Wrecked in Port/Book I, Chapter VIII

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Chapter VIII.Flitting.

Marian Ashurst dearly loved her home. To her concentrative and self-contained nature, local associations were peculiarly precious; the place in which she had lived the life so essentially her own was very dear. The shabby old house, though she perfectly understood its shabbiness, and would have prized the power of renovating and adorning it as thoroughly as any petite maîtresse would have prized the power of adorning her bijou residence with all the prettiness of modern upholstery, was a shrine in her eyes. Base and unbeautiful, but sacred, the place in which her father had dutifully and patiently passed his laborious life—had it not been wasted? the proud discontented spirit asked itself many a time, but found no voice to answer "no." She had often pictured to her fancy what the house might have been made, if there had but been money to make it anything with, money to do anything with; if only they had not always been so helpless, so burthened with the especially painful load of genteel poverty. She had exorcised her womanly ingenuity, put forth her womanly tastes, so far as she could, and the house was better than might have been expected under all the circumstances; but ingenuity and taste, which double the effect of money when united to that useful agency, are not of much avail without it, and will not supply curtains and carpet, paint, varnishing, and general upholstery. There was not a superfluous ornament, and there were many in the drawing-rooms at Woolgreaves, very offensive to her instinctively correct taste,—whose price would not have materially altered the aspect of Marian Ashurst's home, as she had recognised with much secret bitterness of spirit, on her first visit to the Creswells. She would have made the old house pretty and pleasant, if she could, especially while he lived, to whom its prettiness and pleasantness might have brought refreshment of spirit, and a little cheerfulness in the surroundings of his toilsome life; but she loved it, notwithstanding its dulness and its frigid shabbiness, and the prospect of being obliged to leave it gave her exquisite pain. Marian was surprised when she discovered that her feelings on this point were keener than those of her mother. She had anticipated, with shrinking and reluctance of whose intensity she felt ashamed, the difficulty she should experience when that last worst necessity must arise, when her mother must leave the home of so many years, and the scene of her tranquil happiness. Mrs. Ashurst had been a very happy woman, notwithstanding her delicate health, and the difficulties it had brought upon the little household. In the first place, she was naturally of a placid temperament. In the second, her husband told her as little as possible of the constantly pressing, hopelessly inextricable, trouble of his life. And lastly, Mrs. Ashurst's inexperience prevented her realising danger in the future, from any source except that one whence it had actually come, fallen in its fullest, most fatal might—the sickness and death of her husband. When that tremendous blow fell upon her, it stunned the widow. She could not grieve, she could not care about anything else. She was not a woman of an imaginative turn of mind; feeling had always been powerful and deep in her, but fancy had never been active, so that when the one awful and overwhelming fact existed, it was quite enough for her, it swamped everything else, it needed not to bring up any reinforcements to her discomfiture. She was ready to go anywhere, with Marian, to do anything which Marian advised, or directed. The old house was to be left, a new home was to be sought for. A stranger was coming to be the master where her husband's firm but gentle rule had made itself loved, respected, and obeyed, for so long; a stranger was to sit in her husband's seat, and move about the house where his step and his voice were heard no more, listened for no longer, not even now, in the first confused moments of waking after the blessed oblivion of sleep. And in that awful fact all was included.

Poor Mrs. Ashurst cared little for the linen and the china now. Whether they should be packed up and removed to the humble lodgings which were to be the next home of herself and her daughter, or whether Mr. Ashurst's successor should be asked to take them at a valuation, were points which she left to Marian's decision. She had not any interest in anything of the kind now. It was time that Marian's mind should be made up on these and other matters; and the girl, notwithstanding her premature gravity and her habit of decision, found her task difficult, in fact and sentiment. Her mother was painfully quiescent, hopelessly resigned. In every word and look she expressed plainly that life had come to a standstill for her, that she could no longer feel any interest or take any active part in its conduct; and thus she depressed Marian very much, who had her own sense of impending disappointment and imperative effort, in addition to their common sorrow, to struggle against.

Mrs. Ashurst and her daughter had seen a good deal of the family at Woolgreaves, since the day on which Marian's cherished belief in the value and delight of wealth had been strengthened by that visit to the splendid dwelling of her father's old friend. The young ladies had quite "taken to" Mrs. Ashurst, and Mrs. Ashurst had almost "taken to" them. They came into Helmingham frequently, and never without bringing welcome contributions from the large and lavishly kept gardens at Woolgreaves. They tried, in many girlish and unskilful ways, to be intimate with Marian; but they felt they did not succeed, and only their perception of their uncle's wishes prevented their giving up the effort. Marian was very civil, very much obliged for their kindness and attention; but un-cordial, "un-get-at-able," Maud Creswell aptly described it.

The condition of Mr. Ashurst's affairs had not proved to be quite so deplorable as had been supposed. There was a small insurance of his life; there were a few trifling sums due to him, which the debtors made haste to pay, owing, indeed, to the immediate application made to them by Mr. Creswell, who interfered as actively as unostentatiously on behalf of the bereaved woman; altogether a little sum remained, which would keep them above want, or the almost equally painful effort of immediate exertion to earn their own living, with management. Yes, that was the qualification, which Marian understood thoroughly, understood to mean daily and hourly self-denial, watchfulness, and calculation, and more and worse than that—the termination on her part of the hope of preventing her mother's missing the material comforts, which had been procured and preserved for her, by a struggle whose weariness she had never been permitted to comprehend.

The old house had been shabby and poor, but it had been comfortable. It had given them space and cleanliness, and there was no vulgarity in its meagreness. But the only order of lodgings to which her mother and she could venture to aspire was that which invariably combines the absence of space and of cleanliness with the presence of tawdriness and discomfort. And this must last until Walter should be able to rescue them from it. She could not suffice to that rescue herself, but he would. He must succeed! Had he not every quality, every facility, and the strongest of motives? She felt this—that, in her case, the strongest motive would have been the desire for success, per se; but in his the strongest was his love of her. She recognised this, she knew this, she admired it in an abstract kind of way; when her heart was sufficiently disengaged from pressing care to find a moment for any kind of joy, she rejoiced in it; but she knew she could not imitate it—that was not in her. She had not much experience of herself yet, and the process of self-analysis was not habitual to her; but she felt instinctively that the feebler, more selfish instincts of love were hers, its noble influences, its profounder motives, her lover's.

It was, then, to him she had to look, in him she had to trust, for the rescue that was to come in time. In how much time? In how little? Ah, there was the ever-present, ever-pressing question, and Marian brought to its perpetual repetition all the importance, all the unreasonable measurement of time, all the ignorance of its exceeding brevity and insignificance, inseparable from her youth.

She had nearly completed the preparations for departure from the old home; the few possessions left her and her mother were ready for removal; a lodging in the village had been engaged, and the last few days were dragging themselves heavily over the heads of Mrs. Ashurst and Marian, where Mr. Creswell, having returned to Woolgreaves after a short absence, came to see them.

Mrs. Ashurst was walking in the neglected garden, and had reached the far end of the little extent, when Mr. Creswell arrived at the open door of the house. A woman servant, stolid and sturdy, was passing through the red-tiled square hall.

"Is Miss Ashurst in?" asked the visitor. "Mrs. Ashurst is in the garden I see—don't disturb her."

Marian, who had heard the voice, answered Mr. Creswell's question by appearing on the threshold of the room which had been her father's study, and which since his death her mother and she had made their sitting-room. She looked weary; the too bright colour which fatigue brings to some faces was on hers, and her eyelids were red and heavy; her black dress, which had the limp ungraceful lustreless look of mourning attire too long unrenewed, hung on her fine upright figure, after a fashion which told how little the girl cared how she looked, and the hand she first held out to Mr. Creswell, and then drew back with a faint smile, was covered with dust.

"I can't shake hands," she said, "I have been tying up the last bundles of books and papers, and my hands are disgraceful. Come in here, Mr. Creswell; I believe there is one unoccupied chair."

He followed her into the study, and took the seat she pointed out, while she placed herself on a pile of folios which lay on the floor in front of the low wide window. Marian laid her arm upon the window sill, and leaned her head back against one of the scanty frayed curtains. Her eyes closed for a moment, and a slight shudder passed over her.

"You are very tired, Miss Ashurst, quite worn out," said Mr. Creswell; "you have been doing too much—packing all those books I suppose."

"Yes," said Marian, "I looked to that myself, and, indeed, there was nobody else to do it. But it is tiring work, and dirty,"—she struck her hands together, and shook her dress, so that a shower of dust fell from it—"and sad work besides. You know, Mr. Creswell," here her face softened suddenly, and her voice fell—"how much my father loved his books. It is not easy to say good-bye to them; it is like a faint echo, strong enough to pain one though, of the good-bye to himself."

"But why are you obliged to say good-bye to them?" asked Mr. Creswell, with genuine anxiety and compassion.

"What could we do with them?" said Marian; "there's no place to keep them. We must have taken another room specially for them, if we took them to our lodgings, and there's no one to buy them here. So we are going to send them to London to be sold; I suppose they will bring a very small sum indeed—nothing, perhaps, when the expenses are paid. But it is our only means of disposing of them. So I have been dusting and sorting and arranging them all day, and I am tired and dusty and sick—sick at heart."

Marian leaned her head on the arm which lay on the window sill, and looked very forlorn. She also looked very pretty, and Mr. Creswell thought so. This softened mood, so unusual to her, became her, and the little touch of confidence in her manner, equally unusual, flattered him. He felt an odd sort of difficulty in speaking to her. To this young girl, his old friend's orphan child, one to whom he intended so kindly, towards whom his position was so entirely one of patronage; not in any offensive sense, of course, but still of patronage.

"I—I never thought of this," he said, hesitatingly; "I ought to have remembered it, of course; no doubt the books must be a difficulty to you, a difficulty to keep, and a harder one to part with. But, bless me, my dear Miss Ashurst, you say there is no one here to buy them. You did not remember me? Why did you not remember me? Of course I will buy them. I shall be only too delighted to buy them, to have the books my good friend loved so much—of course I shall."

" I had seen your library at Woolgreaves," said Marian, replying to Mr. Creswell's first impetuous question, "and I could not suppose you wanted more books, or such shabby ones as these."

"You judge of books like a lady, then, though you were your father's companion as well as his pet," said Mr. Creswell, smiling. "Those shabby books are, many of them, much more valuable than my well-dressed shelf-fillers. And even if they were not, I should prize them for the same reason that you do, and almost as much—yes, Miss Ashurst, almost as much. Men are awkward about saying such things, but I may tell his daughter that but for James Ashurst I never should have known the value of books—in other than a commercial sense, I mean."

"I don't know what they are worth," said Marian, "but if you will find out, and buy them, my mother and I will be very thankful. I know it will be a great relief to her to think of them at Woolgreaves, and all together. She has fretted more about my father's books being dispersed, and going into the hands of strangers, than about any other secondary cause of sorrow. The other things she takes quietly enough."

The widow could be seen from the window by them both, as she pursued her monotonous walk in the garden, with her head bowed down and her figure so expressive of feebleness.

"Does she?" said Mr. Creswell. "I am very glad to hear that. Then"—and here Mr. Creswell gave a little sigh of relief—"we will look upon the matter of the books as arranged, and to-morrow I will send for them. Give yourself no further trouble about them. Fletcher shall settle it all."

"You will have them valued?" Marian asked, with business-like seriousness.

"Certainly," returned Mr. Creswell; "and now tell me what your plans are, and where these lodgings are to which you alluded just now. Maud and Gertrude have not seen you, they tell me, since you took them?"

"No," said Marian, without the least tone of regret in her voice; "we have not met since your visit to Manchester. Miss Creswell's cold has kept her at home, and I have been much too busy to get so far as Woolgreaves."

"Your mother has seen my nieces?"

"Yes; Miss Gertrude Creswell called, and took her for a drive, and she remained to lunch at Woolgreaves. But that was one day when I was lodging-hunting—nothing had then been settled."

"The girls are very fond of Mrs. Ashurst."

"They are very kind," said Marian, absently. The Misses Creswell were absolutely uninteresting to her, and as yet Marian Ashurst had never pretended to entertain a feeling she did not experience. The threshold of that particular school of life in which the art of feigning is learned lay very near her feet now, but they had not yet crossed it.

Marian and Mr. Creswell remained a long time together before Mrs. Ashurst came in. The girl spoke to the old gentleman with more freedom and with more feeling than on any previous occasion of their meeting; and Mr. Creswell began to think how interesting she was in comparison with Maud and Gertrude, for instance; how much sense she had, how little frivolity. How very good-looking she was, also; he had no idea she ever would have been so handsome—yes, positively handsome; he used the word in his thoughts, she certainly had not possessed anything like it when he had seen her formerly—a dark, prim, old-fashioned kind of girl, going about her father's study with an air of quiet appreciative sharpness and shrewdness, which he did not altogether like. But she really had become quite handsome, now, in her poor dress, with her grieved tired face, her hair carelessly pushed off it any way, and her hands rough and soiled; she had made him recognise and feel that she had the gift of beauty also.

Mr. Creswell thought about this when he had taken leave of Mrs. Ashurst and Marian, having secured their promise to come to Woolgreaves on the day but one after, when he hoped Marian would assist him in assigning places to the books, which she felt almost reconciled to part with under these new conditions. He thought about them a good deal, and tried to make out, among the dregs of his memory, who it was who had said, within his hearing, when Marian was a child, "Yes, she's a smart little girl, sure enough, and a dead hand at a bargain."

Marian Ashurst thought about Mr. Creswell after he left her and her mother. Mrs. Ashurst was very much relieved and gratified by his kindness about the books, as was Marian also. But the mother and daughter regarded the incident from different points of view. Mrs. Ashurst dwelt on the kindness of heart which dictated the purchase of the dead friend's books as at once a tribute to the old friendship and a true and delicate kindness to the survivors. Marian saw all that, but she dwelt rather on the felicitous condition which rendered it easy to indulge such impulses. Here was another instance, and in her favour, of the value of money.

"It has made more than one difference to me," she thought that night, when she was alone, and looked round the dismantled study; "it has made me like old Mr. Creswell, and hitherto I have only envied him."

"Do be persuaded, dear Mrs. Ashurst," said Maud Creswell, in a tone of sincere and earnest entreaty. She had made her appearance at the widow's house early on the day which succeeded her uncle's visit, and had presented, in her own and in her sister's name, as well as in that of Mr. Creswell, a petition, which she was now backing up with much energy. "Do come and stay with us. We are not going to have any company; there shall be nothing that you can possibly dislike. And Gerty and I will not tease you or Miss Ashurst; and you shall not be worried by Tom or anything. Do come, dear, dear Mrs. Ashurst; never mind the nasty lodgings; they can go on getting properly aired, and cleaned, and so on, until you are tired of Woolgreaves, and then you can go to them at any time. But not from your own house, where you have been so long, into that little place, in a street, too. Say you will come, now do."

Mrs. Ashurst was surprised and pleased. She recognised the girl's frank affection for her; she knew the generous kindness of heart which made her so eager to do her uncle's bidding, and secure a long visit to the splendid home he had given his nieces, to those desolate women. Nothing but a base mean order of pride could have revolted against the offer so made, and so pressed. Mrs. Ashurst yielded, and Maud Creswell returned to her uncle in high delight to announce that she had been successful in the object of her embassy.

"How delightful it will be to have the dear old lady here, Gerty," said Maud to her sister. "The more I see of her the better I like her, and I mean to be so kind and attentive to her. I think Miss Ashurst is too grave, and she always seems so busy and preoccupied: I don't think she can rouse her mother's spirits much."

"No, I think not," said Gertrude. "I like the old lady very much too; but I don't quite know about Miss Ashurst; I think the more I see of her, the less I seem to know her. You must not leave her altogether to me, Maud. I wonder why one feels so strange with her? Heigh-ho!" said the girl with a comical look, and a shake of her pretty head, "I suppose it's because she's so superior."

On the following day, Mrs. Ashurst and Marian took leave of their old home, and were conveyed in one of Mr. Creswell's carriages to Woolgreaves.