Littell's Living Age/Volume 139/Issue 1790/An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress – Part I
AN INDISCRETION IN THE LIFE OF AN HEIRESS.
When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects: heaven hath my empty words;
Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel.
The congregation in Tollamore church were singing the evening hymn, the people gently swaying backwards and forwards like trees in a soft breeze. The heads of the village children, who sat in the gallery, were inclined to one side as they uttered their shrill notes, their eyes listlessly tracing some crack in the old walls, or following the movement of a distant bough or bird, with features rapt almost to painfulness.
In front of the children stood a thoughtful young man, who, was plainly enough the schoolmaster; and his gaze was fixed on a remote part of the aisle beneath him. When the singing was over, and all had sat down for the sermon, his eyes still remained in the same place. There was some excuse for their direction, for it was in a straight line forwards; but their fixity was only to be explained by some object before them, This was a square pew, containing one solitary sitter. But that sitter was a young lady, and a very sweet lady was she.
Afternoon service in Tollamore parish was later than in many others in that neighborhood; and as the darkness deepened during the progress of the sermon, the rector's pulpit candles shone to the remotest nooks of the building, till at length they became the sole lights of the congregation. The lady was the single person besides the preacher whose face was turned westwards, the pew that she occupied being the only one in the church in which the seat ran all round. She reclined in her corner, her bonnet and dark dress growing by degrees invisible, and at last only her upturned face could be discerned, a solitary white spot against the black surface of the wainscot. Over her head rose a vast marble monument, erected to the memory of her ancestors, male and female; for she was one of high standing in that parish. The design consisted of a winged skull and two cherubim, supporting a pair of tall Corinthian columns, between which spread a broad slab, containing the roll of ancient names, lineages, and deeds, and surmounted by a pediment, with the crest of the family at its apex.
As the youthful schoolmaster gazed, and all these details became dimmer, her face was modified in his fancy, till it seemed almost to resemble the carved marble skull immediately above her head. The thought was unpleasant enough to arouse him from his half-dreamy state, and he entered on rational considerations of what a vast gulf lay between that lady and himself, what a troublesome world it was to live in where such divisions could exist, and how painful was the evil when a man of his unequal history was possessed of a keen susceptibility.
Now a close observer, who should have happened to be near the large pew, might have noticed before the light got low that the interested gaze of the young man had been returned from time to time by the young lady, although he, towards whom her glances were directed, did not perceive the fact. It would have been guessed, that something in the past was common to both, notwithstanding their difference in social standing. What that was may be related in a few words.
One day in the previous week there had been some excitement in the parish on account of the introduction upon the farm of a steam threshing-machine for the first time, the date of these events being some thirty years ago. The machine had been hired by a farmer who was a relative of the schoolmaster's, and when it was set going all the people round about came to see it work. It was fixed in a corner of a field near the main road, and in the afternoon a passing carriage stopped outside the hedge. The steps were let down, and Miss Geraldine Allenville, the young woman whom we have seen sitting in the church pew, came through the gate of the field towards the engine. At that hour most of the villagers had been to the spot, had gratified their curiosity, and afterwards gone home again; so that there were only now left standing beside the engine the engine-man, the farmer, and the young schoolmaster, who had come like the rest. The laborers were at the other part of the machine, under the cornstack some distance off.
The girl looked with interest at the whizzing wheels, asked questions of the old farmer, and remained in conversation with him for some time, the schoolmaster standing a few paces distant, and looking more or less towards her. Suddenly the expression of his face changed to one of horror; he was by her side in a moment, and, seizing hold of her, he swung her round by the arm to a distance of several feet.
In speaking to the farmer she had inadvertently stepped backwards, and had drawn so near to the band which ran from the engine to the drum of the thresher that In another moment her dress must have been caught, and she would have been whirled round the wheel as a mangled carcase. As soon as the meaning of the young man's act was understood by her she turned deadly pale and nearly fainted. When she was well enough to walk, the two men led her to the carriage, which had been standing outside the hedge all the time.
"You have saved me from a ghastly death!" the agitated girl murmured to the schoolmaster. "Oh! I can never forget it!" and then she sank into the carriage and was driven away.
On account of this the schoolmaster had been invited to Tollamore House to explain the incident to the squire, the young lady's only living parent. Mr. Allenville thanked her preserver, inquired the history of his late father, a painter of good family, but unfortunate and improvident; and finally told his visitor that, if he were fond of study, the library of the house was at his service. Geraldine herself had spoken very impulsively to the young man — almost, indeed, with imprudent warmth — and his tender interest in her during the church service was the result of the sympathy she had shown.
And thus did an emotion, which became this man's sole motive power through many following years, first arise and establish itself. Only once more did she lift her eyes to where he sat, and it was when they all stood up before leaving. This time he noticed the glance. Her look of recognition led his feelings onward yet another stage. Admiration grew to be attachment; he even wished that he might own her, not exactly as a wife, but as a being superior to himself in the sense in which a servant may be said to own a master. He would have cared to possess her in order to exhibit her glories to the world, and he scarcely even thought of her ever loving him.
There were two other stages in his course of love, but they were not reached till some time after to-day. The first was a change from this proud desire to a longing to cherish. The last stage, later still, was when her very defects became rallying-points for defence, when every one of his senses became special pleaders for her; and that not through blindness, but from a tender inability to do aught else than defend her against all the world.
She was active, stirring, all fire —
Could not rest, could not tire —
Never in all the world such an one!
And here was plenty to be done,
And she that could do it, great or small,
She was to do nothing at all.
Five mornings later the same young man was looking out of the window of Tollamore village school in a fixed and absent manner. The weather was exceptionally mild, though scarcely to the degree which would have justified his airy situation at such a month of the year. A hazy light spread through the air, the landscape on which his eyes were resting being enlivened and lit up by the spirit of an unseen sun rather than by its direct rays. Every sound could be heard for miles. There was a great crowing of cocks, bleating of sheep, and cawing of rooks, which proceeded from all points of the compass, rising and falling as the origin of each sound was near or far away. There were also audible the voices of people in the village, interspersed with hearty laughs, the bell of a distant flock of sheep, a robin close at hand, vehicles in the neighboring roads and lanes. One of these latter noises grew gradually more distinct, and proved itself to be rapidly nearing the school. The listener blushed as he heard it.
"Suppose it should be!" he said to himself.
He had said the same thing at every such noise that he had heard during the foregoing week, and had been mistaken in his hope. But this time a certain carriage did appear in answer to his expectation. He came from the window hastily; and in a minute a footman knocked and opened the school door.
"Miss Allenville wishes to speak to you, Mr. Mayne."
The schoolmaster went to the porch — he was a very young man to be called a schoolmaster — his heart beating with excitement.
"Good morning," she said, with a confident yet girlish smile. "My father expects me to inquire into the school arrangements, and I wish to do so on my own account as well. May I come in?"
She entered as she spoke, telling the coachman to drive to the village on some errand, and call for her in half an hour.
Mayne could have wished that she had not been so thoroughly free from all apparent consciousness of the event of the previous week, of the fact that he was considerably more of a man than the small persons by whom the apartment was mainly filled, and that he was as nearly as possible at her own level in age, as wide in sympathies, and possibly more inflammable in heart. But he soon found that a sort of fear to entrust her voice with the subject of that link between them was what restrained her. When he had explained a few details of routine she moved away from him round the school.
He turned and looked at her as she stood among the children. To his eyes her beauty was indescribable. Before he had met her he had scarcely believed that any woman in the world could be so lovely. The clear, deep eyes, full of all tender expressions; the fresh, subtly-curved cheek, changing its tones of red with the fluctuation of each thought; the ripe tint of her delicate mouth, and the indefinable line where lip met lip; the noble bend of her neck, the wavy lengths of her dark brown hair, the soft motions of her bosom when she breathed, the light fall of her little feet, the elegant contrivances of her attire, all struck him as something he had dreamed of and was not actually seeing. Geraldine Allenville was, in truth, very beautiful; she was a girl such as his eyes had never elsewhere beheld; and her presence here before his face kept up a sharp struggle of sweet and bitter within him.
He had thought at first that the flush on her face was caused by the fresh air of the morning; but, as it quickly changed to a lesser hue, it occurred to Mayne that it might after all have arisen from shyness at meeting him after her narrow escape. Be that as it might, their conversation, which at first consisted of bald sentences, divided by wide intervals of time, became more frequent, and at last continuous. He was painfully soon convinced that her tongue would never have run so easily as it did had it not been that she thought him a person on whom she could vent her ideas without reflection or punctiliousness — a thought, perhaps, expressed to herself by such words as, "I will say what I like to him, for he is only our schoolmaster."
"And you have chosen to keep a school," she went on, with a shade of mischievousness in her tone, looking at him as if she thought that, had she been a man capable of saving people's lives, she would have done something much better than teaching. She was so young as to habitually think thus of other persons' courses.
"No," he said simply; "I don't choose to keep a school in the sense you mean, choosing it from a host of pursuits, all equally possible."
"How came you here, then?"
"I fear more by chance than by aim."
"Then you are not very ambitious?"
"I have my ambitions, such as they are."
"I thought so. Everybody has nowadays. But it is a better thing not to be too ambitious, I think."
"If we value ease of mind, and take an economist's view of our term of life, it may be a better thing."
Having been tempted, by his unexpectedly cultivated manner of speaking, to say more than she had meant to say, she found it embarrassing either to break off or to say more, and in her doubt she stooped to kiss a little girl.
"Although I spoke lightly of ambition," she observed, without turning to him, "and said that easy happiness was worth most, I could defend ambition very well, and in the only pleasant way."
"And that way?"
"On the broad ground of the loveliness of any dream about future triumphs. In looking back there is a pleasure in contemplating a time when some attractive thing of the future appeared possible, even though it never came to pass."
Mayne was puzzled to hear her talk in this tone of maturity. That such questions of success and failure should have occupied his own mind seemed natural, for they had been forced upon him by the difficulties he had encountered in his pursuit of a career. He was not just then aware how very unpractical the knowledge of this sage lady of seventeen really was; that it was merely caught up by intercommunication with people of culture and experience, who talked before her of their theories and beliefs till she insensibly acquired their tongue.
The carriage was heard coming up the road. Mayne gave her the list of the children, their ages, and other particulars which she had called for, and she turned to go out. Not a word had been said about the incident by the threshing-machine, though each one could see that it was constantly in the other's thoughts. The roll of the wheels may or may not have reminded her of her position in relation to him. She said, bowing, and in a somewhat more distant tone: "We shall all be glad to learn that our schoolmaster is so — nice; such a philosopher." But, rather surprised at her own cruelty in uttering the latter words, she added one of the sweetest laughs that ever came from lips, and said, in gentlest tones, "Good morning; I shall always remember what you did for me. Oh! it makes me sick to think of that moment. I came on purpose to thank you again, but I could not say it till now!
Mayne's heart, which had felt the rebuff, came round to her with a rush; he could have almost forgiven her for physically wounding him if she had asked him in such a tone not to notice it. He watched her out of sight, thinking in rather a melancholy mood how time would absorb all her beauty, as the growing distance between them absorbed her form. He then went in, and endeavored to recall every word that he had said to her, troubling and racking his mind to the utmost of his ability about his imagined faults of manner. He remembered that he had used the indicative mood instead of the proper subjective in a certain phrase. He had given her to understand that an old idea he had made use of was his own, and so on through other particulars, each of which was an item of misery.
The place and the manner of her sitting were defined by the position of her chair, and by the books, maps, and prints scattered round it. Her "I shall always remember," he repeated to himself, aye, a hundred times; and though he knew the plain import of the words, he could not help toying with them, looking at them from all points, and investing them with extraordinary meanings.
But what is this? I turn about.
And find a trouble in thine eye.
Egbert Mayne, though at present filling the office of village schoolmaster, had been intended for a less narrow path. His position at this time was entirely owing to the death of his father in embarrassed circumstances two years before. Mr. Mayne had been a landscape and animal painter, and had settled in the village in early manhood, where he set about improving his prospects by marrying a small farmer's daughter. The son had been sent away from home at an early age to a good school, and had returned at seventeen to enter upon some professional life or other. But his father's health was at this time declining, and when the painter died, a year and a half later, nothing had been done for Egbert. He was now living with his maternal grandfather, Richard Broadford, the farmer, who was a tenant of Squire Allenville's. Egbert's ideas did not incline to painting, but he had ambitious notions of adopting a literary profession, or entering the Church, or doing something congenial to his tastes whenever he could set about it. But first it was necessary to read, mark, learn, and look around him; and, a master being temporarily required for the school until such time as it should be placed under government inspection, he stepped in and made use of the occupation as a stop-gap for a while.
He lived in his grandfather's farmhouse, walking backwards and forwards to the school every day, in order that the old man, who would otherwise be living quite alone, might have the benefit of his society during the long winter evenings. Egbert was much attached to his grandfather, and so, indeed, were all who knew him. The old farmer's amiable disposition and kindliness of heart, while they had hindered him from enriching himself one shilling during the course of a long and laborious life, had also kept him clear of every arrow of antagonism. The house in which he lived was the same that he had been born in, and was almost a part of himself. It had been built by his father's father; but on the dropping of the lives for which it was held, some twenty years earlier, it had lapsed to the Squire.
Richard Broadford was not, however, dispossessed: after his father's death the family had continued as before in the house and farm, but as yearly tenants. It was much to Broadford's delight, for his pain at the thought of parting from those old sticks and stones of his ancestors, before it had been known if the tenure could be continued, was real and great.
On the evening of the day on which Miss Allenville called at the school Egbert returned to the farmhouse as usual. He found his grandfather sitting with his hands on his knees, and showing by his countenance that something had happened to disturb him greatly. Egbert looked at him inquiringly, and with some misgiving.
"I have got to go at last, Egbert," he said, in a tone intended to be stoical, but far from it. "He is my enemy after all."
"Who?" said Mayne.
"The squire. He's going to take seventy acres of neighbor Greenman's farm to enlarge the park; and Greenman's acreage is to be made up to him, and more, by throwing my farm in with his. Yes, that's what the squire is going to have done. … Well, I thought to have died here; but 'tisn't to be."
He looked as helpless as a child, for age had weakened him. Egbert endeavored to cheer him a little, and vexed as the young man was, he thought there might yet be some means of tiding over this difficulty. "Mr. Allenville wants seventy acres more in his park, does he?" he echoed mechanically. "Why can't it be taken entirely out of Greenman's farm? His is big enough, Heaven knows; and your hundred acres might be left you in peace.""Well mayest say so! Oh, it is because he is tired of seeing old-fashioned farming like mine. - He likes the young generation's system best, I suppose."
"If I had only known this this afternoon!" Egbert said.
"You could have done nothing."
"Perhaps not." Egbert was, however, thinking that he would have mentioned the matter to his visitor, and told her such circumstances as would have enlisted her sympathies in the case.
"I thought it would come to this," said old Richard vehemently. "The present Squire Allenville has never been any real friend to me. It was only through his wife that I have stayed here so long. If it hadn't been for her, we should have gone the very year that my poor father died, and the house fell into hand. I wish we had now. You see, now she's dead, there's nobody to counteract him in his schemes; and so I am to be swept away."
They talked on thus, and by bedtime the old man was in better spirits. But the subject did not cease to occupy Egbert's mind, and that anxiously. Were the house and farm which his grandfather had occupied so long to be taken away, Egbert knew it would affect his life to a degree out of all proportion to the seriousness of the event. The transplanting of old people is like the transplanting of old trees; a twelvemonth usually sees them wither and die away.
The next day proved that his anticipations were likely to be correct, his grandfather being so disturbed that he could scarcely eat or drink. The remainder of the week passed in just the same way. Nothing now occupied Egbert's mind but a longing to see Miss Allenville. To see her would be bliss; to ask her if anything could be done by which his grandfather might retain the farm and premises would be nothing but duty. His hope of good results from the course was based on the knowledge that Allenville, cold and hard as he was, had some considerable affection for or pride in his daughter, and that thus she might influence him.
It was not likely that she would call at the school for a week or two at least, and Mayne therefore tried to meet with her elsewhere. One morning early he was returning from the remote hamlet of Hawksgate, on the further side of the parish, and the nearest way to the school was across the park. He read as he walked, as was customary with him, though at present his thoughts wandered incessantly. The path took him through a shrubbery running close up to a remote wing of the mansion. Nobody seemed to be stirring in that quarter, till, turning an angle, he saw Geraldiae's own graceful figure close at hand, robed in fur, and standing at ease outside an open French casement.
She was startled by his sudden appearance, but her face soon betrayed a sympathetic remembrance of him. Egbert scarcely knew whether to stop or to walk on, when, casting her eyes upon his book, she said, "Don't let me interrupt your reading."
"I am glad to have —" he stammered, and for the moment could get no farther. His nervousness encouraged her to continue. "What are you reading?" she said.
The book was, as may possibly be supposed by those who know the mood inspired by hopeless attachments, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," a poem which at that date had never been surpassed in congeniality to the minds of young persons in the full fever of virulent love. He was rather reluctant to let her know this but as the inquiry afforded him an opening for conversation he held out the book, and her eye glanced over the page.
"Oh, thank you," she said hastily, "I ought not to have asked that — only I am interested always in books. Is your grand father quite well, Mr. Mayne? I saw him yesterday, and thought he seemed to be not in such good health as usual."
"His mind is disturbed," said Egbert.
"Indeed, why is that?"
"It is on account of his having to leave the farm. He is old, and was born in that house."
"Ah, yes, I have heard something of that," she said with a slightly regretful look. "Mr. Allenville has decided to enlarge the park. Born in the house, was he?"
"Yes. His father built it. May I ask your opinion on the point, Miss Allenville? Don't you think it would be possible to enlarge the park without taking my grandfather's farm? Greenman has already five hundred acres."
She was perplexed how to reply, and evading the question said; "Your grandfather much wishes to stay?"
"He does, intensely — more than you can believe or think. But he will not ask to be let remain. I dread the effect of leaving upon him. If it were possible to contrive that he should not be turned out I should be grateful indeed."
"I — I will do all I can that things may remain as they are," she said with a deepened color. "In fact, I am almost certain that he will not have to go, since it is so painful to him," she added in the sanguine tones of a child. "My father could not have known that his mind was so bent on staying."
Here the conversation ended, and Egbert went on with a lightened heart. Whether his pleasure arose entirely from having done his grandfather a good turn or from the mere sensation of having been near her, he himself could hardly have determined.
Oh, for my sake, do you with fortune chide
The guilty goddess of my harmful deed,
That did not better for my life provide.
Now commenced a period during which Egbert Mayne's emotions burnt in a more unreasoning and wilder worship than at any other time in his life. The great condition of idealization in love was present here, that of an association in which, through difference in rank, the petty human elements that enter so largely into life are kept entirely out of sight, and there is hardly awakened in the man's mind a thought that they appertain to her at all.
He deviated frequently from his daily track to the spot where the last meeting had been, till, on the fourth morning after, he saw her there again; but she let him pass that time with a bare recognition. Two days later the carriage drove down the lane to the village as he was walking away. When they met she told the coachman to stop.
"I am glad to tell you that your grandfather may be perfectly easy about the house and farm," she said; as if she took unfeigned pleasure in saying it. "The question of altering the park is postponed indefinitely. I have resisted it: I could do no less for one who did so much for me."
"Thank you very warmly," said Egbert so earnestly that she blushed crimson as the carriage rolled away.
The spring drew on, and he saw and spoke with her several times. In truth he walked abroad much more than had been usual with him formerly, searching in all directions for her form. Had she not been unreflecting and impressionable — had not her life dragged on as uneventfully as that of one in gaol, through her residing in a great house with no companion but an undemonstrative father; and, above all, had not Egbert been a singularly engaging young man of that distracting order of beauty which, grows upon the feminine gazer with every glance, this tender waylaying would have made little difference to anybody. But such was not the case. In return for Egbert's presence of mind at the threshing she had done him a kindness, and the pleasure that she took in the act shed an added interest upon the object of it. Thus, on both sides it had happened that a deed of solicitude casually performed gave each doer a sense of proprietorship in its recipient, and a wish still further to establish that position by other deeds of the same sort.
To still further kindle Geraldine's indiscreet interest in him, Egbert's devotion became perceptible ere long even to her inexperienced eyes; and it was like a new world to the young girl. At first she was almost frightened at the novelty of the thing. Then the fascination of the discovery caused her ready, receptive heart to palpitate in an ungovernable manner whenever he came near her. She was not quite in love herself, but she was so moved by the circumstance of her deliverer being in love, that she could think of nothing else. His appearing at odd places startled her; and yet she rather liked that kind of startling. Too often her eyes rested on his face; too often her thoughts surrounded his figure and dwelt on his conversation.
One day when they met on a bridge, they did not part till after a long and interesting conversation on books, in which many opinions of Mayne's (crude and unformed enough, it must be owned) that happened to take her fancy, set her glowing with ardor to unfold her own.
After any such meeting as this, Egbert would go home and think for hours of her little remarks and movements. The day and minute of every accidental rencounter became registered in his mind with the indelibility of ink. Years afterwards he could recall at a moment's notice that he saw her at eleven o'clock on the third of April, a Sunday; at four on Tuesday, the twelfth; at a quarter to six on Thursday the twenty-eighth; that on the ninth it rained at a quarter past two, when she was walking up the avenue; that on the seventeenth the grass was rather too wet for a lady's feet; and other calendrical and meteorological facts of no value whatever either to science or history.
On a Tuesday evening, when they had had several conversations out of doors, and when a passionate liking for his society was creeping over the reckless though pure girl, slowly, insidiously, and surely, like ripeness over fruit, she further committed herself by coming alone to the school. A heavy rain had threatened to fall all the afternoon, and just as she entered it began. School hours were at that moment over, but he waited a few moments before dismissing the children, to see if the storm would clear up. After looking round at the classes, and making sundry inquiries of the little ones in the usual manner of ladies who patronize a school, she came up to him.
"I listened outside before I came in. It was a great pleasure to hear the voices — three classes reading at three paces." She continued with a laugh: "There was a rough treble voice bowling easily along, an ambling sweet voice earnest about fishes in the sea, and a shrill voice spelling out letter by letter. Then there was a shuffling of feet — then you sang. It seemed quite a little poem."
"Yes," Egbert said. "But perhaps, like many poems, it was hard prose to the originators."
She remained thinking, and Mayne looked out at the weather. Judging from the sky and wind that there was no likelihood of a change that night, he proceeded to let the children go. Miss Allenville assisted in wrapping up as many of them as possible in the old coats and other apparel which Egbert kept by him for the purpose. But she touched both clothes and children rather gingerly, and as if she did not much like the contact.
Egbert's sentiments towards her that evening were vehement and curious. Much as he loved her, his liking for the peasantry about him — his mother's ancestry — caused him sometimes a twinge of self-reproach for thinking of her so exclusively, and nearly forgetting all his old acquaintance, neighbors, and his grandfather's familiar friends, with their rough but honest ways. To further complicate his feelings to-night there was the sight, on the one hand, of the young lady with her warm rich dress and glowing future, and on the other of the weak little boys and girls — some only five years old, and none more than twelve , going off in their different directions in the pelting rain, some for a walk of more than two miles, with the certainty of being drenched to the skin, and with no change of clothes when they reached their home. He watched the rain-spots thickening upon the faded frocks, worn-out tippets, yellow straw hats and bonnets, and coarse pinafores of his unprotected little flock as they walked down the path, and was thereby reminded of the hopelessness of his attachment, by perceiving how much more nearly akin was his lot to theirs than to hers.
Miss Allenville, too, was looking at the children, and unfortunately she chanced to say, as they toddled off, "Poor little wretches!"
A sort of despairing irritation at her remoteness from his plane, as implied by her pitying the children so unmercifully, impelled him to remark, "Say poor little children, madam." She was silent — awkwardly silent.
"I suppose I must walk home," she said, when about half a minute had passed. "Nobody knows where I am, and the carriage may not find me for hours."
"I'll go for the carriage," said Egbert readily.
But he did not move. While she had been speaking, there had grown up in him a conviction that these opportunities of seeing her would soon necessarily cease. She would get older, and would perceive the incorrectness of being on intimate terms with him merely because he had snatched her from danger. He would have to engage in a more active career, and go away. Such ideas brought on an irresistible climax to an intense and long felt desire. He had just reached that point in the action of passion upon mind at which it masters judgment.
It was almost dark in the room, by reason of the heavy clouds and the nearness of the night. But the fire had just flamed up brightly in the grate, and it threw her face and form into ruddy relief against the grey wall behind.
Suddenly rushing towards her, he seized her hand before she comprehended his intention, kissed it tenderly, and clasped her in his arms. Her soft body yielded like wool under his embrace. As suddenly releasing her he turned, and went back to the other end of the room.
Egbert's feeling as he retired was that he had committed a crime. The madness of the action was apparent to him almost before it was completed. There seemed not a single thing left for him to do, but to go into lifelong banishment for such sacrilege. He faced round and regarded her. Her features were not visible enough to judge of their expression. All that he could discern through the dimness and his own agitation was that for some time she remained quite motionless. Her state was probably one of suspension as with Ulysses before Melanthus, she may have
entertained a breast
That in the strife of all extremes did rest.
In one, two, or five minutes — neither of them ever knew exactly how long — apparently without the motion of a limb, she glided noiselessly to the door and vanished.
Egbert leant himself against the wall, almost distracted. He could see absolutely no limit to the harm that he had done by his wild and unreasoning folly. "Am I a man to thus ill-treat the loveliest girl that ever was born? Sweet injured creature — how she will hate me!" These were some of the expressions that he murmured in the twilight of that lonely room.
Then he said that she certainly had encouraged him, which, unfortunately for her, was only too true. She had seen that he was always in search of her, and she did not put herself out of his way. He was sure that she liked him to admire her. "Yet, no," he murmured, "I will not excuse myself at all."
The night passed away miserably. One conviction by degrees overruled all the rest in his mind — that if she knew precisely how pure had been his longing towards her, she could not think badly of him. His reflections resulted in a resolve to get an interview with her, and make his defence and explanation in full. The decision come to, his impatience could scarcely preserve him from rushing to Tollamore House that very daybreak, and trying to get into her presence, though it was the likeliest of suppositions that she would never see him.
Every spare minute of the following days he hovered round the house, in hope of getting a glimpse of her; but not once did she make herself visible. He delayed taking the extreme step of calling, till the hour came when he could delay no longer. On a certain day he rang the bell with a mild air, and disguised his feelings by looking as if he wished to speak to her merely on copy-books, slates, and other school matters, the school being professedly her hobby. He was told that Miss Allenville had gone on a visit to some relatives thirty-five miles off, and that she would probably not return for a month.
As there was no help for it, Egbert settled down to wait as he best could, not without many misgivings lest his rash action, which a prompt explanation might have toned down and excused, would now be the cause of a total estrangement between them, so that nothing would restore him to the place he had formerly held in her estimation. That she had ever seriously loved him he did not hope or dream; but it was intense pain to him to be out of her favor.
So I soberly laid my last plan
To extinguish the man,
Round his creep-hole, with never a break
Ran my fires for his sake;
Over head did my thunder combine
With my underground mine:
Till I looked from my labor content
To enjoy the event.
When sudden — how think ye the end?
A week after the crisis mentioned above, it was secretly whispered to Egbert's grandfather that the park enlargement scheme was after all to be proceeded with; that Miss Allenville was extremely anxious to have it put in hand as soon as possible. Farmer Broadford's farm was to be added to Greenman's, as originally intended, and the old house that Broadford lived in was to be pulled down as an encumbrance.
"It is she this time!" murmured Egbert gloomily. "Then I did offend her, and mortify her; and she is resentful."
The excitement of his grandfather again caused him much alarm, and even remorse. Such was the responsiveness of the farmer's physical to his mental state that in the course of a week his usual health failed, and his gloominess of mind was followed by dimness of sight and giddiness. By much persuasion Egbert induced him to stay at home for a day or two; but indoors he was the most restless of creatures, through not being able to engage in the pursuits to which he had been accustomed from his boyhood. He walked up and down, looking wistfully out of the window, shifting the positions of books and chairs, and putting them back again, opening his desk and shutting it after a vacant look at the papers, saying he should never get settled in another farm at his time of life, and evincing all the symptoms of nervousness and excitability.
Meanwhile Egbert anxiously awaited Miss Allenville's return, more resolved than ever to obtain audience of her, and beg her not to visit upon an unoffending old man the consequences of a young one's folly. Any retaliation upon himself he would accept willingly, and own to be well deserved.
At length, by making off-hand inquiries (for he dared not ask directly for her again) he learnt that she was to be at home on the Thursday. The following Friday and Saturday he kept a sharp look-out; and, when lingering in the park for at least the tenth time in that half-week, a sudden rise in the ground revealed her coming along a path
Egbert stayed his advance, in order that, if she really objected to see him, she might easily strike off into a side path or turn back.
She did not accept the alternatives, but came straight on to where he lingered, averting her face waywardly as she approached. When she was within a few steps of him he could see that the trimmings of her dress trembled like leaves. He cleared his dry throat to speak.
"Miss Allenville," he said, humbly taking off his hat, "I should be glad to say one word to you, if I may."
She looked at him for just one moment, but said nothing; and he could see that the expression of her face was flushed, and her mood skittish. The place they were standing in was a remote nook, hidden by the trunks and boughs, so that he could afford to give her plenty of time, for there was no fear of their being observed or overheard. Indeed, knowing that she often walked that way, Egbert had previously surveyed the spot and thought it suitable for the occasion, much as Wellington antecedently surveyed the field of Waterloo.
Here the young man began his pleading speech to her. He dilated upon his sensations when first he saw her; and as he became warmed by his oratory he spoke of all his inmost perturbations on her account without the slightest reserve. He related with much natural eloquence how he had tried over and over again not to love her, and how he had loved her in spite of that trying; of his intention never to reveal his passion, till their situation on that rainy evening prompted the impulse which ended in that irreverent action of his; and earnestly asked her to forgive him — not for his feelings, since they were his own to commend or blame — but for the way in which he testified of them to one so cultivated and so beautiful.
Egbert was flushed and excited by the time that he reached this point in his tale.
Her eyes were fixed on the grass; and then a tear stole quietly from its corner, and wandered down her cheek. She tried to say something, but her usually adroit tongue was unequal to the task. Ultimately she glanced at him, and murmured, "I forgive you;" but so inaudibly, that he only recognized the words by their shape upon her lips.
She looked not much more than a child now, and Egbert thought with sadness that her tear and her words were perhaps but the result, the one of a transitory sympathy, the other of a desire to escape. They stood silent for some seconds, and the dressing-bell of the house began ringing. Turning slowly away without another word she hastened out of his sight.
When Egbert reached home some of his grandfather's old friends were gathered there, sympathizing with him on the removal he would have to submit to if report spoke truly. Their sympathy was rather more for him to bear than their indifference; and as Egbert looked at the old man's bent figure, and at the expression of his face, denoting a wish to sink under the earth, out of sight and out of trouble, he was greatly depressed, and he said inwardly, "What a fool I was to ask forgiveness of a woman who can torture my only relative like this! Why do I feel her to be glorious? Oh that I had never seen her!"
The next day was Sunday, and his grandfather being too unwell to go out, Egbert went to the evening, service alone. When it was over, the rector detained him in the churchyard to say a few words about the next week's undertakings. This was soon done, and Egbert turned back to leave the now empty churchyard. Passing the porch he saw Miss Allenville coming out of the door.
Egbert said nothing, for he knew not what to say; but she spoke. "Ah, Mr. Mayne, how beautiful the west sky looks! It is the finest sunset we have had this spring."
"It is very beautiful," he replied, without looking westward a single degree. "Miss Allenville," he said reproachfully, "you might just have thought whether, for the sake of reaching one guilty person, it was worth while to deeply wound an old man."
"I do not allow you to say that," she answered with proud quickness. "Still, I will listen just this once."
"Are you glad you asserted your superiority to me by putting in motion again that scheme for turning him out?"
"I merely left off hindering it," she said.
"Well, we shall go now," continued Egbert," and make room for newer people. I hope you forgive what caused it all."
"You talk in that strain to make me feel regrets; and you think that because you are read in a few books you may say or do anything."
"No, no. That's unfair."
"I will try to alter it — that your grandfather may not leave. Say that you forgive me for thinking he and yourself had better leave — as I forgive you for what you did. But remember, nothing of that sort ever again."
"Forgive you? Oh, Miss Allenville!" said he in a wild whisper, "I wish you had sinned a hundred times as much, that I might show how readily I can forgive all."
She had looked as if she would have held out her hand; but, for some reason or other, directly he had spoken with emotion it was not so well for him as when he had spoken to wound her. She passed on silently, and entered the private gate to the house.
A day or two after this, about three o'clock in the afternoon, and whilst Egbert was giving a lesson in geography, a lad burst into the school with the tidings that Farmer Broadford had fallen from a cornstack they were threshing, and hurt himself severely.
The boy had borrowed a horse to come with, and Mayne at once made him gallop off with it for a doctor. Dismissing the children, the young man ran home full of forebodings. He found his relative in a chair, held up by two of his laboring men. He was put to bed, and seeing how pale he was, Egbert gave him a little wine, and bathed the parts which had been bruised by the fall.
Egbert had at first been the more troubled at the event through believing that his grandfather's fall was the result of his low spirits and mental uneasiness; and he blamed himself for letting so infirm a man go out upon the farm till quite recovered. But it turned out that the actual cause of the accident was the breaking of the ladder that he had been standing on. When the surgeon had seen him he said that the external bruises were mere trifles; but that the shock had been great, and had produced internal injuries highly dangerous to a man in that stage of life.
His grandson was of opinion in later years that the fall only hastened by a few months a dissolution which would soon have taken place under any circumstances, from the natural decay of the old man's constitution. His pulse grew feeble and his voice weak, but he continued in a comparatively firm state of mind for some days, during which he talked to Egbert a great deal.
Egbert trusted that the illness would soon pass away; his anxiety for his grandfather was great. When he was gone not one of the family would be left but himself. But in spite of hope the younger man perceived that death was really at hand. And now arose a question. It was certainly a time to make confidences, if they were ever to be made; should he, then, tell his grandfather, who knew the Allenvilles so well, of his love for Geraldine? At one moment it seemed duty; at another it seemed a graceful act, to say the least.
Yet Egbert might never have uttered a word but for a remark of his grandfather's which led up to the very point. He was speaking of the farm and of the squire, and thence he went on to the daughter.
"She, too," he said, "seems to have that reckless spirit which was in her mother's family, and ruined her mother's father at the gaming-table, though she's too young to show much of it yet."
"I hope not," said Egbert fervently.
"Why? What be the Allenvilles to you — not that I wish the girl harm?"
"I think she is the very best being in the world. I — love her deeply."
His grandfather's eyes were set on the wall. "Well, well, my poor boy," came softly from his mouth. "What made ye think of loving her? Ye may as well love a mountain, for any return you'll 'ever get. Do she know of it?"
"She guesses it. It was my saving her from the threshing-machine that began it."
"And she checks you? "'
"Well — no."
"Egbert," he said after a silence, "I am grieved, for it can but end in pain. Mind, she's an inexperienced girl. She never thinks of what trouble she may get herself into with her father and with her friends. And mind this, my lad, as another reason for dropping it; however honorable your love may be, you'll never get credit for your honor. Nothing you can do will ever root out the notion of people that where the man is poor and the woman is high-born he's a scamp and she's an angel."
"She's very good."
"She's thoughtless, or she'd never encourage you. You must try not to see her."
"I will never put myself in her way again."
The subject was mentioned no more then. The next day the worn-out old farmer died, and his last request to Egbert was that he would do nothing to tempt Geraldine Allenville to think of him further.
Hath misery made thee blind
To the fond workings of a woman's mind?
And must I say — albeit my heart rebel
With all that woman feels but should not tell;
Because, despite thy faults, that heart is moved —
It feared thee, thank'd thee, pitied, madden'd, loved?
It was in the evening of the day after Farmer Broadford's death that Egbert first sat down in the house alone. The bandy-legged little man who had acted as his grandfather's groom of the chambers and stables simultaneously had gone into the village. The candles were not yet lighted, and Mayne abstractedly watched upon the pale wall the latter rays of sunset slowly changing into the white shine of a moon a few days old. The ancient family clock had stopped for want of winding, and the intense silence that prevailed seemed more like the bodily presence of some quality than the mere absence of sound.
He was thinking how many were the indifferent expressions which he had used towards the poor body lying cold up-stairs — the only relation he had latterly had upon earth — which might as well have been left unsaid; of how far he had been from practically attempting to do what in theory he called best — to make the most of every pulse of natural affection; that he had never heeded or particularly inquired the meaning of the different pieces of advice which the kind old man had tendered from time to time; that he had never even thought of asking for any details of his grandfather's history.
His musings turned upon Geraldine. He had promised to seek her no more, and he would keep his promise. Her interest in him might only be that of an exceedingly romantic and freakish soul, awakened but through "lack of other idleness," and because sound sense suggested to her that it was a thing dangerous to do; for it seemed that she was ever and only moved by the superior of two antagonistic forces. She had as yet seen little or no society, she was only seventeen; and hence it was possible that a week of the town and fashion into which she would soon be initiated might blot out his very existence from her memory.
He was sitting with his back to the window, meditating in this minor key, when a shadow darkened the opposite moonlit wall. Egbert started. There was a gentle tap at the door; and he opened it to behold the well-known form of the lady in his mind.
"Mr. Mayne, are you alone?" she whispered, full of agitation.
"Quite alone, excepting my poor grandfather's body up-stairs," he answered, as agitated as she.
Then out it all came. "I couldn't help coming — I hope — oh, I do so pray - that it was not through me that he died. Was it I, indeed, who killed him? They say it was the effect of the news that he was to leave the farm. I would have done anything to hinder his being turned out had I only reflected! And now he is dead. It was so cruel to an old man like him; and now you have nobody in the world to care for you, have you, Egbert — except me?"
The ice was wholly broken. He took her hand in both his own and began to assure her that her alarm was grounded on nothing whatever. And yet he was almost reluctant to assure her out of so sweet a state. And when he had said over and over again that his grandfather's fall had nothing to do with his mental condition, that the utmost result of her hasty proceeding was a sadness of spirit in him, she still persisted, as is the custom of women, in holding to that most painful possibility as the most likely, simply because it wounded her most. It was a long while before she would be convinced of her own innocence, but he maintained it firmly, and she finally believed.
They sat down together, restraint having quite died out between them. The fine-lady portion of her existence, of which there was never much, was in abeyance, and they spoke and acted simply as a young man and woman who were beset by common troubles, and who had like hopes and fears.
"And you will never blame me again for what I did?" said Egbert.
"I never blamed you much," she murmured with arch simplicity. "Why should it be wrong for me to be honest with you now, and tell everything you want to know?"
Mayne was silent. That was a difficult question for a conscientious man to answer. Here was he nearly twenty-one years of age, and with some experience of life, while she was a girl nursed up like an exotic, with no real experience; and but little over seventeen — though from the fineness of her figure she looked more womanly than she really was. It plainly had not crossed her young mind that she was on the verge of committing the most horrible social sin — that of loving beneath her, and owning that she so loved. Two years thence she might see the imprudence of her conduct, and blame him for having led her on. Ought he not, then, considering his grandfather's words, to say that it was wrong for her to be honest; that she should forget him, and fix her mind on matters appertaining to her order? He could not do it — he let her drift sweetly on.
"I think more of you than of anybody in the whole world," he replied. "And you will allow me to, will you not? — let me always keep you in my heart, and almost worship you?"
"That would be wrong. But you may think of me, if you like to, very much; it will give me great pleasure. I don't think my father thinks of me at all — or anybody, except you. I said the other day I would never think of you again, but I have done it, a good many times. It is all through being obliged to care for somebody whether you will or no."
"And you will go on thinking of me?"
"I will do anything to — oblige you."
Egbert, on the impulse of the moment, bent over her and raised her little hand to his lips. He reverenced her too much to think of kissing her cheek. She knew this, and was thrilled through with the delight of being adored as one from above the sky.
Up to this day of its existence their affection had been a battle, a species of antagonism wherein his heart and the girl's had faced each other, and being anxious to do honor to their respective parts. But now it was a truce and a settlement, in which each one took up the other's utmost weakness, and was careless of concealing his and her own.
Surely, sitting there as they sat then, a more unreasoning condition of mind as to how this unequal conjunction would end never existed. They swam along through the passing moments, not a thought of duty on either side, not a further thought on his but that she was the dayspring of his life, that he would die for her a hundred times; superadded to which was a shapeless uneasiness that she would in some manner slip away from him. The solemnity of the event that had just happened would have shown up to him any ungenerous feeling in strong colors — and he had reason afterwards to examine the epoch narrowly; but it only seemed to demonstrate how instinctive and uncalculating was the love that worked within him.
It was almost time for her to leave. She held up her watch to the moonlight. Five minutes more she would stay; then three minutes, and no longer. "Now I am going," she said. "Do you forgive me entirely?"
"How shall I say 'yes' without assuming that there was something to forgive?"
"Say 'yes.' It is sweeter to fancy I am forgiven than to think I have not sinned."
With this she went to the door. Egbert accompanied her through the wood, and across a portion of the park, till they were about a hundred yards from the house, when he was forced to bid her farewell.
The old man was buried on the following Sunday. During several weeks afterwards Egbert's sole consolation under his loss was in thinking of Geraldine, for they did not meet in private again till some time had elapsed. The ultimate issue of this absorption in her did not concern him at all: it seemed to be in keeping with the system of his existence now that he should have an utterly inscrutable to-morrow.
Come forward, some great marshal, and organize
equality in society.
The month of August came round, and Miss Allenville was to lay the foundation-stone of a tower or beacon which her father was about to erect on the highest hill of his estate, to the memory of his brother, the general. It was arranged that the school children should sing at the ceremony. Accordingly, at the hour fixed, Egbert was on the spot; a crowd of villagers had also arrived, and carriages were visible in the distance, wending their way towards the scene. When they had drawn up alongside and the visitors alighted, the master mason appeared nervous.
"Mr. Mayne," he said to Egbert, "you had better do what's to be done for the lady. I shall speak too loud, or too soft, or handle things wrong. Do you attend upon her, and I'll lower the stone."
Several ladies and gentlemen now gathered round, and presently Miss Allenville stood in position for her office, supported on one side by her father, a hard-featured man of five-and-forty, and some friends who were visiting at the house; and on the other by the school children, who began singing a song in keeping with the occasion. When this was done, Geraldine laid down the sealed bottle with its enclosed memorandum, which had been prepared for the purpose, and taking a trowel from her father's hand, dabbled confusedly in the mortar, accidentally smearing it over the handle of the trowel.
"Lower the stone," said Egbert, who stood close by, to the mason at the winch; and the stone began to descend.
The dainty-handed young woman was looking as if she would give anything to be relieved of the dirty trowel; but Egbert, the only one who observed this, was guiding the stone with both hands into its place, and could not receive the tool of her. Every moment increased her perplexity.
"Take it, take it, will you?" she impatiently whispered to him, blushing with a consciousness that people began to perceive her awkward handling.
"I must just finish this first," he said.
She was resigned in an instant. The stone settled down upon its base, when Egbert at once took the trowel, and her father came up and wiped her glove. Egbert then handed her the mallet.
"What must I do with this thing?" she whispered entreatingly, holding the mallet as if it might bite her.
"Tap with it, madam," said he.
She did as directed, and murmured the form of words which she had been told to repeat.
"Thank you," she said softly when all was done, restored to herself by the consciousness that she had performed the last part gracefully. Without lifting her eyes she added, "It was thoughtful of you to remember that I shouldn't know, and to stand by to tell me."
Her friends now moved away, but before she had joined them Egbert said, chiefly for the pleasure of speaking to her: "The tower, when it is built, will be seen many miles off."
"Yes," she replied in a discreet tone, for many eyes were upon her. "The view is very extensive." She glanced round upon the whole landscape stretched out before her, in the extreme distance of which was visible the town of Westcombe.
"How long does it take to go to Westcombe across this way?" she asked of him while they were bringing up the carriage.
"About two hours," he said.
"Two hours—so long as that, does it? How far is it away?"
"Two hours to drive eight miles — who ever heard of such a thing!"
"I thought you meant walking"
"Ah, yes; but one hardly means walking without expressly stating it."
"Well, it seems just the other way to me — that walking is meant unless you say driving."
That was the whole of their conversation. The remarks had been simple and trivial, but they brought a similar thought into the minds of both of them. On her part it spread a sudden gloom over her face, and it made him feel dead at heart. It was that horrid thought of their differing habits and of those contrasting positions which could not be reconciled.
Indeed, this perception of their disparity weighed more and more heavily upon him as the days went on. There was no doubt about their being lovers, though scarcely recognized by themselves as such; and, in spite of Geraldine's warm and unreflecting impulses, a sense of how little Egbert was accustomed to what is called society, and the polite forms which constant usage had made almost nature with her, would rise on occasion, and rob her of many an otherwise pleasant minute. When any little occurrence had brought this into more prominence than usual, Egbert would go away, wander about the lanes, and be kept awake a great part of the night by the distress of mind such a recognition brought upon him. How their intimacy would end, in what uneasiness, yearning, and misery, he could not guess. As for picturing a future of happiness with her by his side there was not ground enough upon which to rest the momentary imagination of it. Thus they mutually oppressed each other even while they loved.
In addition to this anxiety was another; what would be thought of their romance by her father, if he were to find it out? It was impossible to tell him, for nothing could come of that but Egbert's dismissal and Geraldine's seclusion; and how could these be borne?
He looked round anxiously for some means of deliverance. There were two things to be thought of, the saving of her dignity, and the saving of his and her happiness. That to accomplish the first he ought voluntarily to leave the village before their attachment got known, and never seek her again, was what he sometimes felt; but the idea brought such misery along with it that it died out under contemplation.
He determined at all events to put the case clearly before her, to heroically set forth at their next meeting the true bearings of their position, which she plainly did not realize to the full as yet. It had never entered her mind that the link between them might be observed by the curious, and instantly talked of. Yes, it was his duty to warn her, even though by so doing he would be heaping coals of fire on his own head. For by acting upon his hint she would be lost to him, and the charm that lay in her false notions of the world be forever destroyed.
That they would ultimately be found out, and Geraldine be lowered in local estimation, was, indeed, almost inevitable. There was one grain of satisfaction only among this mass of distresses. Whatever should become public, only the fashionable side of her character could be depreciated; the natural woman, the specimen of English girlhood that he loved, no one could impugn or harm.
Meetings had latterly taken place between them without any pretence of accident, and these were facilitated in an amazing manner by the duty imposed upon her of visiting the school as the representative of her father. At her very next appearance he told her all he thought. It was when the children had left the room for the quarter of an hour's airing that he gave them in the middle of the morning.
She was quite hurt at being treated with justice, and a crowd of tears came into her sorrowful eyes. She had never thought of half that he feared, and almost questioned his kindness in enlightening her.
"Perhaps you are right," she murmured, with the merest motion of lip. "Yes, it is sadly true. Should our conduct become known, nobody will judge us fairly. 'She was a wild, weak girl,' they will say."
"To care for such a man — a village youth. They will even suppress the fact that his father was a painter of no mean power, and a gentleman by education, little as it would redeem us; and justify their doing so by reflecting that in adding to the contrast they improve the tale.
And calumny meanwhile shall feed on us
As worms devour the dead: what we have done
None shall dare vouch, though it be truly known.
And they will continue, 'He was an artful fellow to win a girl's affections in that way — one of the mere scum of the earth,' they'll say."
"Don't, don't make it so bad!" she implored, weeping outright. "They cannot go so far. Human nature is not so wicked and blind. And they dare not speak so disrespectfully of me, or of any one I choose to favor." A slight haughtiness was apparent in these words. "But, oh, don't let us talk of it—it makes the time miserable."
However, she had been warned. But the difficulty which presented itself to her mind was, after all, but a small portion of the whole. It was how should they meet together without causing a convulsion in neighboring society. His was more radical and complex. The only natural drift of love was towards marriage. But how could he picture, at any length of years ahead, her in a cottage as his wife, or himself in a mansion as her husband? He in the one case, she in the other, were alike painfully incredible.
But time had flown, and he conducted her to the door. "Good-bye, Egbert," she said tenderly.
"Good-bye, dear, dear madam," he answered; and she was gone.
Geraldine had never ~hinted to him to call her by her Christian name, and finding that she did not particularly wish it he did not care to do so. "Madam" was as good a name as any other for her, and by adhering to it and using it at the warmest moments it seemed to change its nature from that of a mere title to a soft pet sound. He often wondered in after days at the strange condition of a girl's heart, which could allow so much in reality, and at the same time permit the existence of a little barrier such as that; how the keen, intelligent mind of woman could be ever so slightly hoodwinked by a sound. Yet, perhaps, it was womanlike, after all, and she may have caught at it as the only straw within reach of that dignity or pride of birth which was drowning in her impetuous affection.
The world and its ways have a certain worth,
And to press a point while these oppose
Were a simple policy: best wait,
And we lose no friends, and gain no foes.
The inborn necessity of ransacking the future for a germ of hope led Egbert Mayne to dwell for longer and longer periods on the at first rejected possibility of winning and having her. And apart from any thought of marriage, he knew that Geraldine was sometimes a trifle vexed that their experiences contained so little in common — that he had never dressed for dinner, or made use of a carriage in his life; even though in literature he was her master, thanks to his tastes.For the first time he seriously contemplated a visionary scheme which had been several times cursorily glanced at; a scheme almost as visionary as any ever entertained by a man not yet blinded to the limits of the possible. Lighted on by impulse, it was not taken up without long calculation, and it was one in which every link was reasoned out as carefully and as clearly as his powers would permit. But the idea that he would be able to carry it through was an assumption which, had he bestowed upon it one hundredth part of the thought spent on the details of its working, he would have thrown aside as unfeasible.
To give up the school, to go to London or elsewhere, and there to try to rise to her level by years of sheer exertion, was the substance of this scheme. However his lady's heart might be grieved by his apparent desertion, he would go. A knowledge of life and of men must be acquired, and that could never be done by thinking at home.
Egbert's abstract love for the gigantic task was but small; but there was absolutely no other honest road to her sphere. That the habits of men should be so subversive of the law of nature as to indicate that he was not worthy to marry a woman whose own instincts said that he was worthy, was a great anomaly, he thought, with some rebelliousness; but this did not upset the fact or remove the difficulty.
He told his fair mistress at their next accidental meeting (much sophistry lay in their definition of "accidental" at this season) that he had determined to leave Tollamore. Mentally she exulted at his spirit, but her heart despaired. He solemnly assured her that it would be much better for them both in the end; and she became submissive, and entirely agreed with him. Then she seemed to acquire a sort of superior insight by virtue of her superior rank, and murmured, "You will expand your mind, and get to despise me for all this, and for my want of pride in being so easily won; and it will end unhappily."
Her imagination so affected her that she could not hinder the tears from falling. Nothing was more effective in checking his despair than the sight of her despairing, and he immediately put on a more hopeful tone.
"No," he said, taking her by the hand, "I shall rise, and become so learned and so famous that ——" He did not like to say plainly that he really hoped to win her as his wife, but it is very probable that she guessed his meaning nearly enough.
"You have some secret resources!" she exclaimed. "Some help is promised you in this ambitious plan."
It was most painful to him to have to tell her the truth after this sanguine expectation, and how uncertain and unaided his plans were. However, he cheered her with the words, "Wait and see." But he himself had many misgivings when her sweet face was turned away.
Upon this plan he acted at once. Nothing of moment occurred during the autumn, and the time for his departure gradually came near. The sale of his grandfather's effects having taken place, and notice having been given at the school, there was very little else for him to do in the way of preparation, for there was no family to be consulted, no household to be removed. On the last day of teaching, when the afternoon lessons were over, he bade farewell to the school children. The younger ones cried, not from any particular reflection on the loss they would sustain, but simply because their hearts were tender to any announcement couched in solemn terms. The elder children sincerely regretted Egbert, as an acquaintance who had not filled the post of schoolmaster so long as to be quite spoilt as a human being.
On the morning of departure he rose at half past three, for Tollamore was a remote nook of a remote district, and it was necessary to start early, his plan being to go by packet from Melport. The candle-flame had a sad and yellow look when it was brought into his bedroom by Nathan Brown, one of his grandfather's old laborers, at whose house he had taken a temporary lodging, and who had agreed to awake him and assist his departure. Few things will take away a man's confidence in an impulsive scheme more than being called up by candlelight upon a chilly morning to commence working it out. But when Egbert heard Nathan's great feet stamping spiritedly about the floor downstairs, in earnest preparation of breakfast, he overcame his weakness and bustled out of bed.
They breakfasted together, Nathan drinking the hot tea with rattling sips, and Egbert thinking as he looked at him that Nathan had never appeared so desirable a man to have about him as now when he was about to give him up.
"Well, good mornen, Mistur Mayne," Nathan said, as he opened the door to let Egbert out. "And mind this, sir; if they used ye bad up there, th'lt always find a hole to put thy head into at Nathan Brown's, I'll warrant as much."
Egbert stepped from the door, and struck across to the manor-house. The morning was dark, and the raw wind made him shiver till walking warmed him. "Good heavens, here's an undertaking!" he sometimes thought. Old trees seemed to look at him through the gloom, as they rocked uneasily to and fro; and now and then a dreary drop of rain beat upon his face as he went on. The dead leaves in the ditches, which could be heard but not seen, shifted their positions with a troubled rustle, and flew at intervals with a little rap against his walking-stick and hat. He was glad to reach the north stile, and get into the park, where, with an anxious pulse, he passed beneath the creaking limes.
"Will she wake soon enough; will she be forgetful, and sleep over the time?" He had asked himself this many times since he rose that morning, and still beset by the inquiry, he drew near to the mansion.
Her bedroom was in the north wing, facing towards the church, and on turning the brow of the hill a faint light in the window reassured him. Taking a few little stones from the path he threw them upon the sill, as they had agreed, and she instantly opened the window, and said softly, "The butler sleeps on the ground floor on this side, go to the bow-window in the shrubbery."
He went round among the bushes to the place mentioned, which was entirely sheltered from the wind. She soon appeared, bearing in her hand a wax taper, so small that it scarcely gave more light than a glowworm. She wore the same dress that she had worn when they first met on the previous Christmas, and her hair was loose as at that time. Indeed, she looked throughout much as she had looked then, except that her bright eyes were red, as Egbert could see well enough.
"I have something for you," she said softly as she opened the window. "How much time is there?"
"Half an hour only, dearest."
She began a sigh, but checked it, at the same time holding out a packet to him.
"Here are fifty pounds," she whispered. "It will be useful to you now, and more shall follow."
Egbert felt how impossible it was to accept this. "No, my dear one," he said, "I cannot."
"I don't require it, Egbert. I wish you to have it; I have plenty. Come, do take it." But seeing that he continued firm on this point she reluctantly gave in, saying that she would keep it for him.
"I fear so much that papa suspects me," she said. "And if so, it was my own fault, and all owing to a conversation I began with him without thinking beforehand that it would be dangerous."
"What did you say?"
I said," she whispered, 'Suppose a man should love me very much, would you mind my being acquainted with him if he were a very worthy man?' 'That depends upon his rank and circumstances,' he said. 'Suppose,' I said, 'that in addition to his goodness he had much learning, and had made his name famous in the world, but was not altogether rich?' I think I showed too much earnestness, and I wished that I could have recalled my words. 'When the time comes I will tell you,' he said, 'and don't speak or think of these matters again.'"
In consequence of this new imprudence of hers Egbert doubted if it would be right to correspond with her. He said nothing about it then, but it added a new shade to the parting.
"I think your decision a good and noble one," she murmured, smiling hopefully. "And you will come back some day a wondrous man of the world, talking of vast schemes, radical errors, and saying such words as the 'backbone of society,' the 'tendency of modern thought,' and other things like that. When papa says to you, 'My lord the chancellor,' you will answer him with 'A tall man, with a deep-toned voice — I know him well.' When he says, 'Such and such were Lord Hatton's words, I think,' you will answer, No, they were Lord Tyrrell's; I was present on the occasion;' and so on in that way. You must get to talk authoritatively about vintages and their dates, and to know all about epicureanism, idleness, and fashion; and so you will beat him with his own weapons, for he knows nothing of these things. He will criticise you; then he will be nettled; then he will admire you."
Egbert kissed her hand devotedly, and held it long.
"If you cannot in the least succeed," she added, "I shall never think the less of you. The truly great stand on no middling ledge; they are either famous or unknown."
Egbert moved slowly away amongst the laurestines. Holding the light above her bright head she smiled upon him, as if it were unknown to her that she wept at the same time.
He left the park precincts, and followed the turnpike road to Melport. In spite of the misery of parting he felt relieved of a certain oppressiveness, now that his presence at Tollamore could no longer bring disgrace upon her. The threatening rain passed off by the time that he reached the ridge dividing the inland districts from the coast. It began to get light, but his journey was still very lonely. Ultimately the yellow shore-line of pebbles grew visible, and the distant horizon of water spreading like a grey upland against the sky, till he could soon hear the measured flounce of the waves.
He entered the town at sunrise, just as the lamps were extinguished, and went to a tavern to breakfast. At half past eight o'clock the boat steamed out of the harbor, and reached London after a passage of five-and-forty hours.