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Showing How Alice Was Punished
Poor Kate's condition at the old Hall on that night was very sad. The presence of death is always a source of sorrow, even though the circumstances of the case are of a kind to create no agony of grief. The old man who had just passed away up-stairs was fully due to go. He had lived his span all out, and had himself known that to die was the one thing left for him to do. Kate also had expected his death, and had felt that the time had come in which it would be foolish even to wish that it should be arrested. But death close to one is always sad as it is solemn.
And she was quite alone at Vavasor Hall. She had no acquaintance within some miles of her. From the young vicar, though she herself had not quarrelled with him, she could receive no comfort, as she hardly knew him; nor was she of a temperament which would dispose her to turn to a clergyman at such a time for comfort, unless to one who might have been an old friend. Her aunt and brother would probably both come to her, but they could hardly be with her for a day or two, and during that day or two it would be needful that orders should be given which it is disagreeable for a woman to have to give. The servants, moreover, in the house were hardly fit to assist her much. There was an old butler, or footman, who had lived at the Hall for more than fifty years, but he was crippled with rheumatism, and so laden with maladies, that he rarely crept out of his own room. He was simply an additional burden on the others. There was a boy who had lately done all the work which the other should have done, and ever so much more beside. There is no knowing how much work such a boy will do when properly drilled, and he was now Kate's best minister in her distress. There was the old nurse,--but she had been simply good for nursing, and there were two rough Westmoreland girls who called themselves cook and housemaid.
On that first evening,--the very day on which her grandfather had died,--Kate would have been more comfortable had she really found something that she could do. But there was in truth nothing. She hovered for an hour or two in and out of the room, conscious of the letter which she had in her pocket, and very desirous in heart of reading it, but restrained by a feeling that at such a moment she ought to think only of the dead. In this she was wrong. Let the living think of the dead, when their thoughts will travel that way whether the thinker wish it or no. Grief taken up because grief is supposed to be proper, is only one degree better than pretended grief. When one sees it, one cannot but think of the lady who asked her friend, in confidence, whether hot roast fowl and bread-sauce were compatible with the earliest state of weeds; or of that other lady,--a royal lady she,--who was much comforted in the tedium of her trouble when assured by one of the lords about the Court that piquet was mourning.
It was late at night, near eleven, before Kate took out her letter and read it. As something of my story hangs upon it, I will give it at length, though it was a long letter. It had been written with great struggles, and with many tears, and Kate, as she read it to the end, almost forgot that her grandfather was lying dead in the room above her.
Queen Anne Street, April, 186--.
I hardly know how to write to you--what I have to tell, and yet I must tell it. I must tell it to you, but I shall never repeat the story to any one else. I should have written yesterday, when it occurred, but I was so ill that I felt myself unable to make the exertion. Indeed, at one time, after your brother had left me, I almost doubted whether I should ever be able to collect my thoughts again. My dismay was at first so great that my reason for a time deserted me, and I could only sit and cry like an idiot.
Dear Kate, I hope you will not be angry with me for telling you. I have endeavoured to think about it as calmly as I can, and I believe that I have no alternative. The fact that your brother has quarrelled with me cannot be concealed from you, and I must not leave him to tell you of the manner of it. He came to me yesterday in great anger. His anger then was nothing to what it became afterwards; but even when he first came in he was full of wrath. He stood up before me, and asked me how it had come to pass that I had sent him the money which he had asked of me through the hands of Mr Grey. Of course I had not done this, and so I told him at once. I had spoken of the matter to no one but papa, and he had managed it for me. Even now I know nothing of it, and as I have not yet spoken to papa I cannot understand it. George at once told me that he disbelieved me, and when I sat quiet under this insult, he used harsher words, and said that I had conspired to lower him before the world.
He then asked me whether I loved him. Oh, Kate, I must tell it you all, though it is dreadful to me that I should have to write it. You remember how it came to pass when we were in Westmoreland together at Christmas? Do not think that I am blaming you, but I was very rash then in the answers which I made to him. I thought that I could be useful to him as his wife, and I had told myself that it would be good that I should be of use in some way. When he asked me that question yesterday, I sat silent. Indeed, how could I have answered it in the affirmative, when he had just used such language to me,--while he was standing opposite to me, looking at me in that way which he has when he is enraged? Then he spoke again and demanded of me that I should at once send back to Mr Grey all presents of his which I had kept, and at the same time took up and threw across the table on to the sofa near me, a little paper knife which Mr Grey once gave me. I could not allow myself to be so ordered by him; so I said nothing, but put the knife back upon the table. He then took it again and threw it beneath the grate. "I have a right to look upon you as my wife," he said, "and, as such, I will not allow you to keep that man's things about you." I think I told him then that I should never become his wife, but though I remember many of his words, I remember none of my own. He swore, I know, with a great oath, that if I went back a second time from my word to him he would leave me no peace,--that he would punish me for my perfidy with some fearful punishment. Oh, Kate, I cannot tell you what he looked like. He had then come quite close to me, and I know that I trembled before him as though he were going to strike me. Of course I said nothing. What could I say to a man who behaved to me in such a manner? Then, as far as I can remember it, he sat down and began to talk about money. I forget what he said at first, but I know that I assured him that he might take what he wanted so long as enough was left to prevent my being absolutely a burden on papa. "That, madam, is a matter of course," he said. I remember those words so well. Then he explained that after what had passed between us, I had no right to ruin him by keeping back from him money which had been promised to him, and which was essential to his success. In this, dear Kate, I think he was mainly right. But he could not have been right in putting it to me in that hard, cruel manner, especially as I had never refused anything that he had asked of me in respect of money. The money he may have while it lasts; but then there must be an end of it all between us, even though he should have the power of punishing me, as he says he will do. Punishing me, indeed! What punishment can be so hard as that which he has already inflicted?
He then desired me to write a letter to him which he might show to the lawyer,--to our own lawyer, I think he meant,--in order that money might be raised to pay back what Mr Grey had advanced, and give him what he now required. I think he said it was to be five thousand pounds. When he asked this I did not move. Indeed, I was unable to move. Then he spoke very loud, and swore at me again, and brought me pen and ink, demanding that I should write the letter. I was so frightened that I thought of running to the door to escape, and I would have done so had I not distrusted my own power. Had it been to save my life I could not have written the letter. I believe I was now crying,--at any rate I threw myself back and covered my face with my hands. Then he came and sat by me, and took hold of my arms. Oh, Kate; I cannot tell it you all. He put his mouth close to my ear, and said words which were terrible, though I did not understand them. I do not know what it was he said, but he was threatening me with his anger if I did not obey him. Before he left me, I believe I found my voice to tell him that he should certainly have the money which he required. And so he shall. I will go to Mr Round myself, and insist on its being done. My money is my own, and I may do with it as I please. But I hope,--I am obliged to hope, that I may never be made to see my cousin again.
I will not pretend to express any opinion as to the cause of all this. It is very possible that you will not believe all I say,--that you will think that I am mad and have deluded myself. Of course your heart will prompt you to accuse me rather than him. If it is so, and if there must therefore be a division between us, my grief will be greatly increased; but I do not know that I can help it. I cannot keep all this back from you. He has cruelly ill-used me and insulted me. He has treated me as I should have thought no man could have treated a woman. As regards money, I did all that I could do to show that I trusted him thoroughly, and my confidence has only led to suspicion. I do not know whether he understands that everything must be over between us; but, if not, I must ask you to tell him so. And I must ask you to explain to him that he must not come again to Queen Anne Street. If he does, nothing shall induce me to see him. Tell him also that the money that he wants shall assuredly be sent to him as soon as I can make Mr Round get it.
Dearest Kate, good-bye. I hope you will feel for me. If you do not answer me I shall presume that you think yourself bound to support his side, and to believe me to have been wrong. It will make me very unhappy; but I shall remember that you are his sister, and I shall not be angry with you.
Yours always affectionately,
Kate, as she read her letter through, at first quickly, and then very slowly, came by degrees almost to forget that death was in the house. Her mind, and heart, and brain, were filled with thoughts and feelings that had exclusive reference to Alice and her brother, and at last she found herself walking the room with quick, impetuous steps, while her blood was hot with indignation.
All her sympathies in the matter were with Alice. It never occurred to her to disbelieve a word of the statement made to her, or to suggest to herself that it had been coloured by any fears or exaggerations on the part of her correspondent. She knew that Alice was true. And, moreover, much as she loved her brother,--willing as she had been and would still be to risk all that she possessed, and herself also, on his behalf,--she knew that it would be risking and not trusting. She loved her brother, such love having come to her by nature, and having remained with her from of old; and in his intellect she still believed. But she had ceased to have belief in his conduct. She feared everything that he might do, and lived with a consciousness that though she was willing to connect all her own fortunes with his, she had much reason to expect that she might encounter ruin in doing so. Her sin had been in this,--that she had been anxious to subject Alice to the same danger,--that she had intrigued, sometimes very meanly, to bring about the object which she had at heart,--that she had used all her craft to separate Alice from Mr Grey. Perhaps it may be alleged in her excuse that she had thought,--had hoped rather than thought,--that the marriage which she contemplated would change much in her brother that was wrong, and bring him into a mode of life that would not be dangerous. Might not she and Alice together so work upon him, that he should cease to stand ever on the brink of some half-seen precipice? To risk herself for her brother was noble. But when she used her cunning in inducing her cousin to share that risk she was ignoble. Of this she had herself some consciousness, as she walked up and down the old dining-room at midnight, holding her cousin's letter in her hand.
Her cheeks became tinged with shame as she thought of the scene which Alice had described,--the toy thrown beneath the grate, the loud curses, the whispered threats, which had been more terrible than curses, the demand for money, made with something worse than a cut-throat's violence, the strong man's hand placed upon the woman's arm in anger and in rage, those eyes glaring, and the gaping horror of that still raw cicatrice, as he pressed his face close to that of his victim! Not for a moment did she think of defending him. She accused him to herself vehemently of a sin over and above those sins which had filled Alice with dismay. He had demanded money from the girl whom he intended to marry! According to Kate's idea, nothing could excuse or palliate this sin. Alice had accounted it as nothing,--had expressed her opinion that the demand was reasonable;--even now, after the ill-usage to which she had been subjected, she had declared that the money should be forthcoming, and given to the man who had treated her so shamefully. It might be well that Alice should so feel and so act, but it behoved Kate to feel and act very differently. She would tell her brother, even in the house of death, should he come there, that his conduct was mean and unmanly. Kate was no coward. She declared to herself that she would do this even though he should threaten her with all his fury,--though he should glare upon her with all the horrors of his countenance.
One o'clock, and two o'clock, still found her in the dark sombre parlour, every now and then pacing the floor of the room. The fire had gone out, and, though it was now the middle of April, she began to feel the cold. But she would not go to bed before she had written a line to Alice. To her brother a message by telegraph would of course be sent the next morning; as also would she send a message to her aunt. But to Alice she would write, though it might be but a line. Cold as she was, she found her pens and paper, and wrote her letter that night. It was very short. "Dear Alice, to-day I received your letter, and to-day our poor old grandfather died. Tell my uncle John, with my love, of his father's death. You will understand that I cannot write much now about that other matter; but I must tell you, even at such a moment as this, that there shall be no quarrel between you and me. There shall be none at least on my side. I cannot say more till a few days shall have passed by. He is lying up-stairs, a corpse. I have telegraphed to George, and I suppose he will come down. I think my aunt Greenow will come also, as I had written to her before, seeing that I wanted the comfort of having her here. Uncle John will of course come or not as he thinks fitting. I don't know whether I am in a position to say that I shall be glad to see him; but I should be very glad. He and you will know that I can, as yet, tell you nothing further. The lawyer is to see the men about the funeral. Nothing, I suppose, will be done till George comes. Your own cousin and friend, KATE VAVASOR." And then she added a line below, "My own Alice,--If you will let me, you shall be my sister, and be the nearest to me and the dearest."
Alice, when she received this, was at the first moment so much struck, and indeed surprised, by the tidings of her grandfather's death, that she was forced, in spite of the still existing violence of her own feelings, to think and act chiefly with reference to that event. Her father had not then left his room. She therefore went to him, and handed him Kate's letter. "Papa," she said, "there is news from Westmoreland; bad news, which you hardly expected yet." "My father is dead," said John Vavasor. Whereupon Alice gave him Kate's letter, that he might read it. "Of course I shall go down," he said, as he came to that part in which Kate had spoken of him. "Does she think I shall not follow my father to the grave, because I dislike her brother? What does she mean by saying that there shall be no quarrel between you and her?" "I will explain that at another time," said Alice. John Vavasor asked no further questions then, but declared at first that he should go to Westmoreland on the following day. Then he altered his purpose. "I'll go by the mail train to-night," he said. "It will be very disagreeable, but I ought to be there when the will is opened." There was very little more said in Queen Anne Street on the subject till the evening,--till a few moments before Mr Vavasor left his house. He indeed had thought nothing more about that quarrelling, or rather that promise that there should be no quarrelling, between the girls. He still regarded his nephew George as the man who, unfortunately, was to be his son-in-law, and now, during this tedious sad day, in which he felt himself compelled to remain at home, he busied his mind in thinking of George and Alice, as living together at the old Hall. At six, the father and daughter dined, and soon after dinner Mr Vavasor went up to his own room to prepare himself for his journey. After a while Alice followed him,--but she did not do so till she knew that if anything was to be told before the journey no further time could be lost. "Papa," she said, as soon as she had shut the door behind her, "I think I ought to tell you before you go that everything is over between me and George."
"Have you quarrelled with him too?" said her father, with uncontrolled surprise.
"I should perhaps say that he has quarrelled with me. But, dear papa, pray do not question me at present. I will tell you all when you come back, but I thought it right that you should know this before you went."
"It has been his doing then?"
"I cannot explain it to you in a hurry like this. Papa, you may understand something of the shame which I feel, and you should not question me now."
"And John Grey?"
"There is nothing different in regard to him."
"I'll be shot if I can understand you. George, you know, has had two thousand pounds of your money,--of yours or somebody else's. Well, we can't talk about it now, as I must be off. Thinking as I do of George, I'm glad of it,--that's all." Then he went, and Alice was left alone, to comfort herself as best she might by her own reflections.
George Vavasor had received the message on the day previous to that on which Alice's letter had reached her, but it had not come to him till late in the day. He might have gone down by the mail train of that night, but there were one or two persons, his own attorney especially, whom he wished to see before the reading of his grandfather's will. He remained in town, therefore, on the following day, and went down by the same train as that which took his uncle. Walking along the platform, looking for a seat, he peered into a carriage and met his uncle's eye. The two saw each other, but did not speak, and George passed on to another carriage. On the following morning, before the break of day, they met again in the refreshment room, at the station at Lancaster. "So my father has gone, George," said the uncle, speaking to the nephew. They must go to the same house, and Mr Vavasor felt that it would be better that they should be on speaking terms when they reached it. "Yes," said George; "he has gone at last. I wonder what we shall find to have been his latest act of injustice." The reader will remember that he had received Kate's first letter, in which she had told him of the Squire's altered will. John Vavasor turned away disgusted. His finer feelings were perhaps not very strong, but he had no thoughts or hopes in reference to the matter which were mean. He expected nothing himself, and did not begrudge his nephew the inheritance. At this moment he was thinking of the old Squire as a father who had ever been kind to him. It might be natural that George should have no such old affection at his heart, but it was unnatural that he should express himself as he had done at such a moment.
The uncle turned away, but said nothing. George followed him with a little proposition of his own. "We shan't get any conveyance at Shap," he said. "Hadn't we better go over in a chaise from Kendal?" To this the uncle assented, and so they finished their journey together. George smoked all the time that they were in the carriage, and very few words were spoken. As they drove up to the old house, they found that another arrival had taken place before them,--Mrs Greenow having reached the house in some vehicle from the Shap station. She had come across from Norwich to Manchester, where she had joined the train which had brought the uncle and nephew from London.
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