Esther West (2)

Home Up Poems by Isa Duchess Agnes Songs of Consolation Poems: a Miscellany The Argosy (1866) Tales on the Parables Tales on The Parables Poetry Reviews Cotton Famine Round the Court Peggy Oglivie Fanny's Fortune A Heroine of Home Little Folk's History Deepdale Vicarage Miscellanea Main Index Site Search
 


 

[Previous Page]


CHAPTER VIII.

A RESPITE.


MR. WIGGETT held that meals ought never to be spoiled with unpleasant talk—and a very good rule it is; but after supper he drew his chair back to the table, to begin in business-like fashion.  Mary had taken a seat in the window, and was looking out into the garden, as if she could not get enough of looking.  She started at Mr. Wiggett's voice saying, "We've som'at to tell you, Mary; but you must not be put out."  Honest Timothy's tone was too tragic.

    She started, and rose to her feet.  "It's about Esther," she cried; "is she dead?"

    "No, that she aint," said Mr. Wiggett; "she's alive, and well, and as handsome a lady as you'd wish to set eyes on.  It was she who kissed Polly, and gave her the rose to-day."

    "Why was I not told?" cried Mary, bitterly.

    "It was done for the best, both for you and the girl," said Timothy.  "She hasn't a notion of the truth.  It would be a pity to give her a shock like."

    "To find out that her mother's a poor woman, instead of a rich lady," cried Mary, still more bitterly.

    "There, there!" said Timothy, alarmed at the agitation in Mary's face and manner; "I wouldn't have told you if I'd thought you'd take on so.  I'll say no more."  A threat at which Mary calmed herself, and begged to be told all that he knew, which, after all, was not much to satisfy the cravings of the mother's heart.  He took it upon himself, however, to pronounce Esther perfectly happy.

    "Well, it's better for her, perhaps, as it is, though I had rather she had shared with the rest."

    "Of course it's better for her," said Mrs. Wiggett, sharply, "and she'll none thank you if you spoil her fortune by interfering now."

    It might be so.  Mary acknowledged it by a despairing silence.  Esther, her own Esther, might not be thankful to know her true mother, but the reverse.  "I must see her!" she exclaimed, at length.

    Both her hearers assented soothingly.  It was but right and natural that she should.

    "I could see her at the church to-morrow, could I not?" said Mary, "without—without letting her know?"

    "They don't sit in Hurst Church," replied Mrs. Wiggett, "or else I would have found this out before now; and I've only known it a week.  They go over to Thornford, I dare say,"

    "I'll take you over there to-morrow morning on the chance," said Timothy; "it's the only other church within some miles;" and then he launched out in praise of Esther's good looks, thinking to comfort poor Mary; but she was not to be comforted thus, for she only longed all the more for the true comfort of again calling Esther her own.

    The sight of the woman she had wronged seemed to have deprived Mrs. West of all her power to think or act, and to have paralysed her mind as a fatality paralysis.  The time had gone by when flight would have presented itself as an alternative.  But it was open to her to confide in Esther, and so disarm the future of its fear.  And this might seem a very easy alternative.  Once it would have seemed so to her, before all that her act entailed had become apparent to her.  But it did not seem so now.  The aspect of the great error of her life seemed so much darker and more dreadful now, viewed in the light of all the deceit it had entailed, and of all the suffering it was sure to entail, that she shrank from revealing it; preferring to await the approaching fate that might crush her: for it seemed to her that it would pull down the whole fabric of her darling's life.  Oh! if the fate would but tarry till her happiness was in the keeping of a husband whom she loved.  How gladly would she see the love she had coveted pass away from her!

    But when Esther had gone away to Thornford Church, which was at some little distance, a sudden resolution seized on Mrs. West, and that resolution was to go forth and meet Mary Potter face to face.  For this purpose she thought it best to go to church in Hurst village, whither the Wiggetts would in all probability take their guest.

    Thornford was one of the smallest of churches; a single aisle, with four plain pointed windows on one side, and three on the other; a door occupying the place of the fourth on that side.  The pulpit and reading-desk were between the four windows; and the pews, facing one another, met there, leaving space for a small chancel.  It was a very homely church, and the preacher's voice in it had a homely sound.  Mrs. Potter was there early; and how glad she was that she had taken Polly with her!  The presence of her children always calmed and strengthened Mary.  Many a time the babe at her breast had seemed to hush all trouble and discord there.  It was with a vague feeling that she needed this strengthening influence that she had taken with her the unconscious little maiden.  As the bell ceased clanging overhead, and no Mrs. West appeared—for to her presence Mary was trusting for the identification of her daughter—Polly pulled down her mother's head towards her, and whispered, "Thereth the pretty lady who gave me the roth."

    "Where?" whispered her mother in reply.

    Polly unceremoniously pointed with her small finger to a young lady who had entered an opposite pew alone, and who, raising her head at the moment, smiled, for an instant, a grave half-warning smile to the little girl.

    Often during the service Polly looked at her friend, copying unconsciously her movements.  But if the child looked often, the woman at her side scarcely ever lifted her sad eyes from Esther's face.  Happily the latter was too earnest in her attention to the service to notice this.

    When at length the congregation was dismissed, and streamed out through the porch into the grassy churchyard, sleeping in the white noonday light, Esther looked round for little Polly, but neither she nor her mother were to be seen.  While the people were engaged in their closing act of worship, Mary Potter had stolen out, gone round the end of the church, and seated herself upon a flat tombstone, holding Polly's hand, and making the child stand hushed with awe in the presence of that strife of the spirit which was visible in her white face and crushed attitude.  The desire had come upon her to disregard all consideration of her child's happiness, or her husband's wishes, whatever they might be, and disclose herself to Esther.  She had anticipated the latter's speaking to the child, however, and knew that she was unequal to bearing it in silence, and therefore she had passed out quickly beyond the reach of an overmastering temptation.  She did not rise till all were out of sight and hearing, and the temptation had passed away.

    And while Mary was at Thornford, Mrs. West was looking for her in vain, scanning every face in the somewhat larger and less picturesque church of Hurst with trembling eagerness.  She was leaving it with the rest of the congregation, when there flashed upon her the face, not of Mary Potter, but of Sarah Wiggett—known to her only as Sarah Brown—who had worked for her on more than one occasion.  Whence were these faces rising out of the past to accuse her?  What had brought them together here?

    Sarah was alone, Mr. Wiggett having gone home to act as dry nurse to Master Johnny, after having conveyed Johnny's mother to Thornford.  On the impulse of the moment Mrs. West went up to her.

    "I see you remember me, Mrs. Brown," she said, softly.

    "Beg your pardon, Mrs. West," said Sally in her hardest tone, "Brown aint my name now."

    The words were accompanied by a look of what seemed such dire offence, that poor Mrs. West blundered into the idea that she had renounced her husband's name, and was angry at the bare mention of it.

    "I am sorry to have hurt you, Sarah," said the gentle lady (she had once been very kind to the forsaken little woman), "but I do not remember your name."

    "I don't know that you ever heard it," Sarah made answer, stepping on, followed by Mrs. West, whose pony carriage was waiting.  "My name's Wiggett, if you please—Mrs. Wiggett."

    "Your husband died in Australia, then?  I hoped that he might live to make amends for the wrong he did you.  He expressed his regret to Mr. West's brother, when they met, but that is years ago.  If you never heard from him, you may be glad to hear that he was sorry," she went on, in her eagerness to pour balm into an old wound, which perhaps she had opened.  "My nephew is coming home in a few weeks, and he may be able to tell you something about him."

    "I don't want to hear anything about him," said Sarah, defiantly.  "I hope he got his deserts, that's all."

    To Mrs. West's gentle nature, Sarah's feelings were simply incomprehensible; but she thought, in her humility, that it was because she had done wrong that it seemed to her so easy to forgive.  Sarah was now walking far beyond her companion's pace, who had signed for her carriage to follow her, as she passed a little way up the road that led through the village, by Mrs. Wiggett's side.

    "Is Mary Potter living with you?" she took courage at length to ask.

    "Yes," was the ungracious answer, given with a look of fierce contempt.

    "Would you take a message to her from me?"

    "I'd rather not," she replied.  "Mary Potter knows where you are, and that's enough."

    There was nothing more to be said, and thus repulsed, Mrs. West fell back upon her carriage.  Her feeble effort to avert the inevitable had failed—she would make no other.  When she reached home, she had still some time to wait until Esther arrived.  With her ineffable freshness and brightness she burst in upon the weary, fading woman like a breath of spring.  Every little out-door incident was something to bring to her mother.  Esther had told her all about Polly Potter in the garden, and now she told her how she had been pointed out by the little thing to her mother, and how both had disappeared at the close of the service—Esther supposed into one of the cottages which stood close by the church.

    A sense of infinite relief came to Mrs. West as Esther proceeded—a sense of deep gratitude and thankfulness that she—that Esther—had been spared the sudden revelation.  Mary Potter, it seemed, had no desire to claim her child; she had but gratified her natural wish to see her, and had been content to go away as a stranger.  It almost seemed to justify Mrs. West in having taken possession of her, since she valued so highly the treasure of which another could think so lightly.


 
CHAPTER IX.

AN UNEXPECTED GUEST.


MONDAY, which ushered in the month of July, was the very ideal of what a July day should be; and therefore what, as a matter of fact, it very rarely is—warm, bright, and still; the very core and heart of glowing summer.  It was too still and bright and cloudless for active out-door enjoyment; fitter indeed for


"Soft slumberings in the open eye of heaven,
 And all the listless joy of summer shades."


    Esther liked better the soft grey days when the skies are like dove-wings, only radiant for short moments, but infinitely tender in their light and shade.  The expedition had been planned, as far as direction and means of conveyance were concerned, but the place where the party were to lunch had been left undecided, to see how the day turned out.  If it had been windy, there was a little wood at the foot of the range of low hills which they were to visit, whose shelter would then have been acceptable; but on such a day as this it was unanimously voted that the fresher heights should be selected.  Accordingly "The Barrow" was chosen, and the party proceeded thither in a couple of pony-carriages—Mrs. West's and Mr. Vaughan's—while Esther rode, now by the side of the one, now by the other.  A light cart brought up the rear, with the servants and provisions.

    "The Barrow," unlike the other hills, or rather heights, in the neighbourhood, was quite smooth and grassy; equally smooth and equally elevated on all sides.  In shape it was like an ancient burial-mound, to which it doubtless owed its name, though its size precluded the idea of its having been formed by any power less mighty than that of Nature.  On the level top of this height stood three magnificent lime trees, perfect in form, and foliage, and bloom.  They were planted in a straight line at regular intervals, and though this form of arrangement was the least picturesque possible, it attracted the attention more to the individual tree, each a fountain of glory in itself.  This arrangement had also the advantage of allowing the spectator to rest under the shadow of the central tree, and contemplate either of the others; and from whatever quarter the breeze might blow, wafts and clouds and streams of perfume were tossed toward that central tree; so that to sit in its shade, with a rich English landscape spread out below in smiling nearness, made a rare combination of natural delights to any one susceptible to these.

    They reached the height in twos and threes, Mr. Vaughan taking Mrs. West, Esther following with Kate and Constance.  Milly and Mr. Walton had somehow found the ascent longer and more difficult than the others.  The servants carried up the repast, which everybody helped to spread under the central tree dangling over their heads its thick-hung tassels of golden blossom.

    They had finished lunch, and were chatting gaily round the tree, when Constance, who had gone to the edge of the ridge to call the servants, came back rather hastily, crying, "There is somebody coming up."

    "Well, what of that?" said Kate.

    "I don't know who it can be," returned Constance.

    "Very likely," said Kate; "but you need not be excited about it."

    "But he beckoned to me," persisted Constance, evidently puzzling herself, while the others laughed.

    There he was, however, to speak for himself; and none of them knew him; and yet there he was beckoning to them all.

    "He has taken us for some other party," said Milly.

    As he came nearer they could see that he was young and handsome, and well dressed; that is to say, he was dressed in the garb of the upper ten thousand: for he was far too gay for good taste, though his suit of fine blue, and his still brighter blue satin necktie, suited his fair complexion and blue eyes, and the yellow gold of his thick watchguard and pin matched his golden beard.  There was a buoyance and brightness about the figure which pleased in spite of one's self.  It was specially in harmony with that blue-skied sunny day.

    Now that he was close at hand they all stared with wonder.  Constance had sunk on the grass; Esther, in her riding-habit, leant against the tree, close to where her mother sat.  The stranger must see the whole group, and yet he was still making signs of recognition.  Esther had only time to bend over Mrs. West, and whisper, "Can it be Harry?" when he burst upon them with a merry laugh and breathless words of greeting.

    "I've had such trouble to find you!" he cried, hurrying up to Mrs. West, and addressing himself to her.  "The servants at the house told me that you were out for the day, so there was nothing for it but to follow; and then I found another set at the foot of the hill, discussing some very good ale—for I had some of it; and here I am.  Well, aunt, you are not a bit changed; I should have known you anywhere."

    He kissed her, but did not notice how faint and trembling she was, as she rose and leaned for support on Esther.  Her he favoured with a look which embarrassed her.  In any one else she would have called it a stare, and thrown it back from her sweet, proud eyes.  But he shook hands with her kindly and warmly enough.

    The Vaughans had delicately managed to withdraw themselves a little on one pretext or another; but Harry had no sooner greeted Esther, than he said, in a loud whisper, "you had better introduce me at once, hadn't you? and perhaps you'll give me something to eat."  This last he said aloud, adding, "I'm not in the least particular; I've lived on damper many a day."

    The ceremony of introduction was duly performed, and Mr. Harry sat down to lunch alone, not a whit disconcerted by the fact that he was hungry—having travelled since early morning—and that he was about to make his hunger apparent by a hearty meal in the presence of a bevy of ladies; all of which would have disconcerted most men.  But Harry was perfectly natural and perfectly unconstrained.  Somehow, it was Kate who served him; Constance, who had been the principal waitress on the party, having retired in favour of her elder sister.

    As for Esther, she kept close to her mother, who she felt was in need of her sympathy, even before the latter had detained her by a clasp of her trembling hand.  And Harry rattled on to Kate and the company in general.  He had fixed on his journey to England; and after he had done so, he could not rest till he had accomplished it—he never could rest till he had accomplished anything he had set his mind on; proof of a noble perseverance, thought Kate; proof, perchance, of something very different, thought another and keener observer.  Then he made light of the perils and tedium of his voyage; made light of it altogether, as if he had crossed the Channel, instead of half the globe: in short, gave his audience enough to do to observe him.  They could not as yet understand him.  That is difficult to do in the case of any human being, especially difficult where the character is either very deep or very shallow; and Harry West might be either—about his cleverness there was no manner of doubt.

    Esther West was in that unenviable state of mind in which she felt that she ought to be happy, and yet knew very well she was not.  Here was her cousin Harry, radiant with health and good-humour, come back before he was expected, and thus saving a world of anxiety about him.  She had looked forward to his coming with such keen, shy pleasure: now that he had come, why was it that she could not rejoice?  Why was it that a vague sense of disappointment fell upon her spirit, and made the brightness of the day seem so unreal, so like a painted show?

    And in her own gentle and sensitive way Mrs. West was experiencing the same feeling.  It was this that had made her seize Esther's hand, as she stood leaning beside her, slackly holding up the drooping folds of her riding-skirt.  Mrs. West had made up her mind that very day to unburden her mind to Mr. Vaughan.  She had intended to detain him while the young people were wandering about in the wood, and confide to him the history of Esther's parentage.  A better confessor and adviser she could hardly have had—one whose large and generous sympathy could penetrate the subtlest motives, and whose charity never failed him when he had done so.  This intention was, however, wholly frustrated.  Mr. Harry West greatly preferred to sit there under the blossomed tree, and talk to whoever would listen.

    After listening a while, Milly and Mr. Walton strayed away, and Constance prevailed on Esther to follow their example.  The others remained; Harry actually detaining Mr. Vaughan arid Kate.

    At length a prolonged, and far from unmusical, call echoed through the little wood.  Mrs. West had declared that it was time to go home, as she expected a large party to dinner, whereupon Harry, on the alert at once, had sprung up to recall the wanderers by the far-reaching cry used by the shepherds ranging the Australian bush.  Mr. Vaughan meantime escorted Mrs. West down the hill to her carriage, while she timidly begged that he would come over and talk to her some day.  "It is about Esther," she said; and he promised, without so much as thinking that the request was an unusual one, or urged with unusual earnestness.  "She is far from strong," he thought to himself; "I should not wonder if Esther were an orphan soon."

    Meantime, the little wood was made to ring on every side with the efforts of the others to imitate the Australian call.  Harry's hearty boyish enjoyment was infectious, and they all proceeded homeward, as happy a party of young people as were to be found on that summer day.  Even Esther wondered that she had felt so strangely sad under the scented tree.


 
CHAPTER X.

LIKES AND DISLIKES.


THE dinner-party in the evening was like most country dinner-parties—a very serious matter.  Strong as the youthful element was, it was repressed by a mass of middle-aged dulness.  Not that the young people were by any means discontented with the good heavy couples in between whom they were wedged.  As a rule, it is the dull who object to the dull, not the brilliant and clever, and the fear with which the former regard the latter is wholly unfounded.  Mr. Vaughan did not shine in society, and Mr. Walton kept all his shining for Milly that evening.  So the dinner was unusually quiet; but then, everybody knew his or her neighbours, and it was all very pleasant.  Only Harry West was irrepressible, and he gained golden opinions from all, by the way in which he relieved them of the awful responsibility of being lively.

    "He is so clever, and so interesting," said Kate, confiding to her sisters, in the hour devoted to combing and confidences, her impressions of the Australian.  "What a delightful addition he will be to our croquet-parties!  He is quite ignorant of the game, and he says we must teach him."

    "Do you like him, Milly?" said Constance, making a wry face behind her sister's back.

    "I really don't know; he seemed very good-natured."

    "It's no use asking Milly," said Kate, with a little laugh, and tossing back her splendid hair.

    "Well, I will tell you what I think," said Constance.  "I don't like him at all, and I can see papa doesn't, though he won't say so.  He is exactly like a handsome tortoise-shell cat; he always makes himself quite comfortable, and then he arches his back, and comes so near when he talks, and keeps purring in your ear.  I expected to see him curl himself up on the drawing-room floor at somebody's feet."

    Milly was laughing heartily while the merry Constance pursued her simile; but Kate broke in, indignantly, "Really, Constance, you grow quite ill-natured in your remarks."

    "I do so hope," went on the offender, taking no notice of the rebuke, "that Esther will not marry him, though I dare say he has come over for the purpose."

    Harry West, left alone in the drawing-room with Mrs. West and Esther, was in like manner talking over the Vaughans.  He had heard their names, but was not sure if he had affixed them properly.  "Connie is the plain one?" he asked.

    "I suppose some people would call her plain," said Esther.  "I think she is the most beautiful of the three; her face is so full of spirit and intellect."

    "And Milly is the delicate one?" he said, going on with his inventory.

    "She is not delicate," said Esther, smiling, "in the sense of having ill health.  Her health is as perfect as mine."

    "Ah! well, I don't like delicate women," he remarked, and Esther looked at him with a severe look in her large grey eyes, which then fell slowly off from him to her mother.  But the gentle woman had not noticed.  Her thoughts were not for herself, and she had not applied the remark.  But Esther, unwilling further to discuss her friends, said gravely, "The Vaughans are very superior girls, and very highly cultivated; and we love them very much indeed."

    "I love cultivated women," said her irrepressible cousin.

    Esther could not help thinking that he spoke of these productions very much as if they were peaches, or something nice to eat.  He seemed bent on giving them a perfect list of his likings and dislikings.  And Esther was sometimes verging on an active dislike, as far as her large and tolerant nature would allow her.  But the next moment she found it impossible to be angry; he was so candid, so good-humoured, so easily pleased.  "He is like a boy still," she thought to herself, "with all a boy's faults, and a boy's good qualities.  Perhaps living in that young community had something to do with it."  It was a new and strange manner, and therefore struck her as unpleasant, accustomed to a different type; but childlikeness is not childishness, and a nature so open and sunny deserved at least a kinswoman's affectionate regard.

    Such reflections passed through her mind as she listened to his ceaseless talk.  At length, seeing her mother look utterly weary, she said good-night, and set the example of retiring to rest.  But Harry was one of those people who labour under the impossibility of understanding a hint, however conveyed; and he still went on talking, and would go on, thought Mrs. West, till he was positively sent off to bed.  But she was congratulating herself on the opportunity thus offered—an opportunity which she would otherwise have had to seek, of speaking to him alone.  Now that she was alive to the difficulties of her position with regard to Esther, she saw fresh ones on every side.  Harry doubtless knew the whole story, and might blurt it out to Esther unprepared.

    She took advantage of a pause in his narrative of the voyage home, to lay her hand upon his arm, and ask him to sit down beside her: it was a fashion of his to stand, or rather hover, over any one he was speaking to.  "You know all about Esther, Harry, I think?" she said.

    "All! What?"

    "That—that she is not my own child.  My own little one died, you know."

    "Oh! but it's all the same now, I fancy."

    "She is as dear to me as any daughter, if you mean that, Harry; but I don't want her to be told that she is not my own, not now, not suddenly."

    "Doesn't she know all this time?"

    "I have never spoken of it."

    "But she must know, surely?"

    "No; I think not—I am sure not."

    The Australian almost whistled; but he added, "I don't know that it matters much; only these things are awkward.  I never would have thought of it if you hadn't spoken; but I'm sure to have it in my mind now, and then I may speak it out before I remember that I'm to hold my tongue.  I never could keep confidences.  If any one told me he was going to confide in me, I always said—Don't."  And Harry laughed a careless laugh, to which his aunt responded with a heavy sigh.

    "What do you think of Esther?" she asked, timidly, after a pause.

    "She's about the finest girl I've seen yet; but then I haven't seen many, you know—not over half-a-dozen pretty women in the last dozen years, and none of them ladies.  These Vaughans are all very pretty."

    "Yes, but they are not like Esther.  She is more beautiful and more admired than they are."

    Harry's eyes had told him that Kate Vaughan was the most beautiful, and in his heart he had admired her most, with her colours of the morning—blue, and pink, and gold.  Whatever glittered most was the first to attract Harry's notice; but he was one of those people who take the opinions of those about them, and are really influenced by them.  If, for instance, Esther was really the most admired, he was quite ready to admire her the most.

    Mrs. West saw that she had made an impression, and was content.  Parting from him, sending him off to bed rather, with another caution, she resolved, as speedily as possible, to put an end to the present state of things.

    Esther was an early riser, and often spent two or three hours of the summer morning in reading out of doors before breakfast.  But early as she was, Harry was up and out before her.  He had already been all over the place—kitchen and stable included—chattering to the servants, just as he used to chat with the labourers and shepherds at home, with the sailors on the deck of the Oriana, homeward bound, with all and sundry, whoever they were, or wherever he might chance to meet them.  No wonder that with many he was a favourite.  He was quite unconscious in his universal friendliness.  No man felt him to be his superior; he himself never felt himself the superior of any man.

    And, as a rule, men liked him better than women did, perhaps because women are, as a rule, more exclusive than men.  He had, however, one quality which women blindly admire—physical courage.  Without a particle of imagination, he did not know the meaning of fear.  He had leaped overboard after a boy, when the Oriana was steaming at ten knots through mid ocean, without a moment's hesitation, and had kept the lad afloat till both were picked up, shaking himself, when he got on deck, in the midst of the tragedy-stirred passengers, crowding with eager faces and beating hearts to witness the rescue, with as little concern as a dog who has fetched his master's stick.  There were not many women, high or low, on board the Oriana who did not make a hero of him then and there, and enshrine him as such in their hearts for ever.


 
CHAPTER XI.

A MORNING ADVENTURE.


NOW, as Esther stepped out on the lawn, fresh as the morning, in her pretty cambric dress, with the light falling on her hair, and a little brown book in her hands—a favourite poet, neither Tennyson nor Browning—Harry, coming round the end of the house, welcomed her with delighted eagerness.  It was pleasant to have a companion, when he had expected to spend an hour or two alone, and he was at no loss to express his pleasure.  They went the round of the place, sauntering side by side.

    "What a morning for a ride!" said Harry; "I must get me a horse at once."

    "Take mine," said Esther.  "It is just the morning I like for riding; the fresh breeze is so delightful."

    "And what will you do?" he replied, half tempted to go; for any kind of motion was delight to him.  He was one of those people to whom rest is an impossibility.

    "Stay here," said Esther, smiling,

    But Harry was unwilling to lose his companion, and so he said, "Can't we have a walk instead?"

    "Oh, yes," she answered, readily—quite as ready as he was for active exertion.

    They were walking up the green lane that led past Mr. Wiggett's garden.  All ways were as yet alike to Harry, and there was a little hill beyond, from whence they could look over to "The Cedars."  A wagonette was standing at the gate of the garden, and in the wagonette, clasping a great bouquet with both hands, stood little Polly Potter.  A shy smile spread over the small white face, which three days' sunshine had not had power to tan, as she saw her friend approaching.

    Esther stopped to speak to her; she had taken quite a fancy to the child.  "Will you give me one of your flowers?" she asked.

    "Yeth!" and the little maid held the bunch towards her.

    Esther took it.  "And which may I take?" she asked again.

    "The pettietht," lisped the child, with her angelic smile.

    Esther was disengaging a rosebud from the nosegay.  A great heavy boy, who ought to have been holding the horse, was leaning on a post, looking at Esther.  Coming down the path, and close upon them, was Mr. Wiggett, carrying Master Johnny, with Mary Potter walking by his side.  A sickening feeling came over Mary, and she grasped Timothy Wiggett's disengaged arm, as she caught sight of the little group at the gate.

    Just at that moment the mettlesome pony gave its head a shake, and with a loud snort started off at good speed down the lane and into the road.  The mother gave a great cry, and came rushing to the gate.  The heavy, sleepy-looking lad, after staring a full minute at the catastrophe, began a lumbering run; but Harry had darted off at full speed on the instant, and just as the start was about to become a race, had dexterously caught the dangling reins.

    The child had fallen down in the bottom of the wagonette—thrown over by the sudden movement—and was lying there, half dead with fear.  As soon as the boy came up, they lifted her out, and the terrified child clung round the neck of her deliverer.

    Thus they came back to the garden-gate, the boy leading the pony behind them.  No one of the little group had moved or spoken after the cry from Mary.  She leant, trembling, on one of the posts, white and speechless, till the horse was overtaken.  Only when Harry had the child safe in his arms, Esther laid her hand softly on Mary's, and gave her a look full of tender, tearful, joyful sympathy, that said far more than any words.

    Meantime, Harry came up with the little one, and held her out to her mother, who kissed her passionately, and burst into a fit of hysterical weeping.

    Esther took the best way of soothing Mary.  She held her in her arms in perfect silence, and in these moments of emotion the two who seemed so wide apart—the one sad, toil-worn, aging, and fading; the other blooming in health and youth; the one crushed with poverty, the other accustomed to riches and ease—drew close together, and loved each other with a love which might change the current of their lives.  They might have met under other and calmer circumstances; and the natural tie between them would have asserted itself consciously; but it would not have caused their lives to flow in one, as this outburst of sudden sympathy had prepared them to do.

    Then little Mary had to be caressed and made much of, and coaxed to re-enter the wagonette.  She did not cry and scream against it; her protest consisted in the deadly white of her little frightened face, and the piteous look in her eyes, till both Mr. Wiggett and Esther pleaded that she might be left behind, in order to recover from her fear.  But parting from her mother seemed only a greater evil to the child, and so she clung to her, and overcame her terror, and held up her pretty little mouth for farewell kisses all round.  At last Harry and Esther were left looking after the wagonette as it bowled down the lane, having fairly started this time.

    Mary Potter came back out of the pleasant, quiet country to her small, dingy rooms, so full of children that Martin said, speaking of them as if they were rats, "the place was overrun with them."

    She found Sarah, her substitute, full of grievances.  Bob and Walter, two noisy schoolboys, had repudiated her authority, and openly set her at nought in the matter of coming in from their street-play at the appointed hour.  Martin and Willie, two older ones, already out as apprentices, had grumbled at her cooking; but that was nothing to the trouble about Emily and Agnes, in which she had only participated as an onlooker; and she proceeded to pour into her mother's ear a tale of domestic disturbance, which made poor Mary's heart palpitate with dread.

    Emily and Agnes were the twins, and they were both in one establishment, learning the joint and yet separate mysteries of dressmaking and millinery.  They were tall and rather well-made girls, with something of their mother's grace, though failing to carry themselves as she had done, with her perfect health and elastic vigour.

    On the Saturday of their mother's absence the twins had sat up very late—indeed, it is to be feared that they even trespassed on sacred hours—in order to finish the summer bonnets, which were to be worn for the first time on the following day.  Mary had taught her children to go to church; and when the Sabbath bells began to ring, Agnes had come downstairs, Prayer-book in hand, with the new bonnet on her head, while Emily was tying on hers before the tiny looking-glass, preparatory to following her.  Martin Potter was in the sitting-room, and in an exceptionally bad humour, even for him.  He seldom took any notice of the girls, or what they had on—indeed, their taste was very good on the whole, and not at all flaunting; but the brilliant season, and fashion together, had tempted them to be gayer than usual, and Agnes's bonnet attracted her father's notice.

    It was of white net, trimmed with blue, and with a blue flower fastened at the ear.

    "Come here, and let me look at that thing you've got on your head," said Martin Potter, in a sarcastic tone; then, raising his voice, "Go upstairs and take it off; I won't have my girls dress like street-walkers so long as they are under my roof."

    "And she didn't go at once," said Sarah; "and father roared like thunder, it set me all of a tremble, 'Take it off this minute!' and when Aggy took it off and held it in her hand, he went and crumpled it up, and flung it into the passage.  And Aggy went upstairs crying, and Emily did not go to church either, and Aggy had a bad headache, and wouldn't eat any dinner; and Willie and Martin said it was a great shame," concluded Sarah.

    And this was what Mary Potter came home to!


 
CHAPTER XII.

AN EVENING AT HOME.


MARTIN POTTER'S home was scarcely an earthly paradise, and he was in a fair way towards making it something quite the reverse.  A man may rule slaves, he cannot rule children, by mere force of will, unless, indeed, he can turn them into slaves, with all the slavish faults, born of fear and unwilling submission.  He can only rule by the force of love that is in him: for love alone is just; and in the long run it is only to justice that men bow, or children either.

    Mary's heart was once more in revolt against her husband.  Before sitting down to her needlework—the necessity for which was never ending, still beginning—Mary took a look upstairs; she wanted to see the offending bonnet.  In the bare, square room, with its scanty bed-furniture and single chair—the poor girls had to take everything by turns, down to basin and looking-glass.  Things were constantly reproaching them for coming into the world double as they had done.  In the room there was a cupboard; their Sunday frocks were hanging there; and on the little shelf, carefully pinned into a handkerchief, lay the new bonnet.  Mary took it out and looked at it.  It was certainly pretty, and at another time she would have been vexed at its brightness and gaiety; but the sympathy of the woman, at that moment, was roused for her girl; and when, a little further, pushed into a corner, but also wrapped up in a handkerchief, she came upon the crushed one—not even smoothed out from the rude grasp that had crushed it—Mary had to swallow a rising in her throat, and even put up her hand and hold it tight for the pain in it, before she laid the bonnet in its place, and came downstairs to sew.

    Then, early in the afternoon, Emily came home, too ill to continue at her work in the close work-room; and Johnny had to be banished from the parlour, in which his fertile invention hourly discovered some means of creating a noise more fearful than the last.  The poor pale girl sat down on a low stool at her mother's feet, and laid her aching head on the kind knees still as ready to bear her as ever; and Mary stroked her head, and at last persuaded her to go to bed, while little Polly hushed her songs, and gathered the rose-leaves, which had fallen from one of her overblown roses, and held them to her sister's head.  She had discovered how grateful was their cool, tender touch, and said they were like her mother's fingers.

    The boys came in from school, and were sent out to play; the elder ones tramped in to tea; Master John was sent off to bed—not without remonstrance on his part—so was little Mary; then the mother gathered her four boys for their evening lesson in writing and arithmetic.  Thus the day wore on with its succession of tasks: at this last—and to Mary, pleasantest of the day's occupations—she was engaged when her husband came home.

    "Shut up your books, boys," she said at once; "we've done very well to-night;" and she smiled upon them, with the smile of a true mother, whose face will throw no shadow over her children's faces, because her own light of life is darkened.

    The boys obeyed with alacrity.  They were generally glad to make themselves scarce, as they expressed it, in their father's presence.  Besides, they had affairs of their own on hand upstairs; and saying good-night did not mean going to bed for them, as it did for the little ones.  So they kissed their mother, and said good-night to their father, and were off; Mary whispering in the ear of the volatile Bob, who showed premonitory symptoms of the somersault he would certainly turn as soon as he got upstairs, "Mind, don't go to bed without saying your prayers."

    There were no kind inquiries forthcoming, as to how Mary had enjoyed her visit, when husband and wife were left alone.  She felt the omission keenly; she seemed to feel everything keenly to-night.

    Martin Potter rose, and walked up and down the small apartment.  He was a man who had a quarrel with the world; but he had also a far bitterer quarrel, and that was with himself.  "I thought to rise in the world," he said, speaking aloud his gloomy reflections rather than addressing his wife, "and I'm sinking—sinking into the hopeless slough of poverty in which men are no more their own masters than so many cattle.  I vowed that I would be independent, that I would call no man master to the end of my days, and all my efforts have failed.  I've been offered work on another man's job to-day, and been forced to take it, too;" and he ground his teeth as he spoke.  This was the secret of his moroseness.

    Mary clasped her hands in her lap.  "Oh, Martin! after all, we might be happy if you could but be contented."

    "Contented!" he burst forth, with a sneer, "contented to live only to do another man's work, and be thrown off when I get useless, to die in a ditch; that ought to content a man, certainly;" and he laughed a savage laugh.

    "It is the lot of millions," said Mary, "to work for daily bread.  Let us do God's will, Martin, and trust in His providence."

    He passed over her words.  "What do the millions get by being content with such a lot?" he went on.  "They sink, and sink, and sink.  I've seen misery enough in this city to make a man mad at the very word content.  I wonder that the wretches, crushed in the mire as they are, swept out of the way by whole cityfuls, don't rise and turn society upside down.  In their place I would.  I would live a man's life, or die a man's death—not a dog's! "

    Martin Potter might have made a social reformer if his benevolence had been equal to his energy, but it was not.

    Mary had covered her face with her hands.  She had no lack of sympathy with her husband's side of the argument, one-sided as he was.  Her woman's heart went over to him in his disappointment and humiliation, as she thought of him becoming another man's servant, after having been his own master for many years.

    "I wish we could get away from here, and go back to the country," said Mary.

    "Yes, I wish we could emigrate; but it's too late—I haven't enough to take the lot."

    "Martin, take the boys, and I'll come after you with the girls as soon as I can."

    It was a noble offer from the woman who made it, to whom such a parting would be torture.  She rose and went towards him, and put one large, soft hand on each shoulder, and looked into his face with beaming eyes.  "Go, and we will come together again with the love of the old days, when we came together at the first."

    He softened, and she hesitated.

    "And, Martin," she said at last, "I have seen Esther—our Esther."

    He started away from her, his face lowered again, and he gave vent to one of those expletives which Mary disliked so much.

    "Why didn't you tell me at once?" he said.

    "I did not think you cared."  Then she went over the events of her visit as far as Esther was concerned, and concluded by saying, "If you knew what a struggle I had to keep quiet, and her so near me, on the day when I saw her at church, and again this morning.  And I am sure that young gentleman was her lover, who saved little Mary's life.  It is best not to disturb her now.  We can never be anything to her."

    A few more questions concerning what she had heard of Mrs. West, and Martin Potter sank into silent thought for the rest of the evening.  At ten o'clock Agnes came home, and ate her supper and went off to bed without saying good-night to her father, thereby showing that she was not reconciled to the destruction of her new bonnet.

    There was no further attempt at a better understanding made between Martin and Mary that night.  The wife's effort had been turned aside.  The thing that seemed so easy was, indeed, as difficult—that turning of the heart—as the turning a stream out of the channel which it has made for itself in the course of ages.

    Martin Potter said no more, either good or bad, but he looked more gloomy and bitter than ever—a gloom and bitterness which increased as days went on.  Poor Mary, who was not in the secret of her husband's quarrel with himself, thought that it was against her that his black looks were levelled, and, conscious of her generous relentings towards him, even at his worst, felt more deeply wounded than before.

    The truth was, there had flashed on Martin's mind the thought that in this reappearance of Mrs. West there might be a loophole of release from the intolerable pressure of his circumstances.  Mrs. West had done him an injury.  He had never bargained that she should take away the child out of the knowledge and reach of her parents.  He had stipulated fairly for the very reverse, and therefore she had lost all right to Esther.  But, whispered the evil genius of the man, she might be glad to re-purchase it.  The suggestion came to him from within, and not from without, and yet it was one which he hated to entertain.  This man could not bear to think meanly of himself.  He had set out in life with a strong feeling of independence, and he had all the virtues of which independence is both the root and the fruit.  He was self-denying, he was industrious, he had high self-respect, he had honourable ambition; but this honourable ambition had been defeated by circumstances.  He had engaged in speculations for which he had not the necessary capital, and in order to carry them on he had been obliged to truckle to men who were really dishonest in their intentions.

    His better nature told him that the suggestion, that he might profit by the reappearance of Esther, was an unworthy one.  As far as he was concerned, he knew very well that he would not have objected to any Mrs. West who would have relieved him comfortably of some half-dozen or so of his progeny.  At the same time he knew—as people know a thing in the innermost recesses of consciousness, which they will not allow themselves to think even—he knew that the suggestion flashed upon him would be irresistible, and therefore he chose to create a justification for the course he would pursue, by dwelling on the enormity of Mrs. West's offence towards him.  She had taken out of his hands all power over his own child.  That was the point he seized upon.  It was the point he could feel.  Of the real theft of which the unhappy lady had been guilty in the uncontrollable yearning of her unsatisfied maternity—the robbery of his child's love—he thought not at all.  But strangely enough, it would seem, he contrived to make himself angry with Mary because she had shown herself willing to renounce Esther at last.  "Women never feel anything long enough," he thought, "to make it worth while to consider their feelings."  In reality he wanted the additional justification of his wife's long-cherished desire to possess the love of her first-born.

    Having worked himself up to the necessary pitch of resentment, he resolved to see Mrs. West, to claim his daughter, and to threaten the child-stealer with legal proceedings.


 
CHAPTER XIII.

THE TRUTH COMES OUT.


HARRY had got his horse—he seldom lost any time in getting anything he wanted—and he and Esther were out riding together when Mr. Vaughan paid his appointed visit to Mrs. West.  In that long visit the poor lady poured her sad story into the sympathising ear of her friend and neighbour, and he, as he listened, grew more and more grave and anxious.  The lines of his sensitive face quivered with emotion as she concluded her tale, in which she suppressed nothing, excused nothing, but narrated every step with the severest candour.

    "I see by your face," she said, humbly, "how greatly you think me to blame.  When I look on it in this light myself, it seems terrible to me; stripped of all the false glosses I put upon it, it is terrible!  I robbed another of the love God had denied me.  You cannot sympathise with the temptation, and how easily I hid from myself the enormity of the wrong I was doing."

    "I can sympathise with you only too well," he said, gently, and in a voice as full of humility as her own.

    "What shall I do?" she asked, reassured by the tone more than the words even.

    "I think you ought to let her know as soon as possible," he replied, speaking of Esther; "the knowledge might reach her from some other quarter, and pain her far more than if you revealed it to her.  If I understand her rightly, she has one of those rare natures at once strong and tender."

    "It is so hard for her," murmured Mrs. West: "it will shake her trust in everything."

    "Yes, it is very hard for her," he answered: "we can hardly do wrong and suffer for it alone.  If we could, our sorrow, being selfish, would never have the divine power it has of overcoming our sin."

    Mrs. West listened, and was soothed by that profoundly sympathetic voice.  She was taken by surprise, too; for though Mr. Vaughan went through the usual routine of religious observance, no one round him knew that he was what would be called a religious man.  She had never heard him speak in this manner; but she was very glad that she had spoken to him now, and she expressed her gladness before returning to the topic which absorbed her.

    "And I shall be most happy if I can be of any further use to you.  Ah!" he said, as if suddenly moved to speak out his own secret trouble, "you can make amends for this wrong perhaps.  You can restore, at need, what you have taken away; the terrible sorrow is, when we sin against love, and can make no amends, because death has shut us out from making it, or may be something stronger than death."

    He stopped, and Mrs. West looked inquiringly.  Was it possible that she might help him as he was helping her?  We know so little of one another—so little of our nearest neighbours, our dearest friends.

    He seemed to answer the look.  "Yes," he said, "I am speaking from sad experience.  I acted selfishly—basely, it seems to me now; then it seemed the reverse of selfishness.  I married my wife against her will—she was too gentle and yielding to resist the pressure of other minds, and I thought my devoted love would make amends to her for an unhappy attachment.  It was not so; and when she left me with her motherless girls, I vowed that I would never impose my will on any human being again.  I, too, took what was not my own, but had been given to another."

    They parted before the return of the young people, not before Mrs. West had also confided to her friend the hope that the cousins might love each other.  "As Harry's wife she would be nearer to me," she said, "and then he is the heir of all I possess."  Mrs. West set herself to her task at once.  That very evening she found, or made, an opportunity to talk with Esther alone.  But her first effort was an entire failure.  The weakness of her over-sensitive heart was complicated with physical weakness to such an extent, that her frail body was ready to sink with the trial.  After detaining Esther by her side in the twilight, and making more than one vain attempt to find her voice, she did manage to say, in a whisper which startled the girl, "I have something to tell you, darling; something which I ought to have told you long ago."

    "What is it, mamma?" said Esther, kneeling at her feet.  But the face looked up to, even in the uncertain light, was so agonised, that she sprang to her feet, and bending over it, held it to her breast, crying, "Oh, mamma! what has hurt you so?  I am sure it is nothing of any consequence.  You are too anxious, and you know you were told not to excite yourself."

    "Esther—Esther!  I have wronged you so!"

    "Mamma, you must be ill to say such a thing," replied the girl, passionately, forgetting in her pain her usual soothing tone.  "No, I will not hear another word," as Mrs. West was sobbing out something more.  And so the effort ended in a fit of faintness, which Esther knew how to soothe.  It was one of her mother's attacks, that was all.

    It was, indeed, time that Esther knew the story of her parentage.  The village of Hurst was already babbling it and cackling over it, and its human geese were beginning to stretch their necks and hiss in her direction.  Mrs. Wiggett, for reasons of her own, had whispered it into another pair of ears greedy of gossip; and three sets of these appendages having thus heard the secret, it was, according to the old adage, no longer among the things which could be hidden.  Within the half-hour, that third pair of ears, having a pair of legs belonging to them, and likewise a tongue, had made their way to that emporium of village news, Mrs. Moss's shop.

    It is damping to the ardour of the secret-bearer to find that the important communication which she has to make, quite in confidence of course, has been anticipated, and the secret already in possession of another.  The secret is no longer inviolable—in fact, it is felt to be no secret at all.  The merest hint that another is informed, is enough to justify the keeper of a secret, who is bursting to reveal it, in breaking the seal upon her lips.

    "Isn't that a dreadful story about Mrs. West?" said the gossip, with a look of mysterious horror; "but I dare say you've never heard on't."

    "I've known ever so long, Mrs. Pratt," said Mrs. Moss, dolefully, but with conscious superiority; but I've never mentioned it to no one."  As she said this she glanced at the pane, and perceived that her lord and master was absent in the meantime.

    "To think," continued Mrs. Pratt, now justified in giving Mrs. Moss a bit of her mind, which freedom almost compensated for the loss of the primary satisfaction of being first in the field, "to think that she should have stole away an honest lab'rin' man's child, and made out as she was her own."

    Mrs. Moss and Mrs. Pratt agreed that it would be impossible for Esther to hold up her head among gentlefolks any longer; for the wretched feeling of caste is not confined to the higher ranks—nay, there it often remains only as a natural barrier against inferior culture and ruder manners, while in the ranks beneath it flourishes in the most fantastic and repulsive forms.

    And while the village babbled, the story spread into other and higher circles, and that without delay.  The next morning the cook at Red Hurst had it from the butcher, and when her young mistress had given her the orders of the day she retailed it to her, with the startling addition that Mrs. West was in the hands of the police, and would most likely get penal servitude for life—a fact which her informant had only put as a probability, while his had only ventured to say it was no more than she deserved.

    Kate burst in upon her father in his study with the astounding story, which she only half believed.  She found him leaning his head on his hand, and he answered very sadly, "The main fact is true enough, my dear, but the rest is made up of malice and envy."

    "Oh, papa! what shall we do?" cried Kate, to whom a fact was a simple fact, and nothing more.  "Who could have thought that she would have turned out such an impostor?"

    "Hush! my child.  Judge not, that you be not judged."  Kate was turning away to seek her sisters at their morning avocations, when her father called her back.

    "My dear," he said, "Esther has known nothing of this, and you must not allow yourself to feel the slightest difference towards her."

    Another man might have said show.  Mr. Vaughan laid a special emphasis on the word feel.

    After lunch came callers, to find the sisters sitting on the lawn, and not engaged, as usual, either in work or play; neither work nor play had been thought of that morning.  Indeed, Connie had only been restrained from rushing off to "The Cedars" by her father's representation that even she might not be welcome just yet.

    The callers were Mr. Carrington and his mother, old friends and also near neighbours of the Vaughans.  Mrs. Carrington was the widow of a merchant, who had left her a large fortune under her own control, and their only son dependent on her will.  Benjamin Carrington had been called to the bar, and was working at his profession as if he depended on it for daily bread.  He worked for the sake of work—for the love of work which is born in men of active minds; and not only was he gaining ground in his profession, but becoming known as a political thinker and writer.

    Nobody saw much of Mr. Carrington, not even his mother, though he was devoted to her; but the Vaughans saw more of him than any other people did.  He was called in the household "Connie's friend."  Connie had a great friendliness of character, but this friendship came of early association.  She had been the little one, the wild-haired romp of eight, when he was coming to man's estate; and he being shy at that undeveloped period, the frank little girl had been a great resource and comfort to him when the others were growing into girls as shy as himself.  Then Connie had never grown into a "regular young lady."  When asked to explain himself, Mr. Benjamin had said, "Oh, a regular young lady is one who expects you to make a fool of yourself in some way or other."  That was in his first period of cynicism.  Now he had learned to talk to young ladies in West-end drawing-rooms about things which he supposed, with other sensible men, were interesting to them, though how they can be is more than one can explain.  But to Connie he could talk of the things which interested him—of the ideas and movements of the day, and so he was still called Connie's friend, without the slightest covert allusion to anything approaching to lovemaking.

    Mrs. Carrington saw a great deal more of the Vaughans than her son did, and also of Esther West.  The young ladies were a great resource to the old one, especially as she was one of those old people who like best the society of the young and lively.  Her preference, however, was for Esther.  She was a little woman herself, and Esther's grand air captivated her, and her unfailing sweetness had triumphed completely.  She was always praising Esther to her son, and she had lately gone a little farther, and hinted that she would make a noble wife—a lady who could take her place by her husband's side, however high he rose; who could make herself the companion of cultivated men, the very wife for a man of high aims.  Benjamin, however, made no sign; he was only friendlier than ever with Connie Vaughan.

    It was, therefore, with an expression of real concern, almost amounting to agitation, that the old lady spoke of what she had just heard.  Herself well born, and not at all sharing in the democratic notions of her son, though she had come to regard them as all very well for political purposes, Esther's plebeian birth, if the story was true, was a fatal blot.

    "I have come to hear it contradicted," she said.

    "But I cannot contradict it, Mrs. Carrington," said Kate.  "It is quite true.  Mrs. West herself told papa just before it came out."

    "But what is your version of the story?" said Mr. Carrington, looking round, but resting his eyes on Constance.

    "I have been to papa, and made him tell me," she broke in, answering the glance.  "Mrs. West adopted Esther when she was quite a baby, and took her way from her parents without letting them know; but they had really given her the child to keep."

    "Come, that is not quite so bad as your story, mother.  That was much more sensational!"

    "It is bad enough," said Kate, "for Esther's relations have found her out, and will be coming after her.  It is very hard on her."

    "It's very awkward, to say the least," said Mr. Carrington.

    "And a labourer's daughter, too; it is a shocking imposition," said Mrs. Carrington.  "But I never liked that meek Mrs. West."

    "There is quite a large family," continued Kate; "ten of them, I am told."

    "How shocking!" cried Mrs. Carrington.  "What do you think of it, Milly, my dear?"

    Milly was sometimes mildly oracular; but at present she ventured no opinion on the main point, a mode of procedure which she sometimes adopted, and which made Constance rebel once so hotly that she had made the severe remark, that Milly's part in the affairs of this world was to do nothing but look good.  "I shall be very sorry to lose Esther for a friend," said Milly.

    "I don't see why we should lose her for a friend," said Constance, warmly.  "This does not make any difference in her.  She is the same, whether her father was a duke or a dustman.  If she had been brought up in her father's home, I should never have known her, and perhaps she would have been different outwardly, so different that I could not have loved her as I do."

    Constance had risen to the occasion, and looked quite eloquent, so eloquent that Mr. Carrington regarded her with a kindling look, which was not lost upon his mother; but he said, lightly, "That's right, Connie; always stand up for your friends, especially when they are thrown into the shade."

    "I suppose Esther will remain with Mrs. West," said the old lady.  "After all, those people can be very little to her."

    "Nothing at all," said Kate, to whom the idea of a labouring man for her father, and a family of ten brothers and sisters, such as she pictured to herself, was sufficiently repulsive.

    "Oh, Kate! her own father and mother and sisters and brothers nothing to her!  Esther will love them all, whatever they are."

    "I should think it would be settled," said Milly, "by Esther marrying Mr. West."

    At this Mr. Carrington started from his attitude of assumed carelessness; but, immediately resuming it again, stood listening to the account Kate gave his mother of the Australian's return.


 
CHAPTER XIV.

FATHER AND DAUGHTER.


MARTIN POTTER despised himself for the step he was about to take, but, nevertheless, on the next Saturday he presented himself at "The Cedars."  Harry had gone to town to meet one of the companions of his voyage, and Esther had gone down to the village.  Mrs. West was alone.  Two days had passed, and yet she had not summoned resolution to tell her story, which was being freely discussed in her own kitchen, with much stormy assertion and scornful unbelief.

    "Please, ma'am, there's a rough-looking man wants to speak to you.  I've left him standing in the hall.  He says his name is Martin Potter," said the serving-maid.

    "Tell him to step in here," said Mrs. West, with a firmness and calmness which she could not have believed it possible that she could summon.  Now that the inevitable had come, and must be met face to face, she was brave.  It is the oncoming of fate that is terrible.

    She rose to receive her visitor, uttering no word till the servant had closed the door, and meeting his eyes unflinchingly.  He had been working himself into a passion for a week, but somehow he found it difficult to give vent to it in that frail presence: she looked so gentle and yet so dignified.

    "You know who I am, I suppose?" he said, as harshly as he could.

    "Yes, Martin Potter; and I know you come to accuse me of taking Esther from you.  I have no excuse to offer, except my overwhelming love for the child."

    She sat down, unable to stand, and beckoned to him to be seated; but he did not accept the invitation.  She had taken the words out of his mouth, and he was more exasperated than ever.  He was not a man who acknowledged superior presences; he was not aware that what he felt was the loss of self-respect.  He knew that he had come there to extort money, and for no other purpose; and how was he to make that purpose known?

    "I have come to claim my child," he said.

    "Surely you will let me keep her still," she murmured, "if it is her choice to stay with me.  If you only knew her, it would make amends to you for the wrong I have done.  I have bestowed upon her every care; and," she hesitated, "she has been accustomed to every luxury.  I shall never seek to hide her from you again, and, in the days to come, she may be a blessing to you, as she has been to me."

    "I am not going to be humbugged with your fine words.  I tell you I want the girl," he answered, sternly.

    It never occurred to Mrs. West to say, How much will you take to go away, and never let me see your face again? which was what he wanted, though he would have hated her for saying it.

    "Deal with me as hardly as you please," she said, "but spare her.  She knows nothing."

    "Then she ought to know; where is she now?" he spoke with white, raging lips.

    "She is out," replied Mrs. West.

    "I don't believe it," he said, rudely; "I will see her."

    "She is out, I assure you.  Come again, and you shall see her."

    He was about to acquiesce in this arrangement, when Esther entered the room, her hat swinging on her arm.

    Mrs. West covered her face with her hands, and groaned aloud.  Esther looked from one to the other in amazement, and of course, without in the least understanding the position.  There stood, quite near her darling mother, a tall, powerful-looking man, in working clothes, with a threatening aspect—such a man as was not usually admitted to the drawing-room.  Her first thought was, How did this man come here?  Her first words were to give expression to the thought.  What is the matter, mamma? what is this man doing here?" and she advanced her hand upon the bell.

    But instead of retreating, the man looked at her steadily from head to foot, and burst into a scornful laugh.

    She had laid her hand on the bell, when that laugh startled her; and she returned his look, which seemed to her full of insult, with a haughty stare.  A sudden resentment lowered on the man's face.  "Don't touch that bell," he cried.

    "Tell me what you want then," she said.  "Do you not see that you are making her ill?"

    He took no notice of her words.  "You are Esther, are you not?"

    "That is my name," she replied; "but if you do not leave the room this instant, I will ring the bell."

    "Esther; my darling—"  Mrs. West could say no more, she stretched out appealing hands towards both.  But the man burst forth, wrathfully, "Come near you! a nice lady you are.  So I am not to come near my own daughter!" and he strode towards her, and grasped her wrist till she could have screamed with pain.

    Mrs. West gave a suppressed cry of anguish.  This was worse than anything she had dreaded.  A terrible antagonism was in the looks of the two who stood there; and yet they were father and child, who ought to have met in love and reverence.

    "Yes," went on Martin Potter, quite beside himself with fury, and grasping Esther's wrist still tighter, till her face grew white with pain, though she gave no other sign of it, "you are a fine lady, but I'll teach you manners yet.  You shall come home with me at once."

    An unaccountable feeling that the man was speaking truth of some kind fell upon Esther, and made her dumb.  Once more she looked in the almost furious face beside her, and was somehow or other convinced.

    "My father!" she ejaculated, with a look of horror, which the object of it marked with a sharp pang of quite justifiable passion, and the hand which had rested on the bell-handle fell powerless at her side.  At the same time Martin Potter released her arm, and she sprang to Mrs. West's feet, crying, "Is this true, mamma? tell me, is this true?  Oh, poor mamma! "

    "It is true," said Mrs. West, through the tears that had come to her relief, "and I am not your mother, Esther; though God knows I could not have loved you more if I had been."

    "But how is it?  I cannot understand," she said, holding Mrs. West's trembling hands, and weeping with her, both quite forgetting the frowning presence before them.

    "I had you when you were a little child, Esther, when my own babe was taken away from me, and I loved you so that I could not bear to part with you, or to think that any one had a better right to your love, and so I took you away, and hid you from those who had such a right, and might have claimed you."

    "From this man!" thought Esther, bitterly; and naturally enough, the wrong did not appear to her a great one.  She never thought of a mother in the case.  She could not, all at once, put another, who was quite unknown to her, in Mrs. West's place.

    "I had you on condition that your parents were not to lose sight of you, and yet I took you away from them.  If I did wrong, I have suffered for it.  Oh, my child! that I could suffer for it alone."

    Martin Potter, though a man of savage temper, had not quite a heart of stone, and he would in all probability have relented, but for Esther's next movement.

    Her face was hidden in Mrs. West's lap, and through the conflict of feelings that crowded upon her the pain of her wrist made itself felt, and her heart rose in revolt against the author of it.  And yet it was not so much at the suffering to herself that she revolted, as at the cruelty which had inflicted it.  She would have been more indignant, more revolted even, if the pain had been inflicted on some one else.  Hatred of every form of cruelty was a passion with her, and had been from her childhood.  She rose slowly, saying to herself, "I will defy this man;" and kissing Mrs. West on the forehead said, passionately, "You are my own mamma still, and I will never leave you."

    "And I tell you that you must leave her and come with me!" thundered Martin Potter.

    Then Mrs. West rose also, and braved his fury.  "She shall stay if she chooses, Martin Potter.  Use all your power against me; you shall not touch her.  I will call my servants if you draw a step nearer;" and the frail lady placed herself between Esther and her father.

    "I shall not touch you, woman," he said, scornfully.

    "Do you think I came here to do violence?  I came here to have my rights, and the law will give me them.  I suppose stealing a man's child is a crime it will punish.  Do you want to die in a prison?"

    He did not know anything of his legal rights in the case, but then neither did his listeners.  He had conjured up for both of them a new and deadly terror.  He turned to Esther, who stood with quivering nostrils and dilated eyes.  "Young woman," he said, "you had better come with me quietly.  I did not come here to do you any harm, but I won't be despised and defied by my own girl."

    "Can he send you to prison, mamma?" cried Esther, to whom the bare idea of exposure to the penalty was something worse than death.

    "I think he might; I do not know," she answered, in a sinking voice.

    "Mamma, it will kill you! I will go with him," rejoined Esther, moved by an impulse far nobler than defiance now, an impulse too noble to suffer the former even to exist by its side.  She would save her benefactress by sacrificing herself.  If her going away into poverty with him would satisfy this man—her father—she would go with him, that the power of the law, whatever it might be, might never be invoked against her whom she had loved as a mother.  "I am ready," she said, turning to her father.

    Martin Potter was more accustomed to obstinacy than to will.  He was acquainted with the resolution which was not to be moved at all by any argument, good, bad, or indifferent; but he knew nothing of that force which, as inexorable, is yet swayed by a breath of motive, and changes as swiftly as the well-poised balance when the weight is thrown into the scale.  He regarded his daughter with astonishment, not unmingled with contempt.

    But Mrs. West clasped her hands together, and poured forth entreaties that Esther might be allowed to stay with her.  Martin Potter, however, now that he had been thwarted, and his passions had been fairly roused, was immovable; and Esther whispered to Mrs. West that it was better to let her go, without further effort.

    Then the poor lady pleaded with the man bent on exercising his own hard will to the uttermost, for the respite of a single day, that Esther might prepare for her change of residence.

    "No, she must go now, without any respite."  He managed to take every word she uttered for a further insult.  She had had enough respite from her true and proper place as the daughter of a working man.

    "Let me send the carriage, and pack up some of her things, at least," she murmured.

    "No, we can tramp," he said, with intentional roughness of voice and accent.

    Esther had tied on her hat.  She turned to him again quietly, almost respectfully.  "Will you allow me a few minutes to say good-bye?  I shall follow you almost immediately."

    He frowned, but moved towards the door.  Tears and entreaties would not have moved him; but he could not, for the sake of the small amount of self-esteem left to him, refuse a request so simple, and so simply asked.  She opened the door for him, and closed it softly as he strode out into the hall, then in an instant she was back in the arms of her whom she still called mother.

    Esther knew nothing of the law and its penalties, but she had an idea that her present act would save Mrs. West from future punishment, not only in averting her father's vengeance, but in condoning the offence.  All she could do now was to comfort one who would not be comforted.  Mrs. West's self-reproach was agonising.  "Have I not had all those happy years?" said the girl, in answer to these self-upbraidings.  "Think of all I should have lost; and remember, I will come back to you; sooner or later I will come back."  And thus they parted, with mutual assurances of unfailing affection.

    And Martin Potter, who had twice repassed the window of the drawing-room, crunching the gravel beneath his feet, as if to stamp down reptile thoughts that would cling to him, received his daughter in sullen silence.  He had not bargained for such a result as this; but he was determined to carry it with a high hand now, both with Esther and with Mrs. West.  Side by side, father and daughter—the one with the gait and attire of a workman, the other with the mien of a lady—took their way across the common—two miles of dusty highway beyond it to be traversed before they reached the station; while Harry West was hastening homeward, and a pleasant party were assembling on the sunny lawn at Redhurst, waiting for Esther to join them.  Among them was Benjamin Carrington, determinedly idle for one afternoon at least, but, from his pre-occupied air, looking as if he had important business on hand.



[Next Page]

 



[Home] [Up] [Poems by Isa] [Duchess Agnes] [Songs of Consolation] [Poems: a Miscellany] [The Argosy (1866)] [Tales on the Parables] [Tales on The Parables] [Poetry Reviews] [Cotton Famine] [Round the Court] [Peggy Oglivie] [Fanny's Fortune] [A Heroine of Home] [Little Folk's History] [Deepdale Vicarage] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

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