose and longer upper lip of his sister rather than the fine traits of his brother. He had her mould of mouth and chin—all less decisive, accurate, and clear than those of the young mill-owner. His air, though deliberate and reflective, could scarcely be called prompt and acute. You felt, in sitting near and looking up at him, that a slower and probably a more benignant nature than that of the elder Moore shed calm on your impressions.
Robert—perhaps aware that Caroline's glance had wandered towards and dwelt upon him, though he had neither met nor answered it—put down the book of engravings, and approaching, took a seat at her side. She resumed her conversation with Louis, but while she talked to him her thoughts were elsewhere. Her heart beat on the side from which her face was half averted. She acknowledged a steady, manly, kindly air in Louis; but she bent before the secret power of Robert. To be so near him—though he was silent, though he did not touch so much as her scarf-fringe or the white hem of her dress—affected her like a spell. Had she been obliged to speak to him only, it would have quelled, but, at liberty to address another, it excited her. Her discourse flowed freely; it was gay, playful, eloquent. The indulgent look and placid manner of her auditor encouraged her to ease; the sober pleasure expressed by his smile drew out all that was brilliant in her nature. She felt that this evening she appeared to advantage, and as Robert was a spectator, the consciousness contented her. Had he been called away, collapse would at once have succeeded stimulus.
But her enjoyment was not long to shine full-orbed; a cloud soon crossed it.
Hortense, who for some time had been on the move ordering supper, and was now clearing the little table of some books, etc., to make room for the tray, called Robert's attention to the glass of flowers, the carmine and snow and gold of whose petals looked radiant indeed by candlelight.
"They came from Fieldhead," she said, "intended as a gift to you, no doubt. We know who is the favourite there; not I, I'm sure."
It was a wonder to hear Hortense jest—a sign that her spirits were at high-water mark indeed.
"We are to understand, then, that Robert is the favourite?" observed Louis.
"Mon cher," replied Hortense, "Robert—c'est tout ce qu'il y a de plus precieux au monde; a cote de lui le reste du genre humain n'est que du rebut.—N'ai-je pas raison, mon enfant?" she added, appealing to Caroline.
Caroline was obliged to reply, "Yes," and her beacon was quenched. Her star withdrew as she spoke.
"Et toi, Robert?" inquired Louis.
"When you shall have an opportunity, ask herself," was the quiet answer. Whether he reddened or paled Caroline did not examine. She discovered that it was late, and she must go home. Home she would go; not even Robert could detain her now.
THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH.
The future sometimes seems to sob a low warning of the events it is bringing us, like some gathering though yet remote storm, which, in tones of the wind, in flushings of the firmament, in clouds strangely torn, announces a blast strong to strew the sea with wrecks; or commissioned to bring in fog the yellow taint of pestilence covering white Western isles with the poisoned exhalations of the East, dimming the lattices of English homes with the breath of Indian plague. At other times this future bursts suddenly, as if a rock had rent, and in it a grave had opened, whence issues the body of one that slept. Ere you are aware you stand face to face with a shrouded and unthought-of calamity—a new Lazarus.
Caroline Helstone went home from Hollow's Cottage in good health, as she imagined. On waking the next morning she felt oppressed with unwonted languor. At breakfast, at each meal of the following day, she missed all sense of appetite. Palatable food was as ashes and sawdust to her.
"Am I ill?" she asked, and looked at herself in the glass. Her eyes were bright, their pupils dilated, her cheeks seemed rosier, and fuller than usual. "I look well; why can I not eat?"
She felt a pulse beat fast in her temples; she felt, too, her brain in strange activity. Her spirits were raised; hundreds of busy and broken but brilliant thoughts engaged her mind. A glow rested on them, such as tinged her complexion.
Now followed a hot, parched, thirsty, restless night. Towards morning one terrible dream seized her like a tiger; when she woke, she felt and knew she was ill.
How she had caught the fever (fever it was) she could not tell. Probably in her late walk home, some sweet, poisoned breeze, redolent of honey-dew and miasma, had passed into her lungs and veins, and finding there already a fever of mental excitement, and a languor of long conflict and habitual sadness, had fanned the spark to flame, and left a well-lit fire behind it.
It seemed, however, but a gentle fire. After two hot days and worried nights, there was no violence in the symptoms, and neither her uncle, nor Fanny, nor the doctor, nor Miss Keeldar, when she called, had any fear for her. A few days would restore her, every one believed.
The few days passed, and—though it was still thought it could not long delay—the revival had not begun. Mrs. Pryor, who had visited her daily—being present in her chamber one morning when she had been ill a fortnight—watched her very narrowly for some minutes. She took her hand and placed her finger on her wrist; then, quietly leaving the chamber, she went to Mr. Helstone's study. With him she remained closeted a long time—half the morning. On returning to her sick young friend, she laid aside shawl and bonnet. She stood awhile at the bedside, one hand placed in the other, gently rocking herself to and fro, in an attitude and with a movement habitual to her. At last she said, "I have sent Fanny to Fieldhead to fetch a few things for me, such as I shall want during a short stay here. It is my wish to remain with you till you are better. Your uncle kindly permits my attendance. Will it to yourself be acceptable, Caroline?"
"I am sorry you should take such needless trouble. I do not feel very ill, but I cannot refuse resolutely. It will be such comfort to know you are in the house, to see you sometimes in the room; but don't confine yourself on my account, dear Mrs. Pryor. Fanny nurses me very well."
Mrs. Pryor, bending over the pale little sufferer, was now smoothing the hair under her cap, and gently raising her pillow. As she performed these offices, Caroline, smiling, lifted her face to kiss her.
"Are you free from pain? Are you tolerably at ease?" was inquired in a low, earnest voice, as the self-elected nurse yielded to the caress.
"I think I am almost happy."
"You wish to drink? Your lips are parched."
She held a glass filled with some cooling beverage to her mouth.
"Have you eaten anything to-day, Caroline?"
"I cannot eat."
"But soon your appetite will return; it must return—that is, I pray God it may."
In laying her again on the couch, she encircled her in her arms; and while so doing, by a movement which seemed scarcely voluntary, she drew her to her heart, and held her close gathered an instant.
"I shall hardly wish to get well, that I may keep you always," said Caroline.
Mrs. Pryor did not smile at this speech. Over her features ran a tremor, which for some minutes she was absorbed in repressing.
"You are more used to Fanny than to me," she remarked ere long. "I should think my attendance must seem strange, officious?"
"No; quite natural, and very soothing. You must have been accustomed to wait on sick people, ma'am. You move about the room so softly, and you speak so quietly, and touch me so gently."
"I am dexterous in nothing, my dear. You will often find me awkward, but never negligent."
Negligent, indeed, she was not. From that hour Fanny and Eliza became ciphers in the sick-room. Mrs. Pryor made it her domain; she performed all its duties; she lived in it day and night. The patient remonstrated—faintly, however, from the first, and not at all ere long. Loneliness and gloom were now banished from her bedside; protection and solace sat there instead. She and her nurse coalesced in wondrous union. Caroline was usually pained to require or receive much attendance. Mrs. Pryor, under ordinary circumstances, had neither the habit nor the art of performing little offices of service; but all now passed with such ease, so naturally, that the patient was as willing to be cherished as the nurse was bent on cherishing; no sign of weariness in the latter ever reminded the former that she ought to be anxious. There was, in fact, no very hard duty to perform; but a hireling might have found it hard.
With all this care it seemed strange the sick girl did not get well; yet such was the case. She wasted like any snow-wreath in thaw; she faded like any flower in drought. Miss Keeldar, on whose thoughts danger or death seldom intruded, had at first entertained no fears at all for her friend; but seeing her change and sink from time to time when she paid her visits, alarm clutched her heart. She went to Mr. Helstone and expressed herself with so much energy that that gentleman was at last obliged, however unwillingly, to admit the idea that his niece was ill of something more than a migraine; and when Mrs. Pryor came and quietly demanded a physician, he said she might send for two if she liked. One came, but that one was an oracle. He delivered a dark saying of which the future was to solve the mystery, wrote some prescriptions, gave some directions—the whole with an air of crushing authority—pocketed his fee, and went. Probably he knew well enough he could do no good, but didn't like to say so.
Still, no rumour of serious illness got wind in the neighbourhood. At Hollow's Cottage it was thought that Caroline had only a severe cold, she having written a note to Hortense to that effect; and mademoiselle contented herself with sending two pots of currant jam, a recipe for a tisane, and a note of advice.
Mrs. Yorke being told that a physician had been summoned, sneered at the hypochondriac fancies of the rich and idle, who, she said, having nothing but themselves to think about, must needs send for a doctor if only so much as their little finger ached.
The "rich and idle," represented in the person of Caroline, were meantime falling fast into a condition of prostration, whose quickly consummated debility puzzled all who witnessed it except one; for that one alone reflected how liable is the undermined structure to sink in sudden ruin.
Sick people often have fancies inscrutable to ordinary attendants, and Caroline had one which even her tender nurse could not at first explain. On a certain day in the week, at a certain hour, she would—whether worse or better—entreat to be taken up and dressed, and suffered to sit in her chair near the window. This station she would retain till noon was past. Whatever degree of exhaustion or debility her wan aspect betrayed, she still softly put off all persuasion to seek repose until the church clock had duly tolled midday. The twelve strokes sounded, she grew docile, and would meekly lie down. Returned to the couch, she usually buried her face deep in the pillow, and drew the coverlets close round her, as if to shut out the world and sun, of which she was tired. More than once, as she thus lay, a slight convulsion shook the sick-bed, and a faint sob broke the silence round it. These things were not unnoted by Mrs. Pryor.
One Tuesday morning, as usual, she had asked leave to rise, and now she sat wrapped in her white dressing-gown, leaning forward in the easy-chair, gazing steadily and patiently from the lattice. Mrs. Pryor was seated a little behind, knitting as it seemed, but, in truth, watching her. A change crossed her pale, mournful brow, animating its languor; a light shot into her faded eyes, reviving their lustre; she half rose and looked earnestly out. Mrs. Pryor, drawing softly near, glanced over her shoulder. From this window was visible the churchyard, beyond it the road; and there, riding sharply by, appeared a horseman. The figure was not yet too remote for recognition. Mrs. Pryor had long sight; she knew Mr. Moore. Just as an intercepting rising ground concealed him from view, the clock struck twelve.
"May I lie down again?" asked Caroline.
Her nurse assisted her to bed. Having laid her down and drawn the curtain, she stood listening near. The little couch trembled, the suppressed sob stirred the air. A contraction as of anguish altered Mrs. Pryor's features; she wrung her hands; half a groan escaped her lips. She now remembered that Tuesday was Whinbury market day. Mr. Moore must always pass the rectory on his way thither, just ere noon of that day.
Caroline wore continually round her neck a slender braid of silk, attached to which was some trinket. Mrs. Pryor had seen the bit of gold glisten, but had not yet obtained a fair view of it. Her patient never parted with it. When dressed it was hidden in her bosom; as she lay in bed she always held it in her hand. That Tuesday afternoon the transient doze—more like lethargy than sleep—which sometimes abridged the long days, had stolen over her. The weather was hot. While turning in febrile restlessness, she had pushed the coverlets a little aside. Mrs. Pryor bent to replace them. The small, wasted hand, lying nerveless on the sick girl's breast, clasped as usual her jealously-guarded treasure. Those fingers whose attenuation it gave pain to see were now relaxed in sleep. Mrs. Pryor gently disengaged the braid, drawing out a tiny locket—a slight thing it was, such as it suited her small purse to purchase. Under its crystal face appeared a curl of black hair, too short and crisp to have been severed from a female head.
Some agitated movement occasioned a twitch of the silken chain. The sleeper started and woke. Her thoughts were usually now somewhat scattered on waking, her look generally wandering. Half rising, as if in terror, she exclaimed, "Don't take it from me, Robert! Don't! It is my last comfort; let me keep it. I never tell any one whose hair it is; I never show it."
Mrs. Pryor had already disappeared behind the curtain. Reclining far back in a deep arm-chair by the bedside, she was withdrawn from view. Caroline looked abroad into the chamber; she thought it empty. As her stray ideas returned slowly, each folding its weak wings on the mind's sad shore, like birds exhausted, beholding void, and perceiving silence round her, she believed herself alone. Collected she was not yet; perhaps healthy self-possession and self-control were to be hers no more; perhaps that world the strong and prosperous live in had already rolled from beneath her feet for ever. So, at least, it often seemed to herself. In health she had never been accustomed to think aloud, but now words escaped her lips unawares.
"Oh, I should see him once more before all is over! Heaven might favour me thus far!" she cried. "God grant me a little comfort before I die!" was her humble petition.
"But he will not know I am ill till I am gone, and he will come when they have laid me out, and I am senseless, cold, and stiff.
"What can my departed soul feel then? Can it see or know what happens to the clay? Can spirits, through any medium, communicate with living flesh? Can the dead at all revisit those they leave? Can they come in the elements? Will wind, water, fire, lend me a path to Moore?
"Is it for nothing the wind sounds almost articulately sometimes—sings as I have lately heard it sing at night—or passes the casement sobbing, as if for sorrow to come? Does nothing, then, haunt it, nothing inspire it?
"Why, it suggested to me words one night; it poured a strain which I could have written down, only I was appalled, and dared not rise to seek pencil and paper by the dim watch-light.
"What is that electricity they speak of, whose changes make us well or ill, whose lack or excess blasts, whose even balance revives? What are all those influences that are about us in the atmosphere, that keep playing over our nerves like fingers on stringed instruments, and call forth now a sweet note, and now a wail—now an exultant swell, and anon the saddest cadence?
"Where is the other world? In what will another life consist? Why do I ask? Have I not cause to think that the hour is hasting but too fast when the veil must be rent for me? Do I not know the Grand Mystery is likely to burst prematurely on me? Great Spirit, in whose goodness I confide, whom, as my Father, I have petitioned night and morning from early infancy, help the weak creation of Thy hands! Sustain me through the ordeal I dread and must undergo! Give me strength! Give me patience! Give me—oh, give me FAITH!"
She fell back on her pillow. Mrs. Pryor found means to steal quietly from the room. She re-entered it soon after, apparently as composed as if she had really not overheard this strange soliloquy.
The next day several callers came. It had become known that Miss Helstone was worse. Mr. Hall and his sister Margaret arrived. Both, after they had been in the sickroom, quitted it in tears; they had found the patient more altered than they expected. Hortense Moore came. Caroline seemed stimulated by her presence. She assured her, smiling, she was not dangerously ill; she talked to her in a low voice, but cheerfully. During her stay, excitement kept up the flush of her complexion; she looked better.
"How is Mr. Robert?" asked Mrs. Pryor, as Hortense was preparing to take leave.
"He was very well when he left."
"Left! Is he gone from home?"
It was then explained that some police intelligence about the rioters of whom he was in pursuit had, that morning, called him away to Birmingham, and probably a fortnight might elapse ere he returned.
"He is not aware that Miss Helstone is very ill?"
"Oh no! He thought, like me, that she had only a bad cold."
After this visit, Mrs. Pryor took care not to approach Caroline's couch for above an hour. She heard her weep, and dared not look on her tears.
As evening closed in, she brought her some tea. Caroline, opening her eyes from a moment's slumber, viewed her nurse with an unrecognizing glance.
"I smelt the honeysuckles in the glen this summer morning," she said, "as I stood at the counting-house window."
Strange words like these from pallid lips pierce a loving listener's heart more poignantly than steel. They sound romantic, perhaps, in books; in real life they are harrowing.
"My darling, do you know me?" said Mrs. Pryor.
"I went in to call Robert to breakfast. I have been with him in the garden. He asked me to go. A heavy dew has refreshed the flowers. The peaches are ripening."
"My darling! my darling!" again and again repeated the nurse.
"I thought it was daylight—long after sunrise. It looks dark. Is the moon now set?"
That moon, lately risen, was gazing full and mild upon her. Floating in deep blue space, it watched her unclouded.
"Then it is not morning? I am not at the cottage? Who is this? I see a shape at my bedside."
"It is myself—it is your friend—your nurse—your—— Lean your head on my shoulder. Collect yourself." In a lower tone—"O God, take pity! Give her life, and me strength! Send me courage! Teach me words!"
Some minutes passed in silence. The patient lay mute and passive in the trembling arms, on the throbbing bosom of the nurse.
"I am better now," whispered Caroline at last, "much better. I feel where I am. This is Mrs. Pryor near me. I was dreaming. I talk when I wake up from dreams; people often do in illness. How fast your heart beats, ma'am! Do not be afraid."
"It is not fear, child—only a little anxiety, which will pass. I have brought you some tea, Cary. Your uncle made it himself. You know he says he can make a better cup of tea than any housewife can. Taste it. He is concerned to hear that you eat so little; he would be glad if you had a better appetite."
"I am thirsty. Let me drink."
She drank eagerly.
"What o'clock is it, ma'am?" she asked.
"Not later? Oh! I have yet a long night before me. But the tea has made me strong. I will sit up."
Mrs. Pryor raised her, and arranged her pillows.
"Thank Heaven! I am not always equally miserable, and ill, and hopeless. The afternoon has been bad since Hortense went; perhaps the evening may be better. It is a fine night, I think? The moon shines clear."
"Very fine—a perfect summer night. The old church-tower gleams white almost as silver."
"And does the churchyard look peaceful?"
"Yes, and the garden also. Dew glistens on the foliage."
"Can you see many long weeds and nettles amongst the graves? or do they look turfy and flowery?"
"I see closed daisy-heads gleaming like pearls on some mounds. Thomas has mown down the dock-leaves and rank grass, and cleared all away."
"I always like that to be done; it soothes one's mind to see the place in order. And, I dare say, within the church just now that moonlight shines as softly as in my room. It will fall through the east window full on the Helstone monument. When I close my eyes I seem to see poor papa's epitaph in black letters on the white marble. There is plenty of room for other inscriptions underneath."
"William Farren came to look after your flowers this morning. He was afraid, now you cannot tend them yourself, they would be neglected. He has taken two of your favourite plants home to nurse for you."
"If I were to make a will, I would leave William all my plants; Shirley my trinkets—except one, which must not be taken off my neck; and you, ma'am, my books." After a pause—"Mrs. Pryor, I feel a longing wish for something."
"For what, Caroline?"
"You know I always delight to hear you sing. Sing me a hymn just now. Sing that hymn which begins,—
'Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, Our refuge, haven, home!'"
Mrs. Pryor at once complied.
No wonder Caroline liked to hear her sing. Her voice, even in speaking, was sweet and silver clear; in song it was almost divine. Neither flute nor dulcimer has tones so pure. But the tone was secondary, compared to the expression which trembled through—a tender vibration from a feeling heart.
The servants in the kitchen, hearing the strain, stole to the stair-foot to listen. Even old Helstone, as he walked in the garden, pondering over the unaccountable and feeble nature of women, stood still amongst his borders to catch the mournful melody more distinctly. Why it reminded him of his forgotten dead wife, he could not tell; nor why it made him more concerned than he had hitherto been for Caroline's fading girlhood. He was glad to recollect that he had promised to pay Wynne, the magistrate, a visit that evening. Low spirits and gloomy thoughts were very much his aversion. When they attacked him he usually found means to make them march in double-quick time. The hymn followed him faintly as he crossed the fields. He hastened his customary sharp pace, that he might get beyond its reach.
"Thy word commands our flesh to dust,— 'Return, ye sons of men;' All nations rose from earth at first, And turn to earth again.
"A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone— Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.
"Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.
"Like flowery fields, the nations stand, Fresh in the morning light; The flowers beneath the mower's hand Lie withering ere 'tis night.
"Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Be Thou our guard while troubles last— O Father, be our home!"
"Now sing a song—a Scottish song," suggested Caroline, when the hymn was over—"'Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon.'"
Again Mrs. Pryor obeyed, or essayed to obey. At the close of the first stanza she stopped. She could get no further. Her full heart flowed over.
"You are weeping at the pathos of the air. Come here, and I will comfort you," said Caroline, in a pitying accent. Mrs. Pryor came. She sat down on the edge of her patient's bed, and allowed the wasted arms to encircle her.
"You often soothe me; let me soothe you," murmured the young girl, kissing her cheek. "I hope," she added, "it is not for me you weep?"
No answer followed.
"Do you think I shall not get better? I do not feel very ill—only weak."
"But your mind, Caroline—your mind is crushed. Your heart is almost broken; you have been so neglected, so repulsed, left so desolate."
"I believe grief is, and always has been, my worst ailment. I sometimes think if an abundant gush of happiness came on me I could revive yet."
"Do you wish to live?"
"I have no object in life."
"You love me, Caroline?"
"Very much—very truly—inexpressibly sometimes. Just now I feel as if I could almost grow to your heart."
"I will return directly, dear," remarked Mrs. Pryor, as she laid Caroline down.
Quitting her, she glided to the door, softly turned the key in the lock, ascertained that it was fast, and came back. She bent over her. She threw back the curtain to admit the moonlight more freely. She gazed intently on her face.
"Then, if you love me," said she, speaking quickly, with an altered voice; "if you feel as if, to use your own words, you could 'grow to my heart,' it will be neither shock nor pain for you to know that that heart is the source whence yours was filled; that from my veins issued the tide which flows in yours; that you are mine—my daughter—my own child."
"My own child!"
"That is—that means—you have adopted me?"
"It means that, if I have given you nothing else, I at least gave you life; that I bore you, nursed you; that I am your true mother. No other woman can claim the title; it is mine."
"But Mrs. James Helstone—but my father's wife, whom I do not remember ever to have seen, she is my mother?"
"She is your mother. James Helstone was my husband. I say you are mine. I have proved it. I thought perhaps you were all his, which would have been a cruel dispensation for me. I find it is not so. God permitted me to be the parent of my child's mind. It belongs to me; it is my property—my right. These features are James's own. He had a fine face when he was young, and not altered by error. Papa, my darling, gave you your blue eyes and soft brown hair; he gave you the oval of your face and the regularity of your lineaments—the outside he conferred; but the heart and the brain are mine. The germs are from me, and they are improved, they are developed to excellence. I esteem and approve my child as highly as I do most fondly love her."
"Is what I hear true? Is it no dream?"
"I wish it were as true that the substance and colour of health were restored to your cheek."
"My own mother! is she one I can be so fond of as I can of you? People generally did not like her—so I have been given to understand."
"They told you that? Well, your mother now tells you that, not having the gift to please people generally, for their approbation she does not care. Her thoughts are centred in her child. Does that child welcome or reject her?"
"But if you are my mother, the world is all changed to me. Surely I can live. I should like to recover——"
"You must recover. You drew life and strength from my breast when you were a tiny, fair infant, over whose blue eyes I used to weep, fearing I beheld in your very beauty the sign of qualities that had entered my heart like iron, and pierced through my soul like a sword. Daughter! we have been long parted; I return now to cherish you again."
She held her to her bosom; she cradled her in her arms; she rocked her softly, as if lulling a young child to sleep.
"My mother—my own mother!"
The offspring nestled to the parent; that parent, feeling the endearment and hearing the appeal, gathered her closer still. She covered her with noiseless kisses; she murmured love over her, like a cushat fostering its young.
There was silence in the room for a long while.
* * * * *
"Does my uncle know?"
"Your uncle knows. I told him when I first came to stay with you here."
"Did you recognize me when we first met at Fieldhead?"
"How could it be otherwise? Mr. and Miss Helstone being announced, I was prepared to see my child."
"It was that, then, which moved you. I saw you disturbed."
"You saw nothing, Caroline; I can cover my feelings. You can never tell what an age of strange sensation I lived, during the two minutes that elapsed between the report of your name and your entrance. You can never tell how your look, mien, carriage, shook me."
"Why? Were you disappointed?"
"What will she be like? I had asked myself; and when I saw what you were like, I could have dropped."
"I trembled in your presence. I said, I will never own her; she shall never know me."
"But I said and did nothing remarkable. I felt a little diffident at the thought of an introduction to strangers—that was all."
"I soon saw you were diffident. That was the first thing which reassured me. Had you been rustic, clownish, awkward, I should have been content."
"You puzzle me."
"I had reason to dread a fair outside, to mistrust a popular bearing, to shudder before distinction, grace, and courtesy. Beauty and affability had come in my way when I was recluse, desolate, young, and ignorant—a toil-worn governess perishing of uncheered labour, breaking down before her time. These, Caroline, when they smiled on me, I mistook for angels. I followed them home; and when into their hands I had given without reserve my whole chance of future happiness, it was my lot to witness a transfiguration on the domestic hearth—to see the white mask lifted, the bright disguise put away, and opposite me sat down—— O God, I have suffered!"
She sank on the pillow.
"I have suffered! None saw—none knew. There was no sympathy, no redemption, no redress!"
"Take comfort, mother. It is over now."
"It is over, and not fruitlessly. I tried to keep the word of His patience. He kept me in the days of my anguish. I was afraid with terror—I was troubled. Through great tribulation He brought me through to a salvation revealed in this last time. My fear had torment; He has cast it out. He has given me in its stead perfect love. But, Caroline——"
Thus she invoked her daughter after a pause.
"I charge you, when you next look on your father's monument, to respect the name chiselled there. To you he did only good. On you he conferred his whole treasure of beauties, nor added to them one dark defect. All you derived from him is excellent. You owe him gratitude. Leave, between him and me, the settlement of our mutual account. Meddle not. God is the arbiter. This world's laws never came near us—never! They were powerless as a rotten bulrush to protect me—impotent as idiot babblings to restrain him! As you said, it is all over now; the grave lies between us. There he sleeps, in that church. To his dust I say this night, what I have never said before, 'James, slumber peacefully! See! your terrible debt is cancelled! Look! I wipe out the long, black account with my own hand! James, your child atones. This living likeness of you—this thing with your perfect features—this one good gift you gave me has nestled affectionately to my heart, and tenderly called me "mother." Husband, rest forgiven!'"
"Dearest mother, that is right! Can papa's spirit hear us? Is he comforted to know that we still love him?"
"I said nothing of love. I spoke of forgiveness. Mind the truth, child; I said nothing of love! On the threshold of eternity, should he be there to see me enter, will I maintain that."
"O mother, you must have suffered!"
"O child, the human heart can suffer! It can hold more tears than the ocean holds waters. We never know how deep, how wide it is, till misery begins to unbind her clouds, and fill it with rushing blackness."
"Forget!" she said, with the strangest spectre of a laugh. "The north pole will rush to the south, and the headlands of Europe be locked into the bays of Australia ere I forget."
"Hush, mother! Rest! Be at peace!"
And the child lulled the parent, as the parent had erst lulled the child. At last Mrs. Pryor wept. She then grew calmer. She resumed those tender cares agitation had for a moment suspended. Replacing her daughter on the couch, she smoothed the pillow and spread the sheet. The soft hair whose locks were loosened she rearranged, the damp brow she refreshed with a cool, fragrant essence.
"Mamma, let them bring a candle, that I may see you; and tell my uncle to come into this room by-and-by. I want to hear him say that I am your daughter. And, mamma, take your supper here. Don't leave me for one minute to-night."
"O Caroline, it is well you are gentle! You will say to me, Go, and I shall go; Come, and I shall come; Do this, and I shall do it. You inherit a certain manner as well as certain features. It will always be 'mamma' prefacing a mandate—softly spoken, though, from you, thank God! Well," she added, under her breath, "he spoke softly too, once, like a flute breathing tenderness; and then, when the world was not by to listen, discords that split the nerves and curdled the blood—sounds to inspire insanity."
"It seems so natural, mamma, to ask you for this and that. I shall want nobody but you to be near me, or to do anything for me. But do not let me be troublesome. Check me if I encroach."
"You must not depend on me to check you; you must keep guard over yourself. I have little moral courage; the want of it is my bane. It is that which has made me an unnatural parent—which has kept me apart from my child during the ten years which have elapsed since my husband's death left me at liberty to claim her. It was that which first unnerved my arms and permitted the infant I might have retained a while longer to be snatched prematurely from their embrace."
"I let you go as a babe, because you were pretty, and I feared your loveliness, deeming it the stamp of perversity. They sent me your portrait, taken at eight years old; that portrait confirmed my fears. Had it shown me a sunburnt little rustic—a heavy, blunt-featured, commonplace child—I should have hastened to claim you; but there, under the silver paper, I saw blooming the delicacy of an aristocratic flower—'little lady' was written on every trait. I had too recently crawled from under the yoke of the fine gentleman—escaped galled, crushed, paralyzed, dying—to dare to encounter his still finer and most fairy-like representative. My sweet little lady overwhelmed me with dismay; her air of native elegance froze my very marrow. In my experience I had not met with truth, modesty, good principle as the concomitants of beauty. A form so straight and fine, I argued, must conceal a mind warped and cruel. I had little faith in the power of education to rectify such a mind; or rather, I entirely misdoubted my own ability to influence it. Caroline, I dared not undertake to rear you. I resolved to leave you in your uncle's hands. Matthewson Helstone I knew, if an austere, was an upright man. He and all the world thought hardly of me for my strange, unmotherly resolve, and I deserved to be misjudged."
"Mamma, why did you call yourself Mrs. Pryor?"
"It was a name in my mother's family. I adopted it that I might live unmolested. My married name recalled too vividly my married life; I could not bear it. Besides, threats were uttered of forcing me to return to bondage. It could not be. Rather a bier for a bed, the grave for a home. My new name sheltered me. I resumed under its screen my old occupation of teaching. At first it scarcely procured me the means of sustaining life; but how savoury was hunger when I fasted in peace! How safe seemed the darkness and chill of an unkindled hearth when no lurid reflection from terror crimsoned its desolation! How serene was solitude, when I feared not the irruption of violence and vice!"
"But, mamma, you have been in this neighbourhood before. How did it happen that when you reappeared here with Miss Keeldar you were not recognized?"
"I only paid a short visit, as a bride, twenty years ago, and then I was very different to what I am now—slender, almost as slender as my daughter is at this day. My complexion, my very features are changed; my hair, my style of dress—everything is altered. You cannot fancy me a slim young person, attired in scanty drapery of white muslin, with bare arms, bracelets and necklace of beads, and hair disposed in round Grecian curls above my forehead?"
"You must, indeed, have been different. Mamma, I heard the front door open. If it is my uncle coming in, just ask him to step upstairs, and let me hear his assurance that I am truly awake and collected, and not dreaming or delirious."
The rector, of his own accord, was mounting the stairs, and Mrs. Pryor summoned him to his niece's apartment.
"She's not worse, I hope?" he inquired hastily.
"I think her better. She is disposed to converse; she seems stronger."
"Good!" said he, brushing quickly into the room.—"Ha, Cary! how do? Did you drink my cup of tea? I made it for you just as I like it myself."
"I drank it every drop, uncle. It did me good; it has made me quite alive. I have a wish for company, so I begged Mrs. Pryor to call you in."
The respected ecclesiastic looked pleased, and yet embarrassed. He was willing enough to bestow his company on his sick niece for ten minutes, since it was her whim to wish it; but what means to employ for her entertainment he knew not. He hemmed—he fidgeted.
"You'll be up in a trice," he observed, by way of saying something. "The little weakness will soon pass off; and then you must drink port wine—a pipe, if you can—and eat game and oysters. I'll get them for you, if they are to be had anywhere. Bless me! we'll make you as strong as Samson before we're done with you."
"Who is that lady, uncle, standing beside you at the bed-foot?"
"Good God!" he ejaculated. "She's not wandering, is she, ma'am?"
Mrs. Pryor smiled.
"I am wandering in a pleasant world," said Caroline, in a soft, happy voice, "and I want you to tell me whether it is real or visionary. What lady is that? Give her a name, uncle."
"We must have Dr. Rile again, ma'am; or better still, MacTurk. He's less of a humbug. Thomas must saddle the pony and go for him."
"No; I don't want a doctor. Mamma shall be my only physician. Now, do you understand, uncle?"
Mr. Helstone pushed up his spectacles from his nose to his forehead, handled his snuff-box, and administered to himself a portion of the contents. Thus fortified, he answered briefly, "I see daylight. You've told her then, ma'am?"
"And is it true?" demanded Caroline, rising on her pillow. "Is she really my mother?"
"You won't cry, or make any scene, or turn hysterical, if I answer Yes?"
"Cry! I'd cry if you said No. It would be terrible to be disappointed now. But give her a name. How do you call her?"
"I call this stout lady in a quaint black dress, who looks young enough to wear much smarter raiment, if she would—I call her Agnes Helstone. She married my brother James, and is his widow."
"And my mother?"
"What a little sceptic it is! Look at her small face, Mrs. Pryor, scarcely larger than the palm of my hand, alive with acuteness and eagerness." To Caroline—"She had the trouble of bringing you into the world at any rate. Mind you show your duty to her by quickly getting well, and repairing the waste of these cheeks.—Heigh-ho! she used to be plump. What she has done with it all I can't, for the life of me, divine."
"If wishing to get well will help me, I shall not be long sick. This morning I had no reason and no strength to wish it."
Fanny here tapped at the door, and said that supper was ready.
"Uncle, if you please, you may send me a little bit of supper—anything you like, from your own plate. That is wiser than going into hysterics, is it not?"
"It is spoken like a sage, Cary. See if I don't cater for you judiciously. When women are sensible, and, above all, intelligible, I can get on with them. It is only the vague, superfine sensations, and extremely wire-drawn notions, that put me about. Let a woman ask me to give her an edible or a wearable—be the same a roc's egg or the breastplate of Aaron, a share of St. John's locusts and honey or the leathern girdle about his loins—I can, at least, understand the demand; but when they pine for they know not what—sympathy, sentiment, some of these indefinite abstractions—I can't do it; I don't know it; I haven't got it.—Madam, accept my arm."
Mrs. Pryor signified that she should stay with her daughter that evening. Helstone, accordingly, left them together. He soon returned, bringing a plate in his own consecrated hand.
"This is chicken," he said, "but we'll have partridge to-morrow.—Lift her up, and put a shawl over her. On my word, I understand nursing.—Now, here is the very same little silver fork you used when you first came to the rectory. That strikes me as being what you may call a happy thought—a delicate attention. Take it, Cary, and munch away cleverly."
Caroline did her best. Her uncle frowned to see that her powers were so limited. He prophesied, however, great things for the future; and as she praised the morsel he had brought, and smiled gratefully in his face, he stooped over her pillow, kissed her, and said, with a broken, rugged accent, "Good-night, bairnie! God bless thee!"
Caroline enjoyed such peaceful rest that night, circled by her mother's arms, and pillowed on her breast, that she forgot to wish for any other stay; and though more than one feverish dream came to her in slumber, yet, when she woke up panting, so happy and contented a feeling returned with returning consciousness that her agitation was soothed almost as soon as felt.
As to the mother, she spent the night like Jacob at Peniel. Till break of day she wrestled with God in earnest prayer.
THE WEST WIND BLOWS.
Not always do those who dare such divine conflict prevail. Night after night the sweat of agony may burst dark on the forehead; the supplicant may cry for mercy with that soundless voice the soul utters when its appeal is to the Invisible. "Spare my beloved," it may implore. "Heal my life's life. Rend not from me what long affection entwines with my whole nature. God of heaven, bend, hear, be clement!" And after this cry and strife the sun may rise and see him worsted. That opening morn, which used to salute him with the whisper of zephyrs, the carol of skylarks, may breathe, as its first accents, from the dear lips which colour and heat have quitted, "Oh! I have had a suffering night. This morning I am worse. I have tried to rise. I cannot. Dreams I am unused to have troubled me."