On six days of the week, Mrs. Hood, to do her justice, made no show of piety to the powers whose ordering of life her tongue incessantly accused; if her mode of Sabbatical observance was bitter, the explanation was to be sought in the mere force of habit dating from childhood, and had, indeed, a pathetic significance to one sufficiently disengaged from the sphere of her acerbity to be able to judge fairly such manifestations of character. A rigid veto upon all things secular, a preoccupied severity of visage, a way of speaking which suggested difficult tolerance of injury, an ostentation of discomfort in bodily inactivity -- these were but traditions of happier times; to keep her Sunday thus was to remind herself of days when the outward functions of respectability did in truth correspond to self-respect; and it is probable that often enough, poor woman, the bitterness was not only on her face. As a young girl in her mother's home she had learnt that the Christian Sabbath was to be distinguished by absence of joy, and as she sat through these interminable afternoons, on her lap a sour little book which she did not read, the easy-chair abandoned for one which hurt her back, the very cat not allowed to enter the room lest it should gambol, here on the verge of years which touch the head with grey, her life must have seemed to her a weary pilgrimage to a goal of discontent. How far away was girlish laughter, how far the blossoming of hope which should attain no fruitage, and, alas, how far the warm season of the heart, the woman's heart that loved and trusted, that joyed in a newborn babe, and thought not of the day when the babe, in growing to womanhood, should have journeyed such lengths upon a road where the mother might not follow.
Neither Hood nor his daughter went to church; the former generally spent the morning in his garret, the latter helped herself against the depression which the consciousness of the day engendered by playing music which respect would have compelled her to refrain from had her mother been present. The music was occasionally heard by an acquaintance who for some reason happened to be abroad in church time, and Mrs. Hood was duly informed of the sad things done in her absence, but she had the good sense to forbid herself interference with Emily's mode of spending the Sunday. She could not understand it, but her husband's indifference to religion had taught her to endure, and, in truth, her own zeal, as I have said, was not of active colour. Discussion on such subjects there had never been. Her daughter, she had learnt to concede, was strangely other than herself; Emily was old enough to have regard for her own hereafter.
Breakfast on Sunday was an hour later than on other days, and was always a very silent meal. On the day which we have now reached it was perhaps more silent than usual. Hood had a newspaper before him on the table; his wife wore the wonted Sabbath absentness, suggestive of a fear lest she should be late for church; Emily made a show of eating, but the same diminutive slice of bread-and-butter lasted her to the end of the meal. She was suffering from a slight feverishness, and her eyes, unclosed throughout the night, were heavy with a pressure which was not of conscious fatigue. Having helped in clearing the table and ordering the kitchen, she was going upstairs when her mother spoke to her for the first time.
'I see you've still got your headache,' Mrs. Hood said, with plaintiveness which was not condolence.
'I shall go out a little, before dinner-time,' was the reply.
Her mother dismally admitted the wisdom of the proposal, and Emily went to her room. Before long the bell of the chapel-of-ease opposite began its summoning, a single querulous bell, jerked with irregular rapidity. The bells of Pendal church sent forth a more kindly bidding, but their music was marred by the harsh clanging so near at hand, Emily heard and did not hear. When she had done housemaid's office in her room, she sat propping her hot brows, waiting for her mother's descent in readiness for church. At the sound of the opening and closing bedroom door, she rose and accompanied her mother to the parlour. Mrs. Hood was in her usual nervous hurry, giving a survey to each room before departure, uttering a hasty word or two, then away with constricted features.
The girl ascended again, and, as soon as the chapel bell had ceased its last notes of ill-tempered iteration, began to attire herself hastily for walking. When ready, she unlocked a drawer and took from it an envelope, of heavy contents, which lay ready to her hand. Then she paused for a moment and listened. Above there was a light footfall, passing constantly hither and thither. Leaving the room with caution, she passed downstairs noiselessly and quitted the house by the back door, whence by a circuit she gained the road. Her walk was towards the Heath. As soon as she entered upon it, she proceeded rapidly -- so rapidly, indeed, that before long she had to check herself and take breath. No sun shone, and the air was very still and warm; to her it seemed oppressive. Over Dunfield hung a vast pile of purple cloud, against which the wreaths of mill smoke, slighter than on week-days, lay with a dead whiteness. The Heath was solitary; a rabbit now and then started from a brake, and here and there grazed sheep. Emily had her eyes upon the ground, save when she looked rapidly ahead to measure the upward distance she had still to toil over.
On reaching the quarry, she stayed her feet. The speed at which she had come, and an agitation which was increasing, made breathing so difficult that she turned a few paces aside, and sat down upon a rough block of stone, long since quarried and left unused. Just before her was a small patch of marshy ground, long grass growing about a little pool. A rook had alighted on the margin, and was pecking about. Presently it rose on its heavy wings; she watched it flap athwart the dun sky. Then her eye fell on a little yellow flower near her feet, a flower she did not know. She plucked and examined it, then let it drop carelessly from her hand.
The air was growing brown; a storm threatened. She looked about her with a hasty fear, then resumed her walk to the upper part of the Heath. Beaching the smooth sward, she made straight across it for Dagworthy's house.
Crossing the garden, she was just at the front door, when it was opened, and by Dagworthy himself. His eyes fell before her.
'Will you come this way?' he said, indistinctly.
He led into the large sitting-room where he had previously entertained Emily and her father. As soon as he had closed the door, he took eager steps towards her.
'You have come,' he said. 'Something told me you would come this morning. I've watched at the window for you.'
The assurance of victory had softened him. His voice was like that of one who greets a loving mistress. His gaze clung to her.
'I have come to bring you this!' Emily replied, putting upon the table the heavy envelope. 'It is the money we owe you.'
Dagworthy laughed, but his eyes were gathering trouble.
'You owe me nothing,' he said, affecting easiness.
'How do you mean that?' Emily gave him a direct look. Her manner had now nothing of fear, nor even the diffidence with which she had formerly addressed him. She spoke with a certain remoteness, as if her business with him were formal. The lines of her mouth were hard; her heavy lids only half raised themselves.
'I mean that you owe nothing of this kind,' he answered, rather confusedly. His confidence was less marked; her look overcame his.
'Not ten pounds?'
'Well, you don't.' He added, 'Whose is this money?'
'It is my own; I have earned it.'
'Does your father know you are paying it?'
He does not. I was not likely to speak to him of what you told me. There is the debt, Mr. Dagworthy; we have paid it, and now I will leave you.
He examined her. Even yet he could not be sure that he understood. In admitting her, he had taken it for granted that she could come with but one purpose. It was but the confirmation of the certain hope in which he had lived through the night. Was the girl a simpleton? Had she got it into her head that repayment in this way discharged his hold upon her father? It was possible; women are so ludicrously ignorant of affairs. He smiled, though darkly.
'Why have you brought this money?' he asked.
She was already moving nearer to the door. He put himself in her way.
'What good do you imagine this is?'
'None, perhaps. I pay it because I wish to.'
'And -- is it your notion that this puts your father straight? Do you think this is a way out of his difficulty?'
'I have not thought that. But it was only to restore the money that I came.'
There was silence.
'Have you forgotten,' he asked, half wonderingly, half with quiet menace, 'what I said to you yesterday?'
'You see my answer,' said Emily, pointing hastily to the table. 'I owe you that, but I can give you nothing more.' Her voice quivered, as she continued, 'What you said to me yesterday was said without thought, or only with evil thoughts. Since then you have had hours of reflection. It is not in your power -- it would be in the power of no man who is not utterly base and wicked -- to repeat such words this morning. Mr. Dagworthy, I believe in the affection you have professed for me; feeling that, you are incapable of dastardly cruelty. I will not believe your tongue against yourself. In a moment of self-forgetfulness you spoke words which you will regret through your life, for they were inhuman, and were spoken to a defenceless girl. After hearing them, I cannot beg your mercy for my father but you know that misfortune which strikes him falls also upon me. You have done me the greatest wrong that man can do to woman; you owe me what reparation is in your power.'
She had not thought to speak thus. Since daylight dawned her heart had felt too numb, too dead; barely to tell him that she had no answer to his words was the purpose with which she had set out. The moment prompted her utterance, and words came without reflection. It was a noble speech, and nobly delivered; the voice was uncertain at times, but it betrayed no weakness of resolve, no dread of what might follow. The last sentences were spoken with a dignity which rebuked rather than supplicated. Dagworthy's head bowed as he listened.
He came nearer.
'Do you think me,' he asked, under his breath, 'a mere ignorant lout, who has to be shamed before he knows what's manly and what isn't? Do you think because I'm a manufacturer, and the son of one, that I've no thought or feeling above my trade? I know as well as you can tell me, though you speak with words I couldn't command, that I'm doing a mean and a vile thing -- there; hear me say it, Emily Hood. But it's not a cruel thing. I want to compel you to do what, in a few years, you'll be glad of. I want you to accept love such as no other man can give you, and with it the command of pretty well everything you can wish for. I want to be a slave at your feet, with no other work in life than finding out your desires and satisfying them. You're not to be tempted with money, and I don't try to; but I value the money because it will give me power to show my love. And mind what I say ask yourself if it isn't true. If you hadn't been engaged already, you'd have listened to me; I feel that power in myself; I know I should have made you care for me by loving you as desperately as I do. I wouldn't have let you refuse me -- you hear, Emily? Emily! Emily! Emily! -- it does me good to call you by your name -- I haven't done so before to-day, have I, Emily? Not a cruel thing, because I offer you more than any man living can, more of that for which you care most, the life a highly educated woman can appreciate. You shall travel where you will; you shall buy books and pictures, and all else to your heart's content; and, after all, you shall love me. That's a bold word, but I tell you I feel the power in me to win your love. I'm not hateful to you, even now; you can't really despise me, for you know that whatever I do is for no mean purpose. There is no woman living like you, and to make you my wife I am prepared to do anything, however vile it seems. Some day you'll forgive it all, because some day you'll love me!'
It was speaking as he had never yet done. He assumed that his end was won, and something of the triumph of passion endued his words with a joyous fervour. Very possibly there was truth in much that he said, for he spoke with the intense conviction which fulfils prophecies. But the only effect was to force Emily back upon her cold defiance.
'I am in your house, Mr. Dagworthy,' she said, 'and you can compel me to hear whatever you choose to say. But I have no other answer than that you know. I wish to leave you.'
His flushed eagerness could not at once adapt itself to another tone.
'No, you don't wish to leave me. You want to see that I am a man of my word, that I mean what I say, and am not afraid to stick to it. Emily, you don't leave me till you have promised to be my wife. You're a noble girl. You wouldn't be frightened into yielding. And it isn't that way I want to have you. You're more now in my eyes than ever. It shall be love for love. Emily, you will marry me?'
What resources of passion the man was exhibiting! By forethought he could have devised no word of these speeches which he uttered with such vigour; it was not he who spoke, but the very Love God within him. He asked the last question with a voice subdued in tenderness; his eyes had a softer fire.
Emily gave her answer.
'I would not marry you, though you stood to kill me if I refused.'
No bravado, no unmeasured vehemence of tone, but spoken as it would have been had the very weapon of death gleamed in his hand.
He knew that this was final.
'So you are willing that your father shall be put into the dock at the police-court to-morrow morning?'
'If you can do that, it must be so.'
'If I can? You know very well I have the power to, and you ought to know by now that I stick at nothing. Go home and think about it.'
It is useless. I have thought. If you think still to make me yield by this fear, it is better that you should act at once. I will tell you If I were free, if I had the power to give myself to you in marriage, it would make your threat of no more avail. I love my father; to you I cannot say more than that; but though I would give my life to save his from ruin, I could not give -- my father would not wish me, oh never! -- my woman's honour. You will find it hard to understand me, for you seem not to know the meaning of such words.'
She closed with stern bitterness, compelled to it by the tone of his last bidding. A glorious beauty flashed in her face. Alas, Wilfrid Athel would never know the pride of seeing thus the woman he knew so noble. But Wilfrid was in her heart; his soul allied itself with hers and gave her double strength. Dagworthy had wrought for her that which in the night's conflict she could not bring about by her own force; knowing, in the face of utter despair, the whole depth of the love with which she held to her father, she could yet speak his doom with calmness, with clear intelligence that the sacrifice she was asked to make was disproportionate to the disaster threatened.
He answered with cold decision.
'It's you who don't know me. I've nothing more to say to you; you are at liberty to go. To-morrow your father will be before the magistrates.'
Emily moved to the door. The sound of the words had blanched her lips. She felt that, if she would keep hold upon her bodily strength, she must breathe the outer air.
'Look here, I say,' he exclaimed, stepping to the table. 'Take the money. I've nothing to do with that.'
She made a motion with her hand, but hastened still and escaped. Once in the garden she all but ran, thinking she heard his footsteps in pursuit, and smitten with that sudden terror which comes sometimes when a danger is escaped. But she had gained the Heath, and it was certain now that he had not tried to overtake her, a glance back showed her that no one was in sight. She walked rapidly on, though her heart seemed about to burst, walked without pausing till she had reached the quarry. Here she sat on the same stone as before. She was in dread of fainting; the anguish of her leaping blood was intolerable; she had neither sight nor hearing. But the crisis of suffering passed; she let her head fall forward and buried it upon her lap.
Perhaps for ten minutes she remained thus, then a great crash from the near heavens caused her to look up. It was raining, had rained since she sat there, though she had not known it. In the little pool before her great drops splashed and made a miniature tempest. The yellow flower she had plucked lay close by, and was beaten by the rain. It lightened vividly, and there followed heavier thunder than before.
She wished to shed tears -- tears were choking her, but would not rise and shed themselves; she could only sob, aloud, hysterically. The words 'Father' and 'Wilfrid' broke from her lips several times. Was there red-hot metal poured upon her forehead?
It cost her a great effort to rise and walk homewards. The rain streamed down, but she could no longer hasten. Still she reached the house before her mother's return from church, and she was glad of that.
For the final failure of his plot Dagworthy was in no wise prepared. He had anticipated prolonged scenes, passionate pleadings, appeals to his better nature, and to his shame; but that his threat should prove ineffectual was not among his fears. Illustrating a well-known tendency of human nature, his reckless egoism based its confidence on the presumed existence of heroic self-devotion in his victim. Starting from a knowledge of the close affection between Emily and her father, the logic of desire had abundant arguments to prove that the girl must and could act in but one way. Dagworthy's was not an original mind; the self-immolation of daughters (not of sons) on their parents' behalf is among vulgar conceptions of the befitting, and it is more than probable that the mill-owner was half-consciously supported by precedents drawn from his readings in popular fiction. His imagination, as is commonly the case, was only strong in the direction of his wishes; neglecting Emily's avowed attachment to an accepted lover -- whose shadowiness made him difficult to realise even as an obstacle -- he dwelt persistently on the thought of Hood's position, and found it impossible to imagine a refusal on Emily's part to avert from her father the direst of calamities. That other motive, the strength of which in Emily was independent of her plighted troth, was not within the range of his conceptions; that a woman should face martyrdom rather than marry without love was a contingency alien to his experience and to the philosophy wherewith nature had endowed him. In spite of the attributes of nobleness which so impressed him in the object of his love, Dagworthy could give no credit to the utterance of such a feeling. Whilst Emily spoke, he was for the moment overcome by a vision of vague glories; reflecting on her words, he interpreted them as merely emphasising her determination to wed one only. Their effect was to give new food to his jealousy.
That solace of men's unconscious pessimism, the faith, pathetically clung to, that in frustration of desire is the soul's health, is but too apt to prove itself fallacious just where its efficiency would show most glorious. Is there not lurking somewhere in your mind, not withstanding the protests of your realistic intelligence, more than half a hope that Richard Dagworthy will emerge radiant from the gulf into which his passions have plunged him? For the credit of human nature! But what if human nature oft establishes its credit by the failures over which we shake our heads? Of many ways to the resting-place of souls, the way of affliction is but one; cling, if it please you, to the assurance that this is the treading of the elect, instinct will justify itself in many to whom the denial of a supreme need has been the closing of the upward path. Midway in his life, when slow development waited but occasion to establish the possibilities of a passionate character, Dagworthy underwent the trial destined to determine the future course of his life. One hesitates to impute it to him as a fault that he was not of the elect. A mere uneducated Englishman, hitherto balancing always between the calls from above and from below, with one miserable delusion and its consequent bitterness ever active in his memory, he could make no distinction between the objects which with vehemence he desired and the spiritual advantage which he felt the attainment would bring to him; and for the simple reason that in his case no such distinction existed. Even as the childhood of civilisation knows virtue only in the form of a concrete deity, so to Dagworthy the higher life of which he was capable took shape as a mortal woman, and to possess her was to fulfil his being. With the certainty that she was beyond his reach came failure of the vital forces which promised so much. A pity for it flatters us poor mortals to discern instances of the soul's independence of the body. I would it had been otherwise with Dagworthy; I have but to relate the facts. It was no dark angel that had whispered to him through the hours of his waiting for Emily's surrender. High aims, pure ambitions, were stronger in him than they ever had been; stronger than they ever would be again. It was when Emily left him with those proud words of defiance that the veritable demon took stand at his ear. The leaping, fruitful sap of his being turned itself to gall. He sat with a brow of blackness; cruel projects worked in his brain.
Not only had he lost her, but his loss was another's gain. The pricking of jealousy, for a while suspended, again became maddening. He had heard her say that she would die rather than be his wife; judge, then, what must be her love of the man she bud chosen. His desire now was to do her injury, and his fiercest torment was the thought that he dared not fulfil the menace with which he had hoped to overwhelm her. If he prosecuted Hood, all the circumstances of the case would inevitably come out; Emily had friends in Dunfield, and if her father's guilt were once disclosed, there would be no reason for her concealment of what had happened; facts like these put forward in mitigation of punishment would supply the town with a fearful subject of comment -- nay, was he safe from the clutch of the law? Of these things he had not troubled to think, so assured was he that the mere threat would suffice. From his present point of view it was easy enough to see that the plot had been a wretched piece of bungling; in failing of its end it became the project of a simpleton. Had the girl herself been cool enough to see this? Did she defy him in knowledge of the weakness of his position? Probably not; in that case she would have spoken differently she had granted, and clearly with sincerity, his power to do what he threatened. And then the fact remained that he could injure Hood irremediably by means short of criminal proceedings. Emily -- his reasoning was accurate enough -- had not been careful to distinguish between modes of injury, where each meant ruin.
What he dared to do, he would. He was acquainted with the wretched story of struggle which had ended in Hood's taking refuge, as a clerk with a mean salary, from the extremities of destitution. To dismiss the man after private accusation would be to render his prospects worse than ever, for it was easy to whisper here and there the grounds of dismissal. Emily's mouth would be closed by the necessity of keeping secret her father's dishonesty. But this revenge fell short of his appetite for cruelty; it would strike the girl herself only indirectly. And it was possible that her future husband might have it in his power to give her parents aid. Yet he persuaded himself that the case was otherwise; Emily's secrecy had impressed him with the belief that the match she contemplated was anything but a brilliant one. Could he devise no graver hurt? Through the Sunday afternoon and the night which followed, he pondered ceaselessly on means of evil, delighted to flesh his fangs even in imagination. Many a vile plan dwelt with him which he knew he durst not put into practice. Monday morning came and found him no further than the crime which had first suggested itself. Fevered with eagerness to accomplish that at least, he left home earlier than usual. It might be that the day would bring fresh counsel.
To Emily the hours following upon her visit to the house on the Heath had brought unnatural quietness. Physical suffering troubled her, but the energies of her mind were for the time expended; the aching of her brow involved thought in sluggishness. She did not shun her parents, and even talked with them in a listless way; solitude would have been irksome to her just now. For once she felt glad of her mother's way of spending Sunday; to sit inactive was all that she desired. It was understood that her head distressed her.
In the afternoon, and again in the evening, the single bell of the chapel clanged for worshippers. Mrs. Hood was not in the habit of attending service more than once in the day; she sat on her uneasy chair, at times appearing to read, more often gazing out of the windows. The road had more traffic than on week-days, for it was the recreation of a certain class of Dunfieldians to drive out in parties to the Heath, either hiring a vehicle or using their own trade-carts. It would have been a consolation to observe that in the latter case the quadruped employed benefited by its owner's regard for his own interests; possibly an acute spectator might have discerned gradations of inhumanity. To the casual eye there showed but a succession of over-laden animals urged to the utmost speed; the national predilection exhibiting itself crudely in this locality. Towards nightfall the pleasure-seekers returned, driving with the heightened energy attributable to Bacchic inspiration, singing, shouting, exchanging racy banter with pedestrians. So the hours dragged wearily on, wheezed out, one after one, by the clock on the stairs. Hood was at no time fertile in topics of conversation; to-day he maintained almost unbroken silence. Tea was prepared, partaken of, removed; supper, three hours later. The day closed with rain and a rising wind.
Emily heard it about the house as she lay through hours of sleeplessness. At first a light slumber had come to her; it was broken by the clock striking eleven. Probably she was roused at the first stroke, for, failing to count, the number seemed to her so interminable that she started up and made to herself fretful complaint. Pain was weakening her self-control; she found herself crying in a weary, desolate way, and could not stop her tears for a long time. The gusts of wind went by her windows and bore their voices away on to the common, wailing and sobbing in the far distance; rain spattered the windows at times. When her tears ceased, Emily hid her face in the pillow and moaned; often she uttered Wilfrid's name. To-day she should by agreement have written to him, but to do so had been impossible. He would be uneasy at her silence. Oh, bow could she ever write to him again? What might happen to-morrow? At the thought, she held her breath and lay in silence.
She rose in time for breakfast, but at the last moment could not bring herself to go down to the meal. To face her father was impossible. Her mother came to the door, and Emily answered her that she would lie for an hour or two longer, being still unwell. During the half-hour that followed she sat listening intently to every sound in the house. Hood, having breakfasted, came upstairs and entered his room; when, a few minutes later, he came out, his steps made a pause at her threshold. Her heart beat in sickening fear; she could not have found voice to reply to him had he spoken. But he did not do so, and went downstairs. She heard him open the front door, and sprang to the window to catch a glimpse of him. At the gate he turned and looked up to her window; his face was sorrowful. Emily held back that he might not see her; when it was too late she could not understand this movement, and longed to wave him a good-bye. She threw up the sash; her father did not turn again.
We follow him. Not very long after his arrival at the mill, Dagworthy himself appeared. Hood's evil conscience led him to regard with apprehension every unusual event. Dagworthy's unwonted earliness was still troubling his mind, when a messenger summoned him to the private room. There was nothing extraordinary in this, but Hood, as he crossed the passage, shook with fear; before knocking and pushing open the door, he dashed drops from his forehead with his hand. Dagworthy was alone, sitting at the desk.
'Shut the door,' he said, without turning his eyes from a letter he was reading.
The clerk obeyed, and stood for a full minute before anything more was addressed to him. He knew that the worst had come.
Dagworthy faced half round.
'One day early last week,' he began, averting his eyes after a single glance, 'I was looking over one of these ledgers' -- he pointed to the shelf -- 'and left an envelope to mark a place. I forgot about it, and now that I look, the envelope has gone. It contained a bank-note. Of course you came across it in the course of your work.'
It was rather an assertion than a question. Whilst he was speaking, the courage of despair had taken hold upon his hearer. Like the terrible flash of memory which is said to strike the brain of a drowning man, there smote on Hood's mind a vision of the home he had just quitted, of all it had been and all it might still be to him. This was his life, and he must save it, by whatever means. He knew nothing but that necessity; all else of consciousness was vague swimming horror.
'No, sir,' was his reply, given with perfect firmness, 'I found no envelope.'
Dagworthy's coarse lips formed a smile, hard and cruel. He faced his clerk.
'Oh, you didn't?'
'In which ledger did you leave it, sir?' Hood asked, the dryness of his throat rendering speech more difficult as he proceeded. Still, his eye was fixed steadily on Dagworthy's face; it was life at stake. 'I have not had them all.'
'I don't remember which it was,' replied the other, 'and it doesn't much matter, since I happen to know the note. I dare say you remember buying a new hat in Hebsworth last Friday?'
The love of inflicting pain for its own sake, an element of human nature only overgrown by civilisation, was showing itself strongly in Dagworthy. He was prolonging this scene. On his way to the mill he had felt that the task would be rather disagreeable; but we cannot nurture baseness with impunity, and, face to face with a man under torture, he enjoyed the spectacle as he scarcely would have done a little while ago. Perhaps the feeling that his first blow at Emily was actually struck gave him satisfaction, which he dwelt upon.
Hood made no reply to the question. He would not admit to himself that this was the end, but he had no voice.
'You hear me?' Dagworthy reminded him.
'Yes. I bought a hat.'
'And you paid for it with the note I have lost. I happen to know it.'
There was silence.
'Well, you understand that under ordinary circumstances you would be at once given in charge.' Dagworthy spoke almost cheerfully. 'If I don't do that it's out of consideration for your age and your family. But as you are not to be trusted, of course I can't continue to employ you.'
A wild hope sprang in Hood's eyes, and the rush of gratitude at his heart compelled him to speak.
'Oh, Mr. Dagworthy, you arc generous! You have always treated me with kindness; and this is how I repay you. It was base; I deserve no mercy. The temptation --' he grew incoherent; 'I have been driven hard by want of money. I know that is no excuse. I had no intention at first of taking the money; I came here to give it you; I should have done so without a thought of dishonesty, but you happened to be away. In going to Hebsworth I lost my hat, and I had not enough money of my own to buy another; I had to change the note -- that was the temptation -- I will return it. -- But for this work here, I might by now have been in the workhouse. Try, sir, to forgive my baseness; I cannot forgive myself.'
Dagworthy turned his face away.
'Well,' he said, with a wave of the hand, 'all that's too late.'
'Sir,' Hood pursued, spurred by foresight of penury perhaps as much as by dread of having to explain his dismissal at home, for penury had been his relentless foe through life Sir, is it in vain to ask you to give me another chance? I am not a dishonest man; never before has such a temptation come to me, and surely never would again. Will you -- I entreat you to think what it means -- at my age -- my wife---- I ought to be content with thanking you for having spared me -- how few would have done that! Let me continue to serve you -- a lower salary -- if it be ever so little -- till I have regained your confidence----'
Dagworthy was drumming with his fingers on the desk. Not for an instant did he falter in his purpose, but it gave him pleasure to be thus prayed to. The employer of labour is not as a rule troubled with a lively imagination; a pity, for it would surely gratify him to feel in its fulness at times his power of life and death. Native defect and force of habit render it a matter of course that a small population should eat or starve at his pleasure; possibly his resolution in seasons of strike is now and then attributable to awakening of insight and pleasure in prolonging his rôle of hunger-god. Dagworthy appreciated his victim's despair all the more that it made present to him the wretchedness that would fall on Emily. Think not that the man was unashamed. With difficulty he could bring himself to meet Hood's look. But self-contempt may well consist with perseverance in gratification of ignoble instincts.
When Hood ceased, there came this reply.
'I shall not grant what you ask, simply because it is against my principles. I let you off, for it would do me no good to punish you, and certainly, as regards yourself, the lesson will be enough. But I can't keep you in my employ, so we'll talk no more about it. You were going to take your holiday from the end of this week, I think? Very well, let it be supposed that you begin to-day instead, and in a day or two write me a note giving up your place.'
This was not yielding on Dagworthy's part; it merely occurred to him as a way of protecting himself if there should be future need.
Hood was standing with bent head; he seemed unable either to speak or to depart.
'You may go,' Dagworthy said.
'Sir, -- I may refer to you?' asked the wretched man, roused by the bidding.
'No, I think not,' was the calm reply. 'Unless, of course, you are willing that I should state the plain facts of the case?'
Hood staggered from the room. . . .
When Emily came down in the course of the morning, her appearance was such that her mother uttered an exclamation of alarm.
'Why, child, you are like a ghost! Why didn't you stay in bed? I was just coming up to you, hoping you'd been asleep. I must go for Dr. Evans at once.'
'But I certainly shall, say what you like. No headache would make you look like that. And you're as feverish as you can be. Go up to bed again; you hardly look, though, as if you could climb the stairs. I'll put on my things and go round.'
It was only by affecting anger that Emily could overcome her mother's purpose. She did indeed feel ill, but to submit to treatment was impossible whilst this day lasted. Far worse than her bodily fever was the mental anguish which would not allow her to remain in one place for more than a few minutes at a time, and did not suffer the pretence of occupation. How would it come about? Was her father at this moment in the hands of the police? How would the first news come to Banbrigg, and when? The sound of every vehicle on the road was an approaching terror; she was constantly at the window to watch the people who came near. It had seemed to her that she realised what this trial would be, yet her anticipations had fallen far below the experience of these fearful hours. At instants, she all but repented what she had done, and asked herself if there was not even now a chance of somehow saving her father. The face which he had raised to the window as he left home smote her heart. Not a word of kindness had she spoken to him since Friday night. Oh, what inconceivable cruelty had possessed her, that she let him go this morning without even having touched his hand! Could her mind endure this? Was she not now and then near to delirium? Once she went to the window, and, to her horror, could see nothing; a blue and red mist hovered before her eyes. It left her, but other symptoms of physical distress grew from hour to hour, and she dreaded lest strength to endure might wholly forsake her before night came. She tried to picture her father returning as usual; human pity might have spoken even in Dagworthy's heart; or if not so, then he might have been induced to forbear by a hope of winning her gratitude. Very agony made her feel almost capable of rewarding such mercy. For Wilfrid seemed now very far away, and her love had fallen to the background; it was not the supreme motive of her being as hitherto. Would she suffer thus for Wilfrid? The question forced itself upon her, and for reply she shuddered; such bonds seemed artificial compared with those which linked her to her father, the love which was coeval with her life. All feeling is so relative to circumstances, and what makes so stable as the cement of habit?
In the early hours of the afternoon a lull of utter weariness relieved her; she lay upon the couch and all but slept; it was something between sleep and loss of consciousness following on excessive pain. She awoke to find the doctor bending over her; Mrs. Hood had become so alarmed that she had despatched a neighbour secretly on the errand. Emily was passive, and by her way of speaking half disguised the worst features of her state. Nevertheless, the order was given that she should go to bed. She promised to obey.
'As soon as father comes,' she said, when alone again with her mother. 'It cannot be long till his time.'
She would not yield beyond this. But the hour of return came, and her father delayed. Then was every minute au eternity. No longer able to keep her reclining position, she stood again by the window, and her eyes lost their vision from straining upon one spot, that at which Hood would first appear. She leaned her head upon the window-sill, and let her ears take their turn of watching; the first touch of a hand at the gate would reach her. But there came none.
Can hours thus be lived through? Ah, which of us to whom time has not been a torment of hell? Is there no nether Circle, where dread anticipation eternally prolongs itself, eternally varied with hope in vain for ever?
Mrs. Hood had abandoned her useless protests; she came and sat by the girl.
'I've no doubt he's gone to the Walkers',' she kept saying, naming acquaintances with whom Hood occasionally spent an evening. Then, 'And why need you wait for him, my dear? Can't he go up and see you as soon as he gets in?'
'Mother,' Emily said at last, 'will you go to the Walkers' and ask? It is not really very far. Will you go?'
But, my child, it will take me at least an hour to walk there and back! I should only miss him on the way. Are you afraid of something?
'Yes, I am. I believe something has happened to him.'
'Those are your fancies. You are very poorly; it is cruel to me to refuse to go to bed.'
'Will you go, mother? -- If you do not, I must; ill or not, I must go.'
She started to her feet. Her mother gazed at her in fear, -- believing it the beginning of delirium.
'Emily, my dear child,' she pleaded, laying her hand on the girl's arm, 'won't you come upstairs, -- to please me, dear?'
'Mother, if you will go, I promise to lie here quietly till you return.'
'But it is impossible to leave you alone in the house. Look, now, it is nine o'clock; in half an hour, an hour at most, your father will be back. Why, you know how often he stays late when he gets talking.'
Emily was silent for a few minutes. Then she said --
'Will you ask Mrs. Hopkins to send her servant?'
'But think -- the trouble it will be giving.'
'Will you do it? I wish it. Will you go and ask her I will give the girl money.'
'If you are so determined, of course I will ask her. But I'm sure----'
At length she left the room, to go out of the house by the back-door and call at the neighbours'. Scarcely was she away, when Emily darted upstairs, and in an instant was down again, with her hat and a cloak; another moment, and she was out in the road. She did not forget the terror her mother would suffer, on finding her gone; but endurance had reached its limit. It was growing dark. After one look in the direction of Dunfield, she took the opposite way, and ran towards the Heath, ran till her breath failed and she had to drop into a quick walk. Once more she was going to the Upper Heath, and to the house which was the source of all her misery. When she reached the quarry it was quite dark at her approach she saw the shape of a man move away into the shadow of the quarried rock, and an unreasoning fear spurred her past the spot. Five minutes more and she was at Dagworthy's gate. She rang the door-bell.
The servant told her that Mr. Dagworthy was at home; she declined to give her name, but said she must see him at once. Speedily she was led into a room, where her enemy sat alone.
He looked at her wonderingly, then with a deep flush -- for now he surely had gained his end, -- he advanced towards her without speaking.
'Where is my father?' she asked; the voice which disabused him did not seem Emily's.
'Isn't he at home?'
'He has not come home. What have you done?'
'Not come home?'
'Then he is free? He is safe -- my father? You have spared him?'
Dagworthy inwardly cursed himself for shortsightedness. Were he but able to answer 'Yes,' would she not yield him anything? Why had he not made trial of this policy? Or was it now too late? But Hoed had not returned home. The man had gone forth from him in despair. As he gazed at the girl, a suspicion, all but a fear, touched him. Why should Hood remain away from his house?
She was repeating her questions imploringly.
'He is free, as far as I am concerned, Emily.'
'You have forgiven him? Oh, you have had that mercy upon us?'
'Sit down, and let us talk about it,' said Dagworthy.
She did not seem to notice that he had taken her hand; but the next moment he was holding her in his arm, and with a cry she broke away.
'There are others in the house,' she exclaimed, her wild, fearful eyes seeking other exit than that which he stopped. 'I must call for their help. Can you not see that I am suffering -- ill? Are you pitiless? But no -- no -- for you have spared him!'
Dagworthy mastered himself, though it cost him something, and spoke with an effort at gentleness.
'What thanks have you to give me, Emily?'
'My life's gratitude -- but that will be your least reward.'
'Ay, but how is the gratitude going to be shown?'
Her keen sense found a fear in his manner of speaking.
'You have not said a word to him,' she asked, seeming to forget his question.
Of what ultimate use was it to lie? And she would not suffer him within reach of her.
'I couldn't very well help doing that,' he replied, unable to resolve how it were best to speak, and uttering the first words that came, carelessly.
'Then he knows you have discovered----'
Her voice failed. Such explanation of her father's absence was a new terror.
'Yes, he knows,' Dagworthy answered, cruelty resuming its fascination. 'I couldn't keep him at the mill, you know, though I let him off his punishment.'
'You dismissed him?'
'I did. It's not too late to have him back, and something better.'
'Let me go!' she said hoarsely.
He moved from the door; sight of such misery vanquished even him.
When she reached home, her mother was standing with two or three neighbours in front of the house at the sight of Emily there were exclamations of relief and welcome.
'My child, where can you have been?' Mrs. Hood cried, following the girl who passed the garden-gate without pausing.
'Is father come?' was the reply.
'No, not yet. But where have you been? Why, you were coming from the Heath, Emily, in the night air, and you so ill!'
'I have been to ask Mr. Dagworthy,' Emily said in a tired voice. 'He knows nothing of him.'
Her strength bore her into the parlour, then she sank upon the couch and closed her eyes. Mrs. Hood summoned the help of her friends. Unresisting, with eyes still closed, silent, she was carried upstairs and laid in her bed. Her mother sat by her. Midnight came, and Hood did not return. Already Mrs. Hood had begun to suspect something mysterious in Emily's anxiety; her own fears now became active. She went to the front door and stood there with impatience, by turns angry and alarmed. Her husband had never been so late. She returned to the bedroom.
'Emily, are you awake, dear?'
The girl's eyes opened, but she did not speak.
'Do you know any reason why your father should stay away?'
A slight shake of the head was the reply.
The deepest stillness of night was upon the house. As Mrs. Hood seated herself with murmured bewailing of such wretchedness, there sounded a heavy crash out on the staircase; it was followed by a peculiar ringing reverberation. Emily rose with a shriek.
'My love -- hush! hush!' said her mother. 'It's only the clock-weight fallen. How that does shake my nerves! It did it only last week, and gave me such a start.'
Grasping her mother's hand, the girl lay back, death-pale. The silence was deeper than before, for not even the clock ticked. . . .
Dagworthy could not sleep. At sunrise he had wearied himself so with vain efforts to lie still, that he resolved to take a turn across the Heath, and then rest if he felt able to. He rose and went into the still morning air.
The Heath was beautiful, seen thus in the purple flush of the dawn. He had called forth a dog to accompany him, and the animal careered in great circles over the dewy sward, barking at the birds it started up, leaping high from the ground, mad with the joy of life. He ran a race with it to the wall which bounded the top of the quarry. The exercise did him good, driving from his mind shadows which had clung about it in the night. Beaching the wall he rested his arms upon it, and looked over Dunfield to the glory of the rising sun. The smoke of the mill-chimneys, thickening as fires were coaled for the day's work, caught delicate reflection from the sky; the lofty spire of the church seemed built of some beautiful rose-hued stone. The grassy country round about wore a fresher green than it was wont to show; the very river, so foul in reality with the refuse of manufactures, gleamed like a pure current.
Dagworthy's eyes fixed themselves on the horizon, and grew wide with the sense of things half understood.
The dog had left him and was gone round into the quarry. A bark came from below. At a second bark Dagworthy looked down. The dog was snuffing at a man who lay between a big piece of quarried stone and a little grass-bordered pool. Asleep -- was he? Yet it was not the attitude in which men sleep. The dog barked a third time.
He left his position, and followed the circuit which would bring him down to where the man lay. Whilst still a few yards off, he checked himself. If the man slept, his body was strangely distorted; one arm seemed to be beneath him, the other was extended stiffly; the face looked at the sky. A few steps, and Dagworthy, gazing upon the face, knew it.
A cold shudder thrilled him, and he drew back. His foot struck against something; it was a bottle. He picked it up, and read a word in large print on the white label.
The temptation to look full into the face again was irresistible, though horror shook him as he approached. The features were hideous, the eyes starting from their sockets, the lips drawn back over the teeth. He turned and walked away rapidly, followed by the dog, which roused the quarry echoes with its barking.
'My God! I never thought of that.'
The words uttered themselves as he speeded on. Only at the garden-gate he stayed, and then seemed to reflect upon what he should do. The temptation was to return into the house and leave others to spread the news; there would be workmen in the quarry in less than an hour. Yet he did not do this, but hurried past his own door to the house of a doctor not a hundred yards away. Him he called forth. . . .
About midday a covered burden was brought in a cart to Banbrigg; the cart stopped before the Hoods' house, and two men, lifting the burden, carried it through the gate and to the door. Mrs. Hood had already opened to them, and stood with her face half-hidden. The burden was taken into the parlour, and placed upon the couch. The outline was that of a man's form.
In the kitchen were two women, neighbours; as soon as the men had departed, and the front door was closed, they stole forward, one sobbing, the other pale with fear. They entered the sitting-room, and Mrs. Hood went in with them. She was strangely self-controlled. All three stood looking at the wrapped form, which was that of a man.
'I shan't dare to look at him!' Mrs. Hood whispered. 'The doctor told me I wasn't to. Oh, my husband!'
With the sublime love of woman, conquering all dread, she dropped to her knees and laid her head on the pillow of the couch by the side of that head so closely shrouded.
'Thank God, Emily can't see this!' she groaned.
'Hadn't I better go up to her?' one of the women asked. Both of them stood at a distance.
'Yes, perhaps you had. But you'll be wanted at home. Stay with me a minute, then I'll lock this door and go up myself.'
At the sound of a hand on the door all turned with a movement of surprise and affright. There entered Emily, hurriedly dressed, her hair loose upon her shoulders. She looked round the room, with half-conscious, pitiful gaze, then upon her mother, then at the form on the couch. She pointed to it.
'He has come?'
Her voice was unearthly. The sound gave her mother strength to run to her, and throw her arms about her, sobbing, terror-stricken.
She suffered herself to be led upstairs, and did not speak.
As a man who took the world as he found it, and on the whole found it well worth accepting on such terms, Mr. Athel was not likely to allow his annoyance with Wilfrid to threaten the habitual excellence of his digestion. His disappointment was real enough. When of a sudden Wilfrid had announced that he could not accompany the family party to Switzerland, Mr. Athel was saved from undignified irresolution by a hearty outburst of temper, which saw him well over the Straits before it gave way to the natural reaction, under the influence of which he called himself a blockhead. He had, beyond a doubt, precipitated the marriage, when postponement was the only thing he really cared about. To abuse himself was one thing, the privilege which an Englishman is ready enough to exercise; to have his thoughts uttered to him by his sister with feminine neatness and candour was quite another matter. Mrs. Rossall had in vain attempted to stem the flood of wrath rushing Channelwards. Overcome, she clad herself in meaning silence, until her brother, too ingenuous man, was compelled to return to the subject himself, and, towards the end of the journey, rashly gave utterance to half a wish that he had not left 'that young fool' behind. Mrs. Rossall, herself a little too impetuous when triumph was no longer doubtful, made such pointed remarks on the neglect of good advice that the ire which was cooling shot forth flame in another direction. Brother and sister arrived at Geneva in something less than perfect amity. Their real affection for each other was quite capable of bearing not infrequently the strain of irritability on both sides. A day of mutual causticities had well prepared the ground for the return of good temper, when the arrival of Wilfrid, by astonishing both, hastened their complete reconciliation. Wilfrid was mysterious; for a week he kept his counsel, and behaved as if nothing unusual had happened. By that time Mr. Athel's patience had reached its limit; he requested to be told how matters stood. Wilfrid, determined not to compromise his dignity by speaking first, but glad enough when his father broached the topic, related the story of his visit to Dunfield. Possibly he laid needless emphasis on Emily's unselfish prudence.
'I fail to see the striking meritoriousness of all that,' Mr. Athel observed, put into a good humour by the result, and consequently allowing himself a little captiousness. 'It merely means that she behaved as any woman who respected herself would under the circumstances. Your own behaviour, on the other hand -- well, let it pass.'
'I don't see that I could have acted otherwise,' said Wilfrid, too contented to care about arguing the point.
'You of course saw her parents ?'
Wilfrid had given no detailed account of the way in which his interview with Emily had been obtained. He mentioned it now, his father listening with the frowning smile of a man who judges such puerilities from the standpoint of comfortable middle age.
The tone between them returned before long to the friendliness never previously interrupted. Mr. Athel shortly wrote a letter to Mr. Baxendale of Dunfield, whom he only knew by name as Beatrice Redwing's uncle, and begged for private information regarding Emily's family. He received a courteous reply, the details not of course wholly palatable, but confirmatory of the modest hopes he had entertained. This reply he showed to his sister. Mrs. Rossall raised her eyebrows resignedly, and returned the letter in silence.
'What one expected, I suppose?' said Mr. Athel.
'I suppose so. Mr. Baxendale probably thinks the man has been applying for a position in your pantry.'
'Well, I was obliged, you know, to hint at my reasons for seeking information.'
'You did? Then Beatrice knows all about it by this time. As well that way as any other, I suppose.'
'We shall have to take the matter like reasonable beings, Edith,' said her brother, a trifle annoyed by her failure to countenance him.
'Yes; but you seem anxious that I should rejoice. That would not be very reasonable.'
Something warned Mr. Athel that he had better abstain from rejoinder. He pursed his lips and walked away.
Wilfrid had not spoken of the subject to his aunt since the disclosure at The Firs, and Mrs. Rossall was offended by his silence at least as much as by the prospect of his marrying Miss Hood. Clearly he regarded the matter as no concern of hers, whereas a woman claims by natural right a share in the matrimonial projects of all her male relatives with whom she is on a footing of intimacy. Perhaps the main cause of her displeasure in the first instance had been the fact that things should have got to such a pass without her having as much as suspected the imminence of danger; she regarded Emily as one that had outwitted her. Dearly would she have liked to be able to meet her brother with the assertion that she had suspected it all along; the impossibility of doing so -- not from conscientious scruples, but because in that case it would clearly have been her duty to speak -- exasperated her disappointment at the frustration of the match she desired. Now that she was getting used to the state of things, Wilfrid's behaviour to her became the chief ground of her offence. It seemed to her that at least he owed some kind of apology for the distress he had naturally caused her; in truth she would have liked him to undertake the task of winning her over to his side. Between her and her nephew there had never existed a warm confidence, and Wilfrid's present attitude was too much a confirmation of the feeling she had experienced now and then, that his affection was qualified with just a little contempt. She was not, she knew, a strong-minded woman, and on that very account cared more for the special dominion of her sex. Since Wilfrid had ceased to be a hobbledehoy, it would have become him to put a little more of the courtier into his manner towards her. For are there not countries in which their degree of kin is no bar to matrimony? Mrs. Rossall was of the women who like the flavour of respectful worship in all men who are neither father, brother, nor son. Wilfrid had fallen short of this, and hence the affectation with which she had persisted in regarding him as a schoolboy. His latest exploits were vastly more interesting to her than anything he had done in academic spheres, and she suffered a sense of exclusion in seeing him so determined to disregard her opinion.
She persuaded him to row her cut one evening on a lake by which they were spending a few days. Wilfrid, suspecting that she aimed at a tête-à-tête, proposed that his father should accompany them. Mrs. Rossall overruled the suggestion.
'How wonderfully you are picking up,' she said, after watching him pull for a few minutes. 'Do you know, Wilf, your tendency is to stoutness; in a few years you will be portly, if you live too sedentary a life.'
He looked annoyed, and by so doing gratified her. She proceeded.
'What do you think I overheard one of our spectacled friends say this morning -- "Sehen Sie mal," -- you were walking at a little distance -- "da haben Sie das Muster des englischen Aristokraten. 0, der gute, schlichte Junge!"'
Wilfrid had been working up his German. He stopped rowing, red with vexation.
'That is a malicious invention,' he declared.
'Nothing of the kind! The truth of the remark struck me.'
'I am obliged to you.'
'But, my dear boy, what is there to be offended at? The man envied you with all his heart; and it is delightful to see you begin to look so smooth about the cheeks.'
'I am neither an aristocrat, nor schlicht!'
'An aristocrat to the core. I never knew any one so sensitive on points of personal dignity, so intolerant of difference of opinion in others, so narrowly self-willed! Did you imagine yourself to have the air of a hero of romance, of the intense school?'
Wilfrid looked into her eyes and laughed.
'That is your way of saying that you think my recent behaviour incongruous. You wish to impress upon me how absurd I look from the outside?'
'It is my way of saying that I am sorry for you.'
He laughed again.
'Then the English aristocrat is an object of your pity?'
'Certainly; when he gets into a false position.'
'Ah! -- well, suppose we talk of something else. Look at the moon rising over that shoulder of the hill.'
'That, by way of proving that you are romantic. No, we won't talk of something else. What news have you from England?'
'None,' he replied, regarding the gleaming drops that fell from his suspended oar.
'And you are troubled that the post brings you nothing?'
'How do you know?'
'Your emotions are on the surface.'
He made no reply.
'Ah!' Mrs. Rossall sighed, 'what a pity you are so independent. I often think a man's majority ought to come ten years later than it does. Most of you are mere boys till thirty at least, and you go and do things that you repent all the rest of your lives. Dare you promise to come to me in ten years and tell me with complete frankness what you think of -- a certain step?'
He smiled scornfully.
'Certainly; let us register the undertaking.'
After pausing a moment, he continued with an outburst of vehemence -- a characteristic of Wilfrid's speech.
'You illustrate a thought I have often had about women. The majority of you, at all events as you get into the world, have no kind of faith in anything but sordid motives. You are cynical beyond anything men can pretend to; you scoff at every suggestion of idealism. I suppose it is that which makes us feel the conversation of most women of refinement so intolerably full of hypocrisies. Having cast away all faith, you cannot dispense with the show of it; the traditions of your sex must be supported. You laugh in your sleeves at the very things which are supposed to constitute your claims to worship; you are worldly to the core. Men are very Quixotes compared with you; even if they put on cynicism for show, they are ashamed of it within themselves. With you, fine feeling is the affectation. I have felt it again and again. Explain it now; defend yourself, if you can. Show me that I am wrong, and I will thank you heartily.'
'My word, what an arraignment!' cried Mrs. Rossall, between amusement at his boldness and another feeling which warmed her cheeks a little. 'But let us pass from broad accusation to particulars. I illustrate all these shocking things -- poor me! How do I illustrate them?'
'In the whole of your attitude towards myself of late. You pooh-pooh my feelings, you refuse to regard me as anything but a donkey, you prophesy that in a year or two I shall repent having made a disinterested marriage. I observe the difference between your point of view and my father's. The worst of it is you are sincere: the circumstances of the case do not call upon you for an expression of graceful sentiments, and you are not ashamed to show me how meanly you regard all that is highest and purest in life.'
'Shall I explain it? Women are very quick to get at realities, to see below the surface in conduct and profession. We become, you say, worldly as soon as we get into the world. Precisely because we have to be so wide awake to protect ourselves. We instinctively know the difference between the ring of false and true, and as we hear the false so much the oftener Your charge against us of want of real feeling is the result of your ignorance of women; you don't see below the surface.'
'Well now, apply all this to the present instance. What has your insight discerned in my proposed marriage to cause you to regard it as a piece of folly?'
'Simply this. You ally yourself with some one from a class beneath your own. Such marriages very, very seldom prove anything but miserable, and always bring a great many troubles. You will say that Miss Hood is raised by education above the class in which she was born; but no doubt she has relatives, and they can't be entirely got rid of. However, that isn't the point I lay most stress on.'
'I am quite sure you will make her miserable. You are marrying too young. Your character is not fixed. In a few years, before that, you will want to get rid of her.'
'Well, that is at all events intelligible. And your grounds for the belief?'
'You are inconstant, and you are ambitious. You might marry a woman from a class higher than your own, and when it is too late you will understand what you have lost.'
'Worldly advantages, precisely.'
'And how if your keen appreciation of worldly advantages results in your wife's unhappiness?'
'I deny the keen appreciation, in your sense.'
'Of course you do. Come to me in ten years and tell me your opinion of women's ways of thinking.'
This was the significant part of their conversation. Wilfrid came to land confirmed in his views; Mrs. Rossall, with the satisfaction of having prophesied uncomfortable things.
She had a letter on the following morning on which she recognised Beatrice Redwing's bend. To her surprise, the stamp was of Dunfield. It proved that Beatrice was on a visit to the Baxendales. Her mother, prior to going to the Isle of Wight, had decided to accept an invitation to a house in the midland counties which Beatrice did not greatly care to visit; so the latter had used the opportunity to respond to a summons from her friends in the north, whom she had not seen for four years. Beatrice replied to a letter from Mrs. Rossall which had been forwarded to her.
After breakfast, Mrs. Rossall took her brother aside, and pointed out to him a paragraph in Beatrice's letter. It ran thus: --
'A very shocking thing has happened, which I suppose I may mention, as you will necessarily hear of it soon. Miss Hood's father has committed suicide, poisoned himself; he was found dead on a common just outside the town. Nobody seems to know any reason, unless it was trouble of a pecuniary kind. Miss Hood is seriously ill. The Baxendales send daily to make inquiries, and I am afraid the latest news is anything but hopeful. She was to have dined with us here the day after her father's death.'
There was no further comment; the writer went on to speak of certain peculiarities in the mode of conducting service at St. Luke's church.
Mr. Athel read, and, in his manner, whistled low. His sister looked interrogation.
'I suppose we shall have to tell him,' said the former. 'Probably he has no means of hearing.'
'I suppose we must. He has been anxious at not receiving letters he expected.'
'How do you know?'
'I had a talk with him last night.'
'Ah, so I thought. The deuce take it! Of course he'll pack off on the moment. What on earth can have induced the man to poison himself?'
Such a proceeding was so at variance with Mr. Athel's views of life that it made him seriously uncomfortable. It suggested criminality, or at least lunacy, both such very unpleasant things to be even remotely connected with. Poverty he could pardon, but suicide was really disreputable. From the philosophic resignation to which he had attained, he fell back into petulance, always easier to him than grave protest.
'The deuce take it!' he repeated.
Mrs. Rossall pointed to the words reporting Emily's condition at the time of writing.
'That was more than two days ago,' she said meaningly.
'H'm!' went her brother.
'Will you tell him?'
'I suppose I must. Yes, it is hardly allowable even to postpone it. Where is he?'
Wilfrid was found in the hotel garden.
'Your aunt has had a letter from Beatrice,' Mr. Athel began, with the awkwardness of a comfortable Englishman called upon to break bad news. 'She is staying in Dunfield.'
'There's something in the letter you ought to know.'
Wilfrid looked anxiously.
'It appears that Miss Hood's father has -- don't let it be a shock to you -- has just died, and died, in fact, by his own hands.'
'Has killed himself?' Wilfrid exclaimed, turning pale.
'Yes, I am sorry to say that is the report. Miss Hood is naturally suffering from -- from the shocking occurrence.'
'She is ill?' Wilfrid asked, when he had examined his father's face for a moment.
'Yes, I am afraid she is. Beatrice gives no details.'
'You are not keeping anything from me?'
'Indeed, nothing. The words are that she is ill, and, it is feared, seriously.'
'I must go at once.'
It was said with quiet decision. Wilfrid consulted his watch, and walked rapidly to the hotel. He had to wait a couple of hours, however, before he could start on his journey, and he spent the time by himself. His father felt he could be of no use, and Mrs. Rossall found a difficulty in approaching her nephew under such circumstances.
'You will telegraph?' Mr. Athel said, at the station, by way of expressing himself sympathetically.
The train moved away; and the long, miserable hours of travelling had to be lived through. Wilfrid's thoughts were all the more anxious from his ignorance of the dead man's position and history. Even yet Emily had said very little of her parents in writing to him; he imagined all manner of wretched things to connect her silence with this catastrophe. His fears on her own account were not excessive; the state of vigorous health into which he had grown during late weeks perhaps helped him to avoid thoughts of a desperate kind. It was bad enough that she lay ill, and from such a cause; he feared nothing worse than illness. But his uneasiness increased as time went on; the travelling seemed intolerably tardy. He had to decide what his course would be on reaching Dunfield, and decision was not easy. To go straight to the house might result in painful embarrassments; it would at all events be better first to make inquiries elsewhere. Could he have recourse to Beatrice? At first the suggestion did not recommend itself, but nothing better came into his mind, and, as his impatience grew, the obstacles seemed so trifling that he overlooked them. He remembered that the address of the Baxendales was unknown to him; but it could easily be discovered. Yes, he would go straight to Beatrice.
Reaching London at ten o'clock in the morning, he drove directly to King's Cross, and pursued his journey northwards. Though worn with fatigue, excitement would not allow him more than a snatch of sleep now and then. When at length he stepped out at Dunfield, he was in sorry plight. He went to an hotel, refreshed himself as well as he could, and made inquiry about the Baxendales' address. At four o'clock he presented himself at the house, and sent in a card to Beatrice.
The Baxendales lived in St. Luke's, which we already know as the fashionable quarter of Dunfield. Their house stood by itself, with high walls about it, enclosing a garden; at the door were stone pillars, the lower half painted a dull red. It seemed the abode of solid people, not troubled with scruples of taste. It was with surprise that Wilfrid found himself in a room abundantly supplied with books and furnished in library fashion. His state of mind notwithstanding, he glanced along a few shelves, discovering yet more unexpected things, to wit, philosophical works. Unfortunately the corners of the room showed busts of certain modern English statesmen: but one looks for weaknesses everywhere.
Beatrice entered, rustling in a light, shimmery dress. Her face expressed embarrassment rather than surprise; after the first exchange of glances, she avoided his eager look. Her hand had lain but coldly in his. Wilfrid, face to face with her, found more difficulty in speaking than he had anticipated.
'I have come directly from Switzerland,' he began. 'You mentioned in a letter to my aunt that----'
His hesitation of a moment was relieved by Beatrice.
'You mean Miss Hood's illness,' she said, looking down at her hands, which were lightly clasped on her lap.
'Yes. I wish for news. I thought it likely you might know----'
Probably it was the effect of his weariness; he could not speak in his usual straightforward way; hesitancy, to his own annoyance, made gaps and pauses in his sentences.
'We heard this morning,' Beatrice said, looking past his face to the window, 'that she is better. The danger seems to be over.'
'There has been danger?'
'The day before yesterday she was given up.'
'So ill as that.' Wilfrid spoke half to himself, and indeed it cost him an effort to make his voice louder. He began, 'Can you tell me----' and again paused.
'Have you heard nothing from any other quarter?' Beatrice asked, after a silence of almost a minute.
He looked at her, wondering what she knew of his relations to Emily. It was clear that his interest occasioned her no surprise.
'I came away immediately on hearing what your letter contained. There is no one else with whom I could communicate. I hesitated to go to the house, not knowing---- Will you tell me what you know of this horrible event?'
Beatrice stroked one hand with the other, and seemed to constrain herself to lock up and to speak.
'I myself know nothing but the fact of Mr. Hood's death. It took place some ten days ago, on Monday of last week. I arrived here on the Wednesday.'
'Of course there was an inquest -- with what results?'
'None, beyond the verdict of suicide. No definite cause could he discovered. It is said that he suffered from very narrow means. His body was found by Mr. Dagworthy.'
'Who is Mr. Dagworthy?'
'I thought you probably knew,' returned Beatrice, glancing quickly at him. 'He was employed by Mr. Dagworthy as clerk in a manufactory. He had just left for his summer holiday.'
'What evidence did his employer give?'
'He only stated that Mr. Hood had been perfectly regular and satisfactory at his work.'
'Then in truth it is a mystery?'
'Mr. Baxendale thinks that there had been a long struggle with poverty, quite enough to account for the end.'
Wilfrid sat in gloomy silence. He was picturing what Emily must have endured, and reproaching himself for not having claimed a right to her entire confidence, when it was in his power to make that hard path smooth, and to avert this fearful misery. Looking up at length, he met the girl's eyes.
'I need not explain myself to you, Beatrice,' he said, finding at last a natural tone, and calling her by her Christian name because he had much need of friendly sympathy. 'You appear to know why I have come.'
She answered rather hurriedly.
'I should not have known but for something that Mrs. Baxendale told me. Mr. Athel wrote a short time ago to ask for information about them -- about the Hoods.'
Wilfrid heard it with a little surprise, but without concern.
'Do you know whether Mrs. Hood is alone -- with her?' he went on to ask.
'I believe so.'
'And she is better?' He added quickly, 'Has she proper attendance? Have any friends been of aid?'
'The Baxendales have shown much kindness. My aunt saw her yesterday.'
'Will it be long before she is able to leave her room, do you know?'
'I am not able to say. Mrs. Baxendale hopes you will go upstairs and see her; she can tell you more. Will you go?'
'But is she alone? I can't talk with people.'
'Yes, she is alone, quite.'
He rose. The girl's eyes fixed themselves on him again, and she said:
'You look dreadfully tired.'
'I have not slept, I think, since I left Thun.'
'You left them all well?' Beatrice asked, with a change in her voice, from anxious interest which would have veiled itself, to the tone of one discharging a formal politeness.
Wilfrid replied with a brief affirmative, and they ascended the stairs together to a large and rather dim drawing-room, with a scent of earth and vegetation arising from the great number of growing plants arranged about it. Beatrice presented her friend to Mrs. Baxendale, and at once withdrew.
The lady with whom Wilfrid found himself talking was tall and finely made, not very graceful in her bearing, and with a large face, the singular kindness of which speedily overcame the first sense of dissatisfaction at its plainness. She wore a little cap of lace, and from her matronly costume breathed a pleasant freshness, akin to the activity of her flame. Having taken the young man's hand at greeting, she held it in both her own, and with large, grey eyes examined his face shrewdly. Yet neither the action nor the gaze was embarrassing to Wilfrid he felt, on the contrary, something wonderfully soothing in the pressure of the warm, firm hands, and in her look an invitation to the repose of confidence which was new in his experience of women -- an experience not extensive, by the bye, though his characteristic generalisations seemed to claim the opposite. He submitted from the first moment to an influence maternal in its spirit, an influence which his life had lacked, and which can perhaps only be fully appreciated either in mature reflection upon a past made sacred by death, or on a meeting such as this, when the heart is open to the helpfulness of disinterested sympathy. Mrs. Baxendale's countenance was grave enough to suit the sad thoughts with which she sought to commune, yet showed an under-smile, suggesting the consolation held in store by one much at home in the world's sorrows. As she smiled, each of her cheeks dimpled softly, and Wilfrid could not help noticing the marvellous purity of her complexion, as well as the excellent white teeth just visible between her lips.
'So you have come all the way from Switzerland,' she said, leading him to a chair, and seating herself by him. Her voice had a touch of masculine quality, even as her shape and features, but it chained attention, and impressed as the utterance of a large and strong nature. 'You are tired, too, with travel; I can see that. When did you reach Dunfield?'
'Half an hour ago.'
'And you came here at once. Beatrice and I were on the point of going to Hebsworth this afternoon; I rejoice that we did not. I'm continually afraid lest she should find the house dull. My husband and myself are alone. My eldest girl was married three months ago, my younger one is just gone to Germany, and my son is spending half a year in the United States; the mother finds herself a little forsaken. It was really more than kind of Beatrice to come and bury herself with me for a week or two.'
She passed by tactful transition to the matter in hand.
'Wasn't it a strange link that she should meet Miss Hood at your house! She has been so saddened. I never yet knew any one who could talk with Emily without feeling deep interest in her. My daughter Louisa, I am convinced, will never forget what she owes to her teacher She and my youngest child used to be Miss Hood's pupils -- perhaps you have heard? My own Emily -- she is dead -- was passionately fond of her namesake; she talked of her among the last words she ever spoke, poor little mite.'
'Miss Redwing tells me you saw her yesterday,' Wilfrid said.
'Yes, for the first time.'
'Was she conscious?'
'Quite. But I was afraid to talk to her more than a minute or two; even that excited her too much. I fear you must not let her know yet of your presence.'
'I am glad I knew nothing of this till the worst was over. From the way in which she spoke of her father I should have feared horrible things. Did you know him with any intimacy?'
'Only slightly, I am sorry to say. The poor man seems to have had a very hard life; it is clear to me that sheer difficulty in making ends meet drove him out of his senses. Are you a student of political economy?' she asked suddenly, looking into Wilfrid's face with a peculiar smile.
'I am not. Why do you ask?'
'It is the one subject on which my husband and I hold no truce. Mr. Baxendale makes it one of his pet studies, whilst I should like to make a bonfire of every volume containing such cruel nonsense. You must know, Mr. Athel, that I have an evil reputation in Dunfield; my views are held dangerous; they call me a socialist. Mr. Baxendale, when particularly angry, offers to hire the hall in the Corn Exchange, that I may say my say and henceforth spare him at home. Now think of this poor man. He had a clerkship in a mill, and received a salary of disgraceful smallness; he never knew what it was to be free of anxiety. The laws of political economy will have it so, says my husband; if Mr. Hood refused, there were fifty other men ready to take the place. He couldn't have lived at all, it seems, but that he owned a house in another town, which brought him a few pounds a year. I can't talk of such things with patience. Here's my husband offering himself as a Liberal candidate for Dunfield at the election coming on. I say to him: What are you going to do if you get into Parliament? Are you going to talk political economy, and make believe that everything is right, when it's as wrong as can be? If so, I say, you'd better save your money for other purposes, and stay where you are. He tells me my views are impracticable; then, I say, so much the worse for the world, and so much the more shame for every rich man who finds excuses for such a state of things. It is dreadful to think of what those poor people must have gone through. They were so perfectly quiet under it that no one gave a thought to their position. When Emily used to come here day after day, I've often suspected she didn't have enough to eat, yet it was impossible for me to ask questions, it would have been called prying into things that didn't concern me.'
'She has told me for how much kindness she is indebted to you,' Wilfrid said, with gratitude.
'Pooh! What could I do? Oh, don't we live absurdly artificial lives? Now why should a family who, through no fault of their own, are in the most wretched straits, shut themselves up and hide it like a disgrace? Don't you think we hold a great many very nonsensical ideas about self-respect and independence and so on? If I were in want, I know two or three people to whom I should forthwith go and ask for succour; if they thought the worse of me for it, I should tell them they ought to be ashamed of themselves. We act, indeed, as if we ourselves had made the world and were bound to pretend it an admirable piece of work, without a screw loose anywhere. I always say the world's about as bad a place as one could well imagine, at all events for most people who live in it, and that it's our plain duty to help each other without grimacings. The death of this poor man has distressed me more than I can tell you; it does seem such a monstrously cruel thing. There's his employer, a man called Dagworthy, who never knew what it was to be without luxuries, -- I'm not in the habit of listening to scandal, but I believe there's a great deal of truth in certain stories told about his selfishness and want of feeling. I consider Mr. Dagworthy this poor man's murderer; it was his bounden duty to see that a man in his employment was paid enough to live upon, -- and Mr. Hood was not. Imagine what suffering must have brought about such an end as this. A sad case, -- say people. I call it a case of crime that enjoys impunity.'
Wilfrid listened gloomily. The broad question stirred him to no strong feeling, but the more he heard the more passionate was his longing to bear Emily away from the scenes of such a past. With what devotion would he mould his life to the one task of healing her memory! Yet he knew it must be very long before her heart could recover from the all but deadly wound it had received. A feeling which one may not call jealousy, -- that were too inhuman, -- but still one of the million forms which jealousy assumes to torture us, drove him to ask himself what the effect of such a crisis in her life might be on Emily's love for him. There would always remain in her inmost soul one profound sadness in which he had no part, and which by its existence would impugn the supremacy of that bond which united him and her.
'How does Mrs. Hood bear it?' he asked, when he found Mrs. Baxendale again examining his face.
'I think Emily's illness has been her great help, -- poor creatures that we are, needing one great grief to balance another. But she seems in a very weak state; I didn't like her look yesterday.'
'Will you describe her to me?' asked Wilfrid.
'She is not the kind of mother you would give to Emily. I'm afraid her miserable life has told upon her greatly, both in mind and body.'
'Emily never spoke of her, though so often of her father.'
'That is what I should have expected. Still, you must not think her quite unworthy. She speaks as an educated woman, and is certainly very devoted.'
'What of her present position? She must be in extreme difficulties.'
'No, she wants nothing for the present. Friends have been very anxious to help her. That's what I say, -- only let your misery drive you out of the world, and people will find out all at once how very easily they might have saved you. A hundredth part of the interest that has been shown in the family since poor Mr. Hood's death would have found endless ways of making his life very different. All sorts of people have suddenly discovered that he really was a very deserving man, and that something ought long since to have been done for him. I don't know what has been told you of his history. He was once in independent business; I don't know exactly what. It was only utter failure that drove him to the miserable clerkship. How admirable it was of a man in such circumstances to have his daughter so well educated!'
'Emily,' he said with gentle fervour, 'would have found her own way.'
'Ah, don't depreciate his care!' Mrs. Baxendale urged. 'You'll find out by degrees what a great deal of heathen doubt there is in me; among other things, I am impressed by the power of circumstances. Emily would always have been a remarkable girl, no doubt; but, without her education, you and I should not have been talking about her like this, even if we had known her. We can't dispense with these aids; that's where I feel the cruelty of depriving people of chances. Men and women go to their graves in wretchedness who might have done noble things with an extra pound a week to live upon. It does not sound lofty doctrine, does it? But I have vast faith in the extra pound a week. Emily had the advantage of it, however it was managed. I don't like to think of her as she might have been without it. What was it Beatrice called me yesterday? A materialist; yes, a materialist. It was a reproach, though she said it in the kindest way; I took it as a compliment. We can't get out of the world of material; how long will the mind support itself on an insufficient supply of dry bread?'
Wilfrid's intellectual sympathies were being aroused by his new friend's original way of talking. He began to feel a keen satisfaction at having her near him in these troubles.
'Do you think,' he asked, returning to his immediate needs, 'that I might write to her?'
'Not yet; you mustn't think of it yet.'
'Does Mrs. Hood----' he hesitated. 'Do you think Emily has told her mother -- has spoken to her of me?'
Mrs. Baxendale looked surprised. 'I can't say; I took it for granted.'
'I wonder why she was reluctant to do so?' Wilfrid said, already speaking with complete freedom. 'Her father cannot have known; it would have relieved his worst anxieties; he would surely never have been driven to such things.'
'No; I think not. The poor girl will feel that, I fear. I suppose one can get a glimpse of her reasons for keeping silence?' She gave Wilfrid a friendly glance as she spoke.
'How glad I am,' he exclaimed, 'to be able to talk to you! I should have been in the utmost difficulties. Think of my position if I had been without a friend in the town. Then, indeed, but for Miss Redwing I should have heard nothing even yet.'
'She wrote to you?'
'Not to me; she mentioned the matter in a letter to my aunt, Mrs. Rossall.'
'Did Beatrice -- you let me question? -- did she know?'
'Only, she says, in consequence of a letter my father addressed to Mr. Baxendale.'
The lady smiled again.
'I ask because Beatrice is now and then a little mysterious to me. I spoke to her of that letter in the full belief that she must have knowledge of the circumstances. She denied it, yet, I thought, as if it were a matter of conscience to do so.'
'I think it more than likely that my aunt had written to her on the subject. And yet -- no; she would not have denied it to you. That would be unlike her.'
'Yes, I think it would.'
Mrs. Baxendale mused. Before she spoke again a servant entered the room with tea.
'You will be glad of a cup, I am sure,' said the lady. 'And now, what do you propose to do? Shall you return to London?'
'Oh, no! I shall stay in Dunfield till I am able to see her.'
'Very well. In that case you will not refuse our hospitality. The longer you stay the better pleased I shall be.'
She would hear of no difficulties.
'I wouldn't ask you,' she said, 'if I were not able to promise you any degree of privacy you like. A sitting-room is at your disposal -- begging to be occupied since my boy Charlie went away. My husband is over head and ears in electioneering business, foolish man, and I can't tell you how I feel the need of someone to talk to on other subjects than the manufacture of votes. Where is your luggage?'
Wilfrid named the hotel.
'It shall be fetched. And now I'll ask my niece to come and pour out tea for us.'
With the entrance of Beatrice the conversation naturally took a different turn. She heard with becoming interest of Wilfrid's establishment as a guest, and, after a little talk of Mrs. Rossall and the twins, led to the subject of certain 'revivalist' meetings then being held in Dunfield, an occasion of welcome excitement to such of the inhabitants as could not absorb themselves in politics. Mrs. Baxendale seemed to regard the religious movement dispassionately, and related a story she had from her husband of a certain prominent townsman driven to such a pass by his wife's perpetual absence from home on revivalist expeditions, that he at length fairly turned the key on her in her bedroom, and through the keyhole bade her stay there till she had remembered her domestic duties. He was that night publicly prayed for at a great meeting in the Corn Exchange as one who, not content with losing his own soul, did his best to hold back others from the way of grace.
Beatrice affected to pay no heed to this anecdote.
'What is your side in politics?' she asked Wilfrid. 'Here we are all either Blues or Yellows.'
'What do they represent?' Wilfrid inquired.
'Oh, you shouldn't ask that,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'Yellow is yellow, and Blue, blue; nothing else in the world. I think it an excellent idea to use colours. Liberal and Conservative suggest ideas; names, therefore, quite out of place in Dunfield politics -- or any other politics, I dare say, if the truth were known. My husband is a Yellow. It pleases him to call himself a Liberal, or else a Radical. He may have been a few months ago; now he's a mere Yellow. I tell him he's in serious danger of depriving himself of two joys; in another month a cloudless sky and the open sea will he detestable to him.'
'But what are you, Mr. Athel?' Beatrice asked. 'A Liberal or a Conservative? I should really find it hard to guess.'
'In a Yellow house,' he replied, 'I am certainly Yellow.'
'Beatrice is far from being so complaisant,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'She detests our advanced views.'
'Rather, I know nothing of them,' the girl replied. The quiet air with which she expressed her indifference evinced a measure of spiritual pride rather in excess of that she was wont to show. Indeed, her manner throughout the conversation was a little distant to both her companions. If she jested with Wilfrid it was with the idleness of one condescending to subjects below the plane of her interests. To her aunt she was rather courteous than affectionate.
Whilst they still sat over tea, Mr. Baxendale came in. Like his wife, he was of liberal proportions, and he had a face full of practical sagacity; if anything, he looked too wide awake, a fault of shrewd men, constitutionally active, whose imagination plays little part in their lives. He wore an open frock-coat, with much expanse of shirt-front. The fore part of his head was bald, and the hair on each side was brushed forward over his ears in a manner which gave him a singular appearance. His bearing was lacking in self-possession; each of his remarks was followed by a short laugh, deprecatory, apologetic. It seemed impossible to him to remain in a state of bodily repose, even with a cup of tea in his hand he paced the room. Constantly he consulted his watch -- not that he had any special concern with the hour, but from a mere habit of nervousness.
He welcomed the visitor with warmth, at the same time obviously suppressing a smile of other than merely polite significance: then he began at once to speak of electioneering matters, and did so, pacing the carpet, for the next half hour. Wilfrid listened with such show of interest as he could command; his thoughts were elsewhere, and weariness was beginning to oppress him.
Shortly after dinner fatigue passed the point at which it could be struggled against. Long waking, the harassment of fears at length consoled, and the exhaustion consequent upon his journey, besieged him with invincible drowsiness. Mrs. Baxendale, observing it, begged him to discard ceremony and go to rest. Gladly he suffered himself to be led to his room; once there, he could not note the objects about him; the very effort of taking off his clothes was almost beyond his strength. Sleep was binding his brows with oblivion, and relaxing every joint. His dearest concerns were nothing to him; with a wave of the hand he would have resigned an eternity of love; cry to him blood-chilling horrors, and his eyelids would make no sign. The feather-softness moulded itself to his limbs; the pillows pressed a yielding coolness to his cheek; his senses failed amid faint fresh odours. Blessed state! How enviable above all waking joys the impotence which makes us lords of darkness, the silence which suffers not to reach our ears so much as an echo of the farce of life.
A servant went to Banbrigg each morning for tidings; Emily, so the report said, moved steadily towards recovery. On the second day after Wilfrid's arrival Mrs. Baxendale took him with her in the brougham, and let him wait for her whilst she made a call upon Mrs. Hood; Wilfrid saw an upper window of which the blind was down against the sun, and would gladly have lingered within sight of it. Beatrice had excused herself from accompanying the two.
'I believe,' Mrs. Baxendale said on the way, 'she has gone to some special service at St. Luke's.' She was mistaken, though Beatrice had in truth been diligent at such services of late. 'Now there,' she added, 'is a kind of infatuation I find it difficult even to understand. How can a girl of her sense and education waste her time in that way? Don't think I have no religious belief, Mr. Athel; I'm not strong-minded enough for that. But this deliberate working of oneself into a state of nervous excitement seems to me, to speak plainly, indecent. Dr. Wardle, with whom I chat rather wickedly now and then, tells me the revivals are quite a windfall, subsequently, to him and his brethren. And, do you know, I begin to see bad results even in my niece. I certainly wouldn't have had her down just at this time if I had suspected her leanings that way. Didn't you notice how absent she was last night, and again at breakfast this morning? All revival, I assure you.'
'It's the want of a serious interest in life,' remarked Wilfrid, remembering, with a smile, a certain conversation between Beatrice and himself.
'Then it's so inconsistent,' continued the lady, 'for -- you won't abuse my confidence -- a more worldly girl I never knew. In her heart I am convinced she thinks nothing so important as the doings of fashionable society. She asked me, the first day she was here, how I lived without -- what was it? I quite forget, but some paper or other which is full of what they call fashionable intelligence. "My dear," I said, "I know none of those people, and care not one grain of salt about their flutterings hither and thither, their marryings and givings ill marriage, their dresses and their -- never mind what." And what do you think she answered? "But you will care when my name begins to be mentioned." And she went off with -- just so much -- toss of the head; you know how Beatrice does it. Well, I suppose she really does to me an honour by coming down to my poor dull house; no doubt she's very brilliant in the world I know nothing about. I suppose you have seen her at her best? She won't waste her graces upon me, wise girl; only the -- you know the movement -- when I've shown my ignorance now and then. Did you ever dance with her?'
'Oh, yes; frequently.'
'I should like to see her in a ball-room. Certainly there are few girls more handsome; I suppose that is admitted?'
'Certainly; she queens it everywhere.'
'And her singing is lovely! Do you know a thought I often have? When I hear her singing it seems to me as if she were not quite the same person as at other times; she affects me, I can't quite tell you how; it's a sort of disenchantment to talk to her immediately afterwards.'
Wilfrid liked Mrs. Baxendale the more, the more he talked with her; in a day or two the confidence between them was as complete as if their acquaintance had been life-long. With her husband, too, he came to be on an excellent footing. Mr. Baxendale got him into the library when the ladies retired for the night, and expatiated for hours on the details of his electoral campaign. At first Wilfrid found the subject tedious, but the energy and bright intelligence of the man ended by stirring his interest in a remarkable way. It was new to Wilfrid to be in converse with such a strenuously practical mind; the element of ambition in him, of less noble ambition which had had its share in urging him to academic triumphs, was moved by sympathetic touches; he came to understand the enthusiasm which possessed the Liberal candidate, began to be concerned for his success, to feel the stirrings of party spirit. He aided Baxendale in drawing up certain addresses for circulation, and learned the difference between literary elegance and the tact which gets at the ear of the multitude. A vulgar man could not have moved him in this way, and Baxendale was in truth anything but vulgar. Through his life he had been, on a small scale, a ruler of men, and had ruled with conspicuous success, yet he had preserved a native sincerity and wrought under the guidance of an ideal. Like all men who are worth anything, either in public or private, he possessed a keen sense of humour, and was too awake to the ludicrous aspects of charlatanry to fall into the pits it offered on every band. His misfortune was the difficulty with which he uttered himself; even when he got over his nervousness, words came to him only in a rough-and-tumble fashion; he sputtered and fumed and beat his forehead for phrases, then ended with a hearty laugh at his own inarticulateness, Something like this was his talk in the library of nights:
'There's a man called Rapley, an old-clothes dealer -- fellow I can't get hold of. He's hanging midway -- what do you call it? -- trimming, with an eye to the best bargain. Invaluable, if only I could get him, but a scoundrel. Wants pay, you know; do anything for pay; win the election for me without a doubt, if only I pay him; every blackguard in Dunfield hand and glove with him. Now pay I won't, yet I'm bound to get that man. Talked to him yesterday for two hours and thirty-five minutes by the parish church clock, just over his shop -- I mean the clock is. The fellow hasn't a conviction, yet he can talk you blue; if I had his powers of speech -- there it is I fail, you see. I have to address a meeting tomorrow; Rapley 'll be up at me, and turn me inside out. He'd do as much for the other man, if only I'd pay him. That isn't my idea; I'm going to win the election clean-handed; satisfaction in looking back on an honest piece of work; what? I'll have another talk with him to-morrow. Now look at this map of the town; I've coloured it with much care. There you see the stronghold of the Blues. I'm working that district street by street -- a sort of moral invasion. No humbug; I set my face against humbug. If a man's a rogue, or a sot, or a dirty rascal, I won't shake hands with him and pretend -- you know -- respect, friendship, how are your wife and children, so on. He's a vote, and I've only to deal with him as a vote. Can he see that two and two make four? Good; I'm at him by that side. There are my principles; what have you to urge against them? He urges damned absurdities. Good; I prove to him that they are damned absurdities.'
At times Wilfrid managed to lead the talk to other subjects, such as were suggested by the books around the room. Baxendale had read not a little, and entirely in the spheres of fact and speculation. Political economy and all that appertained to it was his speciality, but he was remarkably strong in metaphysics. Wilfrid had flattered himself that he was tolerably familiar with the highways of philosophy, but Baxendale made him feel his ignorance. The man had, for instance, read Kant with extraordinary thoroughness, and discussed him precisely as he did his electioneering difficulties; the problems of consciousness he attacked with hard-headed, methodical patience, with intelligence, moreover, which was seldom at fault. Everything that bore the appearance of a knot to be unravelled had for him an immense attraction. In mere mental calculation his power was amazing. He took Wilfrid over his manufactory one day, and explained to him certain complicated pieces of machinery; the description was not so lucid as it might have been, owing to lack of words, but it manifested the completest understanding of things which to his companion were as hard as the riddle of the universe. His modesty, withal, was excessive; to Wilfrid's humane culture he deferred at all times; for all the learning which lay outside his own sphere he had boundless reverence. Wilfrid's gain by him was not only of a pleasant personal acquaintance; the intercourse extended his views, and in particular gave direction to much that had hitherto been vague potentiality in his character. In more than one sense this visit to Dunfield was to prove a turning point in his life.
Beatrice, in the meantime, held herself apart; Wilfrid had never before felt himself so little at ease in her presence. It was as though the short time which had elapsed since their last meeting had effected a permanent change in their mutual relations. Previously their intercourse had gone as far in familiarity as was possible if it were not to take quite a new colour; now all at once this past seemed to go for nothing. Beatrice was the active source of change. She was deliberately -- he could not doubt it -- extending the distance between them, annulling bygone intimacy, shifting into ineffective remoteness all manner of common associations. Things she would formerly have understood at a half-word she now affected to need to have explained to her. He was 'Mr. Athel' to an extent he had never been before; and even of his relatives she spoke with a diminished familiarity. She emphasised at every moment the characteristics which were alien to his sympathies, talked of the 'revival' ad nauseam, or changed with alarming suddenness from that to topics of excessive frivolousness. Wilfrid little by little ceased to converse with her, in the real sense of the word; he even felt uncomfortable in her presence. And Mrs. Baxendale had clear eyes for at all events the outward features of the situation.
On the fifth day of Wilfrid's presence in the house, Beatrice took the opportunity of being alone with her aunt to observe that she must go southwards by a certain train next morning.
'Oh, surely not!' protested Mrs. Baxendale. 'I can't spare you yet. And your mother is still in Berkshire.'
'Yes, but that makes no difference to me, you know,' said Beatrice. 'I'm often at home by myself. Indeed I must go to-morrow.'
'Won't you stay if I beg you? It's four years since you were here, and who knows how long it will be before I entrap you again. You've already threatened me, you know, with the peerage, and I'm very sure you won't deign to honour me when that day comes. Now, there's a good girl -- to the end of the week at least.'
It seemed as though Beatrice would persist.
'Now, if it were not such an unlikely thing,' said her aunt, 'I should be disposed to think it was Mr. Athel who is driving you away.'
'Mr. Athel!' the girl exclaimed, almost haughtily, and with a flush which disappeared as rapidly as it came, leaving the lovely face with a touch of exquisite paleness.
'I mean,' said Mrs. Baxendale quickly, averting her honest eyes, 'that I fear he has offended you.'
'How can Mr. Athel have offended me?' Beatrice asked, with a certain severity.
'I thought perhaps -- a remark he made last night on the revival.'
Mrs. Baxendale felt ill at ease. Her first sentence had been inconsiderate; she knew it as soon as it was uttered, and indeed did not quite see what could have induced her to make such a remark. She had not the habit of nice conversation which endows with complete command of the tongue. But her wits had, as you see, come to her rescue.
'Mr. Athel's opinions on that subject are not likely to offend me,' Beatrice replied, with the shadow of a smile.
'I am so afraid lest he should suspect anything of the kind. I am sure it would grieve him dreadfully.'
The girl laughed outright, though not with much joyousness.
'Mr. Athel be grieved for such a cause! My dear aunt, you don't know him. He's as little sensitive as any man could be. Why, he holds it a duty to abuse people who do things he counts foolish.'
'You exaggerate,' returned her aunt, with a smile.
Beatrice continued, vivaciously.
'Oh, you don't know him as well as I do. We used to be always wrangling -- in the days of my simplicity. I have been marvelling at his forbearance; it would have been nothing wonderful if he had called me an idiot. Frankness of that kind is the mark of his friendship -- haven't you found that out? Hasn't he taken occasion yet to inform you that your life is conducted on an utterly mistaken principle, that you are shallow and inefficient, that you are worse than useless in the world, and ought, if properly constituted, to be a torment to yourself? None of these things he has said? Oh, then you are not admitted to Mr. Athel's intimacy; you are not of the inner circle.'
She spoke with a kind of reckless gaiety, a mocking merriment which her rich voice and command of facial expression made very effective. It startled her hearer, who, when the girl ceased, took one of her hands and patted it kindly.
'Why then,' she said, 'I have been altogether mistaken; for I did really think he had offended you. But now I'm sure you'll stay -- won't you?'
'Rather than you should think I run away from Mr. Athel's high censure -- certainly.'
Then she became silent, and shortly left the room. Mrs. Baxendale sat by herself musing.
She was a woman given to thoughtfulness, for all that she used her tongue freely when with those she liked. She did not greatly seek such society as Dunfield had to offer, and partly on that account, partly owing to alarms excited by her caustic comments on matters of popular interest, the ladies of the town left her abundance of leisure. She used it well. Though not a highly-educated woman, she read constantly, and books of a solid kind. Society in Dunfield had its book club, and Mrs. Baxendale enjoyed the advantage of choosing literature which her fellow-members were very willing to let her keep as long as she liked. Beatrice derived much amusement from her aunt's method of reading. Beatrice, with the run of Mr. Mudie's catalogues, would have half-a-dozen volumes in her lap at the same time, and as often as not get through them -- tant bien que mal -- in the same day. But to the provincial lady a book was a solid and serious affair. To read a chapter was to have provided matter for a day's reflection; the marker was put at the place where reading had ceased, and the book was not re-opened till previous matter had been thoroughly digested and assimilated. It was a slow method, but not without its advantages, I assure you.
Perhaps to relieve her worthy aunt of any lingering anxiousness, Beatrice, throughout the day, wore an appearance of much contentment, and to Wilfrid was especially condescending, even talking with him freely on a subject quite unconnected with her pet interests. That evening two gentlemen, politicians, dined at the house; Beatrice, under cover of their loud discussions in the drawing-room, exchanged certain remarks with Wilfrid.
'My aunt was so good as to apologise to me on your behalf this morning,' she began.
'Apologise? What have I been guilty of?'
'Oh, nothing. She doesn't appreciate the freemasonry between us. It occurred to her that your remarks on my -- well, my predilections, might have troubled me. Judge how amused I was!'
She did not look at him from the first, and appeared to be examining, even whilst she spoke, a book of prints.
'I sincerely hope,' Wilfrid replied, 'that I have uttered no thoughtless piece of rudeness. If I have, I beg you to forgive me.'
She glanced at him. He appeared to speak seriously, and it was the kind of speech he would never have dreamed of making to her in former days, at all events in this tone.
'You know perfectly well,' she answered, with slow voice, bending to look more closely at a page, 'that you never said anything to me which could call for apology.'
'I am not so sure of that,' Wilfrid replied, smiling.
'Then take my assurance now,' said Beatrice, closing her book, and rising to move towards her aunt. As she went, she cast a look back, a look of curious blankness, as if into vacancy.
She sang shortly after, and the souls of the politicians were stirred within them. For Wilfrid, he lay back with his eyes closed, his heart borne on the flood of music to that pale-windowed room of sickness, whose occupant must needs be so sadly pale. The security he felt in the knowledge that Emily grew better daily made him able to talk cheerfully and behave like one without preoccupation, but Emily in truth was never out of his mind. He lived towards the day when he should kneel at her feet, and feel once more upon his forehead those cold, pure lips. And that day, as he believed, was now very near.
To her aunt's secret surprise, Beatrice allowed the end of the week to come and go without any allusion to the subject of departure. It was all the more strange, seeing that the girl's show of easy friendliness with Wilfrid had not lasted beyond the day; she had become as distant and self-centred as before. But on the morning of the following Tuesday, as Mrs. Baxendale sat reading not long after breakfast, Beatrice entered the room in her light travelling garb, and came forward, buttoning her glove.
'You are going out?' Mrs. Baxendale asked, with some misgiving.
'Yes -- to London. They are calling a cab. You know how I dislike preparatory miseries.'
Her aunt kept astonished silence. She looked at the girl, then down at her book.
'Well,' she said at length, 'it only remains to me to remember the old proverb. But when is the train? Are you off this moment?'
'The train leaves in five-and-twenty minutes. May I disturb uncle, do you think?'
'Ah, now I understand why you asked if he would be at home through the morning. I'll go and fetch him.'
She went quickly to the library. Mr. Baxendale sat there alone.
'Beatrice is going,' she said, coming behind his chair. 'Will you come and say good-bye?'
Mr. Baxendale jumped up.
His wife nodded.
'Why? What is it? You haven't quarrelled with her about the prayer-meetings?'
'No. It's a fancy of hers, that's all. Come along; she's only twenty minutes to catch the train.'
When they reached the drawing-room, Beatrice was not there. Upon Mrs. Baxendale's withdrawal she had gone to Wilfrid's door and knocked at it. Wilfrid was pacing about in thought. It surprised him to see who his visitor was; yet more, when she advanced to him with her hand extended, saying a simple 'Good-bye.'
Her attire explained. Beatrice possessed the beauty of form and face which makes profit of any costume; in the light-brown cape, and hat to match, her tall, lithe figure had a womanly dignity which suited well with the unsmiling expressiveness of her countenance. The 'good-bye' was uttered briefly and without emphasis, as one uses any insignificant form of speech.
Wilfrid resolved at once to accept her whim; after all, it was but another instance of frequent eccentricities.
'Who is going to the station with you?' he asked.
'No one. I hate partings on the platform.'
She moved away almost as far as the door, then turned again.
'You will be in town before going back to Oxford?'
'Oh, never mind,' she said; and was gone.
Ten minutes later Wilfrid went to the drawing-room. Mr. and Mrs. Baxendale were talking together; they became silent as he entered.
'Has Miss Redwing gone?' he asked.
'She took leave of you, didn't she?' replied the lady.
'Yes. But it was So unprepared for, I half thought it might be a joke.'
'Oh, she's fond of these surprises,' Mrs. Baxendale said, in a tone of good-natured allowance. 'On the whole I sympathise with her; I myself prefer not to linger over such occasions.'
Later in the day Mrs. Baxendale drove out to Banbrigg, this time alone. On her return, she sought Wilfrid and found him in his room. There was concern on her face.
'I have heard something very painful from Mrs. Hood,' she began. 'It seems that Emily is in ignorance of her father's death.'
Wilfrid looked at her in astonishment.
'I told you,' Mrs. Baxendale pursued, 'that she had not been altogether well just before it happened, but it now appears that the dreadful incident of her entering the room just when the body was brought in must have taken place when she was delirious. The poor woman has had no suspicion of that; but it is proved by Emily's questions, now that she begins to talk. Of course it makes a new anxiety. Mrs. Hood has not dared to hint at the truth, but it cannot be concealed for long.'
'But this is most extraordinary,' Wilfrid exclaimed, 'What, then, was the origin of her illness?'
'That is the mystery. Mrs. Hood's memory seems to be confused, but I got her to allow that the feverish symptoms were declared even the night before the death was known. I hardly like to hint it, but it really seemed to me as if she were keeping something back. One moment she said that Emily had been made ill by anxiety at her father's lateness in coming home that night, and the next she seemed, for some reason, unwilling to admit that it was so. The poor woman is in a sad, sad state, and no wonder. She wishes that somebody else might tell Emily the truth; but surely it will come most easily from her.'
Wilfrid was deeply distressed.
'It is the very worst that still remains,' he said, 'and we thought the worst was over. What does the doctor say? Can she bear it yet? It is impossible to let her continue in ignorance.'
It was at length decided that Mrs. Baxendale should visit the doctor, and hear his opinion. She had got into her mind a certain distrust of Mrs. Hood, and even doubted whether Emily ought to be left in her hands during convalescence; there was clearly no want of devotion on the mother's part, but it appeared to Mrs. Baxendale that the poor woman had been overtaxed, and was herself on the point of illness, perhaps of mental failure. From going well things had suddenly taken an anxious turn.
When Emily returned from the wastes of ravaged mind, and while yet the images of memory were hardly distinguished from the ghosts of delirious dream, the picture that haunted her with most persistency, with an objective reality the more impressive the clearer her thought became, was one which she could least comprehend or account for. She saw lying before her a closely muffled form, the outline seeming to declare it that of a man. The struggle of new-born consciousness was to associate such a vision with the events which had preceded her illness. Perchance for a day, perchance only for an hour, however long the unmeasured transition from darkness to the dawn of self-knowledge, she suffered the oppression of this mechanical questioning. At length the presence of her mother by the bedside became a fact, and it led on to the thought of her father. Her eyes moved in search for him.
The act of speech, in health a mere emphasis of thought, was only to be attained by repetition of efforts; several times she believed herself to have spoken whilst silence still pressed her lips. Only when the recollection of her last waking day was complete, and when the absence of her father from the room linked itself to memory of her anguished waiting for him, did she succeed in uttering the words which represented her fear. Her mother was bending over her, aware of the new light in her questioning eyes.
'Where's father?' Emily asked.
'You shall see him, dear,' was the reply. 'Don't speak.'
'He came home?'
'Yes, he came home.'
Emily fell back into thought; this great fear allayed, the only now, like an angel coming from afar over dark waters, past continued to rebuild itself within her mind. And now, there gleamed the image of her love. It had been expelled from memory by the all-possessing woe of those last hours; it returned like a soothing warmth, an assuagement of pain. As though soul-easing music sounded about her, she again lost her hold on outward things and sank into a natural sleep.
Mrs. Hood feared the next waking. The question about her father, she attributed to Emily's incomplete command of her faculties, for she had not doubted that the muffled figure on the couch had been consciously seen by the girl and understood. Yet with waking the error prolonged itself; it became evident at length that Emily knew nothing of her coming down to the sitting-room, and still had to learn that her father no longer lived. It was a new suffering under which the poor woman gave way. Already her natural affliction was complicated with a sense of painful mysteries; in her delirium, Emily had uttered words which there was no explaining, but which proved that there had been some hidden connection between her mental trouble and her father's failure to return at the usual hour. Dagworthy's name she had spoken frequently, and with words which called to mind the sum of money her father had somehow procured. Mrs. Hood had no strength to face trials such as these. As long as her child's life seemed in danger, she strove with a mother's predominant instinct to defend it; but her powers failed as Emily passed out of peril. Her outlook became blank; physical exhaustion joined with mental suffering began to render her incapable of further efforts. Fortunately, Mrs. Baxendale perceived this in time. A nurse was provided, in addition to the one who had assisted Mrs. Hood, and the mother became herself the object of care.
Emily had been told that her father was ill, but this fiction it was soon impossible to maintain. Three days after the last reported conversation between Wilfrid and Mrs. Baxendale, it was determined that the latter must take upon herself the office of telling Emily the truth. Mrs. Hood implored her to do so; the poor mother was sinking into a state which scarcely left her the command of her mind, and, though she could not sustain the duty herself, it was her harassing desire that it might quickly be performed. So at length the revelation was made, made with all the forbearance and strengthening tenderness of which a strong-souled woman is capable. But the first syllables prepared Emily for the whole truth. A secret dread, which she had not dared to confess to herself on that last evening, though probably it brought about the crisis in her suffering, and which the false assurances recently given her had perhaps not wholly overcome, rushed forth as soon as evil was hinted at. The softened statement that her father had been stricken down by a natural malady did not for a moment deceive her. She closed her eyes; the pillows which supported her were scarcely whiter than her face. But she was soon able to speak with perfect self-control.
'Was he brought home wrapped in something?' she asked. 'With his face covered?'
'He was, Emily.'
'How and where did I see him? For I know I did see him.'
'Your mother has told me that you rose from your bed, and went to the room below. She did not realise that you were unconscious; she believed that you knew of this.'
This was her dread vision. As if to protect herself from it, she raised her hand and laid it across her eyes. Then it fell again to the coverlet -- thin, flower-like hand, which in its translucency of flesh seemed to have been created by spirit for its chosen abode.
When silence had lasted some moments--
'Now that I know he is dead,' Emily resumed -- oh, the sad music of the last word! -- 'I can bear to hear the manner of it without disguise. Will you tell me the whole truth, Mrs. Baxendale?'
It was spoken like herself. Ever clinging to sincerity, ever ready to face the truth of things, in how many a matter of less moment had the girl spoken with just this directness, inspiring respect in all who heard her clear, candid voice.
Mrs. Baxendale sank her eyes, and hesitated.
'He died by his own hand,' Emily said, below her breath.
The lady kept silence. Emily again closed her eyes, and, as she so lay, felt warm lips touch her forehead.
Mrs. Baxendale believed for a moment that the sufferer had lost consciousness, but the utterance of her name caused Emily to raise her lids.
'Why did he do this?' she asked, regarding her friend fixedly.
'No one can say, dear.'
Emily drew a deep sigh; a gleam passed over her face.
'There was an inquest?' she asked.
'Is it possible for me to see a newspaper in which it was reported?'
'If you really desire it,' said Mrs. Baxendale, with hesitation.
'I do; I wish to read it. Will you do me that great kindness?'
'I will bring it you in a day or two. But would it not be better to delay----'
'Is there anything,' Emily asked quickly, 'that you have kept from me?'
'Then I need not put off reading it. I have borne the worst.'
As Mrs. Baxendale left the house, she was passed at a short distance along the road by a man on horseback. This rider gave a sign to the coachman to stop, and a moment after presented himself at the window of the brougham. It was Dagworthy; he wished to have news of Mrs. and Miss Hood. The lady gave him full information.
'I fear I could not see Mrs. Hood?' Dagworthy said.
'Oh, she is far too ill!' was the reply.
Having assured himself on this point, Dagworthy took his leave, and, when the carriage was remote, rode to the house. He made fast the reins to the gate, entered, and knocked at the door. A girl who did subordinate work for the nurses opened.
'I want you,' Dagworthy said, 'to give this note at once to Miss Hood. You understand? -- to Miss Hood. Will you do so?'
'I will, sir.'
He went away, and, immediately after, Emily was reading these lines:
'I wish to tell you that no one has heard, and no one ever will, of the circumstances you would desire to have unknown. I send this as soon as you are able to receive it. You will know from whom it comes.'
She knew, and the message aided her. The shook of what she had just heard was not, in its immediate effect, as severe as others had feared it would be. Perhaps Emily's own sojourn at the gates of death lessened the distance between her and him who had passed them; perhaps the vast misery which lay behind her, the darkness threatening in the future, brought first to her mind death's attribute of deliverance. This, in the hours that followed, she strove to dwell upon nothing could touch her father now, he was safe from trouble. But, as the current in her veins grew warmer, as life held her with a stronger hand and made her once more participant in his fears and desires, that apparition of the motionless veiled form haunted her with access of horror. If she slept it came into her dreams, and her waking thoughts strove with hideous wilfulness to unmuffle that dead face. When horror failed, its place was taken by a grief so intense that it shook the fabric of her being. She had no relapse in health, but convalescence was severed from all its natural joys; she grew stronger only to mourn more passionately. In imagination she followed her father through the hours of despair which must have ensued on his interview with Dagworthy. She pictured his struggle between desire to return home, to find comfort among those he loved, and the bitter shame which forbade it. How had he spent the time? Did he wander out of the town to lonely places, until daylight failed? Did he then come back under the shadow of the night, come back all but to the very door of his dwelling, make one last effort to face those within, pass on in blind agony? Was he on the heath at the very hour when she crossed it to go to Dagworthy's house? Oh, had that been his figure which, as she hurried past, she had seen moving in the darkness of the quarry?
A pity which at times grew too vast for the soul to contain absorbed her life, the pity which overwhelms and crushes, which threatens reason. That he should have lived through long years of the most patient endurance, keeping ever a hope, a faith, so simple-hearted, so void of bitter feeling, so kindly disposed to all men -- only to be vanquished at length by a moment of inexplicable weakness, only to creep aside, and hide his shame, and die. Her father, whom it was her heart's longing to tend and cherish through the brighter days of his age -- lying there in his grave, where no voice could reach him, remote for ever from the solace of loving kindness, his death a perpetuation of woe. The cruelty of fate had exhausted itself; what had the world to show more pitiful than this?
No light ever came to her countenance; no faintest smile ever touched her lips. Through the hours, through the days, she lay heedless of things around her, solely occupied with the past, with affliction, with remorse. Had it not been in her power to save him? A word from her, and at this moment he would have been living in cheerfulness such as he had never known. She would have had but to turn her head, and his smile would have met her; the rare laugh, so touching to her always, would have become less rare; his struggles would have been over. She had willed that he should die, had sent him forth relentlessly to his last trial, to his forsaken end. Without a leave-taking he had gone forth; his last look had been at her blank windows. That hour was passed into eternity, and with it the better part of her life.
On the first day that she rose from her bed, she went, with the nurse's aid, to her mother's room. What she saw there was a new shock; her mother's face had aged incredibly, and wore a look of such feeble intelligence that to meet her eyes was more than painful. Upon the artificial maintenance of her strength throughout Emily's illness had followed a collapse of the vital powers; it seemed doubtful whether she would ever regain her normal state of mind and body. She knew her daughter, and, when Emily kissed her, the muscles of her haggard face contracted in what was meant for a smile; but she could not use her voice above a whisper, and her words were seldom consequent.
Two days later Mrs. Baxendale again paid a visit. Emily was sitting in her bed-room, unoccupied, on her countenance the sorrow-stricken gravity which never quitted it. The visitor, when she had made her inquiries, seemed to prepare herself to speak of some subject at once important and cheerful.
'For a fortnight,' she said, 'I have had staying with me someone whom you will be glad to hear of -- your nearest friend.'
Emily raised her eyes slowly to the speaker's face; clearly she understood, but was accustoming herself to this unexpected relation between Mrs. Baxendale and Wilfrid.
'Mr. Athel came from Switzerland as soon as he heard of your illness.'
'How did he hear?' Emily inquired, gravely.
'My niece, Miss Redwing, whom you knew, happened to be visiting me. She wrote to Mrs. Rossall.'
Emily was silent. The lines of her mouth showed a slight tremor, but no colour sought her cheeks. The news was affecting her strongly, but only in the way in which she now received every impression; physical weakness had the effect of reducing outward demonstration of feeling, and her spiritual condition favoured passiveness.
'He has asked me to give you a letter, Emily,' pursued Mrs. Baxendale, saddened by the sight of such intense sadness.
Emily took the letter, and laid it on a table near her, murmuring her thanks.
'He is well?' she asked, as the other did not speak.
'Quite; his holiday has completely restored him. You can't think how glad I am to have come to know him, and to have him near me. Such excellent friends we are! You can think how anxious he has been; and his father scarcely less so. The inquiries have been constant. The others have just got home; Mr. Athel had a letter from London this morning. The little girls send you a message; I believe you will find the letter enclosed.'
At the mention of the twins, the slightest smile came upon Emily's lips.
'You are fond of them, I see,' said the lady. 'That they ire fond of you, needs no telling. Oh, and Clara writes from Germany to ask if she may write to you yet. Shall I let her?'
A few more words, and Mrs. Baxendale rose. Emily retained her hand.
'You have not yet had from me one word of gratitude, Mrs. Baxendale,' she said. 'Indeed, I have no words in which to thank you.'
The lady kissed her forehead, pressed the thin hand again, and went for a few moments to Mrs. Hood's room before departing.
It was nearly an hour before Emily took up the letter to open it. When at length she did so, she found that it covered only a small sheet of notepaper. Enclosed was a letter from Mr. Athel, announcing the family's arrival in London, asking in a kind tone for the latest news, and repeating the message from the twins of which Mrs. Baxendale had spoken. Wilfrid wrote with admirable delicacy and feeling; he forgot himself wholly in her affliction, and only in those simplest words which can still be made the most powerful uttered the tenderness which he hoped might speak some comfort to her heart. He did not ask to see her; would she not bid him come to her in her own good time? And only if her strength rendered it quite easy, he begged for one word of reply. Mrs. Baxendale would visit her again very shortly, and to her the answer could be given.
Emily returned the writings to their envelope, and sat through the day as she had sat since morning, scarcely ever moving, without heed of things that were said or done in the room. Before quitting the chair for her bed, she went to spend a quarter of an hour by her mother, whose hand she held throughout the time. Mrs. Hood lay in the same state of semi-consciousness alternating with sleep. In the night she generally wandered a little. But she did not seem to suffer pain.
To-night Emily could not sleep; hitherto her rest had been profound between sunset and early morning. As she had sat through the day, so she lay now, her eyes fixed in the same intent gaze, as on something unfolding itself before her. When the nurses had ceased to move about, the house was wrapped in a stillness more complete than of old, for the clock had not been touched since the night when the weight fell. In the room you might have heard now and then a deep sigh, such sigh as comes from a soul overcharged.
Mrs. Baxendale allowed one day to intervene, then came again. She did not directly speak of Wilfrid, and only when she sat in significant silence, Emily said:
'To-morrow I shall go downstairs. Will you ask Mr. Athel to come and see me?'
'Gladly I will. At what hour shall he come?'
'I shall be down by eleven.'
Later in the day, Mrs. Cartwright and Jessie called. Hitherto Emily had begged that no one might be admitted save Mrs. Baxendale; she felt it would be unkindness to refuse her friends any longer, and the visitors came up and sat for a while with her. Both were awed by the face which met them; they talked scarcely above a whisper, and were sadly troubled by the necessity of keeping awatch upon their tongues.
Emily was now able to descend the stairs without difficulty. The first sight of the little parlour cost her a renewal of her keenest suffering. There was the couch on which his dead body had been placed; that the chair in which he always rested after tea before going up to the laboratory; in a little frame on the mantelpiece was his likeness, an old one and much faded. She moved about, laying her hand on this object and that; she took the seat by the window where she had waited each evening, till she saw him at the gate, to rise at once and open to him. She had not shed tears since that last day of his life, and now it was only a passing mist that dimmed her eyes. Her sorrow was not of the kind which so relieves itself.
She had come down early, in order to spend some time in the room before Wilfrid's arrival. She sat in her father's chair, once more in the attitude of motionless brooding. But her countenance was not as self-controlled as during the past days; emotions, struggles, at work within her found their outward expression. At times she breathed quickly, as if in pain; often her eyes closed. In her worn face, the features marked themselves with strong significance; it was beauty of a kind only to be felt by a soul in sympathy with her own. To others she would have appeared the image of stern woe. The gentleness which had been so readily observable beneath her habitual gravity was absorbed in the severity of her suffering and spiritual conflicts; only a touching suggestion of endurance, of weakness bearing up against terrible fatality, made its plea to tenderness. Withal, she looked no older than in the days of her happiness; a young life, a young heart, smitten with unutterable woe.
When the sound of the opening gate made itself heard, she lay back for a moment in the very sickness of pain it recalled the past so vividly, and chilled her heart with the fear of what she had now before her. She stood, as soon as the knock came at the front door, and kept the same position as Wilfrid entered.
He was startled at the sight of her, but in an instant was holding both her hands, gazing deep into her eyes with an ecstasy of tenderness. He kissed her lips, and, as he did so, felt a shudder in the hands he pressed. A few whispered words were all that he could speak; Emily kept silence. Then he sat near to her; her hand was still in his, but gave no sign of responsive affection, and was very cold.
'It was kind to let me see you so soon,' he said. Her fixed look of hard suffering began to impress him painfully, even with a kind of fear. Emily's face at this moment was that of one who is only half sensible to words spoken. Now she herself spoke for the first time.
'You will forgive me that I did not write. It would have been better, perhaps; it would have been easier to me. Yet why should I fear to say to you, face to face, what I have to say?'
The last sentence was like self-questioning uttered aloud; her eyes were fixed on him, and with appeal which searched his heart.
'Fear to say to me?' Wilfrid repeated, gravely, though without apprehension. 'Has your suffering made strangers of us?'
'Not in the way you mean, but it has so changed my life that I cannot meet you as I should have done.' Her utterance quickened; her voice lost its steadiness. 'Will you be very generous to me -- as good and noble as it is in your heart to be? I ask you to give me back my promise -- to release me.
He gazed at her in bewilderment. His thought was that she was not herself; her manner since his entrance seemed to confirm it; the tortured lines of her face seemed to express illusory fears.
'Emily! Do you know what you say, dearest?'
'Yes; I know what I say, and I know how hard you find it to believe me. If I could explain to you what it is that makes this change, you would not wonder at it, you would understand, you would see that I am doing the only thing I can do. But I cannot give you my reasons; that must be my sad secret to the end of my life. You feel you have a claim to hear the truth; indeed, indeed, you have; but you will be forbearing and generous. Release me, Wilfrid; I ask it as the last and greatest proof of the love you gave me.'
He rose with a gesture of desperation.
'Emily, I cannot bear this! You are ill, my own darling; I should have waited till you were stronger. I should have left you more time to turn your thoughts to me from these terrible things you have passed through.' He flung himself by her side, grasping her hands passionately. 'Dear one, how you have suffered! It kills me to look into your face. I won't speak; let me only stay by you, like this, for a few minutes. Will not my love calm you -- love the purest and tenderest that man ever felt? I would die to heal your heart of its grief!'
With a great sob of uttermost anguish, she put back his hands, rose from the chair, and stood apart. Wilfrid rose and gazed at her in dread. Had the last calamity of human nature fallen upon her? He looked about, as if for aid. Emily read his thoughts perfectly; they helped her to a desperate composure.
'Wilfrid,' she said, 'do I speak like one not in her perfect mind?'
'I cannot say. Your words are meaningless to me. You are not the Emily I knew.'
'I am not,' was her sad answer. 'If you can bring yourself to believe that truth, you will spare yourself and me.'
'What do you mean when you say that?' he asked, his voice intensified in suppression. 'If you are in full command of yourself, if your memory holds all the past, what can have made of you another being? We dare not play with words at a time such as this. Tell me at least one thing. Do I know what it was that caused your illness?'
'I don't understand you.'
Her eyes examined him with fear.
'I mean, Emily -- was it solely due to that shock you received? Or was there any previous distress?'
'Has anything led you to think there was?' she asked, urgently.
'Mrs. Baxendale tells me you -- Emily, why have I to pain you in this way?'
'But tell me -- tell me What did she say?'
'That on coming to yourself you did not know of your father's death.'
'It is true; I did not. My illness began before.'
Wilfrid stood with his eyes on the ground.
'Tell me, again,' she said. 'What else did Mrs. Baxendale say?'
'Nothing. Her surprise when she heard this from your mother was as great as mine when it was repeated to me.'
'It is true,' Emily repeated, more calmly, as if relieved. 'I don't try to conceal that there is a reason I may not speak of. Will you not believe that it is strong enough to change my life? If I did not tell you this, you might indeed refuse to listen to me, thinking I was not myself. I cannot tell you more -- I cannot, I cannot!'
She pressed her palms upon her forehead; it throbbed with pain scarcely to be borne. Wilfrid, after a moment of wretched hesitation, said gravely:
'What you forbid me to ask, I may not even wish to know. I have come to regard your will as the seal upon everything that is true and right. Knowing this, seeing me here before you with my best hopes at stake, do you tell me that something has happened which makes the bond between us of no effect, which lays upon you a duty superior to that of the pledge you gave me?'
She met his gaze, and answered firmly, 'I do.'
'Some duty,' he continued, with quivering voice, 'compared with which the sacredness of our love is nothing?'
She trembled from head to foot; then, as if clutching at a last help, said:
'I do not love you.'
And she waited with her head bowed. Wilfrid, taking up his hat, went to her and offered his hand. When hers was given:
'Raise your eyes and look at me, Emily.'
She did so.
'You are still in the shadow of a great grief, and it may well be that all other things seem trivial. I wish to respect you to the uttermost, and I will try to conceive that there is a motive high enough to justify you. But those last words must be repeated -- when time has come to your aid -- before I can regard them as final.'
He released her hand, and left her. . . .
What was her first sensation, when the door had closed, then the gate without, and Wilfrid in very deed was gone? Was it hopeless misery, failure, dread foresight of the life which she still must live? Rather her mood was that of the martyr who has held firm to the last wrench of torture, who feels that agony is overcome and fear of self surpassed. This possibility had there ever been in Emily, though associating with such variant instincts. Circumstances had brought the occasion which weighed one part of her nature against the other, and with this result.
You may not judge her coldly; yet it is possible to indicate those points which connect her enthusiasm of sacrifice with the reasonings and emotions of the impartial mind. In the moment that she heard of her father's self-destruction, she knew that her own destiny was cast; the struggle with desire, with arguments of her self-love, with claims of others, this also she foresaw and measured. Her resolve came of the interaction of intense feeling, feeling which only process of time could reduce from its morbid predominance, and that idealism which was the keynote of her personality. It was not that she condemned herself for having refused to pay the price which would have saved her father; she may have done so in her wildest paroxysms of grief, but in the silences which ensued she knew that there is an arbiter above natural affection, and that not with impunity could a life be purchased by the death of a soul. She had refused; it might be she would still have refused had she foreseen the worst; but could she move on over her father's body to a life of joy? Not only did piety forbid it; the compassionate voice of her heart cried against what she deemed such cruelty. Her father was dead; nothing that she did henceforth would concern him for good or ill; none the less in her eyes was his claim upon her, the claim of one she had tenderly loved calling to her for pity from that desolate grave. Which of us entirely out-reasons that surviving claim of the beloved dead? Which of us would, in his purest hour, desire to do so? She could not save him, but, as she valued her most precious human privileges, she dared not taste the fruits of life of which he was for ever robbed. Between her and happiness loomed that agonising face, She might disregard it, might close her eyes and press on, might live down the old sacred pity and give herself to absorbing bliss what would be the true value of that she gained? Nay, it was idle to affect that she had the choice. She felt that the first memory of that face in the midst of enjoyment would break her heart. Those last dark hours of his she must live and relive in her own mind. Dead? He was dead ? Oh, did not the very tones of his voice linger in the rooms where she sat? Could she not see him enter, hold to her his hand, bend and kiss her? Did she not fancy constantly that his foot sounded on the floor above her, up in the bare little room, where she had parted from him unkindly? Why, death meant but little, for at any moment he was in truth standing by her. Years of unhappiness, and then to be put aside and forgotten as soon as the heavy clods of earth had fallen upon him? To think of that was to be driven almost to madness by the impotence of grief. Rather than allow a joy to tempt her thought, she would cast life from her and be his companion in that narrow home.
And her character brought it about that the very strength of her love for Wilfrid acted as another impulse to renunciation. Which had been the stronger motive in her refusal to sacrifice herself -- the preservation of her chaste womanhood, or the inability to give up him she loved? Could she, at the tribunal of her conscience, affirm that her decision had held no mixture of the less pure? Nay, had she not known that revolt of self in which she had maintained that the individual love was supreme, that no title of inferiority became it? She saw now more clearly than then the impossibility of distinguishing those two motives, or of weighing the higher and the lower elements of her love. One way there was, and one way only, of proving to herself that she had not fallen below the worthiness which purest love demanded, that she had indeed offered to Wilfrid a soul whose life was chastity -- and that must be utterly to renounce love's earthly reward, and in spirit to be faithful to him while her life lasted. The pain of such renunciation was twofold, for did she not visit him with equal affliction? Had she the right to do that? The question was importunate, and she held it a temptation of her weaker self. Wilfrid would bear with her. He was of noble nature, and her mere assurance of a supreme duty would outweigh his personal suffering. On him lay no obligation of faithfulness to his first love; a man, with the world before him, he would, as was right, find another to share his life. To think that was no light test of steadfastness in Emily the image of Wilfrid loving and loved by another woman wrung the sinews of her heart. That she must keep from her mind; that was more than her strength could face and conquer. It should be enough to love him for ever, without hope, without desire. Faithfulness would cost her no effort to purify herself in ideal devotion would be her sustenance, her solace.
What of her religion of beauty, the faith which had seen its end in the nourishment of every instinct demanding loveliness within and without? What of the ideal which saw the crown of life in passion triumphant, which dreaded imperfectness, which allowed the claims of sense equally with those of spirit, both having their indispensable part in the complete existence? Had it not conspicuously failed where religion should be most efficient? She understood now the timidity which had ever lurked behind her acceptance of that view of life. She had never been able entirely to divest herself of the feeling that her exaltation in beauty-worship was a mood born of sunny days, that it would fail amid shocks of misfortune and prove a mockery in the hour of the soul's dire need. It shared in the unreality of her life in wealthy houses, amid the luxury which appertained only to fortune's favourites, which surrounded her only by chance. She had presumptuously taken to herself the religion of her superiors, of those to whom fate allowed the assurance of peace, of guarded leisure wherein to cultivate the richer and sweeter flowers of their nature. How artificial had been the delights with which she soothed herself! Here, all the time, was the reality; here in this poor home, brooded over by the curse of poverty, whence should come shame and woe and death. What to her now were the elegance of art, the loveliness of nature? Beauty had been touched by mortality, and its hues were of the corpse, of the grave. Would the music of a verse ever again fill her with rapture? How meaningless were all such toys of thought to one whose path lay through the valley of desolation!
Thus did Emily think and feel in this sombre season, the passionate force of her imagination making itself the law of life and the arbiter of her destiny. She could not take counsel with time; her temperament knew nothing of that compromise with ardours and impulses which is the wisdom of disillusion. Circumstances willed that she should suffer by the nobleness of her instincts those endowments which might in a happier lot have exalted her to such perfection of calm joy as humanity may attain, were fated to be the source of misery inconceivable by natures less finely cast.
As Wilfrid quitted the house, the gate was opened by Jessie Cartwright, who, accompanied by one of her sisters, was bringing Emily some fine grapes, purchased, in the Cartwright manner, without regard to expense. The girls naturally had their curiosity excited by the stranger of interesting, even of aristocratic, appearance, who, as he hurried by, east at them a searching look.
'Now, who ever may that be?' murmured Jessie, as she approached the door.
'A doctor, I dare say,' was her sister's suggestion.
'A doctor! Not he, indeed. He has something to do with Emily, depend upon it.'
The servant, opening to them, had to report that Miss Hood was too unwell to-day to receive visitors. Jessie would dearly have liked to ask who it was that apparently had been an exception, but oven she lacked the assurance necessary to the putting of such a question. The girls left their offering, and went their way home; the stranger afforded matter for conversation throughout the walk.
Wilfrid did not go straight to the Baxendales'. In his distracted state he felt it impossible to sit through luncheon, and he could not immediately decide how to meet Mrs. Baxendale, whether to take her into his confidence or to preserve silence on what had happened. He was not sure that he would be justified in disclosing the details of such an interview; did he not owe it to Emily to refrain from submitting her action to the judgment of any third person? If in truth she were still suffering from the effects of her illness, it was worse than unkind to repeat her words; if, on the other hand, her decision came of adequate motives, or such as her sound intelligence deemed adequate, was it possible to violate the confidence implied in such a conversation between her and himself? Till his mind had assumed some degree of calmness, he could not trust himself to return to the house. Turning from the main road at a point just before the bridge over the river, he kept on the outskirts of the town, and continued walking till he had almost made the circuit of Dunfield. His speed was that of a man who hastened with some express object; his limbs seemed spurred to activity by the gallop of his thoughts. His reason would scarcely accept the evidence of consciousness that he had indeed just heard such things from Emily's lips; it was too monstrous for belief; a resolute incredulity sustained him beneath a blow which, could he have felt it to be meant in very earnest, would have deprived him of his senses. She did no!, she could not, know what she had said! Yet she spoke with such cruel appearance of reasoning earnestness; was it possible for a diseased mind to assume so convincingly the modes of rational utterance? What conceivable circumstances could bring her to such a resolution? Her words, 'I do not love you,' made horrible repetition in his ears; it was as though he had heard her speak them again and again. Could they be true? The question, last outcome of the exercise of his imagination on the track of that unimaginable cause, brought him to a standstill, physically and mentally. Those words had at first scarcely engaged his thought; it was her request to be released that seriously concerned him; that falsehood had been added as a desperate means of gaining her end. Yet now, all other explanations in vain exhausted, perforce he gave heed to that hideous chime of memory. It was not her father's death that caused her illness that she admitted, Had some horrible complication intervened, some incredible change come upon her, since he left England? He shook off this suggestion as blasphemy. Emily? His high-souled Emily, upon whose faith he would stake the breath of his life? Was his own reason failing him?
Worn out, he reached the house in the middle of the afternoon, and went to his own sitting-room. Presently a servant came and asked whether he would take luncheon. He declined. Lying on the sofa, he still tormented himself with doubt whether he might speak with Mrs. Baxendale. That lady put an end to his hesitation by herself coming to his room. He sprang up.
'Don't move, don't move!' she exclaimed in her cheery way. 'I have only come to ask why you resolve to starve yourself. You can't have had lunch anywhere?'
'No; I am not hungry.'
'A headache?' she asked, looking at him with kind shrewdness.
'A little, perhaps.'
'Then at all events you will have tea. May I ask them to bring it here?'
She went away, and, a few minutes after her return, tea was brought.
'You found Emily looking sadly, I'm afraid?' she said, with one of the provincialisms which occasionally marked her language.
'Yes,' Wilfrid replied; 'she looked far too ill to be up.'
He had seated himself on the sofa. His hands would not hold the tea-cup steadily; he put it down by his side.
'I fear there is small chance of her getting much better in that house of illness,' said Mrs. Baxendale, observing his agitation. 'Can't we persuade her to go somewhere? Her mother is in excellent hands.'
'I wish we could,' Wilfrid replied, clearly without much attention to his words.
'You didn't propose anything of the kind?'
He made no answer. A short silence intervened, and he felt there was no choice but to declare the truth.
'The meeting was a very painful one,' he began. 'It is difficult to speak to you about it. Do you think that she has perfectly recovered? -- that her mind is wholly----'
He hesitated; it was dreadful to be speaking in this way of Emily. The sound of his voice reproached him; what words would not appear brutal in such a case?
Wilfrid rose and walked across the room. It seemed impossible to speak, yet equally so to keep his misery to himself.
'Mrs. Baxendale,' he said at length, 'I am perhaps doing a very wrong thing in telling you what passed between us, but I feel quite unable to decide upon any course without the aid of your judgment. I am in a terrible position. Either I must believe Emily to speak without responsibility, or something inexplicable, incredible, has come to pass. She has asked me to release her. She says that something has happened which makes it impossible for her ever to fulfil her promise, something which must always remain her secret, which I may not hope to understand. And with such dreadful appearance of sincerity -- such a face of awful suffering----'
His voice failed. The grave concern on Mrs. Baxendale's visage was not encouraging.
'Something happened?' the latter repeated, in low-toned astonishment. 'Does she offer no kind of explanation?'
'None -- none,' he added, 'that 1 can bring myself to believe.'
Mrs. Baxendale could only look at him questioningly.
'She said,' Wilfrid continued, pale with the effort it cost him to speak, 'that she has no longer any affection for me.'
There was another silence, of longer endurance than the last. Wilfrid was the first to break it.
'My reason for refusing to believe it is, that she said it when she had done her utmost to convince me of her earnestness in other ways, and said it in a way---- How is it possible for me to believe it? It is only two months since I saw her on the Castle Hill.'
'I thought you had never been here before?'
'I have never spoken to you of that. I came and left on the same day, It was to see her before I went to Switzerland.'
'I am at a loss,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'I can only suggest that she has had a terrible shock, and that her recovery, or seeming recovery, has been too rapid. Yet there is no trace of wandering in her talk with me.'
'Nor was there to-day. She was perfectly rational. Think of one's being driven to hope that she only seemed so!'
'Did you speak of correspondence?'
'No. I said that I could not agree to what she asked of me until she had repeated it after a time. I left her scarcely knowing what I spoke. What shall I do? How can I remain in doubt such as this? I said I wished for your help, yet how can you -- how can anyone -- help me? Have I unconsciously been the cause of this?'
'Or has anyone else consciously been so?' asked the lady, with meaning.
'What? You think----? Is it possible?'
'You only hinted that your relatives were not altogether pleased.'
Wilfrid, a light of anger flashing from his eyes, walked rapidly the length of the room.
'She admitted to me,' he said, in a suppressed voice, 'that her illness began before her father's death. It was not that that caused it. You think that someone may have interfered? My father? Impossible! He is a man of honour; he has written of her in the kindest way.'
But there was someone else. His father was honourable; could the same be said of Mrs. Rossall? He remembered his conversation with her on the lake of Thun; it had left an unpleasant impression on his mind -- under the circumstances, explicable enough. Was his aunt capable of dastardly behaviour? The word could scarcely be applied to a woman's conduct, and the fact that it could not made disagreeably evident the latitude conceded to women in consideration of their being compelled to carry on warfare in underhand ways. Suppose an anonymous letter. Would not Mrs. Rossall regard that as a perfectly legitimate stratagem, if she had set her mind on resisting this marriage? Easy, infinitely easy was it to believe this, in comparison with any other explanation of Emily's behaviour. In his haste to seize on a credible solution of the difficulty, Wilfrid did not at first reflect that Emily was a very unlikely person to be influenced by such means, still more unlikely that she should keep such a thing secret from him. It must be remembered, however, that the ways of treachery are manifold, and the idea had only presented it to his mind in the most indefinite form. As it was, it drove him almost to frenzy. He could not find a calm word, nor was it indeed possible to communicate to Mrs. Baxendale the suspicion which occupied him. She, watching him as he stood at a distance, all but forgot her anxious trouble in admiration of the splendid passion which had transformed his features. Wilfrid looked his best when thus stirred -- his best, from a woman's point of view. The pale cast of thought was far from him; you saw the fiery nature asserting itself, and wondered in what direction these energies would at length find scope. Mrs. Baxendale, not exactly an impressionable woman, had a moment of absent-mindedness.
'Come here and sit down,' she said, the motherly insistance of the tone possibly revealing her former thought.
He threw himself on the couch.
'Of course,' she continued, 'this must remain between Emily and yourself my own relations to her must be precisely as they have been, as if I had heard nothing. Now 1 think we may conclude that the poor girl is perfectly aware of what she is doing, but I no more than yourself believe her explanation. In some way she has come to regard it as a duty to abandon you. Let Emily once think it a duty, and she will go through with it if it costs her life; so much I know of her; so much it is easy to know, if one has the habit of observing. May I advise you? Do not try to see her again, but write briefly, asking her whether the mystery she spoke of in any way connects itself with you. You will know how to put it so as to exact the answer you require. Suppose you write such a note at once; I will send it as soon as it is ready. You are in the torment of doubts; no misery as bad as that. Does this plan recommend itself to you?'
'Yes; I will write.'
'Then I will take myself off whilst you do so. Ring the bell and send for me as soon as you are ready. It is only half-past four; Emily will have your letter in an hour, and surely will reply at once.'
The letter was written, at greater length perhaps than was quite necessary, and Mrs. Baxendale speeded it on its way. Wilfrid begged that he might be excused from attendance at the dinner-table.
'By all means,' was Mrs. Baxendale's reply. 'The more so that we have politicians again, and I fear you would not be in the mood to make fun of them as you did the other night.'
'Make fun of them? No, I was in earnest. I got interested in their subjects, and found I had more to say than I thought.'
'Well, well; that is your politeness. Now lie down again, poor boy. But you must promise to cat what I send you; we have quite enough illness on our hands, remember.'
'I may have the answer before then,' Wilfrid said, moodily.
He had; it came in less than two hours from the messenger's departure. He was alone when the servant brought it to him. Emily wrote: --
'Wilfrid, -- The change is in myself, in my heart, in my life. Nothing have I heard against you; nothing have I imagined against you; the influence of which I spoke is in no way connected with you. Let this, I implore you, be final. Forgive me, forgive me, that I seem to inflict pain on you so heedlessly. I act as I must; my purpose is unchangeable.'
Having been apprised of the messenger's return, Mrs. Baxendale entered Wilfrid's room as soon as she had dressed for dinner. He sat at the table, the letter lying open before him. As Mrs. Baxendale approached, he held the sheet to her.
'Then my last conjecture is fruitless,' she said, letting her hand fall. 'We cannot doubt her word.'
'Doubt it? No. There is nothing for me but to believe all she said.'
He let his face fall upon his hands; the bitterness of fate was entering his inmost heart.
'No, no, you shall not give way,' said his friend, just touching his fingers. 'It all looks very sad and hopeless, but I will not believe it is hopeless. Refuse to believe that one worst thing, the only thing for which there is no remedy. Come, defy yourself to believe it! You are strong enough for that; there is manhood in you for anything that is worth bearing, however hard.'
He could not reply to her encouragement; who cannot devise words of exhortation? and what idler than such words when the heart agonises?
'Try and listen to me, Wilfrid. If I make you angry with me, it is better than abandoning yourself to despondency. I firmly believe that this is a matter which time will bring right. Emily is acting hastily; I am convinced of that. Time is on your side; try and accept him as a friend. We are not living in a novel; there are no such things as mysteries which last a lifetime. Your part is to draw upon all the manliness you own, to have faith in yourself, and to wait. Have faith in her, too; there are few like her; some day you will see that this only made her better worth winning. -- Now answer me a question.'
Wilfrid raised his head.
'Do you not in your heart believe that she is incapable of folly or wrongheadedness?'
'I believe that no truer woman lives.'
'And rightly, be sure of it. Believing that, you know she cannot break her word to you without some reason which you would yourself say was good and sufficient. She imagines she has such a reason; imagines it in all sincerity. Time will show her that she has been in error, and she will confess it. She has all her faculties, no doubt, but a trial such as this leads her to see things in ways we cannot realise.'
'You forget that it is not this shock that has so affected her.'
'Wilfrid, remember that her father's death is itself mysterious. She may know more of what led to it than anyone else does. She may very well have foreseen it; it may have distracted her, the cause, whatever it was. She could not disclose anything -- some secret, perhaps -- that nearly concerned her father; you know how strong were the ties between them.'
Perhaps it was inevitable that a suggestion of this kind should ultimately offer itself. Wilfrid had not hit upon the idea, for he had from the first accepted without reflection the reasons for Hood's suicide which were accepted by everyone who spoke of the subject. Mrs. Baxendale only delivered herself of the thought in fervour of kindly-devised argument. She paused, reviewing it in her mind, but did netlike to lay more stress upon it. Wilfrid, also thoughtful, kept silence.
'Now, there's the gong,' Mrs. Baxendale continued, 'and I shall have to go to the politicians. But I think I have given you a grain of comfort. Think of a prosy old woman inciting you to endure for the sake of the greatest prize you can aim at? Keep saying to yourself that Emily cannot do wrong; if she did say a word or two she didn't mean -- well, well, we poor women! Go to bed early, and we'll talk again after breakfast to-morrow.'
She gave him her hand, and hurried away. Even in his wretchedness, Wilfrid could not but follow her with his eyes, and feel something like a blessing upon her strong and tender womanhood.
Fortunate fellow, who had laid behind him thus much of his earthly journey without one day of grave suffering. Ah, something he should have sacrificed to the envious gods, some lesser joy, that the essential happiness of his life might be spared him. Wilfrid had yet to learn that every sun which rises for us in untroubled sky is a portent of inevitable gloom, that nature only prolongs our holiday to make the journey-work of misery the harder to bear. He had enjoyed the way of his will from childhood upwards; he had come to regard himself as exempt from ill-fortune, even as he was exempt from the degradation of material need; all his doings had prospered, save in that little matter of his overtaxed health, and it had grown his habit to map the future with a generous hand, saying: Thus and thus will I take my conquering course. Knowing love for the first time, he had met with love in return, love to the height of his desire, and with a wave of the hand he had swept the trivial obstacles from his path. Now that the very sum of his exultant youth offered itself like a wine-cup to his lips, comes forth the mysterious hand and spills relentlessly that divine draught. See how he turns, with the blaze of royal indignation on his brow I Who of gods or men has dared thus to come between him and his bliss? He is not wont to be so thwarted; he demands that the cup shall be refilled and brought again; only when mocking laughter echoes round him, when it is but too plain that the spirits no longer serve him, that where he most desires his power is least, does his resentment change by cold degrees to that chill anguish of the abandoned soul, which pays the debt of so many an hour of triumph. For the moment, words of kindness and sustaining hope might seem to avail him; but there is the night waiting in ambush for his weakness, that season of the sun's silence, when the body denuded of vestment typifies the spirit's exposure to its enemies. Let him live through his fate-imposed trial in that torture-chamber of ancient darkness. He will not come forth a better man, though perchance a wiser; wisdom and goodness are from of old at issue. Henceforth he will have eyes for many an ugly spot in his own nature, hidden till now by the veil of happiness. Do not pity him; congratulate him rather that the inevitable has been so long postponed.
He put on a bold face at breakfast next morning, for he could not suppose that Mrs. Baxendale would feel any obligation to keep his secret from her husband, and it was not in his character to play the knight of the dolorous visage. You saw the rings round his eyes, but he was able to discuss the latest electioneering intelligence, and even to utter one or two more of those shrewd remarks by which he had lately been proving that politics were not unlikely to demand more of his attention some day. But he was glad when he could get away to the drawing-room, to await Mrs. Baxendale's coming. He tried to read in a volume of Boswell which lay out; at other times the book was his delight, now it had the succulence of a piece of straw. He was in that state of mind when five minutes of waiting is intolerable. He had to wait some twenty before Mrs. Baxendale appeared. Only a clinging remnant of common-sense kept him from addressing her sourly. Wilfrid was not eminently patient.
'Well, what counsel has sleep brought?' she asked, speaking as if she had some other matter on her mind -- as indeed she had -- a slight difficulty which had just arisen with the cook.
'I should not be much advanced if I had depended upon sleep,' Wilfrid replied cheerlessly. Always sensitive, he was especially so at this moment, and the lady seemed to him unsympathetic. He should have allowed for the hour; matters involving sentiment should never be touched till the day has grown to ripeness. The first thing in the morning a poet is capable of mathematics.
'I fear you are not the only one who has not slept,' said Mrs. Baxendale.
Wilfrid, after waiting in vain, went on in a tone very strange to him:
'I don't know what to do; I am incapable of thought. Another night like the last will drive me mad. You tell me I must merely wait; but I cannot be passive. What help is there? How can I kill the time?'
Mrs. Baxendale was visibly harder than on the previous evening. A half-smile caused her to draw in her lips; she played with the watch-chain at her girdle.
'I fear,' she said, 'we have done all that can be done. Naturally you would find it intolerable to linger here.'
'I must return to London?'
'Under any other circumstances I should be the last to wish it, but I suppose it is better that you should.'
He was prepared for the advice, but unreason strove in him desperately against the facts of the situation. It was this impotent quarrel with necessity which robbed him of his natural initiative and made Mrs. Baxendale wonder at his unexpected feebleness. To him it seemed something to stand his ground even for a few minutes. He could have eased himself with angry speech. Remember that he had not slept, and that his mind was sore with the adversary's blows.
'I understand your reluctance,' Mrs. Baxendale pursued. 'It's like a surrendering of hope. But you know what I said last night; I could only repeat the same things now. Don't be afraid; I will not.'
'Yes,' he murmured, 'I must go to London.'
'It would be far worse if you had no friend here. You shall hear from me constantly. You have an assurance that the poor thing can't run away.'
In the expressive vulgar phrase, Wilfrid 'shook himself together.' He began to perceive that his attitude lacked dignity; even in our misery we cannot bear to appear ignoble.
'I will leave you to-day,' he said, more like his old self. 'But there are other things that we must speak of. What of Emily's practical position?'
'I don't think we need trouble about that. Mr. Baxendale tells me he has no doubt that the house in Barnhill can be sold at all events for a sum that will leave them at ease for the present. As soon as Mrs. Hood gets better, they must both go away. You can trust me to do what can be done.'
'It is my fear that Emily will find it difficult to accept your kindness.'
'It will require tact. Only experience can show what my course must be.'
'I sincerely hope the house will be sold. Otherwise, the outlook is deplorable.'
'I assure you it will be. My husband does not give up anything he has once put his hand to.'
'I shall keep my own counsel at home,' Wilfrid said.
'Do so, certainly. And you will return to Oxford?'
'I think so. I shall find it easier to live there -- if, indeed, I can live anywhere.'
'I had rather you hadn't added that,' said Mrs. Baxendale with good-natured reproof. 'You know that you will only work the harder just to forget your trouble. That, depend upon it, is the only way of killing the time, as you said; if we strike at him in other ways we only succeed in making him angry.'
'Another apophthegm,' said Wilfrid, with an attempt at brightness. 'You are the first woman I have known who has that gift of neatness in speech.'
'And you are the first man who ever had discernment enough to compliment me on it. After that, do you think I shall desert your cause?'
Wilfrid made his preparations forthwith, and decided upon a train early in the afternoon. At luncheon, Mr. Baxendale was full of good-natured regrets that his visit could not be prolonged till the time of the election -- now very near.
'When your constituents have sent you to Westminster,' said Wilfrid, 'I hope you will come and report to me the details of the fight?'
So he covered his retreat and retrieved in Mrs. Baxendale's eyes his weakness of the morning. She took him to the station in her brougham, but did not go on to the platform. Their parting was very like that of lovers, for it ended with mutual promises to 'write often.' Mrs. Baxendale was down-hearted as she drove home -- in her a most unusual thing.
Two days later she went to Banbrigg, carrying the satisfactory news that at last a sale of the Barnhill property had been negotiated. To Emily this intelligence gave extreme relief; it restored her independence. Having this subject to speak of made the meeting easier on both sides than it could otherwise have been. Emily was restlessly anxious to take upon herself the task of nursing her mother; with the maid to help her, she declared herself able to bear all responsibilities, and persisted so strongly that Mrs. Baxendale had no choice but to assent to the nurse who had remained being withdrawn. She could understand the need of activity which possessed the girl, but had grave fears of the result of an undertaking so disproportioned to her strength.
'Will you promise me,' she said, 'to give it up and get help if you find it is trying you excessively?'
'Yes,' Emily replied, 'I will promise that. But I know I shall be better for the occupation.'
'And you will let me still come and see you frequently?'
'I should miss you very much if you ceased to,' was Emily's answer.
Both felt that a difficulty had been surmounted, though they looked at it from different sides.
October passed, and the first half of November. Mrs. Hood had not risen from her bed, and there seemed slight chance that she ever would; she was sinking into hopeless imbecility. Emily's task in that sick-room was one which a hospital nurse would have found it burdensome to support; she bore it without a sign of weariness or of failure in physical strength. Incessant companionship with bodily disease was the least oppressive of her burdens; the state of her mother's mind afflicted her far more. Occasionally the invalid would appear in full possession of her intellect, and those were the hardest days; at such times she was incessantly querulous; hours long she lay and poured forth complaints and reproaches. When she could speak no more for very weariness, she moaned and wept, till Emily also found it impossible to check the tears which came of the extremity of her compassion. The girl was superhuman in her patience; never did she speak a word which was not of perfect gentleness; the bitterest misery seemed but to augment the tenderness of her devotion. Scarcely was there an hour of the day or night that she could claim for herself; whilst it was daylight she tended the sufferer ceaselessly, and her bed was in the same room, so that it often happened that she lay down only to rise before she could sleep. Her task was lighter when her mother's mind strayed from the present; but even then Mrs. Hood talked constantly, and was irritated if Emily failed in attention. The usual subject was her happiness in the days before her marriage; she would revive memories of her school, give long accounts of her pupils, even speak of proposals of marriage which she had had the pleasure of declining. At no time did she refer to Hood's death, but often enough she uttered lamentations over the hardships in which her marriage had resulted, and compared her lot with what it might have been if she had chosen this or that other man. Emily was pained unspeakably by this revelation of her mother's nature, for she knew that it was idle to explain such tendencies of thought as the effect of disease; it was, in truth, only the emphasising of the faults she had always found it so hard to bear with. She could not understand the absence of a single note of affection or sorrow in all these utterances, and the fact was indeed strange, bearing in mind Mrs. Hood's outburst of loving grief when her husband was brought home, and the devotedness she had shown throughout Emily's illness. Were the selfish habits of years too strong for those better instincts which had never found indulgence till stirred by the supreme shock? Thinking over the problem in infinite sadness, this was the interpretation with which Emily had to satisfy herself, and she saw in it the most dreadful punishment which a life-long fault could have entailed.
Though to her mother so sublimely forbearing, in her heart she knew too well the bitterness of revolt against nature's cruelty; her own causes of suffering became almost insignificant in her view of the tragedy of life. Was not this calamity upon her surviving parent again a result of her own action? Was it possible to avoid a comparison between this blasted home and the appearance it might at this moment have presented if she had sacrificed herself? What crime had she ever been guilty of that such expiation could be demanded of her? She mocked at her misery for so questioning; as if causes and effects were to be thus discerned in fate's dealings. Emily had never known the phase of faith which finds comfort in the confession of native corruptness, nor did the desolation of her life guide her into that orthodox form of pessimism. She was not conscious of impurity, and her healthy human intelligence could only see injustice in the woe that had befallen her. From her childhood up she had striven towards the light, had loved all that is beautiful, had worshipped righteousness; out of this had it issued that her life was sunk in woe unfathomable, hopeless of rescue for ever. She was the sacrifice of others' wrong-doing; the evil-heartedness of one man, the thoughtless error of another, had brought this upon her.
Her character, like the elemental forces of earth, converted to beneficent energy the burden of corruption thrust upon it. Active at first because she dreaded the self-communings of idleness, she found in her labour and her endurance sources of stern inspiration; her indestructible idealism grasped at the core of spiritual beauty in a life even such as this. She did not reason with herself hysterically of evil passions to be purified by asceticism, of mysterious iniquities to be washed out in her very life's blood; but the great principles of devotion and renunciation became soothing and exalting presences, before which the details of her daily task lost their toilsome or revolting aspect in a hallowed purpose. Her work was a work of piety, not only to the living, but to the beloved dead. If her father could know of what she was now doing, he would be comforted by it; if he knew that she did it for his sake it would bring him happiness. This truth she saw: that though life be stripped of every outward charm there may yet remain in the heart of it, like a glorious light, that which is the source of all beauty -- Love. She strove to make Love the essence of her being. Her mother, whom it was so hard to cherish for her own sake, she would and could love because her father had done so; that father, whose only existence now was in her own, she loved with fervour which seemed to grow daily. Supreme, fostered by these other affections, exalted by the absence of a single hope for self, reigned the first and last love of her woman-soul. Every hard task achieved for love's sake rendered her in thought more worthy of him whom she made the ideal man. He would never know of the passion which she perfected to be her eternal support; but, as there is a sense of sweetness in the thought that we may be held dear by some who can neither come near us nor make known to us their good-will, so did it seem to Emily that from her love would go forth a secret influence, and that Wilfrid, all unknowing, would be blest by her faithfulness.
On the last day of the year, a Sunday, Dagworthy sat by his fireside, alone; luncheon had been removed, and decanters stood within his reach. But the glass of wine which he had poured out, on turning to the fire half an hour ago, was still untasted, the cigar, of which he had cut the end, was still between his fingers, unlighted. For the last three months our friend had not lacked matter for thought; to do him justice, he had exercised his mind upon it pretty constantly. To-day he had received news which gave a fresh impulse to his rumination.
Dagworthy had never, since the years of early manhood, cared much for any of the various kinds of society open to him in Dunfield, and his failure to show himself at the houses of his acquaintance for weeks together occasioned no comment; but during these past three months he had held so persistently aloof that people had at length begun to ask for an explanation -- at all events, when the end of the political turmoil gave them leisure to think of minor matters once more. The triumphant return of Mr. Baxendale had naturally led to festive occasions; at one dinner at the Baxendales' house Dagworthy was present, but, as it seemed, in the body only. People who, in the provincial way, made old jokes last a very long time, remarked to each other with a smile that Dagworthy appeared to be in a mood which promised an item of interest in the police reports before long. One person there was who had special reason for observing him closely that evening, and even for inducing him to converse on certain subjects; this was Mrs. Baxendale. A day or two previously she had heard a singular story from a friend of hers, which occupied her thought not a little. It interested her to discover how Dagworthy would speak of the Hood family, if led to that topic. He did not seem to care to dwell upon it, and the lady, after her experiment, imagined that it had not been made altogether in vain.
With that exception Dagworthy had kept to his mill and his house. It was seldom that he had a visitor, and those persons who did call could hardly feel that they were desired to come again. Mrs. Jenkins, of the Done tongue, ruled in the household, and had but brief interviews with her master; provided that his meals were served at the proper time, Dagworthy cared to inquire into nothing that went on -- outside his kennels -- and even those he visited in a sullen way. His child he scarcely saw; Mrs. Jenkins discovered that to bring the 'bairn' into its father's presence was a sure occasion of wrath, so the son and heir took lessons in his native tongue from the housekeeper and her dependents, and profited by their instruction. Dagworthy never inquired about the boy's health. Once when Mrs. Jenkins, alarmed by certain symptoms of infantine disorder, ventured to enter the dining-room and broach the subject, her master's reply was: 'Send for the doctor then, can't you?' He had formerly made a sort of plaything of the child when in the mood for it; now he was not merely indifferent -- the sight of the boy angered him. His return home was a signal for the closing of all doors between his room and the remote nursery. Once, when he heard crying he had summoned Mrs. Jenkins. 'If you can't stop that noise,' he said, 'or keep it out of my hearing, I'll send the child to be taken care of in Hebsworth, or somewhere else further off, and then I'll shut up the house and send you all about your business. So just mind what I say.'
Of late it had become known that he was about to take a partner into his business, a member of the Legge family -- a name we remember. Dunfieldians discussed the news, and revived their pleasure in speculating on the sum total of Dagworthy's fortune. But it was as one talks of possible mines of treasure in the moon; practical interest in the question could scarcely be said to exist, for the chance of Dagworthy's remarriage seemed remoter than ever. The man was beginning to be one of those figures about whom gathers the peculiar air of mystery which ultimately leads to the creation of myths. Let him live on in this way for another twenty years, and stories would be told of him to children in the nursery. The case of assault and battery, a thing of the far past, would probably develop into a fable of manslaughter, of murder; his wife's death was already regarded very much in that light, and would class him with Bluebeard; his house on the Heath would assume a forbidding aspect, and dread whispers would be exchanged of what went on there under the shadow of night. Was it not already beginning to be remarked by his neighbours that you met him wandering about lonely places at unholy hours, and that he shunned you, like one with a guilty conscience? Let him advance in years, his face lose its broad colour, his hair grow scant and grey, his figure, per chance, stoop a little, his eyes acquire the malignity of miserly old age -- and there you have the hero of a Dunfield legend. Even thus do such grow.
But he is sitting by his fireside this New Year's Eve, still a young man, still fresh-coloured, only looking tired and lonely, and, in fact, meditating an attempt to recover his interest in life. He had admitted a partner to his business chiefly that he might be free to quit Yorkshire for a time, and at present he was settling affairs to that end. This afternoon he expected a visit from Mr. Cartwright, who had been serving him in several ways of late, and who had promised to come and talk business for an hour. The day was anything but cheerful; at times a stray flake of snow hissed upon the fire; already, at three o'clock, shadows were invading the room.
He heard a knock at the front door, and, supposing it to be Cartwright, roused himself. As he was stirring the fire a servant announced -- instead of the father, the daughter. Jessie Cartwright appeared.
'Something amiss with your father?' Dagworthy asked, shaking hands with her carelessly.
'Yes; I'm sorry to say he has such a very bad sore-throat that he couldn't possibly come. Oh, what an afternoon it is, to be sure!'
'Why did you come?' was Dagworthy's not very polite Inquiry. 'It wasn't so important as all that. Walked all the way?'
'Of course. I'm afraid the wet 'll drip off my cloak on to the floor.'
'Take it off, then, and put it here by the fire to dry.'
He helped her to divest herself, and hung the cloak on to the back of a chair.
'You may as well sit down. Shall I give you a glass of wine?'
'Oh, indeed, no! No, thank you!'
'I think you'd better have one,' he said, without heeding her. 'I suppose you've got your feet wet? I can't very well ask you to take your shoes off.'
'Oh, they're not wet anything to speak of,' said Jessie, settling herself in a chair, as if her visit were the most ordinary event. She watched him pour the wine, putting on the face of a child who is going to be treated to something reserved for grown-up persons.
'What do they mean by sending you all this distance in such weather?' Dagworthy said, as he seated himself and extended his legs, resting an elbow on the table.
'They didn't send me. I offered to come, and mother wouldn't hear of it.'
'Oh, I just slipped out of the room, and was off before anyone could get after me. I suppose I shall catch it rarely when I get back. But we wanted to know why you haven't been to see us -- not even on Christmas Day. Now that, you know, was too bad of you, Mr. Dagworthy. I said you must be ill. Have you been?'
'Oh!' the girl exclaimed, upon a sudden thought. 'That reminds me. I really believe Mrs. Hood is dead; at all events all the blinds were down as I came past.'
'Yes,' was the reply, 'she is dead. She died early this morning.'
'Well, I never! Isn't poor Emily having a shocking Christmas! I declare, when I saw her last week, she looked like a ghost, and worse.'
Dagworthy gazed at the fire and said nothing.
'One can't be sorry that it's over,' Jessie went on, 'only it's so dreadful, her father and mother dead almost at the same time. I'm sure it would have killed me.'
'What is she going to do?' Dagworthy asked, slowly, almost as if speaking to himself.
'Oh, I daresay it 'll be all right as soon as she gets over it, you know. She's a lucky girl, in one way.'
'Lucky?' He raised his head to regard her. 'How?'
'Oh well, that isn't a thing to talk about. And then I don't know anything for certain. It's only what people say you know.'
'What do people say?' he asked, impatiently, though without much sign of active interest. It was rather as if her manner annoyed him, than the subject of which she spoke.
'I don't see that it can interest you.'
'No, I don't see that it can. Still, you may as well explain.'
Jessie sipped her wine.
'It's only that they say she's engaged.'
'A gentleman in London -- somebody in the family where she was teaching.'
'How do you know that?' he asked, with the same blending of indifference and annoyed persistency.
'Why, it's only a guess, after all. One day Barbara and I went to see her, and just as we got to the door, out comes a gentleman we'd never seen before. Of course, we wondered who he was. The next day mother and I were in the station, buying a newspaper, and there was the same gentleman, just going to start by the London train. Mother remembered she'd seen him walking with Mrs. Baxendale in St. Luke's, and then we found he'd been staying with the Baxendales all through Emily's illness.'
'How did you find it out? You don't know the Baxendales.'
'No, but Mrs. Gadd does, and she told us.'
'What's his name?'
'Mr. Athel -- a queer name, isn't it?'
Dagworthy was silent.
'Now you're cross with me,' Jessie exclaimed. 'You'll tell me, like you did once before, that I'm no good but to pry into other people's business.'
'You may pry as much as you like,' was the murmured reply.
'Just because you don't care what I do?'
'Drink your wine and try to be quiet just for a little.'
He made no answer, until Jessie asked--
'Why does it seem to interest you so much?'
'What? -- all that stuff you've been telling me? I was thinking of something quite different.'
'Oh!' exclaimed the girl, blankly.
There was a longer silence. Jessie let her eyes stray about the room, stealing a glance at Dagworthy occasionally. Presently he rose, poked the fire with violence, and drank his own wine, which had been waiting so long.
'I must have out the carriage to send you back,' he said, going to the window to look at the foul weather.
'The carriage, indeed!' protested the girl, with a secret joy. 'You'll do no such thing.'
'I suppose I shall do as I choose,' he remarked, quietly. Then he came and rang the bell.
'You're not really going to----?'
A servant answered, and the carriage was ordered.
'Well, certainly that's one way of getting rid of me,' Jessie observed.
'You can stay as long as you please.'
'But the carriage will be round.'
'Can't I keep it waiting half through the night if I choose? I've done so before now. I suppose I'm master in my own house.'
It was strictly true, that, of the carriage. Once the coachman had been five minutes late on an evening when Dagworthy happened to be ill-tempered. He bade the man wait at the door, and the waiting lasted through several hours.
The room was growing dusk.
'Aren't you very lonely here?' Jessie asked, an indescribable change in her voice.
'Yes, I suppose I am. You won't make it any better by telling me so.'
'I feel sorry.'
'I dare say you do.'
'Of course you don't believe me. All the same, I do feel sorry.'
'That won't help.'
'No? -- I suppose it won't.'
The words were breathed out on a sigh. Dagworthy made no answer.
'I'm not much better off,' she continued, in a low-spirited voice.
'Nonsense!' he ejaculated, roughly, half turning his back on her.
Jessie fumbled a moment at her dress; then, succeeding in getting her handkerchief out, began to press it against her eyes furtively. Strangely, there was real moisture to be removed.
'What's the matter with you?' Dagworthy asked with surprise.
She no longer attempted concealment, but began to cry quietly.
'What the deuce has come to you, Jessie?'
'You -- you -- speak very unkindly to me,' she sobbed.
'Speak unkindly? I didn't know it. What did I say?'
'You won't believe when I say I'm sorry you feel lonely.'
'Why, confound it, I'll believe as much as you like, if it comes to that. Put that handkerchief away, and drink another glass of wine.'
She stood up, and went to lean on the mantelpiece, hiding her face. When he was near her again, she continued her complaints in a low voice.
'It's so miserable at home. They want me to be a teacher, and how can I? I never pretended to be clever, and if I'd all the lessons under the sun, I should never be able to teach French -- and -- arithmetic -- and those things. But I wish I could; then I should get away from home, and see new people. There's nobody I care to see in Dunfield -- nobody but one----'
She stopped on a sob.
'Who's that?' Dagworthy asked, looking at her with a singular expression, from head to foot.
She made no answer, but sobbed again.
'What Christmas presents have you had?' was his next question, irrelevant enough apparently.
'Oh, none -- none to speak of -- a few little things. What do I care for presents? You can't live on presents.'
'Can't live on them? Are things bad at home?'
'I didn't mean that. But of course they're bad; they're always bad nowadays. However, Barbara's going to be married in a week; she'll be one out of the way. And of course I haven't a dress fit to be seen in for the wedding.'
'Why then, get a dress. How much will it cost?' He went to a writing-table, unlocked a drawer, and took out a cheque-book. 'Now then,' he said, half jestingly, half in earnest, 'what is it to be? Anything you like to say -- I'll write it.'
'As if I wanted money!'
'I can give you that. I don't see what else I can do. It isn't to be despised.'
'No, you can do nothing else,' she said, pressing each cheek with her handkerchief before putting it away. 'Will you help me on with my cloak, Mr. Dagworthy?'
He took it from the chair, and held it for her. Jessie, as if by accident, approached her face to his hand, and, before he saw her purpose, kissed his hard fingers. Then she turned away, hiding her face.
Dagworthy dropped the garment, and stood looking at her. He had a half contemptuous smile on his lips. At this moment it was announced that the carriage was coming round. Jessie caught at her cloak, and threw it over her shoulders. Then, with sunk head, she offered to shake hands.
'No use, Jessie,' Dagworthy remarked quietly, without answering her gesture.
'Of course, I know it's no use,' she said in a hurried voice of shame. 'I know it as well as you can tell me. I wish I'd never come.'
'But you don't act badly,' he continued.
'What do you mean?' she exclaimed, indignation helping her to raise her eyes for a moment. 'I'm not acting.'
'You don't mean anything by it -- that's all.'
'No, perhaps not. Good-bye.'
'Good-bye. I'm going away before very long. I dare say I shan't see you again before then.'
'Where are you going to?'
'I suppose you'll bring back a foreign wife,' she said with sad scornfulness.
'No, I'm not likely to do that. I shouldn't wonder if I'm away for some time, though -- perhaps a couple of years.'
'Years!' she exclaimed in astonishment.
'That startles you. I shan't be back in time for your wedding, you see.'
She sobbed again, averting her face.
'I shan't ever be married. I'm one of those wretched things nobody ever cares for.'
'You'll have to show you deserve it. Why, you couldn't give your word and keep it for two years.'
Through this extraordinary scene Dagworthy was utterly unlike himself. It was as if a man suffering physical agony should suddenly begin to jest and utter wild mirth; there was the same unreality in his behaviour. Throughout it all the lines of his face never lost their impress of gloom. Misery had its clutch upon him, and he was driven by an inexplicable spirit of self-mockery to burlesque the subject of his unhappiness. He had no sense of responsibility, and certain instincts were strongly excited, making a kind of moral intoxication.
Jessie answered his question with wide eyes.
'I couldn't? -- Ah!'
She spoke under her breath, and with sincerity which was not a little amusing.
'It's New Year's Eve, isn't it?' Dagworthy pursued, throwing out his words at random. 'Be here this day two years -- or not, as you like. I'm going to wander about, but I shall be here on that day -- that is, if I'm alive. You won't though. Good-bye.'
He turned away from her, and went to the 'window. Jessie moved a little nearer.
'Do you mean that?' she asked.
'Mean it?' he repeated, 'why, yes, as much as I mean anything. Be off; you're keeping that poor devil in the snow.'
'Mr. Dagworthy, I shall be here, and you daren't pretend to forget, or to say you weren't in earnest.'
He laughed and waved his hand.
'Be off to your carriage!'
Jessie moved to the door reluctantly; but he did not turn again, and she departed.