Esther West (4)

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CHAPTER XXII.

PRUDENCE AND FLIRTATION.


MRS. WEST received the tidings of Esther, which Harry brought, without any outburst of sorrow, as one takes a long-expected loss.  She had a presentiment that she had gone from her for ever, that even if she came back again it would not be her child who would come back, but another's.  Herein lay her loss—the inevitable loss to which she must bow.  And she did bow most meekly.  She did not love Esther less, but only less selfishly.  The wild tenacity of affection, like that which prompts the brute mother to guard her young, was gone, alas! only because the life that had nourished it was well-nigh exhausted.

    She was drooping already like a flower that has had its prop rudely snatched from it.

    Something to do for Esther roused her.  She had begged her " mamma" to send some clothes to her, and Mrs. West would see to them herself.  Leaving her maid in the dressing-room, to pack the boxes, she brought the things to her with her own hands, though more than once she had to sit down in the midst of her task, while her labouring breath came back to her.

    Thus she saw to it that all Esther's dainty garments were put up for her—at least all that could possibly be of use to her at present—the rest she kept, laying them back in their places tenderly, as she had many a time taken out and laid back other dainty little garments which had never yet been worn, and were lying, yellow with age, in a drawer by themselves.

    Then she sat down and wrote a letter to her "darling", a letter full of touching humility, owning the wrong of which she had been guilty, and pleading not for love, but only for leave to love.  Within the letter she placed a cheque for £50, and laying it in one of the boxes where it would be seen as soon as the box was opened, she sent the things off under the care of a faithful servant.

    Day succeeded day of that week in July, each one lovelier than the last, though the constant sunshine was beginning to tell upon the verdure.  And every day saw Harry West a visitor at Redhurst, for were they not all eager to hear tidings of Esther, who had written only once to Constance, while Mrs. West received a letter every morning?  Constance would gladly have gone to her friend, but could not, in the face of her father's mild but reasonable objections, and the outcries of everyone else at her intended imprudence.

    "People's hearts are eaten out of them with prudence," she said, rather bitterly, one day, complaining of this prevention.  "It takes too great a share in the ordering of our lives and leaves no room for better things.  I begin to hate it."

    "There is no doubt that it becomes a vice in our days," said her listener, Benjamin Carrington; "especially in our class.  We might also make it the great distinctive quality of it, and name the class below 'the imprudent class.'"

    "And yet you admire these imprudent people," returned Constance, "and the sacrifices they make for what they think the interests of their class, the best and cleverest men among them giving up individual advantages for the good of others less able than themselves."

    "Yes, and I admire the way in which the best of them meet life—love and marry—and trust to their own right arms to provide for wives and little ones.  They take life as it comes; we prudent people must have it all mapped out beforehand."

    "Theirs is the manliest, the most Christian way," said Constance, warmly.

    "I often think it is; but our lives are more exigent: we play for higher stakes."

    "Our lives are more selfish; we want more luxuries and less work."

    "Fathers want marriage settlements," he replied.

    "That will be no difficulty as regards Esther," she said, gravely, concluding that he was thinking of his own position, which he had already explained to her; for he also had been a daily visitor at Redhurst since Esther's disappearance.

    "Pardon me," he replied, "it would be the same as with any other.  I myself would require more than many would demand.  (It was like him, she thought, scrupulously delicate.)  But it is not that—my mother is the difficulty.  She objects to her birth and connections—perhaps most to the latter, and seeing the position I hold to her, her only son and only living relative, I cannot take any step at present.  Happily she knows nothing.  My secret is safe with you."

    "Quite safe," murmured Constance.

    "Time may soften my mother's objections."

    "You must soften them," she answered bravely.  "If you leave it to time, you may lose her.  Mrs. West considers her nephew pledged to marry her."

    "But you know you don't think she will marry him.  The girl who would love him"—he spoke rather contemptuously—"could never love me."  He broke off there.  "As for that question of prudence, there are two sides to it, Constance, and I can't make up my mind whether the world would gain or lose most by its becoming a preponderating quality."

    "There are two sides to every question," she answered, in a tone in which the mockery veiled the tenderness, "and you never yet made up your mind on anything."

    "Quite true, my Mentor.  That's not my fault, but the fault of things in general.  My mind is evenly balanced, as every man's mind ought to be, in fairness, and I can't help it, if equal weights are thrown into the scales."

    Benjamin Carrington was the man who thinks without acting; who exists in states of feeling and attitudes of mind; and yet the mind was an intensely active one.  Work, legal work, was his delight.  In it the practical side of his character had developed itself, perhaps because in it he could labour with a result, which was determined within the limits of its definite boundaries.  The outside world was too limitless to his keen imagination.  Nothing had ever been denied to him, nothing had resisted him; and the very resistlessness of the medium in which he moved checked his impulses: for his nature was exacting in the extreme, both on its moral and affectional sides.  He was beginning to feel the demands both of heart and spirit, for wider spheres of action, and yet he could not choose, for he must satisfy both at once.  He might easily sink into discontent, or wither into cynicism.

    No woman had ever satisfied him except Esther.  She satisfied him to look at, with her ample and perfect proportion, and purity of outline and colouring.  She satisfied him to talk to, for she never said silly things, from the supposed necessity of saying something, as even sensible and clever girls will do.  She could keep an undisturbed, unconscious silence.  There was a steady light of intellect in her, and a possibility of enthusiasm.  He had been content to contemplate her, and had grown to love her—he would have been content, probably, to go on thus, year after year, if nothing had happened.  He wanted rousing, as Constance used to say, alive to his faults, but liking him all the more for them.

    "That fool of a fellow is flirting desperately with Kate," he said, as Harry West came sauntering up the walk by her sister's side.

    The four were left that afternoon in the garden by themselves, for Mr. Vaughan and Milly had gone into town together, to meet Mr. Walton, on business connected with the marriage; which was not to take place, however, till after a summer tour which was talked of.

    Constance turned her eyes in their direction and blushed deeply.  With more freedom of manner than her sister, Constance was far more sensitive.  Harry was almost touching, with a rose which he had plucked, her sister's cheek, evidently matching it against her complexion, and expressing in his face and gesture—particularly the latter, for his face was not an expressive one—an admiration too marked, considering the position which he held with regard to Esther.

    "It is only his absurd manner," said Constance.  "Kate would not allow him to flirt with her, I am sure."

    "I don't see how she could help it," he replied; measuring Harry most accurately.  "You can't lay hold of him anywhere, and he has no self-restraint.  His very goodness is against him."

    It was quite true.  The more Harry saw of Kate the more he liked her.  He liked her luxuriance and her taste for luxury, and her love of pleasure, and he did not scruple to let her know that he did.  In any other man it would have been desperate flirting.  They had compared their tastes, and found that they agreed in almost every particular—a sign very nearly as dangerous as entire disagreement—and Kate honestly liked and admired the Australian, and, must it be confessed?—felt a slight pang, when he finished up with declaring that he would do all the delightful things he had talked of when Esther and he were married.

    There was no earnestness in his life.  He had simplicity without earnestness, just as Benjamin Carrington had subtlety without it.  They were alike in this, neither of them had felt the pressure of life.  Both had been perfectly secure of all that makes existence safe, comfortable, pleasurable.  Perhaps this was the secret of something of their lack in their different directions.

    Be that as it may, Harry had this advantage, that his action in gratifying himself was entirely unimpeded by any consideration for others.  He would have thought it perfectly right and proper to throw Esther over at this point and secure Kate, if he had been so minded, but his realism also seemed to show him that Esther was the best.  And he meant to have the best, just as when he was gathering fruit for himself, he would always choose the most perfect of its kind.  He acknowledged her superiority of intellect and temper.  In several little scenes he had observed that Kate was not perfect in respect of the latter; that she was rather imperious and exacting, where Esther would have been quite the reverse.  Her very coldness attracted him.  But then if he could not get Esther—which was an alternative, however, that had never occurred to him—he would be quite contented with Kate, without in the least exalting her to the highest place in his thoughts.  Harry was not at all given to ideals.

    "His character is not coherent," said Mr. Vaughan, when Constance was attempting to characterise him.

    "How can you expect it to be, papa?" she answered; he is not coherent himself."

    Under the gay humour with which Constance always charmed her father, his quick eye discovered a growing sadness.  On that same evening when the Vaughans, father and daughters, were left to themselves, Constance looked up suddenly and said, with an eagerness of which she was quite unconscious, "How soon can we go away, papa?"

    "As soon as you can plume yourselves for flight," he answered, addressing all three; and then, turning to Constance, he added, "You seem to me to be drooping, child.  I suppose you are feeling the unusual heat, in which Milly there luxuriates."

    "Oh, do let us go at once," said Kate, suddenly, as if waking out of a fit of abstraction.  "I can get ready in no time."

    Constance thanked her sister in her heart.  "Don't go against us, Milly.  I know we shall see nothing half so pretty as home till we get back again; but that's all the more reason for getting away, that we may get back the sooner."

    Then they all set to work to plan their summer tour, with a heap of maps and guide-books to assist them in choosing the route that would afford them most of what was new and beautiful.  They had already been up the Rhine, and over the Bernese Oberland, and into Italy.  They could not, therefore, make up their minds in one evening where to go next.

    "I am so glad we are going!" said Constance, throwing open the lattice of her sister's room, and looking out into the starlight.  She comprehended that Kate had made a conquest of self, but neither sister took the other into her confidence.  This summer seemed to have changed them all,

    "Are you not happy, Constance?" said Milly, half reproachfully.  "I should wish never to go away at all."

    "Happy! of course she is happy, the child has nothing to make her unhappy," said Kate, speaking as if out of her new experience, and giving Constance one of those bountiful embraces which made the youngest sister love the eldest most, in spite of their little jars.

    With regard to these sisterly embraces, Constance had an apt simile: "Milly's feels like a light muslin scarf; but Kate wraps one up like a good Scotch plaid.  I know which I like best on a cold day."

    And Constance returned the embrace with equal warmth, and then went away and looked out at the window.  After a little, she returned from her contemplations with a deep sigh, and said, "Our lives go so smoothly, whatever happens, that I wonder whether we could feel a great sorrow or a great joy if it came to us."

    "What are you thinking of?" said Kate, not comprehending.  Constance puzzled both of her sisters at times.

    "I was thinking of Esther," she answered, and they were satisfied.  It was Connie's way to take things grandly.


 
CHAPTER XXIII.

NIGHT WATCHES.


THE sad routine of sickness once established, day after day passed over Martin Potter's household, bringing little or no change to its inmates.  When the awful question of life or death has to be decided, all other matters become of little moment, and are settled without discussion—allowed, in fact, to settle themselves.  The simplest food that would suffice was eaten by the youngest without a murmur.  There was an utter absence of the usual friction of household life—a pause in which every one seemed to watch and listen.

    Early on Tuesday Mr. Wiggett had presented himself, and asked leave to carry off the two younger children.

    Johnny had departed, triumphantly holding the reins, the great bribe by which he had been induced to leave his mother's side; while little Mary had been gained over by the idea that she was going to take charge of "the boy," whose delinquencies she regarded in the gravest light.  Their mother, whose heart was at present centred on her husband, sent them away gladly, that the house might be quieter in their absence.

    She was glad, too, before the week was over, to accept Philip's proffered aid.  Even with Esther's help she felt her strength fail her; it had been failing her for months before, though she had borne up with a feverish excitement, which made her seemingly independent of either food or rest.

    Every evening, coming home from his work, between the hours of six and seven, Philip stopped and inquired how Martin was going on.  The inquiry was generally made through the open parlour window, and it was also generally answered by Esther, established there in her new office of housekeeper.  As he passed there he looked a very ordinary workman, no whit finer or cleaner than his fellows.  The marks of the forge were on his garments and hands and face—the marks of a day spent amid smoke and sparks and grime.  He looked smaller and more insignificant in his peculiar griminess—perhaps, because one expects a smith to be big and brawny.  But though he did look small and insignificant, his employer would have testified that he had no better man in his workshop—that Philip Ward could beat his most stalwart fellows in the force and number of the blows he could ring out hour by hour.  "The will is more than shape," says one of our poets truly, and perhaps his vigorous will had developed the muscular power of his arms; but, by force of the spirit, it is certain that he could endure more labour, watching, and fasting than stronger men.

    And one night, when the fever and delirium was at its height, he went away, and returned again in an hour, having changed his clothes and otherwise refreshed himself, and insisted on taking Mary's place beside the sick man, promising faithfully to rouse her if the slightest change for the worse, or even if any return of consciousness took place.  And before they left him for the night he had given abundant proof that, with his greater strength, his tenderness was equal to their own: and the strength was needed then as well as the tenderness.

    Philip did not disturb any of them, though for many hours his task was a hard one—one to which he knew these poor women were unequal.  All night he watched and prayed, watching for the soul as well as for the body of the man who lay there, with a strange fervour, which burned in him through all these hours like a fire, at once feeding and consuming life.  In the early summer morning, when Esther stole down, she started to see his face white as ashes.  He had heard the movement in the silent house, and had come to the door of the chamber to meet whoever was stirring, and say that his watch was over.

    "He is quiet now," he whispered; "and I must soon be going.  Will you let your mother know?"

    Esther did so, and Mary rose refreshed and thankful, while Esther would have prepared breakfast for their guest, but he would not suffer her—he had prepared his breakfast the night before.

    "I always do it," he said, seeing Esther look astonished.  "I have learned to like cold tea."

    "But you have to work hard all day," said Esther, who had learnt the nature of his employment.

    "I can work quite well on tea and bread," he answered.  "Tell your mother I will take a turn again on Saturday, for then I can have as much rest as I need on Sunday;" and with these few words, but with a wonderfully sweet and gracious smile, he went away.

    He would rest on Sunday!  Then he had not the conventional notions on the Sabbath which she had heard attributed to very religious people.  He did not care for anything but bread and tea.  He was ready to risk his life to nurse a sick neighbour—to work all day and watch all night, and all this with a joy in the doing of it which was evident to Esther.  More and more this man claimed her interest and drew her sympathy.  She found that her brothers and sisters regarded him—so did the whole neighbourhood—as beyond the pale of sympathy and interest; as half-crazed, in fact.  Her mother, gentler in her judgment, and grateful for his kindness, only thought him eccentric.

    Esther said nothing, but felt that in his mind and conduct there was a harmony and order higher than any she had known, and she longed intensely to possess his secret.  Instead of being crazed, she felt he had a nobler reason than others in his way of life; instead of being eccentric, that he was moving in a wider orbit.  His life was like the movement of stately verse compared with halting prose.

    On Saturday night, true to his word, he came, as he had done before.  "I don't know what we should do without his help," Mary had said, when she left him to his watch once more, and with still stricter injunctions to awake her if needful, for the doctor had warned her that the crisis was at hand.

    The wearied household slept, slept more soundly than usual, and awoke less early.  It was the day on which the workers usually indulged in an hour or two more of sleep.  As for Sarah, she was afflicted with a general sleepiness, as if she never had got, and never could get, enough of sleep.  She slept as soon as she could at night, and as late as she could in the morning, fell asleep over the kitchen fire in the evening, and in the sunshine, if left in quiet, in the afternoon; and Esther, having found out that she could do things herself, indulged her more and more.

    "I can't bear to see her look so wearied," she said to Mary; "I never feel like that."


 
CHAPTER XXIV.

PHILIP'S STORY.


ON this Sabbath morning Mary awoke to more hopeful tidings.  With the morning, consciousness had dawned on Martin; and Philip, faithful to his promise, awoke Mary, and left her by her husband's side.  For these last nights Mary had slept with Esther, so that both had risen together, and while Mary passed into her husband's room, and was left there alone with him, Esther descended with Philip into the little parlour.  He had already given a whispered promise to stay with them and take some food before he went to rest.  Mary had extorted the promise.  He went and lay down on the sofa (Sarah had found a corner with the twins), and while Esther prepared the meal he fell asleep.  The rest of the household slept on.  She carried up a cup of tea to her mother, who could not leave her husband's side—her husband, who seemed restored to her by the speaking look in his eyes, though he seemed too much exhausted to utter more than a few words at a time.  He could understand the love in touch and word of hers, and that was joy for the present.  She could think of nothing else.

    "You must wake him up," she said to Esther, when she told her that Philip was already asleep.  "He will rest better at home;" and then she turned away to catch one of those precious murmurs.

    Esther did not like to wake him.  Lying there in the sunlight, his face looked worn and sad.  As she stood hesitating she pronounced his name, half to herself.  It was his Christian name—she had forgotten the other, if she had ever heard it.  But soft as the sound was, he awoke, and met her eyes.  She did not blush, though her eyes were swimming with tenderness.  He simply smiled, and passed his hand over his brow, as one is apt to do when exhausted with thought.

    "I fell asleep quickly," he said.

    "You are tired.  How good you are," she said.

    He seemed embarrassed by her little speech, uttered on the impulse of the moment; but he laughed it off.

    "I am only doing as I would be done by," he said.  "I hope some one more Christian than he thinks himself would do the same for me."

    They sat down together.  To both the situation was new and strange; but everything during the past week had been new and strange to Esther.  He felt it, however.

    "I am not accustomed to be waited on, you see," he said, anticipating some little attention, for which she begged pardon.

    "Have you always lived alone?" she asked.

    "I can scarcely remember the time when I did not.  I have neither father nor mother, sister nor brother.  I have a step-mother, if she is still living, but I can't find her out, though I have tried.  From her I ran away when I was quite a little chap, and picked up a living in the streets by doing odd jobs.  I never begged, though I have been among beggars, and thieves, too," he added.

    "And then?"—she filled up the pause with unconscious eagerness.

    "I used to frequent the lanes about Cheapside, and one day I held a gentleman's horse for an hour at least—he had looked out once or twice to see that it was all right.  When he came out, and had seated himself in the trap, he flung me a shilling, saying in a harsh enough tone, 'What are you idling about the streets for? Can't you get work?'

    "I touched my cap, and said I would be glad to work at anything, and he seemed to believe me, for he said, 'Jump up here, then;' and off we drove to his works.

    "He was a great smith and engineer.

    "Want a boy?' he said to the foreman of the works, when we dismounted in the yard.

    "'Very glad of a good'un, sir,' I remember the man said, grinning; and I determined to be a good one; which I found consisted chiefly in the knocking about I was able to stand.  Boy and man, I have never been off work there since, except when I was in the hospital."

    "Have you been in the hospital?" she asked, her eyes questioned further.

    He was a man, and sympathy was sweet to him—as real sympathy cannot fail to be—and as rare as it was sweet.  The warm tea, too, stimulated him after his night watch, and he went on freely and fluently.

    "Yes; I got the fever in an over-crowded lodging where I had no business to be, only I was careless of myself then, and I was taken to the hospital.  Nobody cared for me and I cared for nobody, but I didn't want to die, for all that.  I had no more religion than a pagan: there are whole work shops in that condition. I think it's because the religion preached to them is just—'Save your own soul.'  I know now how good many men are who preach in this strain, and how much more they mean than they are able to say, but they make us feel towards God as if he were a hard master, only that Christ has made good terms with him.  Then the churches are crowded with such fine folk, that a working man feels put out when he goes for the first time, and he is treated by the pew-openers as if he had no business there.  The chaplain was very anxious to make me ready to die; but I did not find what he said helping me to live.  So I put it aside."

    "Then how was it that you came to live as you do now?" she asked; for this was what she wanted—to penetrate to the heart of his experience, that she might learn the secret of that fervent spirit which had so attracted her.

    "The getting better had something to do with it.  I never had such delicious sensations.  I could not help thinking of God, because everything seemed so good.  I had a little money—which is more than many a one has—coming out of hospital.  It was summer, and I did not go to work for a week or two.  I enjoyed myself as I had never done before, with a burst of innocent enjoyment.  I went into the villages, and eat heartily all simple food, and drank milk, as the doctor recommended me, and read—for I had learned to read, and had always been a reader—out in the fields.  I was so happy, that I went to church, and there for the first time, I heard the Word of life; that to be a Christian was to have life, and to have it more abundantly—a life of the spirit, unselfish and self-sacrificing, the spirit of Christ himself."

    "I am very selfish to keep you talking while you ought to be resting," she said.  "But some day perhaps, you will tell me what the preacher taught you."

    "You can read it for yourself," he said.  "It is a religion as unlike the outward religion of some as anything can well be: you will find it all in the Sermon on the Mount.  Thank God, it is not so far from the heart of many a church goer.  Now I shall go away and sleep, though I was never more awake in my life."  And with another of his flashing smiles, which lit up his face as the sun does a grey limestone crag, he rose and left her.


 
CHAPTER XXV.

A DEFEATED LIFE.


THE children were enjoying their holidays at Hurst, notwithstanding that they did not get on very well with the mistress of the establishment.  She had been "rather cranky of late," her husband said to her, in mild remonstrance, whatever his phrase might mean.  Though she had not opposed the coming of the children, she certainly had not approved of the step, and had muttered something to the effect that Timothy would always be running after Mary and her brats, now that he had found them.

    They, the children, did not trouble her much, however.  They were in the garden from morning till night, giving more or less active superintendence to the various operations; browning their little hands and faces in the sun, and eating enormous quantities of ripe fruit, at least the boy did, for little Mary was as dainty as a singing bird.  She would follow Mr. Wiggett about, while her brother had attached himself to one of the lads about the place, and was gone a-field to the hay-carrying, to the imminent risk of life and limb.  At first she was shy and silent, but ere long she was singing all her street tunes to new and original songs about the flowers, and bees, and butterflies, asking endless questions concerning them between her songs.

    In the house, with the gardener's wife, she remained shy and silent, as at first.  She never came close to her, or asked her to do any little service for her.  It was always to Mr. Wiggett she went, and he might be seen, with his big, brown hands, hopelessly knotting the string of a pinafore, or awkwardly tying a ribbon that had slipped over the elfin locks it bound and yet left free.

    Mrs. Wiggett felt that the child held aloof from her, and so she held aloof from the child.  But she often watched her at her play, by her husband's side, and felt a pang of jealousy when she saw how fond he was growing of the little girl.  Now it was a pair of pretty painted cherries which he dangled before her and exchanged for a kiss; and now a full blown rose, which disappointed her by falling to pieces the next moment, while the twin cherries went on blooming all day, and were only eaten the last thing at night, shared with Master Johnny, whose good things had all perished long ago.

    It was often a wild, almost scared, face that looked out from that white-curtained rose-trellised window, into the sweet, bloomy, sunny garden, the disorder of the soul depicted on its every feature.  Sarah Wiggett suddenly recognised that she was old, and hard, and haggard.  She seemed to become repulsive, even to herself, and could not believe in her husband's simple and sincere affection.  She could not believe in it, because she had done him wrong, and that wrong lay in the background of her life—a deep, black shadow, out of which a remorseless hand might some time or other be stretched to clutch her.  The shadow had already stirred, and she knew that the hand was there.  And her soul had cried out in its despair, facing the moving shadow, "Come near me, and I will die!  I will die by my own hand, and escape into the outer darkness!"  Poor soul, on whom the pains of hell had taken hold.  It would have made Timothy's kind heart bleed to see her as she tore the picture of herself and her first husband in twain, and actually crumpled the glass and the thin plate of metal in her hands.  When she had done this, it calmed her, and she came down to the kitchen as if nothing had happened, and watched the fire consume the shattered fragments, never wincing at the cuts inflicted on her hands by the broken glass.

    One afternoon Tim and the children had been driven in by a thunderstorm.  They had been out in the fields, and had had to run for it, which furnished the children with a great excitement.  On the way they passed Harry West, hastening in the direction of Redhurst, and he had stopped a moment to speak to Mary.

    Mrs. Wiggett, from her window, saw them in the lane.  When they reached the house she was there to meet them.  With a fierce and restless glance she called out to her husband, "I wonder you could keep them children out.  If the rain had come down as it has come this minute, they would have been drenched to the skin.  And I wonder you would speak to that insolent fellow."

    "How do you know he's an insolent fellow?  I'm sure he never spoke to you in his life," said her husband, smiling, and shaking off her ill-temper as a duck does water from its wings.

    And on this, muttering something which he could not hear, Mrs. Wiggett went away, and honest Timothy came to his old conclusion, that the mistress was a little cranky to-day.  He was left alone with the children in the parlour, and he might not have found his task so easy as it was abroad in the fields, but that the roll of the thunder rather cowed Master John, so that he was glad to sit close to Mr. Wiggett's feet, as his sister had already done.  Mary was evidently pursuing some train of thought.  At last, looking up in Mr. Wiggett's face, she broke silence with the question, "Does she like her other husband more than you?''

    Her listener was entirely at fault.

    "Who's she?" he asked, with a puzzled smile.  "Mrs. Wiggett," lisped Mary.

    "I didn't know she had another husband."

    "Oh, but she has; and I think she must like him best," answered the child; the train of thought she had been pursuing was, whether Mrs. Wiggett ever went to live with her other husband, for she wished she would go now, she looked so cross.

    "Ha! ha!" laughed Timothy Wiggett, loudly; "what put such a thing into your little head?"

    "The gentleman with the gold chain said it," answered Mary.

    "You must never say it again," said Mr. Wiggett, looking suddenly very serious; and he begun pondering his wife's looks and words with grave uneasiness.  "I wonder if this young fellow knows anything about Ned Brown," he thought; "and if he has spoken to her, why has she not told me?"

    Thus little Mary had unconsciously planted, by her words—those winged seeds of good or ill—a great and dismal doubt in the heart of her benefactor.

    From that day Timothy Wiggett began to watch his wife, till he became convinced in his own mind that something was wrong with her; but there was more delicacy within that broad-faced ruddy-brown man than there is under many a fair skin and faultless form, and he said nothing to force her confidence.  If she could only have spoken to him of the terrible possibility—now turned probability—which threatened their peace, she would have been safe—safe, not from the thing itself, but from the terrors of her own conscience; safe in the generous nature of the man she had married, who would have sheltered her, at any cost, from the consequences of her fault, if she had flung herself on his mercy; but she could not.  "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."  The unmerciful cannot even seek it, seeing that they have no faith in its existence.

    Meantime, Sunday came round again, the second Sunday since the children had been with the Wiggetts, and then, to Mrs. Wiggett's intense relief, they were recalled.  It was Philip who came for them—came on foot, and with great drops beaded on his brow; but Timothy Wiggett caused his pony to be put into the wagonette in haste, and drove them to the station; and neither of them spoke a word to the children concerning the meaning of their sudden recall but they were peculiarly tender to them all the way, with a solemn tenderness, and even Mrs. Wiggett had a shade of the same in her last farewell, after the few whispered words that had passed between her husband and the stranger had been communicated to her.

    On the previous Sunday Martin Potter's fever had reached its low stage.  The symptoms of excitement had passed away, and a lucid interval had occurred, in which Mary had comforted her husband, and had been comforted concerning him.  Her terrible fear that he would never know her again was taken away, the anguish of parting in unkindness was removed.  And there was hope, too, that the awful separation, inevitable on one side or other, was to be indefinitely postponed.  But at the end of the second week the doctor saw that the disease was rapidly approaching a fatal termination, and thought it his duty to warn Mary of the truth.  He did it gently as well as faithfully, prepared for her burst of agony; for who is ever willing to give up hope?  "He may become sensible for a while before death," he said: and that was all the comfort he could bestow.

    And Mary could not bear that the youngest of her children should be absent when the last farewells were spoken; that they should miss their father's last looks, if nothing more, or that he should miss them from his side.  So Philip, ever ready to give the help that was most desired, had given up his day to bring them back.

    Martin Potter lay prostrate and insensible, with extended arms, and with the peculiar, indescribable look of anguish on his countenance which marks the terrible disorder.  A film seemed spread over his eyes, which looked as though they saw not, and from time to time a low muttering escaped his lips, which Mary vainly tried to shape into articulate words.  From time to time she administered wine and the cordials prescribed in the last stage of the fever.  There was no more to be done.  Every window, and every door, too, was set open to catch the slightest breeze, but the very breath of heaven seemed to have departed.  So passed the weary afternoon.

    Esther received the children from Philip's hands, and remained with them in the parlour, waiting for a summons to their father's death-bed.  There was no need to keep them quiet; a great awe had fallen upon them—a fear of the shadow that sat upon the faces of their elder brothers and sisters.  They crept close to one another, settling at last beside Esther, who encouraged them to lean upon her; and at last little Johnny fell asleep, and was lifted into the corner of the sofa.  At length the cooler hours arrived.  The grateful shadows fell—though they were only the shadows of houses.  A light breeze swept through the house.  They were called.

    Martin had opened his eyes from a brief slumber, and looked at Mary—a long, unclouded, but wistful look.  And Mary had knelt down, and seized the hands, growing awfully chill to the touch, and covered them with kisses, crying, "Oh, my husband! my love! my love!"

    It needed no other words, if it needed even these, in the tone in which they were uttered, to tell Martin Potter that the end had come.  He could only speak a few words at a time, and then in a whisper.

    "I'm done for, Mary," were his first simple words, but full of awful pathos, the acknowledgment of a defeated life.

    "Christ have mercy upon us!" moaned Mary on her knees.

    "Amen," whispered the dying man.

    "The children," he murmured, after a pause.

    Mary had forgotten them in an agony of silent prayer.  She rose, and went softly to the landing, and called them.  "Children."

    They sent the little ones first; last of all came Esther, the first-born.

    His wife gave him some wine, and Martin Potter roused himself.  His children passed him, one by one, and then gathered in a group at the foot of the bed.  Mary put his hand on the heads of the little ones, and bade them kiss him, but he said nothing.  The elder ones knelt and kissed his hand, and one and all turned away weeping.  Then Esther came forward and knelt, and he roused himself yet more.  He spoke still in a whisper.  "Forgive me, my girl, and be good to your mother," were the words caught by Mary and Esther alone; and she, too, weeping, said, "I will."

    It seemed to content him more than anything, and Esther remained by the bedside.

    After another pause of exhaustion, "Take them away," he murmured.

    Mary thought it was the children, and signed for them to leave the room.  But he shook his head.  She had misunderstood.  "To another country," he explained.

    He sank back heavily, still murmuring words which they strove to catch, but in vain.  Then there was along silence, broken only by stifled sobs, and Martin Potter lay dead in the midst of his days.


 
CHAPTER XXVI.

A CONSOLER.


MARY POTTER, with all her vigour, and all her breadth of character, was a woman who needed support; who fell when her support was taken away.  Her luxuriant affections could not sustain themselves.  When her husband died, the stem round which those had clustered was broken, and for a time it seemed as if they had perished.  She was like a vine, heavy with fruitage, when the prop is violently rent from it, and which seems laid in ruins on the ground.  Neglecting everything, hardly conscious indeed, she would lie in a heap by the side of that prostrate form which had now put on all the majesty of death, and looked kingly in its white repose.  There were moments in which, if the door of death, at which she lay, had opened to receive her, she would wilfully have passed beyond recall, so intense was her longing for him who had already gone.  The harshness was all forgotten to him—remembered only as something from without that had come between them, and had been a mutual trouble.  "It would all have come right in the end," she murmured, "if he had only lived."

    If her little ones had been under the immediate pressure of want or suffering, Mary might not have sunk under her sorrow, but the money sent by Mrs. West, and placed by Esther at her mother's disposal, removed any immediate pressure; and it is not seldom that removal of smaller cares exposes the spirit to the full weight of a crushing sorrow.  When Esther, suffering at the sight of her mother's sufferings, felt herself powerless to console, it was to Philip that she looked for help; to Philip, who had given up his time to make the funeral arrangements, to do all, in short, that a near male relative would have done; to Philip, who when the time of trouble was over, would fall back upon his routine of labour and of preaching, and be only a neighbour.

    And Philip—who had been placed in similar circumstances, who had drawn near to people in their time of trial, and acted the part of son or brother, without reward, without the reward of that exclusive affection which men covet—knew it would be so.  But this time he felt he cared to be something more; to awaken more interest than a neighbourly one in this circle—the sacred household circle from which he had been all his life shut out.

    Mary could not have had a wiser or tenderer comforter than he was.  He did not give utterance to the terrible things which good people sometimes mistake for Christian consolation, and which, in Mary's case, would have made every word a rankling wound; he did not give utterance to them, for he knew them not.  He left the future shrouded in its mystery.  He only made her willing to trust in the mercy of the heavenly Father.  It is strange how the most dismal of beliefs vanish at the touch of love.  Martin was not a religious man; had not passed through anything that could be called a death-bed repentance; yet—though Mary if questioned concerning repentance and salvation in general, would have answered in the sternest language of the most rigid formula,—she was quite willing to accept for her husband the boundless hope which Philip set before her.

    Philip made this faith of the heart the basis of his teaching.  The great argument which preachers use against postponing religion—namely, that there may be no time like the present; that the end may come before we are aware, before we have time to make an escape from the endless consequences—he put aside as utterly unworthy.  He would have men become religious, because they wished to live religious, the highest possible life; not because they wished to die the religious or safest possible death.  "Though we know enough of the consequences of sin here to tremble for them hereafter," he said, "it is the hell upon earth that we are most concerned with at present."

    And this creed of his did not sit loose and easy upon him.  He had never read the lives of the ascetic saints, but he lived the life of an ascetic in the middle of London, denying himself all ease, pleasure, comfort, joy.  No, not joy.  "I do not believe in comfort," he said to Esther; "but I do believe in joy.  If I were rich, I should delight, not in giving little gifts, but in lifting up the hearts of weary men and women with great unexpected good things, so that they might be raised up for ever after into a new world of thankfulness and faith and joy."  He did not tell her that as far as his means went he did this; perhaps supporting for weeks a widow and her children, or lifting some wretched being out of the depths, and setting her or him in safety in a clean place, so that he or she could never thereafter doubt that there was a deliverer.  "Christianity," he explained to her, "is at once the easiest and the hardest of all religions—it is the religion of doing good.  There is a lord here in London who gives some hundreds a year, I think, to his cook, to find him a new flavour.  Poor fellow! if he only knew the taste of doing good, he would be content to live on bread and water ever after."

    Some unknown possibility of a higher and diviner life had haunted Esther's heart, as it haunts the hearts of most of us in our youth, at least; and she seemed to herself never to have understood it before, never to have known that it meant the daily, hourly choice of the best and the noblest, and that the choice of anything lower caused the haunting glory to grow obscure and dim.  There are times in which this inner light shines, as it were, along some particular path of life, blinding the wayfarer to its ruggedness; but mostly it shines in the distance, not as a light unto the feet and a lamp unto the path, with no guiding ray to tell us how the distance must be traversed.  Often it is called by the shadowy name of poetry or romance, and one sometimes hears the pathetic disclaimer of one whose soul is sunk in petty cares, "I don't like poetry, and that kind of romantic rubbish."  "Better the most romantic folly, so long as it is real, and not simulated, than your worldly wisdom," one is tempted to answer.  If you had cared for poetry, you would never have selected the lot you have chosen.  It might have been harder, it is true, but it would have been higher, and that glory need not have passed away so utterly from the earth.  The time was drawing near when a great choice would lie before Esther, in which the path of right would not be quite easy to discern, for the hardest task is not always necessarily the highest.

    The Vaughans were gone.  They had hastened their preparations, and the news of Martin Potter's death reached them on the morning of their departure.  But what was he to them?—only a figure in the registrar general's statistics of mortality.  Good, generous Constance even ventured to think it was a good thing, for Esther's sake, that he was gone, and that everything would right itself for her friend.  She did not say this to her, of course; but she did not think there was much need for consolation, and her warm-hearted farewell letter did not, therefore, contain much condolence.  It did not, however, jar upon Esther, for its tone was sad.  The others sent their affectionate regards, and hoped to see her on their return.  Then they went off on their pleasant tour.  There were other friends and neighbours, the Carringtons, for instance, who made no sign, and what she might do or suffer in their absence made very little difference: so thought Esther.  But what would she have had?  We must all stand alone in the great crises of our history.  Friends and neighbours are put far from us.  It is only given to love, and to that not always, to share the burden of the spirit in temptation and trial.

    At the last moment, Harry West would fain have gone away with the Vaughans.  He called their going "a horrid cut up," and quite resented the manner in which his summer enjoyment was being spoiled.  He received no encouragement, however, and Mrs. West held him back with a kind of despair, from making the proposal to accompany them, at which he had hinted.  Esther had written to Mrs. West daily, and was very earnest in her entreaties that Harry should not come near the house in Sutton's Alley—a prohibition for which he was not sorry.

    But now that Martin Potter was dead and buried, and the house no doubt properly disinfected—he wrote to Esther, suggesting the proper fluid—there was no reason—he, Harry West, having nothing particular to do—why he should not go and see Esther, and get matters settled for her return.  But Mrs. West had seen enough of Harry to know that no delicate negotiation could be entrusted to his hands, and she felt that it was a delicate matter to ask Mary Potter once more to part with her child.  She proposed to Harry to leave "The Cedars" for the present, and go into town, and he was quite delighted at the proposal.  He had quite exhausted the country round, and was eager for a change.  In fact, he never cared for the same place twice.  He had not in his nature that depth which alone makes the simplest things exhaustless.

    So Harry came into town and procured a house in one of the streets of Belgrave Square, as near to Esther as Mrs. West could wish, and the removal was to be made without loss of time.  "The Cedars" was to be shut up, to the regret of the village in general (for Mrs. West had never gone to foreign parts, like some of her neighbours), but to the relief of one particular person in it.  Mrs. Wiggett breathed freely once more.


 
CHAPTER XXVII.

ESTHER'S CHOICE.


DURING the week or so that Harry was in search of a house in Belgravia, he made a point of calling every day in Sutton's Alley.  The Potter family had fallen into its accustomed routine, all but Mary, who was slowly rising from the heavy blow.  The four elder children were at work as usual, and it was generally Esther and the little ones alone who received him.  Harry West was at once a great favourite with the children.  Folks are fond of crediting the small people with an almost supernatural insight into character, while they, in reality, are only led by outward appearance, undistracted, however, by more worldly motives.  They always prefer the showiest and best-dressed person in a company, and Harry's thick gold chain had a great effect upon both Mary and Johnny, the latter insisting upon testing how severe a strain of tugging it would bear.  And then Harry brought them presents at every visit.  And he asked Esther, in passing, as it were, if there was anything she would like, and Esther smiled in perfect simplicity and good faith, and answered, "Nothing."

    This was as far as Harry dared go at present.  He had been warned by Mrs. West that he must not be too precipitate, that Esther would feel the indelicacy of any immediate offer, with her father newly dead: for Harry on his first visit to town had bought a ring of turquoise and diamond, as a present for Esther, which Mrs. West had taken into her own keeping till a more convenient season.

    When he found the house near Belgrave Square, he came hurrying to Esther, and asked her to accompany him at once to inspect it: Mrs. West was quite unequal to the fatigue, and was waiting with anxiety the time when she would be able to have her darling at her side once more.  "You women know so much better what is wanted about a house," said Harry, very naturally.  So Esther donned her simple mourning bonnet—her sisters had made it with their own—and went.

    As they passed out into the street together, they met Philip coming home.  Esther had not seen him for several days.  He had already withdrawn himself somewhat.  In his hands he carried one or two small paper parcels, suspiciously like recent purchases from the grocer's shop.  Esther gave a slight start forward as if to speak, but he did not notice it; he was rapidly scanning the face and figure of Harry West, and having done so, he passed on with a stammering "Good evening."

    "Who's that?" said Harry, as he heard the voice, taking his eyes from Esther's face, into which he had been looking eagerly as he rattled on, and bestowing a glance upon the small dingy figure.

    "A friend," she answered; and her face, which was already several degrees paler for her town life, took an unusual glow.

    Harry laughed his careless laugh.

    "You do not know how good he has been," she said, and proceeded to recount his kindness.

    "Couldn't you give him something—some money, I mean?" he added, seeing Esther's eyes widen.  "I dare say he would not be offended.  He looks miserably poor."

    "Oh no, you don't understand him," said Esther, hastily, as if in alarm, and she was glad that her companion took no more notice, but went on to something else.

    The house was handsome and very fairly furnished.  Esther had no fault to find with it.  Harry had a hundred.  This was inconvenient, and that was inelegant, and the other thing was shabby.  Did not Esther think so?  She could not help laughing at his new knowledge of upholstery.  Nor was he slow to reveal the source of it: Kate Vaughan had been his instructress.

    "There's nothing like having a house in town," he said, repeating her very words, "it's convenient for everything; and even if you want to go and see the world, it's better to have a base of operations to fall back upon.  Don't you think so?"

    "I should think so," said Esther, smiling, "though my mind has not been much exercised on the subject."

    "Perhaps it would be better to see everything at once, before settling down—Paris, Rome, Venice, Switzerland.  I mean to have a peep at them all.  What a pity, now, that we could not have gone with the Vaughans, or agreed to meet them somewhere," he went on.

    What did he mean by we?  But Harry was inexplicable, and she let it pass, but half interested in his strain of talk.

    "After all, I do not know about a house in town," he rattled on, with that curious cleverness which characterised him.  "It costs a great deal, I suppose, and money has an end, and ought to be made the most of.  I question whether one does not get more pleasure out of simpler modes of living, sufficiently varied.  But you shall decide all that.  This will do for us in the meantime, till everything is put right for you.  We must make it all smooth for your mother, you know.  Settle so much a year on her, that would be the best way."

    There was no misunderstanding him now—no misunderstanding his look and tone of easy appropriation.  He was planning this life of ease and pleasure for her; a life in which everything was to be made smooth, and as much as possible pleasant for everybody, after it had been made perfectly so to themselves.  And how to rebuke him, looking so kind, pleasant, and eager, and taking her consent for granted?

    "You must not count on me at all," she said, hastily; "I can decide nothing at present."

    Another man would have taken alarm at the utter withdrawal in Esther's tone; but it was lost on Harry.

    "I must go home now," she continued, with an emphasis on the word home, "and you will let me know when 'mamma' comes up, and I will be here to meet her.  Of course she will send servants before she comes herself."

    The house was unoccupied, so there was no obstacle, and it was settled, as Harry would fain have settled every question of the universe, that they should enter it at once.  Then he he walked home with Esther to the very door of her mother's house, lingering there to appeal to her once more on the momentous question, as to whether he ought to spend an interval of time in doing London, whose season was on the wane, or take a run through the Lake District, or Scotland.

    "I wish you would not appeal to me, Harry," she said, very gravely; "we are so different.  I could not lead your kind of life."

    "Oh, but I can lead any kind of life, that's the beauty of it," he replied, "from, roughing it in the bush to swelling it in Belgravia."

    It was quite hopeless; Harry would never understand, unless certain definite words were said, which could not be said till certain other definite words had preceded them on his part.  And so with a mutual "Good-night," they parted.

    And in the little court two pairs of eyes had witnessed the lingering parting.  Philip, from his bare, lonely little room, with the remains of his spare, solitary meal still before him, saw it, and turned away with a deeper sense of loneliness than he had ever felt before; and Mary, who from the opposite side had been watching wistfully for her daughter's return, looked, and also turned away and hid her face in her hands.

    Her eyes were still wet when she met Esther in the parlour, but it was with a hopeful gleam, like that of the clearing shower—not with the dull, persistent weeping, in which she had indulged for days.

    It was she who spoke first, after Esther had once more settled herself beside her.  "I have been thinking of the future," she said.  "I have been wrong to lose so much time already.  I ought to get my little scholars together again, or they will be scattered elsewhere.  I must try to increase my school.  I know nothing else I can turn to."

    It seemed a sudden rousing from the apathy of her sorrow, but Esther was glad to notice it, and said, hopefully, "I will write round to all the parents at once."

    "I do not see what else I can do," Mary repeated; "and yet I shall earn but a very little after paying the rent.  The boys must be taken from school and sent to run errands; but it is poor Sarah who will suffer most.  I cannot afford to keep her.  She must go away into service."

    Esther had been too self-absorbed by what had passed, to take in, in a moment, the full meaning of her mother's words, but it flashed upon her with the pause which followed.  The practical difficulties of life confronted her here.  The absolute struggle for existence, which meant the sacrifice of education, of affection, of strength and health and life, for Mary had reserved a heavy burden for her own shoulders.

    Esther was full of joyous life.  How did she feel to be thus confronted?  Her temperament was poetic—not the small, irritable, fanciful poetic—but the large, calm, imaginative order.  What she felt was a kind of joy, a glow like what a person in vigorous health feels in facing a keen, clear frost, or a bracing north-west wind.

    "You must have a much larger school," she said, eagerly.  "There is plenty of materials at hand.  I never saw so many children—they seem to swarm out at every door, and they never seem to go to school.  We must write a circular, saying that you have got an assistant who can teach music, etc.  It is quite true, you know," she added, as her mother shook her head.

    "But where are we to find room?"

    "We could take a larger house could we not?"

    "And where is the money to come from?" said her mother, almost amused at the way in which Esther disposed of difficulties.

    It was not so easy as it seemed at first, she allowed.

    "And you will be going away soon," continued her mother.

    "Mother, I will not leave you any more.  She has been very good to me, but you are my own mother."

    It was the first time they had touched on the subject, tacitly laid aside during the troubles of the past weeks.

    Mary smiled a wistful smile.  "Going away to a home of your own, I mean," she said.

    It was plain of whom she was thinking.

    "You must not think so," cried Esther, almost reproachfully.

    "What am I to think?  He has been here every day lately.  I thought you had already accepted him."

    "Then he must not come here again.  He has not even asked me to accept him;" and she explained how matters s stood between them.

    "But he looks so bright, and kind, and good," said Mary, perversely pleading for what she would have considered somewhat of the nature of a trial if it had been presented to her in the shape of a foregone conclusion; "and," she added, though with hesitation, "he is rich, I suppose?"

    "Yes, he is rich," said Esther, slowly; "but, mother, I would rather be poor.  I have made my choice.  If I could be rich and happy, I might choose that," she added, with a smile; "but it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable.  I should be miserable with him; I shall be happy with you."

    "You do not know what poverty is," said Mary, who feared such a decision for her daughter as she would not have feared it for herself.  Do not make up your mind so quickly.  I tremble to think of all you are giving up."

    "I am not giving up anything I love, except" (she hesitated, for the word mamma, familiar from childhood, was on her lips; but she gave utterance to the formal name instead); "and you will never ask me to give her up altogether," she continued; "indeed you would love her if you knew all she has suffered."

    "I try to forgive all she has made me suffer, the trouble she brought your father and me," said Mary, with a sob.  "But do not choose rashly between us.  I would rather never see you again, than have to think that I had spoilt your life."

    Once more in her own little room, which Mary had now contrived to give up to her sole use, Esther meditated long and deeply on the choice she had made; not with the view of altering it, however, but to strengthen her own conviction that it was the right one.  For Harry's painted paradise of ease and delight, she did not spare a single sigh.  For the one deep affection which had twined itself with all her past, her heart bled deeply.  It seemed a hard and cruel decision, but she had been placed in one of those hard and cruel positions in which there must be suffering on one side or other.  In those past weeks there had grown up in her heart a luxuriant growth of family affection.  There was not one of her brothers and sisters whose fate could ever be a thing of little moment to her again.  Nature took a sort of vengeance upon her, and exacted the arrears of that love and service which the ties of blood demand.  She could not leave her wronged and suffering mother, for whom she felt—besides the natural love—a profound spiritual sympathy; could not forsake her kindred in their poverty to live in riches and ease among strangers in blood, among whom, she felt, they would be more or less despised.  She might remain with them, and yet not break with her past.  She could not go back to her old life without in a great measure renouncing them.  And as she thought out the problem thus, she found herself wondering if Philip would have had any hesitation in advising her to make this choice.  It was not strange that she should feel the influence of the highest standard of living that had ever come before her, and proceed to try herself and others by it.

    There remained one great trial to be got over before Esther's choice was complete in fact—namely, the announcement of her resolution to Mrs. West.

    In the house which Harry had taken, whither the servants had already migrated, and where she was still looked upon as the young mistress, Esther awaited the coming of the not too wise, but loving woman, whom she had known only as a mother.

    It was a sad meeting for both, but most sad for the frail and gentle Mrs. West, who was only too ready to feel like a condemned culprit, and who appeared, if possible, frailer than ever.  But she bore it better than Esther expected; a hope still remained to her that she might make amends for the harm she had wrought.

    "It is right—it is just," she murmured.  "And you say that she forgives me?  And you will come and see me, darling, every day," she continued, with a look of entreaty, "for I may not have many to live.  But you may be nearer to me before I die," she added, looking tenderly in the girl's face, the light fading from her own as she read what was written there.

    Esther understood.  "I cannot bear to disappoint you," she said, humbly; "but it cannot be.  If Harry wishes it, you must tell him that it cannot be; you must tell him never to see me again.  I do not think he will care—that is, very much.  I hope not; but indeed I cannot marry him."

    "He does wish it," said Mrs. West, eagerly.  "He will be sadly disappointed.  He has gone so far as to buy you an engagement ring."

    "But you know he will not break his heart, mamma," Esther could not help saying; and Mrs. West could not contradict her.

    "I will not urge you," she replied, "if you feel that you cannot see him again.  I will tell him all you say."

    "It will be easier for him, though it is hard for you," said Esther.  "I have no right to allow him to ask when I mean to refuse."

    And Mrs. West acquiesced mournfully but entirely.  It was strange how easy it was to her to acquiesce, and how difficult it had seemed.

    "Am I ceasing to feel before I cease to live?" she asked herself.


 
CHAPTER XXVIII.

SETTLED.


AFTER spending several evenings in discussing the important question of "Where shall we go?" the Vaughans had at last decided in favour of a tour among the Flemish towns.  It had often been spoken of before, but always postponed for some more exciting campaign; yet Mr. Vaughan had long looked forward to visiting those quaint old cities, thronged with histories of industry, art, and war.

    For once, the choice of the little party had not been unanimous.  Kate, who seemed to have been seized with the spirit of unrest, wanted to get away as far and as fast as possible; while Milly wished to remain as near home as she could: and as Kate had no reason—at least, no ostensible reason for desiring to rush away, and Milly had a very good one for desiring to be near at hand, the latter for once carried the day.  She had gained over Constance by confiding to her that the grandest scenery would be lost upon her in Herbert's absence, and that the chief charm of any place to which she might be taken would consist in the frequency and regularity of its posts.

    So they had started, by Ostend, for Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp; not to rush through them day by day, but to linger lovingly—at least, that was in Mr. Vaughan's programme—under the shadows of the great cathedrals, among the narrow streets with their many-gabled houses and over the treasures of their galleries and churches.

    But somehow or other this tour was not so pleasant as those that had gone before.  The change was felt by all, and attributed by each to a different cause.  Mr. Vaughan regretted that he had gratified his own taste in the matter, and carried his party into close, sultry towns, when they might have been breathing the exhilarating mountain air.  Kate was always crying, "Come away."  Her lack of interest was apparent; she who had formerly been the most eager to see everything that was to be seen, and learn everything that was to be learned, seemed to count it all a weariness.  She, too, thought that it would have been otherwise if they had gone elsewhere, unconscious that the change was in herself, and that if she had visited the scenes that had formerly delighted her, they would have delighted her no more than these.  She did not know, for she was not one of those who look within, that she was like a child, in view of a new pleasure, who flings all its cherished toys aside as worthless until it is attained.

    One little year had changed them all—or rather, it had made apparent the long, silent workings of inward change.  Some tokens of the change Mr. Vaughan could see, and they saddened him in spite of himself.  From Milly, the sweet, unabsorbed girlishness had departed.  Her heart was no longer free.  Besides, she had a new interest in shop-windows and decorations, and, alas for Mr. Vaughan, seemed to prefer such trivial matters to the great works of art, before which he stood enraptured.

    As for Constance, who had usually catered for the whole company in respect of mirth and amusement, she kept to her role; but sometimes she did her part a little too laboriously, and failed to catch the sympathy of the others, as one fails who is acting instead of simply feeling and expressing the mood of the moment.

    They had reached Antwerp, where they intended to remain the greater part of the week, and had taken up their quarters in the Hotel St. Antoine.  It was late in the evening when they arrived, and after a slight refreshment in the saloon, they had retired for the night.  They retired early as a rule, and were stirring again proportionately soon on the morrow, knowing that there is no time like early morning for seeing these old towns in all their impressive beauty, or for visiting their great churches.

    Constance was stirring first.  She rose, and looked out of her window into the paved court surrounded by the hotel buildings.  The soft, pure light fell upon the white walls.  A number of doves were on the opposite roof, and from time to time they alighted in the spacious, empty courtyard, set round with tubs of evergreens.  It was only six; but Constance dressed quickly, and went out without waking the others.  She knew that the great cathedral would be open early, and thither she was hastening to have an hour to herself, for she knew that her father and the others would follow her, as she had declared her intention the night before.

    A good many people were abroad for such an early hour.  As she crossed the market-place, and passed down the narrow streets which cluster at the foot of the great cathedral, women, in their black cloth cloaks and hoods, carrying baskets on their arms, bent their steps, like herself, to its gates, and, depositing their baskets in the porch, went in to worship.  After wandering through the aisles, that stretch on either side like a forest of pillars, she seated herself in the nave, and remained there during the service.  As she anticipated, her father had followed, but she had not noticed when he came in, nor did she notice him though he sat nearly opposite, engaged in reading the new expression of his daughter's face.

    "I have hardly done her justice," he thought; "she does not take life so lightly as I imagined she did.  I thought her wanting in depth because she sparkled on the surface.  Her face is almost too grave and sad.  How difficult it is to understand one's daughters."

    When she rose from her seat he joined her, and they bargained for a look at the great pictures.  Long after every one else had left the cathedral, father and daughter stood gazing on the face of the crucified Christ.  It was not till they were outside the walls again that either ventured a remark, and then they walked most of the way in silence.

    "I never could understand the rank which Rubens takes as a painter till now," said Constance.  "I feel as if I could look for ever on that face; that having once seen it, I shall see it always, only with a kind of thirst to see it with my eyes again to make the image of it clearer in my memory."

    "We shall go again after breakfast with Kate and Milly," said her father, gratified by her enthusiasm: and with that they entered the arched gateway of the hotel.

    A familiar voice was making inquiries of the porter, and receiving, it was evident, no very satisfactory replies.

    It was Harry West.  A fact which Constance perceived in a moment, while her father was advancing for a confirmatory view.  With a quick gesture she drew him within the opposite doorway, and up a short flight of stairs.  "He has not seen us," she whispered, with a little gasp.

    Mr. Vaughan was decidedly slow.  He simply looked astonished at his daughter's eagerness—astonished and questioning.

    "That dreadful creature has come after us, papa," said Constance, with a half-comical perplexity.  "Do you think it is possible to escape from him?"

    It—the truth, that Harry had come after Kate—began to dawn upon Mr. Vaughan, and his face reflected the expression of his daughter's.

    "But I don't see the necessity for escaping," he said.  "We can keep him at a distance, surely."

    "Oh no; that's just what you can't do," replied Constance.  "I am really vexed, papa."

    The voice was heard drawing nearer.  Was he going to take up his abode in the hotel?  Constance dragged her father up another flight of steps, and along a passage which crossed the archway, into his own room.  There they held a private consultation, in which Constance expressed her conviction that Kate was anxious to avoid Harry, and in which they concluded to keep their knowledge of his arrival to themselves in the meantime.  If he had really come to stay there, of course it would be impossible to escape, as they took all their meals, according to custom, in the public room.

    Leaving her father to himself, Constance next went off in search of her sisters.  Their rooms were three narrow slips of apartments, next door to each other, and all looking into the paved court.  First she peeped in upon Milly, who looked up from her letter, sweet and serene as usual.  She was writing to Herbert.  It passed her sister's comprehension how she found so much to say when she did so little.  Constance gave her a good-morning kiss, and left her to her meditations.  Then she looked into Kate's room, but that was empty, and, with a feeling of almost apprehension which she could not account for, she hastened back to Milly.

    "I am sorry to disturb you again," she said, as her sister looked up once more from her task, "but I want to know where Kate is."

    "She went out to meet you," said Milly, "for she asked me to go with her, but I wanted to finish my letter first.  She has missed you, and gone on to the cathedral.  Is anything the matter?" she added, catching an expression of annoyance on Constance's face.

    "I am awfully hungry," said Constance, "and I will go and order breakfast.  Come down as soon as you can, and bring papa with you.  I dare say his letter will be finished before yours."

    In the meantime Harry and Kate were walking happily, side by side, on their way to the cathedral.  While Constance and her father were standing on the landing-place, Harry had simply crossed over, and walked into the saloon, which Kate had entered before setting out on her walk; and if they had remained a moment longer, they might have heard the burst of congratulation with which he greeted her.  As for Kate, she was conscious of a rush of pleasurable emotion, such as she had not felt since she left home: and she did not attempt to disguise it, but displayed it frankly—with a frankness which would have misled a sensitive man more than any amount of reserve.  She kept back resolutely the little shyness which a consciousness that he had followed her stirred up.  As for Harry, he was in a state of ecstatic gaiety.  Kate, frankly pleased, was a very pleasant object to look at.  He contrasted her, mentally, with Esther, and came quite honestly to the conclusion that he had never cared for the latter, that he had never cared for any one but Kate.

    They went out together.  Everything was new to Harry, and it was wonderful how Kate seemed to see with his eyes.  The very things that had bored her the day before, were fresh and delightful now.  They went to the cathedral, Kate expressing a hope that they might meet her father and Constance, which, of course, they did not, though they left no corner unvisited, conversing under the solemn arches till the second service began.  She did not care to see a repetition of what she had witnessed earlier in the morning.  Then they concluded that the others must have returned to the hotel.

    But Harry's mind was full of the object of his journey, and under the excitement of the hour, he found it impossible to keep it to himself.  On their way back, he had poured out his whole heart, all there was of it, to Kate—told her how he had missed her, and how he had followed her, and was ready to follow her over the whole world, for he loved but her alone.  And to Kate, who never had a lover, the declaration did not seem too abrupt; it seemed only the impassioned eagerness of love.  Had he not a right to choose her and to love her, and was not she free to accept him?  The little, silent assent was so easy.  It was given in a moment, and Harry had a right to claim Kate Vaughan for his wife.

    As they drew near the hotel, Kate became grave and thoughtful.  What would her father say to this sudden settlement of the question of her future life?

    But was not Harry richer, younger, handsomer than Milly's choice?  He was satisfied with it; why should he not be satisfied with hers?

    Mr. Vaughan and Milly had come down to breakfast.  Their table was laid in a corner, with bread, and fruit, and eggs.  The chocolate was cooling in the jug.  Ample time had been allowed for Kate's return, and still they had to wait.  Constance looked uneasy.  Milly kept wondering at the delay.  Mr. Vaughan would have gone out in search of her, but that he had taught his girls a confidence in themselves, and a faith in his confidence in them, which he would have been sorry to infringe upon.  He would have considered the constant watching and guarding to which some girls are subjected an insult to their sense and to their modesty.

    At last Kate and Harry appeared appeared together.  Mr. Vaughan, who was looking that way, started as he saw them at the door of the saloon.  But Harry came forward in his usual manner, exclaiming, "You did not expect to see me here, did you?" shaking hands warmly all round, and explaining rapidly how, though not why, he had come, having found out from Herbert Palmer the exact spot they were likely to be in on a given day.  "Perhaps you will allow me to speak to you in private after breakfast," he said to Mr. Vaughan, loud enough for the rest to hear, however; and bringing a tide of blushes over Kate's face, which had before been paler than its wont.

    "Oh, certainly," said Mr. Vaughan, rather stiffly.

    It was all that Constance could do to keep from laughing at her father's utter inability to administer a snub.  Kate began to explain how she had gone in search of them, and to ask how it was that she had missed them; and Harry, in the meantime, coolly sat down beside her.

    Constance noticed that her sister was painfully embarrassed, and came to the rescue by asking Mr. West to breakfast with them, devoutly wishing that he would go away instead.  But he sat down quite at his ease, and for the time the meal lasted, he relieved the party of all further embarrassment by an incessant stream of talk.

    Somehow it lasted a very short time indeed, every one making a rather hurried breakfast.  Constance, who seemed to have taken the lead, rose first, and Kate and Milly followed, and went with her upstairs.  It was into Kate's room they went, and not a word was spoken till they had shut the door.  Kate saw that her sisters waited for her to speak.  She held out her hand to Milly.  "I suppose you did not think I should be married almost as soon as you," she said.

    "It is very sudden, is it not?" said Milly, gently, and with hesitation, but kissing her at the same time.

    Oh!  Kate, it is not settled, surely?" cried Constance, impulsively.

    "I am engaged to Harry West," she replied, in an offended tone, "and I think you are both very unkind to take it in this way."

    "I was taken by surprise," said Milly.  "Do not be vexed with me, Katie dear, I wish you all possible happiness."

    "And neither of you are a bit sorry to leave poor papa," said Constance.  But she too went up to her sister, and gravely wished her joy.  Then she went into her own room, and stood at the window watching her father and Harry as they paced up and down the court—her father with eyes bent upon the ground, listening to the young man at his side, who looked and spoke so eagerly.  At length she saw the former somewhat reluctantly hold out his hand, and clasp that of Harry for some time, looking fixedly in his face as he spoke a few last words, and Harry seemed to ring the hand as if in thanks, to listen impatiently, and then to bound away.  It was settled!



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