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THE cathedral was crammed. The tall slender arches seemed to spring out of a vast sea of human heads. The orchestra and chorus had gradually merged into one person: one shout of praise, one voice of prayer, one wail of terror. The Elijah was in mid-career, sailing like a man-of-war upon the rushing waves of music.And presently there was a hush, and out of the hush a winged voice arose, as a lark rises out of a meadow, singing as it rises:'O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him, and He shall give thee thy heart's desire.'
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An Episode in the Life of a Butterfly
'Yet to be loved makes not to love again;
Not at my years, however it hold in youth.'
The cathedral was crammed. The tall slender arches seemed to spring out of a vast sea of human heads. The orchestra and chorus had gradually merged into one person: one shout of praise, one voice of prayer, one wail of terror. The Elijah was in mid-career, sailing like a man-of-war upon the rushing waves of music.
And presently there was a hush, and out of the hush a winged voice arose, as a lark rises out of a meadow, singing as it rises:
'O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him, and He shall give thee thy heart's desire.'
The lark dropped into its nest again. The music swept thundering upon its way, and a large tear fell unnoticed from a young girl's eyes on to the bare slim hand which held her score. The score quivered; the slender willowy figure quivered in its setting of palest violet and white draperies threaded with silver. Only a Frenchwoman could have dared to translate a child's posy of pale blue and white violets, tied with a silver string, into a gown; but Sibyl Carruthers' dressmaker was an artist in her way, and took an artist's license, and the half-mourning which she had designed for the great heiress was in colouring what a bereaved butterfly might have worn.
Miss Carruthers was called beautiful. Perhaps she was beautiful for an heiress, but she was certainly not, in reality, any prettier than many hundreds of dowerless girls who had never been considered more than good-looking.
Her delicate features were too irregular, in spite of their obvious high breeding; her figure was too slight; her complexion was too faintly tinted for regular beauty. But she had something of the evanescent charm of a four-petalled dog-rose newly blown—exquisite, ethereal, but as if it might fall in a moment. This aspect of fragility was heightened by what women noticed about her first, namely, her gossamer gown with its silver gleam, and by what men noticed about her first—her gray eyes, pathetic, eager, shy by turns, always lovely, but hinting of a sword too sharp for its slender sheath, of an ardent spirit whose grasp on this world was too slight.
And as the music passed over her young untried soul, she sat motionless, her hands clasping the score. She heard nothing of it, but it accompanied the sudden tempest of passion which was shaking her, as wind accompanies storm.
The voice of the song had stirred an avalanche of emotion.
'And I will give thee thy heart's desire.'
She knew nothing about waiting patiently, but her heart's desire—she must have it. She could not live without it. Her whole soul went out in an agony of prayer to the God who gives and who withholds to accord her this one petition—to be his wife. She repeated it over and over again. To be near him, to see him day by day—nothing else, nothing else! This one thing, without which, poor child! She thought she could not live. It seemed to Sibyl that she was falling at God's feet in the whirlwind, and refusing to let Him go until He granted her prayer. But would He grant it? Her heart sank. Despair rushed in upon her like a flood at the bare thought of its refusal, and she caught yet again at the only hope left to her—a desperate appeal to the God who gives and who withholds.
Presently it was all over, and they were going out.
'We were to wait for the others here,' said Peggy, the girl who had been sitting with Sibyl, as they emerged into the sunshine with the crowd. 'Mother and Mr. Doll were just behind us.'
Lady Pierpoint, Sibyl's aunt, presently joined them with Mr. Doll Loftus, an irreproachable-looking, unapproachable-looking fair young man, who, it was whispered, was almost too smart to live, but who nevertheless bore himself with severe simplicity.
He went up to Sibyl with some diffidence.
'You are tired,' he said anxiously.
Doll's remarks were considered banal in the extreme by some women, but others who admired fair hair and pathetic eyes found a thoughtful beauty in them.
It would be difficult from her manner to infer which class of sentiments this particular remark awoke in Sibyl.
'Music always tires me,' she replied, without looking at him, dropping her white eyelids.
'Are we all here?' said Lady Pierpoint. 'Peggy, and Sibyl—my dear, how tired you look!—and myself, and you, Mr. Doll; that is only four, and "we are seven." Ah! Here come Mr. and Mrs. Cathcart. Now we only want Mr. Loftus.'
'The Dean caught him in the doorway,' said Doll. 'He is coming now.'
The tall thin figure of an elder man was slowly crossing the angular patch of sunshine where the cathedral had not cast its great shadow. The nobility of his bearing seemed to appeal to the crowd. They made way for him instinctively, as if he were some distinguished personage. He was accompanied by a robust clerical figure with broad calves.
'Mr. Loftus makes everyone else look common,' said Peggy plaintively. 'It is the only unkind thing I know about him. I thought the Dean quite dignified-looking while we were at luncheon at the Deanery, but now he looks like a pork-butcher. I'm not going to walk within ten yards of Mr. Loftus, mummy, or I shall be taken for a parlourmaid having her day out. I think, Sibyl, you are the only one who can afford to go with him.'
But Doll thought differently, and it was he and Sibyl who walked the short distance to the station together through the flag-decked streets in the brilliant September sunshine. People turned to glance at them as they passed. They made a striking-looking couple. Mr. Loftus, following slowly at a little distance with Lady Pierpoint, looked affectionately at the back of his young cousin, who was also his heir, and said to her, with a smile:
'I wish it could be. Doll is a good fellow.'
'I wish indeed it could,' said Lady Pierpoint earnestly, with the slight slackening of reserve which is often observable in the atmosphere on the last afternoon of a visit with a purpose.
Lady Pierpoint had not come to spend a whole week with a Sunday in it with Mr. Loftus at Wilderleigh for nothing. And she was aware that neither had she and her niece and daughter been invited for that long period without a cause. But the week ended with the following morning, and she sighed. She had daughters of her own coming on, as well as her dear snub-nosed Peggy, who was already out, and it was natural to wish that the responsibility of this delicate, emotional creature, with her great wealth, might be taken from her and placed in safe hands. She thought Doll was safe. Perhaps the wish was father, or rather aunt, to the thought. But it was no doubt the truest epithet that could be applied to the young man. It was a matter of opinion whether he was exhaustingly dull in conversation or extraordinarily interesting, but he certainly was safe. He belonged to that class of our latter-day youth of whom it may be predicted, with some confidence, that they will never cause their belongings a moment's uneasiness; who may be trusted never to do anything very right or very wrong; who will get on tolerably well in any position, and with any woman, provided there are means to support it and—her; who have enough worldliness to marry money, and enough good feeling to make irreproachable husbands afterwards; in short, the kind of young men who are invented by Providence on purpose to marry heiresses, and who, if they fall below their vocation, dwindle, when their youth is over, into the padded impecunious bores of society.
There was a short journey by rail through the hop country. Sibyl watched the rows of hops in silence. Cowardice has its sticking-point as well as courage, and she was undergoing the miserable preliminary tremors by which that point is reached. Mr. Loftus, sitting opposite her, and observing her fixity of gaze, glanced at her rather wistfully from time to time. He saw something was working in her mind. He looked tired, and in the strong afternoon light his grave, lined face seemed more worn and world-weary than ever. He had the look of a man who had long outlived all personal feeling, and who to-day had been remembering his youth.
The Wilderleigh omnibus and Doll's spider-wheeled dogcart were waiting at the little roadside station, which was so small that the train very nearly overlooked it, and had to be backed. Doll was already holding the wheel to protect Sibyl's gown as she got up, and looking towards her, and Lady Pierpoint was hurrying Peggy, who had expressed a hankering after the dogcart, into the omnibus, when Mr. Loftus observed that he thought he would walk up.
Sibyl's face changed.
'May I walk up with you?' she asked instantly.
Mr. Loftus looked disappointed; everybody looked disappointed. Lady Pierpoint put her head out, and said:
'My dear child, the drive in the open air will refresh you; you are looking tired.'
'May I go in the dogcart if Sibyl doesn't want to?' put in Peggy in an audible aside to her mother.
'I think you are tired,' said Mr. Loftus, looking at Sibyl and shaking his head. 'And,' he added in a lower voice, 'Doll will be much disappointed.'
A faint colour covered her face, which quivered as she turned it towards him.
'Let me walk up with you,' she said again, with a tremor in her voice.
He met her appealing eyes with gentle scrutiny.
'It is not far,' he said aloud; 'not more than half a mile through the park. I will take care of her, Lady Pierpoint. We shall be at Wilderleigh almost as soon as you are.'
'Oh, mummy, may I go in the dogcart now?' implored Peggy from the depths of the omnibus.
And Mr. Loftus and Sibyl set out together.
They were in the park in a few minutes, and were walking down towards Wilderleigh, on the opposite side of the river, an old house of weather-beaten gray stone, of twisted chimneys and uneven roofs and pointed gables, with quaint carved finials, standing above its terraces and its long stone balustrade. The sun was setting in a sky of daffodil behind the tall top-heavy elms of the rookery and the tower of the village church. Little fleets of clouds lay motionless in high heaven, looking towards the west. The land in its long shadows dreamed of peace. The old house beyond the river was in shadow already. So was the river.
'Sometimes,' said Mr. Loftus to himself, 'a young girl feels more able to confide in an old friend than a relation. She has often talked to me before. Perhaps she is going to do so again.' And he felt comforted about Doll and the dogcart.
Presently as he glanced at her, wondering at her continued silence, he saw that she was greatly agitated.
'Something troubles you,' he said gently.
She looked at him half in terror, as if deprecating his anger.
They were walking down a narrow ride in the tall bracken. A trunk of a tree lay near the path among the yellowing fern.
He led her to it and sat down by her, looking at her with painful anxiety and with a sense of growing fatigue. Emotion of any kind exhausted him. If it had not been for Doll, he would have dropped the subject, but for his sake he made an effort.
'Tell me,' he said, and he took her thin young hand and held it in his thin older hand. It was the last afternoon; both were conscious of it.
She trembled very much, but she did not speak. His heart sank.
'You wish to tell me something about Doll, perhaps,' he said at last. 'Do not be afraid of paining me by talking of it. You like him, perhaps, but not enough, and you are grieved because you see how much he loves you. Is that it?'
'I don't like him,' gasped Sibyl. 'I have never thought about it. That is only Aunt Marion.'
Mr. Loftus sighed, and his gray cheek blanched a little. He had built much on the hope of this marriage. He had a tender regard for Sibyl, whose emotional and impulsive nature appealed to him, and filled him with apprehension as for a butterfly in a manufactory, which may injure itself any moment. And he knew Doll was genuinely in love with her. It would be grievous if she were married for her money. And Wilderleigh was dying stone by stone and acre by acre for want of that money.
As he looked mournfully at Sibyl, an expression came into her wide eyes like that which he had seen in the eyes of some timid wild animal brought to bay. He recognised that, like a shy bird near its nest, she was defending in impotent despair of broken white wings something which was part of her life, which was going from her, which he was taking away.
'It is you I love,' she said, and her small hand ceased trembling and became cold in his.
For a moment both were stunned alike, and then some of the grayness of age and suffering crept suddenly from his face to hers as she felt his hand involuntarily slacken its clasp of hers.
'My child,' he said at last, with great difficulty and with greater tenderness, 'it is very many years since I gave up all thought of marriage. I am old enough to be your——' He might have said 'grandfather' with truth. He meant to say it, but as he approached the word he could not wound her with it.
'I know,' she interrupted hurriedly. 'I don't mind. That is nothing to me.'
'And my life,' he said, 'what little there is left of it, hangs by a thread.'
'I know,' she said again—'I have thought of that. I have thought of nothing but you since I first met you a year ago. But if I might only love and serve you and be with you! And I am so rich, too. If I might only take away those money troubles which you once spoke of long ago! If I might only give you everything I have! The money is the smallest part of it—oh, such a little, little part compared to——' And she looked imploringly at him.
He was deeply moved.
'My child,' he said again, and the ominous repetition of the word shook her fragile edifice of hopes to its brittle foundation, 'you have always looked upon me as a friend, have you not?'
She shook her head.
'Well, then,' he added, correcting himself, 'as one who cared for and understood you, and whose earnest wish was to see you happy?'
She did not answer.
He had known difficult hours, but none more difficult than this. He felt as if he were trying with awkward hands to hold a butterfly without injuring it, in order to release it from the pane of glass against which it was beating its butterfly heart out.
'To see you happy,' he went on, with authority as well as tenderness in his level voice. 'I should never see that; I should have no real'—he hesitated—'affection for you at all if I allowed you to make
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