Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 4
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER VII. AN INVALID.
The doctor’s predictions were verified.
It was with difficulty that Wilford Hadfield was moved from the Grange to the cottage. Symptoms of illness increased to an alarming extent; the acute painfulness of his disorder was intensified. He was soon in a state of entire helplessness, prostrate on the bed in Mr. Fuller’s spare room. A violent attack of rheumatic fever had deprived him of the use of his limbs. He was destined to be for many weeks a prisoner in the Doctor’s cottage—a prey to a very painful malady.
The attentions of the doctor and his family were unremitting. The poor sufferer could hardly have been better, more tenderly cared for. Daily Stephen Hadfield rode over from the Grange to inquire after the welfare of his brother. At the worst stage of his illness Dr. Barker had been brought from the Mowle Infirmary to see the patient, while there had been some thought at one time of summoning Dr. Chillingworth again from London. But Dr. Barker had assured the family that the invalid was in no danger; certainly, unless he was very much mistaken, in no immediate danger, while it was not possible for him to be in better hands than in those of Dr. Barker’s very good friend, Mr. Fuller. All concerned were then convinced that everything was being ordered for the best; the more so that it shortly became evident that the patient’s state of health was improving. Even Mrs. Stephen was at length brought round to this view of the case. It had been her first impulse to send for medical aid from London. In fact she was a London lady, and prone to the opinion that skill and science could hardly be looked for out of her favourite metropolis. But she could not fail to appreciate the care and cleverness of Mr. Fuller. To do her justice, she had now conquered the fears she had certainly at one time entertained in regard to her brother-in-law. Once aware that he was really ill, having perhaps taken the precaution of ascertaining that his disorder was of no infectious character, and in no way threatened the safety of her children, she entered the sick-room confidently, with the full intention of aiding the invalid and sharing in his nursing to the utmost of her ability. With much natural and constitutional timidity, and an absence of all force of character, Mrs. Stephen was, nevertheless, not so entirely the water-colour sort of woman she might at first glance have been accounted. A little wanting in certainty of expression, with an air of refinement and culture that seemed to negative the possession of feelings, although the effect was in reality only to restrict their demonstration, and a particularity in dress, especially in regard to the minutiæ of the toilet, Mrs. Stephen Hadfield, notwithstanding these fashion-book characteristics, was genuinely kind and tender-hearted, with all feminine sympathy for suffering, and with abundance of the emotions that prompt self-sacrifice, had occasion ever demanded of her conduct of so high an order. Wilford, well, there was a strangeness about him which startled her whose respect for convention was inclined to be exaggerated; but her husband's brother, ill, helpless, in an agony of pain—dying, perhaps, all the noblest feelings of her heart had been excited on his behalf, and she would have toiled herself to death to benefit him in any, the slightest way. On the whole, Stephen Hadfield had reason to be proud of his wife. The woman had not been sacrificed to the lady—perhaps at one time there had been a danger of this—but Gertrude Hadfield had passed scatheless through the trial. Unlike some of her neighbours she had cleverness enough to perceive that although society requires from its members placidity and repose, by these are not necessarily implied either petrifaction of feeling or ossification of heart.
Have not sickness and suffering some kind of fascination for women? Is there not in these truly an "open sesame" to their hearts? But I fancy—may I so state without being deemed rude?—that women are always partial to anomalies, and that the combination of sovereignty and servitude involved in the act of nursing somehow particularly recommends it to their not too logical minds. Is a male writer to discuss such a question? But to rule in the sick room the slave of the sick man—is, it seems to me, a favourite position with women. There is a recognition of their power in it—while there is room for their tenderness—which, from its nature, must obey and serve rather than command and sway. Be well, healthy, vigorous in body and mind, and a woman finds something defiant in such a state—something antagonistic to herself, especially if she admit with M. Michelet, that she herself is "always an invalid,"—and her heart does not turn to you; your love will be too hard for her; you will rule and possess her, too, absolutely; she will be without a chance of governing ever so little in her turn, in her own peculiar way. Sink at her feet, pale, suffering, imploring her aid, and she will bend down with tears in her eyes, lavishing upon you the utmost treasure of her love, slaving for you as only women can slave, and she will be yours for ever, for will it not be your own fault if you permit her heart, once yours, to quit you when your health returns?
Gertrude, Vi, and Madge were indefatigable in their attendance upon Wilford Hadfield. If Mrs. Stephen was inclined to relieve the Miss Fullers of their share of nursing, the good doctor interfered on their behalf. As a doctor's daughters, he said if they did not understand nursing who did? And had not Vi nursed so and so, and so and so, on such and such an occasion, and wasn't her name, as a nurse, famous all through Grilling Abbots? So Mrs. Stephen was compelled to withdraw her opposition to the labours of the doctor's daughters, and especially her proposition that the housekeeper from the Grange should be sent to render assistance. The whole household of the doctor's cottage, including Hester the cook and Hannah the housemaid, were at the disposal of the invalid, and what more could he or any one possibly require?
Wilford bore his sufferings very patiently. With deep gratitude he watched the kind labours of his nurses on his account. He was terribly weak and thin, and there were now perceptible threads of gray in his long tangled hair. He spoke very little, but he was evidently emerging from that state of lethargy and listlessness into which he had fallen prior to his illness, possibly as a symptom of its approach. There was an animation in his large black eyes they had not known for some time.
"He will be all the better for this illness," said Mr. Fuller to Stephen, "when we once get him fairly through it. He will start afresh, as it were, on a new road; he will leave old habits of life, and thoughts, and plans a long way behind him."
"Has he spoke of his future proceedings? Do you think he has changed his views at all?" Stephen asked.
"He never mentions the subject, and I am careful not to do so. But I take it for granted he thinks very differently now. I shall conclude that he does so until I learn from his own lips the contrary. His getting well, now, is simply a matter of time. Pain has left him, or nearly so; he has now to regain his strength, and we mustn't hurry him. A man doesn't recover in a day from an illness like that."
For the patient, the tedium of convalescence seems to be only a few degrees less insufferable than the tedium of illness. How the eyes of the sick man fasten upon all the details of the room, and thoroughly exhaust them! That is a dreadful moment when you feel that you have quite done with the paper on the wall, and that by no possibility can further interest even unconsciously be drawn from it. Wilford knew all the rose-buds by heart—he knew exactly where they would spring out of the scroll-work, and where they would disappear behind it; he knew the place in the pattern where, by some accident in the printing, the colour of one particular rose was some half inch from its outline. He knew each join in the paper. He had studied every pleat in the dainty white bed-hangings; he had traced human faces in the lines of the curtains till further variety seemed impossible; he knew every stroke in the chalk-drawing (from Carlo Dolce—by Violet Fuller) hanging over the mantlepiece, until the expression of the face, reverential but inane, quite wearied and oppressed him. He knew all the panes in the lattice by heart, especially those diamonds of glass of different hue to their fellows, with a suspicion of green in them or a tendency to blue. What a relief—heaven, what a relief!—when Madge, kind Madge, brought in her canary-bird for the amusement of the patient, who was to be sure and ring the bell—the rope rested on his pillow—if Dicky became too noisy or troublesome. What a temptation for a sick man: ringing would certainly bring Madge back—not ringing—he had her pet-bird to contemplate, with yet the sure prospect of its mistress coming to fetch it in the course of a short time. He determined to wait and make what he could of the bird, still looking forward to another glimpse of kind Madge very soon.
The bird was inclined to be shrill sometimes, undoubtedly. There was a very ear-piercing quality about his note. Yet what a change and a relief to hear his glad, careless, triumphant fiorituri—to see him spring from perch to perch—sometimes a soft warm yellow ball, anon his plumage bristling out spread fan-wise in the air,—now sharpening his beak upon his sugar like a knife upon a steel; now tossing his rape-seed over his head like a conjuror playing with his cups and balls! It was a great comfort to the invalid to watch the bird, and the bird exhausted was there not the cage to turn to? its reticulations to count and examine, with the view of detecting crooked wires or uneven spaces?
It was known in Grilling Abbots that Mr. Wilford Hadfield was a visitor at Dr. Fuller's cottage. But the circumstances of the case carried explanation with them, and the fact was little commented on. Disinherited and dangerously ill it was not unnatural that Mr. Wilford should seek aid at the hands of his old friend the doctor, and Grilling Abbots had no objection to make to such a proceeding.
For many weeks was the sick man a prisoner in the spare room. When first he entered it the snow of winter mantled the ground: when he was able first to quit it there was the glory of the early spring abroad. The month that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb was on the wane. The March winds had dried up the country soaked by the February rains. At sunrise swarms of rooks swept across the skies seeking their morning meal, battling with the breeze and circling and tacking to avoid it till they looked like leaves eddying at the fall. There was some warmth in the sunrays now, and the languor of coming summer in the air. The woods and lanes were scented with the buds. The hedges were losing their black, skeleton look; they were now purple and gold with renovated blossoms. The honeysuckle on the porch was already in leaf; the firs and alders were in flower, and green tufts, crimson-pointed, decked the larch. Time, which thus brought beauty to the year, carried convalesence to the sick chamber in Mr. Fuller's cottage. Be sure the early offerings of spring-time adorned the room and solaced the wearied eyes of the sufferer. Be sure Madge hurried to place in his wasted hands the first violets she could gather; how she had hunted under the fallen tree-trunks in the park—under the moss-coated palings, how she had wet her feet and soiled her dress in her search! Yet she returned triumphant, with quite a bouquet—with snow-drops, too, and a first primrose—while placid Vi had joined in the quest, adding a pansy-bud gathered with some effort from the sunny top of the garden-wall. The doctor's daughters had toiled heart and soul for their father's patient. Much of his history they did not know, but it was enough for them that Wilford Hadfield was now poor and suffering—all the care and tenderness of their pure kind hearts was his again and again.
"Do you know, Vi," confessed Madge, "I was quite frightened at him when he first came. I thought him so grim and fierce-looking. I did not dare to say a word to him. But I've quite got over that now."
"There wasn't much to be frightened at, Madge."
"No, indeed, not, and he so sick and weak. Poor creature! I never saw any one look so bad as he did. I've become now quite accustomed to him. I begin to think he's quite handsome."
"Better-looking than Stephen, even?"
Madge mused, while Violet contemplated her rather closely it would seem.
"Yes, I think even handsomer than Stephen."
"Yet he's very worn and wasted, Madge; he looks much older than he really is, and how hollow his eyes are!"
"But they're no longer wild and savage now. When I took him those flowers he hardly said anything, but do you know, Vi, I think there were almost tears in his eyes. I think, Vi, you gave me the idea of gathering those flowers for him."
"No, Madge, indeed I did not." And Miss Violet turned away, perhaps to conceal a blush that was rising in her cheek. Heaven knows why.
He was very weak still, but on fine days he was able to leave his bed and sit at the window of the spare room looking into the garden.
"My nurses," he said, smiling faintly as he observed Vi and Madge below.
"Yes," said Mr. Fuller, "your old playfellows, years ago, Wilford. It seems a long while, now, since you were romping on the grass-plot with little Violet and baby Madge with the red locks. There have been changes since then."
"There have indeed." And the convalescent covered his eyes with his thin hands.
"Shall I read to you?" said the doctor, "or shall I send up Vi to read to you? I think she's a better hand at it than I am."
"No," answered Wilford, after a pause, "I'm busy—thinking," he added, with a smile.
"Yes," and the doctor patted him gently on the shoulder, "and that's the very thing I don't want you to do. Your body is not strong enough for you to be using your mind yet. You mustn't think—unless it be of the future—of getting well. Not of the past." And the doctor quitted him.
"No, not of the past,—not of that," said Wilford with a shudder.
He took listlessly a book, one of a pile on the table. He opened it mechanically at the title-page. His eye fell upon the name written on the fly-leaf—"Violet Fuller." He stopped at this with his eyes fixed upon the writing, and twice he read the name aloud—deeply he seemed to ponder over it. Perhaps in that process of vacant meditation of Elaine's father—
As when we dwell upon a word we know,
Repeating till the word we know so well
Becomes a wonder, and we know not why.
Perhaps in more pregnant reflection. At last he shut the book with a start, to snatch himself from a reverie that was only partly pleasurable.
The cottage drawing-room closely curtained for the night was lighted only by the red fire glowing in the grate. Violet Fuller was at her piano, now singing snatches of songs—now playing from memory fragments of tunes. Madge was in the surgery, helping—or making believe to help—her father in the business of compounding his medicines. There were the sounds of much laughter proceeding from that quarter of the house, and of much talking and merriment generally. Indeed, noise and merriment seemed to go hand-in-hand with Madge.
Violet Fuller had an exquisite voice. It was low-pitched and of silvery quality when she spoke—raising it in singing it was full-toned and glowing with the most noble music. Although she had received little instruction her tones were admirably under command, for her ear was perfect, and her power of execution, though acquired with little effort, was considerable. Music was with her a natural gift. She seemed to sing and play quite as matters of course. A contrast in this respect to her sister Madge, who studied music (in obedience to the prevalent opinion that it is the bounden duty of every Englishwoman to learn to play on the piano and sing "a little"), but whose natural aptitude for the study was limited—whose voice, though pleasant in quality, was often out of tune, and in whose playing wrong notes were frequently to be detected by a musical by-stander, although they were never remarked by the performer, who was only inharmonious unconsciously.
New and fashionable songs, in which weak words are wedded to weak music, and sentimentality is bought at the price of sickliness, did not often reach Grilling Abbots. The sort of music politeness compels us often to hear in our friends' drawing-rooms, when a sylphide with a compressed waist rising from profuse tarlatan gasps out with husky timidity a feeble ballad of most conventional pattern, with a florid lithograph on its cover,—music of this sort would have found no favour with Vi Fuller, even if she had been able to obtain it. In this as in some other matters Grilling Abbots was a little behind the rest of the world. But an old well-worn book—it had belonged formerly to the late Mrs. Fuller—containing a selection of songs by Mozart furnished her favourite music. She would sit for hours at the piano singing through this book, and her love for the art—or should I say science?—was very great. She would sing all the same whether she had an audience or not; perhaps—but the sylphide with the wasp waist, who regards song as a means to an end, as an accomplishment enhancing her prospects in the marriage market, will hardly credit it—she even preferred to be without an audience, when she could surrender herself wholly to the entrancement of her melody. She loved music for its own sake, and she sang Mozart's songs with all her love and heart and soul in her voice.
Most charming of composers! Let us listen for pomp and passion and solid grandeur to Beethoven; for religion to Handel; for weirdness and mystery to Weber and Meyerbeer; for orchestral epilepsies or tortured tunes let us search in the spasmodic scores of modern Italy; but for the poetry of tenderness, for the heart's own sentiment, shall we ever find these in greater perfectness than in the music of Mozart?
It was genuine unaffected singing, very delightful to hear. Her soft white hands floated over the keyboard, the taper fingers finding as it were their own way to the notes, for there was not much light in the room near the piano; her silver voice throbbing through the great master's melodies. And very charming to behold, too, was Vi Fuller seated before her instrument, her liquid grey eyes full of expression and feeling, and the red lips parted to let the heart-laden song stream forth; she was too admirable a vocalist to distort her face as she sung, though some admirable vocalists are distressingly prone to this defect; and she would sing till sometimes tears stood in her eyes, or her voice threatened to break into sobs; till the song awoke some potent echo in her heart, or music yielded to contemplation, and she wandered unconsciously and silently into strange labyrinths of thought. What was she singing now? Voi che sapete, say, or perhaps Zerlina's charming Vedrai carino.
She stopped at last, quite suddenly—she became conscious of the presence of some one else in the room—she could hear some one breathing behind her, could feel her hair swaying gently under the influence of the breath. She turned quickly, rather frightened.
Pale and gaunt, trembling, supporting himself by a chair, up and dressed, stood Wilford Hadfield, a strangely moved expression in his face. Vi exclaimed in her surprise.
"Forgive me," he said in a low voice, "I fear I have startled you."
"Are you not imprudent? How did you manage to come down?" Vi asked, hurriedly.
"Your singing," he said, "it seems to me, would bring back the dead; do not wonder that it charmed me down from my sick room, weak as I am—weaker even than I thought—I had to cling by the bannisters a good deal, yet I managed to enter here quietly. Pray forgive me, and continue to sing."
"But this is very imprudent; the doctor will scold you when he knows of it. You may catch cold again. You may retard your recovery terribly by this over-exertion!"
"No matter; I have heard you sing. It has been a balm to my pains and troubles. Pray sing again."
This appeal was so urgent, so weighted by tone and glance, that Violet could not but comply. She sang a few bars, but somehow a strange feeling possessed and awed her; her voice trembled.
"No," she said, with a slight agitation; "I can sing no more to-night," and she closed the piano.
"Thank you! you have an angel's voice, Violet. God bless you!"
He took one of her delicate hands into his, pressed it tenderly, raised it to his lips. Then, with a start, he let it fall, trembled violently, and but for Violet's aid would have fallen. The tears stood in Violet's eyes, and her heart beat with painful quickness. A new emotion—marvellous, half painful,—seemed to be restless in her heart. What could it mean?
With some difficulty the invalid regained his room.
CHAPTER VIII. MADGE.
The sisters occupied one bedroom.
Long after Madge had drifted into a deep sleep—she had kept awake to the last moment, talking upon all sorts of subjects with customary volubility; one or two of her more recent observations had indeed been in regard to topics well understood probably in dreamland, but slightly vague and meaningless in more material regions—long after this Violet Fuller's deep grey eyes were full open, painfully open, with a feeling that rest would not come to them; that a whirl of thoughts oppressed her brain, dazing and fevering; that there was a trouble within her that warred against and hindered repose. How she envied the perfect slumber of her sister—Madge of the large heart, with room in it for an universal affection, with her love not yet individualised and concentrated and brought to a focus; not yet in its immaturity appreciating the whole felicity of which it was capable, but still free from one single throb of pain, one suspicion of uneasiness! Madge, deep asleep, unconscious, beautiful, happy, and Violet, the calm, the placid, the apparently impassive, whence had gone that charm of perfect repose, soothing as soft music, which had been formerly one of her especial characteristics? Why that hectic colour in her cheeks? Why that new brilliance in her eyes? She raised her hands to smooth her hair from her forehead, and was startled to find how fiercely it burned, how violently beat the pulsings of her temple. She could no longer evade the question that seemed to present itself to her on every side with the persistence of persecution. Did she love?
Yesterday there had been no thought of such a matter. The rich stores of her heart were hidden from all; she was content with her life, had no wish unfulfilled, no ambition to satisfy. Through what agency was it that light from without had now stolen to those latent treasures and betrayed their value and beauty to herself, to the world? for so it seemed now, what was so clear to herself must be as apparent to others. She loved furtively, screened as she thought by her serenity, yet it needed but a glance from his eyes, a pressure from his hand, to reveal the whole secret, to tear away her mask. A sense of shame came over her at being discovered, a sense of unworthiness; with her reputation for good sense and propriety of demeanour, (some of the Grilling Abbots ladies had even accused her of prudery!) the head of her father's household, filling a mother's part to her younger sister, ought she to have gone down in this effortless way, at the first hint? The tears rushed into her eyes, and she sobbed audibly. It was quite as well that Madge was a sound sleeper.
Her compassion had betrayed her into love; her pity for the sufferer—her sympathy—had brought about this cruel result, for it was cruel; she had never before in her whole life felt so truly miserable, and but for that overt act of homage that night during her singing her secret had been kept, she should never have known the state of her heart, all would have been well. She wished that she had never learned how to sing, that her voice had gone—at least for that night—that she had never thought of opening the piano. What mad freak prompted her to do so? She had not for a very long while done such a thing. But for that she had been safe and happy, and Wilford would have got well and left them, and she had never dreamed of loving him. Left them? She had never contemplated that before. Would he leave them? Leave her? Now that—yes!—now that she loved him? For she could not help it, and she owned she loved him. Would he go away from the cottage for ever? Oh, heaven! she would sooner die than such a thing should happen. Never to see him more! It would be death!
And then, of course, more tears.
This was in the first turbulence of her new discovery. By and by came calmer thoughts. Did he love her? And her cheeks crimsoned. What happiness if he did! What to her were all the stories about his past life? Did she not know him in the present? Had he not borne the pains of his malady with the patience of a saint? Yes; he loved her! She had read it in his eyes—eyes glowing with truth—eyes that could not lie. He loved her—perhaps—very likely—certainly—Oh, he must!—there could be no doubt about it! And with that solacing thought hugged tight to her heart Violet Fuller at last fell happily asleep.
How habit masters emotion! It would have needed a very close observer indeed to have remarked any change in Violet Fuller's manner as on the morrow she pursued her wonted domestic duties. To all appearance her demeanour was the same as usual—simple and calm as ever. Perhaps, on closer study, a certain under-current of restlessness might have been detected; but its manifestations were but slight, the surface was singularly unruffled. Doctor Fuller perceived no change, nor did sister Madge—if Wilford Hadfield noticed it, he held his peace upon the matter.
Words are hardly necessary to lovers; certainly they are not needed at the commencement of love; it is at later stages that oral evidence is wanted by way of confirmation to remove all doubts and satisfy bystanders. But at first, eyes are sufficiently eloquent, and manner tells the story pretty plainly. Perhaps it is better that happiness should come to us at first in not too unqualified a way; it is better to begin not so much "with a little aversion" as with a little uncertainty as to the issue. Violet looked into Wilford's eyes and doubted; Wilford read Violet's glances and trembled—yet each saw enough to make them both very happy. For there is not so much unhappiness in uncertainty as some people would have us believe.
As time went on Wilford regained health and strength. He was still very pale and gaunt, but it was evident that his illness had wrought a great change in him. He looked much older, and he had acquired a certain air of sedateness—an attribute of middle life—which was new to him. Before, he had been reckless, listless; as a young man he had been rash, hot-headed, impulsive, with yet occasional fits of vacillation. His resoluteness had not been lasting; the opinions he took up strenuously one day he relinquished carelessly the next, unless some unexpected opposition brought into prominent action the obstinacy which was said to be a family characteristic of the Hadfields—an hereditary possession. Perhaps it is the nature of such a trait as this to strengthen with age. Certainly the lines about his mouth had deepened of late, evidencing an increased determination, a growth of power of will, while yet his large dark eyes were comparatively quenched; they no longer sparkled with that fierceness which had first alarmed Madge, and excited the attention of the company at the George Inn. Were they softened and liquified by love?
It was some weeks after Violet had made the discovery—which other ladies, be it said, have often enough made before her—that her heart was of combustible material, and that fire had been brought dangerously near it, or that it was itself capable of generating flame on the least admission to it of influence from without. No further words bringing revelation with them had escaped from Wilford; yet much was signified, so it seemed to Violet, by that mute homage, that air of deference, that delicacy of conduct a man cannot resist exhibiting towards the woman he loves, and in which Wilford did not fail. Perhaps she was tempted to lay exaggerated stress upon all the trivialities of daily life which were ceaselessly bringing Wilford near to her. Did it not seem, indeed, that he had made it a study to anticipate her slightest wish? For it was his turn now to wait upon her. It was for him, now, to gather at all risks the flowers she loved, to take interest in all the pursuits of her life, to assist her in her drawing and painting, to turn the leaves of her music, and laud in a low voice the beauty of her singing. How small such things seem to all but those immediately concerned in them, but how great, enhanced, and gilded, and glorified by love, to the actors in the scene! The chronicles of the small beer of love are matters of extreme moment to lovers, and justice has hardly been done to them by the rest of the world, nor patience nor forbearance sufficiently shown. What very simple words and phrases seem to be italicised and large-typed by love; what poor matters are enriched by it; what slight actions magnified; until a world of affection is conveyed in a glance, the devotion of a life in the handing of a chair, or an eternal tenderness in the lifting of a teacup! How large an affection seems to live in that "little language" Jonathan Swift prattled in his journal to poor Stella! And it is the same in all love's doings to the end of the chapter. There is great passion in small, very small proceedings. Love is the apotheosis of petty things; and Cupid turns the world upside down, and makes the rich poor, and the poor rich. Soft accents become of more value than bank-notes—sighs than sovereigns; words are more precious than gold, and moonshine is a legal tender. A very insane state of things indeed!
"I must leave you very soon, now, doctor."
"Leave us? Must? Why?"
"I have been here too long already," answered Wilford, looking down.
"Don't talk nonsense," quoth the doctor, bluntly.
"But I am well now. I trespass upon your hospitality. I overtask your kindness. I have no right—"
"My dear boy, I'll tell you when we've had enough of you; and be sure it won't be for some time yet. Or is it that you tire of the cottage? that our simple mode of life here wearies you?"
"No, indeed, doctor, it is not so," Wilford said, with almost superfluous fervour. "I have been—am—very happy here."
"Then why go?"
"Some time or other I must quit you," and he took the doctor's hand, pressing it, "but never without a deep sense of the gratitude I owe you. You have been indeed a friend to me."
"Pooh!—stuff! And that's the reason you wish to run away from me as quickly as possible? That's why you contradict me, and upset all my plans?"
"No, doctor, indeed not; but I, too, have plans to carry out, and now that I am well again—"
"Not too much of that, Master Wilford. I hope you have not left off your quinine mixture in reliance on this fancied strength. It's madness to talk of running away yet. You must wait some months, at least. Besides, where will you go? To the Grange?"
"Never!" Wilford answered, firmly.
"Where then?" asked the doctor, rather anxiously.
"What will you do there? I see you are tired of our dull rural life. You want gayer society. The racket and whirl and desperate brilliancy of London."
"No. For my part I could be content to remain here for ever. But that, you know, doctor, cannot be."
"But the Grange—"
"Is not mine. Have I a right to tax Steenie—to be a perpetual burthen to him? If it were even right that I should do so, still I have some pride left. Could I bear to live as his dependent? However kindness might veil it, the fact would be unchanged—tenant of a house not my own, in sight of lands lost to me by my own folly—yes, and sin. Is that the position you would ask me to accept? Is it one I ought to accept? Put my father's will out of the question—though some thought might be given to that, to its spirit and to its letter—ask yourself if it would become me, still young, gaining strength day by day—of mind, let us hope, as well as body—to become dependent upon my younger brother, and take toll, as it were, of property fairly his, and his children's after him. Could I do this honourably—honestly?"
The doctor evaded the question.
"What do you propose to do?" he asked, in a low voice.
"I will resign the name of Hadfield, lest—lest I bring further shame upon it. I will leave here for London; I will work for my living: I will try to win a good name for myself, and to make that name respected; I will toil heart and soul—with my intellect if I can—with this right arm should that fail me."
"Why these are the strange schemes you entertained before your illness," exclaimed the doctor, gravely.
"Yes, the same."
"I thought to have cured all that."
"Do you think that, during my long suffering upstairs, I have not thought of these things over and over again? Do you fancy I was lying there mindless—a mere log? Do you think I have not thoroughly worked out these plans in my mind? If they were founded on error surely I had time and opportunity then to detect it. They have been thoroughly winnowed, trust me. Had they been wholly worthless you should have heard no more of them—indeed, there would have been no more to tell of them. But they are right and true. You know it, good friend."
"No, no, I know nothing of the kind; I think them all stuff and nonsense, and egregious folly, and I'm sorry the medicine I have given you hasn't done you more good. I thought it would have cleared your brain of these mad cobwebs. I little thought while you were safe in bed upstairs that you were damaging your mind by turning over all these absurdities in it."
"Was I to learn nothing from the past, or the present? But," he added, with a strange nervousness, and the colour flushing his face, "if there should be another reason, a most powerful reason, for my leaving you—"
"I'll hear no more," said the doctor, running away, "or by heaven the boy will convince me against my will! Why, he's as obstinate as all the Hadfields put together. He's the worst of the lot—the Hadfields? Bah! as the old gentleman himself added to the sum of them."
"If he knew that I loved his daughter!" cried Wilford passionately; "would he not rather drive me from his door than press me to remain? And I do love her! How good, how pure, how beautiful she is! Violet! dear Violet!" Then, after a pause, "And she—does she love me? Can it be? Oh, how unworthy I am of such happiness. Love me? Oh, God, if I thought that—but I must go, at once, and for ever. I must never see her more," and he buried his face in his hands, trembling very much.
Madge burst noisily, breathlessly, into the drawing-room, where Violet was busily at work with her needle.
"Oh, Vi! what do you think is going to happen? I was passing the parlour-door, and I couldn't help hearing. No, I wasn't listening on purpose, indeed I wasn't; only, of course, I ran off when papa came out, for I thought he might think I had been."
"What's the matter, Madge?"
"Wait a moment, I'm rather out of breath. But Wilford—"
"What of him?" asked Violet, in an eager voice.
"I heard him say that—"
"Make haste, Madge dear."
"Well, then, he's going away, going to leave us!"
"To leave us?" Vi almost screamed.
"Yes. Oh, isn't it a shame!"
"Immediately—as soon as he can—as soon as papa will let him. Why, what's the matter, Vi? Don't look like that! Speak, Vi, say something! Oh, how white she is!"
Violet had dropped her work to place her hands upon her heart, there was a strange look of suffering in her face, the colour quitted her cheeks—her lips; half fainting, she was supported by her sister.
"Oh, Madge, if he should go!" she moaned in a very troubled voice.
Poor Madge was terribly puzzled at all this. She had never dreamt of her news, important although she had judged it, creating effects so marvellous. Vi moved in this way; Vi, her elder sister, so little susceptible of emotion as she had deemed her, who always checked demonstration of feeling as much as possible; who, as a rule, received her younger sister's important communications with a calmness that had been only too provoking; Vi quivering like a lily in a tempest, and clutching Madge's arm to save herself from falling! Why, it was like a dream—quite like a dream, and Madge was almost frightened at it!
"What is the matter, Vi dear?" she cried, as she assumed the rôle of protectress, playing it with much grace and with great heartiness, it must be admitted, hugging her elder sister closely and kissing her impetuously as though to bring the colour back to her pallid face.
"If he should leave me!" poor Violet continued to falter.
A new light seemed to shine upon bewildered Madge. Her child-heart seemed to be possessed of a new intelligence. It was as though she had by chance made a new and great discovery. Could it be really what she thought it was—what she had read of in books, and heard of from others, and sometimes pictured hazily and wonderingly to herself? Was this really what she fancied it must be? It was like—and yet it was quite different! How strange! And Madge felt herself indeed a woman, as she put her red lips to Violet's ear—her heart beating terribly the while; her face a bright crimson—and murmured in soft, fond accents:
"Oh, Vi, you love him!"
And Violet buried her face on her sister's shoulder; and then, how silly, how absurd, how tender, how feminine, why then of course the two dear creatures cried copiously, their arms twined tightly round each other!
They indulged with abandonment in that female panacea for a troubled state of the nerves and the sensibilities, "a good cry," and emerged from it, a little tumbled it may be, with a decided crimson upon their eyelids, and yet a hint of it—it seems harsh to mention the fact with public opinion what it is in regard to it—and after all it did'nt detract a mite from their beauty—with just a tinge of the same colour about the regions of their noses; and their hair, down, of course—and ruffled, till Madge's was like a furze bush in the shine of sunset.
But soon Violet recovered herself, smoothing her tresses and wiping away the tear streaks on her cheeks; fanning herself with her handkerchief to cool her flushed face. Something of her customary calmness returned, while to it was added an earnestness that was new to her.
"Mind, Madge, dearest, you must never reveal a syllable of this to anyone."
"No, Vi, I never will. I solemnly promise."
"Not to anyone; not even papa—certainly not to—to Wilford. I would not have him know it for the world."
"I'll be very careful, Vi."
"Thank you, Madge. Are my eyes very red? Do I look as though I'd been crying? I'll go up-stairs and bathe my face. Take great care, Madge, darling, what you say and do."
"I will; I will."
And Madge sauntered into the garden. Indeed there hardly seemed to be room for her in the house—she had grown so much taller during the last half-hour—such a sense of importance had come upon her. She was the depository of so tremendous a secret; she had passed from childhood to womanhood at one bound. She was a woman quite now—the confidant of another woman, and the other woman in love; and the other woman Vi, her elder sister; and she, Madge, had discovered her sister's secret unassisted, all by herself, entirely of her own superior sagacity. She quite glowed with pleasure at this evidence of her cleverness. Vi in love! How strange—how nice—for all the world like a story-book—really in love—a romance in three volumes carrying on in the cottage, and she, Madge, a character in it—a sharer in the plot—an important person in the novel—the sister of the heroine—it was almost as good as being the heroine herself.
"And how will it end?" Madge asked herself. "Oh, in the proper way, of course. If Vi loves him, why of course he must love Vi. How can he help it; and she so nice-looking and clever as she is? I'm sure there isn't a prettier girl about here for miles than my sister Vi, bless her. Why, there's Wilford in the garden! He's certainly handsome, though he is so thin. Well, I almost think that if Vi hadn't fallen in love with him, I should have."
What is the fascination about risk? Why do people love to skate on dangerous ice; to hover near the brink of precipices? Why did Madge, full of her sister's secret, long to prattle to Wilford Hadfield, and hover in her converse so close upon the confines of the secret? Yet there was an extraordinary charm for her in this. There was a consciousness of power and importance in thus talking with a man concerning whom she was in possession of information so important. It was unwise sport. Because the sense of her position was so new to her, it made her quite giddy; the secret was effervescing terribly; it was difficult to stop babbling. She was like a bottle of sparkling Moselle with the wire off; the cork might fly out at any moment; her red lips might part, and the secret might be bubbling all over the place in no time.
She looked at Wilford and thought that he really ought to love sister Vi; and then came a tangle of thoughts. What relation would he be to her, Madge, supposing he married Vi? Oh, yes; why, brother-in-law, of course. And where would they live? and who would perform the ceremony? Oh, Mr. Mainstone of course, at Grilling Abbots church. And how many bridesmaids ought there to be?—and would the bride wear a veil, or a watered silk bonnet and orange blossoms—how pretty! and so on.
"You're not going to leave us, Mr. Wilford?"
"Yes, indeed, Miss Madge, I am."
"I heard you say so in the parlour, but I don't believe a word of it. Papa won't let you go, and I won't let you go; and I'm quite sure that V——" and then she stopped suddenly, and turned down her eyes, for Wilford's were fixed upon her rather curiously.
"Quite sure of what, Madge?"
"Nothing, only that you shan't go away" (and she thought she had recovered from her trip rather cunningly), "why should you? you're not well yet, for one thing; you're not half strong enough yet."
"But I cannot stay here for ever, you know, Madge."
"Why not? Ain't you happy here? Can we do more to make you comfortable? Can I? can—" she stopped, blushing terribly.
"What does the child mean?" Wilford asked himself; "does she suspect me?"
"Should you miss me, Madge, if I were to go?"
"You know I should."
"And be sorry?"
"Very sorry. But you'd come back, wouldn't you, come back very soon?" Wilford shook his head.
"Never, Madge," he said.
"Never! You don't mean that? Never? Oh, how shameful, how cruel, how unkind," and the tears glistened in her great, blue eyes. "You'll leave us for ever? Oh, don't say that—don't say that—no—" and Madge forgot all caution—"no, not to Vi—not to Vi. Why, it would kill her. You cruel man."
"Not to Violet? Again Violet," Wilford murmured, and he grasped Madge's hands and drew her towards him. "Why not to Violet?" he asked eagerly, trying to look into her face, which she hung down, burying her chin in her neck. "Tell me, Madge, quick."
"Don't ask me, please don't. Oh, what have I said? and let go my hands; and let me go, do, there's a good, kind Mr. Wilford."
"Tell me, Madge. No, I won't let you go, till you tell me."
"Oh, I mustn't—I mustn't."
"Would Violet be sorry?"
"Please don't ask me; please don't."
"Would Violet be sorry? quick, quick."
"Yes, I—I think she would.
"More so than you—than any one?""Y—e—s."
"She has told you so—she has said this herself?"
"Y—e—s—O! O! O! Let me go." And she bounded away—free—frightened—crying.
"How angry Violet will be; how cruel of him to make me tell him! What a little silly I've been!" and Madge began to think she had better have relied less on the strength of her newly-discovered womanhood; better have been still a child, even if she had gone that afternoon birds-nesting with Tommy Eastwood, as had been at one time proposed and settled between them.
"She loves me—she loves me!" And Wilford passed his hand across his damp forehead.
Another moment and with a radiant face he had passed into the house—into the drawing-room, where Violet, with partially-recovered placidity was sitting trying to work.