Occupations of a Retired Life (5)

Home Up Recollections The Secret Drawer By Still Waters Doing and Dreaming The Dead Sin Family Fortunes At Any Cost Rab Bethune's Double Short Stories, etc. Poems Miscellanea Main Index Site Search
 


 

[Previous Page]

 
CHAPTER XXIV.

A QUESTION ANSWERED.


THE weeks following that mysterious letter from London brought with them no interests stronger than the opening of the evening classes, and the preparations for our great Christmas gathering.  We issued our invitations ten days beforehand, believing the expectation of pleasure sure to be its very essence, and then we tried our hardest to prove equal to the occasion.  The village tradesfolk were gladdened by the liberality of Mr Herbert's orders, and half the girls in the parish were pressed into his niece's service to assist in the decoration of the chambers.  Agnes worked valiantly: whenever we called we never found her post deserted.  Sometimes her colour-box was open, and an illumination in progress; or else she was tying up posies, or stringing holly-berries.  Nay, a few mornings before the entertainment, when the freedom and easiness of hospitality had extended so far that I found the house-door open, and nobody about, I was guided to my hostess by the sound of singing in the dining-room.  Her voice came ringing through the long corridor, and she sang a song of her father's; for I remembered the words, as I half-involuntarily paused to catch them:


"There's ane they dinna ken aboot
     For naebody kens him noo,
 An' he used to say—Oh I daurna tell!
     But he meant it all for true.

"An' if I ken I'm a blithesome lass
     Wi' a winsome way or twa,
 It isna for a' the neebor's talk,
     But because he telt me sae."


    The song ceased when she heard my footstep, and she turned towards me a face rosy with the exertion of rubbing-up the oaken table.  She was a pretty, quaint figure, in her blue print dress, with the sleeves rolled back from her round wrists, and her hair pushed up on her broad, flushed brow.  Nevertheless, knowing there were three servants in the house, I half-wondered to find her so employed.  I think she caught my thought, and perhaps that accounted for a certain piqued, almost defiant, expression on her face,

    "Playing the housewife, Miss Herbert?" I said.

    "Good earnest play," she answered, and resumed her cloth, and went gallantly on with her polishing.

    "My dear," I remarked presently, "I fear you will tire yourself."

    "So would the servant," she replied with a laugh.  "And the less I do it, the sooner I shall tire.  Have you never heard of the poor exiled woman who carried her calf every day, while her strength increased with its weight, till at last she still carried it when it was a cow, Mr Garrett?"

    "I have heard the story," I answered, "and though doubt its exact truth, yet its principle is quite correct.  'Strength according to our day' is a scriptural promise.  And we none of us know what we can do until we begin to try."

    "Oh, I think I could do anything if I had a very strong motive," she said.

    "Anything?" I echoed.  "That is a wide statement, my dear."

    "I mean anything within reason," she replied; "any household work, or travelling, or matters of that kind.  There's a pleasant excitement in exertion."

    "But there is a reaction too," I said.

    "Do you think so?" she queried, rather heedlessly, still rubbing away.  "Now, when this table is finished," she added presently, "the sight of it will be quite a treat to me, because I shall be proud of it.  And yet, I dare-say, the housemaid will laugh aside at my performance.  But I think we enjoy things for their relation to ourselves. and not for their own perfection."

    "I believe that is universally true," I answered.

    "And so I think poor people enjoy more than rich ones," she went on.  "I don't mean very poor people, but those who have to work hard, and to plan a great deal.  What pleasure lies in buying a dress when you can afford any price, and can send it anywhere to be made up?  But it is quite another thing when you have but a certain sum to spend, and must take a lively interest in getting the best and prettiest for that sum!"

    "I should say you have a talent for management, my dear," I observed.

    "I think I have,"—with a bright glance as if in acceptance of a valued compliment, then a little sigh,―"I'm almost sure I have."

    At this moment, a ruddy servant put her head into the room, saying, "Please, miss, Mrs Irons says she's a beginning of the pastry,"—adding, in an apologetic aside, "you remember, you wanted to see it, miss."

    "Yes, Mary, and I'll come," returned the young lady.  "But will you go over the house and find my uncle, and tell him that Mr Garrett is here?  And then you will kindly excuse me, sir," she added, dropping one of her slight, half-courtly, half-quaint curtsies, as she left the room.

    I remained in the house more than an hour, chatting with Mr Herbert.  Before my departure, he took me to his farmyard to see some rare fowls which had just arrived from a London auction.  Now the kitchen windows, wide and low, overlooked this farmyard, and though I kept my eyes as strictly as possible, I was not upon my guard until I had caught a very distinct glimpse of a slender form in a blue print dress, with pretty bare arms plunged into the floury contents of a great brown tub.

    I did not see Agnes Herbert again until the night of our gathering.  We intended to be among the earliest arrivals, but there were many before us, and Agnes was duly at her uncle's side, playing her part as hostess, and looking as quiet and pale as if there were no such things oak tables and rolling-pins.  Her part that evening was not altogether easy.  It was necessary that each promoter of the entertainment should have a line of duty particularly his own.  Mr Herbert busied himself among the farming people, with all of whom he enjoyed an honest, kindly, despotic popularity.  Ruth was, as usual, most at home among the young folk, and my powers were just equal to pleasing the very agèd, and the little children, who, God bless them! are easily pleased.  And in all these departments we found able seconds in the rector, and Mr M'Callum, and his daughter.  But there were still a few who held aloof, tasty spinsters, or genteel young married people of the trading or employee class, who were heard to remark, "how nice it was,—how charming to see all distinctions merged for one evening: how much good must follow any opportunity for the different orders of society coming together, and learning mutual respect," and who then immediately looked askant at the other guests, and sat down apart, or in forlorn little coteries, in which the only common feeling lay in the texture of dresses, or the whiteness of hands.  Yet these people had to be conciliated,—their want of sympathy but recommended them for conciliation, and there was no one less likely to arouse their prejudices than Agnes Herbert.  So to her charge they were committed.

    She did not flinch, but I knew her soul shivered within her, as she moved from one chilly presence to another.  At first her face was very white, and her courtesy appeared constrained, but gradually her courage seemed to rise in very scorn of her shallow, frivolous companions.  And then they, who would steadily have resisted the sweet suing influences of her purest nature, were suddenly conquered by the outburst of her strength.  And so she, who, warmly received and rightly understood, would have sat aside happy, and unnoticeable, now, chilled and defiant, stood forth the beauty and wit of the evening.  Beauty and wit: they are terrible crowns for a woman's wearing.  I almost think they are a crown of thorn!

    But not all my interest in Agnes could exonerate me from my own duties.  Indeed, while observing her, I had somewhat flagged in my narration of the adventures of the famous little crook-back of the Arabian nights wherewith I beguiled a large circle of toothless old ladies and open-mouthed children.  That night I made a reputation as a story-teller.  After the crook-back, I gave the Ugly Duckling.  After the Ugly Duckling, I briefly narrated the story of Alexander Selkirk.  I was encored, and I repeated my performances to increased audiences.  I was applauded,—yes, touchingly applauded,—for one wee damsel of seven summers gave me a kiss, and said she loved me, oh, so much!  Am I a weak old fellow to repeat this?  Ah, but the little lips were soft, and the little face was—what Lucy's grandchild's might have been!

    What a quiet peaceful world it seemed among those grandmothers and their darlings!  Nobody can say what tragedies have stamped their lines on the worn old faces, but then their agony is over.  They may have been weary, but their rest is nearly reached, and like travellers idly waiting at a station, their minds are free and open to little amusements and trifling cares.  And the children!—for them the fleecy snow is still a solemn and novel mystery, and morning and night, Saturday half-holiday and Sundays service are variety enough,—the dear little children, who hold life carelessly, like a toy with an unknown secret shut inside it!  And after all, it is our own fault that we are not as light-hearted and content.  They trust all to their parents.  Cannot we trust God?  Is it best to be in the outer court of the temple, or within the veil?  When father and mother forsake us, does not God take us up?

    Then my story, and the laughter of my hearers, were hushed for the music.  None of the working men or women dreamed of speaking while the young ladies were "at the piano."  But many of those who thought themselves far better born and bred, whispered, and flirted, and commented, as if the sweet sounds were nothing but an accompaniment to their own shallow minds, a very good background to cover the gaps of their feeble wit!  And yet, poor things, they all thought they had "a taste for music," and so I suppose they had, as much taste for that as for anything, since doubtless they would chatter in front of Raphael's Transfiguration, and interrupt the reading of Wordsworth's "Immortality."  For after all, taste is not emotion.  Taste is the education of the senses, and the senses are part of that body which some day we shall throw away like a worn-out garment.  But emotion is the stirring of the soul, like the angel's touch on the waters of Bethesda.

    Agnes neither sang nor played; she could do both, but she did not.  The general performances were very commonplace, by which I don't mean simple or well-known, but rather the contrary, mere musical gymnastics, clumsily performed.  But Marian Blake, the daughter of Mr Marten's friend the lieutenant, sang a very sweet touching Scotch ballad about a young laird going to the wars, who never, never came back, and how his lady-love sat with his mother and sisters, and loved them for his sake, and would not despair of his return till her heart was comforted by very patience, and heaven was nearer than earth.  Mr M'Callum told me, "he minded his mother sang sang it when he was a bit bairnie, but it was ane of thae sangs which were aye fresh, like God's ain blessed flowers."  Like such songs, and like such flowers, is Marian Blake herself.  And Mr Marten stood beside her while she sang, and smiled upon her when the song was over.  And it seemed as if a breeze from Eden blew through the crowded room.

    But it was not Eden.  For glancing from the pretty playful group around the piano, my eyes fell on Alice M'Callum, resting from her hospitable labours and self-surrendered to the spells of sweet sad music, and her face was so unutterably sorrowful, that it startled one like the discovery of a grave in a garden.  Whenever the door opened, she looked towards it, not expectantly, but yet with a light in her eyes which hopelessly darkened as each tardy arrival proved—not whom she longed for.  As I watched her, I could have said bitter words of young Weston.  For among our other friends, we had sent him an invitation, and he had not even answered it.  I had hoped his silence arose from a reluctance finally to decline it.  But his absence seemed to indicate another cause.  I felt my anger towards him was very illogical, for he had been refused by the woman whom he had honoured, and so he had a right to turn utterly away from her.  But I pleaded testily with myself, "Genuine love has no rights.  He knows why she refused him, and he is a coward to give her up;" and then I half-smiled to think how Alice's wan face would fire with indignation if she knew what hard names I silently bestowed upon him.

    Supper came at last.  The long tables fairly groaned under the substantial dainties provided by our liberal host, and the parents were obliged to chide their youngsters for too eager exclamations of "Look at the puddin'," and "Oh, the jolly pies."  Of course, such cries must be reproved, but nevertheless one likes the frank British boy, who is not above making them.  Then there was a fine tangle before each got into his place at table, but it was accomplished at last, and I found Mr Marten had seated Miss Blake at my right hand, and I was very much obliged to him for so pleasant a companion.  Ruth was placed opposite Mr Herbert, and George Wilmot slipped into an empty place beside Alice M'Callum, and when she whispered something to him which made him glance towards his cousin Bessie, I was glad to see that Bessie answered the glance with a smile and nod, which set the boy's conscience at ease about deserting her.  After her first hungry joy over a new guest to her empty heart, Miss Sanders's magnanimity had re-asserted itself, and she never grudged her kinsman's love for his old friends.

    It was a very merry meal.  There was a great deal of talk, and to judge by the laughter there were some good jokes uttered, perhaps no worse because not original.  Even the genteel people grew convivial, and contributed their mites to the general entertainment, warming so far as to tell some tolerably good stories, none the less amusing for such prefaces as, "On my uncle's estate in Shropshire," or "While my cousin was Canon of Close Cathedral," about which one need not be over-severe, for doubtless the vanity pleased themselves, and I'm sure it did not hurt any one else.

    But when supper was nearly over, and many plates were pushed a little way, and the bustle of helping and serving was quite done, a light thin voice spoke up from the far end of the table.  There was an instant hush, as there always is in mixed companies when a woman makes an audible appeal.  It was the village chemist's bran new wife, a flaxen frivolous London girl.  And this was what she asked:

    "Mr Herbert, I am so fond of romances that you must tell me the history of that mysterious picture with its back to us.  I'm sure it has a history.  Is it the portrait of some naughty ancestor?"

    There was a silence—a silence to be felt—the breathlessness of expectant people.  My own eyes seemed rooted to the table before me.  Suddenly another voice broke the spell—it seemed a strange voice with just a familiar note, and it said,

    "The picture is only a portrait—not a good one—of my cousin—my cousin Ralph."

    It was Agnes who spoke.  As I looked towards her, there was a bright spot on her cheek, but it faded instantly.  Mrs Irons had walked up the room from her station at the door, and now stood behind her young lady's chair.  By this time, the faces round the table showed the foolish inquirer that she had trodden on dangerous ground, and with the blundering tactics of a weak mind, she proceeded to a stammering apology, far worse than her offence.

    "I'm sure I didn't know I shouldn't ask.  I thought it was something dead and gone.  I'd no idea there was anything unpleasant now"――

    "Nobody says there is," returned Agnes, with the awful dignity of a quiet nature aroused, and so saying, she rose from her seat, thereby setting us an example to do the same, and thus put an end to an embarrassing situation.

    It was fortunate for the success of our gathering that this unhappy incident occurred at its very close, for it would have put a check to all geniality.  Some pitied the rebuked questioner, but the majority felt for the family thus forced to display its skeleton, of whose existence nearly everybody seemed quite aware.  Anyhow, a chill had fallen on the whole party.  No tone rose above a whisper, and with a sense of relief I heard Mr Marten announce that we would separate after singing the ever-beautiful and always appropriate Evening Hymn.

    And I went home, feeling I had an answer to my old riddle, "Who are 'we?'"


 
CHAPTER XXV.

A HOUSEHOLD SKELETON.


THE next morning rose dank and chilly.  I got up with that strange sensation of dreamy unreality which often follows unusual exertion or excitement.  The landscape from my chamber window was not cheering.  A heavy rain had fallen in the night, and the panes were dabbled with drops from creepers around, while beyond lay field below field, all in the heavy dull green which characterises winter moisture.  To-morrow was Christmas-day, and all my little seasonable remembrances lay in the hall below ready for despatch, but somehow the seasonable feeling was not in my heart, which felt as cold and dank as the meadows outside.

    But I cheered a little when I entered our snug parlour, where Ruth was already seated, with a knitted crimson shawl enlivening her black dress, and the great Bible before her on a corner of the breakfast-table.  It was a curious fact, that during our walk homeward the night before we had not even mentioned the incident of the picture.  Such is the strange reticence which sometimes seizes one regarding any subject of which his mind is particularly full.

    But I could tell by my sister's very movement that she now intended to break this silence.  And, sure enough, as she handed me my first cup of tea, she said,

    "Depend upon it, Edward, Ralph Herbert is Ewen's Mr Ralph."

    "I don't doubt it," I answered; "but how strange it is that through all our intimacy with the Great Farm, we have heard no allusion to this missing member of its household!  And yet I remember Mr Marten once made some slight remark about 'young Mr Herbert,' but I afterwards supposed I had misunderstood him, and since then I had forgotten all about it.  Do you think Mr Herbert was angry with Agnes for her frankness last night?" I inquired, after a pause.

    "He was half-angry and half-surprised," replied my sister.  "He liked her dash of the Herbert spirit.  You know we all like to recognise our own streak of the old Adam in another.  And, after all, since he chooses to keep the thing there, to provoke questions, I don't see how she could have acted better than she did."

    I had my own thoughts on the subject.  I remembered the conversation of that afternoon when Ages Herbert had joined Ewen and me in the fields behind the Low Meadow, and I doubted whether the young lady had answered for her uncle, with a wish to preserve as much propriety as possible, or rather with a woman's desperate resolution to speak up for the absent, who could not defend himself.  I remembered the letter with which Ewen had been entrusted for a friend in London, whose address she did not exactly know.  I even remembered more than this—something which I banished from my mind as soon as it entered it, for, as I always say, (as I once said to Alice M'Callum,) coincidences are but fancies till proved by facts, and facts once obtained, coincidences are no longer anything.

    "But what must this Ralph be," I remarked, "for his very picture to be thus disgraced in his own father's house?"

    "He needn't be so very bad because of that," returned Ruth; "some parents choose to stamp children as prodigals whom others would think angels.  Before you condemn the black sheep of a family, you must make sure that the shepherd is not colour-blind."

    We did not prolong the conversation.  We had nothing new to say, and we should only have gone over the old ground, making wild guesses as to possibilities and probabilities.  Besides, it was Christmas-time, and therefore my housewifely sister was more than usually busy, and during the whole day the parlour was only honoured by her presence at intervals few and far between.  I was dull and lonely enough.  The Christmas annuals were in the house, but I could not read, for there was a story being acted out, only a few yards off, which absorbed all my interest.  I should have been glad of a visitor, but none came.  I knew perfectly well that none were likely to come.  Ewen would be at the Refuge that evening, but he would only arrive by a late train.  And, as Christmas-day fell on a Friday, I concluded he would remain at home till the Monday following, and so I could not expect to see him, except at church, until Saturday or Sunday; and I knew, too, that Mr Marten was busy—for was there not a sermon to be preached to-morrow? and also duties to be done beforehand to provide for a blank day, for had he not told me he was going to spend Christmas with the Blakes?  Oh, the Blakes, indeed! Ah, the Blakes, to be sure!

    But a visitor came at last; only, with the usual contrariness of visitors, not till I had ceased wishing for one, for my lonely hours wore wearily away, until evening brought my sister back to her accustomed seat, when it became my pleasing duty to read her extracts from the seasonable literature, and to enlighten her with my sensible criticisms thereon.  And we were in the height of an edifying discussion about the naturalness and propriety of a certain hero's mode of courting a certain heroine, when there came a vigorous pull at our door bell, and then there was a pause in our dialogue till Phillis came to us, announcing, "It's Mrs Irons from the Great Farm, ma'am, and she says she wants to speak to you about a message from her master."

    "Then show her in here," rejoined my sister.

    Mrs Irons obeyed the summons with the noisy sound of thick sensible boots.  She only came a step or two into the room, and then stood still.  I have said she was a big gaunt woman, and she wore a clinging sage-green dress and a large-patterned shawl, with a worn boa tied round her neck, and half-hidden behind limp black satin bonnet-strings.  When Phillis set a chair for her, she promptly took it, and forthwith pulled off her cotton gloves and loosened her boa, in consideration of the near neighbourhood of our blazing fire.  But after her first tart "good evening," her mouth remained shut as closely as a steel trap.

    "I wonder Mr Herbert can spare you from the Farm this evening," said Ruth, by way of opening the conversation.

    "Ah," rejoined our visitor, "but there be some things that even meat and drink must bide for—not but what the puddin's ready, and the mince-pies made, and only the fowls a-picking, and the girls are fools if they can't do that between them!"

    "I hope Mr Herbert and his niece are quite well?" I inquired.

    "Yes, they're quite well, sir," she returned, "for that's the answer they'd give ye theirselves.  But it don't become Sarah Irons to beat about her master's bush.  Only, ma'am," she added, turning to my sister, "I hopes you'll consider what a servant's told to say, she must say, but them ain't always her own words."

    "Every one understands that," answered Ruth.

    "Yes," said Mrs Irons, "I think even master does.  For he says, 'You tell them what I say, Sarah;' but, says he, 'you can give your own version of all the ins and outs.'"

    "And what did Mr Herbert say?" asked my sister.

    "He said, ma'am," resumed Mrs Irons, solemnly, "'Will you ask Miss Garrett to help me to keep a young girl from a-sacrificing of herself to a vagabond?'  Now, I knows the master often uses stronger language than he means, mem; so, says I, 'Vagabond, sir?'  But he only says, cross-like, 'Yes, Sarah, vagabond, or anything worse that you can think of.'"

    "And who is the young girl, and who is the vagabond, Sarah?" asked Ruth, gravely enough, though I thought I could detect a budding smile.

    "The young girl is our Miss Agnes," answered the worthy woman; "and, lack-a-day! by that hard name the master means his own son, young Mister Ralph."

    There was a silence.

    "The master reckons you know about him?" she said presently, in a questioning tone, "because Miss Agnes has often been here.  But I reckons you don't, for she's not one to talk much where she feels most."

    "She never named him," answered Ruth.

    "Well, ma'am," returned Mrs Irons, her tongue evidently unlocked, "it's a long story.  It began long before Master Ralph was born or thought of—bless me, more than ten years before.  It had begun when I first entered the Great Farm, in the old lady's days.  Not that she'd be a very old woman if she were alive now; but when young ones come on, those behind 'em are always called old.  A fine woman she was, too, and had been a beauty, and was a real lady to the last, with hands too white to touch a rough thing."

    "Never mind that," said Ruth, rather testily; "it can't have much to do with the present time."

    "Yes, it do, ma'am," answered Mrs Irons, a little affronted, "for she was that high and delicate in her mind, that she could not abide anything but the finest; and when I first saw her, she was mighty angry with her youngest son because he wouldn't be a parson, but ran off to London, and took to scribbling for his daily bread.  You see, the patron of St Cross would always give it to a Herbert, if there was one ready.  And Madam Herbert would never see her boy again, though he were her favourite before, being softer-mannered than the master.  She wouldn't let him come to her dying bed, and she left behind her a written paper, forbidding the master to give his brother stick or stone that had belonged to her.  You know, mem, it was very hard for her to see a stranger put over the village where her son might ha' been, and the Herberts have never been so well looked on since.  And she was a real lady, who could stick to her dignity."

    Mrs Irons paused, but Ruth gave no encouraging sympathy, though she would not openly check the ugly, honest woman's sincere though mistaken admiration for the false, vain beauty, who had once been Laura Carewe.  Then Mrs Irons resumed:

    "When Madam was dead, master got married to quite another sort of lady.  At first I wondered how he could bear to see her sitting in his mother's place, for she was a little quiet thing, nothing to see and nothing to hear but he was marvellous set on her.  And by and by I liked her too, as she grew at home in her own house.  But, bless her! she was only there a year.  For when Master Ralph came she was took away the very next day.  She seemed to get over it all right, and was glad it was a boy—and a fine boy he was too—the finest baby I ever saw.  And the master was so proud, and went about on tip-toe a-hushing of us all.  But the second day the young mistress called me to her, and she a-lying on her bed, like a tired angel a-resting on the clouds.  And she says, 'Take him, please' (that was the dear baby); 'I can't have him any longer.  You must take care of him for me, Sarah.'  And then she just lifted up her head, and kissed him as I took him away.  And half-an-hour later she was gone."  And the hard voice failed, and the pale, gray eyes were dim with tears for the young mother who had been in her grave more than five-and-twenty years.

    "The master was dreadfully cut up," she went on presently, "and after a bit he took to the baby almost like a woman, and would sit in the dining-room the whole evening a-nursing and playing with it; and there was a rare work if anything ailed the child, which wasn't often, for he was a fine little fellow, and did not seem to fret after his mother.  But when he growed up, and could walk about and talk, the master had that determined spirit that he'd make himself be ever so stern with the boy for fear he'd spoil him.  And stern enough he were, though perhaps no more than was good, if there'd been a mother to put it all straight again.  But there was only me to take the child's part, and I was nobody.  However, in the course of time, things righted themselves, and the lad never said his father nay, and there were no words atween them.  And when he came of age, if you'd asked the old rector—the one afore Mr Marten—for a I model of the fifth commandment, he'd have pointed out our Mr Herbert and Master Ralph.  Of course, the young master had plenty of time to himself, and he and his father did not see much of each other except at meals and late o' nights.  And soon after the coming o' age, Mr Herbert's brother sent down word he were dying in London."

    "Agnes' father?" queried Ruth.

    "Yes," resumed Mrs Irons, "and master showed me his letter—master isn't the man to misdoubt a woman who has lived in his house thirty years!  A rare, fine letter it was, sayin' he would never have reminded the Herberts of himself, but he was leaving a daughter who wouldn't disgrace any kindness they might show her.  Master and me started for London that very night, but it was all over before we got there.  And there was the old Madam's son a-layin' dead in two bits o' rooms, in a street off Soho Square, in a house so packed up with lodgers that there was always one or other creeping about on the staircase,—him who might have been rector of St Cross and had half the parish at his funeral!  And there was Miss Agnes, stinting her tears that she might stitch her 'broidery to pay for the supper she set before us.  But the master snatched it out of her hands, and told her that was done with for ever.  And directly after the funeral, he took her home with us to the Great Farm, and somehow—mayhap, because nobody'd ever looked so at me,—the minute she and Mister Ralph met, I thought how it would be, and I wondered if it was joy or rue the master was planting in his house that night.  Mister Ralph was at home a good deal more after that, and in the fine weather he and his cousin were much out together.  She was fond of drawing, for she'd learnt it somehow in London, and was over-glad to practise it in the country; and the young master himself had always a turn that way.  I mind they had a tiff once, because he was out two or three hours every evening, and wouldn't tell her where he went, till at last he brought home a fine drawing, and told her how he had been to a class at Mallowe, and what praises he got from some artists who'd been a-visiting the teacher.  And she was so pleased, that before he could stop her, she ran off to tell the master, thinking no harm, poor dear!  And then there was a fine piece o' work; and that was the beginning of the strife.  For it set the master a-thinking of his brother's folly; and he said the Herberts should have nothing to do with scratching or scrawling, 'cept to pay for 'em, if they wanted 'em.  But it was hushed up for that time; and very soon after, I saw Mr Ralph's mother's keeper-ring on his cousin's hand—and Sarah Irons is not so thick in the head but she knowed what that meant—and the master seemed mighty satisfied, and fonder nor ever of his niece."

    "She wears that ring still," I observed.

    "She do, and she'll wear it in her coffin," returned Mrs Irons: "and I says, 'God bless her!'—though it were no great fancy I took for her at fust, with her face over white and worn for a young thing, and I even thought Mr Ralph might ha' found a better missis for the Great Farm; but I did not guess how it would be, and he knowed best after all!"

    "And what happened to bring all this household happiness to an end?" I asked.

    "The young master would not turn into his father's mould," answered the good woman, with a sad shake of her head.  "He could not take to the farm, but wanted to go to London and be an artist, which his father would not hear on.  And Mr Herbert said hard things of daubers and such like, and, lack-a-day!  Master Ralph had an answer ready about bumpkins and clod-hoppers; and 'atween the two, Miss Agnes was always scared and striving, and I used to catch her crying, because the young master got to shun his home, and almost seemed careless of her.  And other times she were quite cheerful, because she thought things were mending.  But it come to an end on New-year's-day, three years a-gone.  Miss Agnes were in the kitchen with me, when master and his son came in, and we heard high words atween 'em, and master shut the dining-room door with a bang; and I would not let Miss Agnes go in, because I thought they'd settle it best theirselves.  And all of a sudden Master Ralph came out, and came to the kitchen, and caught hold of his cousin and kissed her hard and fast, and never seemed to see me, and then walked straight out at the door; and while we both stood struck, a-staring at each other, there was the master calling us in a voice fit to raise the dead.

    "He was standing by the fireplace in the dining-room and there was a chair upset on the ground.  Master's face was white, and I'd never seen his face white afore,—for, in ordinary, he turns red in his passions,—and he put dreadful words on Master Ralph, and said the old Herberts of Mallowe had come to an end.  And then he noticed his son's picture on the wall, and he up and struck it in the face, and turned it round to the wall—never stopping to lift it from the nail, and you may see the hanging string is twisted to this day.  And then he caught his niece's hand, and was drawing off her ring—the very ring he'd once put on his wife's finger,—but she snatched her hand away, and for the minute she seemed the strongest of the two, and her voice was as loud and shriller!  But the next minute she was down on the floor at his feet, a-begging of him like a little chidden child.  She'd kept her own, and that was all she cared about; and master never said another word about the ring."

    Mrs Irons paused for a moment.

    "He was calmer-like after that," she went on, "but he told us we were never to set it any more that he and Master Ralph were father and son.  'Sarah,' says he, 'there's nothing in this house for him—not even room to stand on the door-mat.  Mind, your master says so, whom you've served faithful this thirty years!'  I don't know how it was,—whether it was a feeling for the only baby I'd ever nursed, or the sight of poor Miss Agnes—but says I, 'Yes, sir; I'll mind, except so far as I can't disobey my dead missis' orders to take care of her boy for her.  The words of the dead last long, sir,' I said, 'for there's no asking 'em to draw 'em back.'

    "And then, somehows, we went off to our own rooms for the night; but I left the door on the latch, if so be the young master might come back, and things straighten in the morning.  But, sure enough, I heard the master go and fasten it up with his own hands.  And in the dead of the night, just as I was dropping asleep, a-dreaming that Master Ralph was a baby in my arms, Miss Agnes came and roused me like a spectre.  It was on her mind that her cousin might destroy himself, and we be never the wiser and so, to quiet her, I had to promise that first thing in the morning I'd go out and ask about him.  But when I was out a-trailing about the village, I didn't know where to go, nor who to ask.  I thought the lad had likely taken the last train to London, and it struck me that the new rector—I mean Mr Marten—who had just come from there, might put me in the way to track him.  So I went and told him just as much as I must, and as little as I could.  And then I wondered I hadn't had common-sense to do what he did—to go to the railway station, and ask if young Herbert had left there by the London train.  And the guard said he had.  And then Mr Marten did more than I bargained for.  He called at the Great Farm, and had a long talk with the master.  I thought the place would be too hot to hold me after that.  But the master never said one word about what I'd done.  And the rector never called again—never till that evening when he came with you, sir."

    "And did Mr Ralph make no effort to communicate with his cousin?" I asked.

    "O yes, indeed," she replied.  "The morning of the second day there came a letter telling her where he was, and full of fine hopes of his future, and sure that his father had done the best thing for him when he turned him out of the Great Farm, and so on.  Miss Agnes never named the letter to her uncle, but she let it lie on the dining-room mantel for two whole days, and he looked at the envelope, but said e'er a word.  And be sure, she answered it by the first post.  And so things went on for a time."

    "And did you never hear what was the quarrel between father and son?" inquired Ruth.

    "Mr Ralph wrote that it was about difficulties he was in at Mallowe—money difficulties, and that his father would not help him unless he promised to give himself up to the farm, which he wouldn't, and then the master washed his hands of him.  I'm feared he'd been rather reckless that time when he was almost driven out of his own home.  But he wrote he should soon work it all off, and would be wise in future."

    "And when did this state of things end?" I queried.

    "Well, six months after he left home, in the middle of summer, he wrote word he expected he should be at Mallowe in the course of a few days, and if so, and he could send a message when he arrived, would his cousin ask me to come with her to meet him, so that they might have a little walk and talk together—the two poor dears!  And he wrote his letter, which she showed me, so simple and straightforward, that I thought he was surely in the right way, and I should be obeying his dead mother if I helped him to this bit of comfort to encourage him on.  And then Miss Agnes and me were in a regular flutter at every knock that came to the door."

    With all her earnestness, worthy Mrs Irons had a bit of the art of a story-teller, for she paused at every climax.

    "And did you see him at last?" I asked, to prompt her.

    "He never comed," she answered, "and there was no letter from him long over his usual time, and I thought Miss Agnes would waste away to nothing, and her soul would get free to go and watch over him wherever he was.  At last there was a letter, for me, not for her.  It said he'd been in France and very ill, and I was to tell his cousin she was to forget she had ever seen him, for she should never see him again; he was not fit to come within her sight; he wasn't even fit to write to herself, but I was to give her that letter to do what she liked with, though it was written to me.  I thought that seemed as if he half hoped she'd still care to have it.  But it had no address, and his poor writing was so bad!  And in a postscript he said she was to take off her engaged ring, and give it back to his father, and to love and honour him always, and in everything, for whatever the master had cost him, he had only saved her from misery, and now she was all that he had in the world.

    "I shan't ever forget her face, when she read it," Mrs Irons went on.  "I watched her, for I was feared.  But there came a sort of glory on her, and she looked up with a light in her eyes, and said, 'I will never do it, Sarah.  Now for the first and last time, I disobey him.  I will never take off his ring, and I will never give him up!  And I will love and honour my uncle always and in everything, just for his sake—Ralph first, and he next.'  And all that day she bore up better than I did."

    "Ah," murmured my sister, "there is a comfort in the strength of love."

    "I dare say there is, ma'am," answered the honest woman; "but if so be, it's a comfort that doesn't warm the heart enough to cheer the body, and it was woeful to see how Miss Agnes wore away, and how she'd stand at the window a-watching for the post that never brought her nought.  She'd been a lively 'sensible girl before, always at her books, or her pencil, or her needles, and I think she tried to keep on with them, but there were nothing to force her, and she couldn't force herself.  And it seemed weary work for a young thing to sit waiting and waiting, like old folks wait for death.  I often thought it might be a good thing for her to be back in London, a-earnin' of her own living."

    "And what was the next you heard of young Mr Herbert?" I inquired.

    "Nought for more than a year," she returned.  "Winter had come round again, and it was nigh Christmas, when one night, quite late, I heard a tapping at the little window beside the back-door.  Miss Agnes were a-bed, but it came over me who it was, and I went out quite softly, not to waken the master, nor nobody.  And it were Master Ralph, sure enough; but he would not cross his father's threshold, and I had to talk to him in the yard.  He'd been to Mallowe, he said, a-trying to get some money he had lent long ago to a young fellow there, but he couldn't; and would you believe it, sir, the master's only son was that hard driven, that he hadn't a penny to take him back to London; and he spoke so weakly and looked so white, that I asked a straightforward question, and he owned to old Sarah, who fed him when he was a baby, that he had not touched aught since a cup of tea in the early morning.  He said he was sure he could not eat anything if he had it, but I knowed what that meant; and I just made him go and sit down in my wash-house, and then carried him some sandwiches, and a cup of wine.  It wasn't my master's victuals I gave," explained the faithful creature, "for the wine I'd bought with my own money to give some to a poor consumptive creature in the village; and I put two shillings into the purse my master gives me for house expenses, which were over and above the value of the bread and meat I took.  Master Ralph would scarce touch it at first; but once he began he ate like a famished dog.  And it seemed to call him back to life and feeling like; for before he took it, he'd spoken as cold and dry as if it was nothing, his coming so to his own father's house.  But when he'd done, all of a sudden, he put his arm round my neck and dropped his face on my shoulder, and cried as he scarcely ever did, even when he was a child.  I felt the hot tears a-falling quick on my hand.  I hope you'll excuse my being so affected, ma'am," said the worthy woman, piping tears from her hard-lined cheeks; "but I've had nobody of my own since I was twenty years old, and I'd had him from his dying mother; and he seemed to belong to me more than any one else.  And when he was a little bit quieted, he told me he had been in the neighbourhood once or twice afore, about this same little debt; and he'd walked round and round the Great Farm, but hadn't ventured to come nigh it, and he'd only come at last, to ask me for enough to take him back to London; for come what might, he did not want to starve in his native place.  And I made him take all the money I had in my work-box, and a rare bother I had to make him take it.  Though he knowed I had not lived thirty years in service for nothing, still he wouldn't touch it, till I said he might pay me again directly he could, and with interest too, if he liked.  And all the time he kept asking about his cousin, and made me promise not to tell her of seeing him in such trouble,—at least, not directly; and 'I hope she forgets me,' he said, poor dear, and looked so down-hearted, that the truth came out afore I knowed it, and said I, 'Don't you think it; she's as true to you as if you'd never parted, and she always will be; and you'll live to talk it over, some day, sir,' I said.  But he shook his head, and said no, that wouldn't ever be; and he was sorry he'd cross'd her life to darken it.  But I told him it was all settled in the will of God; and says I, 'Even if you never come together, the young missis will not be an unhappy woman, if she knows you're comfortable and settled in yourself.  If you'd keep trouble from her, keep it from yourself, sir,' I said.  And then he went away."

    "And did you never tell Miss Herbert of this visit?" I inquired.

    "Not till quite lately," she answered.  "About June I got a post-office order for the money I'd lent Mr Ralph, but even then I only told her I'd reasons of my own for saying her cousin was alive and well.  And in the autumn, when young M'Callum came down for his holiday, Miss Agnes found out the two were living together in London.  And Mr Ralph has written to her since then, and she has put his letters on the dining-room mantel, just as she did at first.  She has told me he is doing pretty well, and she's not said a word further.  But master and me, we've eyes in our heads, and we can put two and two together, and didn't she set-to, and get ready that book of her father's, and sell it?  And hasn't she taken a mighty interest in the cooking and the house-work?  And doesn't she try how little she can spend on her dress?  And isn't she reading a book about Canada?  And after the way she spoke up for Mr Ralph last night, the whole village's talk.  Master knows as well as I do that there's something in the wind, and so he sends me here to ask you to help him to stop it."

    "And you don't come quite willingly, Mrs Irons?" queried Ruth.

    "Well, I don't, ma'am," she answered, candidly; "and I'd come less willingly if I thought you or the master either would be able to stop it."

    "You think of the young man," I said, "but we must give some consideration to the prospect before Miss Herbert."

    "I don't see why the two need be thought on apart," returned Mrs Irons, her native asperity again rising to the surface.  "There's a lot of fine talk about female influence and out-of-the-way things, but all I say is, if God puts a man's soul in reach of a woman's hand, and she throws it away, it may go to the wicked place, but she's scarcely fit to go to t'other one!  Yes, you may all say what you like!" she added, standing up, and shaking out her skirt, with a disclaiming gesture; "but if any of you change Miss Agnes' mind, then God help Master Ralph, and I've made a mistake all along!"

    "Whether she be right or wrong in this matter," said Ruth, after our visitor had departed, "she is a good woman."

    "I should say there is a fortune of insufficiently-claimed affection lying waste in her heart," I remarked.

    "No matter," answered my sister, "it will ascend pure to God!"


 
CHAPTER XXVI.

EWEN.


CHRISTMAS-DAY again; not an honest Christmas, like the last, with frozen ground and peeps of pale sunshine, but Christmas in a wet green robe with an umbrella.  The choir boys came under our window, as before, but Ruth despatched them after one short hymn; "it was not worth while for them to stand there getting wet," she said.  Nevertheless we managed to attend service, and despite the unfavourable weather, St Cross had a good congregation.

    Mr Herbert stole a glance at us as he entered his pew.  His niece followed him, quite unconscious of the revelation of the preceding night.  Then I looked towards the M'Callums' accustomed seat—the old man and his two grandchildren were there, and I noticed that George Wilmot and his aunt sat with them, and then I remembered hearing they intended to spend Christmas together.  Bessie Sanders was surely a true-hearted woman, for if she had yet any lingering doubt of Ewen, she certainly did not allow it to bias her actions.  The worried look has left her face, and it is a finely-cut, powerful countenance, a quaint contrast to the round, ruddy visage of her nephew, with his clear, simple, blue eyes.  I have good hopes of that boy, and I think he will atone to his aunt for all the past."At eventide there shall be light."

    When the joyful service was over, and I turned to leave our pew, I saw at the back of the church, one whose presence made me greatly glad.  It was Mr Weston, looking older and graver than he looked before.  He waited for the M'Callums.  In the porch I saw he was introduced to Ewen.  They all walked down the churchyard together, and there I lost sight of them, for the Herberts arrested our progress down the aisle, and we had their company for our homeward journey.  What a strange significance did their conversation acquire from that revealed secret!  And yet, after all, the significance may exist rather in the fancy of the hearer than in the mind of the speaker.

    In the road we overtook the M'Callums and their friends walking in a kind of cluster, as one can in the country, whenever it would be rather invidious to get into couples.  We all exchanged salutations.  I had forgotten to ask Mrs Irons if she supposed her master knew of the friendship between his son and Ewen.  Anyhow, Mr Herbert was as genial as ever towards both grandfather and grandson.  Perhaps he argued with himself that it was no business of his if they chose to befriend fools and beggars.  But to Alice he was decidedly civil, and very interesting and pretty she looked in a demure, plaintive little flutter caused by the presence of her rejected suitor, who, for his part, soon dashed into a bucolic argument with his brother agriculturalist of the Great Farm.  Ewen alone walked a little apart, as if there was something in his lot which as yet he could scarcely cast into the simple merriment around him.  I saw Agnes steal one or two glances at him, but he did not seem to notice her, though I almost fancied his pale cheek—it was very pale—reddened a little.  At the end of the lane, our party broke into three groups, breathing good-byes and good wishes as if there was nothing in the world beyond a walk from church to Christmas cheer—no old tragedies, no hopes more wearing than fears, no endurance, no dead or jarring notes in the anthem of life.  And then Ruth and I went home together.

    We had our quiet dinner, she at one end of the table and I at the other, and then we drew up our chairs in front of the fire, and talked softly of all that had happened in the year—of the Refuge, and the Orphanage, and the May-day feast, and the hospital; of the M'Callums and their fortunes, and the trial of Agnes Herbert.  And our talk was broken by short silences, when each gazed mutely at the red embers in the grate, and saw diverse things therein—perchance trees meet for whispering beneath, or the form of a woman-angel, or haply the turret of the old clock-house of Mallow, or a rough pauper's grave.  Shall I ever speak of these things to my sister?  No, I think not—not in this world.

    We had finished our tea, and were again lost in silence, when there came a gentle double rap at our front door.  It was actually Ewen M'Callum.

    He took a chair between us, and explained that he intended to return to London by the first train next day, and so ventured to pay us this unexpected Christmas visit.

    "How did they spare you from the Refuge?" asked Ruth.

    "Oh, they're all very merry there," he answered, with a grave smile.  "You know they have Miss Sanders and George, and Mr Weston has stayed also.  They'll not miss me."

    "Need you return to London so soon?" I inquired.

    "It is best for many reasons," he replied.

    "And how is Mr Ralph?" I queried.  "Ewen, we know his other name now."

    "You do?" he said quickly.  "Mr Ralph is very well, sir."

    "Why did you keep him a secret from us?" I asked.

    "He wished to be kept secret from every one," Ewen answered, gravely.  "And I kept the secret until I was forced to betray him to his cousin."

    "How forced?" inquired Ruth.

    "Mr Garrett asked about 'Mr Ralph' in Miss Herbert's hearing," he replied, "that gave me an excuse.  And I was very glad of it, for Ralph kept losing all hope and interest in life, and thinking he might throw himself away anyhow, like a useless thing."

    "Do you think he has great affection for his cousin?" I asked, in my prim old-fashioned way.

    Ewen turned to me with glowing eyes.  "I should think he has!" he said.  "It's just her memory which has kept him afloat above the lowest depths.  It's just her memory that's kept in him a bit of faith in man or God; and yet it was just her memory—thinking that he'd lost her—that made him stand where I found him last spring—on London Bridge, looking over and wondering if"――

    There Ewen paused.

    "His love should have given him courage to live worthily of her, come what might," said Ruth.

    "One would think so," observed the young man, reflectively; "he should not have lost heart so soon; but yet it must have been a dreadful trial.  It's hard enough to love her,—I mean it's hard enough to love such as her,—hopelessly from the beginning; but to have hope in one's love at first and then to lose it, oh, we can't guess how bitter that must be!"

    "That's right," remarked Ruth; "when we measure our own temptations with our neighbour's, let us always think his the sharpest."

    "But Ralph Herbert voluntarily resigned his cousin?" I said.

    "He thought it was his bounden duty under certain circumstances.  He still thinks so," Ewen added.

    "Then he still despairs?" queried Ruth, a little satirically.

    The ghost of a smile crept over our visitor's face, and that was his only answer.

    "And so Mr Ralph meditated a leap into the river," continued my sister in her pitiless tones, "and he thought that was dying of love, while it would be simply death by feverish impatience and a cold bath."

    "Shakespeare says something like that, my dear," I observed.

    "Yes, I know he does," returned Ruth, "and I dare say he says something like any remark you make, if it happen to be worth hearing.  I always grow ill-tempered over any of this Lord Byron kind of romance.  If I knew any one dying of love, and enjoying the sensation, I'd give them a good dose of physic, or a sound caning.  Or if they were really such fools as to be slipping away without knowing it, I'd cheat them into learning a language, or a good tough science."

    "Like Wordsworth's gentleman who collected and dried flowers," I remarked.

    "But Ralph never thought he was dying of love," said Ewen; "he was only broken down by misery."

    "By the way, you look much better than you did the last time you were here," observed my sister, rather abruptly disregarding Ewen's last remark, and turning towards him.

    "I am much better, thank you," he said.

    "Then you knew you were ill?" pursued Ruth.  "Alice was quite alarmed about you."

    "I never said a word to her," he answered.

    "Why not?" she asked.

    "Where was the good?" said he; "she would have wanted me to give up my work, and my drawing, and so forth."

    "And why should you not?" I queried.

    "Because I suppose it is a sin willingly to do aught to shorten one's life," he answered, with a quiet smile, "and if once I called myself sick, I should die."

    "Did you have any medical advice?" I inquired.

    "Ralph made me go to a doctor," he replied.  "He said if I wouldn't he would write and tell them at home, so I went once, though I don't much believe in doctors, and I heard what was the matter with me, which I knew beforehand, and I was told to do certain things which I could not do, or I shouldn't have been ill.  But I did my best towards them, as I had done all the time, and in due time I recovered, as I felt I should from the first."

    "Ah," said Ruth, "it takes much to kill young folks, or nobody would reach thirty."

    "But they grow old folks in the struggle?" remarked Ewen.

    I thought he gave a little sigh, and I glanced towards him.  The look of pain—of forced endurance—was gone; but it had taken its bloom with it, and had left its own traces behind.  There were lines now which gave a noble character to the always handsome face: lines, which his future wife will declare are half his beauty, though she may give a little sigh to think she did not know him before they came!  For I hope Ewen will have a wife some day, though I fancy he does not hope anything of that sort
just now.  And perhaps he will carry those lines with him when he goes to the Better Place.  For we must not measure heavenly beauty by earthly beauty.  Is it not a face "more marred than any man's" which gazes at us from the glory of the Father's throne?

    "And if they do 'grow old' in the process," I answered, repeating his words—for there had been a pause—"it is none the worse.  It is not the boys and girls who do the work of the world.  They may be its flowers, but the middle-aged and elderly are its fruit and its corn."

    "Young folks are often over-willing to die," remarked Ruth, folding her hands and gazing into the fire, "and God seldom wants us when we want death.  He knows we don't want to go to Him, but only to get away from the world.  And we're not fit to go to Him till we're quite willing to bide his time."

    And then Ewen said "Good-bye," and went back to the Refuge festivities.

    "I'll never say again that men choose gilt when they might have gold," said my sister, after he was gone.  "The women are quite as bad!"

    "What do you mean?" I asked.

    "I mean what I say," she returned; "and if you don't understand now, you may in time.  And haven't we spent a sentimental evening, for two old people who never fell in love in their lives!"

    Oh, Ruth, Ruth!  I hope you did not take my silence for assent to that last statement of yours, though I hadn't courage to contradict it.  But it does not matter much, for you didn't mean it!


 
CHAPTER XXVII.

THE HOUSE BEHIND ST CROSS.


THE weather did not mend, and we were unvisited prisoners in our house until after the New Year.  But at the end of the first week in January, there came a glorious day,—not bleak with wintry cold, nor rough with wind, nor yet heavy with the stifling moisture of unseasonable heat.  It was almost like the first day of spring—a little too early—escaped from the prison-house of the year, before the storms were passed; as Noah's dove left the ark before the flood was over.  We knew—and so did the birds—that it was too bright and fair to last,—that tomorrow might bring back the mist and rain.  But we shall have little pleasure in this life if we do not treasure all the little bits we can find.  Do you suppose Noah threw away the olive-branch because it was not a tree?  And so the birds twittered, and we went out.

    We went up the road towards St Cross, choosing that direction for two reasons,—because it was hilly, and so secure from any latent moisture, and because we wished to visit my new house behind the church.  It was now completed, or at least very nearly so, for the locksmith and the varnisher were the workmen now employed.

    As we toiled up the ascent, we were arrested by a cheerful salute from behind, and turning round, we found Mr Marten and his friends the Blakes hastening to overtake us; and we waited till they came up.

    "We have intended you a visit ever since Christmas," said the rector, as he shook hands; "but the weather has always forbidden it until to-day.  We have just been at your house, and the servant told us where we should find you."

    "Then let us all return instantly, and have a comfortable luncheon," I answered.

    "Oh no," returned Mr Marten; "we can chat as we walk, and have the benefit of the fresh air and exercise besides.  We have not had a long journey—only as far as the High Street."

    "Have you been to the Refuge, then?" I asked.

    "No," he replied with a slight hesitation; "in fact—in short"— Speaking briskly at last, "Mr Garrett, I planned this morning visit as a fitting opportunity to introduce Miss Blake—as my future wife."

    We made a slight pause, and congratulated the young lady, who was duly diffident and blushing.  And I think the rector was a little disappointed to find we expressed no surprise.

    "It is no new happiness to me," he said.  "We both thought best to keep it quiet until our circumstances justified us in commencing preparations for the event.  I have looked forward to the pleasure of telling you my good fortune ever since the first of May last year; and Marian and I hope to be married on that date this year, which will allow us five months to make our very simple arrangements."

    At this juncture, Lieutenant Blake kindly enlightened us on the purpose of that morning's visit to Upper Mallowe village.  "We've been looking over a house," said he, with a wink intended to be highly comical.

    "But you have not taken it?" I asked hastily.

    "No," answered Mr Marten, shaking his head with a dash of his old despondency; "but we must.  There is no better one to be had.  Do you know it?that small gray house, at the angle of the High Street and Pleasant Lane?"

    "Which lane's name goes by the rule of contrary, as most names do," put in the gallant old sailor.

    "Have you looked at any others?" inquired Ruth.

    "Yes," he replied; "we looked at a cottage in the lane by the Low Meadow,—a very pretty cottage too, but that situation is damp.  The kitchen walls were discoloured by it.  Then we looked over a house, on the high road to Mallowe, a nice house, but it was only to be let on lease; and that arrangement is not always convenient for a clergyman.  And there are no other unoccupied houses in the neighbourhood."

    "Except that behind St Cross," I remarked, carelessly.

    "Ah, but that is above our means," said he.

    "You see I built it for an income of two hundred a-year, exclusive of house rent," I observed.

    "Ah, I remember you said so," he responded.

    "And I fixed on this income, because it is that of the rectors of St Cross"――

    "I beg your pardon," he interrupted, "we receive only two hundred, inclusive of all personal expenses."

    "And I intend this house as a gift to the rectory of St Cross," I continued, not heeding his interruption, "and my solicitor in London is at the present time engaged in preparing the necessary deeds."

    And then we made another little pause, and went through another confusion of acknowledgments and congratulations, which were all very pleasant to hear, but would make very stupid reading, and I interrupted them by proposing we should all go and survey the "Parsonage."  I wanted to fix that name to the house; I did not wish it to be the "Rectory."  Whenever a thing is well expressed by a Saxon word, why should we not use it in preference to one springing from a Latin root?  When there is not a Saxon word, let us take the Latin and be thankful; but why should we seek abroad for what we can find at home?

    We soon reached the building, and we lingered just a moment to criticise its exterior.  Its red-brick front was slightly relieved by the stone copings and window-sills, and Miss Blake exclaimed delightedly at the little trelliswork porch, which I had caused to be erected, thinking that one of brick or stone would be far too heavy for the modest size of the building; while I was determined to have a porch of some kind, that any guest might find the house a true refuge for shelter or shade even before its door was opened.  Then we all walked up the gravel path, between two plots of ground, which now gave but a barren suggestion of future beds.  In the porch, I invited all the party to turn and survey the beautiful view below—lovely even now in leafless January.  The back of the house did not command so fine a view—the country there was flatter—therefore I had given it the larger garden, so that the future household might rejoice on the one side in the telescopic magnificence of valley, river, and distant hill, and on the other, in the microscopic beauties of flower and leaf I explained this as we stood in the porch, and then we entered the hall.

    The tiling of the floor was laid in a neat pattern of buff and black, and the walls were engrained as oak, and varnished.

    "They will wash over and over again, Lewis, and then look as well as ever," said Miss Marian, stroking them quite lovingly; "and, papa, there will be no little marks like those which are always on our hall paper at home, though nobody knows how they come.  And here is a nice fixture hat-rail; and see! a lamp-bracket, and a lifting-flap for a table!  How charming!  There are only one or two chairs wanted to perfectly furnish the hall."

    We passed on to the room destined for the library.  I drew their attention to its being painted in a pale buff.

    "I told my brother to choose a perfectly neutral tint," said Ruth, "that you might not be limited in your choice of carpets and chair-covers.  Now if your tastes be gay, you can have blue or green, or pink, if you like."

    "I think we will have brown leather chairs here, Marian," observed the rector, thoughtfully: "they are expensive, but they wear well."

    "What wears well is never expensive," said my sister; for granting that you have in hand sufficient money for the first outlay, how can you invest it better than by buying what will last?"

    "And see, Marian," said Mr Marten, "here are glass book-fixtures, with little cupboards below, at each side of the fireplace.  I think these will hold all the books I have at present."

    "I thought they would receive a tolerable library," I observed; but the rector did not heed my words, for he was reflectively stroking his whiskers and planning the furniture.

    "I wonder, Marian," said he, and paused—"I wonder," he repeated, "if we might make this room at once library and dining-room."

    "That would be very pleasant," said the young lady; "for then the other might be quite a drawing-room."

    "Don't think of such a thing," observed Ruth, emphatically.  "You think, Mr Marten, that because you will always join the family meals, you will lose time if they come to you than if you go to them.  Remember, meals must be set on the table and removed, and the pitiless servant will come and clear away your papers when you are in the middle of a sentence."

    "But if we have our meals in the other room, where can we ask visitors?" inquired inexperienced little Marian.

    "My dear," said Ruth, "the question is, who is most important, a morning caller, or the master of the house?  Shall you keep a room at the service of the idle guest who way come, or shall you cultivate the peace and comfort of him who gives the household its very existence?"

    Marian's lip almost quivered.

    "I know which you wish to do," said my sister quite gently, "and I know the proposal came from Mr Marten himself; but if you take my sincere advice, you'll not think of 'drawing-rooms.'  What you want is a nice, snug, pretty parlour which will be quite a pleasant change for the rector when he leaves his book-room.  And let me remind you, my dear, that whenever the parlour is particularly engaged by dinner or tea, then the library, in its turn, will be free to receive a visitor until the other room is at liberty."

    "But still there are grand 'occasions' in all families sometimes," I said; "and a little due provision for these when furnishing a house often saves much future worry and annoyance."

    "Ah, suppose I bought a sideboard and a dining-table for this room?" queried the rector.  "I could put my desk on the table, and it would give a delightful surface for my papers and reference-books; and then the room would be quite prepared for any emergency, and yet need not be used for convivial purposes except on the arrival of those guests for whose sake I should keep holiday myself."

    "That will be very convenient indeed," I assented, "for this reason especially, that when respected visitors are to be entertained, the mistress of a small household must generally superintend the arrangement of the dining-room herself, and it is not always pleasant to do so in the room where the company is seated."

    "'Um, I suppose not," answered Ruth, as if conceding to a common human weakness; "but, for my part, I can't see why she cannot go through that as gracefully as through her performance on the piano."

    "A great woman could, but I think I could not," said modest little Marian; and Ruth was mollified, and smiled kindly upon her.

    Then we adjourned from the library to the parlour, where the wall tinting was gray.  There we held a discussion about carpets, and Ruth strongly recommended a good one of a small pattern, as least likely to display the unavoidable marks of wear and tear.  In this room Miss Blake was in her element, walking from side to side, and imagining all possible kinds of furniture in all possible positions.  I found she had already sundry treasures designed for the decoration of this peculiarly feminine domain—such as pictures, china, and miniature statuary—about which she held half-whispered consultations with her father the lieutenant, whose stereotyped answer was, "Yes, that will be certainly best, my dear.  What pleases you will be the right thing; you've a nice taste, and so had your mother, Marian."

    Then we surveyed the bedrooms, making very wise sanitary remarks thereon, and the rector observed that "for the present " (how I liked that!) Marian could have one of them for a little boudoir or study of her own, and she said she would have the small room above the hall—guided to that choice by its pretty fancy window.  It was delightful to find that the new parsonage was certainly exactly to the taste of the first pair who would make it their home.

    Lastly, we descended the stairs, and went into the back garden.  It was not large, though of considerable extent for the size of the house.  Beyond causing the ground to be put in a good state, I had not done much with it.  I was too much of a Londoner, by education, to know much of the theory or practice of gardening, so I had resolved from the first to leave this matter to the taste of the future master.  My sister was not so ignorant; she was quite able to enter into a conversation about it with Mr Marten.

    "By all means, plant some dwarf fruit-trees, sir," said she; "they give us three pleasures in the year—the beauty of their blossoms, the beauty of their fruit, and the sweetness of the dessert.  I don't know why they are depreciated while flowers are so admired, unless, indeed, it is because they are useful; for it is only too common to say, this thing is made for use, and that for ornament.  And if anything be both useful and ornamental, its use is used, and its beauty is never observed!"

    I fear the bride-elect did not hear these remarks, for at that moment she came towards Mr Marten, saying,

    "'Lewis, isn't it almost a pity that the kitchen windows look into this garden?"

    "Why so?" asked my sister, a little quickly, (for she knew I was the architect of the house—which, by the way, Miss Blake very likely did not, since Mr Marten would scarcely have mentioned such a circumstance, when he never supposed the building had anything to do with them.)  "Why is it a pity, Miss Blake?  I would not give much for the comfort of any house where the kitchen was not as pleasant to look at or to live in as the parlour.  There's real beauty in a well-scrubbed floors and a white dresser, with its stand of bright copper and tin, and its rows of plates.  And it is a beauty that never tires one.  And why shouldn't a kitchen be as pleasant as a parlour?  It is just what I say about the fruit-trees and the flowers," she added, turning towards Mr Marten.  "A kitchen is thought meanly of because it's the most useful room in the house."

    "The most useful to the commonest wants of our nature, certainly," said the rector, scarcely liking to give it unqualified supremacy over the library.

    My quick sister caught the reservation.  "And where would be the highest aspirations of our nature if those commonest wants were unsupplied?" she asked triumphantly; and the reverend gentlemen smiled, and did not answer.

    The betrothed couple seemed unwilling to leave the premises, and presently Ruth drew me a little aside and whispered that they might wish to go over the rooms again without our intrusive presence.  The suggestion was full of kindly sympathy, but this was the mask it wore: "We had better leave them to themselves, Edward.  I daresay he has some nonsense to say to her, which we must not hear."

    When we two were once more at home, chatting in the twilight, my mind reverted to our poor Agnes, whom we had not seen since we had learned the secret of her short history.

    "Ah, Ruth," I said, "I only wish her future was as full of the promise of peace and comfort as is little Marian Blake's."

    "Have some more sensible wishes, Edward," rejoined my sister,—"wish that chickens swam, and peacocks flew, and that everything changed its nature.  One wish will be quite as rational as the other."


 
CHAPTER XXVIII.

PRO AND CON.


IT was not until the latter end of January that we had a visit from Miss Herbert, though we saw her two or three times in the interval—meeting her in the lanes or at the Refuge.  During that time Alice M'Callum was never seen beyond her own threshold, except on the way to church.  She was not ill: her duties were performed with unfailing diligence; she was only taking to herself one of those spiritual disciplines which are far more painful than any of the jagged crosses or hair shirts of fanatic devotees.  She said nothing, and we said nothing; but we heard the story from Mr Weston, who now made ample atonement for the neglect he had recently shown us.  After the first paroxysm of disappointment, he had tried, as we knew, to take his rejection coolly—to alienate himself totally from his recent pleasant associations—nay, even to disparage the blessing which had proved beyond his reach.  But he could not do it.  His better nature triumphed.  His heart softened towards the innocent woman who had suffered in his suffering.  And even when his renewed pleas were still set aside by the same gently stern answer that "it could not be," he did not now turn his back on Upper Mallowe in wrath and bitterness, but still visited the Refuge as a friend might, but not without an unspoken hope that quiet perseverance in patient waiting would win its own at last.

    He had made a call at our house, and was just leaving us, on the day when Agnes Herbert at last arrived.  They passed each other in the garden with a silent salutation; for their mutual acquaintance had never advanced beyond a knowledge of each other's names.  Then Agnes joined us in the parlour.

    Of course, whatever Mr Herbert might intend, we did not mean to thrust our counsel on the girl.  The knowledge Mrs Irons had given us might somewhat influence our conversation with her, and it would give us the advantage of perfect information should she of her own accord seek our advice or sympathy.  We could do no more.

    Tea-time passed by in the most comfortable and commonplace manner—how those adjectives always belong to each other!  Once or twice I thought Agnes was a little abstracted; once or twice I fancied she was about to speak, and then reserved her remark.  And the event proved I was not mistaken.  While Phillis removed the tea-tray, and the ladies settled themselves for the evening, I went into the back parlour to seek a book. The door between the rooms was open, and I heard Agnes say, very softly, and with some apparent effort

    "Miss Garrett"—(a pause)—"I daresay you were surprised to hear I have a cousin Herbert!"

    I thought silently, perhaps her long absence from our house had been caused by doubts whether she should make this allusion, or wholly ignore the incident of the Christmas gathering.

    "I was rather surprised," said Ruth.

    "I think my uncle has told you all about it?" asked Agnes.

    "Well, my dear, he has caused us to be told," acknowledged Ruth.  "Did he tell you so?"

    "He did not exactly tell me; but I fancied it from something he said," observed Agnes.

    There was a silence; then my sister remarked

    "I hope, my dear, you will do nothing rashly."

    "I don't want to be rash," said Agnes; but there was a querulous tone in her voice.

    "My dear," Ruth went on, "a strong, unselfish young love is a very noble thing, and not at all to be pooh-poohed and pushed aside, as it too often is.  But nevertheless, my dear, it is a young thing, and therefore it needs guidance and restraint, else it may be like other young things which defeat and destroy themselves by their own wilful strength."

    "I don't feel very young!" said Agnes, with a sigh.

    "Only because your feelings are so strong that they wear you out," replied Ruth.  "When you are really old, your heart will never feel as weary, because it will never exert itself as much."

    "Ought that to make one long to be old, or not?" queried the girl.  "The peace of indifference does not seem very enviable."

    "My dear," said Ruth—[In all this conversation I noticed her words were gentle, and her tones soft]—"My dear, when the time comes that you will find neither your tears nor your smiles are as eager as they are now, you need not bemoan that your heart is worn out and dead.  It will only be at rest after its struggle, and it will awake as fresh as ever, and need rest no more!"

    There was a short silence till my sister asked, "When did you last hear from young Mr Herbert?"

    "At the end of last week," Agnes replied.  "I shall write to him to-morrow."

    "I understand," pursued Ruth, "that the young man himself feels you ought not to sacrifice your future to his present."

    Agnes answered very slowly, "If he wishes to give me up for my sake, why should I not wish to keep him for his sake?  A woman is nothing if she be not unselfish.  And yet I can't say I am quite unselfish.  Perhaps I can provide for my own truest happiness better even than he can."

    "My dear," said Ruth again, "it is quite possible you mistake yourself.  Twenty years hence you may sit at another hearth, and ponder over this conversation, and thank God for leading you to a sober happiness you don't dream of to-night."

    "I may," returned Agnes, in the same slow tone, "for we never know what we may become.  The day may come when I shall find all my happiness in fine tables, and chairs, and carpets—many women do."  Then with sudden energy she added, "But I pray I never shall."

    "Ah," said Ruth still gently, "but even in the midst of their own dreams young things must not forget that life has many treasures and duties beside that love which is courtship.  That must pass away.  It can be but the glamour of the dawn.  The working hours come after."

    "I don't think I ever knew that glamour," answered Agnes, "I did not feel much like a girl when I first came to my uncle's farm.  I was weary, and frightened, and sad, but Ralph had patience with me, and did little things to please me.  And I never had a brother, and he never had a sister, and I had been accustomed to come and go alone, and it seemed so different to have him.  I have grown another being with Ralph.  I was very narrow and cold before."

    "I can understand that," said my sister, "but it says nothing special in praise of your cousin.  His very faults may have corrected yours.  Your toleration may have grown larger merely to admit him, and your patience may have increased because he gave it practice."

    "I know that Ralph has faults.  I always knew it," cried Agnes, "and that is why I think I never knew the glamour.  Every one must have faults, and Ralph's suit me.  I can see them and bear them.  After every little quarrel we ever had I loved him better."

    "My dear, my dear," said Ruth, a little startled by this outburst, "I believe all that you say; but your heart is very warm and enthusiastic, and perhaps you love Mr Ralph better than you might if he deserved it more."

    "Don't say 'deserved it more,' please," answered Agnes, "for if he had stayed at home, and his father had never quarrelled with him, and none of his friends had deserted him, I don't think I should have loved him less, though I might have made believe so, even to myself."

    "You believe your cousin a genius," pursued my sister, "and a genius made doubly interesting by persecution and misfortune.  But in all this there is no satisfactory basis for love.  Genius is worth nothing without stable principles.  Nay, more, genius needs uncommonly stable principles, or it will overbalance the whole character.  A cart-horse will go steadily where a racer will gallop to destruction and death."

    "Yet the racer might pause the soonest, if a voice that he loved called him," whispered the girl.

    "Then, again," continued Ruth, not heeding this parenthesis, "I know that persecution and misfortune continually attract that pity which constantly leads to love.  But remember, a brave heart shrinks from pity, and takes its troubles and conquers them silently!  Thus some whom the world calls most fortunate God knows to be really martyrs, while mistaken human sympathy reserves itself for those who sit in sackcloth and ashes, which they richly deserve, but which they could take oft directly if they chose, only that they have a morbid taste for misery.  And yet, Agnes, you did not pity Anne Sanders."

    "Miss Garrett, you don't compare Ralph with her?" queried Agnes, indignantly.

    "No, my dear, I do not," answered my sister, "for I know what she is, and I do not yet know him; and I know that she has contrived to alienate all hearts from her, while your cousin has secured at least two—yours and Mrs Irons', and I think Ewen M'Callum's bedside."

    "You will like Ralph when you know him," said Agnes, softly.

    "I hope I may," returned Ruth.  "I almost think I shall; but I scarcely think I shall respect and honour him."

    "He is but a young man," said his defender.

    "There are some young people whom I respect and honour," answered my sister.  "But I fear your cousin is one of those characters which are constantly called 'victims to circumstance.'  I grant that he could not help your uncle's aversion to his tastes; and I do not say that he should immediately have put aside those tastes.  But he should have carried them out modestly and gently, doing his utmost to disarm his father's opposition.  Now, from what I hear of his conduct, it tended to justify and confirm Mr Herbert's prejudices.  I see these truths pain you, Agnes; but it is better you should hear them now, than learn them when it is too late."

    "But, then," said the girl, with a checked sob in her voice, "if it had not been for my uncle's prejudice, Ralph would not have been tempted to do as he did."

    "If the devil had not tempted Eve to eat the apple, we should all be in Eden to-day," returned Ruth.

    "Ah, I know it is not a sound argument in that way," sighed Agnes; "but I mean this, that some who are flattered and caressed, and called the ornaments of their family, might have fallen as Ralph did, if they had been tried as he was."

    "Still a false argument," said my sister; "for I believe all have their trials, and that too at their weakest point.  If adversity be our ordeal, and it ruins us in one way, prosperity, had it been allotted to us, would ruin us in another."

    "Oh, I cannot argue about it," cried the poor girl.  I only know that Ralph has nobody but me, and I will not desert him, let any one say what they may!"

    "But a groundless love is like a rootless plant," said Ruth,—"fair enough for the time, but easily carried away by a passing hand or a breath of wind."

    "A groundless love?" queried Agnes, with bitter daring.  "Is love well grounded on a pretty face or a sweet voice, or a thousand pounds, or a family connexion?  I love Ralph because he loves me, and because he has nobody else to love him!"

    There was a pause.  "But, my dear," said Ruth, "it is very easy to sit quietly in your uncle's comfortable rooms, and work out a pretty romance for yourself.  But romance is seldom very easy living.  It generally develops itself in cheap marketings, and common dresses, and frowsiness.  Romance can seldom afford to be perfectly clean, and sometimes it teaches the way to the pawnbroker's back door, and imparts other valuable information which does not inform the mind so much as it breaks the heart.  It is only in novels that penury has white dresses and spotless table-cloths, and does not become jaded and gray, and drawn about the mouth!"

    Agnes laughed that half-reckless laugh which is so sad from sweet young lips.  "I know what penury is," she said; "I know all about it.  I have borne it before; and for his sake, I can bear it again.  If I were a man, I would not accept a love which feared such things.  And after all, I believe many a woman would joyfully pay this price—ay, and double!—if so she might marry the first whom she ever loved!"

    Ruth drew a long breath—something like a sigh.

    Just then I heard by the rustle of Agnes's dress that she rose from her seat and crossed the room to my sister's side; there I think she kneeled down.  They both knew perfectly well that I was within hearing of every word, and that I could not escape from the back parlour except by passing through the front one.

    "Miss Garrett," said Agnes, and somehow I fancied she laid both her hands on my sister's arm, "let me do what I can.  Ralph will be so much better with some one always to love and care for him"

    "And for this hope you will sacrifice everything?" said my sister, and then I think she took Agnes's face between her hands.

    "No, not sacrifice," sobbed the girl.  "I don't sacrifice anything; it is my delight—my glory!"

    "But we must never set aside one duty for another," said Ruth.  "How can you desert your uncle?"

    I wish I had seen Agnes's eyes when she answered, in a solemn whisper, "Can I serve the father better than by serving his son?"

    Then there was a long pause, with a low sound of tears, and then total silence,—till suddenly there was a general movement, and Agnes remarked, with a forced attempt at her accustomed voice, that it was nearly time for her to go home.  Upon which I availed myself of the opportunity to return to the front parlour, and found my sister knitting as busily as usual, while our young visitor was extricating her veil from some entanglement with her bonnet, preparatory to dressing herself for the homeward walk, that when Mrs Irons called for her, she might not be kept waiting.

    "And so Mr Marten is to marry Miss Blake," she observed, by way of passing remark, as she stood before the mirror, settling her bonnet strings.

    "Yes," said Ruth; "how did you hear about it?"

    "Mrs Irons told me yesterday, when she came from shopping in the village," Agnes answered.  "I suppose she heard it there."

    "We only knew it at the beginning of this month," said my sister.  "Did Mrs Irons also hear of the destiny of the house behind St Cross?"

    "Yes," replied Agnes, half-turning from the glass, and so displaying her tear-stained face.  "I am sure they ought to be very happy,"—this a little bitterly.

    "My dear," said Ruth, "there is an old truism, that after all none of us would like to change ourselves into the people whom we envy.  Each has something which he values above anything that others have.  This may sound very trite; but that's a word which fits most old precepts.  Now, I think that if a maxim fits ourselves, it is just as new as if it had never been used by any one else."

    "And there will be another wedding soon, will there not?" queried Agnes, after a pause.  "And I should think that will be a very happy one.  Is not Mr Weston of Meadow Farm to marry our Alice M'Callum."

    "Who told you that?" asked Ruth, sharply.

    "My uncle said he thought so," replied Agnes.  "It was a wonder to hear him speak about such a thing; but he likes Mr Weston, and Alice is a great favourite of his.  He said it would be a most comfortable marriage, and no great rise for the bride, let people say what they would; for she was a farmer's daughter, and he was a farmer's son; and a little difference in fortune was nothing between the two."  And Agnes smiled dimly as she repeated her uncle's words.

    "Your uncle and you have both made a mistake," said my sister, rather dryly.  "At present there is no prospect of such a marriage.  Alice refuses to enter another family while the stain of that old accusation rests upon her own.  Instead of the happiness and prosperity which you imagine, there is nothing but disappointment and trial and patient endurance."

    "Is it really so?" queried Agnes.  "But surely Alice is wrong!  She should feel that a man who loves her at all will only love her better for anything which makes others undervalue her."

    "Men and women love very differently, my dear," said Ruth, with a shake of her head.

    "But poor Alice, how I pity her!  It stings us so when those we have envied need our pity," sighed Agnes.  And when she went away I think she was strengthened to bear her own troubles, because there were tears in her eyes for troubles which were not her own.

    "Miss Herbert resisted all your arguments, Ruth," I remarked, when my sister and I were once more alone.  "Yes," said Ruth shortly; "and I like her the better for it.  Of course she is a simpleton; but such simpletons are the oil which keep the world's wheels from grating hopelessly."

    "Then do you think she will realise her loving hopes?" I questioned, rather sentimentally.

    "Twenty years hence," said my sister, "she will be a quiet, timid, middle-aged woman, a little faded, and a little given to defer overmuch to 'Mr Herbert,' who will in general patronise her very kindly.  But perhaps sometimes he will say, 'Little woman, where should I be without you?'  And then Agnes will have her reward.  And I think her children will rise up and call her blessed.  And she will have a harder life than many a noisy woman who fancies herself a victim to her zeal for public good; and in heaven, maybe, she will have a brighter crown."

    Ah, my pretty Agnes, I gave one or two sighs, to think of you, in your future struggles, and yet I could not wish you acted otherwise than you did.  "Should you like a daughter of your own to have such a fate?" asks some critical and prudent mother.  Well, if a daughter of my own met a destiny like Margaret Roper at her father's scaffold, or like Lucy Hutchinson outside her Puritan husband's prison, or like Anita Garibaldi in her hunted death, my heart would be pained, but I should not wish them other than they were.  There are pains which are sweeter than any pleasures.  There are natures which choose the palm as the fairest flower which earth can offer.


 
CHAPTER XXIX.

THE HISTORY OF THE MYSTERY.


IT was the second day after Miss Herbert's visit, and the first day of February.  The weather, which had been tolerably fine for the last two or three weeks, was revenging itself.  The rain descended in torrents, driven about by the wind, which, like a changeable, passionate woman, now sobbed among the leafless trees, and then scolded down the chimneys and round the house.  But it happened Ruth and I were provided with abundant indoor occupations, for we had just received the annual accounts of the Refuge, and their various items gave us plenty of material for reflection and discussion.  By evening I had drawn up a balance-sheet, and a most satisfactory one it was, with a tolerable surplus at the right side, which would enable us to extend our sympathies more courageously in the coming year.  As for the little orphan home, whose accounts were included in those of the Refuge, its expenses for the future would be small indeed, now its erection and furniture were fairly paid.  Its benefits were already shared by two little sisters, who paid their weekly board by their labours at the village dressmaker's, but who would have been but poorly off if thrown entirely on their own exertions.

    So we passed a very pleasant day, and I was in such a comfortable and cheery mood that I did not shrink from contemplating the dreary aspect out of doors.  So I pulled aside the red curtain, and lifted the blind, and stood between it and the cold, damp window, and reported to Ruth that it was a "dreadful night "—"not fit for a dog to be abroad;" and then I thought how London looked at that hour—how the City men jogged home through mirk and mud, and the gaslights flared on shining pavements, and poor women went a-marketing with broken shoes that lapped the puddles as they passed along.

    But my reverie was suddenly interrupted by the sound of rapid wheels coming down the lane, and a fly-lamp flashed like a will-o'-the-wisp through the darkness of the garden hedge.  A voice called sharply, and the vehicle stopped at our gate.  Somebody came up the garden path, and there was one of those quick, urgent knocks which make the heart leap, and the feet hurry to the parlour door to anticipate the servant's announcement.

    Phillis ran so eagerly to the parlour, that she nearly flew against me.  "Oh, please, sir," said she, "it's young Mr M'Callum!"

    He followed close behind her, with a white, anxious face, which made me instantly think of my old friends of the firm.  "Come in, Ewen," I said, taking his cold hand: "what is the matter, my boy?"

    "Ralph Herbert is not here?" was his questioning response.

    "Certainly not," I answered.  "Is anything wrong?"

    "He has left our place in London," said Ewen.  "They tell me he started off almost immediately after I left home this morning."

    "Not a very long absence," observed Ruth.

    Her cool words seemed somewhat to reassure Ewen.  It is pleasant to think a danger may exist only in one's own excited imagination.  But, in a second, he recalled the more tangible reasons for his fears.  "I left home before the first post came in," he said, "and our landlady says there was a letter for him.  And I know he had an important appointment in town for this evening, when he was to receive payment for some pictures.  And he wanted the money."

    "And he hasn't kept that appointment, or made any arrangement about it?" queried my sister.

    "No; I went to the gentleman, to learn if he knew anything," explained Ewen; "and, finding he did not, I made as good an excuse as I could, and came straight down here.  I had chanced to leave business very early today, or I should not have been here to-night."

    "Did you fancy he might be in the village?" I asked.

    "I thought it just possible," said the young man.  "I think this morning's letter was from Miss Herbert.  I know he expected one from her."

    "Is it likely there is a reconciliation," I said, "and that he is at the Great Farm?"

    Ewen shook his head. " I fear not," he answered.

    "If there had been good news, he would have left a note for me."

    "A thoughtless omission, under any circumstances," said Ruth; "tacking trouble to trouble's tail."

    "What do you propose, Ewen?" I asked.

    "I must go to the Great Farm," he said, with a long breath; and I thought, sir, if you will go with me—but it's such a shocking night—only poor Miss Herbert!"

    "I'll go," I answered.

    "Have you kept the fly, Ewen?" asked my sister.

    "O yes, ma'am," he replied—"it's waiting at the gate."

    "That's right.  You have sense," said Ruth.

    We soon rattled through the dense darkness of the road, into the broad light of the lamp over the Great Farm door.  It was not until Ewen rung the bell that I marvelled what would result from our daring to disturb Mr Herbert on such a subject.

    Mrs Irons admitted us.  "Heaven help us!" she cried, when she saw my companion.  "It's something wrong with Mr Ralph!"

    "Hush, hush!" said Ewen, "and tell us, is your master within?"

    "No, no, he isn't," she answered: "he's away, at a farmers' dinner at the 'Red Lion.'  Miss Agnes is in the dining room; but, whatever it be, don't show your face, Ewen M'Callum, till Mr Garrett goes in first.  And tell me what it is—for I nussed him, I did, sir."

    "It's nothing yet," said Ewen, soothingly.  "I hoped he might have been here before us, Mrs Irons."

    "Then it's missing, he is?" wailed the poor old soul "and the Lord ha' mercy on Miss Agnes!"

    I went to the dining-room, and, in answer to my knock, Agnes gave a soft "Come in!"  There was a blazing fire in the wide grate, but otherwise the room was but dimly lighted by a shaded lamp, whose rays scarcely travelled to the pictures on the wall.  Agnes sat in front of the fire, her slight figure almost lost in the roomy depths of her uncle's great arm-chair.  There was a basket of white work beside her.  She rose when she saw it was a visitor; and Griff, the dog, stood at her feet, and wagged his tail.

    "Mr Garrett!" she exclaimed, surprised.  But, as I came forward into the light, her face inexpressibly darkened, and she was totally silent.

    "Sit down, my dear," I said; "I have only a question to ask."

    She stood still and awaited it.

    "Have you heard from your cousin Ralph during the day?"

    "No," she said, with great eyes.

    "He left home unexpectedly this morning," I said, "and he has not returned.  And so Mr M'Callum is anxious about him—perhaps unduly anxious—that is all."

    Ewen entered softly.  Till then, he had waited at the door.  Agnes looked blankly at him, and spoke no word.

    "Mr M'Callum thinks your cousin had a letter from you this morning," I said.  "Is he right?"

    "Yes," she answered.

    I remembered Ruth's recent conversation with her.  Might it be that had given a tone to her letter which had worked this disaster?

    "My dear," I began gently, "was there anything in that letter which could possibly cause this?"

    She looked at me for a moment, only half comprehending, and then exclaimed, "No, no, nothing at all.  O God! if there had been, what should I do now?"

    She turned to Ewen.  "What shall we do?  What can I do?  Where can I go?"

    The young man bowed his head.  "Whatever can be done, shall be done," he said; "I will do it."

    "Perhaps it is only an accidental mistake," I remarked.

    "It may be, it may be," exclaimed Agnes eagerly.  " I am so glad uncle is out.  He need not know yet.  If it be nothing, he would only be so angry and dreadful!  And if it be anything, let us keep it till we are quite sure."

    To prolong our visit was useless, and only wasted time.  With a promise that anything we might learn should be instantly communicated to her, we took our departure.  She came with us to the outer doors, and stood on the step till we drove off.  It would have relieved her to have rushed out in the darkness—anywhere—anywhere better than the silent dining-room, and the waiting and the watching—the woman's part in the tragedy of life

    "Let us drive to the inn in the High Street," said Ewen, "and ask what visitors they have.  He may be there, intending to send to his cousin to-morrow morning."

    We did so.  We were shown into the tap-room to take a silent survey of two unconscious young men sitting there, smoking pipes and reading sporting papers.  Neither of them was Ralph Herbert.  When we left the inns, the weather had cleared, and we dismissed our fly, and walked slowly down the High Street to the Railway Station, consulting as we went.  Now the Police Station was in this High Street.  Of course it was a very small unpretending affair, suited to the modest requirements of a quiet and respectable village.  But to-night there was a vague air of excitement about it.  The resident policemen were indulging in a dignified gossip with another official, and they suspended their chat as we came up, and looked at us with unusual interest.  I nodded to one of them whom I happened to know, and we passed on.  Our intention was to make inquiries of the guards at the railway station.  Ewen had not done so when he arrived, in case Mr Ralph had simply found reason to visit his home.  Even now, we wished to make our inquiries as cautiously as possible, not to awaken unnecessary curiosity.  So I went up to an intelligent-looking guard, and asked him if he happened to know young Mr Herbert.

    "Young Mr Herbert?" repeated the man.  "Yes, sir; he came up from London by the train to-day, sir."

    "Thank you," I answered, "that is what I wish to know.  By which train did he come."

    "Let us see," pondered the guard, giving his cap a little jerk from his brow.  "My wife had just brought me my dinner, for 'twas her said, 'Tom, there's the young squire.'  So 'twas the one o'clock train, sir."

    "Thank you," I replied, leaving him a little consideration for his civility, and then returned with my news to Ewen.  It only increased the mystery, and not knowing where else to go, we slowly returned up the High Street.  The little group still stood about the Police Station.  A new idea struck me.  I disengaged my arm from Ewen's and accosted the policeman, whom I knew.

    "Is anything the matter to-night, Mr Jones?"

    "Nothing in particular, sir," said he.

    "Because we are looking for a young friend who came into the village to-day; but whom we cannot find."

    "Indeed, sir," said the man civilly.  But one of the others jogged his elbow and suggested, "Ask the gentleman what's his friend's name, Jones."

    In response to this, I said at once, "It is young Mr Herbert."

    "Then it's all right, sir," answered Jones, with a quick side-glance at Ewen.  "The young gentleman's safe inside."

    "Inside the Police Station!" I exclaimed, and Ewen uttered a peculiar and inarticulate ejaculation.

    "He gave himself up," explained our informant; "and between you and me, sir, I shouldn't wonder if he's a little turned in the head.  For he walked straight in, as jolly like as possible, and says he, 'Here, Mr Jones, I know all about George Roper's death in the Low Meadow.  Just put me in your cell for to-night, and bring me up before the justices to-morrow, and I'll tell 'em all about it.'  He wouldn't enter into no particulars with me, sir, so I was obligated to put him under arrest, knowin' as the job was brought in a murder, and nobody was convicted of it;" with another side glance at Ewen.

    "This is most extraordinary," I said.  "Cannot we be permitted to see him?"

    "Certainly, sir," granted the civil official "we'd ha' sent to the Great Farm for him, or to any other friend's, but he wouldn't let us.  I'm glad you've found him out.  It's a dirty thing to have a prisoner like a rat in a hole with the dogs arter it, and no one to take its part.  But, begging your pardon, sir," added the man, turning to Ewen, and continuing the same civil tone he had used through the interview, "if you won't take it amiss, I thing you'd better not see him.  Ye see folks will remember old stories, and it might look like what the lawyers call collussion."

    I saw the force of this advice, and urged it upon Ewen, until he reluctantly accepted it, saying that he would go back to the Great Farm, and tell Miss Herbert of her cousin's safety, and then return and rejoin me in the High Street.

    Leaving him to carry the painful news to poor Agnes, I followed the policeman to the safe-room of the little station.  The place was sufficiently clean and comfortable.  The cell opened at the end of a passage, and was lit by a small lamp placed on a bracket above the door.  The voluntary prisoner sat on a bare bench beside a little fixture-table in the middle of the room.

    "Here's a gentleman come to see you, sir," said Mr Jones, ushering me in.

    Ralph Herbert coloured, and started up.  I fancy he thought it might be his father, for his face relaxed when he saw me, and he held out his hand saying, "How did you find me out, Mr Garrett?  You should not have taken the trouble to come here."

    "I am here for your cousin's sake as well as your own," I answered gravely, for I thought he scarcely realised the horror of his position.

    "Poor Agnes!" he said, passing his hand over his face, "and she does not know about it yet!"

    "She knows something," I replied, "and she will know the rest in a few minutes.  Ewen came down here and raised the alarm of your disappearance, and we tracked you to this place, and now he has gone to the Great Farm to tell her.  I hope she will bear it well."

    "Ewen will soften it as much as he can," he answered, sadly.

    "And now," I said, taking a seat on the bench beside him, "we must make some preparations for to-morrow.  They tell me that you profess to have the secret of George Roper's murder."

    "I have the secret of George Roper's death," he replied with an emphasis, raising his eyes and looking me full in the face.  "There was no murder."

    "Ewen was not the last who saw Roper alive," he continued, after a moment's pause.  "I met him after they parted.  I had come from London expressly to meet him, because there were some accounts between us.  I owed him a small sum, and he owed me a much larger one, and I wanted him to deduct my debt from his and pay me the surplus, which was a very serious affair to me just then.  He was not sober.  He paid me two or three pounds very easily, but I wanted a little more, which would have squared our accounts.  Then he taunted me, and used dreadful language.  He was always very violent when not sober.  I told him I could not waste time and money in journeys from London to Mallowe, and that was why I wished to settle the matters between us.  I can't think why he was so fierce, but he flew at my throat like a wild animal, and I felt something prick me, but I caught his hands and wrenched an open knife from them.  I held him with one hand while I threw it as far across the fields as I could, that he might not regain it.  It took all my strength to keep him, and when I saw my own blood trickling down my dress, I turned sick and faint, and I put all my powers into one effort, and threw him full-length on the path.  'You murderous madman!' I said, 'lie there while I fetch somebody who will stop your mischief for the future.'  I don't know what I meant myself, for I never really thought of making a disturbance in my own father's village.  But I suppose he believed me.  I looked back when I cleared the field.  He had not attempted to follow me.  He was sitting at the edge of the stream, and he shouted after me, 'I shan't be here when you come back.  You've taken the knife, but you've left the water.'  I took no notice of his words then, but went across the fields and bound up my own wound, which was very slight.  I walked the whole way to London, for I wanted all my money to carry me to Paris, where I had a commission about a picture.  I never knew of Roper's death until weeks afterwards, when I read an announcement of the discovery of his body in an old newspaper."

    "Then you saw the accusation against Ewen, I suppose," I queried.

    "No, I didn't: it was not in that paper," he said, eagerly.  "I had suffered a great deal from many causes, and though I never dreamed that Roper's death could be thought other than a suicide, yet I regarded myself—and I regard myself still—as his murderer, through the foolish threat which drove a frenzied, drunken man to his end.  I tried to lose my own identity.  For more than a year I suffered horrors I can never describe, until, through inability to work at my art, I was driven to the point of destitution.  Then I ventured to Mallowe to try to recover another small debt due to me.  I dared not attempt to present myself to any one who knew me.  One night, when I was lurking about in the darkness, I met you and the rector.  Another winter night—and that was the night when I stole to my father's back door and his good old servant fed me like a beggar man—I encountered George Roper's son.  I saw his father's face in his, and scarcely needed the proof of the name of Wilmot—for I knew all the story of the deserted wife in London—and I daresay you can guess I wrote that letter about him only lately.  Then I struggled on again in great misery, and in the March following that, I met Ewen M'Callum."

    There he paused and drew a long breath, like one recounting the history of his own rescue.  I knew how he had met Ewen, but I said nothing.

    "He took me home with him," he continued presently, "and he heard all my story.  He did not tell me his then but when I grew a little better, I asked so many questions that it all came out.  Then I wanted to come here and tell all I knew, but he would not let me."

    "Should you have allowed him to hinder you?" I asked.

    "Perhaps not," he answered, looking at me; "but he set it before me in this way:—That the accusation against him was only a suspicion,—that it had lost its sting,—that it no longer injured any one,—that my new story would only transfer the suspicion from him to me,—that it would drag my family through the agony from which his had just escaped.  But still I did not like to give him his will.  And then he begged and prayed it of me for Agnes' sake!"  And the young man raised his eyes to mine, with a strange mist in them.  "And so I let it be.  And you know, when I first saw you in London, I asked you if it was right to let one make a great sacrifice for another.  Perhaps you remember what you laid;" and he threw his arms upon the table, and dropped his head upon them.

    "Then what makes you reveal this secret at last?" I inquired, as gently as I could.

    He replied without raising his head.  "In the letter I got this morning, Agnes told me that Ewen's sister refused to marry while the supposed crime rested on her brother.  I could not allow that.  I should be worse than I am if I could, and less fit than ever for Agnes.  I came here directly.  They may not believe what I say.  They may think I killed the poor man.  They may do what they like with me.  But in case of anything, will you do something for me, sir?" he asked, looking up again; "will you write to that address, and explain things?" and he placed a card before me.  "It is a young man who is going out to Canada.  He was to take me with him.  He has a little money, and means to farm, and I know enough about agriculture useful to him; for I find it is no use trying to live by my art.  I mistook a taste for a talent.  I found that out long ago; but then I couldn't go back."

    "Does Miss Herbert know of this plan?" I asked, pocketing the card.

    "Yes," he said; "and we thought when I'd been out there a year or two, I might come home and fetch her.  But that's all over now;" and he sighed heavily.

    "Please, sir," interrupted Mr Jones, opening the door, "here's two ladies come to see you next."

    They were Mrs Irons and Agnes.  I doubt if either of them even noticed my presence, and I withdrew before the first agitated embrace was over.  I found Ewen in the entry, looking unutterably white and fagged.

    "My boy," I said, laying my hand on his arm, "you have acted most nobly towards that unfortunate man."  Those were the first and last words I ever breathed on his unselfishness.  It was above the praise of men—meet for the approval of God.

    "Won't you come home and sup with us?" I asked, presently.

    "No, thank you.  I'll go to my grandfather's," he answered.  "Poor Alice will be glad of this.  I thought she had quite got over the trouble, until my last autumn holidays, when I saw she was still pining."

    For his sister had kept her secret; and he did not yet know what Ralph Herbert had learned, and that, in his self-sacrifice, he had nearly sacrificed her.  But that night of dolour and darkness at the Great Farm was the dawn of light and joy at the Refuge.

    He had taken one or two steps away, when he turned back, and said, calmly enough—

    "Don't call Ralph 'unfortunate.'  One life has one blessing and another life has another; but he has the best!  Good-night, sir."

    I watched him hastening down the splashy road.  And thus the woman's love clings to the frail man and leaves this good one alone!  Is it because he knows the way to heaven without her guidance?


 
CHAPTER XXX.

THE JUSTICE-ROOM.


EARLY next morning I made it my business to lay the whole case before a respectable solicitor at Mallow; and that gentleman, together with Mr Marten and I, were in due attendance at the justice-room.  Ewen and his grandfather were also there, and young George Roper accompanied his aunt, who was present to produce the hitherto mysterious knife, which now gave such proof to Ralph Herbert's narrative.  Agnes too came, in my sister's charge.  But her uncle was conspicuous by his absence.  He had been apprised of his son's position by the rector; and Mr Marten said, the muscles of his face had twitched sadly when he heard it, but he only said, "My son, sir?  I haven't a son.  It can't concern me."

    It was a sufficiently commonplace scene,—the shabby justice-room, with its worn oil-cloth, and its rows of wooden chairs, and intent faces turned towards the two old gentlemen invested with the majesty of the law; kindly enough old gentlemen, who drank port at dinner, and had dainty lady-daughters and strapping sons of their own to stir their elderly hearts, but who yet seemed strangely separate from humanity when they sat down in their awful arm-chairs, and said commonplace things through the Oracle of Justice, and sprinkled magisterial snuff over the papers of the reporter beside them.  That dreadful reporter, too,—whom some fear more than God or their own conscience,—he was only a lank lad of twenty, with red hair.  Once or twice, as the inquiry lengthened, I noticed him adding up the lines of his report, and it struck me he was thinking of the sum he would gain by the job.

    By two o'clock it was all over.  There was no evidence against Ralph Herbert, but every reason to credit his story, and to believe that Mr Roper had met his death by his own rash act.  The justices shook their heads very much over it, and administered little parental reproofs all round, admonishing Mr Marten and me for having dared to conceal the discovery of the knife from the proper authorities:—"Very wrong, very unwise, gentlemen; though we can understand your motives, gentlemen, and respect them.  But it is not a safe course of action."  And sniff, sniff went a pinch of judicial snuff.

    There was a little chamber opening from the justices' room, and it made a convenient refuge for all the more interested spectators.  Only one did not avail himself of it.  Directly the magistrates pronounced their opinion, Ewen rose from his seat and softly left the place.

    In that little brown room, with its solitary window looking on to a square flagged court with a broken pump in the middle, the two cousins met.  Her face was just a little whiter than usual, and perhaps he held her hand a second longer than he held mine.  That was all.  He was as reserved as her; and yet, a minute afterwards, I think the recollection of her manner troubled him.  It was an utterly mute greeting.  There was something to be said between the two,—but not then,—not there.

    "Mr Herbert will return with us to our house," said my sister.  "You will come also, Agnes, will you not?"

    "I must go home to my uncle now," she answered quite calmly.  "So, good-bye, Ralph!  I shall see you again before night."

    They shook hands again, and he went with her to the door.  When he rejoined us, his face was sadder and more concerned than it had been at any time during the morning.

    "She has given me up," he said, as we ushered him into our parlour.  "For her sake, I ought to be very glad, but I can't."

    "Wait awhile," answered Ruth rather grimly, "and don't show your selfishness before you must."

    My sister utterly refused to be won over to the side of Mr Ralph.  Except one or two curt remarks, she was courteous to him, as a stranger and in trouble, but no more.  Immediately after our early tea, she announced that she should pay a visit to the Refuge.  She had scarcely departed on this errand, before Agnes fulfilled her promise of an evening visit.  Of course, directly she entered, I left the room.  I am an old man, but my memory is not yet decayed.  I remember how it troubled me when Lucy's father called us that evening in the fields, and when her mother chanced to stand at her side the next morning.  To this day, I wish it had not so happened.

    I went up-stairs to my own chamber, and tried to read.  Sometimes, in the profound silence, I caught a tone of the earnest talk in the room beneath me.  I heard Ralph walk up and down after the fashion of perturbed or excited people; and so the time wore wearily away, until Ruth knocked at the hall-door, and then I went down and admitted her, because I did not wish her to interrupt the pair in the parlour.  So I mysteriously beckoned her into another room, and then explained myself.

    "There's no peace anywhere because of some courting couple," said she, very tartly.  "I have just been driven from the Refuge, because Mr Weston chose to arrive.  As for these two, they have had enough.  Been here ever since I left, you say?  That's two hours.  I shall go in, whether you will or not."

    Somewhat under protest, I followed her.  Ralph was in my arm-chair, and Agnes was seated on a very low stool beside him.  She had been crying, but now she smiled and was very rosy.

    "Tell them, Ralph," said she.

    "I spoke to you about Canada, last night, sir," he began with some hesitation.  "My friend starts next month, and we hope to be ready to join him—Agnes and I?"

    "My uncle has given permission," she whispered.  "And, of course, he thinks we encouraged you!" said Ruth, severely.

    "No, he doesn't!" she answered, warmly.  "I told him all about it."

    "And you asked his consent?" I queried.

    "I told him all about it," she replied humbly, "and he said I might do as I liked;—I was of age, and he wouldn't hinder me."

    Was this some secret relenting—some hidden joy that God had given one faithful friend to the son whom he had deserted?

    "Then let me wish you happiness, my dear," I said, laying my hand on the brown head, bowed low enough in this moment of womanly triumph; "then let me wish you all peace and happiness after your trial and sorrow—the sweet sunshine after the rain!"

    Ralph Herbert turned to my sister.  "You say nothing," he said, in a tone of sorrowful reproach.

    "Yes, I do," she answered, more kindly than she had spoken before, and laying her hand gently upon his.  "I don't say, May she never regret this day!—for she never will—but I pray that on your dying bed you may remember it with thanksgiving, and not remorse!"

    "God helping me, so I will !" he said solemnly.  And I am sure he meant it.


 
CHAPTER XXXI.

A WEDDING WITH BELLS.


THE very next day after the inquiry, Ruth had a petition presented to her.

    It was Mr Weston's.  He came—shyly enough, but with the confidence of eager hope enough,—to beg my sister to join him in persuading Alice M'Callum to leave the Refuge in a month's time.  This was how he stated the case, with a blush and a roguish smile.

    "Leave the Refuge?" said my sister, with arch innocence: "then where is she going, sir?"

    He made a fine boggle of an answer, which was intended to embrace excuses and reasons for his own haste.  "If she'd said 'Yes' when I asked her first, I should have named a day in early spring," he stammered "and why shouldn't it be now as if it had never been?  She's looking fagged and white, and the change of scene'll do her good.  And the Meadow Farm's quite ready for its mistress.  And what things does she want?  Can't she get them when she's there?  Only she says you won't like such a short notice."

    "Oh, I am not the person to be considered," said Ruth drily.  "You'd better not consult my pleasure, or I shall say I don't like any notice at all!"

    Mr Weston took the little joke in good part, and laughed heartily.  "You're right, Miss Garrett," he answered, quite jovially.  "I should not like her to give me notice."

    "Should you not?" queried Ruth.  "Ah,—I have heard some people are never so happy as when they are miserable, and I suppose that is why they rush into matrimony, although the 'single state is most conducive to happiness.'"

    Mr Weston reddened a little and laughed again.  "Don't laugh at a poor fellow for saying the grapes were sour when they seemed out of his reach," said he.  "I always pitied that fox in the fable."

    "Well, he was pitiable," rejoined my sister; "but if he had gained the grapes and then praised them, I should have told him he was a coward before."

    "When he has gained the grapes, he is so fortunate that he can afford to be called anything," said the young man, good-humouredly.

    The simple kindly farmer was far further in Ruth's good graces than the polished son of the Great Farm.  She actually went with him to the Refuge, and had a long conversation with Alice and her grandfather, for Ewen had returned to London that morning with Mr Herbert.  And when Ruth returned, she brought the news that the old adage that one wedding makes another was fulfilled in this case, and that there would be two marriages at St Cross, while the primroses were out in the churchyard.

    And for a whole month, I was a quiet shadow in the background—a person with no valuable opinions on the subjects in hand—linens, and dresses, and ribbons.  I heard that Mr Weston wished to place in Ruth's hand a considerable sum of money for the disposal of his bride, only Alice would not hear of it.  She said, he must take her with what she could get herself, and he said it didn't matter to him, so I think her bridal attire would have been exceedingly simple but that Ruth's wedding gift was the wedding dress.  Mr Weston was not at all offended because Alice accepted that.  It was a gray silk, rich and delicate, but suited alike to the bride's loveliness, and the bridegroom's position.

    After all, her wedding came first.  The Herberts' was fixed a single day later.  Ewen arrived the evening before his sister's marriage, and said Mr Herbert would not come until the eve of his own.  And Ewen tried to keep his face bright for his sister's joy.  But all the more it haunted me with that inexpressible pain which often makes weddings more sad than funerals,—the suffering of Life instead of the peace of Death.

    It was a laughing spring morning, and in homely phrase, the village was "alive."  St Cross was crowded, for the M'Callums were old residents, and rendered none the less interesting by the melancholy circumstances through which they had so innocently suffered.  When the bridal party stood in the chancel, I heard an old lady whisper that it was a "pretty wedding," and I think she was right.  In the immediate circle the fine old grandfather, the comely bridegroom, the sweet bride, the little orphan bridesmaids in their fresh muslins, and the grave handsome groomsman—all were pleasing and picturesque after their own fashion.  And, standing behind these, Ruth and Bessie and young George Roper did not spoil the scene.  And the background was made up of eager interested faces, all bright in the sunshine, which poured in through the clear windows and brought with it a sweet breath from the budding trees outside.  And then the solemn service which folds the joy of man in the sanctity of God, and the happy tears, and the fond kisses, and the poor trembling maiden signature in the vestry.  And then the merry bells, telling heath and hamlet that God has consecrated another home—and the ride through familiar faces that nobody sees—and the dainty meal that nobody tastes—and the good byes—and then the silence afterwards.

    Agnes was not at the wedding.  It was her last day at home.  A very sad last day—when she might not weep nor smile except as her wont—when she must go about everything as if to-morrow, and the next day, and the next would be the same.  Her uncle knew it was her last day in his house, he had only said "Very well" when she told him so, and by this silence, she knew to be silent herself.

    After the morning's excitement I sat listlessly at our window, watching for Ralph Herbert, who was to be our guest for that night.  I did not know whether to expect a visit from Agnes, and I was very pleased when she entered.

    "I hear the wedding went off well," she said.  "I have written a letter to Alice, that she may receive it in her new home to-night."

    For I should have mentioned that this simple country bride had gone straight from her old home to her husband's house, as he could ill spare a long holiday at this time of year, when his fields needed their master's eye.

    "Very thoughtful of you, my dear," I answered, "and what finery have you there?" for she had a small parcel in her hand.

    "Only all my trousseau!" she replied, laying a dainty pair of lilac gloves upon the table, and looking up with an arch smile about her lips and pathos in her eyes.

    It was quite true.  For her honeymoon was to be passed in no luxurious hotel, her home would be no fresh flowery bride-chambers.  By nightfall after her wedding she would be in the seaport town whence the American ship sailed.  By the next sunset, she would be on the sea—drifting to a new life in a rough settler farm.  And so it was an emigrant's outfit and not a bride's, which filled the great boxes that encumbered our hall.

    She had not been with us many minutes before she rose to go.

    "Will you not wait to see your cousin?" asked Ruth; "he will be here presently."

    "No," she said, "I must go—back.  Tell him I left him my love, but I want to stay with my uncle as long as I can.  I only left home now because he was out among his men."

    I walked home with her in the twilight, speaking of the arrangements for the morrow.  Nobody but those concerned knew what was about to happen.  The honest labourers who touched their foreheads as Agnes passed, little dreamed it was a farewell salutation.  There was something unspeakably touching in the girl going so brave and so lonely from one life to another, not even knowing her own courage and loneliness, but, with the sweet perversity of womankind, only the more reliant on Ralph's protection because it was but a cipher—all the prouder of him because there was little to be proud about!

    When I shook hands with her at the gate of the Farm, she held my hand a little, and probably thinking this was our last moment of undisturbed converse, she thanked me for all that Ruth and I had tried to do for her—speaking so eagerly and fervently of all the past, and yet looking so confidently and quietly into her strange dim future, that my heart was strangely stirred.  But she made one omission which pained me.  In her rapid anxious review of all to whom she owed any kindness, she never even named Ewen, to whom, especially for Ralph's sake, she owed so much.  And I interrupted her to say

    "Nobody has shown you or Ralph more than the common kindness of humanity—except young M'Callum.  I hope you quite understand what he has done.  He deserves thanks."

    "Understand what he has done" she echoed, "thank him?  Mr Garrett, Ewen M'Callum is a saint, and I am only a woman!"

    And she turned and obeyed the deep bay of Griff, impatiently awaiting her within the house.  I stayed at the gate until she crossed the garden, and fairly closed the house door behind her.  But she never turned her head.

    And that was the night before the wedding.


 
CHAPTER XXXII.

A WEDDING WITHOUT BELLS.


OUR breakfast party on the wedding morning was somewhat constrained and silent.  Ralph had joined us very late the night before, and we had then no time for conversation, nor did we seem inclined for any when we gathered round the table for our morning meal.  We were in our trim for the ceremony, that is to say, I wore my neatest tie, and Ruth her best silk dress, for no further attempt at gala attire was possible.  The parlour, too, was "tidied" in Ruth's strictest sense of the word; not a shred of work or writing remained about, and the china bowls and vases were duly filled with fresh primroses and hyacinths.  That was the extent of our preparation.  But when Phillis brought in our toast and new-laid eggs, I thought by her glance at our visitor that she had a shrewd guess at what was going forward, though she had heard no remark to lead her to such conclusion, and though there was nothing in the refreshments which Ruth had ordered to awaken conjecture.  For there could be no sugary wedding breakfast, with cakes, and champagnes, and trifles, but a repast of savoury joints and poultry, substantial enough to carry the young couple to their sea-port destination.

    There was a solemnity about the aspect of affairs which crept over each of us.  The very morning was solemn—not cloudy, but with a low-toned steady sunlight, and a cool still air.  The shadows on our garden plot did not dance, but lay straight and still.  The parlour too, with the signs of ordinary life all banished, had a conventual air, consistent with bated voices and silent smiles.  But even silent smiles were lacking.  Yet when I thought of all this day was in Ralph's life, I could not wonder at his pale grave face, or the reddened flightless eyes that told of a sleepless night.  True, he had achieved a great happiness—to him, unworthy as he felt himself, had fallen that good gift which Solomon tells us comes directly "from the Lord."  But I liked the youth no less because he took his blessing with awe and trembling, nor because he did not prepare to leave his fatherland with a laugh upon his lips.  Alone, he might have gone recklessly enough.  Going alone, he might have said his native country cast him off, and so turned his face to another shore, and never looked behind.  But now that one went with him, nothing fearing, he felt tenderly for the old place that spared him its best, and his heart yearned over the very fields where he had walked and talked with one so pure and true.  I daresay his feeling was something like that expressed in those lines of an old song, which I remember once reading, where one emigrant says to another—


"'Tis not the future makes me grieve:
     But though the past is sad,
 I weep my grateful thanks to God
     For pleasant times I've had!"


    Of course he made one at our little service of family worship.  It is our custom to hold that service immediately after breakfast.  Ruth and I agreed that it was inconsiderate to summon servants to such a duty before they had taken some refreshment after their early household work.  At the risk of being thought a monotonous formalist, I must explain our form of worship.  I take our prayers from the Book of Common Prayer—first, the general confession of sin, then the prayer for all conditions of men, concluding with the collect for the preceding Sunday, and that is all, except on any special occasion, when I take a special petition from the Litany.  For a Scripture portion I read the New Testament lesson for the day.  I have often noticed how strangely appropriate these appointed portions seem, and never more so, than when on this 4th of March, I found it my duty to read the fifteenth chapter of St Luke's Gospel.  As I announced it, I involuntarily glanced at Ralph.  He did not need to seek it—his Bible opened at the place, for the page was marked by a dried spray of that delicate fern which is, I think, called "maiden hair."

    When we rose from our knees, it was time to prepare for church.  Ralph was the first to depart, Ewen would join him on the road—the only wedding guest beside ourselves.  We waited at our window until Agnes appeared, coming steadily and gravely along the road.  Then we left our house, and she came up to us with a quiet simple salutation, and took her place by my sister's side.  But behind her, followed an attendant on whom we had not counted, even the great dog Griff, walking with a dignified solemnity fit for the occasion.

    "Yes, he must come," said his mistress, responding to our glances.  "Griff goes with us.  Ralph arranged that.  Grief is a faithful old friend, and must not be left behind."

    "But what will he do at the church?" I asked, in dismay.

    "He will wait in the porch," she answered.

    I scarcely liked to ask about her parting from her uncle, but presently she raised her eyes and said, "I have said good-bye to uncle.  He did not give me a chance of saying a word; but he knows he is not likely to see me again, and he spoke very kindly."  And there the low voice faltered, and the brown eyes filled with tears, which did not overflow, as very sad tears seldom do.

    We went up the churchyard way, and entered the silent house of God, with its long, misty sunbeams slanting over the empty pews.  Ralph and Ewen stood in the chancel in the coloured light of the stained window.  The rector saw our entrance through the half-open vestry door, and he came out, gowned, and went behind the communion rails.

    There was a moment's silence—a pause—before the mysterious gate through which two lives would pass into one.  Agnes was the calmer of the two, with her pale face and veiled eyes, for I saw Ralph grasp the rail before him, like one thankful for any support, while his eyes wandered vaguely to the scrolls above the table, and his lips moved in unconscious recitation of those words, whose full, sweet meaning scarcely seemed for him: "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him."

    Then the service began—the service which I had heard only the clay before, but which, however solemn then, now seemed to have a new and thrilling minor key.  I could scarcely trust my voice in the few simple responses, but there was one whose tones rung out clear and firm in each.  It was Ewen.  Somehow, I could not look at him.  Without a glance, I could see his figure standing behind the bridegroom, generally erect, though the head bowed a little once or twice.  Ah, the wedding might seem dreary in its solemn love and daring, bare of all those sweet little charities which generally drape such scenes in mists of tearful smiles and smiling tears, but many a bridal, with troops of congratulating friends, might envy that one loyal and true wedding guest, poor indeed, lowly as yet,—though I think the day may come when Agnes will be proud to say who stood behind her bridegroom—but who bravely brought all he had, even his own heart, and laid it as a willing offering on the marriage altar.

    One or two hearty sobs, startling the rectors eyes from his book, warned us that some interested spectator had stolen upon our solitude; and when all was over, and we left the vestry, where Agnes had signed the name that she need not change, and Ruth had kissed her, and I had blessed her, and Ewen had touched her hand—very lightly—and said never a word, then we found Sarah Irons seated on a back seat, indulging herself in a "good cry."  And I was glad to see that Ralph Herbert did not shrink from the honest servant's fond embrace.  Ah, surely henceforth every woman, however plain and homely, will be sacred to him for the sake of one!  The old Crusaders held their chivalry in the name of "Our Ladye."  And should not every man be gentler and braver for the sake of the woman in his heart, whether her image stand at a hearth or in a shrine?

    "I've left a letter for you from the master at your house, sir," whispered Sarah, detaining me a minute after the young people passed out.  "O' course I don't know what's in it, but it can't part 'em now, thank God!"

    No bells, no whispering faces, no huzzas, only the breeze stirring a little in the new-budded boughs, and one or two villagers looking from their doors, with a little wonder and curiosity, to see the squire's son and niece once more walking together, and that as quietly and soberly as if it were quite a matter of course.

    According to instructions, we found a substantial meal spread in our parlour, and Phillis in watchful, conscious attendance.  The letter from Mr Herbert lay beside my plate, and I did not venture to touch it until dinner was over.  I might have spared my fears.


"DEAR SIR" (it ran),—"I have just parted from my niece Agnes, who has been a good and dutiful niece to me, though not as wise as she might have been.  Now, I do not like that the last daughter of the Herberts of Upper Mallowe should leave her home with no portion but the beggarly produce of a book of verses and stories.  Therefore I enclose ten fifty-pound notes, which I hope will be useful to her.  I would have taken care to bind this sum upon herself, but she's one of those women you can't take care of, because she's determined to throw herself away.—I remain, yours truly,       RALPH HERBERT, sen."


    I silently placed the letter and its enclosure before the young couple.  They read it through, and looked at each other.

    "Ralph," said Agnes, very softly, "now you may go and say good-bye to uncle."

    "He will not see me," he answered sadly; "and, besides, we have no time."

    "He will see you if I ask him now," she returned; "and we will go on our way to the station."

    Their boxes had all been despatched there in a cart, and so the little journey was to be made on foot.  At the gate of the Great Farm, Agnes turned and said, "Mr Garrett and I will go in together."

    But we found the hall door open, and so Ralph advanced into the porch, and stood there to await his fate, while my sister and Ewen lingered beyond the garden palings.

    The strange stillness of the early morning had passed away, and there was a lively breeze astir.  It swept through the open hall and lightly rustled the curtains of Agnes' deserted parlour, and I heard the low of cattle from the meadows behind the house.  But Agnes did not heed the familiar sights and sounds, she walked straight forward to the dining-room; its door, too, was open, and the room was in a flood of fresh spring sunshine.  At the far end of the long table, just before the quaint window, with its treasures of blooming hyacinths and crocuses, sat Mr Herbert.  He did not heed our footsteps—perhaps he did not even hear them.  His arms were spread over the table, and his head was laid upon them.  I don't know whether it was owing to the strong light or to his attitude, but, for the first time, I noticed many white hairs among his glossy brown.  Agnes stopped to notice nothing; she went straight up to him, and sat suddenly down on the floor, and laid her cheek on his knee.

    "Uncle!" she cried.

    He started up, half bewildered, and caught her in his arms.  "My darling, my pretty one!" he exclaimed.  "But you're not mine now; I could not keep you."

    "Uncle!" she cried again, putting her arms round his neck, the tears raining down her face.  "Uncle, my husband wants to thank you for all your kindness to me.  Let him come!"

    Mr Herbert half shook off the clasp of those gentle arms, but they were firm with the might of love.  If he did not own Ralph as his son, she chose him for her husband!  He hesitated, and Agnes kissed him again, and her tears fell on his hands.

    "Let him come !" said he.

    I went softly, and led him in.  I did not re-enter the room.  Nay, I closed the door behind Ralph, for there are some scenes which strange eyes ought not to see—some words which only God may hear!

    *                                *                                   *                                   *                                   *

    Half-an-hour afterwards they came out all three.  They walked together to the station, and Ewen and Ruth and I followed behind.  On the platform stood old Mr M'Callum, and George and Miss Sanders.  George had a nosegay for Agnes.

    Mr Herbert was almost inclined to go with them to the seaport, but he did not.  "It's parting either here or there," he said, "so we'll get it over at once.  But somebody's going to see you off, I suppose?"

    "I am," said Ewen.  "I will be with them till the last!"

    "You're a good fellow," responded the farmer.

    A shriek from the engine, and Agnes, already seated in the carriage, placed her hand in her husband's.  Ewen sat opposite.  Another shriek, a smile, nods, and a burst of tears, and they were off.  And we heard Griff's growl, as the dog-carriage passed us.

    God bless the bride and bridegroom!  And God bless Ewen!  He smiled as he looked from the window; and so I know how men smile at the stake or on the rack.  And yet he will be all the better for this anguish.  A pure love never harmed any man.  Love and sorrow have sung the world's sweetest songs, and painted its fairest pictures, and achieved its greatest deeds.  So some day, perhaps, Ewen will make a picture of an emigrant ship, and the agony which was in his heart he will paint in the faces there, so that they shall stir the souls of all that gaze thereon into that human tenderness whence grows


That best portion of a good man's life,
His little nameless, unremember'd acts
Of kindness and of love."


    Oh, let us thank God for the love and sorrow of genius!  Yet, let us thank Him reverently, as we thank Him for all the blessings which come to us, by the sacrifice and pain of others.  We take the flowers that blossom from the thorny stems, but they long for the time when the Master's eye shall see that the fruit is ripe, and His hand shall gather it in.  I remember one verse in Agnes' father's book:—


Oh 'tis hard to hear them praise us for the music we have learn'd
From the sobs we choked within us, and the hidden tears that burn'd;
When the poet goes to God, sure he leaves his harp behind,
For the song they sing in heaven is of quite another kind."


 
A POSTSCRIPT BY MISS GARRETT.


    Now Edward has finished his love-story, I hope he will listen to me when I want to talk to him about the Refuge or the Hospital.  For it seems to me uncommonly like a love-story, though it professes to be a record of what an old man and woman are able to do, when they sit down to rest and take breath before they go into the King's presence.

    We've heard from Agnes and Ralph. They are settled in Canada, and Agnes says they are doing very well; but how is one to believe her?  I shall not be surprised if Mr Herbert goes out after them.  For in this world, wonders never cease.  The other evening when I was at the Great Farm, in the dining-room, where that portrait's face is now decently turned forward, he almost cried while he pointed out a mark on the rug, worn by Grief's paws, where he used to hold on when Mr Herbert tried to push him away to make room for his own feet.  Now if that is not rank sentiment and just like people, I don't know what is!  I should not have pushed the poor dog aside, and then I should have had no mark in the rug to cry over, and so I suppose people would say I had no feeling!  But I don't care what they say.

    Bessie manages the Hospital famously, and her nephew lives with her.  Phillis is matron at the Refuge now, and Mr M'Callum says she does very well indeed.  The old man would not leave his poor people even to go and sit in the chimney-corner at Meadow Farm, where Alice and her husband live in great happiness and prosperity.  They have a little daughter; and Edward and I are the godfather and godmother.  Alice thought she should be named after me, and so did I, but Edward said she must be a "Lucy," because that was a family name with the Westons.  Family name, indeed!—I dare say he cares a great deal for family names!  But as he says nothing, I don't take any notice.  If it pleases him to keep a secret, let him think he keeps it, that's all!

    Ewen does not come very often to Upper Mallowe, at least he does not stay very long when he does come.  He does not go to the counting-house now, but is "an artist all out," as his grandfather says.  But he says he will return to business the moment his art is a labour to him, because it is not right to turn God's gift into a machine.  He is a very fine young man, but I hear that people say he is stern and haughty.  Nobody ever believes in a volcano, which keeps itself to itself, and does not rampage and destroy everything around it.

    But I can't write any more, for the Refuge bills are just sent in, and there 's a basket of linen to sew for the Hospital.  It's very well to write about work, but it 's better to do it!








Ballantyne and Company, Printers, Edinburgh.

 


 

 [Home] [Up] [Recollections] [The Secret Drawer] [By Still Waters] [Doing and Dreaming] [The Dead Sin] [Family Fortunes] [At Any Cost] [Rab Bethune's Double] [Short Stories, etc.] [Poems] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

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