'Il y a une page effrayante dans le livre des destinées humaines; on y lit en tete ces motes—"les désirs accomplis"'
'Il y a une page effrayante dans le livre des destinées humaines; on y lit en tete ces motes—"les désirs accomplis"'
Alone and desolate, within hearing of the thunder of the waters of the North Sea, but not upon them, stand the ruins of Ramborough Abbey. Once there was a city at their feet, now the city has gone; nothing is left of its greatness save the stone skeleton of the fabric of the Abbey above and the skeletons of the men who built it mouldering in the earth below. To the east, across a waste of uncultivated heath, lies the wide ocean; and, following the trend of the coast northward, the eye falls upon the red roofs of the fishing village of Bradmouth. When Ramborough was a town, this village was a great port; but the sea, advancing remorselessly, has choked its harbour and swallowed up the ancient borough which to-day lies beneath the waters.
With that of Ramborough the glory of Bradmouth is departed, and of its priory and churches there remains but one lovely and dilapidated fane, the largest perhaps in the east of England—that of Yarmouth alone excepted—and, as many think, the most beautiful. At the back of Bradmouth church, which, standing upon a knoll at some distance from the cliff, has escaped the fate of the city that once nestled beneath it, stretch rich marsh meadows, ribbed with raised lines of roadway. But these do not make up all the landscape, for between Bradmouth and the ruins of Ramborough, following the indentations of the sea coast and set back in a fold or depression of the ground, lie a chain of small and melancholy meres, whose brackish waters, devoid of sparkle even on the brightest day, are surrounded by coarse and worthless grass land, the haunt of the shore-shooter, and a favourite feeding-place of curlews, gulls, coots and other wild-fowl. Beyond these meres the ground rises rapidly, and is clothed in gorse and bracken, interspersed with patches of heather, till it culminates in the crest of a bank that marks doubtless the boundary of some primeval fiord or lake, where, standing in a ragged line, are groups of wind-torn Scotch fir trees, surrounding a grey and solitary house known as Moor Farm.
The dwellers in these parts—that is, those of them who are alive to such matters—think that there are few more beautiful spots than this slope of barren land pitted with sullen meres and bordered by the sea. Indeed, it has attractions in every season: even in winter, when the snow lies in drifts upon the dead fern, and the frost-browned gorse shivers in the east wind leaping on it from the ocean. It is always beautiful, and yet there is truth in the old doggerel verse that is written in a quaint Elizabethan hand upon the fly-lead of one of the Bradmouth parish registers—
"Of Rambro', north and west and south, Man's eyes can never see enough; Yet winter's gloom or summer's light, Wide England hath no sadder sight."
And so it is; even in the glory of June, when lizards run across the grey stonework and the gorse shows its blaze of gold, there is a stamp of native sadness on the landscape which lies between Bradmouth and Ramborough, that neither the hanging woodlands to the north, nor the distant glitter of the sea, on which boats move to and fro, can altogether conquer. Nature set that seal upon the district in the beginning, and the lost labours of the generations now sleeping round its rotting churches have but accentuated the primal impress of her hand.
Though on the day in that June when this story opens, the sea shone like a mirror beneath her, and the bees hummed in the flowers growing on the ancient graves, and the larks sang sweetly above her head, Joan felt this sadness strike her heart like the chill of an autumn night. Even in the midst of life everything about her seemed to speak of death and oblivion: the ruined church, the long neglected graves, the barren landscape, all cried to her with one voice, seeming to say, "Our troubles are done with, yours lie before you. Be like us, be like us."
It was no high-born lady to whom these voices spoke in that appropriate spot, nor were the sorrows which opened her ears to them either deep or poetical. To tell the truth, Joan Haste was but a village girl, or, to be more accurate, a girl who had spent most of her life in a village. She was lovely in her own fashion, it is true—but of this presently; and, through circumstances that shall be explained, she chanced to have enjoyed a certain measure of education, enough to awaken longings and to call forth visions that perhaps she would have been happier without. Moreover, although Fate had placed her humbly, Nature gave to her, together with the beauty of her face and form, a mind which, if a little narrow, certainly did not lack for depth, a considerable power of will, and more than her share of that noble dissatisfaction without which no human creature can rise in things spiritual or temporal, and having which, no human creature can be happy.
Her troubles were vulgar enough, poor girl: a scolding and coarse-minded aunt, a suitor toward whom she had no longings, the constant jar of the talk and jest of the ale-house where she lived, and the irk of some vague and half-understood shame that clung to her closely as the ivy clung to the ruined tower above her. Common though such woes be, they were yet sufficiently real to Joan—in truth, their somewhat sordid atmosphere pressed with added weight upon a mind which was not sordid. Those misfortunes that are proper to our station and inherent to our fate we can bear, if not readily, at least with some show of resignation; those that fall upon us from a sphere of which we lack experience, or arise out of a temperament unsuited to its surroundings, are harder to endure. To be different from our fellows, to look upwards where they look down, to live inwardly at a mental level higher than our circumstances warrant, to desire that which is too far above us, are miseries petty in themselves, but gifted with Protean reproductiveness.
Put briefly, this was Joan's position. Her parentage was a mystery, at least so far as her father was concerned. Her mother was her aunt's younger sister; but she had never known this mother, whose short life closed within two years of Joan's birth. Indeed, the only tokens left to link their existences together were a lock of soft brown hair and a faded photograph of a girl not unlike herself, who seemed to have been beautiful. Her aunt, Mrs. Gillingwater, gave her these mementos of the dead some years ago, saying, with the brutal frankness of her class, that they were almost the only property that her mother had left behind her, so she, the daughter, might as well take possession of them.
Of this mother, however, there remained one other memento—a mound in the churchyard of the Abbey, where until quite recently the inhabitants of Ramborough had been wont to be laid to sleep beside their ancestors. This mound Joan knew, for, upon her earnest entreaty, Mr. Gillingwater, her uncle by marriage, pointed it out to her; indeed, she was sitting by it now. It had no headstone, and when Joan asked him why, he replied that those who were neither wife nor maid had best take their names with them six feet underground.
The poor girl shrank back abashed at this rough answer, nor did she ever return to the subject. But from this moment she knew that she had been unlucky in her birth, and though such an accident is by no means unusual in country villages, the sense of it galled her, lowering her in her own esteem. Still she bore no resentment against this dead and erring mother, but rather loved her with a strange and wondering love than which there could be nothing more pathetic. The woman who bore her, but whom she had never seen with remembering eyes, was often in her thoughts; and once, when some slight illness had affected the balance of her mind, Joan believed that she came and kissed her on the brow—a vision whereof the memory was sweet to her, though she knew it to be but a dream. Perhaps it was because she had nothing else to love that she clung thus to the impalpable, making a companion of the outcast dead whose blood ran in her veins. At the least this is sure, that when her worries overcame her, or the sense of incongruity in her life grew too strong, she was accustomed to seek this lowly mound, and, seated by it, heedless of the weather, she would fix her eyes upon the sea and soothe herself with a sadness that seemed deeper than her own.
Her aunt, indeed, was left to her, but from this relation she won no comfort. From many incidents trifling in themselves, but in the mass irresistible, Joan gathered that there had been little sympathy between her mother and Mrs. Gillingwater—if, in truth, their attitude was not one of mutual dislike. It would appear also that in her own case this want of affection was an hereditary quality, seeing that she found it difficult to regard her aunt with any feeling warmer than tolerance, and was in turn held in an open aversion, which to Joan's mind, was scarcely mitigated by the very obvious pride Mrs. Gillingwater took in her beauty. In these circumstances Joan had often wondered why she was not dismissed to seek her fortune. More than once, when after some quarrel she sought leave to go, she found that there was no surer path to reconciliation than to proffer this request; and speeches of apology, which, as she knew well, were not due to any softening of Mrs. Gillingwater's temper, or regret for hasty misbehaviour, were at once showered upon her.
To what, then, were they due? The question was one that Joan took some years to answer satisfactorily. Clearly not to love, and almost as clearly to no desire to retain her services, since, beyond attending to her own room, she did but little work in the way of ministering to the wants and comforts of the few customers of the Crown and Mitre, nor was she ever asked to interest herself in such duties.
Gradually a solution to the riddle forced itself onto Joan's intelligence—namely, that in some mysterious way her aunt and uncle lived on her, not she on them. If this were not so, it certainly became difficult to understand how they did live, in view of the fact that Mr. Gillingwater steadily consumed the profits of the tap-room, if any, and that they had no other visible means of subsistence. Yet money never seemed to be wanting; and did Joan need a new dress, or any other luxury, it was given to her without demur. More, when some years since she had expressed a sudden and spontaneous desire for education; after a few days' interval, which, it seemed to her, might well have been employed in reference to superior powers in the background, she was informed that arrangements had been made for her to be sent to a boarding school in the capital of the county. She went, to find that her fellow-pupils were for the most part the daughters of shopkeepers and large farmers, and that in consequence the establishment was looked down upon by the students of similar, but higher-class institutions in the same town, and by all who belonged to them. Joan being sensitive and ambitious, resented this state of affairs, though she had small enough right to do so, and on her return home informed her aunt that she wished to be taken away from that school and sent to another of a better sort. The request was received without surprise, and again there was a pause as though to allow of reference to others. Then she was told that if she did not like her school she could leave it, but that she was not to be educated above her station in life.
So Joan returned to the middle-class establishment, where she remained till she was over nineteen years of age. On the whole she was very happy there, for she felt that she was acquiring useful knowledge which she could not have obtained at home. Moreover, among her schoolfellows were certain girls, the daughters of poor clergymen and widows, ladies by birth, with whom she consorted instinctively, and who did not repel her advances.
At the age of nineteen she was informed suddenly that she must leave her school, though no hint of this determination had been previously conveyed to her. Indeed, but a day or two before her aunt had spoken of her return thither as if it were a settled thing. Pondering over this decision in much grief, Joan wondered why it had been arrived at, and more especially whether the visit that morning of her uncle's landlord, Mr. Levinger, who came, she understood, to see about some repairs to the house, had anything to do with it. To Mr. Levinger himself she had scarcely spoken half a dozen times in her life, and yet it seemed to her that whenever they met he regarded her with the keenest interest. Also on this particular occasion Joan chanced to pass the bar-parlour where Mr. Levinger was closeted with her aunt, and to overhear his parting words, or rather the tag of them—which was "too much of a lady," a remark that she could not help thinking had to do with herself. Seeing her go by, he stopped her, keeping her in conversation for some minutes, then abruptly turned upon his heel and left the house with the air of a man who is determined not to say too much.
Then it was that Joan's life became insupportable to her. Accustomed as she had become to more refined associations, from which henceforth she was cut off, the Crown and Mitre, and most of those connected with it, grew hateful in her sight. In her disgust she racked her brain to find some means of escape, and could think of none other than the time-honoured expedient of "going as a governess." This she asked leave to do, and the permission was accorded after the usual pause; but here again she was destined to meet with disappointment. Her surroundings and her attainments were too humble to admit of her finding a footing in that overcrowded profession. Moreover, as one lady whom she saw told her frankly, she was far too pretty for this walk of life. At length she did obtain a situation, however, a modest one enough, that of nursery governess to the children of the rector of Bradmouth, Mr. Biggen. This post she held for nine months, till Mr. Biggen, a kind-hearted and scholarly man, noting her beauty and intelligence, began to take more interest in her than pleased his wife—a state of affairs that resulted in Joan's abrupt dismissal on the day previous to the beginning of this history.
To come to the last and greatest of her troubles: it will be obvious that such a woman would not lack for admirers. Joan had several, all of whom she disliked; but chiefly did she detest the most ardent and persistent of them, the favoured of her aunt, Mr. Samuel Rock. Samuel Rock was a Dissenter, and the best-to-do agriculturalist in the neighbourhood, farming some five hundred acres, most of them rich marsh-lands, of which three hundred or more were his own property inherited and acquired. Clearly, therefore, he was an excellent match for a girl in the position of Joan Haste, and when it is added that he had conceived a sincere admiration for her, and that to make her his wife was the principal desire of his life, it becomes evident that in the nature of things the sole object of hers ought to have been to meet his advances half-way. Unfortunately this was not the case. For reasons which to herself were good and valid, however insufficient they may have appeared to others, Joan would have nothing to do with Samuel Rock. It was to escape from him that she had fled this day to Ramborough Abbey, whither she fondly hoped he would not follow her. It was the thought of him that made life seem so hateful to her even in the golden afternoon; it was terror of him that caused her to search out every possible avenue of retreat from the neighbourhood of Bradmouth.
She might have spared herself the trouble, for even as she sighed and sought, a shadow fell upon her, and looking up she saw Samuel Rock standing before her, hat in hand and smiling his most obsequious smile.
Mr. Samuel Rock was young-looking rather than young in years, of which he might have seen some thirty-five, and, on the whole, not uncomely in appearance. His build was slender for his height, his eyes were blue and somewhat shifty, his features sharp and regular except the chin, which was prominent, massive, and developed almost to deformity. Perhaps it was to hide this blemish that he wore a brown beard, very long, but thin and straggling. His greatest peculiarity, however, was his hands, which were shaped like those of a woman, were long, white notwithstanding their exposure to the weather, and adorned with almond-shaped nails that any lady might have envied. These hands were never still; moreover, there was something furtive and unpleasant about them, capable as they were of the strangest contortions. Mr. Rock's garments suggested a compromise between the dress affected by Dissenters who are pillars of their local chapel and anxious to proclaim the fact, and those worn by the ordinary farmer, consisting as they did of a long-tailed black coat rather the worse for wear, a black felt wide-awake, and a pair of cord breeches and stout riding boots.
"How do you do, Miss Haste?" said Samuel Rock, in his soft, melodious voice, but not offering to shake hands, perhaps because his fingers were engaged in nervously crushing the crown of his hat.
"How do you do?" answered Joan, starting violently. "How did you——" ("find me here," she was about to add; then, remembering that such a remark would show a guilty knowledge of being sought after, substituted) "get here?"
"I—I walked, Miss Haste," he replied, looking at his legs and blushing, as though there were something improper about the fact; then added, "You are quite close to my house, Moor Farm, you know, and I was told that—I thought that I should find you here."
"I suppose you mean that you asked my aunt, and she sent you after me?" said Joan bluntly.
Samuel smiled evasively, but made no other reply to this remark.
Then came a pause, while, with a growing irritation, Joan watched the long white fingers squeezing at the black wide-awake.
"You had better put your hat on, or you will catch cold," she suggested, presently.
"Thank you, Miss Haste, it is not what I am liable to—not but what I take it kindly that you should think of my health;" and he carefully replaced the hat upon his head in such a fashion that the long brown hair showed beneath it in a ragged fringe.
"Oh, please don't thank me," said Joan rudely, dreading lest her remark should be taken as a sign of encouragement.
Then came another pause, while Samuel searched the heavens with his wandering blue eyes, as though to find inspiration there.
"You are very fond of graves, Miss Haste," he said at length.
"Yes, Mr. Rock; they are comfortable to sit on—and I don't doubt very good beds to sleep in," she added, with a touch of grim humour.
Samuel gave a slight but perceptible shiver. He was a highly strung man, and, his piety notwithstanding, he did not appreciate the allusion. When you wish to make love to a young woman, to say the least of it, it is disagreeable if she begins to talk of that place whither no earthly love can follow.
"You shouldn't think of such things at your age—you should not indeed, Miss Haste," he replied; "there are many things you have got to think of before you think of them."
"What things?" asked Joan rashly.
Again Samuel blushed.
"Well—husbands, and—cradles and such-like," he answered vaguely.
"Thank you, I prefer graves," Joan replied with tartness.
By this time it had dawned upon Samuel that he was "getting no forwarder." For a moment he thought of retreat; then the native determination that underlay his soft voice and timid manner came to his aid.
"Miss Haste—Joan," he said huskily, "I want to speak to you."
Joan felt that the hour of trial had come, but still sought a feeble refuge in flippancy.
"You have been doing that for the last five minutes, Mr. Rock," she said; "and I should like to go home."
"No, no, not yet—not till you have heard what I have to say." And he made a quick movement as though to cut off her retreat.
"Well, be quick then," she answered, in a voice in which vexation and fear struggled for the mastery.
Twice Samuel strove to speak, and twice words failed him, for his agitation was very real. At last they came.
"I love you," he said, in an intense whisper. "By the God above you, and the dead beneath your feet, I love you, Joan, as you have never been loved before and never will be loved again!"
She threw her head back and looked at him, frightened by his passion. The realities of his declaration were worse than she had anticipated. His thin face was fierce with emotion, his sensitive lips quivered, and the long lithe fingers of his right hand played with his beard as though he were plaiting it. Joan grew seriously alarmed: she had never seen Samuel Rock look like this before.
"I am sorry," she murmured.
"Don't be sorry," he broke in; "why should you be sorry? It is a great thing to be loved as I love you, Joan, a thing that does not often come in the way of a woman, as you will find out before you die. Look here: do you suppose that I have not fought against this? Do you suppose that I wanted to fall into the power of a girl without a sixpence, without even an honest name? I tell you, Joan, I have fought against it and I have prayed against it since you were a chit of sixteen. Chance after chance have I let slip through my fingers for your sake. There was Mrs. Morton yonder, a handsome body as a man need wish for a wife, with six thousand pounds invested and house property into the bargain, who as good as told me that she would marry me, and I gave her the go-by for you. There was the minister's widow, a lady born, and a holy woman, who would have had me fast enough, and I gave her the go-by for you. I love you, Joan—I tell you that I love you more than land or goods, more than my own soul, more than anything that is. I think of you all day, I dream of you all night. I love you, and I want you, and if I don't get you then I may as well die for all the world is worth to me." And he ceased, trembling with passion.
If Joan had been alarmed before, now she was terrified. The man's earnestness impressed her artistic sense—in a certain rude way there was something fine about it—but it awoke no answer within her heart. His passion repelled her; she had always disliked him, now she loathed him. Swiftly she reviewed the position in her mind, searching a way of escape. She knew well enough that he had not meant to affront her by his references to her poverty and the stain upon her birth—that these truths had broken from him together with that great truth which animated his life; nevertheless, with a woman's wit putting the rest aside, it was on these unlucky sayings that she pounced in her emergency.
"How, Mr. Rock," she asked, rising and standing before him, "how can you ask me to marry you, for I suppose that is what you mean, when you throw my poverty—and the rest—in my teeth? I think, Mr. Rock, that you would do well to go back to Mrs. Morton, or the minister's widow who was born a lady, and to leave me in peace."
"Oh, don't be angry with me," he said, with something like a groan; "you know that I did not mean to offend you. Why should I offend you when I love you so, and want to win you? I wish that I had bitten out my tongue before I said that, but it slipped in with the rest. Will you have me, Joan? Look here: you are the first that ever I said a sweet word to, and that ought to go some way with a woman; and I would make you a good husband. There isn't much that you shall want for if you marry me, Joan. If any one had told me when I was a youngster that I should live to go begging and craving after a woman in this fashion, I'd have said he lied; but you have put me off, and pushed me aside, and given me the slip, till at length you have worked me up to this, and I can't live without you—I can't live without you, that's the truth."
"But I am afraid you will have to, Mr. Rock," said Joan more gently, for the tears which trembled in Samuel's light blue eyes touched her somewhat; and after all, although he repelled her, it was flattering that any man should value her so highly: "I do not love you."
His chin dropped upon his breast dejectedly. Presently he looked up and spoke again.
"I did not expect that you would," he said: "it had been too much luck for a miserable sinner. But be honest with me, Joan—if a woman can—and tell me, do you love anybody else?"
"Not a soul," she answered, opening her brown eyes wide. "Who is there that I should love here?"
"Ah! that's it," he answered, with a sigh of relief: "there is nobody good enough for you in these parts. You are a lady, however you were born, and you want to mate with your own sort. It is no use denying it: I have watched you, and I've seen how you look down upon us; and all I've got to say is:—Be careful that it does not bring you into trouble. Still, while you don't love anybody else—and the man you do love had better keep out of my way, curse him!—there is hope for me. Look here, Joan: I don't want to press you—take time to think it over. I'm in no hurry. I could wait five years if I were sure of getting you at last. I dare say I frightened you by my roughness: I was a fool; I should have remembered that it is all new to you, though it is old enough for me. Listen, Joan: tell me that I may wait awhile and come again—though, whether you tell me or not, I shall wait and I shall come, while there is breath in my body and I can find you out."
"What's the use?" said Joan. "I don't love you, and love does not grow with waiting; and if I do not love you, how can I marry you? We had better make an end of the business once and for all. I am very sorry, but it is not been my fault."
"What's the use? Why, all in the world! In time you will come to think differently; in time you will learn that a Christian man's honest love and all that goes with it isn't a thing to be chucked away like dirty water; in time, perhaps, your aunt and uncle will teach you reason about it, though you do despise me since you went away for your fine schooling——"
"Oh, don't tell them!" broke in Joan imploringly.
"Why, I have told them. I spoke to your aunt this very day about it, and she wished me God-speed with all her heart, and I am sure she will be vexed enough when she hears the truth."
As Joan heard these words her face betrayed the perturbation of her mind. Her aunt's fury when she understood that she, Joan, had rejected Samuel Rock would indeed be hard to bear. Samuel, watching, read her thoughts, and, growing cunning in his despair, was not slow to turn them to his advantage.
"Listen, Joan," he said: "say that you will take time to think it over, and I will make matters easy for you with Mrs. Gillingwater. I know how to manage her, and I promise that not a rough word shall be said to you. Joan, Joan, it is not much to ask. Tell me that I may come again for my answer in six months. That can't hurt you, and it will be hope to me."
She hesitated. A warning sense told her that it would be better to have done with this man at once; but then, if she obeyed it, the one thing which she truly feared—her aunt's fury—would fall upon her and crush her. If she gave way, on the other hand, she knew well enough that Samuel would shelter her from this storm for his own sake if not for hers. What could it matter, she argued weakly, if she did postpone her final decision for six months? Perhaps before that time she might be able to escape from Bradmouth and Samuel Rock, and thus avoid the necessity of giving any answer.
"If I do as you wish, will you promise not to trouble me, or interfere with me, or to speak to me about this kind of thing in the meanwhile?" she asked.
"Yes; I swear that I will not."
"Very good: have your own way about it, Mr. Rock; but understand that I do not mean to encourage you by this, and I don't think it likely that my answer six months hence will be any different from what it is to-day."
"I understand, Joan."
"Very well, then: good-bye." And she held out her hand.
He took it, and, overmastered by a sudden impulse, pressed it to his lips and kissed it twice or thrice.
"Leave go," she said, wrenching herself free. "Is that the way you keep your promise?"
"I beg your pardon," he answered humbly. "I could not help it—Heaven knows that I could not help it. I will not break my word again." And he turned and left her, walking through the grass of the graves with a slow and somewhat feline step.
At last he was gone, and Joan sat down once more, with a gasp of relief. Her first feelings were those of exultation at being rid of Mr. Rock; but they did not endure. Would he keep his promise, she wondered, and hide from her aunt the fact that he had proposed and been rejected? If he did not, one thing was clear to her—that she would be forced to fly from Bradmouth, since by many a hint she knew well that it was expected of her that she should marry Samuel Rock, who was considered to have honoured her greatly by his attentions. This, in view of their relative social positions in the small society of Bradmouth, was not wonderful; but Joan's pride revolted at the thought.
"After all this," she said aloud, "how is he so much higher than I am? and why should my aunt always speak of him as though he were a king and I a beggar girl? My blood is as good as his, and better," and she glanced at a row of ancient tombstones, whereof the tops were visible above the herbage of rank grass, yellow crowsfoot, and sheep's-parsley still white with bloom, that marked the resting-places of the Lacons.
These Lacons had been yeoman farmers for many generations, until the last of them, Joan's grandfather, took to evil courses and dissipated his ancestral patrimony, the greater part of which was now in the possession of Samuel Rock.
Yes, that side of her pedigree was well enough, and were it not for the mystery about her father she could have held her head up with the best of them. Oh, it was a bitter thing that, through no fault of her own, Samuel Rock should be able to reproach her with her lack of an "honest name"! So it was, however—she was an outcast, a waif and a stray, and it was useless to cloak this fact. But, outcast or no, she was mistress of herself, and would not be driven into marriage, however advantageous, with Samuel Rock or any other man who was repellent to her.
Having come to this conclusion, Joan's spirits rose. After all, she was young and healthy, and, she believed, beautiful, with the wide world before her. There were even advantages in lacking an "honest name," since it freed her from responsibilities and rendered it impossible for her to disgrace that which she had not got. As it was, she had only herself to please in the world, and within reasonable and decent limits Joan meant to please herself. Most of all did she mean to do so in connection with these matters of the heart. Nobody had ever loved her, and she had never found anybody to love; and yet, as in all true women, love of one sort or another was the great desire and necessity of her life. Therefore on this point she was determined: she would never marry where she could not love.
Thus thought Joan; then, weary of the subject, she dismissed it from her mind for a while, and, lying back upon the grass in idle contentment, watched the little clouds float across the sky till, far out to sea, they melted into the blue of the horizon. It was a perfect afternoon, and she would enjoy what was left of it before she returned to Bradmouth to face Samuel Rock and all her other worries. Grasshoppers chirped in the flowers at her feet, a beautiful butterfly flitted from tombstone to grey tombstone, sunning itself on each, and high over her head flew the jackdaws, taking food to their young in the crumbling tower above.
For a while Joan watched these jackdaws through her half-shut eyes, till suddenly she remembered that her late employer Mr. Biggen's little boy had confided to her his ardent desire for a young bird of that species, and she began to wonder if she could reach the nest and rob it as a farewell gift to him.
Speculation led to desire, and desire to endeavour. The ruined belfry stairway still ran up the interior of the tower for twenty feet or more—to a spot, indeed, in the stonework where a huge fragment of masonry had fallen bodily, leaving a V-shaped opening that reached to the battlements. Ivy grew upon this gap in the flint rubble, and the nest of the two jackdaws that Joan had been watching particularly, did not appear to be more than a dozen feet above the top of the broken stair. This stair she proceeded to climb without further hesitation. It was not at all safe, but she was active, and her head being good, she reached the point where it was broken away without accident, and, taking her stand on the thickness of the wall, supported herself by the ivy and looked up. There, twice her own height above her, was the window slit with the nest in it, but the mortar and stone upon which she must cling to reach it looked so crumbling and insecure that she did not dare to trust herself to them. So, having finished her inspection, Joan decided to leave those young jackdaws in peace and descend to earth again.
It was at this juncture that Captain Henry Archibald Graves, R.N., pursuing his way by the little-frequented sea road that runs along the top of the cliff past the Ramborough ruins to Bradmouth, halted the cob on which he was riding in order that he might admire the scene at leisure. Presently his eyes, following the line of the ruined tower, lit upon the figure of a girl standing twenty feet from the ground in a gap of the broken wall. He was sixty yards away or more, but there was something so striking and graceful about this figure, poised on high and outlined against the glow of the westering sun, that his curiosity became excited to know whose it was and what the girl might be doing. So strongly was it excited, indeed, that, after a fateful moment of hesitation, Captain Graves, reflecting that he had never examined Ramborough Abbey since he was a boy, turned his horse and rode up the slope of broken ground that intervened between him and the churchyard, where he dismounted and made the bridle fast to a stunted thorn. Possibly the lady might be in difficulty or danger, he explained to himself.
When he had tied up the cob to his satisfaction, he climbed the bank whereon the thorn grew, and reached the dilapidated wall of the churchyard, whence he could again see the lower parts of the tower which had been hidden from his view for a while by the nature of the ground. Now the figure of the woman that had stood there was gone, and a genuine fear seized him lest she should have fallen. With some haste he walked to the foot of the tower, to halt suddenly within five paces of it, for before him stood the object of his search. She had emerged from behind a thicket of briars that grew among the fallen masonry; and, holding her straw hat in her hand, was standing with her back towards him, gazing upwards at the unattainable nest.
"She is safe enough, and I had better move on," thought Captain Graves.
At that moment Joan seemed to become aware of his presence; at any rate, she wheeled round quickly, and they were face to face.
She started and blushed—perhaps more violently than the occasion warranted, for Joan was not accustomed to meet strange men of his class thus unexpectedly. Captain Graves scarcely noticed either the start or the blush, for, to tell the truth, he was employed in studying the appearance of the loveliest woman that he had ever beheld. Perhaps it was only to him that she seemed lovely, and others might not have rated her so highly; perhaps his senses deceived him, and Joan was not truly beautiful; but, in his judgment, neither before nor after did he see her equal, and he had looked on many women in different quarters of the world.
She was tall, and her figure was rounded without being coarse, or even giving promise of coarseness. Her arms were somewhat long for her height, and set on to the shoulders with a peculiar grace, her hands were rather thin, and delicately shaped, and her appearance conveyed an impression of vigour and perfect health. These gifts, however, are not uncommon among English girls. What, to his mind, seemed uncommon was Joan's face as it appeared then, in the beginning of her two-and-twentieth year, with its curved lips, its dimpled yet resolute chin, its flawless oval, its arched brows, and the steady, tender eyes of deepest brown that shone beneath them. For the rest, her head was small and covered with ripping chestnut hair gathered into a knot at the back, her loose-bodied white dress, secured about the waist with a leather girdle, was clean and simple, and her bearing had a grace and dignity that Nature alone can give. Lastly, though from various indications he judged that she did not belong to his own station in life, she looked like a person of some refinement.
Such was Joan's outward appearance. It was attractive enough, and yet it was not her beauty only that fascinated Henry Graves. There was something about this girl which was new to him; a mystery more beautiful than beauty shone upon her sweet face—such a mystery as he had noted once or twice in the masterpieces of ancient art, but never till that hour on human lips or eyes. In those days Joan might have posed as a model of Psyche before Cupid kissed her.
Now let us turn for a moment to Henry Archibald Graves, the man destined to be the hero of her life's romance.
Like so many sailors, he was short, scarcely taller than Joan herself indeed, and stout in build. In complexion he was fair, though much bronzed by exposure to foreign climates; his blue eyes were keen and searching, as might be expected in one who had watched at sea by night for nearly twenty years; and he was clean shaved. His features were good though strongly marked, especially as regards the nose and chin; but he could not be called handsome, only a distinguished-looking man of gentlemanly bearing. At first sight the face might strike a stranger as hard, but more careful examination showed it to be rather that of a person who made it a practice to keep guard over his emotions. In repose it was a somewhat proud face, that of one accustomed to command and to be obeyed; but frank and open withal, particularly if its owner smiled, when it became decidedly pleasing.
For a few seconds they stood still in their mutual surprise, looking at each other, and the astonishment and admiration written in the stranger's eyes were so evident, and yet so obviously involuntary, that Joan blushed more deeply than before.
Captain Graves felt the situation to be awkward. His first impulse was to take off his hat and go, his next and stronger one to stay and explain.
"I really beg your pardon," he said, with a shyness which was almost comic; "I saw a lady standing on the tower as I was riding by, and feared that she might be in difficulties."
Joan turned her head away, being terribly conscious of the blush which would not fade. This stranger's appearance pleased her greatly; moreover, she was flattered by his notice, and by the designation of "lady." Hitherto her safety had not been a matter of much moment to any one, except, perhaps, to Samuel Rock.
"It is very kind of you," she answered, with hesitation; "but I was in no danger—I got down quite easily."
Again Captain Graves paused. He was puzzled. The girl's voice was as sweet as her person—low and rich in tone—but she spoke with a slight Eastern-counties accent. Who and what was she?
"Then I must apologise for troubling you, Miss— Miss——?"
"I am only Joan Haste of Bradmouth, sir," she interrupted confusedly, as though she guessed his thoughts.
"Indeed! and I am Captain Graves of Rosham—up there, you know. Bradmouth is—I mean, is the view good from that tower?"
"I think so; but I did not go up to look at it. I went to try to get those young jackdaws. I wanted them for a little boy in Bradmouth, the clergyman's son."
"Ah!" he said, his face lighting up, for he saw an opportunity of prolonging the acquaintance, which interested him not a little; "then perhaps I may be of service after all. I think that I can help you there." And he stepped towards the tower.
"I don't believe that it is quite safe, sir," said Joan, in some alarm; "please do not take the trouble,"—and she stretched out her hand as though to detain him.
"Oh, it is no trouble at all, I assure you: I like climbing. You see, I am well accustomed to it. Once I climbed the second Pyramid, the one with the casing on it, though I won't try that again," he replied, with a pleasant laugh. And before she could interfere further he was mounting the broken stair.
At the top of it Henry halted, surveying the crumbling slope of wall doubtfully. Then he took his coat off, threw it down into the churchyard, and rolled his shirt sleeves up above his elbows, revealing a pair of very powerful and fair-skinned arms.
"Please don't—please!" implored Joan from below.
"I am not going to give in now," he answered; and, grasping a firm and projecting stone with his right hand, he set his foot upon a second fragment and began the ascent of the broken wall. Soon he reached the head of the slope in safety, but only to be encountered by another difficulty. The window slit containing the jackdaws' nest was round the corner, a little above him on the surface of the wall, and it proved impossible to reach it from where he stood. Very cautiously he bent to one side and looked round the angle of the masonry. Close to him a strong stem of ivy grew up the tower, dividing into two branches some five feet below the nest. He knew that it would be dangerous to trust his weight to it, and still more dangerous to attempt the turning of the corner; but at this moment he was more set upon getting the young birds which this village beauty desired, than on his own safety or any other earthly thing. Henry Graves was a man who disliked being beaten.
Very swiftly he shifted his hold, and, stretching out his left hand, he felt about until it gripped the ivy stem. Now he must go on. Exactly how it happened would be difficult to describe on paper, but in two more seconds his foot was in the fork of ivy and his face was opposite to the window slit containing the nest.
"I can see the young ones," he said. "I will throw them out, and you must catch them in your hat, for I can't carry them."
"Oh! pray take care," gasped Joan.
He laughed by way of answer; and next second, with loud squawks and an impotent flapping of untried wings, a callow jackdaw was launched upon its first flight, to be deftly caught in Joan's broad hat before it touched the earth. A second followed, then another, and another. The last bird was the strongest of the four, and flew some yards in its descent. Joan ran to catch it—a process that took a little time, for it lay upon its back behind a broken tombstone, and pecked at her hand in a fashion necessitating its envelopment in her handkerchief. Just as she secured it she heard Captain Graves say: "That's the lot. Now I am coming down."
Next instant there was a sound as of something being torn. Joan looked up, to see him hanging by one arm against the sheer face of the tower. In attempting to repass the corner Henry's foot had slipped, throwing all his weight on to the stem of ivy which he held; but it was not equal to the strain, and a slab of it had come away from the wall. To this ivy he clung desperately, striving to find foothold with his heels, his face towards her, for he had swung round. Uttering a low cry of fear, Joan sped back to the tower like a swallow. She knew that he must fall; but that was not the worst of it, for almost immediately beneath where he hung stood a raised tomb shaped like a stone coffin, having its top set thickly with rusted iron spikes, three inches or more in length, especially designed to prevent the idle youth of all generations from seating themselves upon this home of the dead.
If he struck upon these!
Joan rushed round the spiked tomb, and halted almost, but not quite, beneath Henry's hanging shape. His eyes fell upon her agonised and upturned face.
"Stand clear! I am coming," he said in a low voice.
Watching, she saw the muscles of his arm work convulsively. Then the rough stem of ivy began to slip through his clenched fingers. Another second, and he dropped like a stone from a height of twenty feet or more. Instinctively Joan stretched out her arms as though to catch him; but he struck the ground legs first just in front of her, and, with a sharp exclamation, pitched forward against her.
The shock was tremendous. Joan saw it coming, and prepared to meet it as well as she might by bending her body forward, since, at all hazards, he must be prevented from falling face foremost on the spiked tomb, there to be impaled. His brow cut her lip almost through, his shoulder struck her bosom, knocking the breath out of her, then her strong arms closed around him like a vice, and down they went together.
All this while her mind remained clear. She knew that she must not go down backwards, or the fate from which she strove to protect him would overtake her—the iron spikes would pierce her back and brain. By a desperate effort she altered the direction of their fall, trusting to come to earth alongside the tomb. But she could not quite clear it, as a sudden pang in the right shoulder told her. For a moment they lay on the edge of the tomb, then rolled free. Captain Graves fell undermost, his head striking with some violence on a stone, and he lay still, as did Joan for nearly a minute, since her breath was gone.
Presently the pain of breathlessness passed a little, and she began to recover. Glancing at her arm, she saw that a stream of blood trickled along her sleeve, and blood from her cut lips was falling on the bosom of her dress and upon the forehead of Henry Graves beneath her, staining his white face.
"Oh, he is dead!" mourned Joan aloud; "and it is my fault."
At this moment Henry opened his eyes. Apparently he had overheard her, for he answered: "Don't distress yourself: I am all right."
As he spoke, he tried to move his leg, with the result that a groan of agony broke from him. Glancing at the limb, Joan saw that it was twisted beneath him in a fashion so unnatural that it became evident even to her inexperience that it must be broken. At this discovery her distress overpowered her to so great an extent that she burst into tears.
"Oh! your leg is broken," she sobbed. "What shall I do?"
"I think," he whispered, with a ghastly smile, biting his lips to keep back any further expression of his pain, "that you will find a flask in my coat pocket, if you do not mind getting it."
Joan rose from her knees, and going to the coat, which lay hard by, took from it a little silver flask of whiskey-and-water; then, returning, she placed one arm beneath the injured man's head and with the other contrived to pour some of the liquid down his throat.
"Thank you," he said: "I feel better"; then suddenly fainted away.
In great alarm she poured some more of the spirit down his throat; for now a new terror had taken her that he might be suffering from internal injuries also. To her relief, he came to himself again, and caught sight of the red stain growing upon her white dress.
"You are hurt," he said. "What a selfish fellow I am, thinking only of myself!"
"Oh, don't think of me," Joan answered: "it is nothing—a mere scratch. What is to be done? How can I get you from here? Nobody lives about, and we are a long way from Bradmouth."
"There is my horse," he murmured, "but I fear that I cannot ride him."
"I will go," said Joan; "yet how can I leave you by yourself?"
"I shall get on for a while," Henry answered. "It is very good of you."
Then, since there was no help for it, Joan rose, and running to where the horse was tied, she loosed it. But now a new difficulty confronted her; her wounded arm was already helpless and painful, and without its aid she could not manage to climb into the saddle, for the cob, although a quiet animal enough, was not accustomed to a woman's skirts, and at every effort shifted itself a foot or two away from her. At length, Joan, crying with pain, grief and vexation, determined to abandon the attempt and to set out for Bradmouth on foot, when for the first time fortune favoured her in the person of a red-haired lad whom she knew well, and who was returning homewards from an expedition in search of the eggs of wild-fowl.
"Oh! Willie Hood," she cried, "come and help me. A gentleman has fallen from the tower yonder and broken his leg. Now do you get on this horse and ride as hard as you can to Dr. Child's, and tell him that he must come out here with some men, and a door or something to carry him on. Mind you say his leg is broken, and that he must bring things to tie it up with. Do you understand?"
"Why you're all bloody!" answered the boy, whose face betrayed his bewilderment; "and I never did ride a horse in my life."
"Yes, yes, I am hurt too; but don't think of that. You get on to him, and you'll be safe enough. Why, surely you're not afraid, Willie Hood?"
"Afraid? No, I aren't afraid," answered the boy, colouring, "only I like my legs better than his'n, that's all. Here goes." And with a prodigious and scuffling effort Willie landed himself on the back of the astonished cob.
"Stop," said Joan; "you know what to say?"
"Yes," he answered proudly; "don't you fret—I know right enough. I'll bring the doctor back myself."
"No, Willie: you go on to the Crown and Mitre, and tell my aunt that a gentleman, Captain Graves of Rosham, has hurt himself badly, and that she must get a room ready for him. It had best be mine, for it's the nicest," she added, "and there is nowhere else that he can go."
Willie nodded, and with a loud "gee-up" to the horse, started on his journey, his legs hanging clear of the stirrups, and gripping the pommel of the saddle with his right hand.
Having watched him disappear, Joan returned to where the wounded man lay. His eyes were shut, but apparently he heard her come, for presently he opened them.
"What, back so soon?" he said; "I must have been asleep."
"No, no: I could not leave you. I found a boy and sent him on the horse for the doctor. I only trust that he may get there safely," she added to herself.
"Very well: I am glad you have come back," he said faintly. "I am afraid that I am giving you a great deal of trouble, but do you mind rubbing my hand? It feels so cold."
She sat down on the grass beside him, having first wrapped his coat round him as best she could, and began to chafe his hand. Presently the pain, which had subsided for a while, set in more sharply than ever, and his fingers, that had been like ice, were now burning hot. Another half-hour passed, while the shadows lengthened and the evening waned, and Henry's speech became incoherent. He fancied himself on board a man-of-war, and uttered words of command; he talked of foreign countries, and mentioned many names, among them one that was not strange to Joan's ears—that of Emma Levinger; lastly even he spoke of herself:
"What a lovely girl!" he muttered. "It's worth risking one's neck to please her. Worth risking one's neck to please her!"
A third half-hour passed; the fever lessened, and he grew silent. Then the cold fit took him again—his flesh shivered.
"I am frozen," he murmured through his chattering teeth; "for Heaven's sake help me! Can't you see how cold I am?"
Joan was in despair. Alas and alas! she had nothing to put on him, for even if she took it off, her thin white dress would be no protection. Again and again he prayed for warmth, till at length her tender pity overcame her natural shrinking, and she did the only thing she could. Lying down beside him, she put her arms about him, and held him so, to comfort him if she might.
Apparently it did comfort him, for his moaning ceased, and by slow degrees he sank into stupor. Now twilight was upon them, and still no help came. Where could Willie have gone, Joan wondered: if, he did not come quickly, the man would surely die! Her own strength was failing her—she felt it going with the blood that ebbed continually from the wound in her shoulder. Periods of mist and oblivion alternated in her mind with times of clearest reason. Quick they came and quicker, till at last all was a blank and she knew no more.
And now the twilight had grown into darkness, and these two lay silent, locked in each other's arms among the graves, and the stars shed their light upon them.
Henry Graves, a man of thirty-three years of age, was the second and only surviving son of Sir Reginald Graves, of Rosham Hall, a place situated about four miles from Bradmouth. When a lad he chose the Navy as a profession, and to that profession he clung with such unusual earnestness, that during the last eighteen years or so but little of his time had been passed at home. Some months previous to his meeting with Joan Haste, however, very much against his own will, he was forced to abandon his calling. He was cruising in command of a gunboat off the coast of British Columbia, when one evening a telegram reached him informing him of the death of his elder brother, Reginald, who met his end through an accident whilst riding a steeplechase. There had never been much sympathy or affection between the two brothers, for reasons to be explained presently; still this sudden and terrible intelligence was a heavy shock to Henry, nor did the fact that it left him heir to an entailed property, which he believed to be considerable, greatly mitigate it in his mind.
When there are but two sons, it is almost inevitable that one should be preferred before the other. Certainly that was the case in the Graves family. As children Reginald, the elder, had been wayward, handsome, merry and attractive; whereas Henry was a somewhat plain and silent boy, with a habit of courting his own society, and almost aggressive ideas of honour and duty. Naturally, therefore, the love of father, mother and sister went out to the brilliant Reginald, while Henry was left very much to his own devices. He said nothing, and he was too proud to be jealous, but nobody except the lad himself ever knew what he suffered under this daily, if unintentional, neglect. Though his constitutional reserve prevented him from showing his heart, in truth he was very affectionate, and almost adored the relations who looked on him as a dullard, and even spoke of him at times as "poor Henry," as though he were deficient in intellect.
Thus it came about that very early in his young life, with characteristic determination, Henry arrived at the conclusion that he would be happier away from the home where he was little wanted. Once in the Navy, he applied himself to his profession with industry and intelligence, and as a result did better in the service than most young men who cannot bring to their support any particular interest, or the advantage of considerable private means. In whatever capacity he served, he won the confidence and the respect both of his subordinates and of his superiors. He was a hard-working man, so hard work was thrust upon him; and he never shirked it, though often enough others got the credit of his efforts. At heart, moreover, he was ambitious. Henry could never forget the slights that he had experienced as a child, and he was animated by a great but secret desire to show the relatives who disparaged him in favour of his more showy brother that he was made of better stuff than they were disposed to believe.
To this purpose he subordinated his life. His allowance was small, for their father's means were not in proportion to his nominal estate, and as time went on his brother Reginald grew more and more extravagant. But, such as it was, Henry never exceeded it, though few were aware of the straits to which he was put at times. In the same way, though by nature he was a man of strong passions and genial temperament, he rarely allowed either the one or the other to master him. Geniality meant expense, and he observed that indulgence in passion of any sort, more especially if it led to mixing with the other sex, spelt anxiety and sorrow at the best, or at the worst disgrace and ruin. Therefore he curbed these inclinations till what began in the pride of duty ended in the pride of habit.
Thus time wore on till he received the telegram announcing his brother's shocking death. A fortnight or so afterwards it was followed by a letter from his father, a portion of which may be transcribed. It began:
"My dear Henry,—
"My telegram has informed you of the terrible loss which has overtaken our family. Your brother Reginald is no more; it has pleased Providence to remove him from the world in the fulness of his manhood, and we must accept the fact that we cannot alter with such patience as we may."
Here followed particulars of the accident, and of arrangements for the interment. The letter went on:
"Your mother and sister are prostrated, and for myself I can only say that my heart is broken. Life is a ruin to me henceforward, and I think that when the time comes I shall welcome its close. It does indeed seem cruel that one so brilliant and so beloved as your brother should be snatched from us thus, but God's will be done. Though you have been little together of late years, I know that we shall have your sympathy in our overwhelming sorrow.
"To turn to other matters, of which this event makes it necessary that I should speak: of course your beloved brother's death puts you in the place he held—that is, so far as temporal things are concerned. I may as well tell you at once that the finances of this property are in great confusion. Latterly Reginald had the largest share in its management, and as yet I cannot therefore follow all the details. It seems, however, that, speaking generally, affairs are much worse than I supposed, and already, though he lies unburied, some very heavy claims have come in against his estate, which of course must be met for the honour of the family.
"And now, my dear boy, I—or rather your mother, your sister, and I—must ask you to make a sacrifice, should you look at it in that light: namely, to give up your profession and take the place at home to which the death of your brother has promoted you. This request is not made lightly; but, as you know, my health is now very feeble, and I find myself quite unable to cope with the difficulties of the time and the grave embarrassments by which I am hampered. Indeed, it would be idle to disguise from you that unless matters are speedily taken in hand and some solution is found to our troubles, there is every prospect that before long Rosham will be foreclosed on—a probability of which I can scarcely bear to think, and one that will be equally painful to yourself when you remember that the property has been in our family for full three hundred years, and that we have no resources beyond those of the land."
Then the letter went into details that were black enough, and ended by hinting at some possible mode of escape from the family troubles which would be revealed to him on his return to England.
The receipt of this epistle plunged Henry Graves into a severe mental struggle. As has been said, he was fond of his profession, and he had no wish to leave it. His prospects in the Navy were not especially brilliant, indeed, but his record at the Admiralty was good, and he was popular in the service both with his brother officers and the men, though perhaps more so with the latter than the former. Moreover, he had confidence in himself, and was filled with a sincere ambition to rise to the top of the tree, or near it. Now, after serving many years as a lieutenant, when at last he had earned an independent command, he was asked to abandon his career, and with it the hopes of half a lifetime, in order that he might undertake the management of a bankrupt estate, a task for which he did not conceive himself to be suited.
At first he was minded to refuse altogether; but while he was still hesitating a second letter arrived, from his mother, with whom he was in greater sympathy than with any other member of the family. This epistle, which did not enter into details, was written in evident distress, and implored him to return to England at all hazards if he wished to save them from ruin. In conclusion, like that received from his father, it hinted mysteriously at an unknown something by means of which it would be in his power, and his alone, to restore the broken fortunes of their house.
Duty had always been the first consideration with Henry Graves, and so it remained in this emergency of his life. He had no longer any doubt as to what he ought do do, and, sacrificing his private wishes and what he considered to be his own advantage, he set himself to do it.
An effort to obtain leave on urgent private affairs having failed, he was reduced to the necessity of sending in his papers and begging the Lords of the Admiralty for permission to retire from the service on the ground of his brother's death.
The night that he posted this application was an unhappy one for him: the career he had hoped to make for himself and the future honour which he dreamed of had melted away, and the only prospect left to him was that of one day becoming a baronet without a sixpence to support his title, and the nominal owner of a bankrupt estate. Moreover, however reasonable and enlightened he may be, no sailor is entirely without superstition, and on this matter Henry Graves was superstitious. Something in his heart seemed to tell him that this new start would bring him little luck, whatever advantage might result to his family. Once again he felt the awe of an imaginative boy who for the first time understands that the world is before him, and that he must fight his way through its cruel multitudes, or be trampled to death of them.
In due course my Lords of the Admiralty signified to Commander Graves that his request had been taken into favourable consideration, and that he was granted leave pending the arrangements necessary to his retirement from Her Majesty's Navy. His feelings as for the last time he was rowed away from the ship in the gig which had been his especial property need not be dwelt upon. They were bitter enough, and the evident regret of his messmates at parting from him did not draw their sting: indeed, it would not be too much to say that in this hour of farewell Henry Graves went as near to tears as he had done since he attained to manhood.
But he got through it somehow, and even laughed and waved his hat when the crew of the Hawk—that was the name of the gunboat he had commanded—cheered him as he left her deck for ever.
Eighteen days later he stood in the library of Rosham Hall. Although the season was mid-May the weather held bitterly cold, and such green as had appeared upon the trees did not suffice to persuade the traveller that winter was done with. An indescribable air of gloom hung about the great white house, which, shaped like an early Victorian mausoleum, and treed up to the windows with funereal cedars, was never a cheerful dwelling even in the height of summer. The shadow of death lay upon the place and on the hearts of its inmates, and struck a chill through Henry as he crossed the threshold. His father, a tall and dignified old gentleman with snowy hair, met him in the hall with a show of cordiality that soon flickered away.
"How are you, my dear boy?" he said. "I am very glad to see you home and looking so well. It is most kind of you to have fallen in with our wishes as to your leaving the Navy. I scarcely expected that you would myself. Indeed, was I never more surprised than when I received your letter saying that you had sent in your papers. It is a comfort to have you back again, though I doubt whether you will be able to do any good."
"Then perhaps I might as well have stopped where I was, father," answered Henry.
"No, no, you did well to come. For many reasons which you will understand soon you did well to come. You are looking for your mother and Ellen. They have gone to the church with a wreath for your poor brother's grave. The train is generally late—you were not expected so soon. That was a terrible blow to me, Henry: I am quite broken down, and shall never get over it. Ah! here they are."
As Sir Reginald spoke Lady Graves and her daughter entered the hall and greeted Henry warmly enough. His mother was a person of about sixty, still handsome in appearance, but like himself somewhat silent and reserved in manner. Trouble had got hold of her, and she showed it on her face. For the rest, she was an upright and a religious woman, whose one passion in life, as distinguished from her predilections, had been for her dead son Reginald. He was taken away, her spirit was broken, and there remained to her nothing except an unvarying desire to stave off the ruin that threatened her husband's house and herself.
The daughter, Ellen, now a woman of twenty-five, was of a different type. In appearance she was fair and well-developed, striking and ladylike rather than good-looking; in manner she was quick and vivacious, well-read, moreover, in a certain shallow fashion, and capital company. Ellen was not a person of deep affections, though she also had worshipped Reginald; but on the other hand she was swift to see her own advantage and to shape the course of events toward that end. At this moment her mind was set secretly upon making a rich marriage with the only eligible bachelor in the neighbourhood, Milward by name, a vain man of good extraction but of little strength of character, and one whom she knew that she could rule.
It has been said that his welcome was warm enough to all outward appearance, and yet it left a sense of disappointment in Henry's mind. Instinctively he felt, with the exception, perhaps, of his mother, that they all hoped to use him—that he had been summoned because he might be of service, not because the consolation of his presence was desired in a great family misfortune; and once more he wished himself back on the quarter-deck of the Hawk, dependent upon his own exertions to make his way in the world.
After a somewhat depressing dinner in the great dining-room, of which the cold stone columns and distempered walls, decorated with rather dingy specimens of the old masters, did not tend to expansion of the heart, a family council was held in the study. It lasted far into the night, but its results may be summed up briefly. In good times the Rosham Hall property was worth about a hundred thousand pounds; now, in the depths of the terrible depression which is ruining rural England, it was doubtful if it would find a purchaser at half that amount, notwithstanding its capacities as a sporting estate. When Sir Reginald Graves came into possession the place was burdened with a mortgage of twenty-five thousand pounds, more or less. On the coming of age of his elder son, Reginald, Henry's brother, the entail had been cut and further moneys raised upon resettlement, so that in the upshot the incumbrances upon the property including over-due interests which were added to the capital at different dates, stood at a total of fifty-one thousand, or something more than the present selling value of the estate.
Henry inquired where all the money had gone; and, after some beating about the bush, he discovered that of late years, for the most part, it had been absorbed by his dead brother's racing debts. After this revelation he held his tongue upon the matter.
In addition to these burdens there were unsatisfied claims against Reginald's estate amounting to over a thousand pounds; and, to top up with, three of the principal tenants had given notice to leave at the approaching Michaelmas, and no applicants for their farms were forthcoming. Also the interest on the mortgages was over a year in arrear.
When everything had been explained, Henry spoke with irritation: "The long and the short of it is that we are bankrupt, and badly bankrupt. Why on earth did you force me to leave the Navy? At any rate I could have helped myself to some sort of a living there. Now I must starve with the rest."
Lady Graves sighed and wiped her eyes. The sigh was for their broken fortunes, the tear for the son who had ruined them.
Sir Reginald, who was hardened to money troubles, did not seem to be so deeply affected.
"Oh, it is not so bad as that, my boy," he said, almost cheerfully. "Your poor brother always managed to find a way out of these difficulties when they cropped up, and I have no doubt that you will be able to do the same. For me the matter no longer has much personal interest, since my day is over; but you must do the best for yourself, and for your mother and sister. And now I think that I will go to bed, for business tires me at night."
When his father and mother had gone Henry lit his pipe.
"Who holds these mortgages?" he asked of his sister Ellen, who sat opposite to him, watching him curiously across the fire.
"Mr. Levinger," she answered. "He and his daughter are coming here to-morrow to stay till Monday."
"What, my father's mysterious friend, the good-looking man who used to be agent for the property when I was a boy?"
"Yes, the man who was shooting here when you were on leave eighteen months ago."
"I remember: he had his daughter with him—a pale-faced, quiet girl."
"Yes; but do not disparage his daughter, Henry."
"Because it is a mistake to find fault with one's future wife. That way salvation lies, my dear brother. She is an heiress, and more than half in love with you, Henry. No, it is not a mistake—I know it for a fact. Now, perhaps, you understand why it was necessary that you should come home. Either you must follow the family tradition and marry an heiress, Miss Levinger or some other, or this place will be foreclosed on and we may all adjourn to the workhouse."
"So that is why I was sent for," said Henry, throwing down his pipe: "to be sold to this lady? Well, Ellen, all I have to say is that it is an infernal shame!"
And, turning, he went to bed without even bidding her good night.
His sister watched him go without irritation or surprise. Rising from her chair, she stood by the fire warming her feet, and glancing from time to time at the dim rows of family portraits that adorned the library walls. There were many of them, dating back to the early part of the seventeenth century or even before it; for the Graveses, or the De Greves as they used to be called, were an ancient race, and though the house had been rebuilt within the last hundred and twenty years, they had occupied this same spot of ground for many generations. During all these years the family could not be said either to have sunk or risen, although one of its members was made a baronet at the beginning of the century in payment for political services. It had produced no great men, and no villains; it had never been remarkable for wealth or penury, or indeed for anything that distinguishes one man, or a race of men, from its fellows.
It may be asked how it came about that these Graveses contrived to survive the natural waste and dwindling of possessions that they never did anything to augment. A glance at the family pedigree supplies an answer. From generation to generation it had been held to be the duty of the eldest son for the time being to marry an heiress; and this rule was acted on with sufficient regularity to keep the fortunes of the race at a dead level, notwithstanding the extravagances of occasional spendthrifts and the claims of younger children.
"They all did so," said Ellen to herself, as she looked upon the portraits of her dead-and-gone forefathers by the light of the flickering flame; "and why shouldn't he? I am not sentimental, but I believe that I'd marry a Russian Jew rather than see the old place go to the dogs, and that sort of thing is worse for a woman than a man. It will be difficult to manage, but he will marry her in the end, even if he hates the very sight of her. A man has no right to let his private inclinations weigh with him in such a matter, for he passes but his family remains. Thank Heaven, Henry always had a strong sense of duty, and when he comes to look at the position coolly he will see it in a proper light; though what made that flaxen-haired little mummy fall in love with him is a mystery to me, for he never spoke a word to her. Blessings on her! It is the only piece of good luck that has come to our family for a generation. And now I must go to bed—those old pictures are beginning to stare at me."