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And when the solemn deep church-bell Entreats the soul to pray, The midnight phantoms feel the spell, The shadows sweep away. Down the broad Vale of Tears afar, The spectral camp is fled; Faith shineth as a morning star, Our ghastly fears are dead.--LONGFELLOW
Mr. Ashford was a connection of Lady Thorndale's, and it was about a year since the living of Redclyffe had been presented to him. Mr. and Mrs. Ashford were of course anxious to learn all they could about their young squire, on whom the welfare of the parish depended, even more than in most cases, as the whole was his property. Their expectations were not raised by Mr. Markham's strenuous opposition to all their projects, and his constant appeals to the name of 'Sir Guy'; but, on the other hand, they were pleased by the strong feeling of affection that all the villagers manifested for their landlord.
The inhabitants of Redclyffe were a primitive race, almost all related to each other, rough and ignorant, and with a very strong feudal feeling for 'Sir Guy,' who was king, state, supreme authority, in their eyes; and Mrs. Ashford further found that 'Master Morville,' as the old women called him in his individual character, was regarded by them with great personal affection.
On the occasion when Captain Morville came to Redclyffe, and left James Thorndale to spend a couple of hours at the parsonage, they interrogated the latter anxiously on his acquaintance with Sir Guy. He had not the least idea of creating prejudice, indeed, he liked him as a companion, but he saw everything through the medium of his friend, and spoke something to this effect: He was very agreeable; they would like his manners; he was tolerably clever, but not to be named in the same day with his cousin for abilities, far less in appearance. Very pleasant, generally liked, decidedly a taking man; but there was some cloud over him just now--debts, probably. Morville had been obliged to go to Oxford about it; but Mr. Thorndale did not profess to understand it, as of course Morville said as little of it as he could. Thereupon all began to admire the aforesaid Morville, already known by report, and whose fine countenance and sensible conversation confirmed all that had been said of him.
And as, after his interference, Mr. Markham's opposition became surly, as well as sturdy, and Sir Guy's name was sure to stand arrayed against them whichever way they turned, the younger part of the family learnt to regard him somewhat in the light of an enemy, and their elders awaited his majority with more of fear than of hope.
'Mamma!' cried Edward Ashford, rushing in, so as to bring the first news to his mother, who had not been to the early service, 'I do believe Sir Guy is come!'
'Sir Guy was at church!' shouted Robert, almost at the same moment.
Mr. Ashford confirmed the intelligence.
'I saw him speaking, after church, to some of the old men, so afterwards I went to ask old John Barton, and found him with tears in his eyes, positively trembling with delight, for he said he never thought to have heard his cheery voice again, and that he was coming down by and by to see the last letter from Ben, at sea.'
'That is very nice! Shall you call?'
'Yes. Even if he is only here for a day or two, it will be better to have made the acquaintance.'
Mr. Ashford went to the Park at two in the afternoon, and did not return till near four.
'Well,' said he, 'it is as James Thorndale says, there is something very prepossessing about him.'
'Have you been there all this time?'
'Yes. He was not at home; so I left my card, and was coming away, when I met him at the turn leading to the Cove. He need not have seen me unless he had liked, but he came up in a good-natured cordial way, and thanked me for coming to call.'
'Is he like his cousin?'
'Not in the least; not nearly so tall or so handsome, but with a very pleasant face, and seeming made up of activity, very slight, as if he was all bone and sinew. He said he was going to see the Christmas ox at the farm, and asked me to come with him. Presently we came to a high gate, locked up. He was over it in an instant, begged me to wait while he ran on to the farm for the key, and was back in a second with it.'
'Did he enter on any of the disputed subjects!'
'He began himself about the school, saying the house should be altered directly; and talked over the whole matter very satisfactorily; undertook himself to speak to Jenny Robinson; and was very glad to hear you meant her still to keep the infants at the Cove; so I hope that matter is in a right train.'
'If Mr. Markham will but let him.'
'0, he is king or more here! We met Markham at the farm; and the first thing, after looking at the cattle, Sir Guy found some planks lying about, and said they were the very thing for flooring the school. Markham mentioned some barn they were intended for, but Sir Guy said the school must be attended to at once, and went with us to look at it. That was what kept me so long, measuring and calculating; and I hope it may be begun in a week.'
'This is delightful! What more could we wish?'
'I don't think he will give trouble in parish matters, and in personal intercourse he will be sure to be most agreeable. I wish I knew there was nothing amiss. It seems strange for him to come here for the vacation, instead of going to his guardian's, as usual, and altogether he had an air of sadness and depression, not like a youth, especially such an active one. I am afraid something is wrong; those engaging people are often unstable. One thing I forgot to tell you. We were walking through that belt of trees on the east side of the hill, when he suddenly called out to ask how came the old ash-tree to be marked. Markham answered in his gruff way, it was not his doing, but the Captain's. He turned crimson, and began some angry exclamation, but as Markham was going on to tell something else about it, he stopped him short, saying, 'Never mind! I dare say it's all right. I don't want to hear any more!' And I don't think he spoke much again till we got into the village. I am afraid there is some misunderstanding between the cousins.'
'Or more likely Mr. Markham is teaching him some jealousy of his heir. We could not expect two Captain Morvilles in one family, and I am glad it is no worse.'
All that the Ashfords further saw of their young baronet made an impression in his favour; every difficulty raised by the steward disappeared; their plans were forwarded, and they heard of little but his good-nature to the poor people; but still they did not know how far to trust these appearances, and did not yet venture to form an opinion on him, or enter into intimacy.
'So the singers will not come to us on Christmas Eve, because they say they must go to the Park,' said Edward, rather savagely.
'I was thinking,' said Mrs. Ashford, 'how forlorn it will be for that poor youth to spend his Christmas-day alone in that great house. Don't you think we might ask him to dinner?'
Before Mr. Ashford could answer, the boys made such an uproar at the proposal of bringing a stranger to spoil their Christmas, that their parents gave up the idea.
It was that Christmas-day that Guy especially dreaded, as recalling so many contrasts both with those passed here and at Hollywell. Since his return, he had been exerting himself to attend to what he felt to be his duty, going about among his people, arranging for their good or pleasure, and spending a good deal of time over his studies. He had written to Mr. Ross, to ask his advice about Coombe Prior, and had set Markham, much against his will, to remonstrate with Farmer Todd about the repairs; but though there was a sort of satisfaction in doing these things--though the attachment of his dependants soothed him, and brought a new sense of the relation between himself and them--though views of usefulness were on each side opening before him--yet there was a dreariness about everything; he was weary even while he undertook and planned energetically; each new project reminding him that there was no Amy to plan with him. He could not sufficiently care for them.
Still more dreary was his return to his old haunts, and to the scenery which he loved so devotedly--the blue sea and purple hills, which had been like comrades and playfellows, before he had known what it was to have living companions. They used to be everything to him, and he had scarcely a wish beyond; afterwards his dreams had been of longing affection for them, and latterly the idea of seeing Amy love them and admire them had been connected with every vision of them; and now the sight of the reality did but recall the sense that their charm had departed; they could no longer suffice to him as of old; and their presence brought back to him, with fresh pangs of disappointment, the thought of lost happiness and ruined hopes, as if Amy alone could restore their value.
The depression of his spirits inclined him to dwell at present more on the melancholy history of his parents than on anything else. He had hitherto only heard the brief narration of his grandfather, when he could ask no questions; but he now obtained full particulars from Markham, who, when he found him bent on hearing all, related everything, perhaps intending it as a warning against the passions which, when once called into force, he dreaded to find equally ungovernable in his present master.
Mr. Morville had been his great pride and glory, and, in fact, had been so left to his care, as to have been regarded like a son of his own. He had loved him, if possible, better than Guy, because he had been more his own; he had chosen his school, and given him all the reproofs which had ever been bestowed on him with his good in view, and how he had grieved for him was never known to man. It was the first time he had ever talked it over, and he described, with strong, deep feeling, the noble face and bearing of the dark-eyed, gallant-looking stripling, his generosity and high spirit tainted and ruined by his wild temper and impatience of restraint. There seemed to have been a great sweetness of disposition, excellent impulses, and so strong a love of his father, in spite of early neglect and present resentment, as showed what he might have been with only tolerable training, which gave Guy's idea of him more individuality than it had ever had before, and made him better understand what his unhappy grandfather's remorse had been. Guy doubted for a moment whether it had not been selfish to make Markham narrate the history of the time when be had suffered so much; and Markham, when he had been led into telling it, and saw the deepening sadness on his young master's countenance, wished it had not been told, and ended by saying it was of no use to stir up what was better forgotten.
He would have regretted the telling it still more if he had known how Guy acted it all over in his solitude; picturing his father standing an outcast at the door of his own home, yielding his pride and resentment for the sake of his wife, ready to do anything, yearning for reconciliation, longing to tread once more the friendly, familiar hall, and meeting only the angry repulse and cruel taunt! He imagined the headlong passion, the despair, the dashing on his horse in whirlwind- like swiftness, then the blow--the fall--the awful stillness of the form carried back to his father's house, and laid on that table a dead man! Fierce wrath--then another world! Guy worked himself up in imagining the horror of the scene, till it was almost as if he had been an actor in it.
Yet he had never cared so much for the thought of his father as for his mother. His yearning for her which he had felt in early days at Hollywell, had returned in double force, as he now fancied that she would have been here to comfort him, and to share his grief, to be a Mrs. Edmonstone, whose love no fault and no offence could ever cancel.
He rode to Moorworth, and made Mrs. Lavers tell him all she remembered. She was nothing loath, and related how she had been surprised by Mr. Morville arriving with his fair, shrinking young wife, and how she had rejoiced in his coming home again. She described Mrs. Morville with beautiful blue eyes and flaxen hair, looking pale and delicate, and with clinging caressing ways like a little child afraid to be left.
'Poor thing!' said Mrs. Lavers, wiping her eyes; 'when he was going, she clung about him, and cried, and was so timid about being left, that at last he called me, and begged me to stay with her, and take care of her. It was very pretty to see how gentle and soft he was to her, sharp and hasty as he was with most; and she would not let him go, coaxing him not to stay away long; till at last he put her on the sofa, saying, "There, there, Marianne, that will do. Only be a good child, and I'll come for you." I never forget those words, for they were the last I ever heard him speak.'
'Poor dear! she cried heartily at first; but after a time she cheered up, and quite made friends with me. I remember she told me which were Mr. Morville's favourite songs, and sang little scraps of them.'
'Can you remember what they were?' eagerly exclaimed Guy.
'Law, no, air; I never had no head for music. And she laughed about her journey to Scotland, and got into spirits, only she could not bear I should go out of the room; and after a time she grew very anxious for him to come back. I made her some tea, and tried to get her to bed, but she would not go, though she seemed very tired; for she said Mr. Morville would come to take her to Redclyffe, and she wanted to hear all about the great house, listening for him all the time, and I trying to quiet her, and telling her the longer he stayed the better chance there was. Then came a call for me, and down-stairs I found everything in confusion; the news had come--I never knew how. I had not had time to hear it rightly myself, when there was a terrible cry from up- stairs. Poor thing! whether she thought he was come, or whether her mind misgave her, she had come after me to the head of the stairs, and heard what they were saying. I don't believe she ever rightly knew what had happened, for before I could get to her she had fainted; and she was very ill from that moment.'
'And it was the next day she died!' said Guy, looking up, after a long silence. 'Did she--could she take any notice of me?'
'No, sir; she lived but half an hour, or hardly that, after you were born.' I told her it was a son; but she was not able to hear or mind me, and sank away, fainting like. I fancied I heard her say something like "Mr. Morville," but I don't know; and her breath was very soon gone. Poor dear!' added Mrs. Lavers, wiping away her tears. 'I grieved for her as if she had been my own child; but then I thought of her waking up to hear he was dead. I little thought then, Sir Guy, that I should ever see you stand there,--strong and well grown. I almost thought you were dead already when I sent for Mr. Harrison to baptize you.'
'Was it you that did so?' said Guy, his face, mournful before, lighting up in a sudden beam of gratitude. 'Then I have to thank you for more than all the world besides.'
'Law, sir!' said Mrs. Lavers. smiling, and looking pleased, though as if but half entering into his meaning. 'Yes, it was in that very china bowl; I have kept it choice ever since, and never let it be used for anything. I thought it was making very bold, but the doctor and all thought you could not live, and Mr. Harrison might judge. I was very glad just before he came that Mr. Markham came from Redclyffe. He had not been able to leave poor Sir Guy before.'
Guy soon after set out on his homeward ride. His yearning to hear of his mother had been satisfied; but though he could still love the fair, sweet vision summoned up by her name, he was less disposed to feel that it had been hard upon him that she died. It was not Amy. In spite of his tender compassion and affection, he knew that he had not lost a Verena in her. None could occupy that place save Amy; and his mind, from custom, reverted to Amy as still his own, thrilled like a freshly- touched wound, and tried to realize the solace that even yet she might be praying for him.
It was dreariness and despondency by day, and he struggled with it by energy and occupation; but it was something even worse in the evening, in the dark, solitary library, where the very size of the room gave an additional sense of loneliness; and in the silence he could hear, through the closed shutters, the distant plash and surge of the tide,-- a sound, of which, in former years, he had never been sensible. There, evening after evening, he sat,--his attention roaming from his employment to feed on his sad reflections.
One evening he went to the large dark dining-room, unlocked the door, which echoed far through the house, and found his way through the packed-up furniture to a picture against the wall, to which he held up his light. It was a portrait by Lely, a half-length of a young man, one hand on his sword, the other holding his plumed hat. His dark chestnut hair fell on each side of a bright youthful face, full of life and health, and with eyes which, even in painting, showed what their vividness must have been. The countenance was full of spirit and joy; but the mouth was more hard and stern than suited the rest; and there was something in the strong, determined grasp of the sword, which made it seem as if the hand might be a characteristic portrait. In the corner of the picture was the name--'Hugo Morville. AEt. 20, 1671.'
Guy stood holding up his light, and looking fixedly at it for a considerable time. Strange thoughts passed through his mind as the pictured eyes seemed to gaze piercingly down into his own. When he turned away, he muttered aloud,--
'He, too, would have said--"Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this?"'
It seemed to him as if he had once been in a happier, better world, with the future dawning brightly on him; but as if that once yielding to the passions inherited from that wretched man, had brought on him the doom of misery. He had opened the door to the powers of evil, and must bear the penalty.
These feelings might partly arise from its having been only now that, had all been well, he could have been with Amabel; so that it seemed as if he had never hitherto appreciated the loss. He had at first comforted himself by thinking it was better to be without her than to cause her distress; but now he found how hard it was to miss her--his bright angel. Darkness was closing on him; a tedious, aimless life spread out before him; a despair of doing good haunted him, and with it a sense of something like the presence of an evil spirit, triumphing in his having once put himself within its grasp.
It was well for Guy that he was naturally active, and had acquired power over his own mind. He would not allow himself to brood over these thoughts by day, and in the evening he busied himself as much as possible with his studies, or in going over with Markham matters that would be useful to him to know when he came to the management of his property. Yet still these thoughts would thicken on him, in spite of himself, every evening when he sat alone in the library.
The late hours of Christmas Eve was the time when he had most to suffer. The day had been gloomy and snowy, and he had spent it almost entirely in solitude, with no companion or diversion to restore the tone of his mind, when he had tried it with hard study. He tried to read, but it would not do; and he was reduced to sit looking at the fire, recalling this time last year, when he had been cutting holly, helping the sisters to deck the house, and in the evening enjoying a merry Christmas party, full of blitheness and glee, where there were, of course, special recollections of Amabel.
As usual, he dwelt on the contrast, mused on the estrangement of Mrs. Edmonstone, and tormented himself about Charles's silence, till he fell into the more melancholy train of thought of the destiny of his race.
Far better for him to bear all alone than to bring on Amy grief and horror, such as had fallen on his own mother, but it was much to bear that loneliness and desolation for a lifetime. The brow was contracted, and the lip drawn into a resolute expression of keeping down suffering, like that of a man enduring acute bodily pain; as Guy was not yielding, he was telling himself--telling the tempter, who would have made him give up the struggle--that it was only for a life, and that it was shame and ingratitude to be faint-hearted, on the very night when he ought to be rejoicing that One had come to ruin the power of the foe, and set him free. But where was his rejoicing? Was he cheered,--was he comforted? Was not the lone, blank despondency that had settled on him more heavily than ever, a token that he was shut out from all that was good,--nay, that in former years there had been no true joy in him, only enjoyment of temporal pleasure? Had his best days of happiness been, then, nothing but hollowness and self- deception?
At that moment the sound of a Christmas carol came faintly on his ear. It was one of those tunes which, when the village choir were the only musicians he knew, he had thought, unrivalled; and now, even to his tutored, delicate ear, softened as it was by distance, and endeared by association, it was full of refreshing, soothing harmony. He undrew the curtain, opened the shutter, and looked into the court, where he saw some figures standing. As soon as the light shone from the window, the carol was resumed, and the familiar tones were louder and harsher, but he loved them, with all their rudeness and dissonance, and throwing up the window, called the singers by name, asking why they stood out in the snow, instead of coming into the hall, as usual.
The oldest of the set came to the window to answer,--so old a man that his voice was cracked, and his performance did more harm than good in the psalms at church.
'You see, Sir Guy,' said he, 'there was some of us thought you might not like to have us coming and singing like old times, 'cause 'tis not all as it used to be here with you. Yet we didn't like not to come at all, when you had been away so long, so we settled just to begin, and see whether you took any notice.'
'Thank you. It was a very kind thought, James,' said Guy, touched by the rough delicacy of feeling manifested by these poor men; 'I had rather hear the carols than anything. Come to the front door; I'll let you in.'
'Thank you, sir,' with a most grateful touch of the hat; and Guy hastened to set things in order, preferring the carols to everything at that moment, even though disabused of his pristine admiration for James Robinson's fiddle, and for Harry Ray's grand shake. A long space was spent in listening, and a still longer in the endeavour to show what Mr. Ashford meant by suggesting some improvements which they were regarding with dislike and suspicion, till they found Sir Guy was of the same mind. In fact, when he had sung a verse or two to illustrate his meaning, the opinion of the choir was, that, with equal advantages, Sir Guy might sing quite as well as Harry Ray.
It was the first time he had heard his own voice, except at church, since the earlier days of St. Mildred's, but as he went up the long stairs and galleries to bed, he found himself still singing. It was,
Who lives forlorn, On God's own word doth rest, His path is bright With heavenly light, His lot among the blest.
He wondered, and remembered finding music for it with Amy's help. He sighed heavily, but the anguish of feeling, the sense of being in the power of evil, had insensibly left him, and though sad and oppressed, the unchangeable joy and hope of Christmas were shedding a beam on him.
They were not gone when he awoke, and rose to a solitary breakfast without one Christmas greeting. The light of the other life was beginning to shine out, and make him see how to do and to bear, with that hope before him. The hope was becoming less vague; the resolution, though not more firm, yet less desponding, that he would go on to grapple with temptation, and work steadfastly; and with that hope before him, he now felt that even a lifetime without Amy would be endurable.
The power of rejoicing came more fully at church, and the service entered into his soul as it never had done before. It had never been such happiness, though repentance and mournful feelings were ever present with him; nor was his 'Verena' absent from his mind. He walked about between the services, saw the poor people dining in their holly- decked houses, exchanging Christmas wishes with them, and gave his old, beautiful, bright smile as he received demonstrations of their attachment, or beheld their enjoyment. He went home in the dark, allowed Mrs. Drew to have her own way, and serve him and Bustle with a dinner sufficient for a dozen people, and was shut up for the solitary Christmas evening which he had so much dreaded, and which would have been esteemed a misfortune even by those who had no sad thoughts to occupy them.
Yet when the clock struck eleven he was surprised, and owned that it had been more than not being unhappy. The dark fiends of remorse and despair had not once assaulted him, yet it had not been by force of employment that they had been averted. He had read and written a little, but very little, and the time had chiefly been spent in a sort of day-dream, though not of a return to Hollywell, nor of what Redclyffe might be with Amy. It had been of a darkened and lonely course, yet, in another sense, neither dark nor lonely, of a cheerless home and round of duties, with a true home beyond; and still it had been a happy, refreshing dream, and he began the next morning with the fresh brightened spirit of a man who felt that such an evening was sent him to reinvigorate his energies, and fit him for the immediate duties that lay before him.
On the breakfast-table was what he had not seen for a long time--a letter directed to him. It was from Mr. Ross, in answer to his question about Coombe Prior, entering readily into the subject, and advising him to write to the Bishop, altogether with a tone of friendly interest which, especially as coming from one so near Hollywell, was a great pleasure, a real Christmas treat. There was the wonted wish of the season--a happy Christmas--which he took gratefully, and lastly there was a mention that Charles Edmonstone was better, the suffering over, though he was not yet allowed to move.
It was a new light that Charles's silence had been occasioned by illness, and his immediate resolution was to write at once to Mr. Ross, to beg for further particulars. In the meantime, the perception that there had been no estrangement was such a ray as can hardly be imagined without knowing the despondency it had enlivened. The truth was, perhaps, that the tone of mind was recovering, and after having fixed himself in his resolution to endure, he was able to receive comfort and refreshment from without as well as from within.
He set to work to write at once to the Bishop, as Mr. Ross advised. He said he could not bear to lose time, and therefore wrote at once. He should be of age on the 28th of March, and he hoped then to be able to arrange for a stipend for a curate, if the Bishop approved, and would kindly enter into communication on the appointment with Mr. Halroyd, the incumbent. After considering his letter a little while, and wishing he was sufficiently intimate with Mr. Ashford to ask him if it would do, he wrote another to Mr. Ross, to inquire after Charles; then he worked for an hour at mathematics, till a message came from the gamekeeper to ask whether he would go out shooting, whereat Bustle, evidently understanding, jumped about, and wagged his tail so imploringly, that Guy could not resist, so he threw his books upon the top of the great pile on the sofa, and, glad that at least he could gratify dog and man, he sent word that he should be ready in five minutes.
He could not help enjoying the ecstasy of all the dogs, and, indeed he was surprised to find himself fully alive to the delight of forcing his way through a furze-brake, hearing the ice in the peaty bogs crackle beneath his feet; getting a good shot, bringing down his bird, finding snipe, and diving into the depths of the long, winding valleys and dingles, with the icicle-hung banks of their streamlets. He came home through the village at about half-past three o'clock, sending the keeper to leave some of his game at the parsonage, while he went himself to see how the work was getting on at the school. Mr. and Mrs. Ashford and the boys were come on the same errand, in spite of the cloud of dust rising from the newly-demolished lath-and-plaster partition. The boys looked with longing eyes at the gun in his hand, and the half-frozen compound of black and red mud on his gaiters; but they were shy, and their enmity added to their shyness, so that even when he shook hands with them, and spoke good-naturedly, they did not get beyond a monosyllable.
Mr. and Mrs. Ashford, feeling some compunction for having left him to his solitude so long, asked him to dinner for one of the ensuing days, with some idea of getting some one to meet him, and named six o'clock.
'Won't that put you out? Don't you always dine early?' said he. 'If you would let me, I should like to join you at your tea-time.'
'If you will endure a host of children,' said Mr. Ashford, 'I should like it of all things,' said Guy. 'I want to make acquaintance very much,' and he put his hand on Robert's shoulder. 'Besides, I want to talk to you about the singing, and how we are to get rid of that fiddle without breaking James Robinson's heart.'
The appointment was made, and Guy went home to his hasty dinner, his Greek, and a little refreshing return afterwards to the books which had been the delight of younger days. There was no renewal of the burthen of despair that had so long haunted his evenings. Employments thickened on his hands as the days passed on. There was further correspondence about Coombe Prior and the curate, and consultations with Markham about farmer Todd, who was as obstinate and troublesome as possible. Guy made Markham come to Coombe Prior with him, examine and calculate about the cottages, and fairly take up the subject, though without much apparent chance of coming to any satisfactory result. A letter came from Mr. Ross, telling him even more than he had ventured to hope, for it brought a message from Charles himself. Charles had been delighted to hear of him, and had begged that he might be told how very sorry he had been not to write; and how incapable he had been, and still was; but that he hoped Guy would write to him, and believe him in the same mind. Mr. Ross added an account of Charles's illness, saying the suffering had been more severe than usual, and had totally disabled him for many weeks; that they had since called in a London surgeon, who had given him hope that he might be better now than ever before, but had prescribed absolute rest for at least six weeks longer, so that Charles was now flat on his back all day, beginning to be able to be amused, and very cheerful and patient.
The pleasure of entering into communication with Hollywell again, and knowing that Charles at least would be glad to hear from him, was so exquisite, that he was almost surprised, considering that in essentials he was where he was before, and even Charles could not be Amy.
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