[ocr errors]

glints from between the thick green cov- the woman and her account-book! She ert. To him there was an excitement in had kept away from her daughter when everything to-day which might have been she might have been of some use, and due to the warm west wind-notoriously now she was evidently going to stick to of a heady character - but may also have her like a leech for the remainder of her been due to less material causes. life. If he required a sedative, he certainly A dancing step outside upon the gravel, received one. He was shown by a servant and little Jan darted like a willow-wren into the principal drawing-room, and found into the opening, and stood there poised it tenanted by Lady Helversdale, who was upon one foot, her head on one side. seated before a writing-table, a large mo- "This is my little granddaughter," Lady rocco account-book with a coronet upon Helversdale observed with gracious exthe corner, open before her, and display-planatoriness. "She is very shy with ing a formidable double column of ascend- strangers, unfortunately. Janetta, my dear, ing figures. John Lawrence remembered come here and with some inward amusement that she had been engaged in precisely the same occupation when last he had had the advantage of seeing her ladyship, some fifteen years earlier.

The room was large, and furnished with an elaboration of ornament that was bewildering. A visitor had to make his way through a complicated maze of objects of art which blocked one another up. The windows opened upon a broad, gravelled terrace, beyond which a steep, grassy slope dropped to the river-side, leaving only room for a double row of big limetrees, between which ran a walk.

[ocr errors]

But, with a scream of delight, Jan had rushed past her, and was clutching this particular stranger round the neck.

"Colonel Laurie! It is my Colonel Laurie! Where have you been? Oh, where have you, have you been, you naughty, naughty man? I have wanted you so dweadful bad, and muddie too, so mutch, so very, very mutch!"

[ocr errors]

She was hanging on to his neck, she was clutching at his arm with both hands, her little pale face flushed pink to the very brows with delight at seeing him. The next minute she was pulling him vigorously towards the open window. He apologized for the intrusion, exCome," she said authoritatively – plaining that he had asked for Lady Elea-"come!" nor. Lady Helversdale was civil but stately. She was not certain," she said, "whether her daughter would be able to see any one as yet or not. If she could, she was sure she would willingly make an exception in favor of so old an acquaintance as Major Lawrence. She would ring and enquire."

The old acquaintance sat down rather gloomily in a chair, while a servant went to make enquiries. Presently he returned, with the information that her ladyship was out walking in the grounds.

"Ah," Lady Helversdale said, in a tone of finality, "I dare say then you will kindly call again, as you tell me that you are staying in the neighborhood. Naturally my daughter is not in spirits to see any but her own relations at present." There was a pause, and then, "You were acquainted with my late son-in-law, were you not? she added in a tone of conversational gravity.

[ocr errors]

The visitor responded somewhat grimly that he had had that privilege. How well he had done to stay away, he said to himself; nay, what a fool he had been to come at all! He pulled his moustaches, and glared under his eyebrows savagely at the unconscious countess. Deuce take

"Come where, Jan dear?"

"Out," was all the answer vouchsafed, and with a bow and a word of apology to the astonished countess, the colonel went out accordingly.

Once outside, Jan made for the slope, pulling him after her by the hand. It was a long, rather steep slope, reaching, as has been said, to the edge of the stream, where another walk ran under the shade of some large lime-trees, and here a figure was seen slowly pacing along in the shade. Jan's impulse was not to be resisted; at any rate, was not resisted. John Lawrence yielded, his feet moving faster and faster in sympathy with her two little urgent ones. All at once, as if one of the swallows overhead had swooped and carried it away in its beak, the gloom and hurt susceptibility of the last few minutes seemed to melt and roll away. There was an exhilaration in the scene itself which it was difficult to resist. It had seemed as if the whole summer had been spent in that long wait in the breathless valley and upon the scorched hilltop, and yet how young and fresh the world looked still! It was, in fact, still only July, and a late season. The flowers in the beds had hardly attained full

beauty; the lime-trees were covered with | nature subdued to man, fitting into his blossom, a crowd of bees, like assiduous courtiers, surrounded them, their hums of flattering commendation filling the air with an obsequious murmur.

The scent of the lime-trees, the crisp touch and rustle of the grass, the child's eager little hand like some small, warm bird half enclosed in his grasp - it all seemed to go to our poor patient friend's head. He hardly knew where he was until he found Lady Eleanor's hand too in his, and his eyes meeting hers in a long look of enquiry.

She had stopped in her walk as he approached, dragged along in triumph by Jan, a faint smile parting her lips as she stood there, a pathetic figure in her heavy black, amid the green upspringing grass and under the gilt-edged shadows of the boughs.

Too full of all they had to say, too full of a hundred memories to speak, they walked along almost in complete silence, Jan, after chattering for a few moments, darting off in pursuit of a dragon-fly.

needs, and anticipating his wants. It was an afternoon that seemed prophetic. It suggested other afternoons following one another in a long-drawn sequence, a sunlit procession, the more distant members of which were lost from sight in a golden perspective.

When they reached the first turning of the walk she paused a moment, and turned towards him.

"You have been a long time coming to see me," she said, and there was an accent of reproach in her tone.

Already, alas! the heaven-lit plains were beginning to recede. Already self, the clamorous, the never-to-be-pacified, was thrusting up an angry head.

"I didn't think I was wanted," he said gruffly. "You had so many others, nearer to you, and

[ocr errors]

"You should not have thought so,” she

For some unaccountable reason, to be sought for, no doubt, in the innate depravity of human nature, the colonel with difficulty repressed an impious ejaculation. Why he felt so angry he would have found it difficult to say. Half an hour ago he would have said that no one could have been more interested in poor Mrs. Cathers than himself, no one more eager for any remedial measures that could be devised. Now, however, he felt suddenly angered almost past bearing by the mere mention of the poor lady's name. "Was there never to be an end of these Catherses?"

interrupted. "No one takes your place, no one knows just what you do. I have wanted, besides, to consult you about so many things." She paused a minute and His irritation had vanished utterly by sighed. "First about poor Mrs. Cathers. this time, melted away in the joy of her I hear she went to see you the other day. presence, in the deep, untroubled calm of What do you think of her? I have wanted the scene. It was almost like meeting in so much to know. Do tell me. I am so a new world; one of those moments which uneasy, so miserably anxious and unhappy solace us by their intensity, while they tor-about her. I can think of nothing else." ment us by their brevity. Life seemed to stretch away before him like a heaven-lit expanse, she walking on the flowers, he somewhere near at hand. He did not think then of any nearer claim; his being for the moment was, as it were, absorbed and gathered up in hers. After work rest, he thought, and after trouble peace. All that had made the discord of her life; that had spoiled its music; that had dimmed her youth; that had refused her nature room to expand, -all was buried and passed away forever now. Only the best blessings, only a wider grasp of reality, only her children's love, only the benignity - that was the sentiment he would have of sorrow, of a life resuscitated to nobler expressed if the natural man had spoken uses only these remained. He saw her aloud. Fortunately the natural man canpassing on from height to height, a well not and dares not speak aloud in such of healing, a benediction to all who ap-fashion. Decency, a hundred invisible proached her. Even the charm of the ligaments, hold him back and hinder it. scene seemed but to reflect and make part The impulse was alarming, however, and of hers. That peculiar beauty-serene, he rushed into speech to avoid the peril. orderly, benignant, of which English landscapes keep the secret was strong today upon everything, upon the closely shaven sward, upon the great trees and trim flower-beds, upon the smooth unrippled surface and silent flowing of the river, in every tint, and touch, and line; a sense of order and of permanence, of

"I thought her very ill," he said. "She seemed hardly to know where she was, or what was happening around her. I suppose she has seen doctors? What do they say?"


They don't seem to know; they are puzzled, I think. Most of them say that by degrees her mind will recover its tone;

that we must avoid excitement and agita- | pressed upon him than ever as he went tion until she has recovered from the down the avenue. Was not everything he shock she received. All but Dr. Mulligan, who knows her best. He says she will never, never be any better than she is

[merged small][ocr errors]

She glanced up at one of the windows, as she finished speaking, with an anxious expression. The river gurgled on, uttering an occasional choking sob; the bees gathered in a brown cloud, a straggler from the ranks passing close to their heads, cleaning his pollen-coated legs one against the other as he did so, and packing the dust carefully into the basket-like receptacle he carried for the purpose. Lady Eleanor looked round with another sigh.

"I have so much to learn, I feel dreadfully bewildered sometimes at the thought of it all," she said. "Have you heard that it has that my husband that it has all been left in my hands to do just what I like with, until little Algy comes of age? My poor little Algy! Such a mite. Only three!"

He nodded to signify that he had heard. Lady Mordaunt had told him.

"It was wonderfully generous, it showed a great deal of trust in me," she went on with a sort of wondering sadness. "It gives one a terrible sense of responsibility so much to do, so much to think of, so much money to spend. I, too, that know so little about money."

"You will soon learn that. We can all learn to do with money, it is the doing without it is the difficulty," he said gruffly. "You speak as if there was something you wanted that money could get?" she answered in a tone of surprise. "Do tell me if there is. Why should not friends help one another?"

"No, no, nothing of the sort, I assure you. I only spoke generally. It is the custom, as you are aware, of impecunious mankind to grumble about money, and carp at its possessors. I only yielded to the common impulse."

saw, touched, handled, his and no one else's? The wood-pigeons in the branches, the baby rabbits waggling ridiculous tufts of tails, the green arums under the beeches, the blue speedwells peeping up with sweet, impertinent faces from the grass. It was all Algernon Cathers's. And she? that beautiful woman whom he had just left? Was she his also? Would she always be his? Would his shadow never be off her life? It seemed to him that it never would. Did she desire that it should? It was his deliberate opinion that she did not.


THE next time he went he saw Mrs. Cathers. He had been told by the servant that the ladies were outside, so stepped out of the drawing-room on to the terrace.

He found the poor thing sitting upon a garden-chair over which a parasol had been arranged. Her eyes, expressive of a sort of astonished immovability, were riveted upon the gravel, where the small Algy was occupying himself with building a fort of wooden bricks, surrounded by an outer circle of small heaps of gravel, into each of which he was carefully planting a tin flag borrowed from a box of toy soldiers which lay scattered on the ground. Evidently his grandmother's mind was entirely concentrated upon these military operations. She sat with her lips a little apart, her face expressive of rapt absorption, and not even moving when the door opened and the visitor appeared.

He went up and spoke to her. She shook hands, looking up in his face with a gentle, wavering smile. She knew him, and called him by his name, but in a minute her attention strayed away and became absorbed again in the child's proceedings. There was a likeness between the two faces which brought out the contrast between them with painful vividness. The little peach-faced boy, his small He left soon after this, taking leave of mouth set in a mould of baby determinaher rather abruptly. He felt that it was tion; the poor feeble-faced woman, still impossible to remain. He should make comely, young too, comparatively speaksome outrageous demonstration; say some-ing, but with that look of utter vacancy thing that would shock her, that might shock even himself afterwards. Better go less age. before anything of the sort happened.

She had not uttered a word expressive of any particular heart-brokenness, rather had seemed to avoid anything of the sort, and yet the sense of Algernon Cathers's proprietorship, and of his own vehement opposition to it, was more strongly im

worse than the worst ravages of remorse

Lady Eleanor, who was only a little way off, came forward and shook hands with the visitor, and they stood together look. ing down at the pair before them. After a minute, by mutual consent they turned away, and walked on along the broad expanse of terrace.

When he turned to speak to her he saw | heart-he was sure of that- and not that the tears had gathered in her eyes, allow herself to be urged into doing any. and were falling fast over her black dress, thing in the slightest degree contrary to "It breaks my heart to see her; I can't its impulses. bear it!" she said brokenly. "It is so piteous, so cruel! I sometimes wonder what I can be made of to be so different So -so I don't know what-like a thing of wood or stone. Why should she be like that, and I not?"

[ocr errors]

"Thank God you are not!" he exclaimed fervently. "I have childrenmy that is one thing. She has nothing. All her life she has lived for him, thought of him, cared for him and him alone and now she has nothing. Does it not seem hard? She has never been to blame, she has always been good, kind, unselfish, and yet you see what she is a ruined creature, like the bough of a tree that is broken. What good can one's pity do her? what good will anything do her ever, ever again?"

[ocr errors]

He did not immediately answer. To his apprehension, the most piteous part of the tragedy lay in the utter worthlessness of its object. That, however, was one of those sentiments which must forever, he felt, remain buried in the depths of his own breast.

Little Jan came running up, excited and eager to talk to her friend, and they walked on in the direction of the kitchen garden, the nurse being at hand in case Mrs. Cathers wanted anything. Lady Helversdale, her daughter told him presently, had left three or four days before, and she did not expect her back for some time. From what she said he gathered that all her relatives had got one by one out of patience with poor Mrs. Cathers's childlike vagaries, and had left Redcombe.



They did not know her formerly, and have had no opportunities, therefore, of knowing what she is, what a beautiful unselfish nature she has," Lady Eleanor said in an explanatory tone. They only see what is painful and distressing. They think that she ought to be controlled, that I ought to induce her to remain in one part of the house, so that there would be no fear of her coming in contact with others. But I say that I could not bear to do so. She would not understand, and would be more restless and wretched even than she is now. Besides, why should I? What right have I? She was mistress here long before I was, and it seems to me that, as far as is possible, it is she who ought to be mistress still. Don't you think so? Doesn't it strike you in that light?

[ocr errors]

He said yes; she must follow her own

He stayed longer with her than on his last visit, and came back again a few days later, and from that time forward was pretty constantly at Redcombe. It

Mrs. Cathers grew rapidly worse.. was only at longer and longer intervals that she knew that her son was dead. At other times she spoke of him as alive, but absent. Although she had nominally made her home with them, they had often been apart for long periods, so that her mind probably reverted easily to those periods, and she believed this to be simply one of them. As a rule, she was perfectly docile, though now and then she would take some fancy into her head, from which no coaxing could turn her. John Lawrence had a considerable influence over her. The poor thing always knew him, and seemed pleased to see him. Sometimes she would talk a great deal, wandering from one subject to another in a gentle guileless babble, painful only from its inconsequence. At other times she would be silent for hours, her hands upon her lap, her eyes fixed upon some object in front of her, her poor lips working silently, or uttering over and over some baby word of endearment, which she had no doubt used to her son when he was a child.

To the colonel the sight was always unspeakably pathetic, filling him with a pity reaching down to some of the deepest roots of his manhood. Even without that bribe which stood beside her, his kindly impulse would have been capable of urging him to devote himself to her relief. He had his bribe, however, so we must be chary of giving him too much credit for what he might have done without it.

Insensibly his life grew into a sort of supplement of theirs, as it had once before grown into a supplement of the life at Mordaunt. The place seemed to open for him, and he dropped into it so naturally that it hardly seemed to be a voluntary act at all. Lady Eleanor clearly wanted help, and equally clearly counted as a matter of course upon receiving his. There was a good deal of one kind and another to be done, and there was no one in particular to do it. Her brother was with his regiment; the agent of the property, was old; of available neighbors there were, save himself, none. Two trustees had been appointed under Algernon Cathers's will, but of these one was that trouble-hating

ments; tender as a daughter, vigilant as a nurse that is paid for her services. He would have expected it, and yet it filled him with as keen an admiration as if it had been a surprise. He was very susceptible, poor fellow, to admiration in that direction.

personage the Earl of Helversdale and | with secret wonder at her devotion, at the Kenneth; the other was Sir Peter Bath- patience with which she met all her poor erwick, of City celebrity, whose well- charge's many and wearying requirerounded life admitted of his bestowing little more than a vague and distant supervision. Under ordinary circumstances the ties of kindred would have been felt, no doubt, to be imperative, and no lack of relations would have rallied about the magnificently endowed widow and her little boy; but against this affectionate assiduity poor Mrs. Cathers's condition presented an almost impassable barrier, and for this it must be owned John Lawrence secretly offered the poor lady an eternal meed of gratitude. Nothing would induce Lady Eleanor to alter the line which she had laid down for herself. Not only would she never consent to banish Mrs. Cathers, but she refused, save now and then for an hour or so, to relegate her to the care of the servants. Lady Helversdale on two occasions appeared upon the scene, but on each occasion retreated at the end of a day or two, declaring the impossibility of her being expected to remain under the circumstances. Really, to have that poor unfortunate creature mopping and mowing, and going on in such a way in the drawing-room- no one had ever heard of such a thing! Only Eleanor's ignorance of what was customary could excuse it. Why, when old Lord Santander - a delightful man had been ambassador at Berlingot that distressing softening of the brain, his family never allowed him to be seen down-stairs. He had his own rooms and attendants, so that you might actually have stayed in the house without knowing that he was there at all.

[ocr errors]

In her dismay she even took the step of appealing to John Lawrence, demonstrating to him the utter unreasonableness of Lady Eleanor's conduct, ruining her life, inconveniencing all her own relations! and for what? For the sake of a person who really had hardly any claims upon her now at all.

She got very little satisfaction out of that sturdy partisan. He all but told her in good round terms that she was not acquainted with her daughter and never had been. An Eleanor Cathers seeking her own ease; pushing aside uncomfort able duties; hoisting society on to its accustomed throne, and letting everything else grovel at its feet, would simply not have been Eleanor Cathers at all, but some one totally dissimilar.

Even he-well as he flattered himself he did know her. was filled now and then

[ocr errors]

Had its destiny even been a less un friendly one, the keynote of his love would probably always have been devotion. Its ruling thought would have been less, "How this dear woman adores me!" than "What a woman this is that I adore!" There was a touch too of the creator's pride in it. Standing there in her wonderful beauty, in the finished perfection of her womanhood, the centre of so much love, honor, admiration, the pivot round which a whole little world revolved, she was still to him his Elly, the colt-like creature whom no one else could tame, who had been almost thrust into his hands like a wild bird or bright-eyed creature that puzzled its captors. The creator's rôle is never an easy one, and John Lawrence had a full share of its pangs. It took the form of a rigid watch over himself. Not by word, look, gesture, would he add to her burden; not by word, look, gesture, risk that friendship dearer to him than anything else he possessed. Even had their circumstances been more nearly equal, with what face could he ask her to turn over this tear-blistered page, and complacently begin another? But how far were they from being equal! She was a rich woman -the richest, it was said, in the county while he -the juxtaposition was enough-proprietor of a tumble-down shanty, and half-a-dozen acres of gorse and scrub! No. Honor, pride, decency, every sort of respectable, if inconvenient virtue, forbade the idea. His rôle was fixed, and there were few greater mistakes than for a man to try too late to alter his rôle.

[ocr errors]

Under this self-denying ordinance the situation was not precisely thrilling, and yet John Lawrence found little to complain of. As the summer passed away, and September faded, and October began to sicken towards November, and the hedges and ditches were cumbered with the ranks of the dead and the dying, the sense of continuity and security deepened upon him till he began to feel it a sort of order of nature that he should start as early as decency permitted in the afternoon, spend the remainder of it at Red

« ElőzőTovább »