The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 3/The Kinloch Estate, and How it Was Settled
Early Monday morning, Mr. Hardwick walked across the green to call upon Mrs. Kinloch. Lucy Ransom, the house-maid, washing in the back-yard, saw him coming, and told her mistress;--before he rang, Mrs. Kinloch had time to tie on her lace cap, smooth her hair, and meet him in the hall.
"Good mum-morning, Mrs. Kinloch!"
"Walk in, Mr. Hardwick,--this way, into the sitting-room."
He took a seat quietly by the maple-shaded window. Mrs. Kinloch was silent and composed. Her coolness nerved instead of depressing him, and he began at once.
"I've ker-come to see you about the debt which my nun-nephew, Mark, owes the estate."
"I don't know what _I_ can do about it," she replied, in a placid tone.
"We've ben nun-neighbors, now, these f-fifteen years, Mrs. Kinloch, and never h-had any difficulty th-that I know on. An' as the ler-law had been used per-pretty ha'sh toward Mark, I th-thought I'd see ef 'twa'n't per-possible't some mistake had ben made."
"I don't know what mistake there has been. Squire Clamp must collect whatever is due. It isn't harsh to do that, is it?"
"Not ha'sh to a-ask for it, but not jest the ker-kind thing to bring ser-suit before askin'. Mark got a word and a ber-blow, but the blow came f-first. We didn't treat yer-you so when you was a widder."
"So you go back to old times, and bring up my poverty and your charity, do you?" said the widow, bitterly.
"By nun-no means," replied the blacksmith. "I don't w-wish to open 'counts th-that've ben settled so long; an' more, I don't intend to ber-ber-beg from you, nor a-anybody else. We pay our debts, an' don't 'xpect nor don't wer-want to do any different."
"Then I don't see what you are so flurried about."
"Ef so be Squire Ker-Kinloch was alive, I could tell you ber-better; or rather, I shouldn't have to go to yer-you about it. He allers give Mark to underst-hand that he shouldn't be hard upon him,--th-that he could pay along as he ger-got able."
"Why should he favor him more than others? I am sure not many men would have lent the money in the first place, and I don't think it looks well to be hanging back now."
"As to why yer-your husband was disposed to favor Mark, I have _my_ opinion. But the der-dead shall rest; I sh-sha'n't call up their pale faces." He drew his breath hard, and his eyes looked full of tender memories.
After a moment he went on. "I don't w-wish to waste words; I mum-merely come to say that Mark has five hunderd dollars, and that I can scrape up a couple o' hunderd more, and will give my note w-with him for the balance. Th-that's all we can handily do; an' ef that'll arnswer, we should ler-like to have you give word to stop the suit."
"You will have to go to Squire Clamp," was the reply. "I don't presume to dictate to my lawyer, but shall let him do what he thinks best. You haven't been to him, I conclude? I don't think he will be unreasonable."
Mr. Hardwick looked steadily at her.
"Wer-well, Mrs. Kinloch," said he, slowly, "I th-think I understand. Ef I don't, it isn't because you don't mum-make the matter plain. I sha'n't go to Squire Clamp till I have the mum-money, all of it. I hope no a-a-enemy of yourn will be so hard to y-you as my friends are to me."
With singular command over her tongue and temper, Mrs. Kinloch contented herself with hoping that he would find no difficulty in arranging matters with the lawyer, bade him good-morning, civilly, and shut the door behind him. But when he was gone, her anger, kept so well under control before, burst forth.
"Stuttering old fool!" she exclaimed, "to come here to badger me!--to throw up to me the wood he cut, or the apples he brought me!--as though Mr. Kinloch hadn't paid that ten times over! He'll find how it is before long."
"What's the matter?" asked Mildred, meeting her step-mother in the hall, and noticing her flushed cheek, her swelling veins, and contorted brows.
"Why, nothing, but a talk with Uncle Ralph, who has been rather saucy."
"Saucy? Uncle Ralph saucy? Why, he is the most kindly man in the world,--sometimes hasty, but always well-mannered. I don't see how he could be saucy."
"I advise you not to stand up for him against your mother."
"I shouldn't defend him in anything wrong; but I think there must be some misunderstanding."
"He is like Mark, I suppose, always perfect in your eyes."
This was the first time since Mr. Kinloch's death that the step-mother had ever alluded to the fondness which had existed between Mark and Mildred as school-children, and her eyes were bent upon the girl eagerly. It was as though she had knocked at the door of her heart, and waited for its opening to look into the secret recesses. A quick flush suffused Mildred's face and neck.
"You are unkind, mother," she said; for the glance was sharper than the words; and then, bursting into tears, she went to her room.
"So it has come to this!" said Mrs. Kinloch to herself. "Well, I did not begin at all too soon."
She walked through the hall to the back piazza. She heard voices from beyond the shrubbery that bordered the grass-plot where the clothes were hung on lines to dry. Lucy, the maid, evidently was there, for one; indeed, by shifting her position so as to look through an opening in the bushes, Mrs. Kinloch could see the girl; but she was not busy with her clothes-basket. An arm was bent around her plump and graceful figure. The next instant, as Mrs. Kinloch saw by standing on tiptoe, two forms swayed toward each other, and Lucy, no way reluctantly, received a kiss from--Hugh Branning!
Very naughty, certainly,--but it is incumbent on me to tell the truth, and accordingly I have put it down.
Now my readers are doubtless prepared for a catastrophe. They will expect to hear Mrs. Kinloch cry, "Lucy Ransom, you jade, what are you doing? Take your clothes and trumpery and leave this house!" You will suppose that her son Hugh will be shut up in the cellar on bread and water, or sent off to sea in disgrace. That is the traditional way with angry mistresses, I know; but Mrs. Kinloch was not one of the common sort. She did not know Talleyrand's maxim,--"Never act from first impulses, for they are always--_right_!" Indeed, I doubt if she had ever heard of that slippery Frenchman; but observation and experience had led her to adopt a similar line of policy.
Therefore she did not scold or send away Lucy; she could not well do without her; and besides, there were reasons which made it desirable that the girl should remain friendly. She did not call out to her hopeful son, either,--although her fingers _did_ itch to tweak his profligate ears. She knew that a dispute with him would only end in his going off in a huff, and she thought she could employ him better. So she coughed first and then stepped out into the yard. Hugh presently came sauntering down the walk, and Lucy sang among the clothes-lines as blithely and unconcerned as though her lips had never tasted any flavor more piquant than bread and butter.
It was rather an equivocal look which the mistress cast over her shoulder at the girl. It might have said,--"Poor fool! singe your wings in the candle, if you will." It might have been only the scorn of outraged virtue.
"Hugh," said Mrs. Kinloch, "come into the house a moment. I want to speak with you."
The young man looked up rather astonished, but he could not read his mother's placid face. Her hair lay smooth on her temples, under her neat cap; her face was almost waxy pale, her lips gently pressed together; and if her clear, gray eyes had beamed with a warm or more humid light, she might have served a painter as a model for a
"steadfast nun, devout and pure."
When they reached the sitting-room, Mrs. Kinloch began.
"Hugh, do you think of going to sea again? Now that I am alone in the world, don't you think you can make up your mind to stay at home?"
"I haven't thought much about it, mother. I suppose I should go when ordered, as a matter of course; I have nothing else to do."
"That need not be a reason. There is plenty to do without waiting for promotion in the navy till you are gray."
"Why, mother, you know I have no profession, and, I suppose I may say, no money. At least, the Squire made no provision for me that I know of, and I'm sure you cannot wish me to live on your 'thirds.'"
"My son, you should have some confidence in my advice, by this time. It doesn't require a great fortune to live comfortably here."
"Yes, but it is deused dull in this old town. No theatre,--no concert,--no music at all, but from organ-grinders,--no parties,--nothing, in fact, but prayer-meetings from one week's end to another. I should die of the blues here."
"Only find something to do, settle yourself into a pleasant home, and you'll forget your uneasiness."
"That's very well to say"----
"And very easy to do. But it isn't the way to begin by flirting with every pretty, foolish girl you see. Oh, Hugh! you are all I have now to love. I shall grow old soon, and I want to lean upon you. Give up the navy; be advised by me."
Hugh whistled softly. He did not suppose that his mother knew of his gallantry. He was amused at her sharp observation.
"So you think I'm a flirt, mother?" said he. "You are out, entirely. I'm a pattern of propriety at home!"
"You need not tell me, Hugh! I know more than you think. But I didn't know that a son of mine could be so simple as I find you are."
"She's after me," thought Hugh. "She saw me, surely."
His mother went on.
"With such an opportunity as you have to get yourself a wife----Don't laugh! I want to see you married, for you will never sow your wild oats until you are. With such a chance as you have"----
"Why, mother," broke in Hugh, "it isn't so bad as that."
"Isn't so bad? What do you mean?"
"Why, _you_ know what you're driving at, and so do I. Lucy is a good girl enough, but I never meant anything serious. There's no need of my marrying her."
"What _are_ you talking about?"
"Now, mother, what's the use? You are only trying to read me a moral lecture, because I gave Lucy a harmless smack."
"Lucy Ransom!" repeated Mrs. Kinloch, with ineffable scorn. "Lucy Ransom! I hope my son isn't low enough to dally with a housemaid, a scullion! If I _had_ seen such a spectacle, I should have kept my mouth shut for shame. 'A guilty conscience needs no accuser'; but I am sorry you had not pride enough to keep your disgusting fooleries to yourself."
"Regularly sold!" muttered Hugh, as he beat a rat-tattoo on the window-pane.
"I gave you credit for more penetration, Hugh. Now, just look a minute. What would you think of the shrewdness of a young man, who had no special turn for business, but a great fondness for taking his ease,--with no money nor prospect of any,--and who, when he had the opportunity to step at once into fortune and position, made no movement to secure it?"
"Well, the application?"
"The fortune may be yours, if you will."
"Don't tell me riddles. Show me the prize, and I'm after it."
"But it has an incumbrance."
"A pretty, artless, affectionate little woman, who will make you the best wife in the world."
"Splendid, by Jove! Who is she?"
"You needn't look far. We generally miss seeing the thing that is under our nose."
"Why, mother, there isn't an heiress in Innisfield except my sister Mildred."
"Mildred is not your sister. You are no more to each other than the two farthest persons on earth."
"True enough! Well, mother, you _are_ an old 'un!"
"Don't!"--with a look of disgust,--"don't use your sailor slang here! To see that doesn't require any particular shrewdness."
"But Mildred never liked me much. She always ran from me, like the kitten from old Bose. She has always looked as though she thought I would bite, and that it was best she should keep out of reach under a chair."
"Any young man of good address and fair intelligence can make an impression on a girl of eighteen, if he has the will, the time, and the opportunity. You have everything in your favor, and if you don't take the fortune that lies right in your path, you deserve to go to the poor-house."
"Good-morning," said Mrs. Kinloch. "You know the horse and carriage, or the saddle-ponies, are always yours when you want to use them."
Great discoveries seem always so simple, that we wonder they were not made from the first. The highest truths are linked with the commonest objects and events of daily life.
Hugh looked about him as much astonished as though he had been shown a gold mine in old Quobbin, where he could dig for the asking. What determination he made, the course of our story will show.
Hugh had ordered George, the Asiatic, to saddle the ponies after dinner, intending to ask Mildred to take a ride northward, through the pine woods; but on making inquiries, he found that she had walked out, leaving word that she should be absent all day.
"Confound it!" thought he,--"a mishap at the start! I'm afraid the omen isn't a good one. However, I must kill time some way. I can't lay up here, like a ship in ordinary; better be shaken by storms or covered with barnacles at sea than be housed up, worm-eaten or crumbled into powder by dry-rot on shore."
He went to ride alone, but did not go in the direction of the pine woods.
Mildred could not get over the unpleasant impressions of the morning, so, rather than remain in her room this fine day, she had walked across the meadow, east of the mill-pond, to a farm-house, where she was a frequent and welcome visitor. On her way, she called for Lizzy Hardwick, the blacksmith's daughter, who accompanied her. Mr. Alford, the farmer, was a blunt, good-humored, and rather eccentric man, shrewd and well to do, but kindly and charitable. He had no children, and he enjoyed the occasional visits of his favorites heartily; so did his wife, Aunt Mercy. Her broad face brightened as she saw the girls coming, and her plump hands were both extended to greet them. They went to the dairy to see the creaking cheese-presses, ate of the fresh curd, saw the golden stores of butter;--thence to the barn, where they clambered upon the hay-mow, found the nest of a bantam, took some of the little eggs in their pockets;--then coming into the yard, they patted the calves' heads, scattered oats for the doves, that, with pink feet and pearly blue necks, crowded around them to be fed, and next began to chase a fine old gander down to the brook, when Mr. Alford, getting over the fence, called out, "Hold on, girls! don't bother Uncle Ralph!--don't!"
"Where is Uncle Ralph?" asked Mildred.
"Why, that gander you've been chasin'; and he's about the harn'somest bird I know on, too. Talk about swans! there never was a finer neck, nor a prettier coat of feathers on anything that ever swum. His wings are powerful; only let him spread 'em, and up he goes; but as for his feet, he limps just a little, as you see. No offence, Lizzy. I love your father as well as you do; but when I hear him, with his idees so grand,--the minister don't begin with him,--and yet to be bothered, as he is sometimes, to get a word out, I think of my good old fellow here, whose wings are so much better'n his legs. Come here, Ralph! You see he knows his name. There!"--patting his head,--"that's a good fellow! Now go and help marm attend to your goslins."
The kindly tone and the caress took away from the comparison any idea of disrespect, and the girls laughed at the odd conceit,--Lizzy, at least, not a little proud of the implied compliment. Mr. Alford left them, to attend to his affairs, and they went on with their romp,--running on the top of the smooth wall beside the meadow, gathering clusters of lilac blossoms from the fatherly great posy that grew on the sunny side of the house, and admiring the solitary state of the peacock, as, with dainty step, he trailed his royal robe over the sward. Soon they heard voices at the house, and, going round the corner of the shed, saw Uncle Ralph and Mark Davenport talking with Mr. Alford at the door.
Not to make a mystery of a simple matter, the blacksmith had come to borrow of Mr. Alford the money necessary to make up the amount owing by Mark to the Kinloch estate.
The young man had shown great readiness to accompany his uncle; praiseworthy, certainly; but I am inclined to think he had somehow got an intimation that the girls had preceded him.
Fortunately, the farmer was able to lend the sum wanted, and, as he had an errand in town, he took Mr. Hardwick with him in his wagon.
Mark was left, nothing loath, to walk home with the girls. Do not think he was wanting in affection for his cousin Lizzy, if he wished that she were, just for one hour, a hundred miles away. They took a path that led over the plain to the river, intending to cross upon a foot-bridge, a short distance above the village. But though Mark was obliged to be silent on the matter he had most at heart, Mildred was not unaware of his feelings. A tone, a look, a grasp of the hand serves for an index, quite as well as the most fervent speech. The river makes a beautiful bend near the foot-bridge, and its bank is covered with a young growth of white pines. They sat down on a hillock, under the trees, whose spicy perfume filled the air, and looked down the stream towards the village. How fair it lay in the soft air of that June day! The water was deep and blue, with a reflected heaven. The mills that cluster about the dam, a mile below, were partially concealed by young elms, silver-poplars, and water-maples. Gardens sloped on either bank to the water's edge. Neat, white houses gleamed through the trees and shrubbery around the bases of the hills that hem in the valley; and the tall, slender spire of the meeting-house shewed fairly against its densely-wooded background. Verily, if I were a painter, I should desire no lovelier scene for my canvas than that on which Mark and Mildred looked. Lizzy walked away, and began hunting checkerberries with an unusual ardor. She _did_ understand; she would not be Mademoiselle de Trop any longer. Kind soul! so unlike young women in general, who won't step aside gracefully, when they should! Further I can vouch, that she neither hemmed, nor made eyes, nor yet repeated the well-worn proverb, "Two's company, but three's none." No, she gathered berries and sang snatches of songs as though she were quite alone.
Now those of my readers who have the good-fortune still to linger in teens are expecting that I shall treat them to a report of this delightful _tête-à-tête_. But it must not be told. The older people would skip it, or say, "Pshaw!" And besides, if it were set down faithfully, you would be sadly disappointed; the cleverest men, even, are quite sure to appear silly (to other people) when in love. The speeches of the Romeos and Claude Melnottes, with which you have been so enchanted, would be common-place enough, if translated into the actual prose in which they were delivered. When Shakspeare wooed Anne Hathaway, it might have been different; but consider, you will wait some time before you find a lover like him. No, when your time comes, it will be soon enough. You will see your hero in his velvet cloak and plumed hat, with the splendor of scenery and the intoxication of the music. I don't choose to show him to you in morning dress at rehearsal, under daubed canvas and dangling machinery.
However full of poetry and passion Mark's declaration was for Mildred, to him it was tame and hesitating enough. It seemed to him that he could not force into the cold formula of words the emotion that agitated him. But with quickening breath he poured out his love, his hopes, and his fears,--the old burden! She trembled, her eyelids fell; but at length, roused by his pleading tones, she looked up. Their eyes met; one look was enough; it was a reciprocal electric flash. With a sudden energy he clasped her in his arms; and it was a very pretty tableau they made! But in the quick movement his heedless foot chanced to touch a stone, which rolled down the bank and fell into the stream with a splash. The charm was broken.
"What's that?" cried Lizzy from a distance, forgetting her discretion. "Did a pickerel jump?"
"No," replied Mark, "the pickerel know me of old, and don't come about for fear that I have a hook and line in my pocket. It was only a stone rolling into the river."
"You come here a moment," continued the unthoughtful Lizzy; "here's a beautiful sassafras sapling, and I can't pull it up by the roots alone."
"Send for the dentist, then."
"Go and help her," said Mildred, softly.
"Well," said Mark, with a look of enforced resignation,--"if I must."
The sapling grew on the steep bank, perhaps fifty yards from where he had been sitting. He did not use sufficient care to brace himself, as he pulled with all his might, and in a moment, he knew not how, he rolled down into the river. The girls first screamed, and then, as he came out of the water, shaking himself like a Newfoundland dog, they laughed immoderately. The affair did not seem very funny to Mark, and he joined in the laugh with no great heartiness. The shock had effectually dispelled all the romance of the hour.
"I'm so sorry!" said Lizzy, still laughing at his grotesque and dripping figure.
"You must hurry and get dry clothes on, Mark," said Mildred. "Squire Clamp's is the nearest house across the bridge."
"Hang Squire Clamp! his clothes would poison me. I'd as lief go to a quarantine hospital to be dressed."
"Don't!" said Lizzy.
But he kept on in the same mercurial strain.--"Clamp lives on poison, like Rappaccini's daughter, in Hawthorne's story; only it makes him ugly instead of fair, as that pretty witch was. His wife never had any trouble with spiders as long as she lived; he had only to blow into a nest, and the creatures would tumble out, and give up their venomous ghosts. No vermin but himself are to be seen in his neighborhood; the rats even found they couldn't stand it, and had to emigrate."
"The breath that killed spiders must have been a little too powerful, at times, for Mrs. Clamp, one would think," said Mildred.
"It was," said Mark. "She died one day, after Clamp had cheated a widow out of her dower."
"Don't stop longer for your fun," said Mildred, "you'll surely take cold. Besides, I can't have you making any disparaging remarks upon my guardian."
"Bless my soul! your guardian! how imprudent, to be sure!"--with a significant twinkle. "Well, I'm going. Banfield's is the nearest house; so we'll part here."
The girls went towards the village; and Mark, making vigorous strides across the meadow, took a straight line for Banfield's. Near the house is a piece of woods,--one corner of the leafy mantle that covers the hill slipped down its side and trailing upon the borders of the fertile field below. Just as he passed the woods he saw Hugh Branning letting down the bars and leading his pony out into the road. The only bridle-path through the woods led over the hill to the little house on the westerly slope, where lived Dame Ransom, Lucy's bowed and wrinkled grandmother. Mark wondered not a little where the midshipman had been; but as he still retained the memory of the old quarrel, he did not accost him, and presently thought no more of it. Reaching the house, he got some dry clothes and then went home with bounding steps. The earth was never so beautiful nor the sky so benign. The cloud of doubt had furled off and left his heaven blue. He had spoken and found that the dream of his boyhood and the hope of his youth had become the proud triumph of his manhood. Mildred Kinloch loved him! loved him as sincerely as when they were both children! What higher felicity was to be thought of? And what a motive for exertion had he now! He would be worthy of her, and the world should acknowledge that the heiress had not stooped when she mated with him.
Mrs. Kinloch was surprised at finding that neither Hugh nor Mildred, nor yet Lucy Ransom, was in the house.
Mildred came home first and was not accompanied by Hugh, as Mrs. Kinloch had hoped. He had not found her, then,--perhaps he had not sought for her. Next Lucy returned, coming through the garden which stretched up the hill. Being questioned, she answered that she had been to her grandmother's, and had come back the nearest way over the hill, through the woods.
"What had she gone for after the fatigue of washing-day?"
"Because Squire Clamp, who owned the house her grandmother lived in, wanted her to take a message."
Mrs. Kinloch began to become interested. "Squire Clamp!" she exclaimed,--"when did you see him?"
"He called here yesterday evening,--on his way to Mr. Hardwick's, I guess."
"Why didn't he ask _me_ if you could go? I think he's pretty free to send my girls about the town on his errands."
"You were out, Ma'am,--in the next house; and after he'd gone I forgot it."
"You remembered it to-day, it seems."
"Yes'm; after dinner I thought of it and hurried right off; but granny was sick and foolish, and didn't want to let me come away, so I couldn't get back as quick as I meant to."
"Well, you can go to the kitchen."
"I must keep an eye on that girl," thought Mrs. Kinloch. "She is easily persuaded, fickle, without strong sense, and with only a very shallow kind of cunning. She might do mischief. What can Squire Clamp want? The old hovel her grandmother lives in isn't worth fifty dollars. Whatever has been going on, I'm glad Hugh is not mixed up in it."
Just then Hugh rode up, and, tying his horse, came in. He seemed to have lost something of the gayety of the morning. "I am tired," he said. "I had to get off and lead the pony down the hill, and it's steep and stony enough."
"There are pleasant roads enough in the neighborhood," said his mother, "without your being obliged to take to the woods and clamber over the mountains."
"I know it," he replied; "but I had been up towards the Allen place, and I took a notion to come back over the hill."
"Then you passed Lucy's house?"
"Yes. The bridle-path leads down the hill about a mile above this; but on foot one may keep along the ridge and come down into the valley through our garden."
"So I suppose; in fact, I believe Lucy has just returned that way."
"Indeed! it's strange I didn't see her."
"It is strange."
Hugh bore the quiet scrutiny well, and his mother came to the conclusion that the girl had told the truth about her going for the lawyer.
Presently Mildred came down from her room, and after a few minutes Mrs. Kinloch went out, casting a fixed and meaning look at her son. She seemed as impatient for the issue of her scheme, as the child who, after planting a seed, waits for the green shoot, and twice a day digs down to see if it has not sprouted.
Mildred, as the reader may suppose, was not likely to be very agreeable to her companion; the recollections of the day were too vivid, too delicious.
She could not part with them, but constantly repeated to herself the words of love, of hope, and enthusiasm, which she had heard. So she moved or talked as in a dream, mechanically, while her soul still floated away on the summer-sea of reverie.
Hugh looked at her with real admiration; and, in truth, she deserved it. A fairer face you would not see in a day's journey; her smooth skin, not too white, but of a rich creamy tint,--eyes brown and inclined to be dreamy,--her hair chestnut and wavy,--a figure rather below the medium size, but with full, graceful lines,--these, joined with a gentle nature and a certain tremulous sensibility, constituted a divinity that it was surely no sin to worship. If sin it were, all the young men in Innisfield had need of immediate forgiveness.
Hugh had some qualms about approaching the goddess. He was sensible of a wide gulf between himself and her, and he could not but think that she was aware of it too.
"You have been to Mr. Alford's?"
A momentary pause.
"Did you speak, Hugh?"
He repeated the question. Her eyes brightened a moment as she nodded in the affirmative; then they grew dim again, like windows seen from without when the light is withdrawn to an inner room. She seemed as unconscious as a pictured Madonna.
"A beautiful day for your walk," he ventured again. The same pause, the same momentary interest as she answered, followed by the same abstraction.
"I suppose," said he, at length, "that I am having the last of my idle days here; I expect to be ordered to sea shortly."
"Indeed!" Mildred looked up.
"I shall be very sorry to leave here," he continued.
"Yes, Innisfield _is_ quite pretty this summer. But I supposed that the pleasures of the seaport and of adventure abroad were more attractive to you than this monotonous life."
"'Tis rather slow here, but--I--I meant to say that I shall be sorry to leave you."
"Me? Why, mother can take care of me."
"Certainly she will, but I shall miss you."
"No doubt you'll think of us, when you are away; I'm sure we shall remember you. We shall never sit down to the table without thinking of your vacant chair."
It was impossible to misinterpret her kind, simple, sisterly tones. And Hugh could but feel that they indicated no particle of tenderness for him. The task of winning her was yet wholly to be done, and there was no prospect that she would give him the least encouragement in advance, if she did not utterly refuse him at the end. He saw that he must not count on an easy victory, but prepare for it by a slow and gradual approach.
Mildred sat some time leaning out of the window, then opening her piano, for the first time since her father's death, she sat down and played a nocturne by Mendelssohn. The music seemed a natural expression of her feelings,--suited to the heart "steeped in golden languors," in the "tranced summer calm." The tones rang through the silent rooms, pervading all the charmed air, so that the ear tingled in listening,--as the lips find a sharpness with the luscious flavor of the pine-apple. The sound reached to the kitchen, and brought a brief pleasure, but a bitterer pang of envy, to Lucy's swelling bosom. It calmed for a moment the evil spirit in Hugh's troubled heart. And Mrs. Kinloch in her solitary chamber, though she had always detested the piano, thought she had never heard such music before. She had found a new sense, that thrilled her with an exquisite delight. It was a good omen, she was sure, that Mildred should now, after so long a time, feel inclined to play. Only a light heart, and one supremely careless or supremely happy, could touch the keys like that. "Hugh must be a fortunate boy," she thought; and she could have hugged him for joy. What thought Hugh, as she rose from her seat at the instrument like one in a trance and walked towards the hall? Conflicting emotions struggled for mastery; but, hardly knowing what he did, he started up and offered her a caress. It was not unusual, but her nerves had acquired an unwonted sensitiveness; she shuddered, and rushed from him up the stairs. He could have torn his hair with rage.
"Am I, then, such a bear," he asked himself, "that she is afraid of me?"
A light at the end of the hall caught his eye. It was Lucy with tear-stained cheeks going to bed,--unconscious that the flaring candle she carried was dripping upon her dress,--unconscious that the one she both loved and feared was looking at her as she slowly went up the back-stairs. Truly, how little the inmates of that house knew of the secrets of each other's hearts! It was strange,--was it not?--that, after so long intimacy, they could not understand each other better! How many hearts do _you_ really know?
"Verily, a good day's work," thought Squire Clamp, as he stretched his legs in his office that Monday evening. "Mrs. Kinloch is a very shrewd woman, an extraordinarily capable woman. What a wife for a lawyer she'd make!--so long as she plotted for, and not against him. But Theophilus Clamp was not born to be overreached by one of the weaker sex. I was sure my late lamented friend could not have left his affairs in such utter disorder,--no schedule of property,--no statement of debts; too good a business man for that was Walter Kinloch. I shall now be able to know from these documents what my late client was really worth, and how large a dower the disconsolate widow has reserved for herself. Doubtless she has put by enough to suffice for her old age,--and mine, too, I am inclined to think; for I don't believe I can do better than marry her when the mourning is ended. My late spouse, to be sure, would make a quiet man rather apprehensive about a second venture; but if Mrs. Kinloch _is_ a Tartar, she is not a vulgar shrew, but will be lady-like, even if she is bitter. I think I shall take her. Of course she'll consent. I should like to see the unmarried woman in Innisfield that would dare refuse Theophilus Clamp. When she knows--that I know--what she knows, she'll do pretty much what I tell her. I wonder if she hasn't set on foot a marriage between her scapegrace son and Mildred? That would be a mishap, truly! But, as guardian, I can stave that off until the estate is settled, my wedding over, and myself comfortably in possession. Then, perhaps, we'll let the young folks marry,--at least we'll think of it. If my son George, now, had not that unlucky hare-lip, who knows? H'm, well, to business again. Let's see. It's just as that remarkably keen woman suspected. Hardwick's shop does stand partly on the land of the estate that joins it; the line will run right through his forge, and leave the trip-hammer and water-wheel in our possession; for I paced the distance this morning. Tomorrow Gunter will make sure of it by a survey; though I think we'd better do it while the old man is gone to dinner. He's sometimes apt to use emphatic language. Perhaps now his mangy cur Caesar will seize me by the coat again! Perhaps Mark will insult me, and the old man laugh at it in his sleeve! I shouldn't wonder if they managed to pay the notes, but on the title to the shop we have them fast."
The lawyer looked at his watch. "Dear me! it's tea-time. I must go, for the church-committee meet this evening. I think, however, I won't complain of Hardwick to the deacons this time; for he'll be sure to get into a passion when we commence our suit for ejectment, and I shall then have a better case against him. A more disagreeable Christian to fellowship with I don't know anywhere.
"I _should_ like to know," he continued, as he locked the office-door, "if that Lucy told me true,--if those were all the papers. No will, no memorandum for one! Well, perhaps Mrs. Kinloch was careful enough to give that secret to the keeping of the flames, instead of her bureau. I will make close copies of what I have got for Lucy to put back, and keep the originals myself. They'll be safest with me. There's no telling what may happen to papers in a house where there is a prying servant-girl."
Whether the insects were poisoned by the air of the room, as Mark Davenport suggested, I cannot say. But when Squire Clamp left the office, it was as still as a tomb. No cricket chirped under the hearth, no fly buzzed on the window-pane, no spiders came forth from the dilapidated, dangling webs. Silence and dust had absolute dominion.
The next day Mark returned to New York. He had no opportunity of bidding Mildred farewell, but he comforted himself by thinking he had provided the means of safely communicating with her by letter. And as the stage passed by the house, he caught a glimpse, first of her fluttering handkerchief, and then of her graceful fingers wafting to him a kiss. It was enough; it furnished him with food for a delightful reverie as he went on his way. We shall leave him in his former situation, from which, as a starting-point, he determines to win fortune or fame, or both. He has your best wishes, no doubt, though perhaps you think he will not force his way into the close ranks of the great procession of life so soon as he expects.
That day, while Mr. Hardwick was taking his dinner, his second son, Milton, who had been fishing at the dam, came running into the house quite out of breath.
"F-father!" he stammered out.
"Nun-now st-hop," said the black-smith. "W-what are you st-stuttering for? Wah-wait till you can talk."
"Why, father, yer-_you_ stutter."
"Wer-well, yer-_you_ shan't."
The look that came with this seemed to end the matter. A moment's rest quieted the nerves of the boy, and he went on to say, that Squire Clamp, and a man with a brass machine on his shoulder, and a chain, ever so long, were walking about the shop on the bank of the river. Lizzy at once looked out of the window and saw the man peering into the shop-door, as if exploring the premises.
Impelled by some presentiment of evil, Mr. Hardwick got up from the table, and sternly motioning the boys back, went down to the shop. As he came near the door, he saw the surveyor holding one end of the chain and taking sight upon a staff which the lawyer within was adjusting to its place by his direction.
"Just as I expected," said Squire Clamp, in a satisfied tone.
"An' jest as I expected," broke in Mr. Hardwick upon the astonished pair. "I knew th-that ef Squire Clamp hed anythin' to do against me, he wer-would sneak into the shop sus-some time when I'd ger-gone to dinner."
"We thought it would be most convenient, so as not to interrupt you about your work."
"Very ker-kind indeed! As ef you wa'n't tryin' to turn me out of wer-work altogether! But 'tisn't any yer-use, Squire; this is a case you can't be ber-both sides on."
The lawyer turned, with a placid smile, to his companion. "Mr. Gunter, I believe we have finished our measurements?"
The man of chain and compass nodded. Nothing abashed by the lawyer's cool manner, Mr. Hardwick turned to the surveyor, and asked if he undertook to say that Walter Kinloch's deed called for land that was covered by the shop?
"I suppose so," was the answer.
"An' now, Sus-squire Clamp," said Mr. Hardwick, "you know that it's sus-seventeen or eighteen year sence I per-pulled down the old shop and bought this land."
"Yes, but, unfortunately, it takes twenty years to give you title," put in the Squire.
"Nun-never mind that now. Squire Kinloch knew this,--at least, that there was room for der-difficulty; for we'd talked it over sus-several times afore he died. An' he allers said th-that he'd hev new deeds made out, so's to per-per-prevent just such a wrong as this. He didn't 'xpect to go so sus-sudden."
"I'm sorry, Brother Hardwick, to see you bringing up your talk with the lamented deceased, whom you represent as being willing to part with his legal rights without a consideration. Even if you had evidence of it, such an agreement would be a mere _nudum pactum_, binding neither upon himself nor his heirs."
"Squire Clamp! ger-get out of my shop! Fust to call me _Brother_, next to doubt my word, an' last to sus-say that a man's free an' der-deliberet promise--now he's where he can't sh-shame you into honesty--sha'n't be kept!"
The Squire smiled feebly. "You don't intend, Mister Hardwick, assault and battery, do you?"
"Yer-yes, ef you don't leave in q-q-q-quick time." And he strode up to the astonished attorney, his blue eyes flashing, his curly gray hair flying back from his forehead, like a lion's.
Squire Clamp retreated to the street, took sight each way to be sure he was off his antagonist's territory, and then vented his cautious resentment in such well-considered phrases as a long course of experience had taught him were not actionable at law, nor ground for discipline in church.
Prudence came to Uncle Ralph's aid, and he did not make further reply, but locked the shop-door and returned to the house to finish his dinner. The suit was commenced a few days afterwards. Mr. Hardwick went to the county seat, some dozen miles distant, and secured the aid of an able lawyer, who gave him hope of prevailing and keeping his shop.
The affair necessarily created a great stir in the busy little town. As the cheerful clatter of the trip-hammer echoed along the stream on still evenings, and the fiery plume waved over the chimney, neighbors looked out from their windows, and wondered if the good blacksmith would, after so many years of honest toil, be stripped of his property and be reduced to dependence in his old age. The sympathy of the villagers was wholly with him; but the lawyer held so many threads of interest in his hands, that few dared to give an opinion with much emphasis.
Probably the person most grieved and indignant was the one who, next after the blacksmith, was most interested in the event of the suit,--namely, Mildred Kinloch. Though no mention was made of the matter, at home, in her hearing, she could not fail to know what was going on; but she had now sufficient knowledge of her step-mother and her guardian to be aware that her influence would not be of the least avail in changing their purpose.
Mrs. Kinloch did not repeat the experiment she once made on Mildred's sensibilities by referring to her partiality for Mark Davenport and his relatives; but, on the contrary, was most gentle in her treatment and most assiduous in her endeavors to provide amusement, so far as the resources of the town allowed. In company with Hugh, Mildred explored all the pleasant roads in the vicinity, all the picturesque hills and brooks, caught trout, and snared gamebirds, (the last much against her will,)--and by these means her time was fully occupied. Hugh seemed to have totally changed; he no longer absented himself from the family on mysterious errands; he went to church regularly, and appeared to take pleasure in the frequent calls of Mr. Rook, the minister. The neighbors began to say that there never was a more dutiful son or a more attentive and affectionate brother. Some half suspected the reason of the reformation,--no one so quick as Squire Clamp, who had reasons of his own, as the reader knows, for wishing delay. After a few months had passed, he thought it would be dangerous to let the schemes of the widow go on longer without interruption, and accordingly prepared to make a step towards his own long-cherished purpose.
One afternoon, about six months after the opening of our story, Mrs. Kinloch and her son were talking together concerning the progress of his suit. He complained that he was no nearer the point than on the first day he and Mildred rode out together. "It was like rounding Cape Horn," he said, "where a ship might lie twenty days and drift back as fast as she got ahead by tacking." In spite of all his attention and kindness, Mildred was merely courteous in return;--he could not get near her. If she smiled, it seemed as though it was from behind a grating, as in a nunnery. Her pulse was always firm; and if her eye was soft, it was steady as the full moon. He didn't believe she had any blood in her. If she was in love with that fellow, she kept it pretty closely covered up.
Mrs. Kinloch encouraged her son to persevere; she was sure he had not been skilful. "Mildred," she said, "was not to be won with as little trouble as a silly, low-bred girl, like--like Lucy, for instance."
"What the deuse are you always bringing up Lucy to me for?" said the dutiful son.
"Don't speak so!"
"Confound it! I must. You keep a fellow shut up here for six months, going to meeting five times a week; you give him no chance to work off his natural spirits, and the devil in him will break out somewhere. It's putting a stopper in a volcano; if you don't allow a little fire and smoke, you're bound to have an earthquake."
After this philosophical digression, the first topic was resumed, and Mrs. Kinloch gave the young man some counsel, drawn from her own experience or observation, touching the proper mode of awakening and cultivating the tender passion. It is not every mother that does so much for her son, but then few mothers have so urgent a motive.
"_What_ was it that she advised him to do," did you ask? Really, I've quite forgotten; and I am sure Mrs. Kinloch forgot also, at least for that day, because something occurred which turned her thoughts for the time in quite a different direction.
The ponies were brought out for Hugh and Mildred to take their customary canter. The young heiress, for whom so much time and pains were spent, looked ill; the delicate flush had vanished from her cheek; she seemed languid, and cheerful only by effort. A moment after they had gone, as Mrs. Kinloch closed the door, for it was a raw November day, she saw and picked up a rudely-folded letter in the hall. "Good-bye, Lucy Ransom," were the words she read. They were enough. Mrs. Kinloch felt that her heart was struck by a bolt of ice. "Poor, misguided, miserable girl!" she said. "Why did I not see that something was wrong? I felt it, I knew it,--but only as one knows of evil in a dream. Who can calculate the mischief that will come of this? O God! to have my hopes of so many years ruined, destroyed, by a wretch whose power and existence even I had not once thought of! Has she drowned herself, or fled to the city to hide her disgrace? But if this should be imagination merely! She may have run away with some lubberly fellow from the factory, whom she was ashamed to marry at home. But no! she was too sad last evening when she asked to go to her grandmother's for a day. What if"--The thought coursed round her brain like fire on a train of gunpowder,--flew quicker than words could utter it; and the woman bounded to her bureau, as though with muscles of steel. She clutched at the papers and bank-notes in her private drawer, and looked and counted them over a dozen times before she could satisfy herself. Her thin fingers nervously opened the packages and folds,--the papers crackling as her eye glanced over them. They were there; but not _all_. She pored over the mystery,--her thoughts running away upon every side-avenue of conjecture, and as often returning to the frightful, remediless fact before her. She was faint with sudden terror. By degrees she calmed herself, wiped the cold sweat from her forehead, smiled at her fright, and sat down again, with an attempt at self-control, to look through the drawers thoroughly. As she went on, the tremor returned, and before she had finished the fruitless search her heart beat so as to stop her breath; she gasped in an agony that the soul rarely feels more than once in this life. She shut up the drawers, walked up and down the room, noticed with a shudder her own changed expression as she passed before the mirror, and strove in vain to give some order to her confused and tumultuous thoughts. At length she sat down exhausted. She was startled by a knock. Opening the door, there in a newly-furbished suit, with clean linen, and a brown wig worn for the first time on his hitherto shining head, stood Theophilus Clamp. He had even picked a blossom from the geranium in the hall and was toying with it like a bashful boy.
"A fine day, Ma'am!" said he, as he took a seat.
"Yes, very," she answered, mechanically, scarcely looking up.
"The young folks have gone out to ride, I suppose."
"Yes, Sir."--A pause, in which Mrs. Kinloch covered her face with her handkerchief.
"You don't seem well, Ma'am. Shall I call Lucy?"
"Lucy is gone," she answered,--quickly adding, "gone to her grandmother's."
"Well, that is singular. I've been today to look at my land above the old lady's house, and she asked me to send word to Lucy to come up and see her."
"Yes, Ma'am; not two hours ago."
Mrs. Kinloch was rapidly revolving probabilities. What interest had Lucy to interfere with her affairs? As for Mildred, she was not to be thought of as prying into secrets; she was too innocent. Hugh was too careless. Who more than this man Clamp was likely to have done or procured the mischief? "Have you given her the message?"
"Of course not, Ma'am,--how could I?"
"Then you haven't sent Lucy away on any errand?"
"Certainly not, Madam," said the lawyer, beginning to wince under the cross-examination. "Lucy's gone, you say; didn't she leave things all right,--your papers, and--and so forth?"
"Papers? Lucy is not presumed to know that I _have_ any papers; if any are missing, I'll warrant they are in the hands of some one who knows at least enough to read them."
"She suspects me," thought the lawyer, "but can't have discovered that hers are only copies; they're too well done." He then added aloud, "Perhaps, Mrs. Kinloch, if you had honored me, your associate in the administration of the estate, with your confidence touching the private papers you speak of, I might have saved you some trouble in keeping them."
"Very likely; but no one spoke of papers beside yourself," she replied, with a trace of sarcasm in the tone which ill suited the expression of her pallid face and drooping head.
"I'm sorry to see you looking so careworn, Mrs. Kinloch," said he, with his blandest air. "I intended to bring up a topic more agreeable, it is to be hoped, than runaway house-maids or old documents." He rubbed his hands softly and turned his eyes with a glance meant to be tender towards the place where her chair stood; if he had been a cat, he would have purred the while.
Mrs. Kinloch now, for the first time, observed the wig, the unusual look of tidiness, and, above all, the flower in his hand; she also saw the crucified smile that followed his last remark. "The ridiculous old fool!" thought she,--"what can he mean?" But to him she translated it,--
"What is the more agreeable topic?"
"Really, you attack me like a lawyer. Don't you know, my dear Madam, how it confuses one to be sharply interrogated?"
"It would be something novel to see you confused, Squire Clamp."
"Pray, don't banter, Mrs. Kinloch. I hoped to find you in a more complaisant humor. There are topics which cannot be discussed with the square precision of legal rules,--thoughts that require sympathy before they can be expressed." And he dropped his eyes with a ludicrous sigh.
"Oh, I appreciate your tender susceptibilities. Please consider me as asking the question again in the most engaging manner."
His new wig was becoming uncomfortable, and he fidgeted in his chair, twirling the luckless blossom.
"Why, Mrs. Kinloch, the long regard I entertained for your late lamented husband,--ah, I mean my regard for you,--ah, my lonely domicil,--ah, since the decease of my--my sainted wife,--ah, and since the Scripture says it is not good for man to live alone,--ah, your charming qualities and many virtues,--not that your fortune,--ah,--I mean to say, that, though not rich, I am not grasping,--and the cottage where you lived would be a palace,--ah, for me, if not unworthy,--ah, no desire to unduly shorten the period of mourning,--ah, but life is short and uncertain"----
There was a dead silence. His mouth was vainly working, and his expression confused and despairing. The flower had wilted in his moist hand. Little streams of perspiration trickled down his face, to be mopped up by his bandanna. Such was the ordeal of talking hollow sentiment to a cool and self-possessed woman. She enjoyed the exhibition for a time,--as what woman would not? But the waves of her trouble rushed back upon her, and the spirit of mischief and coquetry was overwhelmed. So she answered,--
"You are pleased to be polite,--perhaps gallant. You must excuse me from taking part in such conversation to-day, however little is meant by it,--and the less meant the better,--I am not well."
She rose feebly, and walked towards the door with as much dignity as her trembling frame could assume. He was abashed; his fine speeches jumbled in meaningless fragments, his airy castle ready to topple on his unlucky head. He would have been glad to rebuke her fickle humor, as he thought it; but he knew he had made a fool of himself, so he merely said,--
"No offence, I hope, Ma'am; none meant, certainly. Wish you good-afternoon, Ma'am. Call and see you again some day, and hope to find you better."
_Would_ he find her better? While the mystery remained, while the ruin of her hopes impended, what could restore to her the cheerfulness, the courage, the self-command she had lost?
[To be continued.]