Part 5 out of 8
"Perhaps he does not mean to speak at all!" says the Brat, starting a
new and hazardous idea; "perhaps he means to take it for granted!"
"Walk out with her, some fine morning," says Algy, laughing, "and say,
like Wemmick, 'Hallo! here's a church! let's have a wedding!'"
"It would be a good thing," retorts the Brat, gravely, "if there were a
printed form for such occasions; it would be a great relief to people."
This talk did not happen in the church, but at an evening _seance_
overnight. Our second coadjutor is Mrs. Huntley.
"I am afraid I am not very efficient," she says, with a pathetic smile.
"I can't _stand_ very long, but, if I might be allowed to sit down now
and then, I might perhaps be some little help."
And sat down she has, accordingly, ever since, on the top pulpit-step.
It seems that Algy cannot stand very long, either; for he has taken
possession of the step next below the top one, and there he abides.
Thank Heaven! they are getting dark now! If _legitimate_ lovers, whose
cooing is desirable and approved, are a sickly and sickening spectacle,
surely the sight of illegitimate lovers would make the blood boil in the
veins of Moses, Miriam, or Job.
Bobby, Tou Tou, and I, having no one to hang over us, or gawk amorously
up at us, are sitting in a row in our pew. Bobby has garlanded Tou Tou
preposterously with laurel, to give us an idea, as he says, of how he
himself will look by-and-by, after some future Trafalgar. Now, he is
whispering to me--a whisper accompanied by one of those powerful and
painful nudges, with which he emphasizes his conversation on his
"Look at him!" indicating his elder brother, and speaking with a tone of
disgust and disparagement; "did you ever see such a _beast_ as he
"Not often!" reply I, readily, with that fine intolerance which one
never sees in full bloom after youth is past.
"I say, Nancy!" with a second and rather lesser nudge, "if ever you see
any symptoms of--of _that_--" (nodding toward the pulpit) "in me--"
"If--" repeat I, scornfully, "of course I shall!"
"Well, that is as it may be, but if you _do_, mind what I tell you--do
not say any thing to anybody, but--_put an end to me!_ it does not
matter _how_; smother me with bolsters; run your bodkin up to its hilt
"Even if I _did_," interrupt I, laughing, "I should never reach any
vital part--you are _much_ too fat!"
"I should not be so fat then," returns he, gravely, amiably overlooking
the personality of my observation; "love would have pulled me down!"
The Brat has nearly finished. He is nimbly descending the ladder, with a
long, guttering dip in his right hand.
"The other two--" begins Bobby, thoughtfully, turning his eyes from
pulpit to font.
"I do not mind _them_ half so much," interrupt I, indulgently; "they are
not half so disgusting."
"Has he done it yet?" (lowering his cheerful loud voice to an important
I shake my head.
"Not unless he has done it since luncheon! he had not _then_; I asked
"I am beginning to think that _your_ old man's plan was the best, after
all," continues Bobby, affably. "I thought him rather out of date, at
the time, for applying to your parents, but, after all, it saved a great
deal of trouble, and spared us a world of suspense."
I am silent; swelling with a dumb indignation at the epithet bestowed on
my Roger; but unable to express it outwardly, as I well know that, if I
do, I shall be triumphantly quoted against myself.
"Who will break it to Toothless Jack?" says Bobby, presently, with a
laugh; "after all the expense he has been at, too, with those teeth! it
is not as if it were a beggarly two or three, but a whole complete new
set--thirty-two individual grinders!"
"Such beauties, too!" puts in Tou Tou, cackling.
"It is a thousand pities that they should be allowed to go out of the
family," says Bobby, warmly. "Tou Tou, my child--" (putting his arm
round her shoulders)--"a bright vista opens before you!--your charms
are approaching maturity!--with a little encouragement he might be
induced to lay his teeth--two and thirty, mind--at your feet!"
Tou Tou giggles, and asserts that she will "kick them away, if he does."
Bobby mildly but firmly remonstrates, and points out to her the
impropriety and ingratitude of such a line of conduct. But his
arguments, though acute and well put, are not convincing, and the
subject is continued, with ever-increasing warmth, all the way home.
It is Christmas-day--a clean white Christmas, pure and crisp. Wherever
one looks, one's eyes water cruelly. For my part, I am very thankful
that it did not occur to God to make the world always white. I hate
snow's blinding livery. Each tiniest twig on the dry harsh trees is
overladen with snow. It is a wonder that they do not break under it; nor
is there any wind to shake down and disperse it. Tempest is white; the
church is white: the whole world colorless and blinding. I have been in
the habit of looking upon Vick as a white dog; to-day she appears
disastrously dark--dirty brunette. Soap-and-water having entirely failed
to restore her complexion. Bobby kindly proposes to _pipeclay_ her.
We have all been to church, and admired our own decorations. And through
all the prayer and the praise, and the glad Christmas singing, my soul
has greatly hungered for Roger. Yes, even though all the boys are round
me--Bobby on this side, the Brat on that--Algy directly in front; all
behaving nicely, too; for are not they right under father's eyes? Yes,
and, for the matter of that, under the rector's too, as he towers
straight above us, under his ivy-bush--the ivy-bush into which Bobby was
so anxious yesterday to insert some misletoe.
Church is over now, and the short afternoon has also slipped by. We are
at dinner; we are dining early to-night--at half-past six o'clock, and
we are to have a dance for the servants afterward. Any hospitality to my
equals I have steadily and stoutly declined, but it seems a shame to
visit my own loneliness on the heads of the servants, to whom it is
nothing. They have always had a Christmas-dance in Roger's reign, and so
a dance they are to have now. We have religiously eaten our beef and
plum-pudding, and have each made a separate little blue fire of burnt
brandy in our spoon.
It is dessert now, and father has proposed Roger's health. I did not
expect it, and I never was so nearly betrayed into feeling fond of
father in my life. They all drink it, each wishing him something good.
As for me, I have been a fool always, and I am a fool now. I can wish
him nothing, my voice is choked and my eyes drowned in inappropriate
tears; only, from the depths of my heart, I ask God to give him every
thing that He has of choicest and best. For a moment or two, the
wax-lights, the purple grapes, the gleaming glass and shining silver,
the kindly, genial faces swim blurred before my vision. Then I hastily
wipe away my tears, and smile back at them all. As I raise my glistening
eyes, I meet those of Mr. Musgrave fixed upon me--(he is the only
stranger present). His look is not one that wishes to be returned; on
the contrary, it is embarrassed at being met. It is a glance that
puzzles me, full of inquiring curiosity, mixed with a sort of mirth. In
a second--I could not tell you why--I look hastily away.
"I wonder what he is doing _now, this very minute_!" says Tou Tou, who
is dining in public for the first time, and whose conversation is
checked and her deportment regulated by Bobby, who has been at some
pains to sit beside her, and who guides her behavior by the help of many
subtle and unseen pinches under the table; from revolting against which
a fear of father hinders her, a fact of which Bobby is most basely
"Had not you better telegraph?" asks Algy, with languid irony (Algy
certainly is not quite so nice as he used to be). "Flapping away the
blue-tailed fly, with a big red-and-yellow bandana, probably."
"Playing the banjo for a lot of little niggers to dance to!" suggests
"They are all wrong, are not they, Nancy?" says Bobby, in a lowered
voice, to me, on whose left hand he has placed himself; "he is sitting
in his veranda, is not he? in a palm hat and nankeen breeches, with his
arm around the old Wampoo."
"I dare say," reply I, laughing. "I hope so," for, indeed, I am growing
quite fond of my dusky rival.
The ball is to be in the servants' hall; it is a large, long room, and
thither, when all the guests are assembled, we repair. We think that we
shall make a greater show, and inspire more admiration, if we appear in
pairs. I therefore make my entry on father's arm. Never with greater
trepidation have I entered any room, for I am to open the ball with the
butler, and the prospect fills me with dismay. If he were a venerable
family servant, a hoary-headed old seneschal, who had known Roger in
petticoats, it would have been nothing. I could have chattered filially
to him; but he is a youngish man, who came only six months ago. On what
subjects can we converse? I feel small doubt that his own sufferings
will be hardly inferior in poignancy to mine.
The room is well lit, and the candles shine genially down from the
laurel garlands and ivy festoons which clothe the walls. They light the
faces and various dresses of a numerous assembly--every groom, footman,
housemaid, and scullion, from far and near. The ladies seem largely to
preponderate both in number and _aplomb_; the men appearing, for the
more part, greatly disposed to run for shelter behind the bolder
petticoats; particularly the stablemen. The footmen, being more
accustomed to ladies' society, are less embarrassed by their own hands,
and by the exigencies of chivalry. This inversion of the usual attitude
of the sexes, will, no doubt, be set more than right when we have
retired. The moment has arrived. I quit father's arm--for the first time
in my life I am honestly sorry to drop it--and go up to my destined
"Ashton," say I, with an attempt at an easy and unembarrassed smile,
"will you dance this quadrille with me?"
"Thank you, my lady."
How calm he is! how self-possessed. Oh, that he would impart to me the
secret of his composure! I catch sight of the Brat, who is passing at
"Brat!" cry I, eagerly, snatching at his coat-sleeve, like a drowning
man at a straw. "Will _you_ be our _vis-a-vis?_"
"All right," replies the Brat, gayly, "but I have not got a partner
Off he goes in search of one, and Ashton and I remain _tete-a-tete._ I
suppose I ought to take his arm, and lead him to the top of the room.
After a moment of hot hesitation, I do this. Here we are, arrived. Oh,
why did I ask him so soon? Two or three minutes elapse before the Brat's
"How nicely you have all done the decorations!"
"I am glad you think so, my lady."
"They are better than ours at the church."
"Do you think so, my lady?"
A pause. Everybody is choosing partners. Tou Tou, grinning from ear to
ear, is bidding a bashful button-boy to the merry dance. Father--do my
eyes deceive me?--father himself is leading out the house-keeper.
Evidently he is saying something dignifiedly humorous to her, for she is
laughing. I wish that he would sometimes be dignifiedly humorous to us,
or even humorous without the dignity. Barbara, true to her life-long
instincts, is inviting the clergyman's shabby, gawky man-of-all-work, at
whom the ladies'-maids are raising the nose of contempt. Mr. Musgrave is
soliciting a kitchen-wench.
"Are there as many here as you expected?"
"Quite, my lady."
"I hope," with bald affability, in desperation of a topic, "that you
will all enjoy yourselves!"
"Thank you, my lady!"
Praise God! here is the Brat at last! Owing, I suppose, to the
slenderness and fragile tenuity of his own charms, the Brat is a great
admirer of fine women, the bigger the better; quantity, not quality;
and, true to his colors, he now arrives with a neighboring cook, a lady
of sixteen stone, on his arm.
We take our places. While chassezing and poussetting, thank Heaven, a
very little talk goes a very long way. My mind begins to grow more easy.
I am even sensible of a little feeling of funny elation at the sound of
the fiddles gayly squeaking. I can look about me and laugh inwardly at
the distant sight of Tou Tou and the button-boy turning each other
nimbly round; of father, in the fourth figure, blandly backing between
Mrs. Mitchell and a cook-maid.
We have now reached the fifth. At the few balls I have hitherto
frequented it has been a harmless figure enough; hands all round, and a
repetition of _l'ete._ But _now_--oh, horror! what do I see? Everybody
far and near is standing in attitude to gallopade. The Brat has his
little arm round the cook's waist--at least not all the way round--it
would take a lengthier limb than his to effect _that_; but a bit of the
way, as far as it will go. An awful idea strikes me. Must Ashton and I
gallopade too? I glance nervously toward him. He is looking quite as
apprehensive at the thought that I shall expect him to gallopade with
me, as I am at the thought that he will expect me to gallopade with him.
I do not know how it is that we make our mutual alarm known to each
other, only I know that, while all the world is gallopading round us, we
gallopade not. Instead, we take hands, and jig distantly round each
The improvised valse soon ends, and I look across at the Brat. Gallant
boy! the beads of perspiration stand on his young brow, but there is no
look of blenching! When the time comes he will be ready to do it again.
As I stand in silent amusement watching him, having, for the moment, no
dancing duties of my own, I hear a voice at my elbow, Bobby's, who,
having come in later than the rest of us, has not been taking part in
"Nancy! Nancy!" in a tone of hurried excitement, "for the love of Heaven
look at _father_! If you stand on tiptoe you will be able to see him; he
has been _gallopading!_ When I saw his venerable coat-tails flying, a
feather would have knocked me down! You really ought to see it"
(lowering his voice confidentially), "it might give you an idea about
your own old man, and the old Wam--"
"_Hang_ the old Wampoo!" cry I, with inelegant force, laughing.
The duty part of the evening is over now. We have all signalized
ourselves by feats of valor. I have scampered through an unsociable
country-dance with the head coachman, and have had my smart gown of
faint pink and pearl color nearly torn off my back by the
ponderous-footed pair that trip directly after me. We have, in fact,
done our duty, and may retire as soon as we like. But the music has got
into our feet, and we promise ourselves one valse among ourselves before
The Brat is the only exception. He still cleaves to his cook; dancing
with her is a _tour de force_, on which he piques himself. Mrs. Huntley
and Algy are already flying down the room in an active, tender embrace.
I have been asked as long ago as before dinner by Mr. Musgrave. I was
rather surprised and annoyed at his inviting _me_ instead of Barbara;
but as, with this exception, his conduct has been unequivocally
demonstrative, I console myself with the notion that he looks upon me as
the necessary pill to which Barbara will be the subsequent jam.
The first bars of the valse are playing when Bobby comes bustling up.
Healthy jollity and open mirth are written all over his dear, fat face.
"Come along, Nancy! let us have _one_ more scamper before we die!"
"I am engaged to Mr. Musgrave," reply I, with a graceless and
discontented curl of lip, and raising of nose.
"All right!" says Bobby, philosophically, walking away; "I am sure I do
not mind, only I had a fancy for having _one_ more spin with you."
"So you shall!" cry I, impulsively, with a sharp thought of Hong-Kong,
running after him, and putting his solid right arm round my waist.
Away we go in mad haste. Like most sailors, Bobby dances well. I am
nothing very wonderful, but I suit _him._ In many musicless waltzings of
winter evenings, down the lobby at home, we have learned to fit each
other's step exactly. At our first pausing to recover breath, I become
sensible of a face behind me, of a fierce voice in my ear.
"I had an idea, Lady Tempest, that this was _our_ dance!"
"So it was!" reply I, cheerfully; "but you see I have cut you!"
"So I perceive!"
"Had not you better call Bobby out!" cry I, with a jeering laugh, tired
of his eternal black looks. "You really are _too_ silly! I wish I had a
looking-glass here to show you your face!"
"Do you?" (very shortly).
Repartee is never Frank's forte. This is all that he now finds with
which to wither me. However, even if he had any thing more or more
pungent to say, I should not hear him, for I am beginning to dance off
"What a fool he is to care!" says Bobby, contemptuously; "after all, he
is an ill-tempered beast! I suppose if one kicked him down-stairs it
would put a stop to his marrying Barbara, would not it?"
"I suppose so."
It is over now. The last long-drawn-out notes have ceased to occupy the
air. As far as _we_ are concerned, the ball is over, for we have quitted
it. We have at length removed the _gene_ of our presence from the
company, and have left them to polka and schottische their fill until
the morning. We have reached our own part of the house. My cheeks are
burning and throbbing with the quick, unwonted exercise. My brain is
unpleasantly stirred: a hundred thoughts in a second run galloping
through it. I leave the others in the warm-lit drawing-room, briskly
talking and discussing the scene we have quitted, and slip away through
the door, into a dark and empty adjacent anteroom, where the fire lies
at death's door, low and dull, and the candles are unlighted.
I draw the curtains, unbar the shutters, and, lifting the heavy sash,
look out. A cold, still air, sharp and clear, at once greets my face
with its frosty kisses. Below me, the great house-shadow projects in
darkness, and beyond it lies a great and dazzling field of shining snow,
asleep in the moonlight.
Snow-trees, snow-bushes, sparkle up against the dusk quiet of the sky.
No movement anywhere! absolute stillness! perfect silence! It is broken
now, this silence, by the church-clock with slow wakefulness chiming
twelve. Those slow strokes set me a thinking. I hear no longer the loud
and lively voices next door, the icy penetration of the air is unfelt by
me, as I lean, with my elbow on the sill, looking out at the cold grace
of the night. My mind strays gently away over all my past life--over the
last important year. I think of my wedding, of my little live wreath of
sweet Nancies, of our long, dusty journey, of Dresden.
With an honest, stinging heart-pang, I think of my ill-concealed and
selfish weariness in our twilight walks and scented drives, of the look
of hurt kindness on his face, at his inability to please me. I think of
our return, of the day when he told me of the necessity for his voyage
to Antigua, and of my own egotistic unwillingness to accompany him. I
think of our parting, when I shed such plenteous tears--tears that seem
to me now to have been so much more tears of remorse, of sorrow that I
was not sorrier, than of real grief. In every scene I seem to myself to
have borne a most shabby part.
My meditations are broken in upon by a quick step approaching me, by a
voice in my ear--Algy's.
"You are _here_, are you? I have been looking for you everywhere! Why,
the window is _open_! For Heaven's sake let me get you a cloak! you know
how delicate your chest is. For _my_ sake, _do!_"
It is too dark to see his face, but there is a quick, excited tenderness
in his voice.
"_My_ chest delicate!" cry I, in an accent of complete astonishment.
"Well, it is news to me if it is! My dear boy, what has put such an idea
into your head? and if I got a cloak, I should think it would be for my
_own_ sake, not yours!"
He has been leaning over me in the dusk. At my words he starts violently
and draws back.
"It is _you_ is it?" he says, in an altered voice of constraint, whence
all the mellow tenderness has fled.
"To be sure!" reply I, matter-of-factly. "For whom did you take me?"
But though I ask, alas! I know.
How are unmusical people to express themselves when they are glad?
People with an ear and a voice can sing, but what is to become of those
who have not? Must they whoop inarticulately? For myself, I do not know
one tune from another. I am like the man who said that he knew two
tunes, one was "God save the Queen," and the other was not. And yet
to-day I have as good a heart for singing as ever had any of the most
famous songsters. In tune, out of tune, I must lift up my voice. It is
as urgent a need for me as for any mellow thrush. For my heart--oh, rare
case!--is fuller of joy than it can hold. It brims over.
Roger is coming back. It is February, and he has been away nearly seven
months. All minor evils and anxieties--Bobby's departure for Hong-Kong,
Algy's increasing besotment about Mrs. Huntley, and consequent slight
estrangement from me--(to me a very bitter thing)--Frank's continued
silence as regards Barbara--all these are swallowed up in gladness.
When _he_ is back, all will come right. Is it any wonder that they have
gone wrong, while _I_ only was at the helm? My good news arrived only
this morning, and yet, a hundred times in the short space that has
elapsed since then, I have rehearsed the manner of our meeting, have
practised calling him "Roger," with familiar ease, have fixed upon my
gown and the manner of my coiffure, and have wearied Barbara with
solicitous queries, as to whether she thinks that I have grown
perceptibly plainer in the last seven months, whether she does not think
one side of my face better looking than the other, whether she thinks--
(with honest anxiety this)--that my appearance is calculated to repel
a person grown disused to it. To all which questions, she with untired
gentleness gives pleasant and favorable answers.
The inability under which I labored of refraining from imparting _bad_
news is tenfold increased in the case of good. I must have some one to
whom to relate my prosperity. It will certainly _not_ be Mrs. Huntley
this time. Though I have struggled against the feeling as unjust, and
disloyal to my faith in Roger, I still cannot suppress a sharp pang of
distrust and jealousy, as often as I think of her, and of the relation
made to me by Frank, as to her former connection with my husband.
Neither am I in any hurry to tell Frank. To speak truth, I am in no
good-humor with him or with his unhandsome shilly-shallying, and
unaccountable postponement of what became a duty months ago.
Never mind! this also will come right when Roger returns. The delightful
stir and hubbub in my soul hinder me from working or reading, or any
tranquil in-door occupation; and, as afternoon draws on, fair and not
cold, I decide upon a long walk. The quick exercise will perhaps
moderately tire me, and subdue my fidgetiness by the evening, and nobody
can hinder me from thinking of Roger all the way.
Barbara has a cold--a nasty, stuffy, choky cold; so I must do without
her. Apparently I must do without Vick too. She makes a feint, indeed,
of accompanying me halfway to the front gate, then sits down on her
little shivering haunches, smirks, and when I call her, looks the other
way, affecting not to hear. On my calling more peremptorily, "Vick!
Vick!" she tucks her tail well in, and canters back to the house on
So it comes to pass that I set out quite alone. I have no definite idea
where to go--I walk vaguely along, following my nose, as they say,
smiling foolishly, and talking to myself--now under my breath--now out
loud. A strong southwest wind blows steadily in my face: it sounded
noisy and fierce enough as I sat in the house; but there is no vice or
malevolence in it--it is only a soft bluster.
Alternate clouds and sunshine tenant the sky. The shadows of the
tree-trunks lie black and defined across the road--branches, twigs,
every thing--then comes a sweep of steely cloud, and they disappear,
swallowed up in one uniform gray: a colorless moment or two passes, and
the sun pushes out again; and they start forth distinct and defined,
each little shoot and great limb, into new life on the bright ground. I
laugh out loud, out of sheer jollity, as I watch the sun playing at
hide-and-seek with them.
What a good world! What a handsome, merry, sweetly-colored world!
Unsatisfying? disappointing?--not a bit of it! It must be people's own
fault if they find it so.
I have walked a mile or so before I at length decide upon a goal, toward
which to tend--a lone and distant cottage, tenanted by a very aged,
ignorant, and feudally loyal couple--a cottage sitting by the edge of a
brown common--one of the few that the greedy hand of Tillage has yet
spared--where geese may still stalk and hiss unreproved, and
errant-tinker donkeys crop and nibble undisturbed--
"Where the golden furze
With its green thin spurs
Doth catch at the maiden's gown."
It is altogether a choice and goodly walk; next to nothing of the tame
high-road. The path leads through a deep wooded dell; over purple
plough-lands; down retired lanes.
After an hour and a quarter of smartish walking, I reach the door. There
are no signs of ravaging children about. Long, long ago--years before
this generation was born--the noisy children went out; some to the
church-yard; some, with clamor of wedding-bells, to separate life. I
knock, and after an interval hear the sound of pattens clacking across
the flagged floor, and am admitted by an old woman, dried and pickled,
by the action of the years, into an active cleanly old mummy, and whose
fingers are wrinkled even more than time has done it, by the action of
soapsuds. I am received with the joyful reverence due to my exalted
station, am led in, and posted right in front of the little red fire and
the singing kettle, and introduced to a very old man, who sits on the
settle in the warm chimney-corner, dressed in an ancient smock-frock,
and with both knotted hands clasped on the top of an old oak staff. He
is evidently childish, and breaks now and then into an anile laugh at
the thought, no doubt, of some dead old pothouse jest. A complication
arises through his persisting in taking me for a sister of Roger's, who
died thirty years ago, in early girlhood, and addressing me accordingly.
I struggle a little for my identity, but, finding the effort useless,
"This poor ould person is quoite aimless," says his wife with
dispassionate apology; "but what can you expect at noinety-one?"
(Her own years cannot be much fewer.)
I say tritely that it is a great age.
"He's very fatiguin' on toimes!--that he is!" she continues, eying him
with contemplated candor--"he crumbles his wittles to that extent that I
'ave to make him sit upo' the _News of the World_"
As it seems to me that the conversation is taking a painful direction, I
try to divert it by telling my news; but the bloom is again taken off it
by the old man, who declines to be disabused of the idea that the
Peninsular is still raging, and that it is Roger's _grandfather_ who is
returning from that field of glory. After a few more minutes, during
which the old wife composedly tells me of all the children she has
buried--she has to think twice before she can recollect the exact
number--and in the same breath remarks, "How gallus bad their 'taters
were last year," I take my departure, and leave the old man still
nodding his weak old head, and chuckling to the kettle.
On first leaving the house, I feel dashed and sobered. The inertness and
phlegmatic apathy of dry and ugly old age seem to weigh upon and press
down the passionate life of my youth, but I have not crossed a couple of
ploughed fields and seen the long slices newly ploughed, lying rich and
thick in the sun; I have not heard two staves of the throstle's loud
song, before I have recovered myself. I also begin to sing. I am not
very harmonious, perhaps, I never am; and I wander now and then from the
tune; but it is good enough for the stalking geese, my only audience,
except a ragged jackass, who, moved by my example, lifts his nose and
gives vent to a lengthy bray of infinite yearning.
I am half-way home now. I have reached the wood--Brindley Wood;
henceforth I am not very likely to forget its name. The path dips at
once and runs steeply down, till it reaches the bottom of the dell,
along which a quick brook runs darkling. In summer, when the leaves are
out it is twilight here at high noonday. Hardly a peep of sky to be seen
through the green arch of oak and elm; but now, through the net-work of
wintry twigs one looks up, and sees the faint, far blue, for the loss of
which no leafage can compensate. Winter brownness above, but a more than
summer green below--the heyday riot of the mosses. Mossed tree-trunks,
leaning over the bustling stream; emerald moss carpets between the
bronze dead leaves; all manner of mosses; mosses with little nightcaps;
mosses like doll's ferns; mosses like plump cushions; and upon them here
and there blazes the glowing red of the small peziza-cups.
I am still singing; and, as no wind reaches this shadowed hollow, I have
taken off my hat, and walk slowly along, swinging it in my hand. It is a
so little-frequented place, that I give an involuntary start, and my
song suddenly dies, when, on turning a corner, I come face to face with
another occupant. In a moment I recover myself. It is only Frank,
sitting on a great lichened stone, staring at the brook and the trees.
"You seem very cheerful!" he says, rising, stretching out his hand, and
not (as I afterward recollect) expressing the slightest surprise at our
unlikely rencontre. "I never heard you lift up your voice before."
"I seem what I am," reply I shortly. "I _am_ cheerful,"
"You mostly are."
"That is all that _you_ know about it," reply I, brusquely, rather
resenting the accusation. "I have not been _at all_ in good spirits all
this--this autumn and winter, not, that is, compared to what I usually
"Have not you?"
"I _am_ in good spirits to-day, I grant you," continue I, more affably;
"it would be very odd if I were not. I should jump out of my skin if I
were quite sure of getting back into it again; I have had _such_ good
"Have you? I wish _I_ had" (sighing). "What is it?"
"I will give you three guesses," say I, trying to keep grave, but
breaking out everywhere, as I feel, into badly-suppressed smiles.
"Something about the boys, of course!"--(half fretfully)--"it is
always the boys."
"It is nothing about the boys--quite wrong. That is _one._"
"The fair Zephine is no more!--by-the-by, I suppose I should have heard
"It is nothing about the fair Zephine--wrong again! That is _two_!"
"Barbara has got leave to stay till Easter!"
"Nothing about Barbara! "--(with a slight momentary pang at the ease and
unconcern with which he mentions her name).--"By-the-by, I wish you
would give up calling her Barbara;' she never calls you 'Frank!' There,
you have had your three guesses, and you have never come within a mile
of it--I shall have to tell you--_Roger is coming back!_" opening my
eyes and beginning to laugh joyously.
"_Soon?_" with a quick and breathless change of tone, that I cannot help
perceiving, turning sharply upon me.
"_At once_!" reply I, triumphantly; "we may expect him _any day_!"
He receives this information in total silence. He does not attempt the
faintest or slightest congratulation.
"I wish I had not told you!" cry I, indignantly; "what a fool I was to
imagine that you would feel the slightest interest in any thing that did
not concern yourself personally! Of course" (turning a scarlet face and
blazing-eyes full upon him), "I did not expect you _to feel_ glad--I
have known you too long for that--but you might have had the common
civility to _say_ you were!"
We have stopped. We stand facing each other in the narrow wood-path,
while the beck noisily babbles past, and the thrushes answer each other
in lovely dialogue. He is deadly pale; his lips are trembling, and his
eyes--involuntarily I look away from them!
"I am _not_ glad!" he says, with slow distinctness; "often--often you
have blamed me for _hinting_ and _implying_ for using innuendoes and
half-words, and once--_once_, do you recollect?--you told me to my face
_I lied!_ Well, I will not _lie_ now; you shall have no cause to blame
me to-day. I will tell you the truth, the truth that you know as well as
I do--I am _not_ glad!"
Absolute silence. I could no more answer or interrupt him than I could
soar up between the dry tree-boughs to heaven. I stand before him with
parted lips, and staring eyes fixed in a stony, horrid astonishment on
"Nancy," he says, coming a step nearer, and speaking in almost a
whisper, "_you_ are not glad either! For once speak the truth! Hypocrisy
is always difficult to you. You are the worst actress I ever saw--speak
the truth for once! Who is there to hear you but me? I, who know it
already--who have known it ever since that first evening in Dresden! Do
you recollect?--but of course you do--why do I ask you? Why should you
have forgotten any more than I?"
Still I am silent. Though I stand in the free clear air of heaven, I
could not feel more choked and gasping were I in some close and stifling
dungeon, hundreds of feet underground. I think that the brook must have
got into my brain, there is such a noise of bubbling and brawling in it.
Barbara, Roger, Algy, a hundred confused ideas of pain and dismay jostle
each other in my head.
"Why do you look at me so?" he says, hoarsely. "What have I done? For
God's sake, do not think that I blame you! I never have been so sorry
for any one in my life as I have been for you--as I was for you from the
first moment I saw you! I can see you now, as I first caught sight of
you--weariness and depression in every line of your face--"
I can bear no more. At his last words, a pain like a knife, sharp to
agony, runs through me. It is the grain of truth in his wicked, lying
words that gives them their sting. I _was_ weary; I _was_ depressed; I
_was_ bored, I fling out my arms with a sudden gesture of despair, and
then, throwing myself down on the ground, bury my face in a great moss:
cushion, and put my fingers in my ears.
"O my God!" I cry, writhing, "what _shall I_ do?--_how can_ I bear it?"
After a moment or two I sit up.
"How _shameful_ of you!" I cry, bursting into a passion of tears. "What
sort of women can you have lived among? what a hateful mind you must
have! And I thought that you were a nice fellow, and that we were all so
He has drawn back a pace or two, and now stands leaning against one of
the bent and writhen trunks of the old trees. He is still as pale as the
dead, and looks all the paler for the burning darkness of his eyes.
"Is it possible," he says, in a low tone of but half-suppressed fury,
"that you are going to _pretend_ to be surprised?"
"_Pretend_!" cry I, vehemently; "there is no pretense about it! I never
was so horribly, miserably surprised in all my life!"
And then, thinking of Barbara, I fall to weeping again, in utter
bitterness and discomfiture.
"It is _impossible_!" he says, roughly. "Whatever else you are, you are
no fool; and a woman would have had to be blinder than any mole not to
see whither I--yes, and _you_, too--have been tending! If you meant to
be _surprised_ all along when it came to this, why did you make yourself
common talk for the neighborhood with me? Why did you press me, with
such unconventional eagerness to visit you? Why did you reproach me if I
missed one day?"
"_Why did I_?" cry I, eagerly. "Because--"
Then I stop suddenly. How, even to clear myself, can I tell him my real
"And now," he continues, with deepening excitement, "now that you reap
your own sowing, you are _surprised--miserably surprised!_"
"I am!" cry I, incoherently. "You may not believe me, but it is true--as
true as that God is above us, and that I never, _never_ was tired of
I stop, choked with sobs.
"Yes," he says, sardonically, "about as true. But, be that as it may,
you must at least be good enough to excuse me from expressing _joy_ at
his return, seeing that he fills the place which I am fool enough to
covet, and which, but for him, _might_--yes, say what you please, deny
it as much as you like--_-would_ have been mine!"
"It _never_ would!" cry I, passionately. "If you had been the last man
in the world--if we had been left together on a desert island--I _never_
should have liked you, _never_! I _never_ would have seen more of you
than I could help! There is _no one_ whose society I grow so soon tired
of. I have said so over and over again to the boys."
"What good reason can you give me for preferring you to him?" I ask, my
voice trembling and quivering with a passionate indignation; "I am here,
ready to listen to you if you can! How are you such a desirable
substitute for him? Are you nobler? cleverer? handsomer? unselfisher?--
if you are" (laughing bitterly), "you keep it mighty well hid."
No reply: not a syllable.
"It is a _lie_" I cry, with growing vehemence, "a vile, base, groundless
lie, to say that I am not glad he is coming back! Barbara knows--they
_all_ know how I have been _wearying_ for him all these months. I was
not _in love_, as you call it, when I married him--often I have told him
that--and perhaps at Dresden I missed the boys a little--he knows that
too--he understands! but now--_now_--" (clasping my hands upon my
heart, and looking passionately upward with streaming eyes), "I want no
one--_no one_ but him! I wish for nothing better than to have _him_--
_him only!--and_ to-day, until I met _you_--till you made me loathe
myself and you, and every living thing--it seemed to me as if all the
world had suddenly grown bright and happy and good at the news of his
Still he is silent.
"Even if I had not liked _him_" pursue I, finding words come quickly
enough now, and speaking with indignant volubility, as, having risen, I
again face him--"even if I had wanted to flirt with some one, why on
earth should I have chosen _you_?" (eying him with scornful slowness,
from his wide-awake to his shooting-boots), "_you_, who never even
_amused_ me in the least! Often when I have been talking to you, I have
yawned till the tears came into my eyes! I have been afraid that you
would notice it. If I had known" (speaking with great bitterness), "I
should have taken less pains with my manners."
He does not answer a word. What answer _can_ he make? He still stands
under the wintry tree, white to lividness; drops of cold sweat stand on
his brows; and his fine nostrils dilate and contract, dilate and
contract, in an agony of anger and shame.
"What _could_ have put such an idea into your head?" cry I, clasping my
hands, while the tears rain down my cheeks, as--my thoughts again flying
to Barbara--I fall from contempt and scorn to the sharpest reproach.
"Who would have thought of such a thing? when there are so many better
and prettier people who, for all I know, might have liked you. What
wicked perversity made you fix upon _me_ who, even if I had not belonged
to any one else, could never, _never_ have fancied you!"
"Is that true?" he says, in a harsh, rough whisper; "are you sure that
you are not deceiving yourself? are you sure that under all your rude
words you are not nearer loving me than you think?--that it is not that
--with that barrier between us--you cannot reconcile it to your
"Quite, _quite_ sure!" interrupt I, with passionate emphasis, looking
back unflinchingly into the angry depths of his eyes, "it has nothing to
say to conscience! it has nothing to say to the _wrongness_ of it"
(crimsoning as I speak). "If it were quite right--if it were my _duty--_
it were the only way to save myself from _hanging_" (reaching after an
ever higher and higher climax), "I _never_, NEVER could say that I was
fond of you! I do not see what there is to be fond of _in_ you! before
God, I do not!"
"There!" he says, hoarsely stretching out his hand, as if to ward off a
blow, "that will do!--stop!--you will never outdo that!"
A moment's pause.
Down in the loneliness of this dell, the twilight is creeping quickly
on: when once it begins it tarries not. Out in the open country I dare
say that it is still broad daylight; but here, the hues of the moss
carpet are growing duller, and the brook is darkening. In a sudden
panic, I hastily catch up my hat, which has fallen to the ground, and
without a word or look of farewell, begin to run fast along the homeward
path. Before I have gone ten yards he has overtaken me. His face is
distorted by passion out of all its beauty.
"Nancy," he says, in a voice rendered almost unrecognizable by extreme
agitation, walking quickly alongside of me, "we are not going to part
"Do not call me Nancy!" cry I, indignantly; "it makes me _sick!_"
"What does it matter what I call you?" he cries, impatiently; "of what
consequence is such a trifle? I will call you by what name you please,
but for this once you _must_ listen to me. I know, as well as you do,
that it is my last chance!"
"_That_ it is!" put in I, viciously.
The path is beginning to rise. After mounting the slope, we shall soon
be out of the wood, and in the peopled open again.
"How can I help it, if I have gone mad?" he cries violently, evidently
driven to desperation by the shortness of the time before him.
"Mad!" echo I, scornfully, "not a bit of it! you are as sane as I am!"
All this time we are posting along in mad haste. Thank God! the
high-road is in sight, the cheerful, populous, light high-road. The
trees grow thinner, and the path broadens. Even from here, we can
plainly see the carts and carters. He stops, and making me stop, too,
snatches both my hands.
"Nancy!" he says, harshly, stooping over me, while his eyes flame with a
haggard light. "Yes, I _will_ call you so this once--to me now you _are_
Nancy! I will _not_ call you by _his_ name! Is it _possible_? You may
say that it is my egotism; but, at a moment like this, what is the use
of shamming--of polite pretense? Never, _never_ before in all my life
have I given love without receiving it, and I _cannot_ believe"--(with
an accent of passionate entreaty)--"that I do now! Feeling for you as I
do, do you feel absolutely _nothing_ for me?"
"_Feel_!" cry I, driven out of all moderation by disgust and
exasperation. "Would you like to know how I feel? I feel _as if a slug
had crawled over me_!"
His face contracts, his eyes darken with a raging pain. He _throws_ my
hands--the hands a moment ago so jealously clasped--away from him.
"Thank you!" he says, after a pause, in a stiff voice of constraint. "I
"And a very good thing too!" say I, sturdily, still at boiling-point,
and diminishing with quick steps the small space still intervening
between me and the road.
"Stay!" he says, overtaking me once again, as I reach it, and laying his
hand in detention on my arm. "One word more! I should be sorry to part
from you--such friends as we have been"--(with a sneer)--"without _one_
good wish. Lady Tempest, I hope"--(smiling with malevolent irony)--"that
your fidelity will be rewarded as it deserves."
"I have no doubt of it!" reply I, steadily; but even as I speak, a sharp
jealous pain runs through my heart. Thank God! he cannot see it!
Yes, here out in the open it is still quite light; it seems two hours
earlier than it did below in the dark dingle--light enough as plainly to
see the faces of those one meets as if it were mid-day. I suppose that
my late companion and I were too much occupied by our own emotions to
hear, or at least notice the sound of wheels approaching us; but no
sooner have I turned and left him, before I have gone three paces, than
I am quickly passed by an open carriage and pair of grays--_quickly_ and
yet slowly enough for me to recognize the one occupant. As to her--for
it is Mrs. Huntley--she must have seen me already, as I stood with Mr.
Musgrave on the edge of the wood, exchanging our last bitter words.
It is impossible that she could have helped it; but even had it been
possible--had there been any doubt on the subject, that doubt would be
removed by the unusual animation of her attitude, and the interest in
her eyes, that I have time to notice, as she rolls past me.
I avert my face, but it is too late. She has seen my hat thrown on
anyhow, as it were with a pitchfork--has seen my face swollen with
weeping, and great tears still standing unwiped on my flushed cheeks.
What is far, _far_ worse, she has seen him, too. This is the last drop
in an already over-full cup.
There is nothing in sight now--not even a cart--so I sit down on a heap
of stones by the road-side, and, covering my hot face with my hands, cry
till I have no more eyes left to cry with. Can _this_ be the day I
called good? Can _this_ be that bright and merry day, when I walked
elate and laughing between the deep furrows, and heard the blackbird and
thrush woo their new loves, nor was able myself to refrain from singing?
My brain is a black chaos of whirling agonies, now together, now
parting; so that each may make their separate sting felt, and, in turn,
each will have to be faced. Preeminent among the dark host, towering
above even the thought of Barbara, is the sense of my own degradation.
There must have been something in my conduct to justify his taking me so
confidently for the bad, light woman he did. One does not get such a
character for nothing. I have always heard that, when such things happen
to people, they have invariably brought them on themselves. In
incoherent misery, I run over in my head, as well as the confusion of it
will let me, our past meetings and dialogues. In almost all, to my
distorted view, there now seems to have been an unseemly levity. Things
I have said to him; easy, familiar jokes that I have had with him; not
that _he_ ever had much sense of a jest--(even at this moment I think
this incidentally)--course through my mind.
Our many _tete-a-tetes_ to which, at the time, I attached less than no
importance: through many of which I unfeignedly, irresistibly _gaped_;
our meetings in the park--accidental, as I thought--our dawdling
saunters through the meadows, as often as not at twilight; all, _all_
recur to me, and, recurring, make my face burn with a hot and stabbing
And _Roger_! This is the way in which I have kept things straight for
him! This is the way in which I have rewarded his boundless trust! he,
whose only fear was lest I should be dull! lest I should not amuse
myself! Well, I have amused myself to some purpose now. I have made
myself _common talk for the neighborhood! He_ said so. I have brought
discredit on Roger's honored name! Not even the consciousness of the
utter cleanness of my heart is of the least avail to console me. What
matter how clean the heart is, if the conduct be light? None but God can
see the former; the latter lies open to every carelessly spiteful,
surface-judging eye. And Barbara! Goaded by the thought of her, I rise
up quickly, and walk hastily along the road, till I reach a gate into
the park. Arrived there, and now free from all fear of interruption from
passers-by, I again sit down on an old dry log that lies beneath a great
oak, and again cover my face with my hands.
What care I for the growing dark? the darker the better! Ah! if it were
dark enough to hide me from myself! How shall I break it to her--I, who,
confident in my superior discernment, have always scouted her misgivings
and turned into derision her doubts? If I thought that she would rave
and storm, and that her grief would vent itself in _anger_, it would not
be of half so much consequence. But I know her better. The evening has
closed in colder. The birds have all ceased their singing, and I still
sit on, in the absolute silence, unconscious--unaware of any thing round
me; living only in my thoughts, and with a resolution growing ever
stronger and stronger within me. I will _not_ tell her! I will _never_
tell _any one_. I, that have hitherto bungled and blundered over the
whitest fib, will wade knee-deep in falsehoods, before I will ever let
any one guess the disgrace that has happened to me. Oh that, by long
silence, I could wipe it out of my own heart--out of the book of
unerasable past deeds!
Of course, by the cessation of his visits, Barbara will learn her fate
in time. _In time_. Yes! but till then--till the long weeks in their
lapse have brought the certainty of disappointment and mistake? How can
I--myself knowing--watch her gentle confidence (for latterly her doubts
--and whose would not?--have been set at rest) decline through all the
suffering stages of uneasy expectation and deferred hope, to the blank,
dull sickness of despair? How, without betraying myself, see her daily
with wistful eyes looking--with strained ears listening--for a face and
a step that come not? If she were one to love lightly, one of the many
women who, when satisfied that it is no longer any use to cry and strive
for the unattainable, the out of reach, clip and pare their affections
to fit the unattainable, the within reach--! But I know differently.
Hitherto, whenever love has been offered to her--and the occasions have
been not few--she has put it away from her; most gently, indeed, with a
most eager desire to pour balm and not vinegar into the wounds she has
made; with a most sincere sorrow and a disproportioned remorse at being
obliged to cause pain to any living thing; yet, with a quiet and
indifferent firmness, that left small ground for lingering hopes. And
now, having once loved, she will be slow to unlove again.
It is quite dark now--as dark, at least, as it will be all night--and
two or three stars are beginning to quiver out, small and cold, in the
infinite distances of the sky. The sight of them, faintly trembling
between the bare boughs of the trees, is the first thing that calls me
back to the consciousness of outward things. Again I rise, and begin to
walk, stumbling through the long wet knots of the unseen grass, toward
the house. But when I reach it--when I see the red gleams shining
through the chinks of the window-shutters--my heart fails me. Not yet
can I face the people, the lights--Barbara! I turn into the garden, and
pace up and down the broad, lonely walks: I pass and repass the cold
river-gods of the unplaying fountain. I stand in the black night of the
old cedar's shade. On any other day no possible consideration would have
induced me to venture within the jurisdiction of its inky arms after
nightfall; to-day, I feel as if no earthly or unearthly thing would have
power to scare me. How long I stay, I do not know. Now and then, I put
up my hands to my face, to ascertain whether my cheeks and eyes feel
less swollen and burning; whether the moist and searching night-air is
restoring me to my own likeness. At length, I dare stay no longer for
fear of being missed, and causing alarm in the household. So I enter,
steal up-stairs, and open the door of my boudoir, which Barbara and I,
when alone, make our usual sitting-room. The candles are unlit; and the
warm fire--evidently long undisturbed--is shedding only a dull and
deceiving light on all the objects over which it ranges. So far, at
least. Fortune favors me. Barbara and Vick are sitting on the
hearth-rug, side by side. As I enter, they both jump up, and run to meet
me. One of them gives little raptured squeaks of recognition. The other
says, in a tone of relief and pleasure:
"Here you are! I was growing so frightened about you! What can have made
you so late?"
"It was so--so--pleasant! The thrushes were singing so!" reply I thus
happily inaugurating my career of invention.
"But, my dear child, the thrushes went to bed two hours ago!"
"Yes," I answer, at once entirely nonplussed, "so they did!"
"Where _have_ you been?" she asks, in a tone of ever-increasing
surprise. "Did you go farther than you intended?"
"I went--to see--the old Busseys," reply I, slowly; inwardly pondering,
with a stupid surprise, as to whether it can possibly have been no
longer ago than this very afternoon, that the old man mistook me for the
dead Belinda--and that I held the old wife's soapy hand in farewell in
mine; "the--old--Busseys!" I repeat, "and it took--me a long--_long_
time to get home!"
I shiver as I speak.
"You are cold!" she says, anxiously. "I hope you have not had a chill--"
(taking my hands in her own slight ones)--"yes--_starved_!--poor dear
hands; let me rub them!" (beginning delicately to chafe them).
Something in the tender solicitude of her voice, in the touch of her
gentle hands, gives me an agony of pain and remorse. I snatch away my
"No! no!" I cry, brusquely, "they do very well!"
Again she looks at me, with a sort of astonishment, a little mixed with
pain; but she does not say any thing. She goes over to the fire, and
stoops to take up the poker.
"Do not!" cry I, hastily, "there is plenty of light!--I mean--"
(stammering) "it--it--dazzles me, coming in out of the dark."
As I speak, I retire to a distant chair, as nearly as possible out of
the fire-light, and affect to be occupied with Vick, who has jumped up
on my lap, and--with all a dog's delicate care not to hurt you _really_
--is pretending severely to bite every one of my fingers. Barbara has
returned to the hearth-rug. She looks a little troubled at first; but,
after a moment or two, her face regains its usual serene sweetness.
"And I have been here ever since you left me!" she says, presently, with
a look of soft gayety. "I have had _no_ visitors! Not even"--(blushing
a little)--"the usual one."
"No?" say I, bending down my head over Vick, and allowing her to have a
better and more thorough lick at the bridge of my nose than she has ever
enjoyed in her life before.
"_You_ did not meet him, I suppose?" she says, interrogatively.
"_I_" cry I, starting guiltily, and stammering. "Not I! Why--why should
"Why should not you, rather?" she says, laughing a little. "It is not
such a _very_ unusual occurrence?"
"Do you think not?" I say, in a voice whose trembling is painfully
perceptible to myself. "You do not think I--" ("You do not think I meet
him on purpose," I am going to say; but I break off suddenly, aware that
I am betraying myself).
"He will come earlier to-morrow to make up for it"--she says, in a low
voice, more to herself than to me--"yes"--(clasping her hands lightly
in her lap, while the firelight plays upon the lovely mildness of her
happy face, and repeating the words softly)--"yes, he will come earlier
I _cannot_ bear it. I rise up abruptly, trundling poor Vick, to whom
this reverse is quite unexpected, down on the carpet, and rushing out of
* * * * *
It is evening now--late evening, drawing toward bedtime. I am sitting
with my back to the light, and have asked for a shade for the lamp, on
the plea that the wind has cut my eyes--but, in spite of my precautions,
I am well aware that the disfigurement of my face is still unmistakably
evident to the most casual eye; and, from the anxious care with which
Barbara looks _away from me_, when she addresses me, I can perceive that
she has observed it, as, indeed, how could she fail to do? If Tou Tou
were here, she would overwhelm me with officious questions--would stare
me crazy, but Barbara averts her eyes, and asks nothing.
We have been sitting in perfect silence for a long while; no noise but
the click of Barbara's knitting-pins, the low flutter of the fire-flame,
and the sort of suppressed choked _inward_ bark, with which Vick attacks
a phantom tomcat in her dreams.
Suddenly I speak.
"Barbara!" say I, with a hard, forced laugh, "I am going to ask you a
silly question: tell me, did you ever observe--has it ever struck you
that there was something rather--rather _offensive_ in my manner to
Her knitting drops into her lap. Her blue eyes open wide, like
dog-violets in the sun; she is _obliged_ to look at me now.
"_Offensive_!" she echoes, with an accent of the most utter surprise and
mystification. "Good Heavens, no! What has come to the child? Oh!"--
(with a little look of dawning intelligence)--"I see! You mean, do not
you smite them too much? Are not you sometimes a little too _hard_ upon
"No," say I, gravely; "I did not mean that."
She looks at me for explanation, but I can give none. More silence.
Vick is either in hot pursuit of, or hot flight from, the tomcat; all
her four legs are quivering and kicking in a mimic gallop.
"Do you remember," say I, again speaking, and again prefacing my words
by an uneasy laugh, "how the boys at home used always to laugh at me,
because I never knew how to flirt, nor had any pretty ways? Do you
think"--(speaking slowly and hesitatingly)--"that boys--one's brothers,
I mean--would be good judges of that sort of thing?"
"As good as any one else's brothers, I suppose," she says, with a low
laugh, but still looking puzzled; "but why do you ask?"
"I do not know," reply I, trying to speak carelessly; "it came into my
"Has any one been accusing you?" she says, a little curiously, "But no!
who _could_? You have seen no one, not even--"
"No, no!" interrupt I, shrinking from the sound of the name that I know
is coming; "of course not; no one!"
The clock strikes eleven, and wakes Vick. Barbara rises, rolls up her
knitting, and, going over to the fireplace, stands with one white elbow
resting on the chimney-piece, and slender neck drooped, pensively gazing
at the low fire.
"Do you know," she says, with a half-confused smile, that is also tinged
with a little anxiety, "I have been thinking--it is the first time for
three months that he has not been here at all, either in the morning,
the afternoon, or the evening!"
"Is it?" say I, slightly shivering.
"I think," she says, with a rather embarrassed laugh, "that he must have
heard _you_ were out, and that that was why he did not come. You know I
always tell you that he likes you best."
She says it, as a joke, and yet her great eyes are looking at me with a
sort of wistfulness, but neither to _them_ nor to her words can I make
Next morning I am sitting before my looking-glass--never to me a
pleasant article of furniture--having my hair dressed. I am hardly awake
yet, and have not quite finished disentangling the real live
disagreeables which I have to face, from the imaginary ones from which
my waking has freed me. At least, in real life, I am not perpetually
pursued, through dull abysses, by a man in a crape mask, from whom I am
madly struggling to escape, and who is perpetually on the point of
overtaking and seizing me.
It was a mistake going to sleep at all last night. It would have been
far wiser and better to have kept awake. The _real_ evils are bad
enough, but the dream ones in their vivid life make me shiver even now,
though the morning sun is lying in companionable patches on the floor,
and the birds are loudly talking all together. Do _no_ birds ever
Distracted for a moment from my own miseries, by the noise of their soft
yet sharp hubbub, I am thinking this, when a knock comes at the door,
and the next moment Barbara enters. Her blond hair is tumbled about her
shoulders; no white rose's cheeks are paler than hers; in her hand she
has a note. In a moment I have dismissed the maid, and we are alone.
"I want you to read this!" she says, in an even and monotonous voice,
from which, by an effort whose greatness I can dimly guess, she keeps
all sound of trembling.
I have risen and turned from the glass; but now my knees shake under me
so much that I have to sit down again. She comes behind me, so that I
may no longer see her: and putting her arms round my neck, and hiding
her face in my unfinished hair, says, whisperingly:
"Do not fret about it, Nancy!--I do not mind much."
Then she breaks into quiet tears.
"Do you mean to say that he has had the _insolence_ to write to you," I
cry, in a passion of indignation, forgetting for the moment Barbara's
ignorance of what has occurred, and only reminded of it by the look of
wonder that, as I turn on my chair to face her, I see come into her
"Have not you been expecting him every day to write to me?" she asks,
with a little wonder in her tone; "but _read!_" (pointing to the note,
and laughing with a touch of bitterness), "you will soon see that there
is no _insolence_ here."
I had quite as lief, in my present state of mind, touch a yard-long
wriggling ground-worm, or a fat wood-louse, as paper that his fingers
have pressed; but I overcome my repulsion, and unfold the note.
"DEAR MISS GREY:
"Can I do any thing for you in town? I am going-up there to-morrow, and
shall thence, I think, run over to the Exhibition. I have no doubt that
it is just like all the others; but _not_ to have seen it will set one
at a disadvantage with one's fellows. I am afraid that there is no
chance of your being still at Tempest when I return. I shall be most
happy to undertake any commissions.
The note drops from my fingers, rolls on to my lap, and thence to the
ground. I sit in stiff and stupid silence. To tell the truth, I am
trying strongly to imagine how I should look and what I should say, were
I as ignorant of causes as Barbara thinks me, and to look and speak
She kneels down beside me, and softly drawing down my face, till it is
on a level with hers, and our cheeks touch, says in a tone of gentle
entreaty and compassion, as if _I_ were the one to be considered--the
"Do not fret about it. Nancy! it is of no--no consequence!--there is no
I struggle to say _something_, but for the life of me I can frame no
"It was my own fancy!" she says, faltering, "I suppose my vanity misled
"It is all my fault!" cry I, suddenly finding passionate words, starting
up, and beginning to walk feverishly to and fro--"_all!_--there never
was any one in all this world so blind, so ill-judging, so miserably
mistaken! If it had not been for me, you never would have thought twice
of him--never; and I"--(beginning to speak with weeping indistinctness)
--"I thought it would be so nice to have you near me--I thought that
there was nothing the matter with him, but his temper; _many_ men are
ill-tempered--nearly _all_. If" (tightly clinching my hands, and setting
my teeth) "I had had any idea of his being the _scoundrel_ that he is--"
"But he is not," she interrupts quickly, wincing a little at my words;
"indeed he is not! What ill have we heard from him? If you do not mind"
(laying her hand with gentle entreaty on my arm), "I had rather, _far_
rather, that you did not say any thing hard of him! I was always so glad
that you and he were such friends--always--and I do not know why--there
is no sense in it; but I am glad of it still."
"We were _not_ friends," say I, writhing a little; "why do you say so?"
She looks at me with a great and unfeigned astonishment.
"_Not friends_!" she echoes, slowly repeating my words; then, seeing the
expression of my face, stops suddenly.
"Are you _sure_," cry I, feverishly snatching her hands and looking with
searching anxiety into her face, "that you spoke truth just now?--that
you do not mind much--that you will get over it!--that it will not
"_Kill_ me!" she says, with a little sorrowful smile of derision; "no,
no! I am not so easily killed."
"Are you _sure_?" persist I, with a passionate eagerness, still reading
her tear-stained face, "that it will not take the taste out of every
thing?--that it will not make you hate all your life?--it would me."
"_Quite_ sure!--certain!" she says, looking back at me with a steady
meekness, though her blue eyes brim over; "because God has taken from me
_one_ thing--one that I never had any right to expect--should I do well,
do you think, to quarrel with all that He has left me?"
I cannot answer; her godly patience is too high a thing for me.
"Even if my life _were_ spoilt," she goes on, after a moment or two, her
voice gaining firmness, and her face a pale serenity, "even if it were--
but it is _not_--indeed it is not. In a very little while it will seem
to me as good and pleasant and full as ever; but even if it _were_"
(looking at me with a lovely confidence in her eyes), "it would be no
such very great matter--_this_ life is not every thing!"
"Is not it?" say I, with a doubting shiver. "Who can tell you that? who
"No_one_ has been to blame," she continues, with a gentle persistence.
"I should like you to see that! There has been only a--a--_mistake_"--
(her voice failing a little again), "a mistake that has been corrected
in time, and for which no one--_no one_, Nancy, is the worse!"
So this is the way in which Barbara's hope dies! Our hopes have as many
ways of dying as our bodies. Sometimes they pine and fall into a slow
consumption, we nursing, cockering, and physicking them to the last.
Sometimes they fall down dead suddenly, as one that in full health, with
his bones full of marrow, and his eyes full of light, drops wordless
into the next world unaware. This last has been Barbara's case. When she
thought it healthiest, and most vigorous in its stalwart life, then the
death-mark was on it. To most of us, O friends, troubles are as great
stones cast unexpectedly on a smooth road; over which, in a dark night,
we trip, and grumblingly stumble, cursing, and angrily bruising our
limbs. To a few of us, they are ladders, by which we climb to God;
hills, that lift us nearer heaven--that heaven, which, however certainly
--with whatever mathematical precision--it has been demonstrated to us
that it exists not here, nor there, nor yet anywhere, we still dimly,
with yearning tears and high longings, grasp at. Barbara has always
looked heavenward. In all her mirth, God has mixed. Now, therefore, in
this grief that He has sent her--this ignoble grief, that yet cuts the
none less deeply for being ignoble, and excluding the solace of human
sympathy, she but thrusts her hand with a fuller confidence in his, and
fixes her sweet eyes with a more reverent surety on the one prime
consoler of humankind, who, from his Cross, has looked royally down the
toiling centuries--the king, whom this generation, above all
generations, is laboring--and, as not a few think, _successfully_--to
discrown. To her, his kingship is as unquestioned as when heretics and
paynims burnt to prove it.
Often, since then, in those vain longings that come to each of us, I
suppose, I tried in after-days--sometimes I try now, to stretch my arms
out wide-backward toward the past--to speak the words that would have
been as easily spoken then as any other--that no earthly power can ever
make spoken words now, of sympathy and appreciation to Barbara.
I did say loving things, but they seem to me now to have been but scant
and shabby. Why did not I say a great many more? Oh, all of you who live
with those that are dearer to you than they seem, tell them every day
how much you love them! at the risk of _wearying_ them, tell them, I
pray you: it will save you, perhaps, many after-pangs.
I think that, at this time, there are in me _two_ Nancys--Barbara's
Nancy, and Roger's Nancy; the one so vexed, thwarted, and humiliated in
spirit, that she feels as if she never could laugh quite heartily again;
the other, so utterly and triumphantly glad, that any future tears or
trials seem to her in the highest degree improbable. And Barbara herself
is on the side of this latter. From her hopeful speech and her smiles,
you would think that some good news had come to her--that she was on the
eve of some long-looked-for, yet hardly-hoped prosperity. Not that she
is unnaturally or hysterically lively--an error into which many, making
such an effort and struggle for self-conquest, would fall. Barbara's
mirth was never noisy, as mine and the boys' so often was. Perhaps--nay,
I have often thought since, _certainly_--she weeps as she prays, in
secret; but God is the only One who knows of her tears, as of her
prayers. She has always been one to go halves in her pleasures, but of
her sorrows she will give never a morsel to any one.
Her very quietness under her trouble--her silence under it--her
equanimity--mislead me. It is the impulse of any hurt thing to cry
out. I, myself, have always done it. Half unconsciously, I am led by
this reasoning to think that Barbara's wound cannot be very deep, else
would she shrink and writhe beneath it. So I talk to her all day, with
merciless length, about Roger. I go through all the old queries. I again
critically examine my face, and arrive--not only at the former
conclusion, that one side is worse-looking than the other, but also that
it looks ten years older.
I have my flax hair built in many strange and differing fashions, and
again unbuilt: piled high, to give me height; twisted low, in a vain
endeavor to liken me to the Greeks; curled, plaited, frizzed, and again
unfrizzed. I institute a searching and critical examination of my
wardrobe, rejecting this and that; holding one color against my cheek,
to see whether my pallor will be able to bear it; turning away from
another with a grimace of self-disgust.
And this is the same "_I_," who thought it so little worth while to win
the good opinion of father's blear-eyed old friend, that I went to my
first meeting with him with a scorched face, loose hair, tottering, all
through prayers, on the verge of a descent about my neck, and a large
round hole, smelling horribly of singeing, burnt in the very front of my
old woolen frock.
His coming is near now. This _very_ day I shall see him come in that
door. He will sit in that chair. His head will dent that cushion. I
shall sit on a footstool at his feet. The better to imagine the
position, I push a footstool into the desired neighborhood to Roger's
arm-chair, and already see myself, with the eye of faith, in solid
reality occupying it. I rehearse all the topics that will engage my
tongue. The better to realize their effect upon him, I give utterance
out loud to the many greetings, to the numberless fond and pretty things
with which I mean to load him.
He always looked so very joyful when I said any little civil thing to
him, and I so seldom, _seldom_ did. Ah! we will change all that! He
shall be nauseated with sweets. And then, still sitting by him, holding
his hand, and with my head (dressed in what I finally decide upon as the
becomingest fashion) daintily rested on his arm, I will tell him all my
troubles, I will tell him of Algy's estrangement, his cold looks and
harsh words. Without any outspoken or bitter abuse of her, I will yet
manage cunningly to set him on his guard against Mrs. Huntley. I will
lament over Bobby to him. Yes, I will tell him _all_ my troubles--
_all_, that is, with one reservation.
Barbara is no longer here. She has gone home.
"You will be better by yourselves," she says, gently, when she announces
her intention of going. "He will like it better. I should if I were he.
It will be like a new honey-moon."
"_That_ it will not," reply I, stoutly, recollecting how much I yawned,
and how largely Mr. Musgrave figured in the first. "I have no opinion of
honey-moons; no more would _you_ if you had _had_ one."
"_Should_ not I?" speaking a little absently, while her eyes stray
through the window to the serene coldness of the sky, and the pallid
droop of the snow-drops in the garden-border.
"You are sure," say I, earnestly, taking her light hand in mine, "that
you are not going because you think that you are not _wanted_ now--that
now, that I have my--my own property again" (smiling irrepressibly), "I
can do very well without you."
"_Quite_ sure, Nancy!" looking back into my eager eyes with confident
"And you will come back _very_ soon? _very?_"
"When you quarrel," she answers, her face dimpling into a laugh, "I will
come and make it up between you."
"You must come before _then_" say I, with a proud smile, "or your visit
is likely to be indefinitely postponed."
Roger and I quarrel! We both find the idea so amusing that we laugh in
"_Gertrude_. Is my knight come? O the Lord, my hand! Sister, do my
cheeks look well? Give me a little box o' the ear, that I may seem to
She is gone now. The atmosphere of the house seems less clear, less
pure, now that she has left it. As she drives away, it seems to me,
looking after her, that no flower ever had a modester face, a more
delicate bloom. If I had time to think about it, I should fret sorely
after her, I should grievously miss her; but I have none.
The carriage that takes her to the station is to wait half an hour, and
then bring back Roger. There is, therefore, not more than enough time
for me to make the careful and lengthy toilet, on which I have expended
so much painstaking thought. I have deferred making it till now, so that
I may appear in perfect dainty freshness, as if I had just emerged from
the manifold silver papers of a bandbox, before him when he arrives--
that not a hair of my flax head may be displaced from its silky sweep;
that there may be no risk of Vick jumping up, and defiling me with muddy
paws that know no respect of clothes.
I take a long time over it. I snub my maid more than I ever did in my
life before. But I am complete now; to the last pin I am finished.
Perhaps--though this does not strike me till the last moment--perhaps I
am rather, nay, more than _rather_, overdressed for the occasion. But
surely this, in a person who has not long been in command of fine
clothes, and even in that short time has had very few opportunities of
airing them, is pardonable.
You remember that it is February. Well, then, this is the warm splendor
in which I am clad. Genoa velvet, of the color of a dark sapphire,
trimmed with silver-fox fur; and my head crowned with a mob-cap,
concerning which I am in doubt, and should be nervously glad to have the
boys here to enlighten me as to whether it is very becoming or rather
ridiculous. The object of the mob-cap is to approximate my age to
Roger's, and to assure all such as the velvet and fur leave in doubt,
that I am entitled to take my stand among the portly ranks of British
"Algy was right," say I, soliloquizing aloud, as I stand before the long
cheval glass, with a back-hair glass in one hand, by whose aid I correct
my errors in the profile, three-quarters or back view; "mine is not the
most hopeless kind of ugliness. It is certainly modifiable by dress."
So saying, I lay down the hand-glass, and walk sedately down-stairs,
holding my head stiffly erect, and looking over my shoulder, like a
child, at the effect of my blue train sweeping down the steps after me.
Arrived in my boudoir, I go and stand by the window, though there are
yet ten minutes before he is due. Once I open the casement to listen,
but hastily close it again, afraid lest the wintry wind should ruffle
the satin smoothness of my hair, or push the mob-cap awry. Then I sit
carefully down, and, harshly repulsing an overture on the part of Vick
to jump into my lap, fix my eyes upon the dark bare boughs of the tall
and distant elms, from between which I shall see him steal into sight.
The time ticks slowly on. He is due now. Five more lame, crawling
minutes--ten!--no sign of him. Again I rise, unclose the casement, and
push my matronly head a little way out to listen. Yes! yes! there is the
distant but not doubtful sound of a horse's four hoofs smartly trotting
and splashing along the muddy road. Three minutes more, and the sun
catches and brightly gleams on one of the quickly-turning wheels of the
dog-cart as it rolls toward me, between the wintry trees.
At first I cannot see the occupants; the boughs and twigs interpose to
hide them; but presently the dog-cart emerges into the open. There is
only one person in it!
At first I decline to believe my own eyes. I rub them. I stretch my head
farther out. Alas! self-deception is no longer possible: the groom
returns as he went--alone. Roger has _not_ come!
The dog-cart turns toward the stables, and I run to the bell and pull it
violently. I can hardly wait till it is answered. At last, after an
interval, which seems to me like twenty minutes, but which that false,
cold-blooded clock proclaims to be _two_, the footman enters.
"Sir Roger has not come," I say more affirmatively than interrogatively,
for I have no doubt on the subject. "Why did not the groom wait for the
"If you please, my lady, Sir Roger _has_ come."
"_Has come!_" repeat I, in astonishment, opening my eyes; "then where is
"He is walking up, my lady."
"What! all the way from Bishopsthorpe?" cry I, incredulously, thinking
of the five miry miles that intervene between us and that station.
"No, my lady, not all the way; only from Mrs. Huntley's."
I feel the color rushing away from my cheeks, and turn quickly aside,
that my change of countenance may not be perceived.
"Did he get out there?" I ask, faintly.
"Mrs. Huntley was at the gate, my lady, and Sir Roger got down to speak
to her, and bid James drive on and tell your ladyship he would be here
"Very well," say I, unsteadily, still averting my face, "that will do."
He is gone, and I need no longer mind what color my face is, nor what
shape of woeful jealousy my late so complacent features assume.
So _this_ is what comes of thinking life such a grand and pleasant
thing, and this world such a lovely, satisfying paradise! Wait long
enough--(I have not had to wait very long for my part)--and every sweet
thing turns to gall-like bitterness between one's teeth! The experience
of a few days ago might have taught me _that_, one would think, but I
was dull to thick-headedness. I required _two_ lessons--the second, oh
how far harsher than even the first!
In a moment I have taken my resolution. I am racing up-stairs. I have
reached my room. I do not summon my maid. One requires no assistance to
enable one to _un_build, deface, destroy. In a _second_--in much less
time than it takes me to write it--I have torn off the mob-cap, and
thrown it on the floor. If I had done what I wished, if I had yielded to
my first impulse, I should also have trampled upon it; but from the
extremity of petulance, I am proud to be able to tell you that I
refrain. With rapid fingers I unbutton my blue-velvet gown, and step out
of it, leaving it in a costly heap on the floor. Then I open the high
folding-doors of the wardrobe, and run my eye over its contents; but the
most becoming is no longer what I seek. For a moment or two I stand
undecided, then my eye is caught by a venerable garment, loathly and
ill-made, which I had before I married, and have since kept, more as a
relic than any thing else--a gown of that peculiar shade of sallow,
bilious, Bismarck brown, which is the most trying to the paleness of my
skin. Before any one could say "Jack Robinson," it is down, and I am in
it. Then, without even a parting smooth to the hair, which the violent
off-tearing of my cap must have roughened and disheveled, I go
down-stairs and reenter the boudoir. As I do so, I catch an accidental
glimpse of myself in a glass. Good Heavens! Can three minutes (for I
really have not been longer about it) have wrought such a monstrous
metamorphosis? Is every woman as utterly dependent for her charms upon
her _husk_ as I am? Can this sad, sallow slip of a girl be the beaming,
shapely, British matron I contemplated with so innocently pleased an eye
half an hour ago? If, in all my designs, I could have the perfect
success which has crowned my efforts at self-disfigurement, I should be
among the most prosperous of my species.
I sit down as far from the window as the dimensions of the room will
allow, call Vick, who comes at first sneakingly and doubtful of her
reception, up on my lap, and take a book. It is the one nearest to my
hand, and I plunge into it haphazard in the middle.
This is the sentence that first greets me: "Her whole heart was in her
boy. She often feared that she loved him too much--more than God
himself--yet she could not bear to pray to have her love for her child
Not a very difficult one to construe, is it? and yet, having come to the
end, and found that it conveyed no glimmering of an idea to my mind, I
begin it over again.
"Her whole heart was in her boy. She often feared that she loved him too
much--more than God himself--yet she could not bear to pray to have her
love for her child lessened."
Still no better! What _is_ it all about?
I begin over again.
"Her whole heart was in her boy," etc. I go through this process ten
times. I should go through it twenty, or even thirty, for I am resolved
to go on reading, but at the end of the tenth, my ear--unconsciously
strained--catches the sound of a step at the stair-foot. It is not the
footman's. It is firmer, heavier, and yet quicker.
Eight weary months is it since I last heard that footfall. My heart
pulses with mad haste, my cheeks throb, but I sit still, and hold the
book before my eyes. I will _not_ go to meet him. I will be as
indifferent as he! When he opens the door, I will not even look round, I
will be too much immersed in the page before me.
"Her whole heart was in her boy. She often feared that--"
The door-handle is turning. I _cannot_ help it! Against my will, my head
turns too. With no volition of my own--against my firmest intention--my
feet carry me hastily toward him. My arms stretch themselves out. Thank
God! thank God! whatever happens afterward, I shall still thank God, and
call him good for allowing it. I am in Roger's embrace. No more
mistakes! no more delays! he is here, and I am kissing him as I never
kissed any one--as I certainly never kissed _him_ in my life before.
Well, I suppose that in every life there are _some_ moments that are
_absolutely_ good--that one could not mend even if one were given the
power to try! I suppose that even those who, looking back over their
history, say, most distinctly and certainly, "It was a failure," can yet
lay the finger of memory on _some_ such gold minutes--it may be only
half a dozen, only four, only _two_--but still on some.
This is one of my gold moments, one of those misplaced ones that have
strayed out of heaven, where, perhaps, they are _all_ such--_perhaps_--
one can't be _sure_, for what human imagination can grasp the idea of
even a _day_, wholly made of such minutes?
I have forgotten Mrs. Huntley--Mr. Musgrave. Every ill suspicion, every
stinging remembrance, is dead or fallen into a trance. All bad thoughts
have melted away from the earth. Only joyful love and absolute faith
remain, only the knowledge that Roger is mine, and I am his, and that we
are in each other's arms. I do not know how long we remain without
speaking. I do not imagine that souls in bliss ever think of looking at
the clock. He is the first to break silence. For the first time for
eight months I hear his voice again--the voice that for so many weeks
seemed to me no better than any other voice--whose tones I _now_ feel I
could pick out from those of any other living thing, did all creation
"Let me look at my wife!" he says, taking my countenance in his tender
hands, as if it were made of old china, and would break if he let it it
fall. "I feel as if I had never _had_ a wife before, as if it were quite
a new plaything."
I make no verbal answer. I am staring up with all my eyes into his face,
thinking, with a sort of wonder, how much goodlier, younger, statelier
it is than it has appeared to me in any of those dream-pictures, which
yet mostly flatter.
"My wife! my wife!" he says, speaking the words most softly, as if they
greatly pleased him, and replacing with carefullest fingers a stray and
arrant lock that has wandered from its fellows into my left eye. "What
has come to you? Had I forgotten what you were like? How pretty you are!
How well you look!"
"Do I?" say I, with a pleasant simper; then, with a sudden and
overwhelming recollection of the bilious gingery frock, and the tousled
hair, "No, nonsense!" I say, uneasily, "impossible! You are laughing at
me! Ah!"--(with a sigh of irrepressible regret and back-handed pride)--
"you should have seen me half an hour ago! I _did_ look nice _then_, if
"Why nicer than now?"--(with a puzzled smile that both plays about his
bearded lips and gayly shines in his steel-gray eyes).
"Oh, never mind! never mind!" reply I, in some confusion, "it is a long
story; it is of no consequence, but I _did._"
He does not press for an explanation, for which I am obliged to him.
"Nancy!" he says, with a sort of hesitating joy, a diffident triumph in
his voice, "do you know, I believe you have kept your promise! I
believe, I _really_ believe, that you are a little glad to see me!"
"Are _you_ glad to see _me_, is more to the purpose?" return I,
descending out of heaven with a pout, and returning to the small
jealousies and acerbities of earth, and to the recollection of that yet
unexplained alighting at Aninda's gate.
He seems to think that no asseverations, no strong adjectives or
intensifying adverbs, no calling upon sun and moon and stars to bear
witness to his gladness, can increase the force of those two tiny words,
so he adds none.
"I wonder, then," say I, in a rather sneaky and shamefaced manner,
mumbling and looking down, "that you were not in a greater hurry to get
"_In a greater hurry!_" he repeats, in an accent of acute surprise.
"Why, child, what are you talking about? Since we landed, I have neither
slept nor eaten. I drove straight across London, and have been in the
train ever since."
"But--between--this--and the--station?" suggest I, slowly, having taken
hold of one of the buttons of his coat; the very one that in former
difficulties I used always to resort to.
"You mean about my walking up?" he says readily, and without the
slightest trace of guilty consciousness, indeed with a distinct and open
look of pleasure; "but, my darling, how could I tell how long she would
keep me? poor little woman!" (beginning to laugh and to put back the
hair from his tanned forehead). "I am afraid I did not bless her when I
saw her standing at her gate! I had half a mind to ask her whether
another time would not do as well, but she looked so eager to hear about
her husband--you know I have been seeing him at St. Thomas--such a
wistful little face--and I knew that she could not keep me more than ten
minutes; and, altogether when I thought of her loneliness and my own
He breaks off.
"Are you so sure she _is_ lonely?" I say, with an innocent air of asking
for information, and still working hard at the button; "are people
always lonely when their husbands are away?"
He looks at me strangely for a moment; then, "Of course she is lonely,
poor little thing!" he says, warmly; "how could she help it?"
A slight pause.
"_Most_ men," say I, jealously, "would not have thought it a hardship to
walk up and down between the laurustinus with Mrs. Zephine, I can tell
"Would not they?" he answers, indifferently. "I dare say not! she always
_was_ a good little thing!"
"Excellent!" reply I, with a nasty dryness, "bland, passionate, and
Again he looks at me in surprise--a surprise which, after a moment's
reflection, melts and brightens into an expression of pleasure.
"Did you care so much about my coming that ten minutes seemed to make a
difference?" he asks, in an eager voice. "Is it possible that you were
_in a hurry_ for me?"
Why cannot I speak truth, and say yes? Why does an objectlessly lying
devil make its inopportune entry into me? Through some misplaced and
crooked false shame I answer, "Not at all! not at all! of course a few
minutes one way or the other could not make much difference; I was only
puzzled to know what had become of you?"
He looks a shade disappointed, and for a moment we are both silent. We
have sat down side by side on the sofa. Vick is standing on her hinder
legs, with her forepaws rested on Roger's knee. Her tail is wagging with
the strong and untiring regularity of a pendulum, and a smirk of welcome
and recognition is on her face. Roger's arm is round me, and we are
holding each other's hands, but we are no longer in heaven. I could not
tell you _why_ but we are not. Some stupid constraint--quite of earth--
has fallen upon me. Where are all those most tender words, those profuse
endearments with which I meant to have greeted him?
"And so it is actually true!" he says, with a long-drawn sigh of relief;
his eyes wandering round the room, and taking in all the familiar
objects; "there is no mistake about it! I am actually holding your real
live hand" (turning it gently about and softly considering the long
slight fingers and pink palm)--"in mine! Ah! my dear, how often, how
often I have held it so in my dreams! Have you ever" (speaking with a
sort of doubtfulness and uncertain hope)--"have you ever--no, I dare say
not--so held mine?"
The diffident passion in his voice for once destroys that vile
constraint, dissipates that idiotic sense of bashfulness.
"_Scores_ of times!" I answer, letting my head drop on his shoulder, and
not taking the trouble to raise it again.
"I never _used_ to think myself of a very nervous turn!" he says,
presently, with a smile. "Nancy, you will laugh at me, but I assure you
upon my honor that all the way home I have been in the most abject and
deadly fright: at every puff of wind I thought we were infallibly going
to the bottom: whenever the carriage rocked in the least to-day on the
way down, I made up my mind we were going to smash! Little woman, what
can a bit of a thing like you have done to me to make me seem so much
more valuable to myself than I have ever done these eight-and-forty
I think no answer to this so suitable and seemly as a dumb friction of
my left cheek against the rough cloth of the shoulder on which it has
"Talk to me, Nancy!" he says, in a quiet half-whisper of happiness. "Let
me hear the sound of your voice! I am sick of my own; I have had a glut
of that all these weary eight months; tell me about them all! How are
they all? how are the boys?" (with a playful smile of recollection at
what used to be my _one_ subject, the one theme on which I was wont to
wax inimitably diffuse). But now, at the magic name no pleasant
garrulity overcomes me; only the remembrance of my worries; of all those
troubles that I mean now to transfer from my own to Roger's broad
shoulders, swoop down upon me.
I raise my head and speak with a clouded brow and a complaining tone.
"The Brat has gone back to Oxford," I say, gloomily; "Bobby has gone to
Hong-Kong, and Algy has gone to _the dogs_--or at least is going there
as hard as he can!"
"_To the dogs_?" (with an accent of surprise and concern); "what do you
mean? what has sent him there?"
"You had better ask Mrs. Zephine," reply I, bitterly, thinking, with a
lively exasperation, of the changed and demoralized Algy I had last
seen--soured, headstrong, and unhinged.
"_Zephine!_" (repeating the name with an accent of thorough
astonishment), "what on earth can _she_ have to say to it?"
"Ah, _what_?" reply I, with oracular spite; then, overcome with remorse
at the thought of the way in which I was embittering the first moments
of his return, I rebury my face in his shoulder.
"I will tell you about that to-morrow," I say; "to-day is a good day,
and we will talk only of good things and of good people."
He does not immediately answer. My remark seems to have buried him in
thought. Presently he shakes off his distraction and speaks again.
"And Barbara? how is she? _She_ has not" (beginning to laugh)--"_she_
has not gone to the dogs, I suppose!"
"No," say I, slowly, not thinking of what I am saying, but with my
thoughts wandering off to the greatest and sorest of my afflictions,
"And" (smiling) "your plan. See what a good memory I have--your plan of
marrying her to Musgrave, how does that work?"
"_My_ plan!" cry I, tremulously, while a sudden torrent of scarlet pours
all over my face and neck. "I do not know what you are talking about! I
never had any such plan! Phew!" (lifting up the arm that is round my
waist, hastily removing it, rising and going to the window), "how hot
this room grows of an afternoon!"
So the king enjoys his own again, and Roger is at home. Not yet--and now
it is the next morning--has his return become _real_ to me. Still there
is something phantom and visionary about it: still it seems to me open
to question whether, if I look away from him for a moment, he may not
melt and disappear into dream-land.
All through breakfast I am dodging and peeping from behind the urn to
assure myself of the continued presence and substantial reality of the
strong shoulders and bronze-colored face that so solidly and certainly
face me. As often as I catch his eye--and this is not seldom, for
perhaps he too has his misgivings about me--I smile, in a manner, half
ashamed, half sneaky, and yet most wholly satisfied.
The sun, who is not by any means _always_ so well-judging, often hiding
his face with both hands from a wedding, and hotly and gaudily flaming
down on a black funeral, is shining with a temperate February comeliness
in at our windows, on our garden borders; trying (and failing) to warm
up the passionless melancholy of the chilly snow-drop families, trying
(and succeeding) to add his quota to the joy that already fills and
occupies our two hearts.
"How fine it is!" I cry, flying with unmatronly agility to the window,
and playing a waltz on the pane. "That is right! I should have been so
angry if it had rained; let us come out at once--I want to hear your
opinion about the laurels; they want cutting badly, but I could not have
them touched while you were away, though Bobby's fingers--when he was
here--itched to be hacking at them. Come, I have got on my strong boots
on purpose!--_at once_"
"_At once?_" he repeats, a little doubtfully turning over the letters
that lie in a heap beside his plate. "Well, I do not know about _that_--
duty first, and pleasure afterward. Had not I better go to Zephine
Huntley's, and get it over?"
"To _Zephine Huntley's?_" repeat I, my fingers suddenly breaking off in
the middle of their tune, as I turn quickly round to face him; the smile
disappearing from my face, and my jaw lengthening; "you do not mean to
say that you are going there _again_?"
"Yes, _again_!" he answers, laughing a little, and slightly mimicking my
tragic tone; "why not, Nancy?"
I make no answer. I turn away and look out; but I see a different
landscape. It looks to me as if I were regarding it through dark-blue
"I have got a whole sheaf of letters and papers from her husband for
her," pursues Roger, apparently calmly, and utterly unaware of my
discomfiture, "and I do not want to keep her out of them longer than I
Still I make no rejoinder. My fingers stray idly up and down the glass;
but it is no longer a giddy waltz that they are executing--if it is a
tune at all, it is some little dirge.
"What has happened to you, Nancy?" says Roger, presently, becoming aware
of my silence, rising and following me; "what are you doing--catching
"No," reply I, with an acrid smartness, "not I! I leave that to Mrs.
Once again he regards me with that look of unfeigned surprise, tinged
with a little pain which yesterday I detected on his face. When I look
at him, when my eyes rest on the brave and open honesty of his, my ugly,
nipping doubts disappear.
"Do not go," say I, standing on tiptoe, so that my hands may reach his
neck, and clasp it, speaking in my most beguiling half-whisper; "why
should you fetch and carry for her? let John or William take her
letters. Are you so sure" (with an irresistible sneer) "that she is in
such a hurry for them?--stay with me this _one first_ day!--_do, please
It is the first time in all my history that I have succeeded in
delivering myself of his Christian name to his face--frequently as I
have fired it off in dialogues with myself, behind his back. It shoots
out now with the loud suddenness of a mismanaged soda-water cork.
"_Roger!_" he repeats, in an accent of keen pleasure, catching me to his
heart; "what! I am _Roger_ after all, am I? The 'general' has gone to
glory at last, has he?--thank God!"
"I will ring and tell John at once," say I, with subtile amiability,
disengaging myself from his arms, and walking quickly toward the bell.
"Stay!" he says, putting his hand on me in detention, before I have made
two steps; "you must not! it is no use! John will not do, or William
either: it is a matter of business. I have" (sighing) "to go through
many of these papers with her."
"Yes, _I_; why is that so surprising?"
"What possible concern is it of _yours_?" ask I, throwing the reins on
the neck of my indignation, and urging that willing steed to a sharp
gallop, crimsoning as I speak, and raising my voice, as has ever been
our immemorial wont in home-broils. "For my part, I never saw any good
come of people putting their fingers into their neighbors' pies!"
"Not even if those neighbors are the oldest friends they have in the
world?" he says, gently, yet eying with some wonder--perhaps
apprehension, for odd things frighten men--the small scarlet scold who
stands swelling with ruffled feathers, and angry eyes, winking to keep
the tears out of them, before him.
"I thought _father_ was the oldest friend you had in the world!" say I,
with a jealous tartness; "you always _used_ to tell us so."
"_Some_ of my oldest friends, then," he answers, looking a little
amused, "since you will have me so exact."