Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The major's daughter

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It was rather a gay scene at the judge's house, in Kurrackpore, at the beginning of the cool season. about three years ago. The rooms were brilliantly lighted, and the guests were arriving fast, so that the broad open space in the front of the house was crowded with buggies and palkis, and their swarthy attendants.

Society generally stagnates in India during the hot season. People exist as they best can, close their blinds and windows, and make it their grand object in life to keep out the scorching winds. But the hot season had passed, the rains had come and gone, and Kurrackpore society roused itself from its torpid state to an interchange of friendly meetings, which were to be inaugurated by this assembly, at the house of Mr. Grove, the judge. Every one was there, that is to say, every one who was recognised as anybody at all, both civilian and military. There was an additional interest about the party, because the Major's daughter, who had just come out from England, was expected to make her first appearance there; and as young ladies were a decided novelty, there was a great amount of amusing speculation about her.

"I think I shall consign Miss Vinrace to you when she comes," Mrs. Grove said to the wife of a young civilian. "You must make her know everybody: and I can trust you for finding out what she is made of," she added, laughing.

"Don't give me credit for too much penetration," rejoined Mrs. Stanley; "but I suppose she is little more than a schoolgirl?"

"It will be a wonder if she reaches your standard. But here she comes with the Major and his wife." And the busy, kind-hearted Mrs. Grove started up to receive them.

Major Vinrace was tall and portly, his hair was almost white, and his face beamed with kindness and good-humour. His wife looked pleasant and matronly, but rather worn with a long Indian life. Every one turned to look at Clara Vinrace, and every one looked twice. The sight of the bright young girl, fresh from England, brought a home-feeling to all their hearts. She was slight and fair, with soft brown hair, taken back simply from her face, and a bright colour in her cheeks, but the eyes formed the great charm of her face, such merry, honest eyes there was no resisting them. She was dressed in simple white muslin, with sash and trimmings of blue, and altogether formed a delightful contrast to the more gorgeous toilet of some of the elder ladies.

Miss Vinrace was soon engaged for the next quadrille, and, after dancing till she was tired, she found herself seated quietly on a couch by Mrs. Stanley, who amused her with rapid and good-humouredly satirical sketches of the different people as they passed near them.

"That stout lady is Mrs. A., who has not an idea in her head, or sufficient energy to learn Hindustanee, in order to manage her servants. That tall young officer with the yellow moustache is Lieutenant B., who is always making bad jokes. And that is Ensign C., who cannot see a joke when every one else is laughing at it."

"Who is that intellectual~looking man with a tremendous beard, who is talking in so animated a manner?"

"He is my husband," said Mrs. Stanley, with a pleased smile.

"Indeed! And that noble-looking elderly man, to whom he is speaking, with the iron-grey hair, and such earnest, expressive eyes?"

"What, have you not been introduced to the Honourable Edward Neville? That is quite an oversight on the part of our good hostess. He is a splendid man. If he has a fault, he is a little too self-willed and authoritative, but that is quite pardonable with such a mind. He holds a high position under Government, and will leave us soon to settle affairs in rather a disturbed part of the district that has hardly got quieted down since the mutiny."

"Is his wife here?"

"He has been a widower for many years. His children are growing up. They are now in England finishing their education. But see, they are coming towards us."

The two gentlemen joined them. and sought an introduction to Miss Vinrace. They were soon engaged in an animated conversation in which Mrs. Stanley took an active part, for, as she often said, there was no one so well worth talking to as Mr. Neville in the station, and conversation was certainly her forte.

Miss Vinrace was by no means a silent listener, but took her part gracefully and modestly, where she felt sure of her ground, perfectly charming the others by her playful sallies, and sprightly replies. An hour slipped rapidly away, and when Major Vinrace came to look for his daughter, he was amused to see her so soon at home among her new friends.

"Well, Clara," he said, "and how do you like your first trial of Indian life?"

"I am quite delighted, papa," she replied, bidding them farewell with a pleased smile.

In short, Clara Vinrace became quite the rage at Kurrackpore, and in riding-excursions, tiffin-parties, and pic-nics, she and Mrs. Stanley were constant companions. Mrs. Stanley thought her the most delightful girl she had ever seen, with such sterling sense, united to such sweetness of temper and grace of manner.

Mr. Neville seemed very much of the same opinion, and finding in the society of this young girl the pleasantest relaxation from his grave duties, he became much more sociable than his wont, and, to every body's surprise, joined in all the pleasure-making excursions.

Some time after the evening spent at the judge's house, with which my story begins, Miss Vinrace was spending a few days with Mrs. Stanley. It was just after the second breakfast—for, in India, all who have any regard for health and enjoyment, rise early, have a slight breakfast, and then take exercise in the cool morning air, and return to the ordinary meal. Mr. Stanley had left the ladies for his usual magisterial work, and they were sitting out in the verandah, revelling in letters and the new periodicals which had come in by the mail that morning. They were too much absorbed to hear approaching footsteps, and by a singular coincidence, Clara was in the act of exclaiming, "Oh, Mrs. Stanley! here is a passage that would just suit Mr. Neville,—I should like to watch his face when he reads it," when Mr. Neville himself stood before them. Of course Clara blushed, and looked very pretty in her momentary confusion, but she readily got out of her difficulty by saying gaily, "How very fortunate, Mr. Neville! I have no sooner expressed a wish than I find the opportunity of having it fulfilled;" to which Mr. Neville replied, "That he was only too glad to be able to gratify any wish of Miss Vinrace, and to prove her very great powers of discrimination; " and so they immediately proceeded to read and discuss the subject in hand. After half-an-hour had slipped away unconsciously, Mr. Neville started, looked at his watch, and turning to Mrs. Stanley, said:

"But I must not forget my errand. I came to ask you and Miss Vinrace to join in a pic-nic to-morrow, of my getting-up. It is a general holiday—a Hindoo festival; the courts will be closed, and we may as well make the best of the time. What do you say to a sail on the Chilka Lake?"

"Oh, it would be delightful!" cried Clara; "there is nothing I like better than a sail."

"You getting up a pic-nic, Mr. Neville! Well, this is wonderful!" said Mrs. Stanley, with an arch smile. "But can you really manage it?"

"Oh, yes, some of us can ride, and those who prefer it may take palkis. I shall send my people on with a tent and provisions. Indeed, I will take no refusal, so don't let me see you hesitate. I am on my way now to make arrangements with Stanley."

"Thank you, Mr. Neville, you really carry all before you. I am sure we shall enjoy it beyond everything."

Clara said she must get papa's and mamma's consent, so a messenger was immediately sent, who returned with a note from Mrs. Vinrace to the intent that she would be very glad for Clara to have the pleasure, and she would trust her dear girl to Mrs. Stanley's care.

The pic-nic came and went. To Clara it was like a new revelation. The gorgeous beauty of the Indian scenery, the magnificent luxuriance of vegetation, the magic painting of butterfly and bird, all heightened and enhanced by the intelligent comments and explanations of Neville and the Stanleys, made the day pass like a dream of wonder and delight. It was specially the attentions of Neville that effected the charm, for he generally found his place by her side; and contact with the fresh and energetic soul of his young companion, seemed to call into play all his varied powers of mind, and graces of conversation, and to clothe him with a new vigour and youth. He forgot his fifty summers, or remembered them only with a sigh, to call himself an old fool, and then to return and lose himself more deeply in the new interest that had stirred the pulses of his heart once more.

"My dear, my dear, will you step here for a moment!" cried the Major, in a perturbed voice to Mrs. Vinrace one morning; "here's a mess we are in!" He went on as soon as he found himself alone with his wife. "Would you believe it, I have had Mr. Neville here proposing for our Clara?"

"Impossible! Why he is old enough to be her father!"

"That's just where it is, my dear,—it is perfectly ridiculous."

"How did you answer him?"

"Well, I told him I was quite taken by surprise, but that I could not entertain the idea for a moment. I said that I knew perfectly well that his position and that sort of thing was every way desirable, but that I considered all these advantages were quite overbalanced by the difference of age, and that I should never consider such a marriage as anything but a sacrifice on the part of one so young as Clara. I said it was most unfortunate,—that I regretted exceedingly that such a thing should ever happen, and I begged him not to say anything to Clara, as it would only needlessly distress her. And now, my dear, have I not expressed your sentiments as well as my own?"

"Yes, quite. I think you are acting for the good of our dear child. I hope she will hear nothing of this. But what did he say?"

"He looked exceedingly cloudy and stern, and said it was quite unnecessary to caution him against speaking to Clara, as he should leave to-day for the Mofussil."

"But he was not offended with you?"

"Oh dear, no. He said he could hardly expect me to take a different view, and considered himself presumptuous to entertain the idea. I heartily wish it had never happened. I could say no to half-a-dozen young puppies without the slightest compunction, but such a man as this Neville—confound it!" And the Major sought consolation in a cheroot.

Morning light found Edward Neville many miles from Kurrackpore, and Clara, who was fast learning to refer everything to his opinion—to measure every day's enjoyment by the time he had spent in her company—to find the society of other men a burden in contrast to his refined and gentlemanly attentions—when she heard of his sudden departure, without a word of farewell, felt that a cloud had fallen over her spirit which she could not shake off. Her parents guessed nothing of all this. She grew pale and listless, and they thought that the climate was already beginning to tell upon her, and trembled for her future health. Mrs. Stanley had already divined the cause, and she, too, wondered greatly at Neville's conduct.

Acting for their child's good, the Major and Mrs. Vinrace ruined her happiness by the very means; they took to secure it. Had they only told her of Mr. Neville's attachment, she would, in all probability, have acquiesced quietly in their decision, living in secret on the thought of being loved by one whom she deemed so noble and wise. But, as it was, she was utterly distressed and perplexed-distressed on the one hand that she had been betrayed into anything so unwomanly as to lose her affections to one who did not seek them—bitterly disappointed on the other hand that her hero should prove himself less worthy of the reverence she had felt. Either she had been forward, or he had been trifling, and both were equally hard to believe. Did he think of her as a mere child? Then why had he paid her such deference!—why had he shown such deep interest in all she said and did? A mere acquaintance would have called to say good-bye. A friend would never have treated her so. Thus troubled and perplexed her health gave way, and though she struggled hard to maintain her usual cheerfulness, and to be all that her parents wished, still every one could perceive a change. The Major and Mrs. Vinrace, fearing that she could not stand a hot season, had already determined that she should return to England, and remain under the care of the aunt who had brought her up, and it was arranged that she should travel under the care of Mr. and Mrs. Grove, who were going home on furlough. She was spending a few days with Mrs. Stanley for the last time, as she expected to leave for Calcutta in a few weeks.

They were sitting quietly together when Mr. Stanley rushed in in an excited state:

"Frank, what is the matter!" cried his wife.

"I have had dreadful news: poor Neville has been nearly murdered in his bed."

"Horrible," cried Mrs. Stanley, as she instinc tively rushed to Clara, who looked so ghastly white that she expected to see her faint away, but she sat still and speechless as a statue.

Mr. Stanley went on.

"The worst of it is, he is quite alone, without a European near him, and there is not a moment's dependence to be placed on those dastardly natives. I propose taking our doctor immediately, and going to him myself. The matter must be inquired into without delay. The Commissioner agrees with me, and will send a military guard at once."

"I will go with you Frank."

"Well, perhaps it will be best. I have given orders for a dawk to be laid, and we will start at once."

A chuprassie[1] was despatched to the barracks, and Mrs. Vinrace came to fetch her daughter. She was shocked at the intelligence, and still more shocked at the effect it seemed to have upon Clara, and she took an opportunity of speaking to Mrs. Stanley about her. In the fulness of her heart she told her about Mr. Neville's unfortunate rejection.

"Ah, I see it all," Mrs. Stanley said. "This was the cause of his leaving so abruptly, and now he has been exposing himself to dangers, and drawing on himself the animosity of these treacherous natives. Frank is determined to sift it to the bottom, but the first thing to be thought of is his recovery," and then she added, "for Clara's sake."

"What do you mean, Mrs. Stanley?"

"I mean that this attachment, and not the climate, has made Clara ill. It had gone quite too far to be cured by sending Mr. Neville away, and I mean that if he recovers, I for one will leave no stone unturned to bring them together again."

"My dear, I call all such disproportionate marriages a mere sacrifice."

"Oh! Mrs. Vinrace, would you sacrifice your daughter's health and happiness, and perhaps life, to this idea? In most cases, I think you are right, but this is quite an exceptional one."

There was time for no more; a parting embrace between the friends; a whispered entreaty from Clara, "you will write and tell me," and Mrs. Vinrace took her daughter away.

The Stanleys reached D—— in about ten hours, and they found Mr. Neville still living, but in a very low state after the fearful event of the night before. All the particulars they could learn about the crime were, that Mr. Neville awaked from a swoon, as it is supposed, to find himself frightfully wounded in the head. He had just strength left to call his servants, when he again fell into an unconscious state, which lasted for some hours. The murderer had apparently come in the early morning. The wound must have been inflicted by a hatchet or a sword, and then the wretches must have left their victim for dead. The wonder is that the blow was not immediately fatal. For many days the danger appeared to be imminent, and very slender hopes of his recovery could Mrs. Stanley hold out in her first note to her friend. But by degrees, through the doctor's skill, and the constant care and attention of his friends, and the perfect stillness and quiet enforced, he appeared to rally; favourable symptoms showed themselves, and hopes of his complete restoration began to be entertained. Mr. and Mrs. Stanley remained in his place, and as soon as he was able to travel, he was to proceed to Calcutta, and thence to England. Not for some time after conversation was allowed him had he ventured on the name of Vinrace; but at length, finding that Mrs. Stanley had discovered his secret, he sought her womanly sympathy and counsel. She would not, for anything, betray Clara, yet she managed to give him some gleam of hope, and he determined, should his health be fully restored, to try again.

The last boat had put off from the Peninsular and Oriental Company's steamship, Vectis, bearing Major Vinrace back to the pier, and the engines had already begun to work; but though the air was sultry, and the sun was scorching, Clara would not leave the vessel's side till her straining eyes could no longer catch sight of her father's form. She stood alternately waving her handkerchief and wiping away her tears, regardless of Mrs. Grove's entreaties that she would come away into the shade. At length, as the town began to look indistinct and dim, her hand was gently taken, and a voice whose very tone thrilled through her, said:

"Miss Vinrace, I cannot let you remain here any longer; you must positively come with me."

She looked up in utter astonishment, and her eyes met the deep, earnest gaze of Mr. Neville, and rested on his pale and emaciated countenance. She could hardly stammer out a word of greeting.

"Yes," he said kindly, in answer to her looks, "I am enough to frighten you; I am going to England to recruit, and then I hope I shall look something better than a skeleton. I have to thank the villains for leaving my face alone; as it is I shall carry a scar to my grave, but it is fortunately out of sight."

He led her to Mr. and Mrs. Grove, who were delighted to find he was a fellow-voyager, and wondered what chance had brought them together. Mr. Neville explained that he had met Major Vinrace a few days before, and had had some conversation with him, and discovered to his pleasure that they were going in the vessel he had fixed upon-that he had come on board some hours earlier than they did, and had purposely kept below that he might not embarrass the moment of parting by his presence. He talked with all his old grace and animation, answering all Mr. and Mrs. Grove's inquiries about his accident and illness, about the unsuccessful efforts of "that incomparable fellow Stanley," to discover the perpetrator of the crime, and a hundred other topics of interest common to them all; and so the day wore on. Clara retired to rest that night with a lighter heart than she had known for many a day; with an undefined sense of happiness which she would not stop to analyse. She only felt that he was the same to her, and that this voyage, looked forward to with such unsupportable dreariness, would be brightened by the companionship she had feared to lose for ever. She had consented to every thing that her parents proposed for her, and was willing to stay in England as long as they wished; for, with her present feelings, all places were alike to her. But she had felt acutely the parting with her parents, and with Mrs. Stanley, whom she might never see again, so changing and varied are the vicissitudes of Indian life.

They had a calm and pleasant voyage. Day after day slipped away in agreeable monotony. Mr. Neville and Clara were thrown much together. One day she was seated quietly on deck, watching the waves and the sea-birds, when he came to her, and placing himself by her side, " Miss Vinrace," he said, "you have never asked me why I left Kurrackpore so abruptly; you have never given me one reproachful word for my ap arent neglect. Will you hear me patiently if I tell you all about it?"

Clara answered him with a look, and he went on: "I called on your father shortly after our excursion to the Chilka Lake, and told him—nay, Clara, do not turn away—I told him then of the depth of my attachment to you. He answered—how could I expect otherwise?—that the disparity of years between us made it quite impossible for him to consent, and begged me to think of it no more. I promised I would pursue the subject no further, for I feared that you, too, would be astonished at my presumption, and that, perhaps, after all, you looked on me more in the light of a father than a lover. I could not trust myself to see you once more, and to bid you good bye as a stranger, so I hurried the arrangements for my journey and went off at once. You know what happened next. As I lay between life and death your image was constantly before me, and I learnt that love for you had indeed become part of my being. On my recovery I determined I would make one more etfortto win you. Then I learnt to my great grief that your health was impaired, and that you also were about to leave the country. I followed you and your father to Calcutta, and succeeded in meeting with him a few days ago, as he was taking your passage in the Vcctis. He received me very cordially, came to see me at my hotel, and once more gave me a patient hearing. At last he consented to my speaking to you, and told me, if I could win your love, his objections should be quite withdrawn. He gave me this for you—" and Mr. Neville drew out of his pocket book a note, which he placed in Clara's trembling hands. It ran thus:

My Child—Let your own heart choose. If you love him, say yes; and God bless you. Your affectionate Father.

She sat looking at it some moments, and twisting it in her fingers, while her colour came and went. "And now," said Mr. Neville, "I wait my answer. If you can give your happiness into my keeping, I will take it as a sacred trust. If you cannot love me, say so frankly. To-morrow we touch at Point-de-Galle. I will stay there and wait for the next steamer, that you may not be embarrassed by my presence for the rest of the journey."

She pointed to her father's note in answer—"My heart has chosen," she murmured, and she smiled at him through gathering tears. So he was not left behind in Ceylon, and when, six months afterwards, they made the same journey together, it was as Mr. and Mrs. Edward Neville.

A. M. H.

  1. Anglicè, messenger.