The Battle of Life (Dickens)/Chapter 2
CHAPTER II – Part The Second
SNITCHEY AND CRAGGS had a snug little office on the old Battle Ground, where they drove a snug little business, and fought a great many small pitched battles for a great many contending parties. Though it could hardly be said of these conflicts that they were running fights—for in truth they generally proceeded at a snail’s pace—the part the Firm had in them came so far within the general denomination, that now they took a shot at this Plaintiff, and now aimed a chop at that Defendant, now made a heavy charge at an estate in Chancery, and now had some light skirmishing among an irregular body of small debtors, just as the occasion served, and the enemy happened to present himself. The Gazette was an important and profitable feature in some of their fields, as in fields of greater renown; and in most of the Actions wherein they showed their generalship, it was afterwards observed by the combatants that they had had great difficulty in making each other out, or in knowing with any degree of distinctness what they were about, in consequence of the vast amount of smoke by which they were surrounded.
The offices of Messrs. Snitchey and Craggs stood convenient, with an open door down two smooth steps, in the market–place; so that any angry farmer inclining towards hot water, might tumble into it at once. Their special council–chamber and hall of conference was an old back–room up–stairs, with a low dark ceiling, which seemed to be knitting its brows gloomily in the consideration of tangled points of law. It was furnished with some high–backed leathern chairs, garnished with great goggle–eyed brass nails, of which, every here and there, two or three had fallen out—or had been picked out, perhaps, by the wandering thumbs and forefingers of bewildered clients. There was a framed print of a great judge in it, every curl in whose dreadful wig had made a man’s hair stand on end. Bales of papers filled the dusty closets, shelves, and tables; and round the wainscot there were tiers of boxes, padlocked and fireproof, with people’s names painted outside, which anxious visitors felt themselves, by a cruel enchantment, obliged to spell backwards and forwards, and to make anagrams of, while they sat, seeming to listen to Snitchey and Craggs, without comprehending one word of what they said.
Snitchey and Craggs had each, in private life as in professional existence, a partner of his own. Snitchey and Craggs were the best friends in the world, and had a real confidence in one another; but Mrs. Snitchey, by a dispensation not uncommon in the affairs of life, was on principle suspicious of Mr. Craggs; and Mrs. Craggs was on principle suspicious of Mr. Snitchey. ‘Your Snitcheys indeed,’ the latter lady would observe, sometimes, to Mr. Craggs; using that imaginative plural as if in disparagement of an objectionable pair of pantaloons, or other articles not possessed of a singular number; ‘I don’t see what you want with your Snitcheys, for my part. You trust a great deal too much to your Snitcheys, I think, and I hope you may never find my words come true.’ While Mrs. Snitchey would observe to Mr. Snitchey, of Craggs, ‘that if ever he was led away by man he was led away by that man, and that if ever she read a double purpose in a mortal eye, she read that purpose in Craggs’s eye.’ Notwithstanding this, however, they were all very good friends in general: and Mrs. Snitchey and Mrs. Craggs maintained a close bond of alliance against ‘the office,’ which they both considered the Blue chamber, and common enemy, full of dangerous (because unknown) machinations.
In this office, nevertheless, Snitchey and Craggs made honey for their several hives. Here, sometimes, they would linger, of a fine evening, at the window of their council–chamber overlooking the old battle–ground, and wonder (but that was generally at assize time, when much business had made them sentimental) at the folly of mankind, who couldn’t always be at peace with one another and go to law comfortably. Here, days, and weeks, and months, and years, passed over them: their calendar, the gradually diminishing number of brass nails in the leathern chairs, and the increasing bulk of papers on the tables. Here, nearly three years’ flight had thinned the one and swelled the other, since the breakfast in the orchard; when they sat together in consultation at night.
Not alone; but, with a man of about thirty, or that time of life, negligently dressed, and somewhat haggard in the face, but well–made, well–attired, and well–looking, who sat in the armchair of state, with one hand in his breast, and the other in his dishevelled hair, pondering moodily. Messrs. Snitchey and Craggs sat opposite each other at a neighbouring desk. One of the fireproof boxes, unpadlocked and opened, was upon it; a part of its contents lay strewn upon the table, and the rest was then in course of passing through the hands of Mr. Snitchey; who brought it to the candle, document by document; looked at every paper singly, as he produced it; shook his head, and handed it to Mr. Craggs; who looked it over also, shook his head, and laid it down. Sometimes, they would stop, and shaking their heads in concert, look towards the abstracted client. And the name on the box being Michael Warden, Esquire, we may conclude from these premises that the name and the box were both his, and that the affairs of Michael Warden, Esquire, were in a bad way.
‘That’s all,’ said Mr. Snitchey, turning up the last paper. ‘Really there’s no other resource. No other resource.’
‘All lost, spent, wasted, pawned, borrowed, and sold, eh?’ said the client, looking up.
‘All,’ returned Mr. Snitchey.
‘Nothing else to be done, you say?’
‘Nothing at all.’
The client bit his nails, and pondered again.
‘And I am not even personally safe in England? You hold to that, do you?’
‘In no part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,’ replied Mr. Snitchey.
‘A mere prodigal son with no father to go back to, no swine to keep, and no husks to share with them? Eh?’ pursued the client, rocking one leg over the other, and searching the ground with his eyes.
Mr. Snitchey coughed, as if to deprecate the being supposed to participate in any figurative illustration of a legal position. Mr. Craggs, as if to express that it was a partnership view of the subject, also coughed.
‘Ruined at thirty!’ said the client. ‘Humph!’
‘Not ruined, Mr. Warden,’ returned Snitchey. ‘Not so bad as that. You have done a good deal towards it, I must say, but you are not ruined. A little nursing—’
‘A little Devil,’ said the client.
‘Mr. Craggs,’ said Snitchey, ‘will you oblige me with a pinch of snuff? Thank you, sir.’
As the imperturbable lawyer applied it to his nose with great apparent relish and a perfect absorption of his attention in the proceeding, the client gradually broke into a smile, and, looking up, said:
‘You talk of nursing. How long nursing?’
‘How long nursing?’ repeated Snitchey, dusting the snuff from his fingers, and making a slow calculation in his mind. ‘For your involved estate, sir? In good hands? S. and C.’s, say? Six or seven years.’
‘To starve for six or seven years!’ said the client with a fretful laugh, and an impatient change of his position.
‘To starve for six or seven years, Mr. Warden,’ said Snitchey, ‘would be very uncommon indeed. You might get another estate by showing yourself, the while. But, we don’t think you could do it—speaking for Self and Craggs—and consequently don’t advise it.’
‘What do you advise?’
‘Nursing, I say,’ repeated Snitchey. ‘Some few years of nursing by Self and Craggs would bring it round. But to enable us to make terms, and hold terms, and you to keep terms, you must go away; you must live abroad. As to starvation, we could ensure you some hundreds a–year to starve upon, even in the beginning—I dare say, Mr. Warden.’
‘Hundreds,’ said the client. ‘And I have spent thousands!’
‘That,’ retorted Mr. Snitchey, putting the papers slowly back into the cast–iron box, ‘there is no doubt about. No doubt about,’ he repeated to himself, as he thoughtfully pursued his occupation.
The lawyer very likely knew his man; at any rate his dry, shrewd, whimsical manner, had a favourable influence on the client’s moody state, and disposed him to be more free and unreserved. Or, perhaps the client knew his man, and had elicited such encouragement as he had received, to render some purpose he was about to disclose the more defensible in appearance. Gradually raising his head, he sat looking at his immovable adviser with a smile, which presently broke into a laugh.
‘After all,’ he said, ‘my iron–headed friend—’
Mr. Snitchey pointed out his partner. ‘Self and—excuse me—Craggs.’
‘I beg Mr. Craggs’s pardon,’ said the client. ‘After all, my iron–headed friends,’ he leaned forward in his chair, and dropped his voice a little, ‘you don’t know half my ruin yet.’
Mr. Snitchey stopped and stared at him. Mr. Craggs also stared.
‘I am not only deep in debt,’ said the client, ‘but I am deep in—’
‘Not in love!’ cried Snitchey.
‘Yes!’ said the client, falling back in his chair, and surveying the Firm with his hands in his pockets. ‘Deep in love.’
‘And not with an heiress, sir?’ said Snitchey.
‘Not with an heiress.’
‘Nor a rich lady?’
‘Nor a rich lady that I know of—except in beauty and merit.’
‘A single lady, I trust?’ said Mr. Snitchey, with great expression.
‘It’s not one of Dr. Jeddler’s daughters?’ said Snitchey, suddenly squaring his elbows on his knees, and advancing his face at least a yard.
‘Yes!’ returned the client.
‘Not his younger daughter?’ said Snitchey.
‘Yes!’ returned the client.
‘Mr. Craggs,’ said Snitchey, much relieved, ‘will you oblige me with another pinch of snuff? Thank you! I am happy to say it don’t signify, Mr. Warden; she’s engaged, sir, she’s bespoke. My partner can corroborate me. We know the fact.’
‘We know the fact,’ repeated Craggs.
‘Why, so do I perhaps,’ returned the client quietly. ‘What of that! Are you men of the world, and did you never hear of a woman changing her mind?’
‘There certainly have been actions for breach,’ said Mr. Snitchey, ‘brought against both spinsters and widows, but, in the majority of cases—’
‘Cases!’ interposed the client, impatiently. ‘Don’t talk to me of cases. The general precedent is in a much larger volume than any of your law books. Besides, do you think I have lived six weeks in the Doctor’s house for nothing?’
‘I think, sir,’ observed Mr. Snitchey, gravely addressing himself to his partner, ‘that of all the scrapes Mr. Warden’s horses have brought him into at one time and another—and they have been pretty numerous, and pretty expensive, as none know better than himself, and you, and I—the worst scrape may turn out to be, if he talks in this way, this having ever been left by one of them at the Doctor’s garden wall, with three broken ribs, a snapped collar–bone, and the Lord knows how many bruises. We didn’t think so much of it, at the time when we knew he was going on well under the Doctor’s hands and roof; but it looks bad now, sir. Bad? It looks very bad. Doctor Jeddler too—our client, Mr. Craggs.’
‘Mr. Alfred Heathfield too—a sort of client, Mr. Snitchey,’ said Craggs.
‘Mr. Michael Warden too, a kind of client,’ said the careless visitor, ‘and no bad one either: having played the fool for ten or twelve years. However, Mr. Michael Warden has sown his wild oats now—there’s their crop, in that box; and he means to repent and be wise. And in proof of it, Mr. Michael Warden means, if he can, to marry Marion, the Doctor’s lovely daughter, and to carry her away with him.’
‘Really, Mr. Craggs,’ Snitchey began.
‘Really, Mr. Snitchey, and Mr. Craggs, partners both,’ said the client, interrupting him; ‘you know your duty to your clients, and you know well enough, I am sure, that it is no part of it to interfere in a mere love affair, which I am obliged to confide to you. I am not going to carry the young lady off, without her own consent. There’s nothing illegal in it. I never was Mr. Heathfield’s bosom friend. I violate no confidence of his. I love where he loves, and I mean to win where he would win, if I can.’
‘He can’t, Mr. Craggs,’ said Snitchey, evidently anxious and discomfited. ‘He can’t do it, sir. She dotes on Mr. Alfred.’
‘Does she?’ returned the client.
‘Mr. Craggs, she dotes on him, sir,’ persisted Snitchey.
‘I didn’t live six weeks, some few months ago, in the Doctor’s house for nothing; and I doubted that soon,’ observed the client. ‘She would have doted on him, if her sister could have brought it about; but I watched them. Marion avoided his name, avoided the subject: shrunk from the least allusion to it, with evident distress.’
‘Why should she, Mr. Craggs, you know? Why should she, sir?’ inquired Snitchey.
‘I don’t know why she should, though there are many likely reasons,’ said the client, smiling at the attention and perplexity expressed in Mr. Snitchey’s shining eye, and at his cautious way of carrying on the conversation, and making himself informed upon the subject; ‘but I know she does. She was very young when she made the engagement—if it may be called one, I am not even sure of that—and has repented of it, perhaps. Perhaps—it seems a foppish thing to say, but upon my soul I don’t mean it in that light—she may have fallen in love with me, as I have fallen in love with her.’
‘He, he! Mr. Alfred, her old playfellow too, you remember, Mr. Craggs,’ said Snitchey, with a disconcerted laugh; ‘knew her almost from a baby!’
‘Which makes it the more probable that she may be tired of his idea,’ calmly pursued the client, ‘and not indisposed to exchange it for the newer one of another lover, who presents himself (or is presented by his horse) under romantic circumstances; has the not unfavourable reputation—with a country girl—of having lived thoughtlessly and gaily, without doing much harm to anybody; and who, for his youth and figure, and so forth—this may seem foppish again, but upon my soul I don’t mean it in that light—might perhaps pass muster in a crowd with Mr. Alfred himself.’
There was no gainsaying the last clause, certainly; and Mr. Snitchey, glancing at him, thought so. There was something naturally graceful and pleasant in the very carelessness of his air. It seemed to suggest, of his comely face and well–knit figure, that they might be greatly better if he chose: and that, once roused and made earnest (but he never had been earnest yet), he could be full of fire and purpose. ‘A dangerous sort of libertine,’ thought the shrewd lawyer, ‘to seem to catch the spark he wants, from a young lady’s eyes.’
‘Now, observe, Snitchey,’ he continued, rising and taking him by the button, ‘and Craggs,’ taking him by the button also, and placing one partner on either side of him, so that neither might evade him. ‘I don’t ask you for any advice. You are right to keep quite aloof from all parties in such a matter, which is not one in which grave men like you could interfere, on any side. I am briefly going to review in half–a–dozen words, my position and intention, and then I shall leave it to you to do the best for me, in money matters, that you can: seeing, that, if I run away with the Doctor’s beautiful daughter (as I hope to do, and to become another man under her bright influence), it will be, for the moment, more chargeable than running away alone. But I shall soon make all that up in an altered life.’
‘I think it will be better not to hear this, Mr. Craggs?’ said Snitchey, looking at him across the client.
‘I think not,’ said Craggs. —Both listened attentively.
‘Well! You needn’t hear it,’ replied their client. ‘I’ll mention it, however. I don’t mean to ask the Doctor’s consent, because he wouldn’t give it me. But I mean to do the Doctor no wrong or harm, because (besides there being nothing serious in such trifles, as he says) I hope to rescue his child, my Marion, from what I see—I know—she dreads, and contemplates with misery: that is, the return of this old lover. If anything in the world is true, it is true that she dreads his return. Nobody is injured so far. I am so harried and worried here just now, that I lead the life of a flying–fish. I skulk about in the dark, I am shut out of my own house, and warned off my own grounds; but, that house, and those grounds, and many an acre besides, will come back to me one day, as you know and say; and Marion will probably be richer—on your showing, who are never sanguine—ten years hence as my wife, than as the wife of Alfred Heathfield, whose return she dreads (remember that), and in whom or in any man, my passion is not surpassed. Who is injured yet? It is a fair case throughout. My right is as good as his, if she decide in my favour; and I will try my right by her alone. You will like to know no more after this, and I will tell you no more. Now you know my purpose, and wants. When must I leave here?’
‘In a week,’ said Snitchey. ‘Mr. Craggs?’
‘In something less, I should say,’ responded Craggs.
‘In a month,’ said the client, after attentively watching the two faces. ‘This day month. To–day is Thursday. Succeed or fail, on this day month I go.’
‘It’s too long a delay,’ said Snitchey; ‘much too long. But let it be so. I thought he’d have stipulated for three,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Are you going? Good night, sir!’
‘Good night!’ returned the client, shaking hands with the Firm.
‘You’ll live to see me making a good use of riches yet. Henceforth the star of my destiny is, Marion!’
‘Take care of the stairs, sir,’ replied Snitchey; ‘for she don’t shine there. Good night!’
So they both stood at the stair–head with a pair of office–candles, watching him down. When he had gone away, they stood looking at each other.
‘What do you think of all this, Mr. Craggs?’ said Snitchey.
Mr. Craggs shook his head.
‘It was our opinion, on the day when that release was executed, that there was something curious in the parting of that pair; I recollect,’ said Snitchey.
‘It was,’ said Mr. Craggs.
‘Perhaps he deceives himself altogether,’ pursued Mr. Snitchey, locking up the fireproof box, and putting it away; ‘or, if he don’t, a little bit of fickleness and perfidy is not a miracle, Mr. Craggs. And yet I thought that pretty face was very true. I thought,’ said Mr. Snitchey, putting on his great–coat (for the weather was very cold), drawing on his gloves, and snuffing out one candle, ‘that I had even seen her character becoming stronger and more resolved of late. More like her sister’s.’
‘Mrs. Craggs was of the same opinion,’ returned Craggs.
‘I’d really give a trifle to–night,’ observed Mr. Snitchey, who was a good–natured man, ‘if I could believe that Mr. Warden was reckoning without his host; but, light–headed, capricious, and unballasted as he is, he knows something of the world and its people (he ought to, for he has bought what he does know, dear enough); and I can’t quite think that. We had better not interfere: we can do nothing, Mr. Craggs, but keep quiet.’
‘Nothing,’ returned Craggs.
‘Our friend the Doctor makes light of such things,’ said Mr. Snitchey, shaking his head. ‘I hope he mayn’t stand in need of his philosophy. Our friend Alfred talks of the battle of life,’ he shook his head again, ‘I hope he mayn’t be cut down early in the day. Have you got your hat, Mr. Craggs? I am going to put the other candle out.’ Mr. Craggs replying in the affirmative, Mr. Snitchey suited the action to the word, and they groped their way out of the council–chamber, now dark as the subject, or the law in general.
My story passes to a quiet little study, where, on that same night, the sisters and the hale old Doctor sat by a cheerful fireside. Grace was working at her needle. Marion read aloud from a book before her. The Doctor, in his dressing–gown and slippers, with his feet spread out upon the warm rug, leaned back in his easy–chair, and listened to the book, and looked upon his daughters.
They were very beautiful to look upon. Two better faces for a fireside, never made a fireside bright and sacred. Something of the difference between them had been softened down in three years’ time; and enthroned upon the clear brow of the younger sister, looking through her eyes, and thrilling in her voice, was the same earnest nature that her own motherless youth had ripened in the elder sister long ago. But she still appeared at once the lovelier and weaker of the two; still seemed to rest her head upon her sister’s breast, and put her trust in her, and look into her eyes for counsel and reliance. Those loving eyes, so calm, serene, and cheerful, as of old.
‘“And being in her own home,”’ read Marion, from the book; ‘“her home made exquisitely dear by these remembrances, she now began to know that the great trial of her heart must soon come on, and could not be delayed. O Home, our comforter and friend when others fall away, to part with whom, at any step between the cradle and the grave—”’
‘Marion, my love!’ said Grace.
‘Why, Puss!’ exclaimed her father, ‘what’s the matter?’
She put her hand upon the hand her sister stretched towards her, and read on; her voice still faltering and trembling, though she made an effort to command it when thus interrupted.
‘“To part with whom, at any step between the cradle and the grave, is always sorrowful. O Home, so true to us, so often slighted in return, be lenient to them that turn away from thee, and do not haunt their erring footsteps too reproachfully! Let no kind looks, no well–remembered smiles, be seen upon thy phantom face. Let no ray of affection, welcome, gentleness, forbearance, cordiality, shine from thy white head. Let no old loving word, or tone, rise up in judgment against thy deserter; but if thou canst look harshly and severely, do, in mercy to the Penitent!”’
‘Dear Marion, read no more to–night,’ said Grace for she was weeping.
‘I cannot,’ she replied, and closed the book. ‘The words seem all on fire!’
The Doctor was amused at this; and laughed as he patted her on the head.
‘What! overcome by a story–book!’ said Doctor Jeddler. ‘Print and paper! Well, well, it’s all one. It’s as rational to make a serious matter of print and paper as of anything else. But, dry your eyes, love, dry your eyes. I dare say the heroine has got home again long ago, and made it up all round—and if she hasn’t, a real home is only four walls; and a fictitious one, mere rags and ink. What’s the matter now?’
‘It’s only me, Mister,’ said Clemency, putting in her head at the door.
‘And what’s the matter with you?’ said the Doctor.
‘Oh, bless you, nothing an’t the matter with me,’ returned Clemency—and truly too, to judge from her well–soaped face, in which there gleamed as usual the very soul of good–humour, which, ungainly as she was, made her quite engaging. Abrasions on the elbows are not generally understood, it is true, to range within that class of personal charms called beauty–spots. But, it is better, going through the world, to have the arms chafed in that narrow passage, than the temper: and Clemency’s was sound and whole as any beauty’s in the land.
‘Nothing an’t the matter with me,’ said Clemency, entering, ‘but—come a little closer, Mister.’
The Doctor, in some astonishment, complied with this invitation.
‘You said I wasn’t to give you one before them, you know,’ said Clemency.
A novice in the family might have supposed, from her extraordinary ogling as she said it, as well as from a singular rapture or ecstasy which pervaded her elbows, as if she were embracing herself, that ‘one,’ in its most favourable interpretation, meant a chaste salute. Indeed the Doctor himself seemed alarmed, for the moment; but quickly regained his composure, as Clemency, having had recourse to both her pockets—beginning with the right one, going away to the wrong one, and afterwards coming back to the right one again—produced a letter from the Post–office.
‘Britain was riding by on a errand,’ she chuckled, handing it to the Doctor, ‘and see the mail come in, and waited for it. There’s A. H. in the corner. Mr. Alfred’s on his journey home, I bet. We shall have a wedding in the house—there was two spoons in my saucer this morning. Oh Luck, how slow he opens it!’
All this she delivered, by way of soliloquy, gradually rising higher and higher on tiptoe, in her impatience to hear the news, and making a corkscrew of her apron, and a bottle of her mouth. At last, arriving at a climax of suspense, and seeing the Doctor still engaged in the perusal of the letter, she came down flat upon the soles of her feet again, and cast her apron, as a veil, over her head, in a mute despair, and inability to bear it any longer.
‘Here! Girls!’ cried the Doctor. ‘I can’t help it: I never could keep a secret in my life. There are not many secrets, indeed, worth being kept in such a—well! never mind that. Alfred’s coming home, my dears, directly.’
‘Directly!’ exclaimed Marion.
‘What! The story–book is soon forgotten!’ said the Doctor, pinching her cheek. ‘I thought the news would dry those tears. Yes. “Let it be a surprise,” he says, here. But I can’t let it be a surprise. He must have a welcome.’
‘Directly!’ repeated Marion.
‘Why, perhaps not what your impatience calls “directly,”’ returned the doctor; ‘but pretty soon too. Let us see. Let us see. To–day is Thursday, is it not? Then he promises to be here, this day month.’
‘This day month!’ repeated Marion, softly.
‘A gay day and a holiday for us,’ said the cheerful voice of her sister Grace, kissing her in congratulation. ‘Long looked forward to, dearest, and come at last.’
She answered with a smile; a mournful smile, but full of sisterly affection. As she looked in her sister’s face, and listened to the quiet music of her voice, picturing the happiness of this return, her own face glowed with hope and joy.
And with a something else; a something shining more and more through all the rest of its expression; for which I have no name. It was not exultation, triumph, proud enthusiasm. They are not so calmly shown. It was not love and gratitude alone, though love and gratitude were part of it. It emanated from no sordid thought, for sordid thoughts do not light up the brow, and hover on the lips, and move the spirit like a fluttered light, until the sympathetic figure trembles.
Dr. Jeddler, in spite of his system of philosophy—which he was continually contradicting and denying in practice, but more famous philosophers have done that—could not help having as much interest in the return of his old ward and pupil as if it had been a serious event. So he sat himself down in his easy–chair again, stretched out his slippered feet once more upon the rug, read the letter over and over a great many times, and talked it over more times still.
‘Ah! The day was,’ said the Doctor, looking at the fire, ‘when you and he, Grace, used to trot about arm–in–arm, in his holiday time, like a couple of walking dolls. You remember?’
‘I remember,’ she answered, with her pleasant laugh, and plying her needle busily.
‘This day month, indeed!’ mused the Doctor. ‘That hardly seems a twelve month ago. And where was my little Marion then!’
‘Never far from her sister,’ said Marion, cheerily, ‘however little. Grace was everything to me, even when she was a young child herself.’
‘True, Puss, true,’ returned the Doctor. ‘She was a staid little woman, was Grace, and a wise housekeeper, and a busy, quiet, pleasant body; bearing with our humours and anticipating our wishes, and always ready to forget her own, even in those times. I never knew you positive or obstinate, Grace, my darling, even then, on any subject but one.’
‘I am afraid I have changed sadly for the worse, since,’ laughed Grace, still busy at her work. ‘What was that one, father?’
‘Alfred, of course,’ said the Doctor. ‘Nothing would serve you but you must be called Alfred’s wife; so we called you Alfred’s wife; and you liked it better, I believe (odd as it seems now), than being called a Duchess, if we could have made you one.’
‘Indeed?’ said Grace, placidly.
‘Why, don’t you remember?’ inquired the Doctor.
‘I think I remember something of it,’ she returned, ‘but not much. It’s so long ago.’ And as she sat at work, she hummed the burden of an old song, which the Doctor liked.
‘Alfred will find a real wife soon,’ she said, breaking off; ‘and that will be a happy time indeed for all of us. My three years’ trust is nearly at an end, Marion. It has been a very easy one. I shall tell Alfred, when I give you back to him, that you have loved him dearly all the time, and that he has never once needed my good services. May I tell him so, love?’
‘Tell him, dear Grace,’ replied Marion, ‘that there never was a trust so generously, nobly, steadfastly discharged; and that I have loved you, all the time, dearer and dearer every day; and O! how dearly now!’
‘Nay,’ said her cheerful sister, returning her embrace, ‘I can scarcely tell him that; we will leave my deserts to Alfred’s imagination. It will be liberal enough, dear Marion; like your own.’
With that, she resumed the work she had for a moment laid down, when her sister spoke so fervently: and with it the old song the Doctor liked to hear. And the Doctor, still reposing in his easy–chair, with his slippered feet stretched out before him on the rug, listened to the tune, and beat time on his knee with Alfred’s letter, and looked at his two daughters, and thought that among the many trifles of the trifling world, these trifles were agreeable enough.
Clemency Newcome, in the meantime, having accomplished her mission and lingered in the room until she had made herself a party to the news, descended to the kitchen, where her coadjutor, Mr. Britain, was regaling after supper, surrounded by such a plentiful collection of bright pot–lids, well–scoured saucepans, burnished dinner–covers, gleaming kettles, and other tokens of her industrious habits, arranged upon the walls and shelves, that he sat as in the centre of a hall of mirrors. The majority did not give forth very flattering portraits of him, certainly; nor were they by any means unanimous in their reflections; as some made him very long–faced, others very broad–faced, some tolerably well–looking, others vastly ill–looking, according to their several manners of reflecting: which were as various, in respect of one fact, as those of so many kinds of men. But they all agreed that in the midst of them sat, quite at his ease, an individual with a pipe in his mouth, and a jug of beer at his elbow, who nodded condescendingly to Clemency, when she stationed herself at the same table.
‘Well, Clemmy,’ said Britain, ‘how are you by this time, and what’s the news?’
Clemency told him the news, which he received very graciously. A gracious change had come over Benjamin from head to foot. He was much broader, much redder, much more cheerful, and much jollier in all respects. It seemed as if his face had been tied up in a knot before, and was now untwisted and smoothed out.
‘There’ll be another job for Snitchey and Craggs, I suppose,’ he observed, puffing slowly at his pipe. ‘More witnessing for you and me, perhaps, Clemmy!’
‘Lor!’ replied his fair companion, with her favourite twist of her favourite joints. ‘I wish it was me, Britain!’
‘Wish what was you?’
‘A–going to be married,’ said Clemency.
Benjamin took his pipe out of his mouth and laughed heartily. ‘Yes! you’re a likely subject for that!’ he said. ‘Poor Clem!’ Clemency for her part laughed as heartily as he, and seemed as much amused by the idea. ‘Yes,’ she assented, ‘I’m a likely subject for that; an’t I?’
‘You’ll never be married, you know,’ said Mr. Britain, resuming his pipe.
‘Don’t you think I ever shall though?’ said Clemency, in perfect good faith.
Mr. Britain shook his head. ‘Not a chance of it!’
‘Only think!’ said Clemency. ‘Well!—I suppose you mean to, Britain, one of these days; don’t you?’
A question so abrupt, upon a subject so momentous, required consideration. After blowing out a great cloud of smoke, and looking at it with his head now on this side and now on that, as if it were actually the question, and he were surveying it in various aspects, Mr. Britain replied that he wasn’t altogether clear about it, but—ye–es—he thought he might come to that at last.
‘I wish her joy, whoever she may be!’ cried Clemency.
‘Oh she’ll have that,’ said Benjamin, ‘safe enough.’
‘But she wouldn’t have led quite such a joyful life as she will lead, and wouldn’t have had quite such a sociable sort of husband as she will have,’ said Clemency, spreading herself half over the table, and staring retrospectively at the candle, ‘if it hadn’t been for—not that I went to do it, for it was accidental, I am sure—if it hadn’t been for me; now would she, Britain?’
‘Certainly not,’ returned Mr. Britain, by this time in that high state of appreciation of his pipe, when a man can open his mouth but a very little way for speaking purposes; and sitting luxuriously immovable in his chair, can afford to turn only his eyes towards a companion, and that very passively and gravely. ‘Oh! I’m greatly beholden to you, you know, Clem.’
‘Lor, how nice that is to think of!’ said Clemency.
At the same time, bringing her thoughts as well as her sight to bear upon the candle–grease, and becoming abruptly reminiscent of its healing qualities as a balsam, she anointed her left elbow with a plentiful application of that remedy.
‘You see I’ve made a good many investigations of one sort and another in my time,’ pursued Mr. Britain, with the profundity of a sage, ‘having been always of an inquiring turn of mind; and I’ve read a good many books about the general Rights of things and Wrongs of things, for I went into the literary line myself, when I began life.’
‘Did you though!’ cried the admiring Clemency.
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Britain: ‘I was hid for the best part of two years behind a bookstall, ready to fly out if anybody pocketed a volume; and after that, I was light porter to a stay and mantua maker, in which capacity I was employed to carry about, in oilskin baskets, nothing but deceptions—which soured my spirits and disturbed my confidence in human nature; and after that, I heard a world of discussions in this house, which soured my spirits fresh; and my opinion after all is, that, as a safe and comfortable sweetener of the same, and as a pleasant guide through life, there’s nothing like a nutmeg–grater.’
Clemency was about to offer a suggestion, but he stopped her by anticipating it.
‘Combined,’ he added gravely, ‘with a thimble.’
‘Do as you wold, you know, and cetrer, eh!’ observed Clemency, folding her arms comfortably in her delight at this avowal, and patting her elbows. ‘Such a short cut, an’t it?’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Mr. Britain, ‘that it’s what would be considered good philosophy. I’ve my doubts about that; but it wears well, and saves a quantity of snarling, which the genuine article don’t always.’
‘See how you used to go on once, yourself, you know!’ said Clemency.
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Britain. ‘But the most extraordinary thing, Clemmy, is that I should live to be brought round, through you. That’s the strange part of it. Through you! Why, I suppose you haven’t so much as half an idea in your head.’
Clemency, without taking the least offence, shook it, and laughed and hugged herself, and said, ‘No, she didn’t suppose she had.’
‘I’m pretty sure of it,’ said Mr. Britain.
‘Oh! I dare say you’re right,’ said Clemency. ‘I don’t pretend to none. I don’t want any.’
Benjamin took his pipe from his lips, and laughed till the tears ran down his face. ‘What a natural you are, Clemmy!’ he said, shaking his head, with an infinite relish of the joke, and wiping his eyes. Clemency, without the smallest inclination to dispute it, did the like, and laughed as heartily as he.
‘I can’t help liking you,’ said Mr. Britain; ‘you’re a regular good creature in your way, so shake hands, Clem. Whatever happens, I’ll always take notice of you, and be a friend to you.’
‘Will you?’ returned Clemency. ‘Well! that’s very good of you.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Mr. Britain, giving her his pipe to knock the ashes out of it; ‘I’ll stand by you. Hark! That’s a curious noise!’
‘Noise!’ repeated Clemency.
‘A footstep outside. Somebody dropping from the wall, it sounded like,’ said Britain. ‘Are they all abed up–stairs?’
‘Yes, all abed by this time,’ she replied.
‘Didn’t you hear anything?’
They both listened, but heard nothing.
‘I tell you what,’ said Benjamin, taking down a lantern. ‘I’ll have a look round, before I go to bed myself, for satisfaction’s sake. Undo the door while I light this, Clemmy.’
Clemency complied briskly; but observed as she did so, that he would only have his walk for his pains, that it was all his fancy, and so forth. Mr. Britain said ‘very likely;’ but sallied out, nevertheless, armed with the poker, and casting the light of the lantern far and near in all directions.
‘It’s as quiet as a churchyard,’ said Clemency, looking after him; ‘and almost as ghostly too!’
Glancing back into the kitchen, she cried fearfully, as a light figure stole into her view, ‘What’s that!’
‘Hush!’ said Marion in an agitated whisper. ‘You have always loved me, have you not!’
‘Loved you, child! You may be sure I have.’
‘I am sure. And I may trust you, may I not? There is no one else just now, in whom I can trust.’
‘Yes,’ said Clemency, with all her heart.
‘There is some one out there,’ pointing to the door, ‘whom I must see, and speak with, to–night. Michael Warden, for God’s sake retire! Not now!’
Clemency started with surprise and trouble as, following the direction of the speaker’s eyes, she saw a dark figure standing in the doorway.
‘In another moment you may be discovered,’ said Marion. ‘Not now! Wait, if you can, in some concealment. I will come presently.’
He waved his hand to her, and was gone. ‘Don’t go to bed. Wait here for me!’ said Marion, hurriedly. ‘I have been seeking to speak to you for an hour past. Oh, be true to me!’
Eagerly seizing her bewildered hand, and pressing it with both her own to her breast—an action more expressive, in its passion of entreaty, than the most eloquent appeal in words,—Marion withdrew; as the light of the returning lantern flashed into the room.
‘All still and peaceable. Nobody there. Fancy, I suppose,’ said Mr. Britain, as he locked and barred the door. ‘One of the effects of having a lively imagination. Halloa! Why, what’s the matter?’
Clemency, who could not conceal the effects of her surprise and concern, was sitting in a chair: pale, and trembling from head to foot.
‘Matter!’ she repeated, chafing her hands and elbows, nervously, and looking anywhere but at him. ‘That’s good in you, Britain, that is! After going and frightening one out of one’s life with noises and lanterns, and I don’t know what all. Matter! Oh, yes!’
‘If you’re frightened out of your life by a lantern, Clemmy,’ said Mr. Britain, composedly blowing it out and hanging it up again, ‘that apparition’s very soon got rid of. But you’re as bold as brass in general,’ he said, stopping to observe her; ‘and were, after the noise and the lantern too. What have you taken into your head? Not an idea, eh?’
But, as Clemency bade him good night very much after her usual fashion, and began to bustle about with a show of going to bed herself immediately, Little Britain, after giving utterance to the original remark that it was impossible to account for a woman’s whims, bade her good night in return, and taking up his candle strolled drowsily away to bed.
When all was quiet, Marion returned.
‘Open the door,’ she said; ‘and stand there close beside me, while I speak to him, outside.’
Timid as her manner was, it still evinced a resolute and settled purpose, such as Clemency could not resist. She softly unbarred the door: but before turning the key, looked round on the young creature waiting to issue forth when she should open it.
The face was not averted or cast down, but looking full upon her, in its pride of youth and beauty. Some simple sense of the slightness of the barrier that interposed itself between the happy home and honoured love of the fair girl, and what might be the desolation of that home, and shipwreck of its dearest treasure, smote so keenly on the tender heart of Clemency, and so filled it to overflowing with sorrow and compassion, that, bursting into tears, she threw her arms round Marion’s neck.
‘It’s little that I know, my dear,’ cried Clemency, ‘very little; but I know that this should not be. Think of what you do!’
‘I have thought of it many times,’ said Marion, gently.
‘Once more,’ urged Clemency. ‘Till to–morrow.’ Marion shook her head.
‘For Mr. Alfred’s sake,’ said Clemency, with homely earnestness. ‘Him that you used to love so dearly, once!’
She hid her face, upon the instant, in her hands, repeating ‘Once!’ as if it rent her heart.
‘Let me go out,’ said Clemency, soothing her. ‘I’ll tell him what you like. Don’t cross the door–step to–night. I’m sure no good will come of it. Oh, it was an unhappy day when Mr. Warden was ever brought here! Think of your good father, darling—of your sister.’
‘I have,’ said Marion, hastily raising her head. ‘You don’t know what I do. I must speak to him. You are the best and truest friend in all the world for what you have said to me, but I must take this step. Will you go with me, Clemency,’ she kissed her on her friendly face, ‘or shall I go alone?’
Sorrowing and wondering, Clemency turned the key, and opened the door. Into the dark and doubtful night that lay beyond the threshold, Marion passed quickly, holding by her hand.
In the dark night he joined her, and they spoke together earnestly and long; and the hand that held so fast by Clemeney’s, now trembled, now turned deadly cold, now clasped and closed on hers, in the strong feeling of the speech it emphasised unconsciously. When they returned, he followed to the door, and pausing there a moment, seized the other hand, and pressed it to his lips. Then, stealthily withdrew.
The door was barred and locked again, and once again she stood beneath her father’s roof. Not bowed down by the secret that she brought there, though so young; but, with that same expression on her face for which I had no name before, and shining through her tears.
Again she thanked and thanked her humble friend, and trusted to her, as she said, with confidence, implicitly. Her chamber safely reached, she fell upon her knees; and with her secret weighing on her heart, could pray!
Could rise up from her prayers, so tranquil and serene, and bending over her fond sister in her slumber, look upon her face and smile—though sadly: murmuring as she kissed her forehead, how that Grace had been a mother to her, ever, and she loved her as a child!
Could draw the passive arm about her neck when lying down to rest—it seemed to cling there, of its own will, protectingly and tenderly even in sleep—and breathe upon the parted lips, God bless her!
Could sink into a peaceful sleep, herself; but for one dream, in which she cried out, in her innocent and touching voice, that she was quite alone, and they had all forgotten her.
A month soon passes, even at its tardiest pace. The month appointed to elapse between that night and the return, was quick of foot, and went by, like a vapour.
The day arrived. A raging winter day, that shook the old house, sometimes, as if it shivered in the blast. A day to make home doubly home. To give the chimney–corner new delights. To shed a ruddier glow upon the faces gathered round the hearth, and draw each fireside group into a closer and more social league, against the roaring elements without. Such a wild winter day as best prepares the way for shut–out night; for curtained rooms, and cheerful looks; for music, laughter, dancing, light, and jovial entertainment!
All these the Doctor had in store to welcome Alfred back. They knew that he could not arrive till night; and they would make the night air ring, he said, as he approached. All his old friends should congregate about him. He should not miss a face that he had known and liked. No! They should every one be there!
So, guests were bidden, and musicians were engaged, and tables spread, and floors prepared for active feet, and bountiful provision made, of every hospitable kind. Because it was the Christmas season, and his eyes were all unused to English holly and its sturdy green, the dancing–room was garlanded and hung with it; and the red berries gleamed an English welcome to him, peeping from among the leaves.
It was a busy day for all of them: a busier day for none of them than Grace, who noiselessly presided everywhere, and was the cheerful mind of all the preparations. Many a time that day (as well as many a time within the fleeting month preceding it), did Clemency glance anxiously, and almost fearfully, at Marion. She saw her paler, perhaps, than usual; but there was a sweet composure on her face that made it lovelier than ever.
At night when she was dressed, and wore upon her head a wreath that Grace had proudly twined about it—its mimic flowers were Alfred’s favourites, as Grace remembered when she chose them—that old expression, pensive, almost sorrowful, and yet so spiritual, high, and stirring, sat again upon her brow, enhanced a hundred–fold.
‘The next wreath I adjust on this fair head, will be a marriage wreath,’ said Grace; ‘or I am no true prophet, dear.’
Her sister smiled, and held her in her arms.
‘A moment, Grace. Don’t leave me yet. Are you sure that I want nothing more?’
Her care was not for that. It was her sister’s face she thought of, and her eyes were fixed upon it, tenderly.
‘My art,’ said Grace, ‘can go no farther, dear girl; nor your beauty. I never saw you look so beautiful as now.’
‘I never was so happy,’ she returned.
‘Ay, but there is a greater happiness in store. In such another home, as cheerful and as bright as this looks now,’ said Grace, ‘Alfred and his young wife will soon be living.’
She smiled again. ‘It is a happy home, Grace, in your fancy. I can see it in your eyes. I know it will be happy, dear. How glad I am to know it.’
‘Well,’ cried the Doctor, bustling in. ‘Here we are, all ready for Alfred, eh? He can’t be here until pretty late—an hour or so before midnight—so there’ll be plenty of time for making merry before he comes. He’ll not find us with the ice unbroken. Pile up the fire here, Britain! Let it shine upon the holly till it winks again. It’s a world of nonsense, Puss; true lovers and all the rest of it—all nonsense; but we’ll be nonsensical with the rest of ’em, and give our true lover a mad welcome. Upon my word!’ said the old Doctor, looking at his daughters proudly, ‘I’m not clear to–night, among other absurdities, but that I’m the father of two handsome girls.’
‘All that one of them has ever done, or may do—may do, dearest father—to cause you pain or grief, forgive her,’ said Marion, ‘forgive her now, when her heart is full. Say that you forgive her. That you will forgive her. That she shall always share your love, and—,’ and the rest was not said, for her face was hidden on the old man’s shoulder.
‘Tut, tut, tut,’ said the Doctor gently. ‘Forgive! What have I to forgive? Heyday, if our true lovers come back to flurry us like this, we must hold ’em at a distance; we must send expresses out to stop ’em short upon the road, and bring ’em on a mile or two a day, until we’re properly prepared to meet ’em. Kiss me, Puss. Forgive! Why, what a silly child you are! If you had vexed and crossed me fifty times a day, instead of not at all, I’d forgive you everything, but such a supplication. Kiss me again, Puss. There! Prospective and retrospective—a clear score between us. Pile up the fire here! Would you freeze the people on this bleak December night! Let us be light, and warm, and merry, or I’ll not forgive some of you!’
So gaily the old Doctor carried it! And the fire was piled up, and the lights were bright, and company arrived, and a murmuring of lively tongues began, and already there was a pleasant air of cheerful excitement stirring through all the house.
More and more company came flocking in. Bright eyes sparkled upon Marion; smiling lips gave her joy of his return; sage mothers fanned themselves, and hoped she mightn’t be too youthful and inconstant for the quiet round of home; impetuous fathers fell into disgrace for too much exaltation of her beauty; daughters envied her; sons envied him; innumerable pairs of lovers profited by the occasion; all were interested, animated, and expectant.
Mr. and Mrs. Craggs came arm in arm, but Mrs. Snitchey came alone. ‘Why, what’s become of him?’ inquired the Doctor.
The feather of a Bird of Paradise in Mrs. Snitchey’s turban, trembled as if the Bird of Paradise were alive again, when she said that doubtless Mr. Craggs knew. She was never told.
‘That nasty office,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
‘I wish it was burnt down,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘He’s—he’s—there’s a little matter of business that keeps my partner rather late,’ said Mr. Craggs, looking uneasily about him.
‘Oh–h! Business. Don’t tell me!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘We know what business means,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
But their not knowing what it meant, was perhaps the reason why Mrs. Snitchey’s Bird of Paradise feather quivered so portentously, and why all the pendant bits on Mrs. Craggs’s ear–rings shook like little bells.
‘I wonder you could come away, Mr. Craggs,’ said his wife.
‘Mr. Craggs is fortunate, I’m sure!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘That office so engrosses ’em,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
‘A person with an office has no business to be married at all,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
Then, Mrs. Snitchey said, within herself, that that look of hers had pierced to Craggs’s soul, and he knew it; and Mrs. Craggs observed to Craggs, that ‘his Snitcheys’ were deceiving him behind his back, and he would find it out when it was too late.
Still, Mr. Craggs, without much heeding these remarks, looked uneasily about until his eye rested on Grace, to whom he immediately presented himself.
‘Good evening, ma’am,’ said Craggs. ‘You look charmingly. Your—Miss—your sister, Miss Marion, is she—’
‘Oh, she’s quite well, Mr. Craggs.’
‘Yes—I—is she here?’ asked Craggs.
‘Here! Don’t you see her yonder? Going to dance?’ said Grace.
Mr. Craggs put on his spectacles to see the better; looked at her through them, for some time; coughed; and put them, with an air of satisfaction, in their sheath again, and in his pocket.
Now the music struck up, and the dance commenced. The bright fire crackled and sparkled, rose and fell, as though it joined the dance itself, in right good fellowship. Sometimes, it roared as if it would make music too. Sometimes, it flashed and beamed as if it were the eye of the old room: it winked too, sometimes, like a knowing patriarch, upon the youthful whisperers in corners. Sometimes, it sported with the holly–boughs; and, shining on the leaves by fits and starts, made them look as if they were in the cold winter night again, and fluttering in the wind. Sometimes its genial humour grew obstreperous, and passed all bounds; and then it cast into the room, among the twinkling feet, with a loud burst, a shower of harmless little sparks, and in its exultation leaped and bounded, like a mad thing, up the broad old chimney.
Another dance was near its close, when Mr. Snitchey touched his partner, who was looking on, upon the arm.
Mr. Craggs started, as if his familiar had been a spectre.
‘Is he gone?’ he asked.
‘Hush! He has been with me,’ said Snitchey, ‘for three hours and more. He went over everything. He looked into all our arrangements for him, and was very particular indeed. He—Humph!’
The dance was finished. Marion passed close before him, as he spoke. She did not observe him, or his partner; but, looked over her shoulder towards her sister in the distance, as she slowly made her way into the crowd, and passed out of their view.
‘You see! All safe and well,’ said Mr. Craggs. ‘He didn’t recur to that subject, I suppose?’
‘Not a word.’
‘And is he really gone? Is he safe away?’
‘He keeps to his word. He drops down the river with the tide in that shell of a boat of his, and so goes out to sea on this dark night!—a dare–devil he is—before the wind. There’s no such lonely road anywhere else. That’s one thing. The tide flows, he says, an hour before midnight—about this time. I’m glad it’s over.’ Mr. Snitchey wiped his forehead, which looked hot and anxious.
‘What do you think,’ said Mr. Craggs, ‘about—’
‘Hush!’ replied his cautious partner, looking straight before him. ‘I understand you. Don’t mention names, and don’t let us, seem to be talking secrets. I don’t know what to think; and to tell you the truth, I don’t care now. It’s a great relief. His self–love deceived him, I suppose. Perhaps the young lady coquetted a little. The evidence would seem to point that way. Alfred not arrived?’
‘Not yet,’ said Mr. Craggs. ‘Expected every minute.’
‘Good.’ Mr. Snitchey wiped his forehead again. ‘It’s a great relief. I haven’t been so nervous since we’ve been in partnership. I intend to spend the evening now, Mr. Craggs.’
Mrs. Craggs and Mrs. Snitchey joined them as he announced this intention. The Bird of Paradise was in a state of extreme vibration, and the little bells were ringing quite audibly.
‘It has been the theme of general comment, Mr. Snitchey,’ said Mrs. Snitchey. ‘I hope the office is satisfied.’
‘Satisfied with what, my dear?’ asked Mr. Snitchey.
‘With the exposure of a defenceless woman to ridicule and remark,’ returned his wife. ‘That is quite in the way of the office, that is.’
‘I really, myself,’ said Mrs. Craggs, ‘have been so long accustomed to connect the office with everything opposed to domesticity, that I am glad to know it as the avowed enemy of my peace. There is something honest in that, at all events.’
‘My dear,’ urged Mr. Craggs, ‘your good opinion is invaluable, but I never avowed that the office was the enemy of your peace.’
‘No,’ said Mrs. Craggs, ringing a perfect peal upon the little bells. ‘Not you, indeed. You wouldn’t be worthy of the office, if you had the candour to.’
‘As to my having been away to–night, my dear,’ said Mr. Snitchey, giving her his arm, ‘the deprivation has been mine, I’m sure; but, as Mr. Craggs knows—’
Mrs. Snitchey cut this reference very short by hitching her husband to a distance, and asking him to look at that man. To do her the favour to look at him!
‘At which man, my dear?’ said Mr. Snitchey.
‘Your chosen companion; I’m no companion to you, Mr. Snitchey.’
‘Yes, yes, you are, my dear,’ he interposed.
‘No, no, I’m not,’ said Mrs. Snitchey with a majestic smile. ‘I know my station. Will you look at your chosen companion, Mr. Snitchey; at your referee, at the keeper of your secrets, at the man you trust; at your other self, in short?’
The habitual association of Self with Craggs, occasioned Mr. Snitchey to look in that direction.
‘If you can look that man in the eye this night,’ said Mrs. Snitchey, ‘and not know that you are deluded, practised upon, made the victim of his arts, and bent down prostrate to his will by some unaccountable fascination which it is impossible to explain and against which no warning of mine is of the least avail, all I can say is—I pity you!’
At the very same moment Mrs. Craggs was oracular on the cross subject. Was it possible, she said, that Craggs could so blind himself to his Snitcheys, as not to feel his true position? Did he mean to say that he had seen his Snitcheys come into that room, and didn’t plainly see that there was reservation, cunning, treachery, in the man? Would he tell her that his very action, when he wiped his forehead and looked so stealthily about him, didn’t show that there was something weighing on the conscience of his precious Snitcheys (if he had a conscience), that wouldn’t bear the light? Did anybody but his Snitcheys come to festive entertainments like a burglar?—which, by the way, was hardly a clear illustration of the case, as he had walked in very mildly at the door. And would he still assert to her at noon–day (it being nearly midnight), that his Snitcheys were to be justified through thick and thin, against all facts, and reason, and experience?
Neither Snitchey nor Craggs openly attempted to stem the current which had thus set in, but, both were content to be carried gently along it, until its force abated. This happened at about the same time as a general movement for a country dance; when Mr. Snitchey proposed himself as a partner to Mrs. Craggs, and Mr. Craggs gallantly offered himself to Mrs. Snitchey; and after some such slight evasions as ‘why don’t you ask somebody else?’ and ‘you’ll be glad, I know, if I decline,’ and ‘I wonder you can dance out of the office’ (but this jocosely now), each lady graciously accepted, and took her place.
It was an old custom among them, indeed, to do so, and to pair off, in like manner, at dinners and suppers; for they were excellent friends, and on a footing of easy familiarity. Perhaps the false Craggs and the wicked Snitchey were a recognised fiction with the two wives, as Doe and Roe, incessantly running up and down bailiwicks, were with the two husbands: or, perhaps the ladies had instituted, and taken upon themselves, these two shares in the business, rather than be left out of it altogether. But, certain it is, that each wife went as gravely and steadily to work in her vocation as her husband did in his, and would have considered it almost impossible for the Firm to maintain a successful and respectable existence, without her laudable exertions.
But, now, the Bird of Paradise was seen to flutter down the middle; and the little bells began to bounce and jingle in poussette; and the Doctor’s rosy face spun round and round, like an expressive pegtop highly varnished; and breathless Mr. Craggs began to doubt already, whether country dancing had been made ‘too easy,’ like the rest of life; and Mr. Snitchey, with his nimble cuts and capers, footed it for Self and Craggs, and half–a–dozen more.
Now, too, the fire took fresh courage, favoured by the lively wind the dance awakened, and burnt clear and high. It was the Genius of the room, and present everywhere. It shone in people’s eyes, it sparkled in the jewels on the snowy necks of girls, it twinkled at their ears as if it whispered to them slyly, it flashed about their waists, it flickered on the ground and made it rosy for their feet, it bloomed upon the ceiling that its glow might set off their bright faces, and it kindled up a general illumination in Mrs. Craggs’s little belfry.
Now, too, the lively air that fanned it, grew less gentle as the music quickened and the dance proceeded with new spirit; and a breeze arose that made the leaves and berries dance upon the wall, as they had often done upon the trees; and the breeze rustled in the room as if an invisible company of fairies, treading in the foot–steps of the good substantial revellers, were whirling after them. Now, too, no feature of the Doctor’s face could be distinguished as he spun and spun; and now there seemed a dozen Birds of Paradise in fitful flight; and now there were a thousand little bells at work; and now a fleet of flying skirts was ruffled by a little tempest, when the music gave in, and the dance was over.
Hot and breathless as the Doctor was, it only made him the more impatient for Alfred’s coming.
‘Anything been seen, Britain? Anything been heard?’
‘Too dark to see far, sir. Too much noise inside the house to hear.’
‘That’s right! The gayer welcome for him. How goes the time?’
‘Just twelve, sir. He can’t be long, sir.’
‘Stir up the fire, and throw another log upon it,’ said the Doctor. ‘Let him see his welcome blazing out upon the night—good boy!—as he comes along!’
He saw it—Yes! From the chaise he caught the light, as he turned the corner by the old church. He knew the room from which it shone. He saw the wintry branches of the old trees between the light and him. He knew that one of those trees rustled musically in the summer time at the window of Marion’s chamber.
The tears were in his eyes. His heart throbbed so violently that he could hardly bear his happiness. How often he had thought of this time—pictured it under all circumstances—feared that it might never come—yearned, and wearied for it—far away!
Again the light! Distinct and ruddy; kindled, he knew, to give him welcome, and to speed him home. He beckoned with his hand, and waved his hat, and cheered out, loud, as if the light were they, and they could see and hear him, as he dashed towards them through the mud and mire, triumphantly.
Stop! He knew the Doctor, and understood what he had done. He would not let it be a surprise to them. But he could make it one, yet, by going forward on foot. If the orchard–gate were open, he could enter there; if not, the wall was easily climbed, as he knew of old; and he would be among them in an instant.
He dismounted from the chaise, and telling the driver—even that was not easy in his agitation—to remain behind for a few minutes, and then to follow slowly, ran on with exceeding swiftness, tried the gate, scaled the wall, jumped down on the other side, and stood panting in the old orchard.
There was a frosty rime upon the trees, which, in the faint light of the clouded moon, hung upon the smaller branches like dead garlands. Withered leaves crackled and snapped beneath his feet, as he crept softly on towards the house. The desolation of a winter night sat brooding on the earth, and in the sky. But, the red light came cheerily towards him from the windows; figures passed and repassed there; and the hum and murmur of voices greeted his ear sweetly.
Listening for hers: attempting, as he crept on, to detach it from the rest, and half believing that he heard it: he had nearly reached the door, when it was abruptly opened, and a figure coming out encountered his. It instantly recoiled with a half–suppressed cry.
‘Clemency,’ he said, ‘don’t you know me?’
‘Don’t come in!’ she answered, pushing him back. ‘Go away. Don’t ask me why. Don’t come in.’
‘What is the matter?’ he exclaimed.
‘I don’t know. I—I am afraid to think. Go back. Hark!’
There was a sudden tumult in the house. She put her hands upon her ears. A wild scream, such as no hands could shut out, was heard; and Grace—distraction in her looks and manner—rushed out at the door.
‘Grace!’ He caught her in his arms. ‘What is it! Is she dead!’
She disengaged herself, as if to recognise his face, and fell down at his feet.
A crowd of figures came about them from the house. Among them was her father, with a paper in his hand.
‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
‘Gone!’ he echoed.
‘Fled, my dear Alfred!’ said the Doctor, in a broken voice, and with his hands before his face. ‘Gone from her home and us. To–night! She writes that she has made her innocent and blameless choice—entreats that we will forgive her—prays that we will not forget her—and is gone.’
‘With whom? Where?’
He started up, as if to follow in pursuit; but, when they gave way to let him pass, looked wildly round upon them, staggered back, and sunk down in his former attitude, clasping one of Grace’s cold hands in his own.
There was a hurried running to and fro, confusion, noise, disorder, and no purpose. Some proceeded to disperse themselves about the roads, and some took horse, and some got lights, and some conversed together, urging that there was no trace or track to follow. Some approached him kindly, with the view of offering consolation; some admonished him that Grace must be removed into the house, and that he prevented it. He never heard them, and he never moved.
The snow fell fast and thick. He looked up for a moment in the air, and thought that those white ashes strewn upon his hopes and misery, were suited to them well. He looked round on the whitening ground, and thought how Marion’s foot–prints would be hushed and covered up, as soon as made, and even that remembrance of her blotted out. But he never felt the weather and he never stirred.