Ethel Churchill/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III.


ANTICIPATION.


We do not know how much we love,
    Until we come to leave:
An aged tree, a common flower,
    Are things o'er which we grieve.
There is a pleasure in the pain
That brings us back the past again.

We linger while we turn away,
    We cling while we depart;
And memories, unmarked till then,
    Come crowding on the heart.
Let what will lure our onward way,
Farewell's a bitter word to say.


The moon was shining full into Lady Marchmont's window, and a soft western breeze was stirring the branches at the yet open casement. The aspect on this side the dwelling was as wooded and fertile, as on the other it was bare and barren. To the left, towered an ancient avenue of oaks; to the right, a pleasure-ground was carried aslope towards the park.

"Still and so beautiful was that fair night,
It might have calmed the gay amid their mirth,
And given the wretched a delight in tears."

But Lady Marchmont's feelings was not in unison with the scene; she was excited and restless, needed to talk, and not to think—in a word, to be taken out of herself.

The objects around were wearisomely familiar; they recalled too much for one, who wished rather to hope than to repine! Henrietta's temper was too sudden and quick for melancholy; she was impatient of her own regret, and strove to dissipate rather than indulge the mood.

At that moment it struck eight o'clock. The church-spire, touched by the moonbeams, shone above the aged yews that stood in a heavy group below. The chime struck Lady Marchmont's musing into another vein.

"How early," thought she, "and Algernon will not be at home for many hours. I might go and visit Ethel: to-morrow I shall have little leisure." She threw a mantle hastily around her, and drawing its hood above her head, descended to the garden. As she ever and anon passed by some shrub herself had planted, or neared some covert bower where she had whiled away the listless hours, she would half pause, and again would urge her pace hurriedly onward.

She had now reached the churchyard, which few of her age and time would have traversed with her indifference. She ran across it, as the shortest route to Mrs. Churchill's grounds; and Mrs. Churchill was the grandmother with whom Ethel dwelt.

A little wicket opened into a half-wilderness, half-shrubbery, whose narrow pathway was chequered by the soft light that found its way through the densely-grown plantation. As she turned to secure the latchet, the voice of music came upon her ear. "Ah!" said she, and a conscious blush lit up her cheek: "Walter Maynard is then with them." The sound of her own half whisper seemed to startle herself, and she passed on with a haughty smile, but hesitating step. "And Norbourne Courtenaye, doubtless;" but this name was spoken without embarrassment, and aloud.

Another instant, and the music ended: the leafy screen was divided, and she was the centre of the little company, every one of whom rejoiced to welcome her. She seated herself by Ethel: and declaring that her walk had left her no breath as yet to talk, urged them to resume the harmony that she had interrupted. All were too young, and too intimate, for the embarrassment of ceremony, and again music broke on the stillness of the night.

It was an old English air, to which the vocalists had set the words of a sonnet, written by Walter Maynard. The words of the song were sad: but what is the young poet's melancholy but prophecy?


Dream no more of that sweet time
    When the heart and cheek were young;
Dream no more of that sweet time
    Ere the veil from life was flung.
Yet the cheek retains the rose
    Which its beauty had of yore,
But the bloom upon the heart
Is no more.

We have mingled with the false,
    Till belief has lost the charm
Which it had when hope was new!
    And the pulse of feeling warm.

We have had the bosom wrung
    By the mask which friendship wore;
Affection's trusting happiness
Is no more.

We have seen the young and gay
    Dying as the aged die;
Miss we not the laughing voice,
Miss we not the laughing eye?
    Wishes take the place of hope,
We have dream'd till faith is o'er;
    Its freshness made life fair, and that
Is no more.

Take away yon sparkling bowl—
    What is left to greet it now?
Loathing lip that turns away;
    Downcast eye and weary brow.
Hopes and joys that wont to smile,
    Mirth that lit its purple store:
Friends that wont to join the pledge,
Are no more.

The scene was rather grouped by some Italian painter, whose fancy had grown luxuriant amid the golden summers of his clime, than one actually passing under England's colder sky, and on England's colder soil. In front there was a sloping lawn, shaded from all but the south wind, a favoured nook of verdure begirt with trees and flower-beds.

On one side, fancifully decorated with shells and spars, mosses and creeping plants, was discovered a building, between hermitage and summer pavilion; on the other waved a copse of larches, exhaling that spicy and peculiar fragrance which the autumnal wind brings from out the fir. Two little passages, cut into stairs of turf, wound uniformly to the level sward which made the foreground of the landscape. At the end of this was a sundial, whereon the moon fell with sufficient brightness to reveal the hour: beside was a fountain, whose waters trickled with a low perpetual song, from the rough lips of its carved basin, into a large reservoir, moulded from fragments of stone, sea-shells, and gnarled roots of trees bound with a growth of weeds and wild creepers. Southward, the lawn lay open to a pleasure garden, but the flowers were now but few, and those of the faintest hue and perfume. The gorgeous reds and yellows which herald decay, were beginning to touch the forest foliage; and the limes, in which autumn's first symptoms are so lovely, looked in the pale light as if covered with primrose blossoms.

Throughout the garden there was, indeed, much arrangement, and much art; from the water-jet, trained to fling its silvery cascade, to the yew trees shaped into peacocks; still it was arrangement prompted by taste, and art that loved the nature which it guided. And if the horticultural skill, on which Mrs Churchill piqued herself, might have escaped the stranger's observation, the little knot now gathered before her terrace would inevitably have caught his attention.

The party was of five: Ethel and her half companion, half-attendant, Lavinia Fenton, our countess, and two young gallants. Three of these were singing: but the attitude and bearing of the entire group, careless as it was, told of their individual peculiarities more effectively, perhaps, than would have been betrayed in more constrained hours.

Norbourne Courtenaye was a stripling of some three or four and twenty, whose fair complexion made him look even younger. He had that air which so marks our aristocracy—that air which, if not embodied in the word 'high-bred,' is beyond the reach of words. He had those fine and prominently cut features which grow handsomer with years; but, at the present time, they conveyed only one expression. The heart was in the eyes; and these, fixed on Ethel Churchill, were blind to all but the beloved face which, alone they cared to see. To Norbourne the whole world had one division, the place where she was, from that where she was not.

Ethel returned not his gaze; but she was not on that account insensible of it. Natural as it may seem to look straight forward, her eyes tried every direction save that in which they might fall on those of Courtenaye. Her part in the trio was nearly nominal, and yet no bird singing in the sunshine, seemed ever to sing more from the fulness of a joyous heart. Her voice, when you caught it, was, indeed, "the very echo of happy thoughts;" and smile after smile parted her small and childish mouth. Her beauty was of that kind which is our ideal of a cherub's—rounded, innocent, and happy. The long golden hair—for she was too young yet to have it dressed after the prevailing mode—absolutely sparkled in the light; while her skin realised the old poet's exquisite delineation:

"Fair as the trembling snow whose fleeces clothe
Our Alpine hills; sweet as the rose's spirit
Or violet's cheek, on which the morning leaves
A tear at parting."

The least cause sent the blush to the cheek, and the laughter to the lip; for Ethel was guileless as she was gay.

The darling, like Henrietta, of an aged relative, their training had been widely different. Half Ethel's life had been spent in the flower-garden; and it was as if the sweetness and joyousness of the summer's sunny children had infused themselves into the being of their youthful companion. The open air had given strength to an originally delicate frame, and cheerfulness to her mind. She had read little beyond her grandmother's cherished volumes, of which a herbal was the study, and the Cassandra of Madame Scudori the recreation. Out of these stately impossibilities, she had constructed an existence of her own, full of love, courage, and fidelity: all highly pictuesque and highly false. No matter—the truth comes only too soon.

And so, when Norbourne Courtenaye, a distant connexion of the family, arrived in a course of careless wandering at their house, it seemed the most natural and fitting thing that he should fall in love with Ethel. It seemed, too, not less natural nor less fitting, that she should fall in love with Norbourne: though not a little disheartened, at starting, by the absolute want of difficulties and adventures, with which she afterwards discovered that it was actually possible to dispense.

Mrs. Churchill saw nothing of what was going on—she had her own views for Ethel, whom she considered too much a child to have any of her own; and she was only pleased to have her house so cheerful. Family and fortune were on both sides equal; and they might enjoy, so it seemed, as long as they could contrive it, a courtship's charming uncertainty, without a solitary obstacle to render it uncertain.

Lavinia, her companion, was likewise handsome; or, perhaps, rather what is called a fine looking girl: and had in her figure and demeanour, as well as in the arrangement of her simple toilet, that which bespoke the coquette of nature's own making; and nature does as much in that way as society. Neglectful of her fine voice, she was obviously attending more to her companions than to her own singing; and it was manifest that she was not unwilling to attract Walter Maynard's heed, for she would omit from time to time her own, and listen to his part; and, when she suffered her rich notes to swell to their extent, it was in Maynard's eyes that she sought to read approval!

But, what attention he allowed to escape from the music, was given all to Ethel Churchill. If his eye but turned towards her, the heart's utter prostration was in the gaze!

And she—the young and brilliant countess, who sat at queen-like distance from the throng—must watch those glances with a galling pang of envy; not the less bitter, too, because unacknowledged even to herself!

Walter Maynard was standing with his arms folded, and his slight figure leaning against the trunk of an old ash. He was neither so handsome, nor had so fine a figure, as Norbourne Courtenaye; and lost something of his height by a stoop, the result either of a naturally delicate chest, or of sedentary pursuits: but none, knowing how to read the human face, could have passed by his without having their attention riveted. It had a touch of Henrietta's own rich and changeful hues, but it was more feverish. The eyes were large and black, and had the moonlight's melancholy, with that tearful lustre which is the certain sign of keen susceptibility. After years will drive the tears, which gathered trembling on the eye-lash, back upon the heart; but the tears will be more bitter, because unshed!

The mouth was almost feminine in its sweetness, and yet the smile was sad. Tender it was, but not cheerful, and lacked the energy that sat enthroned upon the magnificent brow. Young as he was, his hair was thin upon his temples, where the large veins shone transparent and blue: and the whole countenance was one which would have won attention in a crowd—which could not be identified with a common person. He was of those whose sensitive organisation, and inborn talent, constitute that genius which holds ordinary maxims at defiance. No education can confer—no circumstances check it; and even to account for it, we need, with the ancients, to believe in inspiration.

Sir Jasper Meredith had noted the extraordinary abilities shewn by Walter, even in his childhood: and, having confirmed the correctness of that first impression, had sent him to the University. There, however, he had disappointed expectation. In sooth, his genius was of too creative an order for the apprenticeship of learning; he needed life in its hopes, its fears, its endurance; all that the poet learns to reproduce. Education is for the many, and Walter Maynard was of the few. He had been much in Meredith Place, and Henrietta had been used to listen by the hour to his eloquent enthusiasm, so alive with poetry and with passion. Proud and ambitious, she yet loved him—the poor and the dependent; for there was in his highly-toned imagination that which responded to her own. She was too clever herself not to appreciate a kindred cleverness; and the seclusion of her life lent a reality to his dreams of the future—to his aspirings after that fame, which every volume in the crowded collection proclaimed to be so glorious. They read together; and she felt that his was, indeed, the master mind. Her vanity was gratified by his intellect. It was a worthy homage.

These softer feelings were awakened by that interest which belongs to the melancholy and romance inseparable from the poetic temperament.

In the outset of their intimacy, admiration seemed a mere question of taste; and jealousy first taught her that she loved. She saw that he loved Ethel Churchill, utterly, worshippingly: that the withered flower which Ethel flung from her was to him a treasure. She then remembered that her own early bearing towards him had been haughty, and indifferent; that she had sneered at the young collegian's shyness; and now thought with "the late remorse of love," how unlike to this had been Ethel's gentle kindness. But all these things belonged to by-gone days. She wrapped herself up in a brilliant future. Still there were moments when she felt that its hopes were icicles.