Isa Craig: 'Deepdale Vicarage' (3)

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CHAPTER XXIX.

THE LATIN AND THE GREEK.


LADY LANDON, when she smiled in the face of Simon Crosskeys, had not transacted the whole of the morning's business.  Far from it.  Instead of returning in her imperial chariot to the Manor, she directed the coachman to drive to Ash Tree Cottage.  Ash Tree Cottage was the residence of Mrs. Melrose, or, at least, had been so from the preceding Saturday.

    Four-and-twenty hours had not passed over the head of the countess since the visit of Dionysius Curling.  But what she did she was accustomed to do quickly.  Descending from her chariot, she stalked majestically down the garden-walk, till she reached the door of the cottage.  Here she knocked a loud and somewhat pretentious knock.  The door was almost immediately opened by a neat, spruce damsel, who constituted in her single person the entire establishment of Mrs. Melrose.  This functionary at once, and with all the respect due to the rank of the visitor, conducted Lady Landon into the drawing-room.  The drawing-room, though the largest apartment the cottage possessed, and having, besides, a bay window, was yet exceedingly small.  It was very scantily furnished, and had a bare, comfortless look, which told of the extreme poverty of its owner―a poverty which might have been apparent to the mind of the countess and touched her sympathy had she had the leisure to think of it.  But she had not.  She sat down on the little sofa, and, apparently at least, looked straight before her.  But she saw nothing.  She was in a state of abstraction—a prey to one absorbing idea—and beyond that, all was null and void.  The idea was the profound erudition of Clara Melrose, and how it might be brought to bear upon Phil.

    The reader need scarce be reminded that Lady Landon was personally no stranger to the widow.  She had known Clara Melrose from her childhood upwards; that is, known her as what she was pleased to call a well-mannered and well-conducted person—nothing more.  The erudition spoken of above had not come to her knowledge; or, if it had, she had felt no especial interest in the matter.  Now, however, it was different.  The Greek and Latin of Clara Melrose were about to become public property, and happy they who got a share of them.

    The eyes of the countess twinkled with delight, as she nibbled again and again at the tempting bait held out by Dionysius Curling.  Still nibbling, she espied a book which lay upon the table.  The countess stretched out her long arm and seized it.  It was the veritable Greek Homer out of which Clara Melrose had read to the vicar.  The eyes of the countess gleamed with positive ecstasy.  Not that she understood a single syllable on the open page before her, or that her acquaintance with the Father Of Song, even when rendered into her own language, was very profound.  Oh, no!  But Greek was Greek.  "Dear me; how wonderful!" thought the countess, as, her glass to her eye, she analyzed what might have been an unknown tongue—"how very wonderful indeed!"

    She had scare uttered the words, saying them aloud in the fullness of her heart, when the door opened, and there appeared the fair form of Clara Melrose.

    The countess rose up in all her colossal height.  One hand still firmly grasped the book; the other she presented with great cordiality to the widow.

    "Good morning, Mrs. Melrose; I am sorry to see you come back a widow."

    The colour rose to Clara Melrose's cheek at this abrupt address, and the tears started to her eyes.

    "Don't cry; don't cry," said the countess, good-humouredly; and eager to get to the subject in hand.  I'm come to talk to you a little.  Pray sit down."

    Clara Melrose sat down; her cambric handkerchief in her hand, and a solitary tear trickling down her cheek.

    The countess, too impatient to delay, with sparkling eyes brought forward the Homer.  "Oh, Mrs. Melrose, what a scholar you must be!"

    Clara Melrose smiled through her tears.

    "This book tells me that," said her ladyship, emphatically.  "Ah, there are not many women that can read Greek."

    Clara Melrose looked up in surprise.  Lady Landon had known her for some years, and yet she had received no special commendation from her before.  This visit was somewhat curious, taking it altogether.

    "And now," continued the countess, drawing nearer, with a confidential air, "I'll tell you what: would you object to read me a little of this book?"

    The widow looked up again, more surprised than ever.  Then, seeing that the countess was really in earnest, she replied, "If your ladyship wishes it I will."

    "I do wish it," replied the countess, eagerly—"I do wish it, very much indeed."

    Clara Melrose, smiling at the absurdity of the proceeding, and not a whit less astonished, opened the book, and, choosing the passage that came first, began to read.

    The countess drank in every syllable with avidity.  In her mind's eye it was not Clara Melrose who was reading, but Phil. Phil, perfect master of the Greek language.

    "Ah!" exclaimed she, as the widow closed her book―"ah! it is just as I said: Mrs. Melrose, you are a most extraordinary person!"

    Clara Melrose, puzzled at a demonstration which, to say the least of it, was singular, laid the book upon the table.  As she did so, the Big Countess came still nearer, and whispered, in a pure Irish brogue, "And now do you think you could teach my son Phil?"

    Clara Melrose started.  Certainly, some little light was let in, by this speech, upon the policy of Lady Landon.  Certainly, it was faintly dawning on the widow's mind what might be the purport of this visit.  But she was too well acquainted with the peculiarities of his lordship not to feel somewhat perplexed.

    The countess began to be alarmed at a silence which might prove ominous.  "Surely, Mrs. Melrose, something might be done," cried she with a touch almost of pathos, "surely something?"

    The widow turned her face, dubious in its expression, towards the countess.  "What does your ladyship wish me to do?" asked she.

    "Do!" said the countess, eagerly—"do! why just teach him to read in this book, Mrs. Melrose"—and she tapped with her finger on the cover—"in this book, and I'll be eternally obliged to you!"

    "Make his lordship a Greek scholar," said Clara Melrose, smiling.

    "Exactly!" exclaimed the countess, in ecstasy; "you've hit the very thing.  A Greek scholar, nothing else will content me; because," added her ladyship, with great simplicity, "if he knows Greek, Mrs. Melrose, why, of course, he'll know everything else beside."

    Clara Melrose bit her coral lip to prevent actually laughing.

    "You see," continued the countess, again in strict confidence, "I've had tutors till I'm tired out with them.  There was Mr. Curling even"—and here she sank her voice to a whisper—"I had thought he might do it; but, bless you! why, he was no more use than a baby."

    "Indeed?" said the widow, again biting her lip.

    "Yes, indeed!" cried Lady Landon, impetuously; "and now I've heard of you, and how you are acquainted with Latin and Greek," added the countess; "and so the idea immediately struck me that you could teach Phil."

    "Your ladyship is very good," said the widow, scarcely knowing whether, after all, the whole affair would not turn out to be a blunder.

    "And," continued the countess, with great eagerness and volubility, "I've heard, too, that you are going to set up a school in Deepdale.  Now, it seems a pity you should do so, when you may have our Phil."

    The countess had laid aside her dignity for this special occasion, as the reader will doubtless have perceived.

    "Your ladyship is very good," again interrupted Clara Melrose.

    Then she thought of her persecutors, and sighed.  Would Simon Crosskeys ever have allowed her to set up a school at Deepdale?  Query.  She was afraid not.

    The countess, however, was troubled with no such misgivings.

    "Will you?" repeated she, pressing her suit with great ardour—"will you?"

    Again Clara Melrose remembered her persecutors.  Would Simon Crosskeys permit her to carry out the wish of the Big Countess?  Would he not? and the colour rushed to her face, and the tears to her eyes.

    "Mrs. Melrose," said the countess, anxiously, "what is the matter?"

    But the cambric handkerchief now veiled the features of the widow.  Behind it she was silently weeping.

    The countess was not deficient in sagacity.  It flashed upon her mind, the little episode to which she had been treated by Dionysius Curling.  Smiling to herself, she drew as close to the widow as she could get.

    "Is it Simon Crosskeys you are thinking about, Mrs. Melrose?"

    The widow made no answer; but the hand that held the morsel of cambric trembled.

    "Because you need not mind him at all!" said the Big Countess, exultingly.

    The handkerchief was dropped on the lap of the widow, and her eyes were raised to the face of her patroness, with an expression of mingled hope and terror.

    "Mr. Curling was so good as to tell me about it, Mrs. Melrose," said the countess; "and how you had got into a difficulty.  So I ordered out the horses, and went to Simon Crosskeys and settled him."

    "Settled him?" repeated the widow, fearfully.

    "Yes.  He'll not trouble you any more, nor anybody else in Deepdale," continued her ladyship; "at least, if they do, they'll just repent it as long as they live."

    Clara Melrose passed her hand over her forehead, and heaved an involuntary sigh.

    During the last few moments she had looked white as alabaster; her eyes had a scared expression quite inconsistent with their usual serenity, and her delicate throat had worked convulsively, as though some unseen terror had her in its grip.  Now, the terror passed away, the colour returned to her cheek, her lips grew calm, and her throat ceased to work—nay, a smile broke over her features, like a sunbeam after a storm.

    She reached out her hand to the countess, and said, hurriedly and excitedly―

    "I heartily thank your ladyship for your kindness."  The countess took the slender fingers into her capacious grasp.

    "Don't mention it, Mrs. Melrose, pray don't!—it is not worth a thought.  But now," added she, returning to the charge with great zeal and energy, "what about Phil?"

    Clara Melrose sighed again.  She had the air of a person who has narrowly escaped falling over a precipice.

    "What about Phil?" continued the Big Countess, eagerly.  "You think you can make him learn?"

    "I will try my best, Lady Landon."

    "Of course you will.  And," resumed her ladyship, garrulously, "I'll tell you how to go on.  Phil is odd; he always was odd; and, between ourselves, it is my firm conviction that, as yet, no one has been found who knows how to manage him."

    "Indeed," said Clara Melrose smiling.

    "Yes, indeed, Mrs. Melrose, it is a fact," said the countess, nodding her head in a confidential manner.  "Phil is like that place—I forget its name—that somebody—I can't remember who—got lost in."

    "The labyrinth?" suggested Clara Melrose.

    "Ah! exactly, the labyrinth, and the man got lost, because he could not find the clue; or else he found the clue, and everybody else got lost.  I really can't recollect the particulars; but what I wished to observe was," added the countess, with emphasis, "that is just like Phil!"

    "Like his lordship?" faltered Clara Melrose, somewhat perplexed.

    "Like his lordship," said the Big Countess, still emphatically.  "He is a puzzle to everybody, because nobody has found the clue."

    The widow could not refrain from smiling.

    "Now, Mrs. Melrose, a woman who can do that," and the countess pointed with an air of triumph to the Greek Homer—"can do anything.  I'll be bound she can find the clue to Phil!"

    Clara Melrose smiled again.  She did not attempt any reply to this observation.

    "She can find the clue," repeated the countess, as if stating a fact that was incontrovertible; "and therefore," added she, with singular abruptness, "with your permission, I'll send the boy at once."

    "Your ladyship is very good," replied Clara Melrose, quietly.  "As I said before, I will do my best."

    "Thank you—thank you!" exclaimed the countess, eagerly.  "And now, Mrs. Melrose, ye'll understand me" (here her ladyship descended again into the depths); "you are to take nobody else, except Phil; and I shall take care you are no loser."

    The paying of what was just and right, in other words, the financial part of the arrangement, did not take long to settle; and the widow found herself, for the time, at least, in easy circumstances.  When all was over, and the Big Countess rose to depart, in the plenitude of her joy and gratitude, she almost embraced Clara Melrose.

    "Thank you, my dear!" said she, "and I'll prove your friend whenever you require one."


 
CHAPTER XXX.

PHIL'S TREASURES.


LADY LANDON drove home from her visit to Clara Melrose in the best possible spirits.  Nothing, for many a day, had given her such unfeigned delight as the prospect before her.  After so many disappointments, was she not going to succeed at last—that is, if the matter were managed dexterously?

    Experience, though dearly bought, is in some instances worth its value.  It was so in the case of the countess.  Her experience was very abundant, as far as the long line of Phil's preceptors was concerned; therefore, she knew exactly what to do.

    It had been arranged that, on the following morning his lordship was to be inveigled to the cottage of the widow.

    At the appointed time, the countess, dissembling her purpose, slipped into the hothouse, and with her own hands gathered a bouquet of flowers. This bouquet she placed in a pretty little wicker basket, and then rang the bell of the breakfast-room, which apartment she was at that moment, inhabiting.

    "Send his lordship to me," said she to the footman.

    In due time his lordship came.  "Phil," said the countess, artfully, "I want you to do an errand for me."

    "Yes, mamma."

    "You know that pretty cottage, Phil, at the end of the village?"

    "Yes, mamma."

    "Phil, my dear, a lady is come to live there, and I want to send her a present of flowers."

    "Yes, mamma."

    "She is a very nice lady, Phil; I think—I hope you will like her," insinuated the countess.

    "Yes, mamma."

    He had gone to the window, and was leaning half-way out of it.

    "The poor lady is a widow, Phil; she has lost her husband," said the countess in a tone of compassion.

    Phil's body was drawn into the room with a sudden jerk.  "Is she the lady that cried at the grave?" he asked, in a tone of interest.

    "I dare say she is, poor thing; she has plenty to cry for," said the countess, still pityingly.

    "I'll go, mamma; give me the basket," said Phil, abruptly.

    The countess smiled.  "Be sure you say the flowers come from Lady Landon; and be as gentle as you can with the poor lady."

    Phil heard not this last remark; he was clattering noisily along the passage.  He did not go down the great staircase, jumping the four last steps, as was his wont.  No; he clattered along the passage till he reached his own room.  This private apartment of Phil's was unique in every way.  It was a tolerable size, and had once been fitted up with some regard to the comfort of its inmate; but Phil's habits being of an extraordinary nature, it had been found impossible to meet the difficulties of the case.  Consequently the room was abandoned to its fate.  Every imaginable litter lay scattered about; and a rabbit-hutch in one corner, and a box of ferrets in the other, gave it pretty much the air of a menagerie.

    Phil shut the door and bolted it.  Next, he set down the basket of flowers, which he had been handling with unwonted tenderness, and pulled open the drawer of a cabinet, which said cabinet was stuffed, to repletion, with a heterogeneous mass of contents.  The drawer being somewhat unmanageable, Phil took it out, and placing it on the floor, proceeded to search for something.  That something was found at last.  Phil, diving in every direction, drew up a handful of sovereigns, which he laid upon the table in a heap.  Searching further, he brought up another handful, which also went upon the table.  Next, he produced a small wooden box, some few inches in length; and into this, with wonderful patience, he proceeded to pack his sovereigns, determined to make them fit neatly and compactly.  He was very quiet during this employment; and the rabbits in their hutch sat looking at him—their ears pricked up in astonishment.  When he had finished, he stepped hastily to the basket of flowers.  Woe betide him had the countess set eyes on him that minute!  To see her beautiful nosegay in the hands of Phil would have well-nigh sent her distracted.  Happily, there were no witnesses to the outrage.  Nor was it an outrage either.  He lifted up the bouquet so carefully that not a petal was ruffled.  Then placing the box at the bottom of the basket, he put back the flowers, exactly in the same position as before.  At this juncture, in order to relieve his feelings, so long repressed, he gave a shrill whistle, and turned three times head over heels.  This done, he clapped on his cap, took up the basket, and clattering downstairs, set off for the cottage of Clara Melrose.


 
CHAPTER XXXI.

TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE.


SIMON CROSSKEYS, after his discomfiture by the countess, remained in the fields the greater part of the day.  This circumstance might have been suppose to give some uneasiness to his wife.  And so it would have done, had not feminine curiosity prompted Mrs. Simon Crosskeys to overhear, by stealth, the greater part of the conversation between her husband and his patroness—a conversation which prevented any conjugal anxiety that his change of plans, and his absence from home might have produced.  When the countess strode towards the door, in order to depart, Mrs. Crosskeys, on the opposite side of the same door, beat a hasty retreat.  Not for worlds would she have been detected in the act of listening!

    The knowledge thus furtively obtained had one immediate effect.  While her husband was being reluctantly compelled to eat his own threats—much after the fashion of Pistol and the leek—Mrs. Crosskeys had taken herself clean out of the way.  Nor when the dinner, all smoking hot, was set upon the deal table in the kitchen, did she empress surprise at the non-appearance of her husband.  She knew perfectly well that for to-day, at least, Simon was very likely to go fasting.  "He'll be that put about, he'll never come home to his dinner," said she to herself.

    When at length Simon did return, which happened about tea-time, his wife was ready to receive him with the utmost complacency.  "Happen you didn't get off this morning, Simon," said she.

    Simon muttered something, as he hung up his cap in its place by the clock, about the fences in the big dyke close, and how Ben, the farmer's lad, could be trusted to nothing—an observation of which his wife took no immediate notice.

    "You'll be hungry, Simon," said she, bringing out a brown crock from the oven, and setting it on the table where it emitted a most savoury smell.  "I've kept your dinner hot, as you didn't come."

    "Thank ye; yes, I am hungry," said Simon, sitting down to the table.

    He looked rather paler than usual, and did not seem quite in his usual spirits—a circumstance, again, which caused no concern whatever to his wife.  Nor did she take heed when, now and then, he shook his head, with the air of a man who had something on his mind; or when, once, he struck the haft of his knife on the table with a loud sharp rap, and muttered incoherent words.  Mrs. Crosskeys knew, as well as he did, what he was thinking about.

    The good woman, being a careful housewife, had her milk to see to in the dairy at the back of the house.  So having established her husband by the fire, his pipe in his mouth, she left him, as it happened, just in time; for the moment her back was turned, in walked Nathanael Lewin.  Simon Crosskeys would not have cared to talk over his defeat before his wife.

    Mr. Lewin came in briskly, and with an air of unusual excitement.  He was a large, heavy man, with a somewhat dense expression of countenance.  Now his face was brightened up amazingly.  "Well, Mr. Crosskeys," said he, stretching out his hand to his comrade, "and how has it gone with you?"

    Simon Crosskeys, taking his pipe from his mouth, shook hands with Nathanael Lewin.  "Glad to see you, Mr. Lewin; sit down a bit, will ye? it's coldish to-night."

    "Well?" said Mr. Lewin, sitting down, and fixing his eyes, a trifle less dull than heretofore, upon Simon Crosskeys—"well?"

    "Well, the fact is," returned Simon, scratching his head, and not caring to look his fellow churchwarden in the face, "the fact is I haven't been."

    "Not been?" echoed Nathanael Lewin, in a tone of grievous disappointment.

    "Well, you see, I've been very throng [Ed.--"busy"] to-day," continued Simon, still scratching his head.  Them fences in the dyke close, I set Ben on to do 'em the other day, but it wasn't a bit of good; unless one sees after everything oneself, one might as well give up the farm."

    "But I thought," said Mr. Lewin, still in a tone of regret, "I thought it was a settled thing; I'd have gone myself else, though we're wonderful busy at home—yet I'd have gone."

    Simon was not prepared with an immediate answer for this speech.

    "Yes, I'd have gone, Mr. Crosskeys," continued he, "sooner"—and he spoke the words with intense bitterness "sooner than that woman should lord it over us at Deepdale."

    "Ah! Mr. Lewin, the women, they will lord it over us somehow," replied Simon Crosskeys, the vision of the Big Countess looming awfully before him.

    But the vision of the Big Countess did not loom before Nathanael Lewin.  On the contrary, he felt aggrieved at the dilatoriness of his accomplice.

    "I'll go to-morrow myself, Mr. Crosskeys," said he stiffly and with suppressed anger.

    To this observation Mr. Crosskeys made no reply.  He was puffing away, his eyes fixed on the fire.

    Now, it was very awkward for a big, burly fellow like Crosskeys to confess that he had been beaten by a woman; that just when he had got on his high horse, she had compelled him to get off again.  Yet this was the substance of the statement he had to make to his friend.

    "She came down," whispered he, having run through a few preliminary remarks, "and she threatened to pick a quarrel with us all round, in case we stirred a step in the matter."

    The face of Nathanael Lewin underwent considerable changes as Simon proceeded in his narrative.  At first it was sullen and dissatisfied; when the name of the countess was introduced it grew respectful; as, still continuing his recital, Simon alluded to the interference of that august lady, Nathanael laid down his pipe, and fear was now the predominant expression of his naturally dense physiognomy.

    The two men looked at each other as two combatants might do, when a third and more powerful combatant has defeated them.  To fly in the face of the countess, as Mr. Lewin sagely observed, would be little short of madness.  In which remark, Mr. Crosskeys heartily concurred.  "She has the whip hand of us, and she knows it," replied he.

    Yet to have that woman, as they were accustomed to designate the fair young widow, set over their heads, was more than they could bear.  They had so thoroughly branded her with infamy, that she had become a stumbling-block to the whole parish.  In proportion as they revered the memory of their lost vicar, so did they abhor the guilt of the one who had brought down his grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.

    "It is not to be supposed," said Nathanael Lewin, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, "that this sort of thing will last any length of time.  Murder will out, Mr. Crosskeys, and so will robbery."

    "In course, Mr. Lewin; in course," replied his friend and companion; who did not, as he himself expressed it, see his way clear at present.

    "I tell you what, Mr. Crosskeys," said the other, briskly; "my plan is, that we take it quiet for a bit.  I don't think we can help ourselves.  But by-and-by her ladyship will be off to Ireland, her steward told me so but the other week.  Now, when she is gone clean off, then is our time."  And he nodded intelligently to Simon Crosskeys.

    Simon returned the nod with one of equal intelligence.  "When will it be?" asked he, under his breath; for the conference now partook of the nature of a conspiracy.

    "Towards the autumn.  It's a long time to wait."

    "So it is," replied Mr. Crosskeys.  The prospect of wickedness triumphing for the best part of a year, was not pleasant to Mr. Crosskeys.

    "As I said before," answered Mr. Lewin, "the moment she's gone clear off the ground, we'll get a warrant, and have her clapped up in prison."

    "Yes, yes," said Simon, eagerly.

    "And in the meantime, her ladyship can't compel us beyond what we won't do," continued Mr. Lewin, whose construction of the English language was peculiar to himself.  "She may keep Mrs. Melrose out of prison, but she can't make a single door in Deepdale open to her."

    "Except the Manor," observed Simon, ruefully.

    "We must put up with that, Mr. Crosskeys, for a bit, as best we can.  It strikes me that her ladyship will get tired of setting the whole village at defiance before long."

    Simon Crosskeys shook his head dubiously.  And, just at that moment, having absented herself as long as she thought discreet and fitting, his wife came in from her milkpans and her dairy, which circumstance broke up the conclave.


 
CHAPTER XXXII.

THE SOLITARY MOURNER.


THE life of Frank Chauncey, from his childhood upwards, had not been altogether a pleasant one.  In his very boyhood had begun that bitter struggle which had lasted ever since.  His education he had wrested as it were by force, and in the face of every adverse condition.  His daily life had been made unhappy by the heartless selfishness of his father.  Self-denial and privation had been his portion.  He had, in fact, but one bright spot in connection with his home on which he could dwell,—but one tie which bound him to it—his mother.  The circumstances by which she had been surrounded —her toil, her poverty, her unnumbered heartaches, pressed heavily upon his mind.  Still, in her love, her tenderness, her never-failing patience and cheerfulness, he had ever found the elements that constituted the charm and sacredness of home.  To that sacredness and charm the worldly Reginald contributed not one tittle.

    Frank was well disciplined in the school of sorrow, and as a Christian he was possessed of those hopes and aspirations which lie beyond the grave.  Yet when he saw that mother, so beloved, die of her wounds, and before his very eyes, for a season he was overwhelmed.  The billows seemed to have gone over his head, and to shut out from his view even the tender mercies of his God.

    He could not, for a few moments, believe that she was dead.  He had seen her lie thus pale and insensible many a time, and after an interval her eyes had again opened on this weary and troublesome world—to her, alas! a weary world indeed—but now they opened not again.  Then came the terrible certainty—a certainty that admitted of no doubt, no ray of hope—the immortal spirit had departed: nothing remained but the deserted tenement of clay.

    It is seldom that the bereaved mourner has not one friend to whom he can turn in the first anguish of his grief.  Parents and children, sisters and brothers, can at least weep together.  But Frank had no loved one near; he was utterly alone.  He and his father were the last of their race—a race the sun of whose glory seemed to have long since departed.  He had no kinsmen, and but few friends.  He who should have closed those dying eyes had been away.

    For a day or two Frank remained in entire seclusion, only quitting his chamber to make the necessary arrangements, or to visit the silent room where lay all that remained of his beloved mother.

    At the close of the second day he wrote to Mr. Twist, apprising him of Mrs. Chauncey's decease.  His object in doing so was that the sad news might reach the ears of his father.  He had a vague hope that his father might, at least, express some grief for the loss of her who had been so loving and so faithful; a hope that—and here Frank doubted as he hoped—he might even follow her to the grave.  It would be some consolation to Frank's wounded, bleeding heart should such a tardy respect be paid to his beloved mother.

    That same evening, as Frank was sitting alone by the fire, the lawyer himself made his appearance.  He had come to answer Frank's communication in person.

    "I am sorry to intrude upon you at a time like this," said he, with more feeling than might have been expected, "but, on my word, I am very grieved to hear it—very grieved indeed."

    Frank had risen as the lawyer entered; now, he motioned him to a chair, and then sat down again.

    "I had no idea," said Mr. Twist, accepting the proffered seat, and drawing it near to the fire, "not the faintest idea in the world, that such an event was likely to take place."

    "Such events do take place," replied Frank, with some bitterness, "when――"  Here his voice failed, and he shaded his face with his hand.

    "Ah, I know: very sad, indeed," said the lawyer, in a tone of compassion.  Then, for a few minutes, he looked steadily into the fire.  "I thought," resumed he, as Frank made no attempt to speak—"I thought I would step up and offer my condolence; and also, as you are quite alone, if there is any service I could render you, I should be happy to do it."

    "Thank you," replied Frank, somewhat touched by a kindness he had not in the least expected.

    "The funeral arrangements are perhaps completed?" asked the lawyer, in a hushed and solemn tone.

    Frank bowed assent.

    "That is well.  I should wish, if you have no objection, to follow the poor lady to the grave."

    Frank could not for the moment reply; when he did, it was to burst forth by saying, "You are aware that my mother died of a broken heart."

    Solomon Twist shook his bead.  "My dear Mr. Frank, your father is a peculiar person, but he is my client, and I am bound to stand up for him."

    "Perhaps," said Frank, taking no notice of this speech, "you will be good enough to make him acquainted with the tidings of my mother's decease; I am, as you are well aware, unable to do so."

    Mr. Twist looked puzzled.

    "I wish him to know," said Frank, hastily.

    "Well, well, we will see about it.  You must allow matters to remain in my hands.  I am at present acting solely for the benefit of my client."

    Frank sighed bitterly.

    "If, at any time, you need my assistance, Mr. Frank, I am at your service; your position is not a very favourable one for beginning life."

    "Thank you said Frank, drily, and with some degree of bluntness; I dare say I shall do."

    As regarded his private affairs, he did not feel inclined to make a friend of Solomon Twist.  Still, there was a redeeming feature in the case, now that the lawyer had troubled himself to pay a visit of condolence; and, with regard to the funeral, Frank did not attempt to gainsay the fact that, beside himself, and the doctor who had attended the deceased lady, there would not be a single mourner.

    The burying-place of the Chaunceys was at a small rural village, almost a hamlet, some few miles distant.  Here, in those better days at which we have hinted, the Chaunceys had a family seat, and took a good position in the county; and hither, with pious care, did Frank cause the remains of his beloved mother to be conveyed.  On a still, cold afternoon, when the snow-clouds hung in leaden masses overhead, and scarce a leafless twig was stirring, she was laid to rest in the vault of the Chaunceys.  By her side was left an empty space for her husband.

    When all was over, Frank, bereaved, and as it seemed to him, doubly an orphan, returned to his desolate home.

    And now, these pious rites fulfilled, and the wife of Regional Chauncey left to sleep in her quiet grave, it behoved Frank to consider seriously what he was to do.  But a few days after the funeral, the sale of furniture was to take place; the house would then be re-let, and the home, such as it was, be broken up.  There was not, therefore, much time to lose.  And here Frank was again somewhat indebted to Mr. Twist; the lawyer took the management of everything into his own hands.

    "You need have nothing to do with it," said he to Frank; "your affairs are perfectly distinct from those of your father:" and indeed, they were.

    Frank profited by this hint, and resolved, at once, to quit a scene so intolerably painful to him.  He only remained in a small lodging, closely, till the sale was over.  Some few relics he wished to preserve from the wreck and ruin around him; these he stowed away till better days should come.  The scattering of the household gods—the tramp of strangers through the home, once made sacred by the presence of his mother—the rending of every human tie—the utter and hopeless spoliation of his house, was a cup of intolerable bitterness to Frank; so bitter, indeed, that he felt thankful his mother had it not to suffer.

    "She is taken," thought Frank, "from the evil to come."

    The next day all was over.  It did not take long to disperse the little remnant left, of what had once been the possessions of Reginald Chauncey; and then the great desolate house was shut up, and its blank windows stared drearily at the passer-by.

    It was time for Frank to depart and seek his fortune elsewhere.  He packed up his small possessions, and like a homeless wanderer—for such indeed he was—sought the vast world of London.  Desperate as his fortunes were, he could not wholly abandon his favourite scheme.  True, he might have obtained another tutorship, through the recommendation of Lady Landon; but he could not bring himself to entertain the idea.  He wanted to establish himself—to raise himself out of the gulf into which the misconduct of another had plunged him; to make a position and a home; to surround himself, in fact, with those comforts and refinements which skill and industry could purchase.

    "I can work hard for the present, and live on nothing," thought Frank.  He thought thus, in reference to the long-deferred step of taking his diploma.  The precariousness and the difficulties in the path of a newly-adopted profession did not discourage him.  He had great energy, and would work his way slowly but surely.  At any rate he would make the attempt.


 
CHAPTER XXXIII.

A RAY OF LIGHT.


ARRIVED in town, Frank Chauncey took lodgings, cheap but respectable, and here commenced his career by at once duly qualifying himself to practise as a medical man.  Many a time had he dwelt with delight on the period when he should have done this, and so passed the Rubicon.  In years gone by, he and his mother had often talked over the matter; and the poor lady had spoken of the occasion as a suitable one for a day of rejoicing.  Alas! he had no mother to rejoice with him now.

    Perhaps he had rarely felt his desolate position more keenly, than on the evening of the day on which he had taken his diploma.  But the darkest hour will often come before the dawn; and so it chanced to be with Frank.

    The very next morning, one of those events happened which threw a ray of light upon his path—a cheering ray, which he had not dared to hope for.  The postman brought him a letter from Dr. Plume.  Dr. Plume had been a friend of Frank Chauncey's from the moment of his coming to Deepdale.  He had appreciated the young man's character, and encouraged, nay, assisted him in his studies.  To him Frank had been indebted for many valuable hints, and to him also Frank had confided his ultimate intention of becoming a surgeon.

    It was, perhaps, in reference to this circumstance that the doctor, after expressing his regret at Frank's abrupt departure, made the following observation:—"I am old man, and my practice increases upon me.  I find I must look out for an assistant, whom I may eventually introduce as my successor.  Has my young friend taken his diploma?"  It was only a sentence in the letter, and the subject was not alluded to again.  But it was a sentence which set Frank thinking.  Dr. Plume had the best practice in the neighbourhood.  He had made his fortune long ago, and had been talking of retiring for a year or more.  To tread in his steps would be a capital opening for Frank.  And Frank had taken his diploma.

    It is true, Dr. Plume might object to him on the score of his inexperience.  But then, on the other hand, no one knew better than did the Deepdale practitioner that Frank had thoroughly and carefully studied his subject.  Besides, would he not, for some time to come, be acting under the valuable guidance of his employer?  Experience was, after all, in this sense, a matter of daily practice.  And where could he find a better school?

    As for Deepdale itself—and here the pulses began to stir softly in Frank Chauncey's heart—it might be dangerous.  It might even be that he had better never venture there again.  It might be one of those presumptuous sins of youth, that meet with their own punishment.  But should he not see the Lady Lucy?  The very remembrance of her brought a soothing influence to Frank's troubled mind.  He loved to dwell on her many and rare virtues—her serenity; her patient endurance of the trials which had fallen to her lot; her deep piety; her steadfast adherence to the path of duty; and in his fervent admiration, he classed her with that noble band of women to which his dear mother, now in heaven, belonged, and "of whom," thought Frank, "the world is not worthy!"

    To entertain the idea of winning Lucy for his wife would seem somewhat daring one, as matters stood, at present, with the fallen race of the Chauncey.  Frank's birthright—a birthright which would have placed him on a par even with the imperial Lady Landon, had been wrested from him, ere he was conscious of the loss; not by his own misdoing, but by the pernicious ways of Reginald Chauncey: and there had been more Reginalds than one, alas! in the annals of the family.

    Then he turned to the epistle of Dr. Plume, and read, and read it yet again.  Why should he not take the hint? why should he not go to Deepdale―that is, if Dr. Plume were minded to receive him?  And, above all other thoughts and speculations on the subject, there spoke out one word, clear and distinct, from the depth of the young man's heart—that one sweet word—Lucy!


 
CHAPTER XXXIV.

AGAIN AT DEEPDALE.


ERE the post went out, Frank had replied to Dr. Plume's letter.  He had, he said, duly qualified himself for practice, and was looking out for a situation.  His mother's death he alluded to in few words—for he could not trust himself to dwell on a subject so painful.  He thought Dr. Plume might guess at his present desolation.

    Perhaps the good doctor did; at all events he wrote a kind and sympathetic epistle to Frank, in which he made clear and definite proposals.  He wished Frank to come at once to Deepdale.  "I should prefer Chauncey to any one I know," he had said to himself—to himself, for the lithe doctor lived alone; he had neither wife nor child.

    Dr. Plume further proposed, in his letter, that Frank should reside with him in the red brick house, which, in younger and more enterprising days, he had purchased, and in which he had lived ever since.

    Frank's joy at receiving this letter was great indeed.  He gladly accepted an offer, which seemed to him providential; and immediately set about preparing for his departure.

    If there was a single spot on earth after which his soul yearned, it was Deepdale.  He arrived there late one evening, when lights were twinkling in the windows of the cottages.  The doctor had sent his gig to meet him at the nearest station.  He himself was laid up—so said the servant-man—with a sprained ankle, and could not set his foot to the ground.  "I am very pleased you are come, sir," added the man; Frank Chauncey was a universal favourite at Deepdale.

    Dr. Plume was lying on the sofa in the library, the snuggest room in the house, when Frank entered.  He held out his hand kindly and cordially.  "Well, my dear fellow, I am glad enough to see you.  You are come just in time; look at me," and he pointed to his ankle.

    "I am very sorry," began Frank.

    "Ah, so am I, Mr. Chauncey.  I've been sorry ever since, but it has not done it any good.  I am getting an old man, I suppose, and a little thing pulls me down."

    "You will soon be better, I hope," said Frank, cheerfully.

    "I don't know; I fancy not.  I seem to have got a shock altogether.  However, so much the better that I have found a friend, and some one to help me," added he, looking kindly at Frank.  He seemed, from the very first, disposed to treat Frank Chauncey like a son.

    A good deal of conversation took place, that night, in the doctor's library.  Many topics of interest were discussed, but not one word of the subject nearest to Frank Chauncey's heart was ever alluded to.  The Manor was never mentioned,—until, just as Frank was retiring to rest, a note was brought in for Dr. Plume.  He ran his eye over it, and then handed it to Frank.―

    "You will have to go, Mr. Chauncey," said he; "it will be a good opportunity for making your début as a medical man."

    Frank had made himself acquainted with the contents of the note in a few seconds.  It was written in the large bold hand of the Countess Landon.


Lady Landon will be glad if Dr. Plume will call upon her in the morning; she wishes to see him.


This was all; her ladyship's style was remarkable for its conciseness.

    "You must go," continued the doctor; "this ankle of mine will be a tedious business, I am afraid.  But her ladyship knows that you were coming back to Deepdale."

    "She does!" echoed Frank, hastily.

    "Yes; I was there the last time I was out, and slipped down as I came home.  Some lad had thrown a piece of orange-peel on the pavement.  I went to see that quiet little girl, as unlike the rest of them as can be—Lady Lucy."

    Frank's heart gave a great bound.

    "She is suffering from a kind of general debility, that has come on quite suddenly—a kind of wasting away; some people would call it a decline."

    Frank's heart now died within him.

    "The countess has neglected her, that's where it is," continued the doctor; "she always did."

    Frank laid the epistle of the countess on the table without speaking.

    "She always did," continued the doctor, confidentially; "you must have noticed that, when you were at the Manor."

    "I did," replied Frank.

    "Exactly; and she wants more care than any of them; Blanche and Juliana have the constitutions of milkmaid, nothing would hurt them."

    "Nothing would," said Frank, abstractedly.

    "Ah, if her father had but lived!—but one should not cavil at the arrangements of Providence—if he had!  Do you know," added the doctor, abruptly, "I believe that woman is planning to marry her."

    Dr. Plume detested the countess from the bottom of his heart.

    "Marry her!" repeated Frank, fearfully.

    "Yes, marry the Lady Lucy, bless her!  I love her as if she were my own child," said the doctor, warmly; "she is worth all the rest of them put together!"

    A tingling sensation came into Frank's head.  It was as if a peal of bells were ringing. in his ears.  "Marry the Lady Lucy!" said he, his lips white with the anguish of the idea.

    Dr. Plume being very unsentimental by nature, and, being moreover, lying in the darkest corner of the room, did not notice the change in the young man's countenance.  "Somebody is in the wind.  I don't exactly know who.  He is a foxhunter, I believe—the most unsuitable person in the world for Lucy."  He often called her Lucy, because she was his godchild; and he had attended her from that time to this.  "I hear he is paying his addresses to her, poor child.  I'll be bound she don't care for him a straw."

    "But surely," said Frank, hurriedly, and in a low tone, "the countess will not insist."

    "Insist! ay, that she will, if it's in her mind to do so.  She has no more feeling than that table—hardly so much."

    Frank was silent.  The thing was terrible to think of.

    "Blanche is going to marry Lord Crutchley―a good riddance too," said the doctor, with some bitterness.  "One would think one wedding might have contented them; they might have let my poor little Lucy alone."

    Frank's heart was drawn towards Dr. Plume more than it had ever been before.  From that moment he was entirely devoted to him.

    "Poor Lucy!" repeated Dr. Plume; "but I am keeping you up, Mr. Frank; it is very thoughtless of me, considering your journey.  Good night.  I hope you will find everything comfortable."

    "Good night, Dr. Plume," replied Frank, abstractedly; and in a state of profound abstraction, he went to bed.


 
CHAPTER XXXV.

FRANK'S PATIENT.


E
ARLY the next morning, in the solitude of his chamber, Frank debated a few knotty points with himself.  The gist of the debate was the plan he should adopt with regard to Lucy.  "You must learn to see her, to speak to her—in fact, to be on terms of courtesy and friendship; and you must never allow yourself to reveal by word or look the state of your affections.  You must consider her as out of your reach—nay, as engaged to another.  This must you do, Frank Chauncey, if ever you would hold your own at Deepdale."  Thus armed at all points—clad, as it were, in a coat of mail—he quitted his room to join Dr. Plume at breakfast.

    Dr. Plume was lame and ailing.  He had been helped, with considerable difficulty, to the sofa, and there he intended to lie all day.

    "My ankle is worse, rather than better," said he.  Frank, having reasoned himself into a state of equanimity, had full leisure to sympathize with the doctor, and discuss the subject of the sprained ankle, as if no weightier matter were pressing on his mind.

    When the doctor said, the moment breakfast was over, "Now, my dear fellow, you must be off to the Manor," Frank's self-possession did not fail him.  Calmly and deliberately he rose and prepared to go.

    He was to have the gig, for a round of visits had to be gone through, and the circle was a tolerably large one.

    "If I had not slipped down that Monday," sighed the doctor, "I might have done myself the pleasure of introducing you."

    Frank, even when bowling along on his way towards the Manor, had not abated an inch of his stoicism.  Taking out his watch, he noted the time with exactitude.  So many minutes could he spare for Lady Lucy.

    They soon reached the place—the scene of Frank's recent dismissal.  He had expected that his former pupil would come bounding out to receive him.  But, alas! he had a powerful rival now in Phil's affections—Clara Melrose.  Phil was at the widow's cottage.

    The gig stopped, and Frank sprang briskly out.  "I shall not be more than ten minutes, at the latest," said he to the man who drove; and, still to all appearance light- hearted and free, Frank re-entered Deepdale Manor.

    The footman in gold and lace came to meet him, and with solemn state to usher him up stairs.

    "The countess is engaged, sir," said he; "but you can see the Lady Lucy."

    Frank's heart gave a great bound, but he silenced it.  "She is nothing to you," he repeated; "nothing ever."

    Just at this moment, the door at the end of the corridor—the door, in fact, of Lucy's apartment—opened, and there came out—a young man.

    A tide of angry, rebellious blood surged to Frank's cheek.  Was he not in all probability the lover—Lucy's lover?  The young man passed close by Frank—the corridor was somewhat narrow—and as he passed, he bowed and said, "Good morning."

    If Frank did make a slight bow in return, it was as much as he could bring himself to do.

    Why should he have felt embittered, all in a moment, against the whole world?  Why should the current of geniality within him seem as if turned to wormwood and gall?  Why should the fact of this stranger's coming from the presence of a lady for whom he was endeavouring to feel the most profound indifference, and in whose society he did not intend to stay more than ten minutes, drive him nearly to distraction?  Because he was likewise a lover.

    She was standing by the window when he entered, looking out over the garden.  Was it to catch the last glimpse of him?  "Go back, rebellious blood! silence, foolish, unreasonable heart!  Lucy can be nothing to you, except just simply a patient."

    Her face was pale, and her dovelike eyes had a troubled look that went to Frank's heart.  She brightened up, however, when she saw him, and came forward, with extended hand, to meet him.

    "I am very glad to see you, Mr. Chauncey; you must let me congratulate you."

    He took her hand, as he had done once before; gave it a slight pressure, and dropped it.  Prevent every pulse of his body throbbing with excitement, he could not.  He sat in the chair by the window, Lucy on the sofa opposite.

    According to the programme, he should have begun with a few medical inquiries,—how was her appetite? how did she sleep? what were the especial symptoms of her disorder and when he had finished—or rather, when the ten minutes had elapsed—he was to rise, bow respectfully, and, jumping into his gig, drive off.  He was to do nothing more, and nothing less.  But how is it, then, that Frank on his chair by the window, and Lucy on her sofa, have plunged at once into a conversation in which medicine has no share?  He is telling her of the death of his mother.  Surely this was not in the programme?

    Far later in the course of the visit, he made the following discoveries:—Lucy was pale, and thin, and strengthless.  Ever delicate and fragile, she was now like a drooping flower, at whose root a worm lies hidden.  She did not sleep; she could not eat.  She was languid, and yet consumed by restlessness.  What could be the cause?  The embryo physician had skill.  He at once felt convinced that nothing of a bodily nature was amiss with Lucy.  He did not say so; it would have been premature.

    He prescribed a simple remedy, that, as far as medicine was able, would soothe and revive her.  Beyond that he could do nothing.

    An hour had Frank spent in the apartment of Lady Lucy.  Yet he could scarcely believe that he had exceeded the prescribed ten minutes.

    As he was hurrying to his gig, the young man he had passed in the corridor was standing at the gate, laughing and talking with the Lady Juliana.  Again he bowed courteously, and again Frank was compelled to bow in return.

    "Thomas," said he, to the man who drove him, "who is that gentleman?"

    "Him as is talking to the Lady Julie?"

    "Yes."

    "Well, sir, he's staying at the Manor; I can't justly tell his name; but he's the gentleman as is to marry Lady Lucy."


 
CHAPTER XXXVI.

THE FIRST LESSON.


"IS Mrs. Melrose at home?" asked Lord Landon, presenting himself at the door, his basket of flowers in his hand.

    The spruce, neat damsel who opened the door was no stranger to Deepdale.  She had once before lived there in service, and the was well acquainted with the family at the Manor.  She admitted his lordship with the same respectful air with which she had ushered in his illustrious mother.

    One of the things most near and dear to the heart of the countess was that Phil should become a "perfect gentleman."  She had taken pains to introduce him to such of her kith and kin as were most likely to polish and improve his manners.  Alas! Phil's manners, as well as his scholarship, were decidedly in arrears.

    On the present occasion, however, he walked with unwonted steadiness and decorum into the little drawing-room where the widow was seated, and, holding out his hand, said, in a far more gentle tone than usual, "How do you do, Mrs. Melrose?"

    The widow rose hastily from her work.  A little circumstance occurred to her memory, which, being connected with Phil, caused her, at the moment, some slight agitation.  As vividly as if it were yesterday, there came back the day when she and her husband had departed from Deepdale.  She could see the russet hue of the trees behind the old vicarage; the lingering brightness of the bed of geraniums on the lawn; the wicket gate, at which stood the revered form of her uncle.  Then the village street, thronged with those whose hearts had not yet been hardened towards her, but whose voices were lifted up to console and to bless.  Last of all, it came into her mind, the wild Irish boy, sitting on a stile hard by, and how he had leaped suddenly from his seat, and hurried to the carriage window, and clinging there as no other boy could, had said, "God bless you, Mrs. Melrose! be sure you bring your husband back again."  Now, alas! she had come back alone, a widow, and desolate!

    Thinking thus, as she rose to greet his lordship, the tears came into her eyes.  She did not mean it; and she brushed them hastily away, and tried to smile.  But that glimpse into the peaceful, well-remembered past had almost overcome her firmness.

    "Don't cry, Mrs. Melrose," said Phil; "I am very sorry, but don't cry."

    The tone of his voice, so like what it had been then, again partly overpowered her.  She could not help it; she sat down and wept.

    The Irish boy stood looking at her. Had Dionysius Curling seen him, he would have allowed that the expression of his face had grown more human.  Certain it is, that if ever the purest compassion shone forth from any mortal eye, it did from that of Phillimore Roderic Patrick Landon.

    He said not a word until the little burst of grief was over.  Then he came close up to her, and said, quite gently, "Mamma has sent you some flowers."

    She took the nosegay, her lips quivering, and the tears still hanging on her silken lashes.  He watched her as she arranged it in a vase, which she took from the cupboard, sitting all the time very still and quiet.  When she had done, and was beginning to thank him, he said, "I am sure you are quite welcome.  If you like flowers, you can have plenty more.  Please don't open the box," for she had it in her hand; "it is a little present from me," and the boy's cheek grew crimson.

    She smiled at him as she laid it down.  Her smile was wonderfully sweet and captivating, even to the wild lad.  He wanted to say something to console her.  He thought she was poor, and had lost all her friends; at least, thus much he gathered from the facts stated by Dionysius Curling.  But poor Phil was not gifted with much address.  Sitting on his stool, he looked earnestly into her face, his piercing black eyes so softened in their expression, that Dionysius would hardly have recognized them as belonging to the savage.

    "Mamma wants to be kind to you, Mrs. Melrose, and so do I," said he, simply.  "I have been so long—"

    He stopped.  He was afraid of making her cry again.

    She put out her pretty little hand with a caressing gesture.  But Phil's ways were not her ways.  All his native impulsiveness seemed to rush suddenly upon him.  He jumped up, and flinging his arms round her neck, gave her a great sounding kiss.  From that very moment he was the open and avowed champion of Clara Melrose.

    She had wonderful tact, this woman whom Simon Crosskeys and Nathanael Lewin were preparing to hunt down.  It occurred to her, even in this first interview, that something ought to be done in the matter of Phil's education.  The countess would brook no delay.  If Phil came home without some germ of earning implanted then and there in his wilful brains, she would be dissatisfied.  And considering that his lordship was fourteen years of age, it could not be denied that much had to be done; added to which she had opportunity and leisure, as Phil graciously informed her he should not go out rat-catching that day.

    She began by telling him in language suited to his capacity that she was poor and in distress.  Phil listened to those preliminary observations very attentively.  Once only did his eye rest with a gleam of satisfaction on the box that lay upon the table.  Then, when he had sufficiently worked upon his feelings, and made him again cry out, "What was there he could do to help her?" she told him, still in simple, forcible terms, that, in fact, he could be the means of saving her from ruin.

    Phil, deeply interested—interested as, perhaps, he never was before—attracted by the charm of the widow's manner, and his heart melted at the tale of her distress, inquired with great eagerness what she meant.

    Then Clara Melrose told him.  Looking down upon him, her sweet eyes fixed on his, she said that if only he would become her pupil—if only he would try to learn—why, then, it would be the greatest boon he could bestow.  Lady Landon would then be her warmest friend, and her enemies—she had enemies, she told the lad—her enemies be put to silence.

    Phil's eyes glistened with delight.  He jumped up again, wild and impetuous.  "Learn!" exclaimed he; "I would learn anything for you, Mrs. Melrose."

    She smiled upon him, and with the little, graceful hand played with the unmanageable locks that had so affrighted the unhappy Dionysius.  The bear's cub was tame enough in the leash of Clara Melrose.  "What would the terrors of Latin and Greek be, when fulminated from those lips?  Would she not make his hours of work as good," Phil thought—"as good as his hours of play?  Learn! I should think I will learn!" repeated he, vehemently.

    Again she smiled, and then, as if willing to strike while the iron was hot, she reached down a book.  She was going to give him his first lesson in Greek: for nothing but Greek would satisfy the Big Countess.  "I can teach the poor lad many things in time," thought she, but for the present—Greek."

    Phil never forgot how, when that lesson was done, and a few letters, nothing more, hammered painfully into his brain, he never forgot how he lay on the floor at Clara Melrose's feet, and she told him the first fairy-tale to which he had ever listened.

    Natures such as Phil's, half-savage, half-heroic, are very impressible to romance.  The boy's imagination kindled almost like a flash of genius.  As he lay, his eyes looking into her eyes, a kind of transformation came over him.  His face grew eager, intelligent, susceptible.  Dionysius Curling, again we repeat, would barely have recognized it.  Except indeed when, some hours after, the time had come that Phil must depart, and bounding towards the door, he suddenly turned round, and facing the widow, said, abruptly―

"I forgot, Mrs. Melrose—I quite forgot to ask you, have you any rats?"


 
CHAPTER XXXVII.

HOW LITTLE BOOKS CAN DO


DIONYSIUS CURLING stood on the hearthrug in his study, with his back to the fire.  "After all," thought he, indulging in soliloquy as he had done at the commencement of our story; "after all, it is a miserable thing to be a bachelor!  Books are very well in their way," here he glanced round the well-filled shelves; "capital things, but"—here he sighed despondingly—"books can't do everything; one wants a companion—a—a――."  He paused; he was ashamed to say, in defiance of ancient dogmas, "a wife!"

    Again be glanced round the room; it looked somewhat desolate and dreary.  Outside, the fog hung in wreaths through which no sun could struggle.  Inside, the fire would not burn, coax it as he might.  It had never occurred to him before that Deepdale Vicarage was the dullest place in all England.

    As if by sheer accident, his eye fell upon a paper which lay close by his desk.  It was the veritable paper that contained the names of the female population of Deepdale.  He took it up, and glanced his eye over it.  Then he shrugged his shoulders, and laid it down again.  Her name was not included there.  He knew these ladies now, personally, and had become acquainted with their several virtues and accomplishments.  But he barely allowed himself time at the present moment to recognize their existence.  One face alone had power to charm him: all others were inferior by a hundred, nay, a thousand degrees.  Clara Melrose was, as he said before, a wonderful woman.  "A gem of priceless value," thought Dionysius Carling.

    Still, with all this, there were two grave impediments in the way of his paying immediate court to this seraphic being.  One was, the recent loss of her husband.  Here a certain amount of reserve was necessary.  He must wait until she had emerged from her crape and sable.  The waiting was an evil, but it must be endured.  He was not the man to outrage the respected memory of a brother clergyman only six months deceased.

    The second impediment was the gravest.  Not that Dionysius, in his present ecstatic state, would allow it to weigh with him in the least.  Still, there was the accusation.  It was a serious accusation.  It might one day bear terrible fruits.  Nothing, save the intervention of the Big Countess, stood between Clara Melrose and a prison.  A prison! frightful as it sounded.

    Of course, in the eyes of Dionysius Curling, she was innocent.  But could he marry her with that ban hanging over them both?  Could he marry her, subject to the caprice of the countess, or the tender mercies of Simon Crosskeys?  Why not set about and establish her innocence?  Why not seek to drag the real culprit to light?  There was a real culprit, no doubt, lurking about somewhere.  "A wretch," thought Dionysius, "who deserves hanging!"  Well, then, he would bestir himself.

    Somehow, the thread of his æsthetical studies was broken.  His Plato ceased to charm him.  Much learning had become a weariness to his flesh.  A path, new and entrancing was leading him away from the dry bones of antiquity.

    Come what might, he must pursue it.  What should he do first?  Whom should he question?  The Deepdale clique were banded together to believe a lie.  It was useless to appeal to them.

    There was an old servant, the sole domestic that the vicarage in those days boasted: she had lived with the Melrose family twenty years, and was there at the time of the robbery.  She might be supposed to know every particular; and to her Dionysius resolved to go.  He knew where she lived.  Her native village was not more than a few miles distant, and she was keeping house for a widowed brother.  Her familiar appellation was Betty.  He would like to subject Betty to a severe cross-examination.  "I should be sure to elicit something," thought he.

    So eager and interested did he feel,―so disgusted with every other occupation, or train of ideas, that he determined to set off at once.  He knew the way, and he would canter over on his pony.  No more walks through the mud for Dionysius Curling!

    He started in capital spirits.  What if to him the task were delegated of vindicating the innocence of Clara Melrose?  What if, in the face of the whole parish, he could step forward and declare that he had discovered the guilty party?  Then, ah! that would be the happiest moment of his life.  Hitherto, he had tasted but moderate draughts from the fountain of bliss.  But with such a companion—with such a wife, he would not have come down to Deepdale for nothing!

    Thinking thus, he cantered merrily through mud and fog, until he reached the little hamlet where Betty dwelt.  Her cottage was the first in the village; and dismounting, he tied his pony to a gate, and tapped politely at the door.  A spare, sharp woman, with a discontented face, opened it.  This was Betty.

    She was not exactly the person he had expected to see.  He fancied she would have been one of those garrulous old women who are never weary of talking of the masters they have served.  But Betty's disposition was not gushing; it inclined to the ascetic.

    In reply to Dionysius's introductory question, as to whether she had not lived twenty years at Deepdale Vicarage, she said that she had.  Then, as he was interrupting her preparations for dinner, she looked somewhat sourly at him.

    "You were well acquainted with the late vicar, I believe," said Dionysius, not finding it so easy to begin his cross-examination as he expected.

    "Well, yes, sir; I was."

    "You—you were attached to him, I believe?" inquired Dionysius.

    "Sir?"

    Betty was a little deaf.

    "You liked him—respected him, I mean," suggested the vicar, timidly.

    "Humph!"

    Dionysius, somewhat puzzled, looked full at Betty.  Betty looked fall at Dionysius.  But, for any information to be got out of her face, he might as well have looked at the opposite wall.

    "He was a very nice man, I believe," stammered Dionysius, at length.

    Betty nodded her head.

    Dionysius began to feel annoyed.  He had never anticipated such a difficult subject for cross-examination.

    "Of course you were acquainted with――  You knew his niece, the late Miss Melrose?" said Dionysius, blushing a little.

    Betty's eyes gave a sharp twinkle—so sharp that Dionysius blushed still deeper.

    "She must have been—that is, she is now—a most delightful person," again stammered Dionysius.

    Betty smiled grimly.

    It was very awkward to carry on the conversation entirely by himself; still, Dionysius made another attempt.

    "You know, of course—you were there when the robbery took place," said Dionysius.

    Betty nodded assent.

    "Would you mind giving me a few particulars?" asked he, persuasively.  "I am, as you are, perhaps, aware, the newly-appointed Vicar of Deepdale."

    Betty nodded again.

    "And—I wish—I am anxious—naturally so, to have the matter cleared up to the satisfaction of all parties concerned."

    Another grim smile from Betty.

    "Would you favour me with your opinion?" asked Dionysius, blandly.

    Betty shook her head.  "You must excuse me, sir," said she, breaking a silence which was becoming ominous.

    "But," argued Dionysius, "as you are the principal witness—"

    "I'm not a witness."

    "You were there when the robbery took place," said Dionysius, eagerly.  He did not want to have his muddy ride for nothing.  "And you can surely throw some light on the subject."

    "No, sir, I can't; not a bit."

    "At any rate, you don't think that Mrs. Melrose was guilty?" cried Dionysius, in despair.

    Betty's face assumed an expression of utter and blank stolidity; stolidity dense enough to have baffled the penetration of the Sphinx.  "I can't tell, sir, one way or other.  I'm sick and tired of people coming to ask the question."

    "I am very sorry," began Dionysius.

    "So am I," said the old woman, sharply, "that ever I went to live with them Melroses at all!"

    Dionysius thought Betty the most disagreeable person he had ever seen.  "Good morning," said he, much disappointed.

    "Good morning, sir.  And please don't ye send anybody else, or I shall have to leave the place."


 
CHAPTER XXXVIII.

YEARNING FOR SYMPATHY.


THE next morning, almost before Clara Melrose had finished her breakfast, Phil turned head-over-heels up the garden walk.

    "I am come to school, Mrs. Melrose," said he, bounding into the room.

    Rejoiced as the widow might feel at the unwonted alacrity of her pupil, she had a little matter to settle with him, ere things could go on with their accustomed smoothness.  Putting the box into his hand, while a blush overspread her cheek, she told him that he must never offer her money again.  She thanked him, taking his two bear's paws into her smooth white hands, and drawing him caressingly towards her.  He had done it with the best intentions; but it had been a mistake.

    In these days, to offer money, except as a payment, for some service rendered, was little short of an insult.

    Phil's face turned very red while Clara Melrose was speaking.  He put the box into his pocket without saying a word, looking, however, so crestfallen and unhappy that the widow had to console him.  She said he was her best friend.  That she was amply repaid for teaching him; and so long as he was good and industrious, no harm could happen to her.  He had only to try to learn.

    Poor Phil! it was hard work that trying to learn!  But, supplied with a motive more strong than had ever before been brought to bear upon him, he certainly did wonders.

    Quietly, and using her influence with tact and discretion, Clara Melrose contrived to instil some amount of knowledge into his erratic mind.  Quitting the fairy tales which had been used as a kind of bait, she related those facts of history which it was requisite that Phil should know.  She led him on, from one step to another, patiently going over the ground again and again, and using the unbounded influence she possessed over him for the purpose of doing him good.

    Phil, docile, and tractable, was completely in her power.  The boy loved her with all the warmth of his Irish nature.  He liked to be at the cottage constantly.  He was never so happy as when doing her some little act of kindness.  As spring came, with its budding leaves, he dug her garden and planted it with his own hands.  He waited upon her with all the zeal and devotedness of a boy lover.  A word from her was enough to restrain him from those wild freaks in which he had been wont to indulge.  She could make him smile or weep at her pleasure.

    Some women are born with a spell about them, and she was one of these!

    But, in spite of Phil's companionship, the widow began to feel very lonely.  The Deepdale world had cut her entirely.  The Big Countess rarely visited her, and with strange inconsistency had forbidden her daughters to make her acquaintance.

    Dionysius Curling was patiently biding his time behind the sombre walls of the vicarage; he did not think it expedient to be much in the widow's company, lest in some moment of impulse he should prematurely ask her to become his wife.  Such an act of precipitation would ruin everything.

    Thus it happened that Clara Melrose felt herself doubly deserted.  No one knew how bitterly she mourned in secret over the friends that she had lost.  There were those at Deepdale who had vowed fidelity to her again and again,

    "If you are in any trouble, be sure you come to me," had said, many and many a time, Mrs. Flushing, at the house on the hill.

    "Nothing would ever make us believe ill of you," had repeatedly assured her, the three Miss Flushings.

    "Friends are no friends, if they do not stick by you," had been the prevailing sentiment at Deepdale.

    Clara Melrose, in her adversity, cast these speeches in her mind.  She could scarce credit the idea that not one spark of friendship lingered in the hearts of those who had professed so much.  Surely, if appealed to, they would not be wholly obdurate.  True, in public, they might not see fit to notice her; they might not venture to call upon her, or show her any open attention: but how would it be in private ?

    The widow had never sat in the vicarage pew since that first unhappy Sunday.  She had taken possession of an obscure seat in a dark corner of the church, and here she came, Sabbath after Sabbath, to join in public worship.  They must have had stoical natures, who could resist the sight of that mournful woman, who came alone, and alone went away to her home,—to whom no one spoke, to whom no friendly hand was held forth, who seemed cut off from kith and kin.

    "Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness:" such might have been the burden, of her complaint.

    As she brooded over her isolation, a thought suggested itself to Clara Melrose.  She was more than usually lonely.  Phil was away upon a visit, and she had literally no human being to whom she could speak.  The days were growing longer, for the spring had come, and violets bloomed in her garden.  The length of the days seemed to increase her misery.  It requires nerves of iron and brass to resist the steady, unrelenting neglect of those among whom we live; and even nerves like these will give way at length, and there will come the agonized yearning for human sympathy.

    Clara Melrose felt that yearning.  For a time she struggled with her pain.  She worked, she read, she laboured in her house and in her garden; she tried, oh! how vainly, to fill the aching void!  Her soul refused to be comforted.

    "Oh!" thought she, "were I to go to her, surely she would not reject me."  This was spoken of Mrs. Flushing, of the house on the hill.

    Mrs. Flushing was a woman of a kindly nature.  Perhaps few women could be found so tender and so full of charity; she had been like a mother to the orphan niece of Mr. Melrose.  A most intimate and cordial friendship subsisted between the two women.  When Clara went away to Madeira, Mrs. Flushing shed floods of tears; the widow remembered it well.  How the girls clung round her, and how their mother wept.  And now!  Oh! if friendship was worth anything—if it were not a mere pretence and a sham—then these people would be the first to receive her.  Should she go and see them?  She had sat alone until the very walls seemed peopled with feverish images.  Was her brain going to fail her?  Would solitude drive her mad?

    Scarce knowing what she did, the widow arose.  Ah! many and many a time had her light footstep ascended the hill, and kindly faces had issued forth, and kindly voices never failed to greet her.  Was all friendship dead?  Would past joys never return?


 
CHAPTER XXXIX.

MRS. FLUSHING.


SHE had dressed herself in her usual mourning attire, her crape veil concealing her face.  Then, somewhat agitated and nervous, she went forth from the cottage.  It was like a hare venturing from the form.

    She had no sooner set out than she began to tremble.  It seemed as if her limbs were about to fail her.  Except to attend Divine service, this persecuted, outcast woman had never, since her return to Deepdale, left her home.  She chose the least conspicuous route to the house of her friend; but she could not pass wholly unnoticed.  Her enemies pointed her out to each other, and even the very children stood to gaze at her.

    When she reached the abode of Mr. Flushing, she was panting and breathless.  Her face was pale as marble; her very lips were colourless.  So terribly did she suffer, that she almost repented having come.  But she had come.  There stood the pretty rustic dwelling, with the jessamine climbing up its porch; there was the row of bee-hives; there were the flowers of spring, blooming as in the days of old.

    But where was the friend of long ago?  Never before had she failed to step out to meet her.  Never before had there been this ominous silence.  Perhaps Mrs. Flushing was out.  Alas! no.  It was not very likely.  The widow had caught a glimpse of her at the window.  She was at home, and yet she did not come

    Ah, me! there are moments of sad trouble in the lives of men and women.  Such a moment was this to Clara Melrose.  Yet, having ventured—having braved the populace of Deepdale, she would not turn back now.  No! be the knowledge never so bitter, she would know the worst.  If she were rejected here, she would never try elsewhere.  No she would creep into her solitary corner, and, it might be, die: for life cannot hold its own in the face of the world's defiance; it is crushed out.

    The outer door of this pleasant abode stood open.  There was a rich odour of double-wallflowers, and a hum of bees.  Two white butterflies, the first that she had seen, were chasing each other up and down: and, in a little copse hard by, she heard the cuckoo repeating its unvarying note.  It was a delicious afternoon.  Nature, balmy and genial, seemed to smile upon her; but, alas! nothing else did.

    She had never been used to anything so formal as to knock at the door, and yet she did so now.  A barrier, that she could not pass, had been reared between her and the home and hearth of her friend.  No one responded to the knock, and then, perhaps in sheer desperation, she walked in.  She knew Mrs. Flushing was within, she thought that she should find her alone.  Here Clara Melrose was right.  At the little work-table by the window sat the woman who had vowed eternal fidelity—who had parted from her with tears.

    She did not rise when the widow entered.  She surveyed her with a look cold as an iceberg of the North, and merely made a slight movement of recognition, nothing more.  The look said plainly as words can speak.  You are mistaken if you think that I will receive you!"

    The widow, her lips dry, her hands feverish, her heart sick with sorrow, stood a moment, and returned the look.  The look said, "Will not you, even you, have pity upon me?"

    The circumstance was somewhat embarrassing to the lady of the house.  She had not laid down her work.  She sat with her needle in her hand; nay, once she put in a stitch.  She had not, as yet, addressed a single word to her visitor.

    Clara Melrose would not perhaps have taken such liberty, had it been possible to help it; but at this juncture, her head swam and her limbs trembled so violently, that she was obliged to sit down.  She would else have fallen.

    Still Mrs. Flushing did not speak.  She directed towards her another look of ice; that was all.

    The widow feeling a deadly sickness at her heart, and oppressed with heat and fatigue, faltered out a request for a glass of water.  She fancied then that she should have strength to walk homewards.

    Mrs. Flushing rose, went to a side-table where stood a large glass jug of water, poured some into a tumbler, set it upon the table, and then, sitting down again, took up her work.  Not even then would she be driven to exchange a word with Clara Melrose!

    The widow put the glass to her lips, but she could not swallow.  An hysterical feeling came over her; and setting down the water, she burst into tears.  Tears which had no effect whatever upon Mrs. Flushing.  Yet we must not suppose that she was hard or cruel.  She had nursed the late vicar in his illness, been the witness of his sufferings—his grievous embarrassments—his broken heart.  She had proved to her, beyond all doubt, that the inflictor of these woes was his guilty niece, Clara Melrose; and after that, could she ever notice her again?  "No," said she, repeating with tears the scene of this afternoon; "no, not if she died at my feet!"

    "She may well cry," thought she, listening with unmoved stoicism to the sobs of the unhappy widow; "she may well cry, but it will not bring her poor dear uncle to life again."

    Clara Melrose was not a sensational person.  She had been betrayed into this outburst, against her will.  She checked herself as powerfully as she could, and soon the sobs ceased, the tears ceased to flow.  There was nothing for her now, but to depart.  She rose from her seat, and stood a moment looking wistfully at her friend.  Then, clasping her hands, she said, in a tone of deep and bitter anguish, "So you will not speak to me?"

    Mrs. Flushing raised her head, and replied in a cold, constrained manner, "Excuse me, Mrs. Melrose: you must be well aware that I cannot."

    Should she burst forth, and deny her supposed guilt?  Should she declare, as before Heaven, that it was not she who did it?  If she had, I fear it would have been useless; nay, it might have been deemed an aggravation of her crime.  Women do not look at each as Mrs. Flushing did at her, unless they are fully persuaded in their own minds—unless the outcast has been proved past all redemption.

    Clara Melrose did not, therefore, burst forth, either by words or tears.  She cast one glance round the familiar room, and then, for a moment, raised her eyes to heaven, as if appealing to One above.  After this she went her way.


 
CHAPTER XL.

FRANK'S NEW COMMISSION.


"MY lady would be glad to speak to you, if you please."  Such was the gold-laced footman's morning salutation to Frank.  He had been some half-dozen times to see Lady Lucy, but the countess had been invariably engaged.  Now it appeared as though she were at liberty.

    Frank was ushered into the very room in which he had received his dismissal.  The first object that met his eye was the Big Countess in all her magnitude, standing in what seemed precisely the same attitude as when he saw her before; only she looked, if possible, more prodigious.

    "Well, Mr. Chauncey," said she, nodding her head graciously, "so you have become a doctor."

    Frank replied that he had.  He looked uncommonly handsome that morning, standing up before the countess.  Perhaps she thought so, for she looked steadily at him a few minutes through her eyeglass.  Then she dropped it, and said, "I hope Dr. Plume is better."

    Frank said he was afraid the ankle was likely to prove a tiresome piece of business.

    "It is very vexatious!" exclaimed her ladyship; "people always do fall ill just when you want them."

    After this speech, she was silent a moment, as if something in her mind.

    Frank wondered she did not ask after her daughter.

    "It is very vexatious!" repeated her ladyship, who was not in the best of humours.  "Pray have you seen Lady Lucy?"

    This question was put with abruptness, and even with displeasure.

    "I regret to say that Lady Lucy is not any better," replied Frank.

    "No better! what is the use of having a doctor, then?" cried the countess, angrily.

    "Medical aid cannot work miracles," said Frank, calmly.

    "No, it can't, and it can't cure people who have nothing the matter with them," retorted the countess.  Frank looked up at her in astonishment; the expression of her face was, as Dr. Plume had been wont to observe, as hard as a stone, and harder.

    "Lady Lucy is ill," said he, not without a touch of reproach in his voice.

    "Ill! girls take such fancies nowadays, Mr. Chauncey.  When I was young I was never ill."

    Frank did not think it necessary to reply to this observation.  Nor did he think it necessary to be scolded by the countess.

    "If your ladyship has any commands for me, I shall be happy to attend to them," said he; "otherwise, my time is not my own."

    The countess smoothed herself down a little as Frank made this remark.  She had not yet arrived at the purport of her interview with him.

    "You need not be in a hurry, Mr. Chauncey; I have something to say to you."

    Frank bowed, and was all attention.

    "You may have heard, perhaps, that Lady Lucy is going to be married."

    The countess, for mercy's sake, might have been a little less abrupt.

    Frank, struck as by a barbed arrow, had somewhat to do to preserve his composure.  But the countess, without heeding him, went on her way.

    "Now, Mr. Chauncey, as a sensible man, don't you think it is the best thing I could do for her?"

    He was compelled to answer, and that speedily.  The sharp eye of the countess was full upon him.

    "It depends on circumstances," said he, trying to speak calmly, and with no more interest than the occasion demanded.

    The countess caught him up with rapidity.  "So it does, Mr. Chauncey—so it does; but I assure you the circumstances are most favourable."

    Frank's ears tingled as he heard it.

    "Between ourselves," said the countess, losing her ill-humour, and becoming confidential, "I was really afraid that Lucy would never get married at all."

    Frank raised his head with a quick gesture.

    "Because," said the countess, replying to the gesture, "Lucy is so odd—so different to the other girls; bless their hearts!"

    "She is different," thought Frank; "oh, how different!"

    "July and Blanche are sure to do well; in fact, Lady Blanche is as good as settled.  But I had not expected that any one would propose for Lady Lucy."

    Frank could hardly bear it.  He was chafing to desperation under this fire of speeches.  Still the countess went on, increasing in friendliness as she did in confidence, "I have actually got a lover for Lucy!"

    Frank's head swayed like a tree in a storm,

    "A lover for her, Mr. Chauncey! repeated the countess, in a tone of great satisfaction; and a young man of good family too.  Do you happen to know the Willets, of Staffordshire?"

    No, Frank did not; what is more, he did not want to.  This latter clause he kept to himself.

    "Well, Mr. Chauncey, Sir Geoffrey Willet, who has just succeeded to the baronetcy, on the death of his uncle, has proposed for Lucy."

    She said it with exultation, rubbing her great bony hands together, her eyes fixed all the while on Frank.  He did not attempt to make any comment.  He was not in a state of mind to do so.

    "Have you met with him, Mr. Chauncey, since your return to Deepdale?"

    Frank reluctantly admitted that he had.

    "Well, and don't you think he is just the right sort of husband for Lucy?"

    Frank, still resolutely master of himself, replied that his acquaintance with Sir Geoffrey having been limited to a single bow, did not as yet warrant any conclusion.

    "Ah! but you will like him when you come to know him," said the countess, exultingly.  "I like him, and Lady Blanche and Lady July like him, and they are excellent judges."

    To this Frank made no reply.

    "Now, Mr. Chauncey, what I want you to do is this," continued her ladyship, after a little pause.  "You are Lucy's doctor.  Well, I don't choose to say to her, ' Lucy, I insist upon it that you shall marry Sir Geoffrey,' but I wish you to convey to her that impression.  Do you understand me?"

    "I think," replied Frank, quietly and patiently, "that, in the present state of Lady Lucy's health, she cannot be kept too free from excitement.  As her medical attendant, I would not be answerable for the consequences."

    "Nonsense, Mr. Chauncey!  Lady Lucy was always a pale-faced little thing; but she is no more delicate than I am!"

    Frank started at the bare idea.

    "She is fanciful," continued the countess, "and sits and broods until she thinks she is ill.  If I were her doctor, I would soon rattle her out of that.  Look at Blanche and Juliana."

    Frank was silent.  His eyes were fixed upon the ground.

    The countess hated the slightest opposition to her wish.

    "If you do not think well to follow my advice, Mr. Chauncey, I shall send for Dr. Harker," said she, with the old imperious ring in her voice.

    Frank coloured with shame and vexation.

    "A rampaging, half-mad woman, as rude as you please," was Dr. Plume's definition of the Big Countess.

    Considering the state of his affection, and the extreme delicacy of the affair into which she would thrust him, Frank might well hesitate.  Yet there were cogent reasons why he should not altogether refuse the confidence of her ladyship.  There would be, to begin with, something transcendently bewitching in being the confidant of Lucy.  He would approach the subject with a caution and tenderness that would prevent the slightest pain or shock.  None would act the part of a faithful and devoted friend better than he could to the neglected girl.  In his hands Lucy would be safe.  Why, then, let in Dr. Harker?  Dr. Harker did not stand upon the same level as Dr. Plume.  He was no devoted slave of Lady Lucy's.  He would side with the countess, in order to increase his practice.  Urged by these motives, Frank, after a short consideration, opened his mouth and spoke.  He told her ladyship that be would do his best.  His reticence, his apparent reluctance to interfere, his seeming want of interest, was in his favour.

    Could the countess have been favoured with a glimpse into his heart, I feel sure she would, that very minute, have sent for Dr. Harker.


 
CHAPTER, XLI.

SIR GEOFFREY WILLET.


IF the reader supposes that the half-dozen visits paid by Frank to Lady Lucy, ere the Big Countess favoured him with her instructions, were without effect, he is mistaken.  Very much had transpired during that period.  Frank was no stranger to Lady Lucy.  He had been for some time regarded by her as the best friend she had, and very sincerely did she welcome his return to Deepdale.  Since his dismissal, she had suffered the pangs of complete isolation.  None of those by whom she was surrounded cared for her in the least degree.  In her illness, servants were her sole nurses.  Her imperial mother she rarely saw.  A hasty visit, now and then, sufficed for Blanche and Juliana.  To be sure, she had her lover.

    Sir Geoffrey never failed to present himself, once a day, in her apartment.  No one knew the precise nature of his affection.  It was surmised that her portion, which would be ample, had attracted him more than her person, for the baronetcy to which he had succeeded was much encumbered with debts.  As far as mutual sympathy went, and that union of heart and mind which constitutes the real happiness of marriage, I fear they could not exist.

    Lucy's tastes were intelligent and refined.  Sir Geoffrey had but two predilections in the world—horses and dogs.

    When, therefore, he was paying court to Lucy—that is, sitting in her room, rather wearily, for some half-hour every morning, the conversation was wont to flag.  After he had discussed the several points of Juno, his new hunter, or favoured her with the particulars of a steeplechase which had recently taken place in the neighbourhood, he had literally nothing more to say.  Then the time seemed to hang heavily on the hands of the two persons about to be joined in the holy bonds of matrimony.  After the steeplechase and Juno had both been talked threadbare, the interview world run pretty much as follows:―

    "Well, Lucy, I hope you are better this morning?"

    Lucy would reply that she hoped she was.

    "That's right!  We shall have you on horseback some of these days."

    That was the ultimatum of Sir Geoffrey's ambition.

    Lucy would smile at this speech—she had heard it so often.  Sir Geoffrey would then sit down and drum on the table.  There would be a long silence.

    "Seen the Times, Lucy?"

    "I had just finished reading it when you came in."

    "Ah!  Some stunning speeches, I suppose, in the House of Lords: but I never bother my head with politics."

    Lucy would try to make some little reply to this observation, after which Sir Geoffrey would drum again on the table.

    "Doctor been to-day, Lucy?"

    "Not yet, Sir Geoffrey.  I expect him every minute."

    "Ah, then, I'll take myself out of the way."  This was said in a tone of relief.  "You'll be sure and get well, Lucy.  Good-bye."  And Sir Geoffrey would vanish in a trice.

    Under these circumstances, it might be supposed that a tie so loose and vague would easily be set aside; and perhaps it would have been, but for those little debts aforesaid.  Sir Geoffrey was, however, quite in earnest when he proposed to make the youngest daughter of Lady Landon his bride.

    "She will do very well," he would say, in his careless, easy manner.  "She can go her way, and I can go mine.  Hundreds of married people are no better matched."

    Now let us contrast this little interview, between Sir Geoffrey and Lucy, with the visit of Frank Chauncey.

    Frank would find her reclining on the sofa, pale and languid, and looking as if a breath would blow her away.  She would rouse herself the moment he came in, and her eye would kindle with interest.  Of all the people with whom she had been associated, none had ever stood to her in the place of Frank.  He had the art of drawing her into conversation.  He had read the books she had read; his views coincided with hers.  He had breadth and scope of mind.  There was no need to drum on the table, or to cling to Juno and the steeplechase.  And as they talked, Lucy's appearance would be changed; her languor would vanish—she would become cheerful, and even sprightly.

    Frank did not know—and it was quite as well he should not that his visits were the only solace that poor Lucy had.

    Coming from the presence of the Big Countess, and charged with an important, almost unwarrantable commission, he did not feel quite so much at his ease; added to which, he dreaded to venture on a subject to him so dangerous as that of sounding the affections of Lucy.  What if, as he did so, his own were to break loose?  What if he were not able to resist the impulse of telling her that he loved her?  On this head he laid a severe embargo on himself ere he ventured into her presence.  He forbade himself, even by a look, to shake the quiet confidence which she had reposed in him.

    She was not, as usual, on the sofa.  She seemed to have been dragging heavily up and down the room, for the moment he opened the door she stopped and looked towards him.  So feeble and tottering she appeared, that Frank, by a sudden impulse, offered his arm to lead her to her seat.  She accepted it.  She had yet some distance to traverse, and she thanked him as she did so.

    Frank could see she had been weeping, and the discovery well nigh overpowered his resolutions.  Heaven knew what she might not have been made to suffer!  He placed her in the easy-chair, and sat down beside her―it was necessary that he should do so—and then, he took her slender wrist between his fingers.  Alas ! how the poor agitated pulses fluttered!

    "Lady Lucy," said Frank, in the tone with which he had been wont to speak to his mother, "something has occurred to agitate you."

    She glanced up at him in a timid, startled way that was very distressing.

    "This pulse tells me so," said he smiling, as though to reassure her; "you cannot deceive your doctor."

    She had laid her head on the cushion of her chair with a gesture of weariness.

    "I am not so well this morning, Mr. Chauncey," said she, a tear trickling down her cheek.

    Men are but fallible beings at best.  It was against his principles, but Frank felt an eager desire to hear from her own lips whether or not she loved Sir Geoffrey.

    "Lady Lucy," said he, in that calm, pleasant voice which never failed to tranquillize her, "the medical man is greatly to blame when be attempts to blind either himself or his patient.  Your illness is not bodily, but mental."

    She smiled a melancholy smile, that had almost overcome Frank, there and then: but he held himself resolutely in check.

    "To know our disease is said to be half our cure," continued he.  "I do not wish to force myself on your confidence, but, indeed, Lady Lucy, this is a case where drugs are worse than useless."

    "I know it," whispered she; "I have known it for a long time."

    There was an interval of silence.  Frank was revolving his next step.  She was leaning her head on her hand.

    "Pardon me," said Frank, in a soothing tone, "I have been told—(How shall I express myself with sufficient delicacy?)—I have been told that you are about to leave us."

    She started and shuddered.  Never had Frank seen her so agitated.

    Still he went on ruthlessly: "If such a step will conduce to your happiness―"

    Again she shuddered.  There was a look of reproach in her face that touched Frank to the quick.

    Regardless of all prudential considerations, and carried away by a vague, passionate hope, he whispered, "Lady Lucy, for your own sake, tell me, is this marriage distasteful to you?"

    She did not speak for a few moments.  She had turned away her face, and Frank knew that she was weeping.

    It was not in nature to resist saying, "Lady Lucy, you can trust me.  Am I not your friend?"

    Not even then would he dare to speak of himself.  Honour and honesty forbade it.  Even then, he kept to his heart, "Be things as they may, she cannot be yours."

    Presently she looked up; he had been waiting patiently till she should speak; and in a low, sorrowful tone, her face wet with tears, she began to reply.  The marriage was distasteful to her—how Frank's heart leaped at the sound!—and constant grief and anxiety were consuming her spirit.  She wished almost, in her despair, that she might die.  There was no one to care for her in all the world!

    It was very hard for Frank to refrain from crying out, on this bended knees, "I care for you!  Every hair of your head is precious to me! if you will allow it, I will devote my whole life to you!  No one was ever so dear to another as you are to me!"  But Frank did not say so.  Something belonging to him as a Christian and a gentleman whispered that this was no time for the furtherance of his own private ends; nor was the vexed soul of Lucy in a fit state to listen to him.

    What he said was this: He told her that she must not give way to despair.  There were paths open by which she might escape the marriage thus attempted to be forced upon her.  Sir Geoffrey might be induced to draw back, or the countess to relent.  He should give it as his firm opinion that, for the present, all such topics should be in abeyance.

    Lucy wept while he spoke.  She had not much hope, either of Sir Geoffrey or of the countess.  She knew both of them better than Frank did.  She was very wretched: the weakness of illness caused her fortitude to give way.

    Frank dared not trust himself to say much more; Lucy's tears and grief were dangerous.  It was quite as well that Lady Juliana should have chosen this identical time for paying her sister a visit, otherwise, I can scarce tell what might not have occurred!


 
CHAPTER XLII.

THE MEANING OF THE GREEK ALPHABET.


IT was a merciful arrangement, that Clara Melrose, hurrying away from the house of the woman who had once been her friend, did not find her home as solitary as when she left it.  A sensitive mind may be goaded to distraction, and pass the boundary over which it seldom, if ever, returns.

    But the widow was saved from this terrible crisis.  As she opened the garden gate, out bounded Phil.  He had come home sooner than was expected, and had instantly rushed to the cottage—"Without speaking to any of us," had said Blanche and Juliana.

    The moment Clara Melrose entered the little drawing-room, she sank on a chair; then she threw off her bonnet, and gave a few hysterical gasps, or sobs, that alarmed Phil beyond measure.

    She was pale as death: her hands were clenched, as if she were in great mental agony.  For the first few moments, she took no notice of Phil.  Her eyes rolled wildly hither and thither; until, with a shudder that seemed to shake her whole frame, she burst into a violent fit of weeping, and calling the boy to her, threw her arms round him and sobbed out, that he was the only friend she had in the world, and he must never, never forsake her!

    The boy was astonished, and a little frightened; but, melted to tenderness by the tears and lamentations of the beautiful woman who wept over him, and conscious of his great love for her, he cried out, "Dear Mrs. Melrose, that I never will!"

    She drew him nearer still, and still wept bitterly.

    "Don't cry," said Phil, soothingly.  "Only tell me what is the matter, and see if I don't get you righted.  I'm a lord, remember."

    She could not help smiling at his simplicity.  As if the mightiest potentate on earth could have power to heal wounds like hers.

    "Is it the Greek?" continued Phil, taking her handkerchief, and gently wiping the crystal drops that kept falling like a shower.  She shook her head sadly.  "Not the Greek!" said Phil, puzzled.  "Has anybody been hurting you, Mrs. Melrose?"  She sighed bitterly.  "Because you have only to tell me, and I'll knock him over in a minute!  I should like it!" cried Phil, gleefully.

    By this time the widow had somewhat recovered.  She rose, laid aside her walking attire, and, smiling on Phil, said, caressingly―

    "Thank you, my dear; I am better now.  I was only rather foolish.  I was so lonely when I had lost my little friend."

    A tremendous kiss, and a look of ardent affection was the only reply to this speech.  Then, as if seized by a sudden impulse, the Irish boy started up, and, quitting the cottage, tore down the garden walk with all the speed in his power.

    Still tearing along, his black locks streaming behind him, and his closed fists beating the air, he reached the Manor.  It is quite as well that, during the transit, he should not have fallen in with Dionysius Curling.

    The Big Countess was standing at the head of the stairs, magnificently apparelled, and about to step into her a carriage, and go out to dinner, when Phil rushed full drive upon her.

    "Don't come near me!" shrieked she, in alarm; "don't on any account!  Stop where you are, Phil, I command you!  I have no doubt you have been in a ditch, and that your hands are all over mud."

    "No, they are not; and I haven't been in a ditch at all," replied Phil, stoutly, and pushing his way upwards.

    "If you have not been in a ditch, you have been else as bad," persisted her ladyship, shrinking aside and drawing her robes round her; "you are the worst boy that ever lived!"

    "I'm not going to live here any longer; I am going to live with Mrs. Melrose," replied Phil, who had now reached the top of the stairs.

    "And what is that for, pray?" asked the countess in a tone of mingled curiosity and displeasure.

    "Is there anybody who can pack up my clothes?" exclaimed Phil, not condescending to reply to his mother's inquiry.

    "You wicked boy! you shall not have your clothes packed! you shall stop at home!" vociferated the countess.

    "No, I shan't!—at least, if I do stop at home, I don't learn any more Greek!" said Phil doggedly, and looking his mother full in the face.

    The heart of the Big Countess misgave her.  Greek! —that was the talisman which had power to tame her in a minute.  Her face assumed a temporizing expression.

    "You naughty boy! when you are getting on so nicely and when I've told everybody that you are quite a scholar――"

    "So I am!" interrupted Phil, without the slightest scruple.  "Alpha, beta, gammas, delta," and with the utmost glibness he ran over the whole alphabet, stopping only when he reached "omega."

    The eyes of the Big Countess sparkled with ecstasy.

    "Phil," said she, coming close up to him, in spite of her robes, and taking his face between her hands—"Phil, my blessed darling, is that Greek?"

    Phil nodded a careless assent.

    "And what does it mean, my dear?" asked the countess beaming with affectionate rapture.

    "It means," said Phil, audaciously—"it means, I must have my own way!"

    The countess stooped down, and forgetting all, in the bliss of the moment, took him in her capacious arms, and hugged him until he was nearly suffocated.

    The sight of Phil kicking and struggling, in the embrace of his mother, was one of the most grotesque in existence.

    "And to think," said the countess, some hour or two afterwards, to a bevy of her choicest and most privileged friends—"to think that he can actually talk Greek!"

    As for Phil, when he got loose from the maternal arms, he scrambled a bundle of clothes together, and ran back to the cottage of Clara Melrose.



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