Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Lilian's perplexities - Part 5
A TALE IN TWELVE CHAPTERS.
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CHAPTER X. OLD AND NEW.
It was a mighty help and staff of comfort to Lilian amid the sorrow for her brother’s death, that declaration of faith in her character which Frank Scott had made. She was deeply, deeply grateful to him. On the word of another she was not as weak and mean and trivial as she had imagined, and she clung desperately to that assurance, for it seemed to give her the power of worthily mourning her brother’s noble death. She had indeed fallen low, but it was within the capacity of her soul to be noble and true. She was not forced to stand afar off and mourn for one whose nature was alien to hers, feeling that her miserable insignificance had naught in common with his nobleness. They were brother and sister, the same flesh and blood, yes, of like natures, though he had acted nobly, and she ignobly, in the fight of life.
But by God’s help she could rise to him. She might dwell on all his nobleness with the exulting thought that she could make that nobleness her own.
Mind, I am giving a sister’s estimate of Frederick Temple’s character—he had acted nobly, as thousands act, but affection specialises where the world only generalises.
Balsam of comfort, prepared according to divers prescriptions, was offered to Lilian by zealous friends, but those words of Frank Scott, spoken for the furtherance of his own ends, were her only consolation.
Five months had elapsed since the intelligence of death had arrived, but there came a second season of mourning when the personal property, personal belongings of Frederick Temple, arrived in England.
These things were brought under the care of an old friend and comrade of Temple, Captain Milton, who had been present at his death.
The Temple family had the deepest interest in seeing Captain Milton, for although they had received several letters of condolence from friends in India, Captain Milton’s letters had unfortunately failed to reach them, and he alone was capable of giving a minute account of all that had occurred at the last.
Captain Milton greatly regretted the loss of his letters: he had written also, he said, to Mr. Westby—had they heard whether Mr. Westby had received the letter?
“He would no doubt have told us had he heard from you,” replied Lilian. “We have not seen him lately, but he is perfectly aware how very anxious we have been to receive accounts from you.”
Captain Milton appeared particularly disappointed that Westby had not received his letter: he expressed himself to that effect, and frequently reverted to the subject. Rather unnecessarily, indeed, as both Lilian and her mother thought, because, after all, the letter which they had lost was far more important.
Lilian hung with breathless interest on every word of Captain Milton’s narrative; the whole sad scene arose before her eyes in vivid colours, created by her sympathetic heart: he spoke, indeed, with the utmost feeling, but with the plain, unaffected language of everyday life, carrying intense reality in every syllable.
There was a great contrast to be observed in the effect of the narrative on the two women who listened to it. Mrs. Temple strove against sorrow bursting into violent outward manifestation; with Lilian, though tears stood in her eyes, sorrow was half merged in a higher feeling—admiration.
It was in truth a very noble eulogy which Captain Milton pronounced on Frederick Temple. How his nature had been tested to the full by the difficulties and privations of the campaign, and how his generosity and self-denial had been eminent through all the trial.
“I have known many a man,” said Captain Milton, “who was generous enough and open-handed when his generosity cost him no personal sacrifice; but your brother was always ready to share or give up any comforts which he might possess to others who oftentimes really wanted them in no greater degree than he did himself.”
And as Lilian listened, strange new thoughts arose in her mind; the events of life wore a new aspect, her old estimate of human things looked poor and mean—nothing seemed worth caring for which had not some greatness for its object, some sacrifice needful for its attainment.
Then Captain Milton spoke of Frederick Temple’s bravery; how he was ever ready to face danger calm and undaunted; how he strove against bodily weakness to hold his post. From the time he received the wound at Delhi he was changed, no longer his old spirits—only when he was at the head of his men did the brightness of his nature return. He had become very weak and had been ordered home by the doctors, but nothing could stop his joining that desperate expedition at the last as a volunteer.
It was the old story which Captain Milton told; a handful of Englishmen outmatched by hundreds, yet crowned with victory; the old story which we in quiet England have heard many a time, thank God for it, who has given such mighty power to our race.
“When the doctor told me that nothing could be done to save him, I couldn’t help expressing a regret that he should have joined us in his weak state instead of going down to Calcutta as he had been ordered by the medical board, for no doubt his previous weakness was the great bar to his recovery—”
“No, no, old boy,” he answered, raising his voice with effort. “I had my commands from head-quarters, and I was forced to obey. As I was lying ill before Delhi a crowd of new thoughts crept into my head—strange thoughts: it was a call from God, that’s what it was. I was never much of a hand at praying, I was not told to do that,—I should have made a bad business of it. I was called to the work I was best fitted for. It was my sword God wanted, I was told that as plainly as I’m telling you. Didn’t we want cavalry, and somebody to lead those fellows? Could we have spared a single man? I felt quite strong again as I rode along, something supported me all through the day; I know what that was. Nothing could harm me till the work was over. My work was done when we had taken those guns. I wasn’t wanted after that.”
Frederick Temple had directed that his sword should be given to Lilian.
“He told me to give it to you in your own hands,” said Captain Milton, “and I promised him faithfully to do so.”
Captain Milton unsheathed the sword, and, coming to where Lilian sat, placed the sword in her hands, hilt and blade.
She felt a cold tremor as she touched the steel, and a feeling of solemnity gathered round her,—a solemnity deep beyond all church experiences, though they were sitting in their well-ordered drawing-room, and the narrative to which they listened was couched in ordinary language, without the slightest affectation of Scriptural phraseology. Surrounded by all the associations of pleasant worldly existence, and yet as Lilian pressed her lips to the steel, the old world seemed to sink from her gaze, and those ideas of duty and effort which had been little more than dreamy abstractions in the back-ground of her thoughts burst forward into solid existence.
It only needed some one, clothed with authority, to stand before her and pronounce that such an act was right to be done, and such a sacrifice endured, and she would have obeyed.
She felt armed for a great effort, but nothing was asked of her—every-day life, with its pleasantly-ordered arrangements, circled her existence; heroism in any shape seemed a useless element. The carriage would be waiting their pleasure, if they chose it, for a drive in the park, then home to dress for dinner. It appeared very incongruous that so much spiritual exultation should end so tamely. Nevertheless, if there was nothing absolutely to be done, Lilian could at least fashion out a future more worthy than the past; she would cast aside her old random fickle way; she would cease to act on mere impulse, accepting rather the guidance of reason and conscience.
In her own small humble way she might still be worthy of being his sister, though it might be she would never be called on to make the efforts he had made. She thought thus as she sat quietly in her own room, tracing the dints on the edge of the sword, and musing on the tale they told of danger, and bravery, and heroism.
But there was a duty to be performed. A letter had arrived that very morning, containing an offer from Frank Scott. By one fortunate chance he had won his way to her heart—he had raised her up when she was utterly cast down by the words of Westby, and her sense of their truth, and in the sudden revulsion of her feelings she had turned with gratitude towards him.
Not one word of love had escaped his lips from the period of their momentous conversation up to the present time, yet he had been staying in their house during the season of their deepest sorrow, associated with them in their grief, and showing the truest sympathy by quiet words and acts. She felt through all this that he was loving her. It was so natural, as he was living with them, that she should like to talk with him of the subject most at her heart, the recollections of her brother, and once or twice almost unconsciously she had declared how deep was the consolation she had derived from his words of assurance.
She appreciated too the delicacy with which he avoided all approach to the subject which was evidently dearest to him, and she could not help perceiving that a greater earnestness was developed in his character, and that he seemed to be taking a deeper interest in his profession, and other duties of life.
Frank Scott had left them for awhile to attend to some property belonging to him in the country, and he had chosen the opportunity to make his offer in writing. He was of course unaware that Captain Milton had arrived in England.
Lilian felt that the present was not a time to think of marrying, and being given in marriage—the solemnity that reigned at her heart must not be broken by any thought of her own happiness. After the lapse of a certain time it would be fitting to entertain the idea, but not now; she would not of course refuse her cousin, but pray him to postpone his offer. Certainly not refuse him, because she felt there was none other now, save her father and mother, who had dealt kindly with her faults, and who would appreciate the sincerity of her efforts to do better. So, on the morning succeeding Captain Milton’s visit, Lilian laid Frank Scott’s letter before her, and addressed herself to making a reply.
She began many a copy, and tore many a copy up, and finding it impossible to express what she really felt, she dashed off by happy impulse a few words:
Dear Frank,—I cannot answer your letter now—Captain Milton has just arrived with poor Fred’s things—some other time.
Your affectionate cousin,
The servant announced Mr. Westby.
“I will see him,” said Lilian. She hid the letters within her desk. “No doubt,” she thought, “he has called in consequence of hearing about Captain Milton.”
That was the reason why Westby had come; indeed, he had seen Captain Milton, who had been good enough to call at his chambers.
“And he told you all the sad account?”
“Yes,” replied Westby. She could perceive a great constraint in his manner, which she attributed to the doubt in his mind as to how she would receive him, for they had not met more than casually since the day he had spoken so severely; and even at those times he had shown a desire to avoid her. She resolved to assure him of her complete forgiveness.
“We expected you to call, Karlo Magno. I should like still to call you Karlo Magno, because it reminds me of that happy time we three spent in Switzerland—for we knew you would like to look at our treasures. Indeed, mamma and I said yesterday that we should wish you to have some slight remembrance, for you and he were such old friends, and we know how much he esteemed you. We have not quite settled what it will be; the interview with Captain Milton was almost too much for mamma; and she is very unwell and nervous to-day.”
Lilian thought that this speech would have placed Westby at his ease, but on the contrary, he seemed to grow more embarrassed. She felt puzzled what to do. She opened a box containing several small articles which had belonged to her brother.
“It will be too painful for you,” he murmured.
“Oh, no! I look at them very frequently. He bought that revolver just before he returned to India. Don’t you recollect the dreadful bother there was to get it through the French custom-house? I should like it to be given to you; however, I must ask mamma first.”
“Something far less valuable will do for me; but I must confess, I should greatly value some small remembrance.”
“He left his sword to me, Karlo Magno. It is priceless in my estimation. I think, dear boy!” she spoke with tears in her eyes, “that there must have been some meaning in his gift: he must have felt I wanted endurance—constancy. I hope I am better than I was—but you were quite right in what you said to me at that time—I had trifled very wickedly with Mr. Newton. Every word you said was true, and he would have spoken just the same. You were quite justified in speaking as you did; indeed you were. I was very fickle,—a jilt and a flirt,—but I am changed now, Karlo Magno; I feel I am.”
“Can you forgive me for what I said?”
“Nonsense about forgiveness! It is nothing to forgive!” she replied, and turning the conversation,—“I made him a present of that little prayer-book the day we parted at Berne. Do you remember my losing it among the firs, and the hunt you two had?”
“I quite recollect the circumstance,” replied Westby; “but Lilian, I have come here to-day to apologise for speaking as I did.”
“No, no, I beg,” interrupted Lilian.
“Yes, to apologise, if you will accept my apology?”
“I know I was quite in the wrong,” protested Lilian.
“I must explain exactly what I mean. You were in error—if you will allow me to say so—in ever accepting George Newton, and so far there might be reason in what I said. But then, in my absurd indignation, I departed from facts, and hastily generalising on your character, I said you lacked true feeling and constancy, and such like qualities; that you were not worthy of being his sister. I fear I used words as strong as those. I have come to ask your forgiveness for all that, and frankly to confess that I was entirely mistaken.”
“I know, Lilian, my words must have had a sad sting from their great injustice: I shall never forgive myself for having said them. Judge not—judge not,” he muttered, in self-reproach; “it was mighty easy to forget that precept.”
For a time she was lost in amazement, but regaining her self-possession—“Oh, Karlo Magno, why do you tell me all this now?—he has been dead to us these six months! If you had told me this then, I should have had comfort: why now, more than then?”
Westby made no reply.
“Why now?” she urged passionately. “Comfort, no, no! I could not have believed you then. I should have felt that your words were no more than a desire for reconciliation, occasioned by his death; not the evidence of real belief. I can only see them in that light now.”
“I assure you, on my honour, Lilian.”
She did not heed his protestation.
“Now that you have recurred to the subject—I, on my part, would have passed it by, hidden it over—I will tell you how much I felt when I heard your words—yes, and thought them over—for it seemed to me, esteeming your character as I do, that they must represent the opinion of all those whose good opinion was worth preserving. I was utterly cast down. But all that is passed,” she added, after a painful pause. “I know you spoke from a good motive—in that thought I forgive all the rest. Pray let us cease to talk of this painful subject. I am very happy to see you now.”
“No, no, Lilian,” he replied, hastily, “I must make you believe me.” She almost turned from him, so distressed was she by his pertinacity in renewing the conversation. “When I spoke then, like a fool, I was ignorant of the truth—I know it now.”
“Know what?” she asked, anxiously.
“I accused you of want of constancy—of fickleness—I, in my miserable blindness, not knowing that strongest constancy was at the very root of your rejection of George Newton. It might be for others to blame you—it was not for me. Lilian, you have forced me to speak plainly; because I do know the truth—every iota, I have come to ask your pardon.”
She trembled as she heard him, and turned pale.
“Has he revenged himself on me by being false to his word?” she murmured.
“George Newton! The truth did not come from him.”
“Was there not another who knew it?”
“But he is dead!”
“The truth was bequeathed to me, Lilian—a sacred trust confided to Captain Milton. Your brother bade him, at the very last, tell me everything—they had often talked in confidence on the subject—and place those letters of yours in my hands.”
It was well nigh too much to hear. Lilian could not meet his gaze; she covered her face with her hands.
“He told Captain Milton,” continued Westby, “that it was to have been the dearest pleasure of his life to bring about an understanding between us. But God had not so willed it, and with his dying breath he left it to Captain Milton to tell me the truth. Oh, Lilian! I was driven half mad when I read those letters in which you confess all to him. I will not talk to you now of love—my conduct has forfeited all that claim. I threw away the golden chance once; but when I think that my blind conduct has been the cause of all that was blameworthy in you, how I have accused you, and I was the wretched cause—”
He saw, notwithstanding the vehemence of his own feelings, how deeply she was moved.
“Well, perhaps, I ought to have written and not come abruptly to you at this time, but I was desperate to repair the evil, and withdraw my wretched accusation.”
There was no power in her tongue to speak; striving hard to listen, she was scarcely able to follow his vehement words.
“And yet, Lilian,” he continued, “though my stupid blindness may justly have annihilated your love for me, I cannot leave till I declare how deeply I have loved you. You know what my lot in life has been. I spoke of it to you and your poor brother that time ago in Switzerland. I am not the same as those others who have been about your path. I have been forced through life to crush my wishes. Oh! it is a glorious joy to declare one’s love when one possesses the worldly means of happiness; but I was sobered very early to the necessities of life; I knew the utter folly of indulging in a hopeless passion; yet I felt as deeply, Lilian—deeper, deeper!” he added, vehemently, “than those others, but I had to cast that feeling from my heart. You must not think that the strife and work of life had destroyed my heart. I was bewildered when I dwelt on it, the thought of one living in such a happy sphere caring for me and my affairs. Oh, Lilian! I could not have imagined the depth of your truth and constancy—I thought that the difference between us was far too great for your feeling to be more than that of the moment—yet I did dearly cling to the thought that you should for ever so short a time have cared for me. You say in that letter to your brother that my words held you true to George Newton that evening at Mrs. Wilson’s. No! no! you must not think that I am great and noble to be your example. The fact is, I say it to my shame, my feelings were so deeply moved at the sight of you, that, had you yourself not given me the example, I must have made an utter fool of myself—or worse, both knave and fool. I say there is no strength of purpose to admire in my character. I owe my escape from that temptation to the example of your constancy. You see how little right I had to speak to you as I did; it is for you to say that you despise me.”
Surely it was all a dream. This was the man she had loved and feared and worshipped humbling himself before her. Her very faculties were half dulled in the greatness of her amazement.
But what were these words she heard? He did speak of love! He was praying her to give him hope. The promise of success in his profession was dawning on him—distant, but yet visible; that success which he had almost despaired of at Interlachen; that success which would be worthless if she denied her love; the possession of her love which would urge him onwards with glorious strength.
And had he not strongest advocacy in her brother’s dying wish? Without that support he would not have ventured to speak to her of love; but, with that support, he had a right to pray her to give him once more the precious love he had so lightly thrown away.
It was all too much, too much for her to hear; she begged and prayed him with such strength as she possessed to leave her,—she dared not, could not answer him, but she could not refuse to see him again,—her lips were powerless.
It was a long time before she could, in any degree, recover from her bewilderment. She arose from the chair on which she had been sitting, and walked almost mechanically to the desk. She folded up the short note she had written to Frank Scott, and then read over his letter to her. Impossible! was that the letter she had received only the previous day? Were those the words which had seemed very dear?
Ah me! She had risen in the morning so grand and resolute—so ready to face any difficulty—half disappointed even that there should be no difficulty to face—so strong in purpose, so superior to her former self—as she had grasped her brother’s sword, the very chill of the steel had seemed an essence of strength.
“Oh mamma!” she exclaimed in utter bitterness of heart, “hide it away from me!—I dare not look upon it. He sent his sword to his sister! I am Lilian Temple; but I am not worthy to call myself his sister.
CHAPTER XI. THE NEW IDOL PREVAILS.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Temple urged Lilian to accept her cousin; he sincerely loved her, that was very evident; he was well off, with good expectations—she would certainly repent if she rejected him. They advanced their arguments with considerable warmth, and expressed themselve strongly against any engagement with Mr. Westby.
Mrs. Temple moreover clearly pointed out to Lilian that she certainly had, whether intentionally or not, given great encouragement to her cousin, people had indeed remarked it, and he would have very just grounds of complaint against her if she refused him. She had once before acted in a very unfortunate way, and it would be highly detrimental to her if she repeated such fickle conduct.
Mr. Westby had really no claim upon her hand. It was true that her brother, from what Captain Milton said, had expressed a wish that she should marry his old friend, but that wish was evidently founded upon expressions contained in her own letters, and the whole idea of her feelings towards a man in Mr. Westby’s condition was, to say the least of it, absurdly romantic.
There might be great soundness in Mrs. Temple’s arguments, but they failed to convince Lilian’s heart.
She endured many miserable days of uncertainty. Sometimes she formed the resolution of refusing her cousin’s offer, laying before him, at the same time, the whole history of her love for Westby, concealing nothing and begging his forgiveness; but there was great shame in this. Had she not once declared to him that her character was fickle and inconstant? He had denied the accusation, vindicating her from her own reproaches. And, behold, bitter self-experience would prove to him that his vindication was false—that the world was right—that he had really bestowed his love on a jilt and a flirt.
It was utterly humiliating to her, the very contrast of this indecision and irresolution with the strength of purpose she had felt but a short week ago—a vain dream of excellence mocking her with its unreality.
One morning Mrs. Temple gravely placed a letter in her daughter’s hands, which Lilian read with the utmost concern. Frank Scott was dangerously ill in the country; the letter was from the doctor of the place, begging the Temples to send or communicate with him immediately. Mr. Scott had caught cold, feverish symptoms had ensued—the fever had suddenly taken a very malignant turn.
“We must send down an experienced nurse at once,” observed Mrs. Temple.
“We must go ourselves, mamma.”
“My dear, I regret, in the state of my health—and your father being away too.”
“I must go, then!”
“Poor boy!—to die alone!” exclaimed Lilian, bursting into tears.
“But the fever, my love—consider the dreadful risk.”
“Very well, mamma, the greater reason for my going.”
“I can’t think of it, Lilian.”
“Mamma, I should never forgive myself, if I deserted him now.”
“Nonsense, Lilian, to talk about deserting; didn’t I say we should send down a nurse?”
“Oh, mamma! do you think dear Fred would have let him lie there ill by himself? Send a nurse with me, of course! But I shall never be happy if I don’t go.”
And Lilian held to her purpose.
It was a merciful relief, notwithstanding the sadness of the occasion, from those days of doubt—the emergency demanded immediate action, and that necessity nerved Lilian in a moment. If the urgency had been less, and Lilian had had more time for thinking, perhaps she would have failed, so utterly despondent had she become, so faithless in her power to do anything good.
A short hour sufficed for her preparations, and, in company with a nurse engaged from the Institution, she started on her mission.
Frank Scott lay ill at the hotel of the small country town near where his property was situated.
The doctor, Mr. Simpson, was greatly relieved when he found a member of the family had arrived.
“What hope do you give us, sir?” inquired Lilian, anxiously.
“I have hope, or rather I should say we have hope; for I felt, under the circumstances, it would be more satisfactory to all parties to have a second opinion, and I accordingly sent for Dr. Lisle, the leading physician of our county, and I am happy to say his treatment is confirmatory of mine.”
There was a kind, fatherly manner in Mr. Simpson,—he must have been a man not under sixty,—which was particularly assuring to Lilian. He answered her many anxious questions in a perfectly frank, but at the same time hopeful tone.
“I presume I have been addressing Miss Temple,” he said, at the end of their conversation.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Lilian?—that is your Christian name?”
“My name is Lilian. I am Mr. Scott’s cousin. Mamma would have come down with me, but for ill health; she hopes, however, to be able to come shortly.”
“I am very glad you have been able to come,” replied the doctor, “for you are the very nurse he wanted. Your name is always on his lips.”
The doctor begged her not to make any great point of her arrival, but rather to enter the sick room occupying herself with some arrangements.
“I know it is hard to say this,” he added, “but it is absolutely necessary that he should be kept as quiet as possible, and I am sure I may trust to your good sense and discretion.”
The doctor was emphatic in his caution, for he had formed his own notion of the true relationship between the two cousins.
It naturally spread all through the neighbourhood that Mr. Scott’s cousin, the young lady to whom he was engaged, had come to nurse him. Mr. Simpson, who was held to have the best opportunities of knowing the truth, endorsed this opinion. It cast a charming halo of romance over the sick room; many kind hearts prayed that the poor young man might be spared, and that he and the young lady, who had risked the dangers of contagion for his sake, might be happily united.
Lilian at the first had plenty to occupy herself with—plenty of anxious thoughts for her patient. His life seemed to hang on a very thread; it was necessary, following out the doctor’s directions, to watch for the slightest change; her quick, sensitive eye had caused her more than once to summon the doctor, detecting through the slightest alteration the commencement of a serious crisis in the disease.
It was great tension on the nerves, this continued anxiety, and it was at first a welcome relief when the doctors pronounced her cousin out of immediate danger: in point of fact, there now seemed to be comparatively little for her to do, the nurse was so assiduous and attentive, and the arrangements which had been made worked so excellently well. Sitting quietly in his room while he dozed, the daylight almost excluded, she had far too much time for thinking, and to her dismay her thoughts lapsed into their old channel.
And coming there to nurse him? It was shame, she felt, to entertain a doubt concerning such a duty. But did it commit her in any degree? “She was only here as his nearest relation,” that was the theory she strove to hold to: “it meant nothing more than that; she was only doing her duty, what her brother would have done, or wished her to do, in his stead.” She must carefully guard the words she used towards her cousin—harden them, as it were, so that the fancy should not grow upon him that she had accepted his offer.
Ah, me! It was an immense power Frank Scott possessed in his very weakness. He would murmur her name faintly, and she, with tenderest pity, would hasten to his bedside and smooth his pillow, and soothe him with kindest tones, and let him hold her hand in his,—and then it did seem that he held her heart.
The doctor congratulated her on her care and attention. “I think,” said he, with a kindly smile, “that you may claim a great deal of the merit of saving his life. I am sure I can say nothing which will afford you greater pleasure.”
“I’m sure,” replied Lilian, “I cannot claim an atom more merit than the nurse—she has been everything to us.”
“I admit her merit, certainly; but you have watched so well and so closely, because you felt deeply—”
Lilian blushed crimson.
“I suppose,” said she, “now that the danger is over, I shall soon be able to return home.”
“What! leave your post. I trust not; besides now is the happiest time for you both—think what comfort you may be to him during his recovery. Why,” continued the doctor, good-humouredly, “I will issue a dozen certificates that your presence here is absolutely necessary.”
“But, really,” urged Lilian, “I don’t think I ought to remain any longer.”
“My dear young lady, I quite understand your feeling; but if you will accept the opinion of an old dragon of propriety like myself, you will have no hesitation in remaining. Indeed! I really can’t spare you. I consider,” he added, with a playful assumption of authority, “that I have a full right to command your presence.”
But all excuse for leaving on the ground of propriety was done away with by Mrs. Temple herself coming down to share the labours of nursing.
“Now that you are here, mamma, I should like to leave.”
“Because I don’t want what I have done from a sense of duty to be attributed to any other feeling.”
“Oh, Lilian! can you have nursed him as you have, and yet?—well, you may take my word for it, in the state he still is, it will endanger his life if you leave him.”
Lilian burst into tears.
“It is a thousand pities you ever came down—you remember I wished you not to do so, but you would insist. You really ought to have thought of all this before.”
“But I could not let him be ill here, and no one with him if he died, when I was well and strong, and doing nothing in London,” protested Lilian, vehemently.
“I know he loves you very dearly,” continued Mrs. Temple. “Why, as I was sitting at his bedside last evening, he whispered to me that you had saved his life, the doctor had told him so; and then he said, if he had died, Lilian, that you would have had his property—he had made his will before he left town. Why, Lilian, Mr. Simpson himself told me you had done wonders for his patient; and, now, oh, Lilian! do reflect well upon it. I’m sure it will be his death if you reject him.”
Lilian could make no reply, she felt utterly powerless, a very puppet in the hands of a relentless destiny—true, her word was not yet pledged, but all freedom of will was denied her—the time for giving that pledge might be postponed, but come it must.
She continued her attendance in the sick room, assiduous as ever, but she felt that she no longer possessed the power of soothing her cousin as heretofore; by the faintest indications he appeared almost disturbed at her presence. She would sometimes read to him, but she knew that he was not listening to the reading, that he was waiting for her voice to utter other words precious to him.
Mr. Simpson found his patient far less well—“disturbed, irritation throughout the frame; it was a bad symptom, he must be kept perfectly quiet, repose, nothing exciting for the mind.” Mr. Simpson told both mother and daughter this as he left the room. Mrs. Temple accompanied the doctor down stairs to make some further inquiries, Lilian returned to the room. She had gone to the window to draw down the blind, when she heard her cousin calling to her; it flashed through her mind what he was going to say, and shuddering she went to his bedside. She felt utterly miserable, but when she saw how his wasted face was deeply flushed, how his whole frame seemed to quiver, she grew alarmed on his account.
“Dear Frank, do pray be composed—this excitement—”
“Lilian, you never answered that letter of mine.” He spoke louder than was his wont, raising his voice with painful effort. “You have never said you loved me—do you love me, Lilian?”
Could she tell him the truth, and arouse the fever sleeping in his veins? Could she mock his hopeful ears with long explanations of her love for Westby, with miserable excuses? Why, his face was burning before her with eager expectation! Could she ask for further delay before she spoke finally?—and delay and doubt, with their attendant irritation, would be certain death to him.
“Oh, Lilian! do you love me?”
She tottered the few steps to his bed-side.
“I do love you.”
She fell on her knees. It was a horrible lie, and in the thought of that she swooned away.
To have to act out the lie consistently, that was hard work for Lilian; and her cousin’s health seemed to grow out of the affection she showed him—very sunlight to a drooping plant. To have to appear very fond, and yet while he clasped her hand, to find her thoughts wander away to another love; and he would arouse her from these long abstractions, little witting whither her thoughts had fled, and make her turn her face towards him, gazing upon her eyes, which she in shame strove to turn away.
“Lilian, dear,” he said one day, “you are sadly worn by your attendance on me; I can see this illness of mine has greatly over-taxed your strength. I am sure no sacrifice that I can make will ever repay your love and care.”
He little knew the manner in which she felt his words, though he saw tears in her eyes.
“Well, Lilian, please God I get strong and well, I shall do my best, by the devotion of my life, to show how sensible I am of what you have done for me now.”
Alas! but for that one image stamped upon her heart, how truly she could have loved him. That first impress of love—which she had once believed, nay felt sure, had been entirely effaced by Westby’s severe declaration of contempt for her character—but as the breath restores the old mark invisible on the highly polished steel, so his recent words of love had re-awakened, in all its force, that first feeling which had struck so deeply into her heart.
But she was irrevocably engaged to her cousin now—it would seem almost the ordering of a higher power in opposition to her strongest wishes. Perhaps in time she would see that it was all ordered for the best; there was no thought of evasion in her mind.
It seemed to her necessary to write to Westby to inform him of her engagement; she would feel more at peace when he knew the truth. She consulted her mother on the subject, even begging her mother to write for her, she so dreaded the task.
Mrs. Temple assured Lilian that she did not consider for the present that any letter was necessary. “Indeed,” said she, “just prior to my leaving town, Mr. Westby called at our house. I saw him, and told him that you had gone into the country on account of your cousin’s illness, and to a certain extent I intimated to him the condition of affairs between you and Frank.”
“And he?” inquired Lilian, timidly.
“Oh, my love, I can assure you that he seemed perfectly calm—quite unmoved,—indeed, quite unlike anything approaching to a lover, as far as my idea of a lover goes; and he turned off the conversation to some other topic. Oh, I remember, that law business of your papa’s. Of course, my dear, he will hear the fact of your engagement from some of our mutual friends; at all events, I beg that you will not write to him. I’m sure Frank wouldn’t like it, and I should consider it a most ill-advised act. However, if you really think it necessary, I will write myself before we return to London.”
Lilian was far from feeling assured that Westby was really calm and unmoved by what he had heard. “I know,” she thought to herself, “that he would rather die than show he felt regret or pain.”
This thought of Westby troubled her.
When they met! What must her conduct be then? Obviously the best mode of receiving him would be to say nothing of the past—to show, as far as might be, the manner of old friendship; of course the fact of her engagement would have shown him that all feeling between them was at an end.
It was arranged, as soon as Mr. Scott was sufficiently recovered, that he should go to Brighton. “Change of air,” Mr. Simpson affirmed, “was the grand thing for him—and really,” he added, “I think our head-nurse requires change almost as much as the invalid. I declare you look quite worn out, Miss Temple. I had hoped when you got your regular night’s rest—good unbroken sleep—that that, together with the air of our county, of which we are very proud, would have quite restored you after your great fatigue and anxiety; but as you haven’t done justice to us in that way, we must hand you over to Dr. Neptune.”
It was quite a little ovation, the departure of the Temple party from the station. Kind Mr. Simpson would insist upon seeing the last of them, and the master of the hotel, and some pleasant friendly ladies who had kindly tendered and performed various little services to Mrs. Temple and Lilian; and then everybody was in love with Lilian,—her golden hair, and lovely blue eyes, her devotion to her lover, everybody rejoicing for her sake that his life was saved.
Their coupé was literally a garden of flowers, the offerings of these kind friends, and the baskets of strawberries—which kept arriving up to the last with kind messages—were quite embarrassing by reason of their number.
“I wish you every happiness, my dear,” said Mr. Simpson, leaning in at the window of the carriage, and shaking Lilian’s hand, “I’m sure you thoroughly deserve it,” and he saw her eyes filled with tears.
“It is very pretty, that anxiety for her lover’s comfort which is so visible in her countenance,” the ladies declared unanimously; “it adds such an interesting look to her beauty.”
“No, no, ladies,—pretty!” exclaimed Mr. Simpson. “I fear her health is far from being what it ought to be. I can’t quite understand it,” he thought, with some perplexity, and he wisely kept the thought to himself, “but I’m half inclined to believe there’s something wrong somewhere.’
The travellers arrived at Brighton in safety.
“Oh! it was cruel—horribly cruel! to see him thus, never expecting it. Wicked of those friends if they did it designedly—to lay such a trap for her, asking her to call upon them for a walk, and then to let her meet him quite unprepared. But it would never have happened if her mother had written, as she had promised, to tell him of the engagement; he would have been satisfied with that assurance, and never sought her again. It was the uncertainty he could not bear—the rumour of her engagement.”
“Let him once hear the truth from her own lips, and he would be resigned.”
But what did he ask?—ask her to wring out from her lips the wretched truth, and to look on him and see how he strove to hide his agitation beneath a calm presence.
“Poor fool that she was!—if she had only been prepared for the interview—nerved for it by reflection—she could have spoken out the words, and bade him farewell for ever. Her strength would have lasted out that effort!
“Why! he did only want to know the truth, and how did he learn it? Oh, shame! from her stupid explanations, excuses, which—fool that she had been!—had only betrayed her love for him.
“She was engaged! when he had learnt that he learnt all that was necessary; but he had learnt further—oh, burning shame!—that she did not love the man she was about to marry. He was true and honourable, and he had left her, though he loved her,—perhaps could die for her, as he had left her once before, when he felt that he could not love her as a man of honour.
“With what contempt must he think of her! and those old bitter words of his—though he parted from her now without a single word beyond ‛farewell’—how they must rise up again in his heart, ‛inconstant,’ ‛without strength of purpose.’ Why she could even seem to hear his voice, yes, quite plainly—‘Not worthy of being Frederick Temple’s sister!’ She had before revolted at the hard assertion, and ceased to love him for uttering it, but there was no gainsaying it now; it was true—quite true; her character was below contempt—depths below contempt.”
“Oh, Lilian!” exclaimed Mrs. Temple entering the room, “won’t you come down and see Frank? He would like to say good-night; he fears you must be very ill.”
“Ill! nonsense; there’s nothing the matter with me.”
“Then pray come down.”
“I dare not to-night!”
“My dear child, is it true you have seen Mr. Westby to-day?”
“I’ll never forgive that Mrs. Vernon and her daughter; they have acted most shamefully.”
“There’s no harm done, mamma! I did see Mr. Westby. He wished to know, for certain, whether I was engaged. If you had only written to him as I wanted—”
“But what did he say?”
“I told him I was engaged.”
“He left me, mamma; you surely don’t imagine he would ask me to forfeit my word.”
“I really had feared—”
“You need have no fear, mamma, I shall be perfectly ready to tell Frank about it; but not to-night—not to-night.”
“Lilian, dear, I’m sure you’re not well; your face burns, and your hands—”
“Perfectly well, mamma!—perhaps not quite myself, but I shall be quite right again in the morning, when I have had some sleep.”
And Lilian’s sleep was fitful, broken; she kept dreaming that horrible dream of the accident at Interlachen; falling from some frightful height, with cries, painful cries, awaking her mother, for Karlo Magno to save her.
The doctor declared that Miss Temple was very seriously ill. Fever! it was quite possible that she had caught the infection in attending on her cousin, though it had remained latent for a time.
They cut off her golden hair to save her life.
“There is something on your daughter’s mind, madam,” said the physician bluntly to Mrs. Temple; “and if you are aware of what it is, the sooner it is set right, the greater the chance we shall have of saving her. We succeed in getting her up to a certain point, and there we stop.”
Frank Scott was well and strong again, and Mrs. Temple, with tears in her eyes, told him of the sacrifice he could make for Lilian if he really loved her; he had often said he could never repay her kindness, and it was now in his power to cancel the debt.
When the whole truth of the case was placed before him, Frank Scott acted in a noble way. He went himself to Westby, and spoke with the greatest generosity, not concealing the deep sorrow which he felt, yet expressing his satisfaction that by his act of resignation he was enabled to save the life of the woman he loved.
He would have wished to see Lilian once again; but the doctor particularly requested him to forego an interview with her in her then very critical condition; and he consented, but he wrote to her the kindest and most truly affectionate letter, assuring her of his perfect esteem, and expressing his deep gratitude for her devoted care of him at a period when such care was so very needful. Yet he did see her once again; they took him to her room while she slept, and he pressed his lips to her unconscious hand.
And Frank Scott went abroad.
“Karlo Magno, I can perfectly understand why I love you” (it was the first day Lilian had been allowed to come down to the drawing-room), “but I can’t think why you should love me.”
“With regard to thinking,” replied Westby, smiling, “I once met a very sensible young lady who recommended me never to think.”
“Ah, yes! and a very wise and learned man doubted whether a mental vacuum would be conducive to happiness. Yet really, Karlo Magno, when I do think how utterly weak and foolish I have been, how at the very times when I have had the greatest faith in myself, and strove to act properly, but—”
“But!”—that word “but,” symbol of human imperfection—but Charles Westby silenced her with a kiss.