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Is there a word, or jest, or game, But time encrusteth round With sad associate thoughts the same? ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.
Among the persons who spent a forlorn autumn was Mr. Ross, though his troubles were not quite of the same description as those of his young parishioners. He missed his daughter very much; all his household affairs got out of order; the school-girls were naughty, and neither he, nor Miss Edmonstone, nor the mistress, could discover the culprits; their inquiries produced nothing but a wild confusion of mutual accusations, where the truth was undistinguishable. The cook never could find anything to make broth of, Mr. Ross could, never lay his hands on the books he wanted for himself or anybody else; and, lastly, none of his shirts ever had their buttons on.
Mary, meanwhile, had to remain through a whole course of measles, then to greet the arrival of a new nephew, and to attend his christening: but she had made a vow that she would be at home by Christmas, and she kept it.
Mr. Ross had the satisfaction of fetching her home from the station the day before Christmas Eve, and of seeing her opposite to him, on her own side of the table, in the evening, putting on the buttons, and considering it an especial favour and kindness, for which to be for ever grateful, that he had written all his Christmas sermons beforehand, so as to have a whole evening clear before her. He was never a great letter-writer, and Mary had a great deal to hear, for all that had come to her were the main facts, with very few details.
'I have had very few letters, even from Hollywell,' said she. 'I suppose it is on account of Charles's illness. You think him really better?'
'Yes, much better. I forgot to tell you, you are wanted for their Christmas party to-morrow night.'
'Oh! he is well enough for them not to put it off! Is he able to be out of bed?'
'No, he lies perfectly flat, and looks very thin. It has been a very severe illness. I don't think I ever knew him suffer so much; but, at the same time, I never knew him behave so well, or show so much patience, and consideration for other people, I was the more surprised, because at first he seemed to have relapsed into all the ways he thought he had shaken off; he was so irritable and fretful, that poor Mrs. Edmonstone looked worn out; but it seems to have been only the beginning of the illness; it was very different after he was laid up.'
'Has he had you to see him?'
'Yes, he asked for it, which he never did before, and Amabel reads to him every morning. There is certainly much more that is satisfactory about those young Edmonstones than there once seemed reason to expect.'
'And now tell me about Sir Guy. What is the matter? Why does he not come home this winter!'
'I cannot tell you the rights of it, Mary. Mr. Edmonstone is very much offended about something he is reported to have said, and suspects him of having been in mischief at St. Mildred's; but I am not at all persuaded that it is not one of Mr. Edmonstone's affronts.'
'Where is he?'
'At Redclyffe. I have a letter from him which I am going to answer to- night. I shall tell the Edmonstones about it, for I cannot believe that, if he had been guilty of anything very wrong, his mind would be occupied in this manner;' and he gave Mary the letter.
'Oh, no!' exclaimed Mary, as she read. 'I am sure he cannot be in any mischief. What an admirable person he is! I am very sorry this cloud has arisen! I was thinking last summer how happy they all were together.'
'Either this or Charles's illness has cast a gloom over the whole house. The girls are both grown much graver.'
'Amy graver?' said Mary, quickly.
'I think so. At least she did not seem to cheer up as I should have expected when her brother grew better. She looks as if she had been nursing him too closely, and yet I see her walking a good deal.'
'Poor little Amy!' said Mary, and she asked no more questions, but was anxious to make her own observations.
She did not see the Edmonstones till the next evening, as the day was wet, and she only received a little note telling her that one carriage would be sent to fetch her and Mr. Ross. The whole of the family, except Charles, were in the drawing-room, but Mary looked chiefly at Amy. She was in white, with holly in her hair, and did not look sorrowful; but she was paler and thinner than last summer, and though she spoke, smiled, and laughed when she ought, it was without the gay, childish freedom of former times. She was a small, pale, quiet girl now, not a merry, caressing kitten. Mary recollected what she had been in the wood last summer, and was sure it was more than Charles's illness that had altered her; yet still Amy had not Laura's harassed look.
Mary had not much talk with Amy, for it was a large party, with a good many young ladies and children, and Amy had a great deal of work in the way of amusing them. She had a wearied look, and was evidently exerting herself to the utmost.
'You look tired,' said Mary, kindly.
'No, it is only stupidity,' said Amy, smiling rather sadly. 'We can't be entertaining without Charlie.'
'It has been a melancholy winter,' began Mary, but she was surprised, for Amy's face and neck coloured in a moment; then, recovering herself, with some hesitation, she said,--
'Oh! but Charlie is much better, and that is a great comfort. I am glad you are come home, Mary.'
'We are going to have some magic music,' was said at the other end of the room. 'Who will play?'
'Little Amy!' said Mr. Edmonstone. 'Where is she? She always does it to admiration. Amy, come and be a performer.'
Amy rose, and came forward, but the colour had flushed into her cheeks again, and the recollection occurred to Mary, that her fame as a performer, in that way, arose from the very amusing manner in which she and Sir Guy had conducted the game last year. At the same moment her mother met her, and whispered,--
'Had you rather not, my dear?'
'I can do it, mamma, thank you--never mind.'
'I should like to send you up to Charlie--he has been so long alone.'
'Oh! thank you, dear mamma,' with a look of relief.
'Here is Charlotte wild to be a musician,' said Mrs. Edmonstone. 'Perhaps you will see how she can manage; for I think Charles must want a visit from his little nurse.'
Amy moved quietly away, and entered Charles's room, full of warm gratitude for the kindness which was always seeking how to spare her.
Charles was asleep, and throwing a shawl round her, she sat down in the dim light of the lamp, relieved by the stillness, only broken by now and then a louder note of the music down-stairs. It was very comfortable, after all that buzz of talk, and the jokes that seemed so nonsensical and tiresome. There were but two people who could manage to make a party entertaining, and that was the reason it was so different last year. Then Amy wondered if she was the only person who felt sick at heart and dreary; but she only wondered for a moment--she murmured half aloud to herself, 'I said I never would think of him except at my prayers! Here I am doing it again, and on Christmas night. I won't hide my eyes and moan over my broken reed; for Christmas is come, and the circles of song are widening round! Glory! good will, peace on earth! How he sang it last year, the last thing, when the people were gone, before we went up to bed. But I am breaking my resolution again. I must do something.'
She took up a book of sacred poetry, and began to learn a piece which she already nearly knew; but the light was bad, and it was dreamy work; and probably she was half asleep, for her thoughts wandered off to Sintram and the castle on the Mondenfelsen, which seemed to her like what she had pictured the Redclyffe crags, and the castle itself was connected in her imagination with the deep, echoing porch, while Guy's own voice seemed to be chanting--
Who lives forlorn, On God's own word doth rest; His path is bright With heavenly light, His lot among the blest.
'Are you there, Amy?' said Charles, waking. 'What are you staying here for? Don't they want you?'
'Mamma was so kind as to send me up.'
'I am glad you are come, for I have something to tell you. Mr. Ross has been up to see me, you know, and he has a letter from Guy.'
Amy's heart beat fast, and, with eyes fixed on the ground, she listened as Charles continued to give an account of Guy's letter about Coombe Prior. 'Mr. Ross is quite satisfied about him, Amy,' he concluded. 'I wish you could have heard the decided way in which he said, "He will live it down."'
Amy's answer was to stoop down and kiss her brother's forehead.
Another week brought Guy's renewal of the correspondence.
'Amy, here is something for you to read,' said Charles, holding up the letter as she came into the room.
She knew the writing. 'Wait one moment, Charlie, dear;' and she ran out of the room, found her mother fortunately alone, and said, averting her face,--'Mamma, dear, do you think I ought to let Charlie show me that letter?'
Mrs. Edmonstone took hold of her hand, and drew her round so as to look into the face through its veiling curls. The hand shook, and the face was in a glow of eagerness. 'Yes, dearest!' said she, for she could not help it; and then, as Amy ran back again, she asked herself whether it was foolish, and bad for her sweet little daughter, then declared to herself that it must--it should--it would come right.
There was not a word of Amy in the letter, but it, or something else, made her more bright and cheerful than she had been for some time past. It seemed as if the lengthening days of January were bringing renewed comfort with them, when Charles, who ever since October had been confined to bed, was able to wear the Chinese dressing-gown, be lifted to a couch, and wheeled into the dressing-room, still prostrate, but much enjoying the change of scene, which he called coming into the world.
These were the events at quiet Hollywell, while Redclyffe was still engrossed with the shipwreck, which seemed to have come on purpose to enliven and occupy this solitary winter. It perplexed the Ashfords about their baronet more than ever. Mr. Ashford said that no one whose conscience was not clear could have confronted danger as he had done; and yet the certainty that he was under a cloud, and the sadness, so inconsistent with his age and temperament still puzzled them. Mrs. Ashford thought she had made a discovery. The second day after the wreck, the whole crew, except the little cabin-boy, were going to set off to the nearest sea-port; and the evening preceding their departure, they were to meet their rescuers, the fishermen, at a supper in the great servants' hall at the park. Edward and Robert were in great glory, bringing in huge branches of evergreens to embellish the clean, cold place; and Mr. and Mrs. Ashford and Grace were to come to see the entertainment, after having some coffee in the library.
Guy prepared it for his company by tumbling his books headlong from the sofa to a more remote ottoman, sticking a bit of holly on the mantel- shelf, putting out his beloved old friend, Strutt's 'Sports and Pastimes,' to amuse Grace, and making up an immense fire; and then, looking round, thought the room was uncommonly comfortable; but the first thing that struck Mrs, Ashford, when, with face beaming welcome, he ushered her in from the great hall, was how forlorn rooms looked that had not a woman to inhabit them.
The supper went off with great eclat. Arnaud at the head of the table carved with foreign courtesies, contrasted with the downright bluff way of the sailors. As soon as Sir Guy brought Mrs. Ashford to look in on them, old James Robinson proposed his health, with hopes he would soon come and live among them for good, and Jonas Ledbury added another wish, that 'Lady Morville' might soon be there too. At these words, an expression of pain came upon Guy's face; his lips were rigidly pressed together; he turned hastily away, and paced up and down before he could command his countenance. All were so busy cheering, that no one heeded his change of demeanour save Mrs. Ashford; and though, when he returned to the place where he had been standing, his complexion was deepened, his lip quivered, and his voice trembled in returning thanks, Mr. Ashford only saw the emotion naturally excited by his people's attachment.
The lady understood it better; and when she talked it over with her husband in the evening, they were convinced the cause of his trouble must be some unfortunate attachment, which he might think it his duty to overcome; and having settled this, they became very fond of him, and anxious to make Redclyffe agreeable to him.
Captain and crew departed; the little boy was better, and his hosts, Charity and Jem Ledbury, only wished to keep him for ever; the sensation at Redclyffe was subsiding, when one morning Markham came, in a state of extreme satisfaction and importance, to exhibit the county paper, with a full account of the gallant conduct of the youthful baronet. Two or three days after, on coming home from a ride to Coombe Prior, Guy found Lord Thorndale's card, and heard from Arnaud that 'my lord had made particular inquiries how long he would be in the country, and had been to the cliff to see where the wreck was.'
Markham likewise attached great importance to this visit, and went off into a long story about his influence, and the representation of Moorworth, or even of the county. As soon as Guy knew what he was talking about, he exclaimed, 'Oh, I hope all that is not coming on me yet! Till I can manage Todd and Coombe Prior, I am sure I am not fit to manage the country!'
A few mornings after, he found on the table an envelope, which he studied, as if playing with his eagerness. It had an East-hill post- mark, and a general air of Hollywell writing, but it was not in the hand of either of the gentlemen, nor was the tail of the y such as Mrs. Edmonstone was wont to make. It had even a resemblance to Amabel's own writing that startled him. He opened it at last, and within found the hand he could not doubt--Charles's, namely--much more crooked than usual, and the words shortened and blotted:--
'DEAR G.,--I ought not to do this, but I must; I have tyrannized over Charlotte, and obtained the wherewithal. Write me a full account of your gallant conduct. I saw it first in A.'s face. It has done you great good with my father. I will write more when I can. I can't get on now. 'C. M. E.'
He might well say he had first seen it in his sister's face. She had brought him the paper, and was looking for something he wanted her to read to him, when 'Redclyffe Bay' met her eye, and then came the whole at one delightful glance. He saw the heightened colour, the exquisite smile, the tear-drop on the eyelash.
'Amy! what have you there?'
She pointed to the place, gave the paper into his hand, and burst into tears, the gush of triumphant feeling. Not one was shed because she was divided from the hero of the shipwreck; they were pure unselfish tears of joy, exultation, and thankfulness. Charles read the history, and she listened in silence; then looked it over again with him, and betrayed how thoroughly she had been taught the whole geography of Redclyffe Bay. The next person who came in was Charlotte; and as soon as she understood what occupied them, she went into an ecstasy, and flew away with the paper, rushing with it straight into her father's room, where she broke into the middle of his letter-writing, by reading it in a voice of triumph.
Mr. Edmonstone was delighted. He was just the person who would be far more taken with an exploit of this kind, such as would make a figure in the world, than by steady perseverance in well-doing, and his heart was won directly. His wrath at the hasty words had long been diminishing, and now was absolutely lost in his admiration. 'Fine fellow! noble fellow!' he said. 'He is the bravest boy I ever heard of, but I knew what was in him from the first. I wish from my heart there was not this cloud over him. I am sure the whole story has not a word of truth in it, but he won't say a word to clear himself, or else we would have him here again to-morrow.'
This was the first time Mr. Edmonstone had expressed anything of real desire to recall Guy, and it was what Charles meant in his letter.
The tyranny over Charlotte was exercised while the rest were at dinner, and they were alone together. They talked over the adventure for the tenth time that day, and Charles grew so excited that he vowed that he must at once write to Guy, ordered her to give him the materials, and when she hesitated, forced her into it, by declaring that he should get up and reach the things himself, which would be a great deal worse. She wanted to write from his dictation, but he would not consent, thinking that his mother might not consider it proper, and he began vigorously; but though long used to writing in a recumbent posture, he found himself less capable now than he had expected, and went on soliloquizing thus: 'What a pen you've given me, Charlotte. There goes a blot! Here, another dip, will you! and take up that with the blotting paper before it becomes more like a spider.'
'Won't you make a fresh beginning?'
'No, that has cost me too much already. I've got no more command over my fingers. Here we go into the further corner of the paper. Well! C. M. E. There 'tis--do it up, will you? If he can read it he'll be lucky. How my arms ache!'
'I hope it has not hurt you, Charlie; but I am sure he will be very glad of it. Oh! I am glad you said that about Amy.'
'Who told you to read it, Puss?'
'I could not help it, 'tis so large.'
'I believe I didn't ought to have said it. Don't tell her I did,' said Charles; 'but I couldn't for the life of me--or what is more to the purpose, for the trouble of it--help putting it. He is too true a knight not to hear that his lady, not exactly smiled, but cried.'
'He is a true knight,' said Charlotte, emphatically, as with her best pen, and with infinite satisfaction, she indited the 'Sir Guy Morville, Bart., Redclyffe Park, Moorworth,' only wishing she could lengthen out the words infinitely.
'Do you remember, Charlie, how we sat here the first evening he came, and you took me in about the deadly feud?'
'It was no take-in,' said Charles; 'only the feud is all on one side.'
'Oh, dear! it has been such a stupid winter without Guy,' sighed Charlotte; 'if this won't make papa forgive him, I don't know what will.'
'I wish it would, with all my heart,' said Charles; 'but logically, if you understand the word, Charlotte, it does not make much difference to the accusation. It would not exactly be received as exculpatory evidence in a court of justice.'
'You don't believe the horrid stories?'
'I believe that Guy has gamed quite as much as I have myself; but I want to see him cleared beyond the power of Philip to gainsay or disbelieve it. I should like to have such a force of proof as would annihilate Philip, and if I was anything but what I am, I would have it. If you could but lend me a leg for two days, Charlotte.'
'I wish I could.'
'One thing shall be done,' proceeded Charles: 'my father shall go and meet him in person when he comes of age. Now Don Philip is out of the way, I trust I can bring that about.'
'If he would but come here!'
'No, that must not be, as mamma says, till there is some explanation; but if I was but in my usual state, I would go with papa and meet him in London. I wonder if there is any chance of it. The 28th of March-- ten weeks off! If I can but get hold of those trusty crutches of mine by that time I'll do, and I'll do, and I'll do. We will bring back Amy's knight with flying colours.'
'Oh how happy we should be!'
'If I only knew what sort of sense that Markham of his may have, I would give him a hint, and set him to ferret out at St. Mildred's. Or shall I get Dr. Mayerne to order me there for change of air?'
So schemed Charles; while Guy, on his side, busied himself at Redclyffe as usual; took care and thought for the cabin-boy--returned Lord Thorndale's call without finding him at home--saw the school finished, and opened--and became more intimate with the Ashfords.
He said he should not come home at Easter, as he should be very busy reading for his degree; and as his birthday this year fell in Holy Week, there could be no rejoicings; besides, as he was not to have his property in his own hands till he was five-and-twenty, it would make no difference to the people. The Ashfords agreed they had rather he was safe at home for the vacation, and were somewhat anxious when he spoke of coming home to settle, after he had taken his degree.
For his own part he was glad the season would prevent any rejoicings, for he was in no frame of mind to enter into them and his birthday had been so sad a day for his grandfather, that he had no associations of pleasure connected with it.
Markham understood the feeling, liked it, and shared it, only saying that they would have their day of rejoicing when he married. Guy could not answer, and the old steward remarked the look of pain.
'Sir Guy,' said he, 'is it that which is wrong with you? Don't be angry with an old man for asking the question, but I only would hope and trust you are not getting into any scrape.'
'Thank you, Markham,' said Guy, after an effort; 'I cannot tell you about it. I will only set you at rest by saying it is nothing you could think I ought to be ashamed of.'
'Then why--what has come between? What could man or woman object to in you?' said Markham, regarding him proudly.
'These unhappy suspicions,' said Guy.
I can't make it out,' said Markham. 'You must have been doing something foolish to give rise to them.'
Guy told nearly what he had said on the first day of his return, but nothing could be done towards clearing up the mystery, and he returned to Oxford as usual.
March commenced, and Charles, though no longer absolutely recumbent, and able to write letters again, could not yet attempt to use his crutches, so that all his designs vanished, except that of persuading his father to go to London to meet Guy and Markham there, and transact the business consequent on his ward's attaining his majority. He trusted much to Guy's personal influence, and said to his father, 'You know no one has seen him yet but Philip, and he would tell things to you that he might not to him.'
It was an argument that delighted Mr. Edmonstone.
'Of course I have more weight and experience, and--and poor Guy is very fond of us. Eh, Charlie?'
So Charles wrote to make an appointment for Guy to meet his guardian and Markham in London on Easter Tuesday. 'If you will clear up the gambling story,' he wrote, 'all may yet be well.'
Guy sighed as he laid aside the letter. 'All in vain, kind Charlie,' said he to himself, 'vain as are my attempts to keep my poor uncle from sinking himself further! Is it fair, though,' continued he, with vehemence, 'that the happiness of at least one life should be sacrificed to hide one step in the ruin of a man who will not let himself be saved? Is it not a waste of self-devotion? Have I any right to sacrifice hers? Ought I not rather'--and a flash of joy came over him--'to make my uncle give me back my promise of concealment? I can make it up to him. It cannot injure him, since only the Edmonstones will know it! But'--and he pressed his lips firmly together--'is this the spirit I have been struggling for this whole winter? Did I not see that patient waiting and yielding is fit penance for my violence. It would be ungenerous. I will wait and bear, contented that Heaven knows my innocence at least in this. For her, when at my best I dreaded that my love might bring sorrow on her--how much more now, when I have seen my doom face to face, and when the first step towards her would be what I cannot openly and absolutely declare to be right? That would be the very means of bringing the suffering on her, and I should deserve it.'
Guy quitted these thoughts to write to Markham to make the appointment, finishing his letter with a request that Markham would stop at St. Mildred's on his way to London, and pay Miss Wellwood, the lady with whom his uncle's daughter was placed, for her quarter's board. 'I hope this will not be a very troublesome request,' wrote Guy; 'but I know you had rather I did it in this way, than disobey your maxims, as to not sending money by the post.'
The time before the day of meeting was spent in strengthening himself against the pain it would be to refuse his confidence to Mr. Edmonstone, and thus to throw away the last chance of reconciliation, and of Amy. This would be the bitterest pang of all--to see them ready to receive him, and he forced to reject their kindness.
So passed the preceding week, and with it his twenty-first birthday, spent very differently from the way in which it would ordinarily be passed by a youth in his position. It went by in hard study and sad musings, in bracing himself to a resolution that would cost him all he held dear, and, as the only means of so bracing himself, in trying to fix his gaze more steadily beyond the earth.
Easter day steadied the gaze once more for him, and as the past week had nerved him in the spirit of self-sacrifice, the feast day brought him true unchanging joy, shining out of sadness, and enlightening the path that would lead him to keep his resolution to the utmost, and endure the want of earthly hope.
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