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A little hint to solace woe,
A hint, a whisper breathing low,
'I may not speak of what I know.'--TENNYSON
At the pace at which rapid people walk alone, when they wish to devour both the way and their own sensations, Ethel May was mounting the hill out of the town in the premature heat assumed by May in compliment to Whitsun week, when a prolonged shout made her turn. At first she thought it was her father, but her glass showed her that it was the brother so like him in figure that the London-made coat, and the hair partaking of the sand instead of the salt, were often said to be the chief distinction. Moreover, the dainty steps over the puddles were little like the strides of the Doctor, and left no doubt that it was the one wedding guest who had been despaired of.
'O, Tom, I am glad you are come!'
'What a rate you were running away at! I thought you had done with your hurricane pace.'
'Hurricane because of desperate hurry. I'm afraid I can't turn back with you.'
'Where is all the world?'
'Blanche is helping Mary arrange the Hoxton--I mean her own drawing- room. Hector has brought a dog-cart to drive papa about in; Daisy is gone with Harry and Aubrey to the Grange for some camellias.'
'And Ethel rushing to Cocksmoor!'
'I can't help it, Tom,' she said, humbly; 'I wish I could.'
'What's this immense pannier you are carrying?'
'It is quite light. It is twelve of the hats for the children tomorrow. Mary was bent on trimming them all as usual, and I was deluded enough to believe she would, till last evening I found just one and a half done! I did as many as I could at night, till papa heard me rustling about and thumped. Those went early this morning; and these are the rest, which I have just finished.'
'Was there no one to send?'
'My dear Tom, is your experience of weddings so slight as to suppose there is an available being in the family the day before?'
'I'm sure I don't desire such experience. Why could not they be content without ferreting me down?'
'I am very glad you have come. It would have been a great mortification if you had stayed away. I never quite believed you would.'
'I had much rather see the operation I shall miss to-morrow morning. I shall go back by the two o'clock train.'
'To study their happiness all the way up to town?'
'Then by the mail--'
'I won't torment you to stay; but I think papa will want a talk with you.'
'The very thing I don't want. Why can't he dispose of his property like other people, and give Richard his rights?'
'You know Richard would only be encumbered.'
'No such thing; Richard is a reasonable being--he will marry some of these days--get the living after Wilmot, and--'
'But you know how papa would be grieved to separate the practice from the house.'
'Because he and his fathers were content to bury themselves in a hole, he expects me to do the same. Why, what should I do? The place is over-doctored already. Every third person is a pet patient sending for him for a gnat-bite, gratis, taking the bread out of Wright's mouth. No wonder Henry Ward kicked! If I came here, I must practise on the lap-dogs! Here's my father, stronger than any of us, with fifteen good years' work in him at the least! He would be wretched at giving up to me a tenth part of his lambs, and that tenth would keep us always in hot water. His old-world practice would not go down with me, and he would think everything murder that was fresher than the year 1830.'
'I thought he was remarkable for having gone on with the world,' said Ethel, repressing some indignation.
'So he has in a way, but always against the grain. He has a tough lot of prejudices; and you may depend upon it, they would be more obstinate against me than any one else, and I should be looked on as an undutiful dog for questioning them, besides getting the whole credit of every case that went wrong.'
'I think you are unjust,' said Ethel, flushing with displeasure.
'I wish I were not, Ethel; but when there is one son in a family who can do nothing that is not taken amiss, it is hard that he should be the one picked out to be pinned down, and, maybe, goaded into doing something to be really sorry for.'
There was truth enough in this to seal Ethel's lips from replying that it was Tom's own fault, since his whole nature and constitution were far more the cause than his conduct, and she answered, 'You might get some appointment for the present, till he really wants you.'
'To be ordered home just as I am making something of it, and see as many cases in ten years as I could in a month in town. Things are altered since his time, if he could only see it. What was the use of giving me a first-rate education, if he meant to stick me down here?'
'At least I hope you will think long before you inflict the cruel disappointment of knowing that not one of his five sons will succeed to the old practice.'
'The throne, you mean, Ethel. Pish!'
The 'Pish' was as injurious to her hereditary love for 'the old practice,' and for the old town, as to her reverence for her father. One angry 'Tom!' burst from her lips, and only the experience that scolding made him worse, restrained her from desiring him to turn back if this was the best he had to say. Indeed she wondered to find him still by her side, holding the gate of the plantation open for her. He peered under her hat as she went through--
'How hot you look!' he said, laying hold of the handles of the basket.
'Thank you; but it is more cumbrous than heavy,' she said, not letting go; 'it is not that--'
An elision which answered better than words, to show that his speech, rather than hill or load, had made her cheeks flame; but he only drew the great basket more decisively from her hand, put his stick into the handle, and threw it over his shoulder; and no doubt it was a much greater act of good-nature from him than it would have been from Richard or Harry.
'This path always reminds me of this very matter,' he said; 'I talked it over with Meta here, on the way to lay the foundation-stone at Cocksmoor, till Norman overtook us and monopolized her for good, poor little thing. She was all in the high romantic strain, making a sort of knight hospitaller of my father. I wonder what she is like by this time, and how much of that she has left.'
'Of the high romantic strain? I should think it was as much as ever the salt of life to her. Her last letter described her contrivances to make a knapsack for Norman on his visitation tour. Oh, fancy old June a venerable archdeacon!'
'You don't think a colonial archdeacon is like one of your great portly swells in a shovel hat.'
'It must be something remarkable that made Norman portly. But as for the shovel hat, Mrs. Meta has insisted on having it sent out. I was going to tell you that she says, "I do like such a good tough bit of stitchery, to fit my knight out for the cause."'
'Marriage and distance have not frozen up her effusions.'
'No; when people carry souls in their pens, they are worth a great deal more, if they are to go to a distance.'
Ah! by the bye, I suppose Cheviot has put a fresh lock on Mary's writing-case.'
'I suspect some of Mary's correspondence will devolve on me. Harry has asked me already.'
'I wished you had mentioned more about the letters of late. Leonard wanted to know more than I could tell him.'
'You don't mean that you have seen him? O, Tom, how kind of you! Papa has been trying hard to get a day now that these first six months are up; but there are two or three cases that wanted so much watching that he has not been able to stir.'
'I know how he lets himself be made a prisoner, and that it was a chance whether any one saw the poor fellow at all.'
'I am so glad'--and Ethel turned on him a face still flushed, but now with gratitude. 'How was he looking?'
'The costume is not becoming, and he has lost colour and grown hollow-eyed; but I saw no reason for being uneasy about him; he looked clear and in health, and has not got to slouch yet. It is shocking to see such a grand face and head behind a grating.'
'Could he talk'?
'Why, the presence of a warder is against conversation, and six months of shoe-making in a cell does not give much range of ideas. There was nothing to be done but to talk on right ahead and judge by his eyes if he liked it.'
'I suppose you could find out nothing about himself?'
'He said he got on very well; but one does not know that means. I asked if he got books; and he said there was a very good library, and he could get what gave him something to think of; and he says they give interesting lectures in school.'
'You could not gather what is thought of him?'
'No; I saw but a couple of officers of the place, and could only get out of them "good health and good conduct." I do not expect even his conduct makes much impression as to his innocence, for I saw it stated the other day that the worst prisoners are those that are always getting convicted for petty offences; those that have committed one great crime are not so depraved, and are much more amenable. However, he has only three months more at Pentonville, and then be will go to Portland, Chatham, or Gibraltar.'
'Oh, I hope it will not be Gibraltar! But at least that terrible solitude will be over.'
'At any rate, his spirit is not broken. I could see his eye light up after I had talked a little while, and he fell into his natural tone again. He would not try to put out his hand to me when he came down; but when I went away, he put it through and we had a good hearty shake. Somehow it made one feel quite small.'
Ethel could have pledged herself for the soundness of Tom's nature after those words; but all she did was in an unwonted tone to utter the unwonted exclamation--'Dear Tom.'
'If my father does not come up, I shall see him once more before he leaves Pentonville,' added Tom; 'and so you must mind and let me know all about his people in America. I found he had no notion of the row that is beginning there, so I said not a word of it. But what is all this about going to Indiana?'
'They are going at the end of April to settle in a place called Massissauga, where Henry is to farm till practice comes to him. It is towards the north of the State, in the county of Pulaski.'
'Ay, in one of the pestilential swamps that run up out of Lake Michigan. All the fertile ground there breeds as many fevers and agues as it does stalks of corn.'
'Indeed! how did you hear that?'
'I looked up the place after Leonard told me of it. It is as unlucky a location as the ill luck of that fellow Henry could have pitched on. Some friend Leonard spoke of--a Yankee, I suppose, meaning to make a prey of them.'
'The father of their young lady friend at the boarding-house.'
'Oh! a Yankee edition of Mrs. Pugh!'
'And the worst of it is that this is to be done with poor Averil's fortune. She has written to Mr. Bramshaw to sell out for her, and send her the amount, and he is terribly vexed; but she is of age, and there are no trustees nor any one to stop it.'
'All of a piece,' muttered Tom; then presently he swung the basket round on the ground with a vehement exclamation--'If any man on this earth deserved to be among the robbers and murderers, I know who it is.' Then he shouldered his load again, and walked on in silence by his sister's side to the school door.
Richard had been obliged to go to a benefit club entertainment; and Ethel, knowing the limited literary resources of the parsonage, was surprised to find Tom still waiting for her, when the distribution and fitting of the blue-ribboned hats was over, and matters arranged for the march of the children to see the wedding, and to dine afterwards at the Grammar-school hall.
'O, Tom, I did not expect to find you here.'
'It is not fit for you to be walking about alone on a Whit Monday.'
'I am very glad to have you, but I am past that.'
'Don't talk nonsense; girls are girls till long past your age,' said Tom.
'It is not so much age, as living past things,' said Ethel.
'It was not only that, added Tom; 'but I've more to say to you, while one can be sure of a quiet moment. Have you heard anything about that place?' and he pointed in the direction of the Vintry Mill.
'I heard something of an intention to part with it, and have been watching for an advertisement; but I can see none in the Courant, or on the walls.'
'Mind he does not slip off unawares.'
'I don't know what to do now that old Hardy is cut off from us. I tried to stir up Dr. Spencer to go and investigate, but I could not tell him why, and he has not the same interest in going questing about as he used to have. People never will do the one thing one wants particularly!'
Tom's look and gesture made her ask if he knew of anything wrong with their old friend; and in return, she was told that Dr. Spencer's recent visit to London had been to consult Sir Matthew Fleet. The foundations of mortal disease had been laid in India, and though it might long remain in abeyance, there were from time to time symptoms of activity; and tedious lingering infirmity was likely to commence long before the end.
'And what do you think the strange old fellow charged me as we walked away from dining at Fleet's?'
'Secrecy, of course,' returned the much-shocked Ethel.
'One does keep a secret by telling you. It was to have my eye on some lodging with a decent landlady, where, when it is coming to that, he can go up to be alone, out of the way of troubling Dick, and of all of you.'
'Tom, how dreadful!'
'I fancy it is something of the animal instinct of creeping away alone, and partly his law to himself not to trouble Dick.'
'An odd idea of what would trouble Dick!'
'So I told him; but he said, after seeing what it cost my father to watch dear Margaret's long decay, he would never entail the like on him. It is queer, and it is beautiful, the tender way he has about my father, treating him like a pet to be shielded and guarded--a man that has five times the force and vigour of body and mind that he has now, whatever they may have been.'
'Very beautiful, and I cannot help telling you how beautiful,' said Ethel, greatly moved; 'only remember, it is not to be mentioned.'
'Ha! did he ever make you an offer? I have sometimes suspected it.'
'No indeed! It was much--much more beautiful than that!'
'Our mother then? I had thought of that too, and it accounts for his having always taken to you the most of us.'
'Why, I'm the least like her of us all!'
'So they say, I know, and I can't recollect enough to judge, except that'--and Tom's voice was less clear for a moment--'there was something in being with her that I've never found again, except now and then with you, Ethel. Well, he never got over it, I suppose.'
And Ethel briefly told of the rash resolution, the unsettled life, the neglect of the father's wishes, the grievous remorse, the broken health, and restless aimless wanderings, ending at last in loving tendance of the bereaved rival. It had been a life never wanting in generosity or benevolence, yet falling far short of what it might have been--a gallant voyage made by a wreck--and yet the injury had been less from the disappointment than from the manner of bearing it. Suddenly it struck her that Tom might suspect her of intending a personal application of the history, and she faltered; but he kept her to it by his warm interest and many questions.
'And oh, Tom, he must not be allowed to go away in this manner! Nothing would so cut papa to the heart!'
'I don't believe he ever will, Ethel. He may go on for years as he is; and he said in the midst that he meant to live to carry out the drainage. Besides, if it comes gradually on him, he may feel dependent and lose the energy to move.'
'Oh! what a sorrow for papa! But I know that not to watch over him would make it all the worse.'
They walked on gravely till, on the top of the hill, Tom exclaimed, 'They've mounted the flag on the Minster steeple already.'
'It went up yesterday for Harvey Anderson and Mrs. Pugh. There was a proposal to join forces, and have a double wedding--so interesting, the two school-fellows and two young friends. The Cheviot girls much regretted it was not to be.'
'Cheviot girls! Heavens and earth! At home?'
'Not sleeping; but we shall have them all day to-morrow, for they cannot get home the same day by setting off after the wedding. There will be no one else, for even our own people are going, for Harry is to go to Maplewood with Blanche, and Aubrey has to be at Woolwich; but we shall all be at home to-night.'
'Last time was in the volunteer days, two or three centuries ago.'
It was strange how, with this naturally least congenial of all the family, Ethel had a certain understanding and fellow-feeling that gave her a sense of rest and relief in his company, only impaired by the dread of rubs between him and his father. None, however, happened; Dr. May had been too much hurt to press the question of the inheritance, and took little notice of Tom, being much occupied with the final business about the wedding, and engrossed by Hector and Harry, who always absorbed him in their short intervals of his company. Tom went to see Dr. Spencer, and brought him in, so cheerful and full of life, that what Ethel had been hearing seemed like a dream, excepting when she recognized Tom's unobtrusive gentleness and attention towards him.
She was surprised and touched through all the harass and hurry of that evening and morning, to find the 'must be dones' that had of late devolved on her alone, now lightened and aided by Tom, who appeared to have come for the sole purpose of being always ready to give a helping hand where she wanted it, with all Richard's manual dexterity, and more resource and quickness. The refreshment of spirits was the more valuable as this was a very unexciting wedding. Even Gertrude, not yet fourteen, had been surfeited with weddings, and replied to Harry's old wit of 'three times a bridesmaid and never a bride,' that she hoped so, her experience of married life was extremely flat; and a glance at Blanche's monotonous dignity, and Flora's worn face, showed what that experience was.
Harry was the only one to whom there was the freshness of novelty, and he was the great element of animation; but as the time came near, honest Harry had been seized with a mortal dread of the tears he imagined an indispensable adjunct of the ceremony, and went about privately consulting every one how much weeping was inevitable. Flora told him she saw no reason for any tears, and Ethel that when people felt very much they couldn't cry; but on the other hand, Blanche said she felt extremely nervous, and knew she should be overcome; Gertrude assured him that on all former occasions Mary did all the crying herself; and Aubrey told him that each bridesmaid carried six handkerchiefs, half for herself and half for the bride.
The result was, that the last speech made by Harry to his favourite sister in her maiden days was thus:--'Well, Mary, you do look uncommonly nice and pretty; but now'--most persuasively--'you'll be a good girl and not cry, will you?' and as Mary fluttered, tried to smile, and looked out through very moist eyes, he continued, 'I feel horribly soft-hearted to-day, and if you howl I must, you know; so mind, if I see you beginning, I shall come out with my father's old story of the spirit of the flood and the spirit of the fell, and that will stop it, if anything can.'
The comicality of Harry's alarm was nearly enough to 'stop it,' coupled with the great desire of Daisy that he should be betrayed into tears; and Mary did behave extremely well, and looked all that a bride should look. Admirable daughter and sister, she would be still more in her place as wife; hers was the truly feminine nature that, happily for mankind, is the most commonplace, and that she was a thoroughly generic bride is perhaps a testimony to her perfection in the part, as in all others where quiet unselfish womanhood was the essential. Never had she been so sweet in every tone, word, and caress; never had Ethel so fully felt how much she loved her, or how entirely they had been one, from a time almost too far back for memory. There had not been intellectual equality; but perhaps it was better, fuller affection, than if there had been; for Mary had filled up a part that had been in some measure wanting in Ethel. She had been a sort of wife to her sister, and thus was the better prepared for her new life, but was all the sorer loss at home.
The bridegroom! How many times had Ethel to remind herself of her esteem, and security of Mary's happiness, besides frowning down Gertrude's saucy comments, and trying to laugh away Tom's low growl that good things always fell to the share of poor hearts and narrow minds. Mr. Cheviot did in fact cut a worse figure than George Rivers of old, having a great fund of natural bashfulness and self- consciousness, which did not much damage his dignity, but made his attempts at gaiety and ease extremely awkward, not to say sheepish. Perhaps the most trying moment was the last, when hearing a few words between Ethel and Mary about posting a mere scrap, if only an empty envelope, from the first resting-place, he turned round, with his laugh, to object to rash promises, and remind his dear sister Ethel that post-offices were not always near at hand! After that, when Mary in her bright tenderness hung round her sister, it was as if that was the last fond grasp from the substance--as if only the shadow would come back and live in Minster Street.
Perhaps it was because Ethel had tried to rule it otherwise, Mr. Cheviot had insisted that the Cocksmoor children's share in the festivity should be a dinner in the Whichcote hall, early in the day, after which they had to be sent home, since no one chose to have the responsibility of turning them loose to play in the Grammar-school precincts, even in the absence of the boys. Richard was much afraid of their getting into mischief, and was off immediately after church to superintend the dinner, and marshal them home; and the rest of the world lost the resource that entertaining them generally afforded the survivors after a marriage, and which was specially needed with the two Cheviot sisters to be disposed of. By the time the Riverses were gone home, and the Ernescliffes and Harry off by the train, there were still four mortal hours of daylight, and oh! for Mary's power of making every one happy!
Caroline and Annie Cheviot were ladylike, nice-looking girls; but when they found no croquet mallets in the garden, they seemed at a loss what life had to offer at Stoneborough! Gertrude pronounced that 'she played at it sometimes at Maplewood, where she had nothing better to do,' and then retreated to her own devices. Ethel's heart sank both with dread of the afternoon, and with self-reproach at her spoilt child's discourtesy, whence she knew there would be no rousing her without an incapacitating discussion; and on she wandered in the garden with the guests, receiving instruction where the hoops might be planted, and hearing how nice it would be for her sister to have such an object, such a pleasant opportunity of meeting one's friends--an interest for every day. 'No wonder they think I want an object in life,' thought Ethel; 'how awfully tiresome I must be! Poor things, what can I say to make it pleasanter?--Do you know this Dielytra? I think it is the prettiest of modern flowers, but I wish we might call it Japan fumitory, or by some English name.'
'I used to garden once, but we have no flower-beds now, they spoilt the lawn for croquet.'
'And here comes Tom,' thought Ethel; 'poor Tom, he will certainly be off to London this evening.'
Tom, however, joined the listless promenade; and the first time croquet was again mentioned, observed that he had seen the Andersons knocking about the balls in the new gardens by the river; and proposed to go down and try to get up a match. There was an instant brightening, and Tom stepped into the drawing-room, and told Daisy to come with them.
'To play at croquet with the Andersons in the tea-gardens!' she exclaimed. 'No, I thank you, Thomas!'
He laid his hand on her shoulder--'Gertrude,' he said, 'it is time to have done being a spoilt baby. If you let Ethel fag herself ill, you will rue it all your life.'
Frightened, but without clear comprehension, she turned two scared eyes on him, and replaced the hat that she had thrown on the table, just as Ethel and the others came in.
'Not you, Ethel,' said Tom; 'you don't know the game.'
'I can learn,' said Ethel, desperately bent on her duty.
'We would teach you,' volunteered the Cheviots.
'You would not undertake it if you knew better,' said Tom, smiling. 'Ethel's hands are not her strong point.'
'Ethel would just have to be croqued all through by her partner,' said Gertrude.
'Besides, my father will be coming in and wanting you,' added Tom; 'he is only at the hospital or somewhere about the town. I'll look after this child.'
And the two sisters, delighted that poor little Gertrude should have such a holiday treat as croquet in the public gardens, away from her governess elder sister, walked off glorious; while Ethel, breathing forth a heavy sigh, let herself sink into a chair, feeling as if the silence were in itself invaluable, and as if Tom could not be enough thanked for having gained it for her.
She was first roused by the inquiry, 'Shall I take in this letter, ma'am? it is charged four shillings over-weight. And it is for Mr. Thomas, ma'am,' impressively concluded the parlour-maid, as one penetrated by Mr. Thomas's regard to small economies.
Ethel beheld a letter bloated beyond the capacities of the two bewigged Washingtons that kept guard in its corner, and addressed in a cramped hand unknown to her; but while she hesitated, her eye fell on another American letter directed to Miss Mary May, in Averil Ward's well-known writing, and turning both round, she found they had the same post-mark, and thereupon paid the extra charge, and placed the letter where Tom was most likely to light naturally on it without public comment. The other letter renewed the pang at common property being at an end. 'No, Mab,' she said, taking the little dog into her lap, 'we shall none of us hear a bit of it! But at least it is a comfort that this business is over! You needn't creep under sofas now, there's nobody to tread upon your dainty little paws. What is to be done, Mab, to get out of a savage humour--except thinking how good-natured poor Tom is!'
There was not much sign of savage humour in the face that was lifted up as Dr. May came in from the hospital, and sitting down by his daughter, put his arm round her. 'So there's another bird flown,' he said. 'We shall soon have the old nest to ourselves, Ethel.'
'The Daisy is not going just yet,' said Ethel, stroking back the thin flying flakes over his temples. 'If we may believe her, never!'
'Ah! she will be off before we can look round,' said the Doctor; 'when once the trick of marrying gets among one's girls, there's no end to it, as long as they last out.'
'Nor to one's boys going out into the world,' said Ethel: both of them talking as if she had been his wife, rather than one of these fly-away younglings herself.
'Ah! well,' he said, 'it's very pretty while it lasts, and one keeps the creatures; but after all, one doesn't rear them for one's own pleasure. That only comes by the way of their chance good-will to one.'
'For shame, Doctor!' said Ethel, pretending to shake him by the collar.
'I was thinking,' he added, 'that we must not require too much. People must have their day, and in their own fashion; and I wish you would tell Tom--I've no patience to do it myself--that I don't mean to hamper him. As long as it is a right line, he may take whichever he pleases, and I'll do my best to set him forward in it; but it is a pity--'
'Perhaps a few years of travelling, or of a professorship, might give him time to think differently,' said Ethel.
'Not he,' said the Doctor; 'the more a man lives in the world, the more he depends on it. Where is the boy? is he gone without vouchsafing a good-bye?'
'Oh no, he has taken pity on Annie and Caroline Cheviot's famine of croquet, and gone with them to the gardens.'
'A spice of flirtation never comes amiss to him.'
'There, that's the way!' said Ethel, half-saucily, half-caressingly; 'that poor fellow never can do right! Isn't it the very thing to keep him away from home, that we all may steal a horse, and he can't look over the wall, no, not with a telescope?'
'I can't help it, Ethel. It may be very wrong and unkind of me-- Heaven forgive me if it is, and prevent me from doing the boy any harm! but I never can rid myself of a feeling of there being something behind when he seems the most straightforward. If he had only not got his grandfather's mouth and nose! And,' smiling after all--'I don't know what I said to be so scolded; all lads flirt, and you can't deny that Master Tom divided his attentions pretty freely last year between Mrs. Pugh and poor Ave Ward.'
'This time, I believe, it was out of pure kindness to me,' said Ethel, 'so I am bound to his defence. He dragged off poor Daisy to chaperon them, that I might have a little peace.'
'Ah! he came down on us this morning,' said the Doctor, 'on Richard and Flora and me, and gave us a lecture on letting you grow old, Ethel--said you were getting over-tasked, and no one heeding it; and looking--let's look'--and he took off his spectacles, put his hand on her shoulder, and studied her face.
'Old enough to be a respectable lady of the house, I hope,' said Ethel.
'Wiry enough for most things,' said the Doctor, patting her shoulder, reassured; 'but we must take care, Ethel; if you don't fatten yourself up, we shall have Flora coming and carrying you off to London for a change, and for Tom to practise on.
'That is a threat! I expected he had been prescribing for me already, never to go near Cocksmoor, for that's what people always begin by--'
'Nothing worse than pale ale.' At which Ethel made one of her faces. 'And to make a Mary of that chit of a Daisy. Well, you may do as you please--only take care, or Flora will be down upon us.'
'Tom has been very helpful and kind to me,' said Ethel. 'And, papa, he has seen Leonard, and he says he looked so noble that to shake hands with him made him feel quite small.'
'I never heard anything so much to Tom's credit! Well, and what did he say of the dear lad?'
The next step was to mention Averil's letter to Mary, which could not be sent on till tidings had been permitted by Mr. Cheviot.
'Let us see it,' said the Doctor.
'Do you think Charles Cheviot would like it?'
'Cheviot is a man of sense,' said the open-hearted Doctor, 'and there may be something to authorize preventing this unlucky transfer of her fortune.'
Nothing could be further from it; but it was a long and interesting letter, written in evidently exhilarated spirits, and with a hopeful description of the new scenes. Ethel read it to her father, and he told every one about it when they came in. Tom manifested no particular interest; but he did not go by the mail train that night, and was not visible all the morning. He caught Ethel alone however at noon, and said, 'Ethel, I owe you this,' offering the amount she had paid for the letter.
'Thank you,' she said, wondering if this was to be all she should hear about it.
'I am going by the afternoon train,' he added; 'I have been over to Blewer. It is true, Ethel, the fellow can't stand it! he has sent down a manager, and is always in London! Most likely to dispose of it by private contract there, they say.'
'And what has become of old Hardy?'
'Poor old fellow, he has struck work, looks terribly shaky. He took me for my father at first sight, and began to apologize most plaintively--said no one else had ever done him any good. I advised him to come in and see my father, though he is too far gone to do much for him.'
'Poor old man, can he afford to come in now?'
'Why, I helped him with the cart hire. It is no use any way, he knows no more than we do, and his case is confirmed; but he thinks he has offended my father, and he'll die more in peace for having had him again. Look here, what a place they have got to.'
And without further explanation of the 'they,' Tom placed a letter in Ethel's hands.
'My Dear Mr. Thomas,
'I send you the objects I promised for your microscope; I could not get any before because we were in the city; but if you like these I can get plenty more at Massissauga, where we are now. We came here last week, and the journey was very nice, only we went bump bump so often, and once we stuck in a marsh, and were splashed all over. We are staying with Mr. Muller and Cora till our own house is quite ready; it was only begun a fortnight ago, and we are to get in next week. I thought this would have been a town, it looked so big and so square in the plan; but it is all trees still, and there are only thirteen houses built yet. Ours is all by itself in River Street, and all the trees near it have been killed, and stand up all dead and white, because nobody has time to cut them down. It looks very dismal, but Ave says it will be very nice by and by, and, Rufus Muller says it has mammoth privileges. I send you a bit of rattlesnake skin. They found fifteen of them asleep under a stone, just where our house is built, and sometimes they come into the kitchen. I do not know the names of the other things I send; and I could not ask Ave, for she said you would not want to be bothered with a little girl's letter, and I was not to ask for an answer. Rosa Willis says no young lady of my age would ask her sister's permission, and not even her mother's, unless her mamma was very intellectual and highly educated, and always saw the justice of her arguments; but Minna and I do not mean to be like that. I would tell Ave if you did write to me, but she need not read it unless she liked.
'I am, your affectionate little friend,
'Well!' said Tom, holding out his hand for more when she had restored this epistle. 'You have heard all there was in it, except--'
'Except what I want to see.'
And Ethel, as she had more or less intended all along, let him have Averil's letter, since the exception was merely a few tender words of congratulation to Mary. The worst had been done already by her father; and it may here be mentioned that though nothing was said in answer to her explanation of the opening of the letter, the head- master never recovered the fact, and always attributed it to his dear sister Ethel.
'For the future,' said Tom, as he gave back the thin sheets, 'they will all be for the Cheviots' private delectation.'
'I shall begin on my own score,' said Ethel. 'You know if you answer this letter, you must not mention that visit of yours, or you will be prohibited, and one would not wish to excite a domestic secession.'
'It would serve the unnatural scoundrel right,' said Tom. 'Well, I must go and put up my things. You'll keep me up to what goes on at home, and if there's anything out there to tell Leonard--'
'Wait a moment, Tom!'--and she told him what the Doctor had said about his plans.
'Highly educated and intellectual,' was all the answer that Tom vouchsafed; and whether he were touched or not she could not gather.
Yet her spirit felt less weary and burdened, and more full of hope than it had been for a long time past. Averil's letter showed the exhilaration of the change, and of increasing confidence and comfort in her friend Cora Muller. Cora's Confirmation had brought the girls into contact with the New York clergy, and had procured them an introduction to the clergyman of Winiamac, the nearest church, so that there was much less sense of loneliness, moreover, the fuller and more systematic doctrine, and the development of the beauty and daily guidance of the Church, had softened the bright American girl, so as to render her infinitely dearer to her English friend, and they were as much united as they could be, where the great leading event of the life of one remained a mystery to the other. Yet perhaps it helped to begin a fresh life, that the intimate companion of that new course should be entirely disconnected with the past.
Averil threw herself into the present with as resolute a will as she could muster. With much spirit she described the arrival at the Winiamac station, and the unconcealed contempt with which the mass of luggage was regarded by the Western world, who 'reckoned it would be fittest to make kindlings with.' Heavy country wagons were to bring the furniture; the party themselves were provided for by a light wagon and a large cart, driven by Cora's brother, Mordaunt, and by the farming-man, Philetus, a gentleman who took every occasion of asserting his equality, if not his superiority to the new-comers; demanded all the Christian names, and used them without prefix; and when Henry impressively mentioned his eldest sister as Miss Warden, stared and said, 'Why, Doctor, I thought she was not your old woman!'--the Western epithet of a wife. But as Cora was quite content to leave Miss behind her in civilized society, and as they were assured that to stand upon ceremony would leave them without domestic assistance, the sisters had implored Henry to waive all preference for a polite address.
The loveliness of the way was enchanting--the roads running straight as an arrow through glorious forest lands of pine, beech, maple, and oak, in the full glory of spring, and the perspective before and behind making a long narrowing green bower of meeting branches; the whole of the borders of the road covered with lovely flowers--May- wings, a butterfly-like milkwort, pitcher-plant, convolvulus; new insects danced in the shade--golden orioles, blue birds, the great American robin, the field officer, with his orange epaulettes, glanced before them. Cora was in ecstasy at the return to forest scenery, the Wards at its novelty, and the escape from town. Too happy were they at first to care for the shaking and bumping of the road, and the first mud-hole into which they plunged was almost a joke, under Mordaunt Muller's assurances that it was easy fording, though the splashes flew far and wide. Then there was what Philetus called 'a mash with a real handsome bridge over it,' i. e. a succession of tree trunks laid side by side for about a quarter of a mile. Here the female passengers insisted on walking--even Cora, though her brother and Philetus both laughed her to scorn; and more especially for her foot-gear, delicate kid boots, without which no city damsel stirred. Averil and her sisters, in the English boots scorned at New York, had their share in the laugh, while picking their way from log to log, hand in hand, and exciting Philetus's further disdain by their rapture with the glorious flowers of the bog.
But where was Massissauga? Several settlements had been passed, the houses looking clean and white in forest openings, with fields where the lovely spring green of young maize charmed the eye.
At last the road grew desolate. There were a few patches of corn, a few squalid-looking log or frame houses, a tract of horrible dreary blackness; and still more horrible, beyond it was a region of spectres--trees white and stripped bare, lifting their dead arms like things blasted. Averil cried out in indignant horror, 'Who has done this?'
'We have,' answered Mordaunt. 'This is Maclellan Square, Miss Warden, and there's River Street,' pointing down an avenue of skeletons. 'If you could go to sleep for a couple of years, you would wake up to find yourself in a city such as I would not fear to compare with any in Europe. Your exhausted civilization is not as energetic as ours, I calculate.'
The energetic young colonist turned his horse's head up a slight rising ground, where something rather more like habitation appeared; a great brick-built hotel, and some log houses, with windows displaying the wares needed for daily consumption, and a few farm buildings. It was backed by corn-fields; and this was the great Maclellan Street, the chief ornament of Massissauga. Not one house had the semblance of a garden; the wilderness came up to the very door, except where cattle rendered some sort of enclosure necessary.
Cora exclaimed, 'Oh, Mordaunt, I thought you would have had a garden for me!'
'I can fix it any time you like,' said he; 'but you'll be the laughing-stock of the place, and never keep a flower.'
The Mullers' abode was a sound substantial log house, neatly whitened, and with green shutters, bearing a festal appearance, full of welcome, as Mr. Muller, his tall bearded son Rufus, and a thin but motherly-looking elderly woman, came forth to meet the travellers; and in the front, full stare, stood a trollopy-looking girl, every bar of her enormous hoop plainly visible through her washed-out flimsy muslin. This was Miss Ianthe, who condescended to favour the family with her assistance till she should have made up dollars enough to buy a new dress! The elder woman, who went by the name of Cousin Deborah, would have been a housekeeper in England--here she was one of the family--welcomed Cora with an exchange of kisses, and received the strangers with very substantial hospitality, though with pity at their unfitness for their new home, and utter incredulity as to their success.
Here the Wards had been since their arrival. Their frame-house, near the verdant bank of the river, was being finished for them; and a great brass plate, with Henry's new name and his profession, had already adorned the door. The furniture was coming; Cousin Deborah had hunted up a Cleopatra Betsy, who might perhaps stay with them if she were treated on terms of equality, a field was to be brought into cultivation as soon as any labour could be had. Minna was looking infinitely better already, and Averil and Cora were full of designs for rival housewifery, Averil taking lessons meantime in ironing, dusting, and the arts of the kitchen, and trusting that in the two years' time, the skeletons would have given place--if not indeed to houses, to well-kept fields. Such was her account.
How much was reserved for fear of causing anxiety? Who could guess?
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