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Ye cumbrous fashions, crowd not on my head. Mine be the chip of purest white, Swan-like; and, as her feathers light, When on the still wave spread; And let it wear the graceful dress Of unadorned simpleness. Catherine Fanshaw's 'Parody on Grey'.
Nothing transpired to the discredit of Lieutenant Rivers. He had spent a great deal of money, but chiefly for want of something else to do, and, though he was not a subject for high praise, there was no vice in him--no more than in an old donkey--as Dr. May declared, in his concluding paroxysm of despair, on finding that, though there was little to reconcile him to the engagement, there was no reasonable ground for thwarting his daughter's wishes. He argued the matter once more with her, and, finding her purpose fixed, he notified his consent, and the rest of the family were admitted to a knowledge of the secret which they had never suspected.
Etheldred could not help being gratified with the indignation it excited. With one voice, Mary and Blanche declared that they would never give up the title of "the detestable," and would not make him any presents; certainly not watch-chains! Miss Bracy, rather alarmed, lectured them just enough to make them worse; and Margaret, overhearing Blanche instructing Aubrey in her own impertinences, was obliged to call her to her sofa, and assure her that she was unkind to Flora, and that she must consider Mr. George Rivers as her brother.
"Never my brother like Harry!" exclaimed Mary indignantly.
"No, indeed; nor like Alan!" exclaimed Blanche. "And I won't call him George, I am determined, if it is ever so!"
"It will not matter to him what such little girls call him," said Margaret.
Blanche was so annihilated, that the sound of a carriage, and of the door bell, was a great satisfaction to her.
Meta Rivers came flying into the room, her beautiful eyes dancing, and her cheeks glowing with pleasure, as, a little timidly, she kissed Margaret; while Ethel, in a confused way, received Mr. Rivers, in pain for her own cold, abrupt manner, in contrast with his gentle, congratulating politeness.
Meta asked, blushing, and with a hesitating voice, for their dear Flora; Mary offered to call her, but Meta begged to go herself, and thus was spared the awkwardness that ensued. Ethel was almost vexed with herself, as ungrateful, when she saw Mr. Rivers so mildly kind, and so delighted, with the bland courtesy that seemed fully conscious of the favour that Flora had conferred on his son, and thankful to the Mays for accepting him.
Margaret answered with more expression of gratification than would have been sincere in Ethel; but it was a relief when Flora and Meta came in together, as pretty a contrast as could be seen; the little dark-eyed fairy, all radiant with joy, clinging to the slender waist of Flora, whose quiet grace and maidenly dignity were never more conspicuous than as, with a soft red mantling in her fair cheek, her eyes cast down, but with a simple, unaffected warmth of confidence and gratitude, she came forward to receive Mr. Rivers's caressing affectionate greeting.
Stiffness was over when she came in, and Dr. May, who presently made his appearance, soon was much more at his ease than could have been hoped, after his previous declarations that he should never be able to be moderately civil about it to Mr. Rivers. People of ready sympathy, such as Dr. May and Margaret, have a great deal of difficulty with their sincerity spared them, by being carried along with the feelings of others. Ethel could not feel the same, and was bent on avoiding any expression of opinion; she hoped that Meta's ecstasies would all be bestowed upon her future sister-in-law; but Meta was eager for an interview with Ethel herself, and, as usual, gained her point.
"Now then, you are property of my own!" she cried. "May I not take you all for sisters?"
Ethel had not thought of this as a convenience of the connection, and she let Meta kiss her, and owned that it was very nice.
"Ethel," said Meta, "I see, and I wanted to talk to you. You don't think poor George good enough for Flora."
"I never meant to show it," said Ethel.
"You need not mind," said Meta, smiling. "I was very much surprised myself, and thought it all a mistake. But I am so very glad, for I know it will make such a difference to him, poor fellow. I should like to tell you all about him, for no one else can very well, and you will like him better, perhaps. You know my grandfather made his own fortune, and you would think some of our relations very queer. My Aunt Dorothy once told me all about it--papa was made to marry the partner's daughter, and I fancy she could not have been much of a lady. I don't think he could have been very happy with her, but she soon died, and left him with this one son, whom those odd old aunts brought up their own way. By and by, you know, papa came to be in quite another line of society, but when he married again, poor George had been so spoiled by these aunts, and was so big, and old, that my mother did not know what to make of him."
"A great lubberly boy," Ethel said, rather repenting the next moment.
"He is thirteen years older than I am," said Meta, "and you see it has been hard on him altogether; he had not the education that papa would have given him if he had been born later: and he can't remember his mother, and has always been at a loss when with clever people. I never understood it till within the last two or three years, nor knew how trying it must be to see such a little chit as me made so much of--almost thrusting him aside. But you cannot think what a warm- hearted good fellow he is--he has never been otherwise than so very kind to me, and he was so very fond of his old aunt. Hitherto, he has had such disadvantages, and no real, sensible woman has taken him in hand; he does not care for papa's tastes, and I am so much younger, that I never could get on with him at all, till this time; but I do know that he has a real good temper, and all sorts of good qualities, and that he only needs to be led right, to go right. Oh! Flora may make anything of him, and we are so thankful to her for having found it out!"
"Thank you for telling me," said Ethel. "It is much more satisfactory to have no shamming."
Meta laughed, for Ethel's sham was not too successful; she continued, "Dear Dr. May, I thought he would think his beautiful Flora not exactly matched--but tell him, Ethel, for if he once is sorry for poor George, he will like him. And it will really be the making of George, to be thrown with him and your brothers. Oh! we are so glad! But I won't tease you to be so."
"I can like it better now," said Ethel. "You know Norman thinks very highly of your brother, and declares that it will all come out by and by."
Meta clapped her hands, and said that she should tell her father, and Ethel parted with her, liking her, at least, better than ever. There was a comical scene between her and the doctor, trying to define what relations they should become to each other, which Ethel thought did a good deal to mollify her father.
The history of George's life did more; he took to pitying him, and pity was, indeed, akin to love in the good doctor's mind. In fact, George was a man who could be liked, when once regarded as a belonging--a necessity, not a choice; for it was quite true that there was no harm in him, and a great deal of good nature. His constant kindness, and evident liking for Margaret, stood him in good stead; he made her a sort of confidante, bestowing on her his immeasurable appreciation of Flora's perfections, and telling her how well he was getting on with "the old gentleman"--a name under which she failed to recognise her father.
As to Tom, he wrote his congratulations to Ethel, that she might make a wedding present of her Etruscan vases, the Cupids on which must have been put there by anticipation. Richard heard none of the doubts, and gave kind, warm congratulations, promising to return home for the wedding; and Mary and Blanche no sooner heard a whisper about bride's-maids than all their opposition faded away, in a manner that quite scandalised Ethel, while it set Margaret on reminiscences of her having been a six-year-old bride's-maid to Flora's godmother, Mrs. Arnott.
As to the gossip in the town, Ethel quite dreaded the sight of every one without Flora to protect her, and certainly, Flora's unaffected, quiet manner was perfection, and kept off all too forward congratulations, while it gratified those whom she was willing to encourage.
There was no reason for waiting, and Mr. Rivers was as impatient as his son, so an understanding arose that the wedding, should take place near the end of the Christmas holidays.
Flora showed herself sensible and considerate. Always open-handed, her father was inclined to do everything liberally, and laid no restrictions on her preparations, but she had too much discretion to be profuse, and had a real regard for the welfare of the rest. She laughed with Ethel at the anticipations of the Stoneborough ladies that she must be going to London, and, at the requests, as a great favour, that they might be allowed the sight of her trousseau. Her wedding-dress, white silk, with a white cashmere mantle, was, indeed, ordered from Meta's London dressmaker; but, for the rest, she contented herself with an expedition to Whitford, accompanied by Miss Bracy and her two enchanted pupils, and there laid in a stock of purchases, unpretending and in good taste, aiming only at what could be well done, and not attempting the decorative wardrobe of a great lady. Ethel was highly amused when the Misses Anderson came for their inspection, to see their concealed disappointment at finding no under garments trimmed with Brussels lace, nor pocket-handkerchiefs all open-work, except a centre of the size of a crown-piece, and the only thing remarkable was Margaret's beautiful marking in embroidery. There was some compensation in the costly wedding presents--Flora had reaped a whole harvest from friends of her own, grateful patients of her father, and the whole Rivers and Langdale connection; but, in spite of the brilliant uselessness of most of these, the young ladies considered themselves ill-used, thought Dr. May never would have been shabby, and were of opinion that when Miss Ward had married her father's surgical pupil, her outfit had been a far more edifying spectacle.
The same moderation influenced Flora's other arrangements. Dr. May was resigned to whatever might be thought most proper, stipulating only that he should not have to make a speech; but Flora felt that, in their house, a grand breakfast would be an unsuccessful and melancholy affair. If the bride had been any one else, she could have enjoyed making all go off well, but, under present circumstances, it would be great pain to her father and Margaret, a misery to Ethel, and something she dared not think of to the guests. She had no difficulty in having it dispensed with. George was glad to avoid "a great nuisance." Mr. Rivers feared the fatigue, and, with his daughter, admired Flora for her amiability, and, as to the home party, no words could express their gratitude to her for letting them off. Mary and Blanche did, indeed, look rather blank, but Blanche was consoled, by settling with Hector the splendours in store for Alan and Margaret, and Mary cared the less, as there would be no Harry to enjoy the fun.
The bride-maiden's glory was theirs by right, though Ethel was an unsatisfactory chief for such as desired splendour. She protested against anything incongruous with January, or that could not be useful afterwards, and Meta took her part, laughing at the cruel stroke they were preparing for Bellairs. Ethel begged for dark silks and straw bonnets, and Flora said that she had expected to hear of brown stuff and gray duffle, but owned that they had better omit the ordinary muslin garb in the heart of winter. The baby bride's-maid was, at last, the chief consideration. Margaret suggested how pretty she and Blanche would look in sky-blue merino, trimmed with swan's- down. Meta was charmed with the idea, and though Ethel stuck out her shoulder-blades and poked out her head, and said she should look like the ugly duckling, she was clamorously reminded that the ugly duckling ended by being a swan, and promised that she should be allowed a bonnet of a reasonable size, trimmed with white, for Mr. Rivers's good taste could endure, as little as Dr. May's sense of propriety, the sight of a daughter without shade to her face, Ethel, finally, gave in, on being put in mind that her papa had a penchant for swan's-down, and on Margaret's promising to wear a dress of the same as theirs.
Ethel was pleased and satisfied by Flora's dislike of parade, and attention to the feelings of all. Passing over the one great fact, the two sisters were more of one mind than usual, probably because all latent jealousy of Ethel had ceased in Flora's mind. Hitherto, she had preferred the being the only practically useful person in the family, and had encouraged the idea of Ethel's gaucherie but now she desired to render her sister able to take her place, and did all in her power to put her in good heart.
For Etheldred was terrified at the prospect of becoming responsible housekeeper. Margaret could only serve as an occasional reference. Her morning powers became too uncertain to be depended on for any regular, necessary duty, and it would have oppressed her so much to order the dinners, which she never saw, that, though she offered to resume the office, Flora would not hear of Ethel's consenting. If it were her proper business, Ethel supposed she could do it, but another hour of her leisure was gone, and what would become of them all, with her, a proverb for heedlessness, and ignorance of ordinary details. She did not know that these were more proverbial than actual, and, having a bad name, she believed in it herself. However, Flora made it her business to persuade her that her powers were as good for household matters, as for books, or Cocksmoor; instructed her in her own methodical plans, and made her keep house for a fortnight, with so much success that she began to be hopeful.
In the attendance on Margaret, the other great charge, old nurse was the security; and Ethel, who had felt her self much less unhandy than before, was, to succeed to the abode, in her room--Blanche being promoted from the nursery to the old attic. "And," said Flora consolingly, "if dear Margaret ever should be ill, you may reckon on me."
Miss Flora May made her last appearance at the Ladies' Committee to hear the reply from the principal of the college. It was a civil letter, but declined taking any steps in the matter without more certain intelligence of the wishes of the incumbent of the parish or of the holders of the land in question.
The ladies abused all colleges--as prejudiced old Bodies, and feared that it would be impossible to ask Mrs. Perkinson's niece to take the school while there was neither room nor lodging. So Miss Rich recorded the correspondence, and the vote of censure, by which it was to be hoped the Ladies' Committee of Market Stoneborough inflicted a severe blow on the principal and fellows of M-- College.
"Never mind, Ethel," said Flora. "I shall meet Sir Henry Walkinghame in London, and will talk to him. We shall yet astonish the muses. If we can get the land without them, we shall be able to manage it our own way, without obligations."
"You forget the money!"
"We will keep them from dissipating it--or that might be no harm! A hundred pounds will be easily found, and we should then have it in our own hands. Besides, you know, I don't mean to give up. I shall write a polite note to Mrs. Ledwich, begging to subscribe on my own account, and to retain my seat! and you will see what we shall do."
"You mean to come down with the external authority," said Ethel, smiling.
"True! and though my driving in with a pair of horses may make little difference to you, Ethel, depend upon it, Mrs. Ledwich will be the more amenable. Whenever I want to be particularly impressive, I shall bring in that smelling-bottle, with the diamond stopper that won't come out, and you will find that carries all before it."
"A talisman!" said Ethel, laughing. "But I had rather they yielded to a sense of right!"
"So had I," said Flora. "Perhaps you will rule them that way?"
"Not I!" cried Ethel, terrified.
"Then you must come to me, and secondary motives. Seriously--I do mean that George should do something for Stoneborough; and, in a position of influence, I hope to be able to be useful to my poor old town. Perhaps we shall have the minster restored."
Flora did wish it. She did love Stoneborough, and was sincerely interested for Cocksmoor. She thought she worked earnestly for them, and that her situation would be turned to their profit; but there was something for which she worked more earnestly. Had Flora never heard of the two masters whom we cannot serve at the same time?
Richard came home for "a parson's week," so as to include the wedding. He looked very fresh and youthful; but his manner, though still gentle and retiring, had lost all that shrinking diffidence, and had, now, a very suitable grave composure. Everybody was delighted to have him; and Ethel, more than any one, except Margaret. What floods of Cocksmoor histories were poured upon him; and what comparing of notes about his present school-children! He could not enter into the refinements of her dread of the Ladies' Committee, and thought she might be thankful if the school were built by any proper means; for, if Cherry Elwood were retained, and the ladies prevented from doing harm, he did not understand why Ethel should wish to reject all assistance that did not come in a manner she admired. He never would comprehend--so Ethel gave it up--feared she was again jealous and self-sufficient, and contented herself with the joy that his presence produced at Cocksmoor, where the children smiled, blushed, and tittered, with ecstasy, whenever he even looked at one of them.
Richard was not allowed to have a Sunday of rest. His father apologised for having made an engagement for him--as Mr. Ramsden was unwell, and the school clergy were all absent, so that he could do no otherwise than assist in the service. Richard coloured, and said that he had brought no sermon; and he was, in fact, deprived of much of his sister's company, for composition was not easy to him, and the quantity of time he spent on it, quite alarmed Norman and Ethel, who both felt rather nervous on the Sunday morning, but agreed that preaching was not everything.
Ethel could not see well as far as the reading-desk, but she saw her father glance up, take off his spectacles, wipe them, and put them away; and she could not be displeased, though she looked reproof at Blanche's breathless whisper, "Oh, he looks so nice!" Those white folds did truly suit well with the meek, serious expression of the young deacon's fair face, and made him, as his sisters afterwards said, like one of the solemnly peaceful angel-carvings of the earlier ages.
His voice was sweet and clear, and his reading full of quiet simplicity and devotion, such as was not often heard by that congregation, who were too much used either to carelessness or to pomposity. The sermon made his brother and sister ashamed of their fears. It was an exposition of the Gospel for the day, practical and earnest, going deep, and rising high, with a clearness and soberness, yet with a beauty and elevation, such as Norman and Ethel had certainly not expected--or, rather, they forgot all their own expectations and Richard himself, and only recollected their own hearts and the great future before them.
Even Blanche and Aubrey told Margaret a great deal about it, and declared that, if Richard preached every Sunday, they should like going to church much better.
When Dr. May came in, some time after, he was looking much pleased. "So, Mr. Ritchie," he said, "you have made quite a sensation--every one shaking me by the hand, and thanking me for my son's sermon. You will be a popular preacher at last!"
Richard blushed distressfully, and quoted the saying, that it would be the true comfort to hear that people went home, thinking of themselves rather than of the sermon. This put an end to the subject; but the doctor went over it again, most thoroughly, with his other children, who were greatly delighted.
Flora's last home Sunday! She was pale and serious, evidently feeling much, though seeking no tete-a-tetes; and chiefly engrossed with waiting on Margaret, or fondling little Gertrude. No one saw the inside of her mind--probably, she did not herself. On the outside was a very suitable pensiveness, and affection for all that she was leaving. The only one in the family to whom she talked much was Norman, who continued to see many perfections in George, and contrived, by the force of his belief, to impress the same on the others, and to make them think his great talent for silence such a proof of his discretion, that they were not staggered, even by his shy blundering exclamation that his wedding would be a great nuisance--a phrase which, as Dr. May observed, was, to him, what Est-il-possible was to his namesake of Denmark.
Nobody wished for any misgivings, so Richard was never told of any, though there was a careful watch kept to see what were his first impressions. None transpired, except something about good nature, but it was shrewdly believed that Richard and George, being much alike in shy unwillingness to speak, had been highly satisfied with the little trouble they had caused to each other, and so had come to a tacit esteem.
There was very little bustle of preparation. Excepting the packing, everything went on much as usual, till the Thursday morning, and then the children were up early, refreshing the Christmas hollies, and working up their excitement, only to have it damped by the suppressed agitation of their elders at the breakfast-table.
Dr. May did not seem to know what he was about; and Flora looked paler and paler. She went away before the meal was over, and when Ethel went to the bedroom, shortly after, she found that she had fairly broken down, and was kneeling beside Margaret's sofa, resting her head on her sister's bosom, and sobbing--as Ethel had never seen her weep, except on that dreadful night, after their mother's death.
In a person ordinarily of such self-command as Flora, weeping was a terrible thing, and Margaret was much distressed and alarmed; but the worst had passed before Ethel came up, and Flora was able to speak. "Oh! Margaret! I cannot leave you! Oh! how happy we have been--"
"You are going to be happier, we trust, dearest," said Margaret fondly.
"Oh! what have I done? It is not worth it!"
Ethel thought she caught those words, but no more. Mary's step was heard, and Flora was on her feet, instantly, composing herself rapidly. She shed no more tears, but her eyelids were very heavy, and her face softened, in a manner that, though she was less pretty than usual, was very becoming under her bridal veil. She recovered calmness and even cheerfulness, while reversing the usual order of things, and dressing her bride's-maids, who would never have turned out fit to be seen, but for the exertions of herself, Margaret, and Miss Bracy. Ethel's long Scotch bones and Mary's round, dumpy shapelessness were, in their different ways, equally hard to overcome; and the one was swelled out with a fabulous number of petticoats, and the other pinched in, till she gasped and screamed for mercy, while Blanche and Gertrude danced about, beautiful to behold, under their shady hats; and presently, with a light tap at the door, Meta Rivers stepped in, looking so pretty, that all felt that to try to attain to such an appearance was vain.
Timid in her affection, she hardly dared to do more than kiss them, and whisper her pretty caressing words to each. There was no more time--Dr. Hoxton's carriage was come to take up the bride.
Ethel did as she was told, without much volition of her own; and she quitted the carriage, and was drawn into her place by Norman, trusting that Meta would not let her do wrong, and relieved that just in front of her were the little ones, over whose heads she could see her father, with Flora's veiled bending figure.
That pause while the procession was getting into order, the slow movement up the centre aisle, the week-day atmosphere of the church, brought back to her thoughts a very different time, and one of those strange echoings on the mind repeated in her ears the words, "For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain--"
There was a little pause--George did not seem to be forthcoming, and Meta turned round, rather uneasily, and whispered something about his having been so nervous. However, there he was, looking exceedingly red, and very sheepish, and disposed to fall back on his best man, Norman, whose countenance was at the brightest--and almost handsome.
Dr. Hoxton performed the ceremony, "assisted by" Richard. It had been Flora's choice; and his loud sonorous voice was thought very impressive. Blanche stood the nearest, and looked happy and important, with Flora's glove. Gertrude held Mary's hand, and gazed straight up into the fretted roof, as if that were to her the chief marvel. Ethel stood and knelt, but did not seem, to herself, to have the power of thinking or feeling. She saw and heard--that was all; she could not realise.
They drew her forward, when it was over, to sign her name, as witness. She took up the pen, looked at the Flora May, written for the last time, and found her hand so trembling, that she said, half smiling, that she could not write. Mary was only too well pleased to supply the deficiency. Dr. May looked at her anxiously, and asked whether she felt overcome.
"No, papa. I did not know my hand was shaky."
He took it into his, and pressed it. Ethel knew, then, how much had been undeveloped in her own mind, catching it, as it were, from his touch and look. The thought of his past joy--the sad fading of hope for Margaret--the fear and doubt for their present bride--above all, the sense that the fashion of this world passeth away; and that it is not the outward scene, but our bearing in it, that is to last for ever.
The bells struck up, each peal ending with a crash that gave Ethel some vague idea of fatality; and they all came back to the house, where Margaret was ready, in the drawing-room, to receive them, looking very pretty, in her soft blue dress, which especially became her fair complexion and light brown hair. Ethel did not quite like the pink colour on her cheeks, and feared that she had been shaken by Flora's agitation in the morning; but she was very calm and bright, in the affectionate greeting with which she held out her hands to the bride and bridegroom, as they came in.
Mr. Rivers and Meta were the only guests, and, while Meta was seized by the children, Margaret lay talking to Mr. Rivers, George standing upright and silent behind her sofa, like a sentinel. Flora was gone to change her dress, not giving way, but nervous and hurried, as she reiterated parting directions about household comforts to Ethel, who stood by the toilette-table, sticking a pin into the pincushion and drawing it out again, as if solely intent on making it always fit into the same hole, while Mary dressed Flora, packed, flew about, and was useful.
As they came downstairs, Ethel found that Flora was trembling from head to foot, and leaning on her; Dr. May stood at the foot of the stairs, and folded his daughter in a long embrace; Flora gave herself up to it as if she would never bear to leave it. Did a flash come over her then, what the father was, whom she had held cheaply? what was the worth of that for which she had exchanged such a home? She spoke not a word, she only clung tightly--if her heart failed her--it was too late. "Bless you! my child!" he said at last. "Only be what your mother was!"
A coming tread warned them to part. There was a tray of luncheon for the two who were about to depart, and the great snow-white cake was waiting for Flora to cut it. She smiled, accomplished that feat steadily, and Norman continuing the operation, Aubrey guided Gertrude in handing round the slices. George did full justice thereto, as well as to the more solid viands. Flora could taste nothing, but she contrived to smile and say it was too early. She was in haste to have it over now, and, as soon as George had finished, she rose up, still composed and resolved, the last kisses were given--Gertrude was lifted up to her, after she was in the carriage for the very last, when George proposed to run away with her also, whereupon Daisy kicked and screamed, and was taken back in haste. The door was shut, and they drove off, bound for the Continent, and then Mary, as if the contingency of losing Flora had only for the first time occurred to her as the consequence of the wedding, broke out into a piteous fit of sobbing--rather too unrestrained, considering her fourteen years.
Poor Mary, she was a very child still! They pulled her into the study, out of the way of Mr. Rivers, and Meta had no sooner said how Flora would soon come home and live at the Grange, and talked of the grand school-feast to which she was at once going to take her friends, than the round rosy face drew out of its melancholy puckers into smiles, as Mary began to tell the delight caused by the invitations which she had conveyed. That was to be a feast indeed-- all the Abbotstoke children--all Flora's class at Stoneborough, and as many Cocksmoor scholars as could walk so far, were to dine on Christmas fare, at one o'clock, at the Grange, and Meta was in haste to be at home to superintend the feast.
Mary, Blanche, and Aubrey, went with her, under the keeping of Miss Bracy, the boys were to follow. She had hoped for Ethel, but on looking at her, ceased her coaxing importunity.
"I see," she said kindly; "even schoolchildren will not be so good for you as peace."
"Thank you," said Ethel, "I should like to be quiet till the evening, if you will let me off. It is very kind in you."
"I ought to know how to pity you," said Meta, "I who have gained what you have lost."
"I want to think too," said Ethel. "It is the beginning to me of a new life, and I have not been able to look at it yet."
"Besides, Margaret will want you. Poor Margaret--has it been very trying to her?"
"I fear so, but I shall keep out of her way, and leave her to a quiet afternoon with Richard. It will be the greatest treat to those two to be together."
"Very well, I will carry off the children, and leave the house quiet."
And quiet it was in another hour--Gertrude walking with the nurses, Dr. May gone to his patients, and all the rest at Abbotstoke, except Richard and Margaret downstairs; and Ethel, who, while arranging her properties in her new room, had full leisure to lay out before herself the duties that had devolved on her and to grapple with them. She recalled the many counsels that she had received from Flora, and they sounded so bewildering that she wished it had been Conic sections, and then she looked at a Hebrew grammar that Norman had given her, and gave a sigh as she slipped it into the shelf of the seldom used. She looked about the room, cleared out the last piece of brown paper, and burned the last torn envelope, that no relic of packing and change might distress Margaret's eyes for order; then feeling at once desolate and intrusive, she sat down in Flora's fireside chair, opened her desk, and took out her last time-table. She looked at it for some minutes, laid it aside, and rising, knelt down. Again seating herself, she resumed her paper, took a blank one, ruled it, and wrote her rules for each hour of each day in the week. That first hour after breakfast, when hitherto she had been free, was one sacrifice; it must go now, to ordering dinner, seeing after stores, watching over the children's clothes, and the other nondescripts, which, happily for her, Flora had already reduced to method. The other loss was the spare time between the walk and tea; she must not spend that in her own room now, or there would be no one to sit with Margaret, or keep the little ones from being troublesome to her. Ethel had often had to give up this space before, when Flora went out in the evening, and she had seldom felt otherwise than annoyed. Give it up for good! that was the cure for temper, but it had been valuable as something of her own. She would have been thankful could she have hoped to keep regularly to her own rules, but that she knew was utterly improbable--boys, holidays, callers, engagements, Dr. May, would all conspire to turn half her days upside down, and Cocksmoor itself must often depend not only on the weather, but on home doings. Two or three notes she wrote at the foot of her paper.
'N. B. These are a standard--not a bed of Procrustes. MUSTS--To be first consulted.--Mays--last. Ethel May's last of all. If I cannot do everything--omit the self-chosen. MEM-- Neither hurry when it depends on myself, nor fidget when it depends on others. Keep a book going to pacify myself.'
Her rules drawn up, Ethel knelt once more. Then she drew a long sigh, and wondered where Flora was; and next, as she was fairly fagged, mind and body, she threw herself back in the armchair, took up a railway novel that Hector had brought home, and which they had hidden from the children, and repaired herself with the luxury of an idle reading.
Margaret and Richard likewise spent a peaceful, though pensive afternoon. Margaret had portions of letters from Alan to read to him, and a consultation to hold. The hope of her full recovery had so melted away, that she had, in every letter, striven to prepare Mr. Ernescliffe for the disappointment, and each that she received in return was so sanguine and affectionate, that the very fondness was as much grief as joy. She could not believe that he took in the true state of the case, or was prepared to perceive that she could never be his wife, and she wanted Richard to write one of his clear, dispassionate statements, such as carried full conviction, and to help to put a final end to the engagement.
"But why," said Richard--"why should you wish to distress him?"
"Because I cannot bear that he should be deceived, and should feed on false hopes. Do you think it right, Richard?"
"I will write to him, if you like," said Richard; "but I think he must pretty well know the truth from all the letters to Harry and to himself."
"It would be so much better for him to settle his mind at once," said Margaret.
"Perhaps he would not think so--"
There was a pause, while Margaret saw that her brother was thinking. At last he said, "Margaret, will you pardon me? I do think that this is a little restlessness. The truth has not been kept from him, and I do not see that we are called to force it on him. He is sensible and reasonable, and will know how to judge when he comes home."
"It was to try to save him the pang," murmured Margaret.
"Yes; but it will be worse far away than near. I do not mean that we should conceal the fact, but you have no right to give him up before he comes home. The whole engagement was for the time of his voyage."
"Then you think I ought not to break it off before his return?"
"It will be pain spared--unless it should be worse by and by."
"I do not suppose we ought to look to by and by," said Richard.
"Do the clearly right thing for the present, I mean," he said, "without anxiety for the rest. How do we--any of us--know what may be the case in another year?"
"Do not flatter me with hopes," said Margaret, sadly smiling; "I have had too many of them."
"No," said Richard; "I do not think you will ever get well. But so much may happen--"
"I had rather have my mind made up once for all, and resign myself," said Margaret.
"His will is sometimes that we should be uncertain," said Richard.
"And that is the most trying," said Margaret.
"Just so--" and he paused tenderly.
"I feel how much has been right," said Margaret. "This wedding has brought my real character before me. I feel what I should have been. You have no notion how excited and elated I can get about a little bit of dress out of the common way for myself or others," said she, smiling; "and then all the external show and things belonging to station--I naturally care much more for them than even Flora does. Ethel would bear all those things as if they did not exist--I could not."
"They would be a temptation?"
"They would once have been. Yes, they would now," said Margaret. "And government, and management, and influence--you would not guess what dreams I used to waste on them, and now here am I set aside from it all, good for nothing but for all you dear ones to be kind to."
"They would not say so," said Richard kindly.
"Not say it, but I feel it. Papa and Ethel are all the world to each other--Richard, I may say it to you. There has been only one thing more hard to bear than that--don't suppose there was a moment's neglect or disregard; but when first I understood that Ethel could be more to him than I, then I could not always feel rightly. It was the punishment for always wanting to be first."
"My father would be grieved that you had the notion. You should not keep it."
"He does not know it is so," said Margaret; "I am his first care, I fear, his second grief; but it is not in the nature of things that Ethel should not be more his comfort and companion. Oh! I am glad it was not she who married! What shall we do when she goes?"
This came from Margaret's heart, so as to show that if there had once been a jealous pang of mortification, it had been healed by overflowing, unselfish affection and humility.
They went off to praise Ethel, and thence to praise Norman, and the elder brother and sister, who might have had some jealousy of the superiority of their juniors, spent a good happy hour in dwelling on the shining qualities they loved so heartily.
And Richard was drawn into talking of his own deeper thoughts, and Margaret had again the comfort of clerical counsel--and now from her own most dear brother! So they sat till darkness closed in, when Ethel came down, bringing Gertrude and her great favour, very full of chatter, only not quite sure whether she had been bride, bride's- maid, or bridegroom.
The schoolroom set, with Tom and Aubrey, came home soon after, and tongues went fast with stories of roast-beef, plum-pudding, and blind-man's-buff. How the dear Meta had sent a cart to Cocksmoor to bring Cherry herself, and how many slices everybody had eaten, and how the bride's health had been drunk by the children in real wine, and how they had all played, Norman and all, and how Hector had made Blanche bold enough to extract a raisin from the flaming snap-dragon. It was not half told when Dr. May came home, and Ethel went up to dress for her dinner at Abbotstoke, Mary following to help her and continue her narration, which bade fair to entertain Margaret the whole evening.
Dr. May, Richard, and Ethel had a comfortable dark drive to the Grange, and, on arriving, found Hector deep in 'Wild Sports of the West', while Norman and Meta were sitting over the fire talking, and Mr. Rivers was resting in his library.
And when Ethel and Meta spent the time before the gentlemen came in from the dining-room, in a happy tete-a-tete, Ethel learned that the fire-light dialogue had been the pleasantest part of the whole day, and that Meta had had confided to her the existence of Decius Mus--a secret which Ethel had hitherto considered as her own peculiar property, but she supposed it was a pledge of the sisterhood, which Meta professed with all the house of May.
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