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Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (née Margaret Oliphant Wilson) (4 April 1828 – 25 June 1897), was a Scottish novelist and historical writer, who usually wrote as Mrs. Oliphant. Her fictional works encompass domestic realism, the historical novel and tales of the supernatural.
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MAJOR OCHTERLONY had been very fidgety after the coming in of the mail. He was very often so, as all his friends were aware, and nobody so much as Mary, his wife, who was herself, on ordinary occasions, of an admirable composure. But the arrival of the mail, which is so welcome an event at an Indian station, and which generally affected the Major very mildly, had produced a singular impression upon him on this special occasion. He was not a man who possessed a large correspondence in his own person; he had reached middle life, and had nobody particular belonging to him, except his wife and his little children, who were as yet too young to have been sent “home;” and consequently there was nobody to receive letters from, except a few married brothers and sisters, who don’t count, as everybody knows. That kind of formally affectionate correspondence is not generally exciting, and even Major Ochterlony supported it with composure. But as for the mail which arrived on the 15th of April, 1838, its effect was different. He went out and in so often, that Mary got very little good of her letters, which were from her young sister and her old aunt, and were naturally overflowing with all kinds of pleasant gossip and domestic information. The present writer has so imperfect an idea of what an Indian bungalow is like, that it would be impossible for her to convey a clear idea to the reader, who probably knows much better about it. But yet it was in an Indian bungalow that Mrs. Ochterlony was seated—in the dim hot atmosphere, out of which the sun was carefully excluded, but in which, nevertheless, the inmates simmered softly with the patience of people who cannot help it, and who are used to their martyrdom. She sat still, and did her best to make out the pleasant babble in the letters, which seemed to take sound to itself as she read, and to break into a sweet confusion of kind voices, and rustling leaves, and running water, such as, she knew, had filled the little rustic drawing-room in which the letters were written. The sister was very young, and the aunt was old, and all the experience of the world possessed by the two together, might have gone into Mary’s thimble, which she kept playing with upon her finger as she read. But though she knew twenty times better than they did, the soft old lady’s gentle counsel, and the audacious girl’s advice and censure, were sweet to Mary, who smiled many a time at their simplicity, and yet took the good of it in a way that was peculiar to her. She read, and she smiled in her reading, and felt the fresh English air blow about her, and the leaves rustling—if it had not been for the Major, who went and came like a ghost, and let everything fall that he touched, and hunted every innocent beetle or lizard that had come in to see how things were going on; for he was one of those men who have a great, almost womanish objection to reptiles and insects, which is a sentiment much misplaced in India. He fidgeted so much, indeed, as to disturb even his wife’s accustomed nerves at last.
“Is there anything wrong—has anything happened?” she asked, folding up her letter, and laying it down in her open work-basket. Her anxiety was not profound, for she was accustomed to the Major’s “ways,” but still she saw it was necessary for his comfort to utter what was on his mind.
“When you have read your letters I want to speak to you,” he said. “What do your people mean by sending you such heaps of letters? I thought you would never be done. Well, Mary, this is what it is—there’s nothing wrong with the children, or anybody belonging to us, thank God; but it’s very nearly as bad, and, I am at my wit’s end. Old Sommerville’s dead.”
“Old Sommerville!” said Mrs. Ochterlony. This time she was utterly perplexed and at a loss. She could read easily enough the anxiety which filled her husband’s handsome, restless face; but, then, so small a matter put him out of his ordinary! And she could not for her life remember who old Sommerville was.
“I daresay you don’t recollect him,” said the Major, in an aggrieved tone. “It is very odd how everything has gone wrong with us since that false start. It is an awful shame, when a set of old fogies put young people in such a position—all for nothing, too,” Major Ochterlony added: “for after we were actually married, everybody came round. It is an awful shame!”
“If I was a suspicious woman,” said Mary, with a smile, “I should think it was our marriage that you called a false start and an awful shame.”
“And so it is, my love: so it is,” said the innocent soldier, his face growing more and more cloudy. As for his wife being a suspicious woman, or the possible existence of any delicacy on her part about his words, the Major knew better than that. The truth was that he might have given utterance to sentiments of the most atrocious description on that point, sentiments which would have broken the heart and blighted the existence, so to speak, of any sensitive young woman, without producing the slightest effect upon Mary, or upon himself, to whom Mary was so utterly and absolutely necessary, that the idea of existing without her never once entered his restless but honest brain. “That is just what it is,” he said; “it is a horrid business for me, and I don’t know what to do about it. They must have been out of their senses to drive us to marry as we did; and we were a couple of awful fools,” said the Major, with the gravest and most care-worn countenance. Mrs. Ochterlony was still a young woman, handsome and admired, and she might very well have taken offence at such words; but, oddly enough, there was something in his gravely-disturbed face and pathetic tone which touched another chord in Mary’s breast. She laughed, which was unkind, considering all the circumstances, and took up her work, and fixed a pair of smiling eyes upon her perplexed husband’s face.
“I daresay it is not so bad as you think,” she said, with the manner of a woman who was used to this kind of thing. “Come, and tell me all about it.” She drew her chair a trifle nearer his, and looked at him with a face in which a touch of suppressed amusement was visible, under a good deal of gravity and sympathy. She was used to lend a sympathetic ear to all his difficulties, and to give all her efforts to their elucidation, but still she could not help feeling it somewhat droll to be complained to in this strain about her own marriage. “We were a couple of fools,” she said, with a little laugh, “but it has not turned out so badly as it might have done.” Upon which rash statement the Major shook his head.
“It is easy for you to say so,” he said, “and if I were to go no deeper, and look no further—— It is all on your account, Mary. If it were not on your account——”
“Yes, I know,” said Mrs. Ochterlony, still struggling with a perverse inclination to laugh; “but now tell me what old Sommerville has to do with it; and who old Sommerville is; and what put it into his head just at this moment to die.”
The Major sighed, and gave her a half-irritated, half-melancholy look. To think she should laugh, when, as he said to himself, the gulf was yawning under her very feet. “My dear Mary,” he said, “I wish you would learn that this is not anything to laugh at. Old Sommerville was the old gardener at Earlston, who went with us, you recollect, when we went to—to Scotland. My brother would never have him back again, and he went among his own friends. He was a stupid old fellow. I don’t know what he was good for, for my part;—but,” said Major Ochterlony, with solemnity, “he was the only surviving witness of our unfortunate marriage—that is the only thing that made him interesting to me.”
“Poor old man!” said Mary, “I am very sorry. I had forgotten his name; but really,—if you speak like this of our unfortunate marriage, you will hurt my feelings,” Mrs. Ochterlony added. She had cast down her eyes on her work, but still there was a gleam of fun out of one of the corners. This was all the effect made upon her mind by words which would have naturally produced a scene between half the married people in the world.
As for the Major, he sighed: he was in a sighing mood, and at such moments his wife’s obtusity and thoughtlessness always made him sad. “It is easy talking,” he said, “and if it were not on your account, Mary—— The fact is that everything has gone wrong that had any connection with it. The blacksmith’s house, you know, was burned down, and his kind of a register—if it was any good, and I am sure I don’t know if it was any good; and then that woman died, though she was as young as you are, and as healthy, and nobody had any right to expect that she would die,” Major Ochterlony added with an injured tone, “and now old Sommerville; and we have nothing in the world to vouch for its being a good marriage, except what that blacksmith fellow called the ‘lines.’ Of course you have taken care of the lines,” said the Major, with a little start. It was the first time that this new subject of doubt had occurred to his mind.
“To vouch for its being a good marriage!” said Mrs. Ochterlony: “really, Hugh, you go too far. Our marriage is not a thing to make jokes about, you know—nor to get up alarms about either. Everybody knows all about it, both among your people and mine. It is very vexatious and disagreeable of you to talk so.” As she spoke the colour rose to Mary’s matron cheek. She had learned to make great allowances for her husband’s anxious temper and perpetual panics; but this suggestion was too much for her patience just at the moment. She calmed down, however, almost immediately, and came to herself with a smile. “To think you should almost have made me angry!” she said, taking up her work again. This did not mean to imply that to make Mrs. Ochterlony angry was at all an impossible process. She had her gleams of wrath like other people, and sometimes it was not at all difficult to call them forth; but, so far as the Major’s “temperament” was concerned, she had got, by much exercise, to be the most indulgent of women—perhaps by finding that no other way of meeting it was of any use.
“It is not my fault, my love,” said the Major, with a meekness which was not habitual to him. “But I hope you are quite sure you have the lines. Any mistake about them would be fatal. They are the only proof that remains to us. I wish you would go and find them, Mary, and let me make sure.”
“The lines!” said Mrs. Ochterlony, and, notwithstanding her self-command, she faltered a little. “Of course I must have them somewhere—I don’t quite recollect at this moment. What do you want them for, Hugh? Are we coming into a fortune, or what are the statistics good for? When I can lay my hand upon them, I will give them to you,” she added, with that culpable carelessness which her husband had already so often remarked in her. If it had been a trumpery picture or book that had been mislaid, she could not have been less concerned.
“When you can lay your hands upon them!” cried the exasperated man. “Are you out of your senses, Mary? Don’t you know that they are your sheet-anchor, your charter—the only document you have——”
“Hugh,” said Mrs. Ochterlony, “tell me what this means. There must be something in it more than I can see. What need have I for documents? What does it matter to us this old man being dead, more than it matters to any one the death of somebody who has been at their wedding? It is sad, but I don’t see how it can be a personal misfortune. If you really mean anything, tell me what it is.”
The Major for his part grew angry, as was not unnatural. “If you choose to give me the attention you ought to give to your husband when he speaks seriously to you, you will soon perceive what I mean,” he said; and then he repented, and came up to her and kissed her. “My poor Mary, my bonnie Mary,” he said. “If that wretched irregular marriage of ours should bring harm to you! It is you only I am thinking of, my darling—that you should have something to rest upon;” and his feelings were so genuine that with that the water stood in his eyes.
As for Mrs. Ochterlony, she was very near losing patience altogether; but she made an effort and restrained herself. It was not the first time that she had heard compunctions expressed for the irregular marriage, which certainly was not her fault. But this time she was undeniably a little alarmed, for the Major’s gravity was extreme. “Our marriage is no more irregular than it always was,” she said. “I wish you would give up this subject, Hugh; I have you to rest upon, and everything that a woman can have. We never did anything in a corner,” she continued, with a little vehemence. “Our marriage was just as well known, and well published, as if it had been in St. George’s, Hanover Square. I cannot imagine what you are aiming at. And besides, it is done, and we cannot mend it,” she added, abruptly. On the whole, the runaway match had been a pleasant frolic enough; there was no earthly reason, except some people’s stupid notions, why they should not have been married; and everybody came to their senses rapidly, and very little harm had come of it. But the least idea of doubt on such a subject is an offence to a woman, and her colour rose and her breath came quick, without any will of hers. As for the Major, he abandoned the broader general question, and went back to the detail, as was natural to the man.
“If you only have the lines all safe,” he said, “if you would but make sure of that. I confess old Sommerville’s death was a great shock to me, Mary,—the last surviving witness; but Kirkman tells me the marriage lines in Scotland are a woman’s safeguard, and Kirkman is a Scotchman and ought to know.”
“Have you been consulting him?” said Mary, with a certain despair; “have you been talking of such a subject to——”
“I don’t know where I could have a better confidant,” said the Major. “Mary, my darling, they are both attached to you; and they are good people, though they talk; and then he is Scotch, and understands. If anything were to happen to me, and you had any difficulty in proving——”
“Hugh, for Heaven’s sake have done with this. I cannot bear any more,” cried Mrs. Ochterlony, who was at the end of her powers.
It was time for the great coup for which his restless soul had been preparing. He approached the moment of fate with a certain skill, such as weak people occasionally display, and mad people almost always,—as if the feeble intellect had a certain right by reason of its weakness to the same kind of defence which is possessed by the mind diseased. “Hush, Mary, you are excited,” he said, “and it is only you I am thinking of. If anything should happen to me—I am quite well, but no man can answer for his own life:—my dear, I am afraid you will be vexed with what I am going to say. But for my own satisfaction, for my peace of mind—if we were to go through the ceremony again——”
Mary Ochterlony rose up with sudden passion. It was altogether out of proportion to her husband’s intentions or errors, and perhaps to the occasion. That was but a vexatious complication of ordinary life; and he a fidgety, uneasy, perhaps over-conscientious, well-meaning man. She rose, tragic without knowing it, with a swell in her heart of the unutterable and supreme—feeling herself for the moment an outraged wife, an insulted woman, and a mother wounded to the heart. “I will hear no more,” she said, with lips that had suddenly grown parched and dry. “Don’t say another word. If it has come to this, I will take my chance with my boys. Hugh, no more, no more.” As she lifted her hands with an impatient gesture of horror, and towered over him as he sat by, having thus interrupted and cut short his speech, a certain fear went through Major Ochterlony’s mind. Could her mind be going? Had the shock been too much for her? He could not understand otherwise how the suggestion which he thought a wise one, and of advantage to his own peace of mind, should have stung her into such an incomprehensible passion. But he was afraid and silenced, and could not go on.
“My dear Mary,” he said mildly, “I had no intention of vexing you. We can speak of this another time. Sit down, and I’ll get you a glass of water,” he added, with anxious affection; and hurried off to seek it: for he was a good husband, and very fond of his wife, and was terrified to see her turn suddenly pale and faint, notwithstanding that he was quite capable of wounding her in the most exquisite and delicate point. But then he did not mean it. He was a matter-of-fact man, and the idea of marrying his wife over again in case there might be any doubtfulness about the first marriage, seemed to him only a rational suggestion, which no sensible woman ought to be disturbed by; though no doubt it was annoying to be compelled to have recourse to such an expedient. So he went and fetched her the water, and gave up the subject, and stayed with her all the afternoon and read the papers to her, and made himself agreeable. It was a puzzling sort of demonstration on Mary’s part, but that did not make her the less Mary, and the dearest and best of earthly creatures. So Major Ochterlony put his proposal aside for a more favourable moment, and did all he could to make his wife forget it, and behaved himself as a man naturally would behave who was recognised as the best husband and most domestic man in the regiment. Mary took her seat again and her work, and the afternoon went on as if nothing had happened. They were a most united couple, and very happy together, as everybody knew; or if one of them at any chance moment was perhaps less than perfectly blessed, it was not, at any rate, because the love-match, irregular as it might be, had ended in any lack of love.
MRS. OCHTERLONY sat and worked and listened, and her husband read the papers to her, picking out by instinct all those little bits of news that are grateful to people who are so far away from their own country. And he went through the births and marriages, to see “if there is anybody we know,”—notwithstanding that he was aware that corner of the paper is one which a woman does not leave to any reader, but makes it a principle to examine herself. And Mary sat still and went on with her work, and not another syllable was said about old Sommerville, or the marriage lines, or anything that had to do with the previous conversation. This tranquillity was all in perfect good faith on Major Ochterlony’s side, who had given up the subject with the intention of waiting until a more convenient season, and who had relieved his mind by talking of it, and could put off his anxiety. But as for Mary, it was not in good faith that she put on this expression of outward calm. She knew her husband, and she knew that he was pertinacious and insisting, and that a question which he had once started was not to be made an end of, and finally settled, in so short a time. She sat with her head a little bent, hearing the bits of news run on like an accompaniment to the quick-flowing current of her own thoughts. Her heart was beating quick, and her blood coursing through her veins as if it had been a sudden access of fever which had come upon her. She was a tall, fair, serene woman, with no paltry passion about her; but at the same time, when the occasion required it, Mary was capable of a vast suppressed fire of feeling which it gave her infinite trouble to keep down. This was a side of her character which was not suspected by the world in general—meaning of course the regiment, and the ladies at the station, who were all, more or less, military. Mrs. Ochterlony was the kind of woman to whom by instinct any stranger would have appropriated the name of Mary; and naturally all her intimates (and the regiment was very “nice,” and lived in great harmony, and they were all intimate) called her by her Christian—most Christian name. And there were people who put the word Madonna before it,—“as if the two did not mean the same thing!” said little Mrs. Askell, the ensign’s baby-wife, whose education had been neglected, but whom Mrs. Ochterlony had been very kind to. It was difficult to know how the title had originated, though people did say it was young Stafford who had been brought up in Italy, and who had such a strange adoration for Mrs. Ochterlony, and who died, poor fellow—which was perhaps the best thing he could have done under the circumstances. “It was a special providence,” Mrs. Kirkman said, who was the Colonel’s wife: for, to be sure, to be romantically adored by a foolish young subaltern, was embarrassing for a woman, however perfect her mind and temper and fairest fame might be. It was he who originated the name, perhaps with some faint foolish thought of Petrarch and his Madonna Laura: and then he died and did no more harm; and a great many people adopted it, and Mary herself did not object to be addressed by that sweetest of titles.
And yet she was not meek enough for the name. Her complexion was very fair, but she had only a very faint rose-tint on her cheeks, so faint that people called her pale—which with her fairness, was a drawback to her. Her hair was light-brown, with a golden reflection that went and came, as if it somehow depended upon the state of her mind and spirits; and her eyes were dark, large, and lambent,—not sparkling, but concentrating within themselves a soft, full depth of light. It was a question whether they were grey or brown; but at all events they were dark and deep. And she was, perhaps, a little too large and full and matronly in her proportions to please a youthful critic. Naturally such a woman had a mass of hair which she scarcely knew what to do with, and which at this moment seemed to betray the disturbed state of her mind by unusual gleams of the golden reflection which sometimes lay quite tranquil and hidden among the great silky coils. She was very happily married, and Major Ochterlony was the model husband of the regiment. They had married very young, and made a runaway love-match which was one of the few which everybody allowed had succeeded to perfection. But yet—— There are so few things in this world which succeed quite to perfection. It was Mrs. Kirkman’s opinion that nobody else in the regiment could have supported the Major’s fidgety temper. “It would be a great trial for the most experienced Christian,” she said; “and dear Mary is still among the babes who have to be fed with milk; but Providence is kind, and I don’t think she feels it as you or I would.” This was the opinion of the Colonel’s wife; but as for Mary, as she sat and worked and listened to her husband reading the papers, perhaps she could have given a different version of her own composure and calm.
They had been married about ten years, and it was the first time he had taken this idea into his head. It is true that Mrs. Ochterlony looked at it solely as one of his ideas, and gave no weight whatever to the death of old Sommerville, or the loss of the marriage lines. She had been very young at the time of her marriage, and she was motherless, and had not those pangs of wounded delicacy to encounter, which a young woman ought to have who abandons her home in such a way. This perhaps arose from a defect in Mary’s girlish undeveloped character; but the truth was, that she too belonged to an Indian family, and had no home to speak of, nor any of the sweeter ties to break. And after that, she had thought nothing more about it. She was married, and there was an end of it; and the young people had gone to India immediately, and had been very poor, and very happy, and very miserable, like other young people who begin the world in an inconsiderate way. But in spite of a hundred drawbacks, the happiness had always been pertinacious, lasted longest, and held out most stedfastly, and lived everything down. For one thing, Mrs. Ochterlony had a great deal to do, not being rich, and that happily quite preserved her from the danger of brooding over the Major’s fidgets, and making something serious out of them. And then they had married so young that neither of them could ever identify himself or herself, or make the distinction that more reasonable couples can between “me” and “you.” This time, however, the Major’s restlessness had taken an uncomfortable form. Mary felt herself offended and insulted without knowing why. She, a matron of ten years’ standing, the mother of children! She could not believe that she had really heard true, that a repetition of her marriage could have been suggested to her—and at the same time she knew that it was perfectly true. It never occurred to her as a thing that possibly might have to be done, but still the suggestion itself was a wound. Major Ochterlony, for his part, thought of it as a precaution, and good for his peace of mind, as he had said; but to Mary it was scarcely less offensive than if somebody else had ventured to make love to her, or offer her his allegiance. It seemed to her an insult of the same description, an outrage which surely could not have occurred without some unwitting folly on her part to make such a proposal possible. She went away, searching back into the far, far distant years, as she sat at work and he read the papers. Had she anyhow failed in womanly restraint or delicacy at that moment when she was eighteen, and knew of nothing but honour, and love, and purity in the world? To be sure, she had not occupied herself very much about the matter—she had taken no pains for her own safety, and had not an idea what registrars meant, nor marriage laws, nor “lines.” All that she knew was that a great many people were married at Gretna Green, and that she was married, and that there was an end of it. All these things came up and passed before her mind in a somewhat hurrying crowd; but Mary’s mature judgment did not disapprove of the young bride who believed what was said to her, and was content, and had unbounded faith in the blacksmith and in her bridegroom. If that young woman had been occupying herself about the register, Mrs. Ochterlony probably, looking back, would have entertained but a mean opinion of her. It was not anything she had done. It was not anything special, so far as she could see, in the circumstances: for hosts of people before and after had been married on the Scottish border. The only conclusion, accordingly, that she could come to, was the natural conclusion, that it was one of the Major’s notions. But there was little comfort in that, for Mrs. Ochterlony was aware that his notions were persistent, that they lived and lasted and took new developments, and were sometimes very hard to get rid of. And she sighed in the midst of the newspaper reading, and betrayed that she had not been listening. Not that she expected her husband’s new whim to come to anything; but because she foresaw in it endless repetitions of the scene which had just ended, and endless exasperation and weariness to herself.
Major Ochterlony stopped short when he heard his wife sigh—for he was not a man to leave anything alone, or to practise a discreet neglect—and laid down his paper and looked with anxiety in her face. “You have a headache,” he said, tenderly; “I saw it the moment I entered the room. Go and lie down, my dear, and take care of yourself. You take care of everybody else,” said the Major. “Why did you let me go on reading the paper like an ass, when your head aches?”
“My head does not ache. I was only thinking,” said Mrs. Ochterlony: for she thought on the whole it would be best to resume the subject and endeavour to make an end of it. But this was not the Major’s way. He had in the meantime emptied his reservoir, and it had to be filled again before he would find himself in the vein for speech.
“But I don’t want you to think,” said Major Ochterlony with tender patronage: “that ought to be my part of the business. Have you got a novel?—if not, I’ll go over and ask Miss Sorbette for one of hers. Lie down and rest, Mary; I can see that is all you are good for to-day.”
Whether such a speech was aggravating or not to a woman who knew that it was her brain which had all the real weight of the family affairs to bear, may be conjectured by wives in general who know the sort of thing. But as for Mary, she was so used to it, that she took very little notice. She said, “Thank you, Hugh; I have got my letters here, which I have not read, and Aunt Agatha is as good as a novel.” If this was not a very clear indication to the Major that his best policy was to take himself off for a little, and leave her in peace, it would be hard to say what could have taught him. But then Major Ochterlony was a man of a lively mind, and above being taught.
“Ah, Aunt Agatha,” he said. “My dear, I know it is a painful subject, but we must, you know, begin to think where we are to send Hugh.”
Mary shuddered; her nerves—for she had nerves, though she was so fair and serene—began to get excited. She said, “For pity’s sake, not any more to-day. I am worn out. I cannot bear it. He is only six, and he is quite well.”
The Major shook his head. “He is very well, but I have seen when a few hours changed all that,” he said. “We cannot keep him much longer. At his age, you know; all the little Heskeths go at four—I think——”
“Ah,” said Mary, “the Heskeths have nothing to do with it; they have floods and floods of children,—they don’t know what it is; they can do without their little things; but I—Hugh, I am tired—I am not able for any more. Let me off for to-day.”
Major Ochterlony regarded his wife with calm indulgence, and smoothed her hair off her hot forehead as he stooped to kiss her. “If you only would call things by the same names as other people, and say you have a headache, my dear,” he said, in his caressing way. And then he was so good as to leave her, saying to himself as he went away that his Mary too had a little temper, though nobody gave her credit for it. Instead of annoying him, this little temper on Mary’s part rather pleased her husband. When it came on he could be indulgent to her and pet her, which he liked to do; and then he could feel the advantage on his own side, which was not always the case. His heart quite swelled over her as he went away; so good, and so wise, and so fair, and yet not without that womanly weakness which it was sweet for a man to protect and pardon and put up with. Perhaps all men are not of the same way of thinking; but then Major Ochterlony reasoned only in his own way.
Mary stayed behind, and found it very difficult to occupy herself with anything. It was not temper, according to the ordinary meaning of the word. She was vexed, disturbed, disquieted, rather than angry. When she took up the pleasant letter in which the English breezes were blowing, and the leaves rustling, she could no longer keep her attention from wandering. She began it a dozen times, and as often gave it up again, driven by the importunate thoughts which took her mind by storm, and thrust everything else away. As if it were not enough to have one great annoyance suddenly overwhelming her, she had the standing terror of her life, the certainty that she would have to send her children away, thrown in to make up. She could have cried, had that been of any use; but Mrs. Ochterlony had had good occasion to cry many times in her life, which takes away the inclination at less important moments. The worst of all was that her husband’s oft-repeated suggestion struck at the very roots of her existence, and seemed to throw everything of which she had been most sure into sudden ruin. She would put no faith in it—pay no attention to it, she said to herself; and then, in spite of herself, she found that she paid great attention, and could not get it out of her mind. The only character in which she knew herself—in which she had ever been known—was that of a wife. There are some women—nay, many women—who have felt their own independent standing before they made the first great step in a woman’s life, and who are able to realize their own identity without associating it for ever with that of any other. But as for Mary, she had married, as it were, out of the nursery, and except as Hugh Ochterlony’s wife, and his son’s mother, she did not know herself. In such circumstances, it may be imagined what a bewildering effect any doubt about her marriage would have upon her. For the first time she began to think of herself, and to see that she had been hardly dealt with. She began to resent her guardian’s carelessness, and to blame even kind Aunt Agatha, who in those days was taken up with some faint love-affairs of her own, which never came to anything. Why did they not see that everything was right? Why did not Hugh make sure, whose duty it was? After she had vexed herself with such thoughts, she returned with natural inconsistency to the conclusion that it was all one of the Major’s notions. This was the easiest way of getting rid of it, and yet it was aggravating enough that the Major should permit his restless fancy to enter such sacred grounds, and to play with the very foundations of their life and honour. And as if that was not enough, to talk at the end of it all of sending Hugh away!
Perhaps it would have been good for Mary if she had taken her husband’s advice and lain down, and sent over to Miss Sorbette for a novel. But she was rebellious and excited, and would not do it. It was true that they were engaged out to dinner that night, and that when the hour came Mrs. Ochterlony entered Mrs. Hesketh’s drawing-room with her usual composure, and without any betrayal of the agitation that was still smouldering within. But that did not make it any easier for her. There was nobody more respected, as people say, in the station than she was—and to think that it was possible that such a thing might be, as that she should be humiliated and pulled down from her fair elevation among all those women! Neither the Major nor any man had a right to have notions upon a matter of such importance. Mary tried hard to calm herself down to her ordinary tranquillity, and to represent to herself how good he was, and how small a drawback after all were those fidgets of his, in comparison with the faults of most other men. Just as he represented to himself, with more success, how trifling a disadvantage was the “little temper” which gave him the privilege, now and then, of feeling tenderly superior to his wife. But the attempt was not successful that day in Mrs. Ochterlony’s mind; for after all there are some things too sacred for discussion, and with which the most fidgety man in the world cannot be permitted to play. Such was the result of the first conversation upon this startling subject. The Major found himself very tolerably at his ease, having relieved his mind for the moment, and enjoyed his dinner and spent a very pleasant evening; but as for Madonna Mary, she might have prejudiced her serene character in the eyes of the regiment had the veil been drawn aside only for a moment, and could anybody have seen or guessed the whirl of thoughts that was passing through her uneasy mind.
THE present writer has already lamented her inability to convey to the readers of this history any clear account of an Indian bungalow, or the manner in which life goes on in that curious kind of English home: so that it would be vain to attempt any detailed description of Mary Ochterlony’s life at this period of her career. She lived very much as all the others lived, and gave a great deal of attention to her two little boys, and wrote regularly by every mail to her friends in England, and longed for the day when the mail came in, though the interest of her correspondence was not absorbing. All this she did like everybody else, though the other ladies at the station had perhaps more people belonging to them, and a larger number of letters, and got more good of the eagerly looked-for mail. And she read all the books she could come by, even Miss Sorbette’s novels, which were indeed the chief literary nourishment of the station; and took her due share in society, and was generally very popular, though not so superior as Miss Sorbette for example, nor of remarkable piety like Mrs. Kirkman, nor nearly so well off as Mrs. Hesketh. Perhaps these three ladies, who were the natural leaders of society, liked Mary all the better because she did not come in direct contact with their claims; though if it had ever entered into Mrs. Ochterlony’s head to set up a distinct standard, no doubt the masses would have flocked to it, and the peace of the station might have been put in jeopardy. But as no such ambitious project was in her mind, Mary kept her popularity with everybody, and gained besides that character of “She could an if she would,” which goes a great deal farther than the limited reputation of any actual achievement. She was very good to the new people, the young people, the recent arrivals, and managed to make them feel at home sooner than anybody else could, which was a very useful gift in such society; and then a wife who bore her husband’s fidgets so serenely was naturally a model and example for all the new wives.
“I am sure nobody else in the station could do so well,” Mrs. Kirkman said. “The most experienced Christian would find it a trying task. But then some people are so mercifully fitted for their position in life. I don’t think she feels it as you or I should.” This was said, not as implying that little Mrs. Askell—to whom the words were ostensibly addressed—had peculiarly sensitive feelings, or was in any way to be associated with the Colonel’s wife, but only because it was a favourite way Mrs. Kirkman had of bringing herself down to her audience, and uniting herself, as it were, to ordinary humanity; for if there was one thing more than another for which she was distinguished, it was her beautiful Christian humanity; and this was the sense in which she now spoke.
“Please don’t say so,” cried the ensign’s wife, who was an unmanageable, eighteen-year-old, half-Irish creature. “I am sure she has twenty thousand times more feeling than you and—than both of us put together. It’s because she is real good; and the Major is an old dear. He is a fidget and he’s awfully aggravating, and he puts one in a passion; but he’s an old dear, and so you would say if you knew him as well as I.”
Mrs. Kirkman regarded the creature by her side, as may be supposed, with the calm contempt which her utterance merited. She looked at her, out of those “down-dropt,” half-veiled eyes, with that look which everybody in the station knew so well, as if she were looking down from an infinite distance with a serene surprise which was too far off and elevated to partake of the nature of disgust. If she knew him as well as this baby did! But the Colonel’s wife did not take any notice of the audacious suggestion. It was her duty, instead of resenting the impertinence to herself, to improve the occasion for the offender’s own sake.
“My dear, there is nobody really good,” said Mrs. Kirkman. “We have the highest authority for that. I wish I could think dear Mary was possessed of the true secret of a higher life; but she has so much of that natural amiability, you know, which is, of all things, the most dangerous for the soul. I would rather, for my part, she was not so ‘good’ as you say. It is all filthy rags,” said Mrs. Kirkman, with a sigh. “It might be for the good of her soul to be brought low, and forced to abandon these refuges of lies——”
Upon which the little Irish wild-Indian blazed up with natural fury.
“I don’t believe she ever told a lie in her life. I’ll swear to all the lies she tells,” cried the foolish little woman; “and as for rags—it’s horrible to talk so. If you only knew—if you only could think—how kind she was to me!”
For this absurd little hapless child had had a baby, as might have been expected, and would have been in rags indeed, and everything that is miserable, but for Mary, who had taken her in hand; and being not much more than a baby herself, and not strong yet, and having her heart in her mouth, so to speak, she burst out crying, as might have been expected too.
This was a result which her companion had not in the least calculated upon, for Mrs. Kirkman, notwithstanding her belief in Mary’s insensibility, had not very lively feelings, and was not quick at divining other people. But she was a good woman notwithstanding all her talk. She came down off her mountain top, and soothed her little visitor, and gave her a glass of wine, and even kissed her, to make matters up.
“I know she has a way, when people are sick,” said the Colonel’s wife; and then, after that confession, she sighed again. “If only she does not put her trust in her own works,” Mrs. Kirkman added.
For, to tell the truth, the Chaplain of the regiment was not (as she thought) a spiritual-minded man, and the Colonel’s wife was troubled by an abiding consciousness that it was into her hands Providence had committed the souls of the station. “Which was an awful responsibility for a sinful creature,” she said, in her letters home; “and one that required constant watch over herself.”
Perhaps, in a slightly different way, Mrs. Ochterlony would have been similarly put down and defended in the other two centres of society at the station. “She is intelligent,” Miss Sorbette said; “I don’t deny that she is intelligent; but I would not say she was superior. She is fond of reading, but then most people are fond of reading, when it’s amusing, you know. She is a little too like Amelia in ‘Vanity Fair.’ She is one of the sweet women. In a general way, I can’t bear sweet women; but I must confess she is the very best specimen I ever saw.”
As for Mrs. Hesketh, her opinion was not much worth stating in words. If she had any fault to find with Mrs. Ochterlony, it was because Mary had sometimes a good deal of trouble in making the two ends meet. “I cannot endure people that are always having anxieties,” said the rich woman of the station, who had an idea that everybody could be comfortable if they liked, and that it was an offence to all his neighbours when a man insisted on being poor; but at the same time everybody knew that she was very fond of Mary. This had been the general opinion of her for all these years, and naturally Mrs. Ochterlony was used to it, and, without being at all vain on the subject, had that sense of the atmosphere of general esteem and regard which surrounded her, which has a favourable influence upon every character, and which did a great deal to give her the sweet composure and serenity for which she was famed.
But from the time of that first conversation with her husband, a change came upon the Madonna of the station. It was not perceptible to the general vision, yet there were individual eyes which found out that something was the matter, though nobody could tell what. Mrs. Hesketh thought it was an attack of fever coming on, and Mrs. Kirkman hoped that Mrs. Ochterlony was beginning to occupy herself about her spiritual state; and the one recommended quinine to Mary, and the other sent her sermons, which, to tell the truth, were not much more suitable to her case. But Mary did not take any of the charitable friends about her into her confidence. She went about among them as a prince might have gone about in his court, or a chief among his vassals, after hearing in secret that it was possible that one day he may be discovered to be an impostor. Or, if not that,—for Mary knew that she never could be found out an impostor,—at least, that such a charge was hanging over her head, and that somebody might believe it; and that her history would be discussed and her name get into people’s mouths and her claims to their regard be questioned. It was very hard upon her to think that such a thing was possible with composure, or to contemplate her husband’s restless ways, and to recollect the indiscreet confidences which he was in the habit of making. He had spoken to Colonel Kirkman about it, and even quoted his advice about the marriage lines; and Mary could not but think (though in this point she did the Colonel injustice) that Mrs. Kirkman too must know; and then, with a man of Major Ochterlony’s temperament, nobody could make sure that he would not take young Askell, the ensign, or any other boy in the station, into his confidence, if he should happen to be in the way. All this was very galling to Mary, who had so high an appreciation of the credit and honour which, up to this moment, she had enjoyed; and who felt that she would rather die than come down to be discussed and pitied and talked about among all these people. She thought in her disturbed and uneasy mind, that she could already hear all the different tones in which they would say, “Poor Mary!” and all the wonders, and doubts, and inquiries that would rise up round her. Mrs. Kirkman would have said that all these were signs that her pride wanted humbling, and that the thing her friends should pray for, should be some startling blow to lead her back to a better state of mind. But naturally this was a kind of discipline which for herself, or indeed for anybody else, Mary was not far enough advanced to desire.
Perhaps, however, it was partly true about the pride. Mrs. Ochterlony did not say anything about it, but she locked the door of her own room the next morning after that talk with the Major, and searched through all her repositories for those “marriage lines,” which no doubt she had put away somewhere, and which she had naturally forgotten all about for years. It was equally natural, and to be expected, that she should not find them. She looked through all her papers, and letters, and little sacred corners, and found many things that filled her heart with sadness and her eyes with tears—for she had not come through those ten years without leaving traces behind her where her heart had been wounded and had bled by the way—but she did not find what she was in search of. She tried hard to look back and think, and to go over in her mind the contents of her little school-girl desk, which she had left at Aunt Agatha’s cottage, and the little work-table, and the secretary with all its drawers. But she could not recollect anything about it, nor where she had put it, nor what could have become of it; and the effect of her examination was to give her, this time in reality, a headache, and to make her eyes heavy and her heart sore. But she did not say a syllable about her search to the Major, who was (as, indeed, he always was) as anxiously affectionate as a man could be, and became (as he always did) when he found his wife suffering, so elaborately noiseless and still, that Mary ended by a good fit of laughing, which was of the greatest possible service to her.
“When you are so quiet, you worry me, Hugh,” she said. “I am used to hear you moving about.”
“My dear, I hope I am not such a brute as to move about when you are suffering,” her husband replied. And though his mind had again begun to fill with the dark thoughts that had been the occasion of all Mary’s annoyance, he restrained himself with a heroic effort, and did not say a syllable about it all that night.
But this was a height of virtue which was quite impossible any merely mortal powers could keep up to. He began to make mysterious little broken speeches next day, and to stop short and say, “My darling, I mustn’t worry you,” and to sigh like a furnace, and to worry Mary to such an extremity that her difficulty in keeping her temper and patience grew indescribable. And then, when he had afflicted her in this way till it was impossible to go any further—when he had betrayed it to her in every look, in every step, in every breath he drew—which was half a sigh—and in every restless movement he made; and when Mrs. Ochterlony, who could not sleep for it, nor rest, nor get any relief from the torture, had two red lines round her eyes, and was all but out of her senses—the stream burst forth at last, and the Major spoke:
“You remember, perhaps, Mary, what we were talking of the other day,” he said, in an insidiously gentle way, one morning, early—when they had still the long, long day before them to be miserable in. “I thought it very important, but perhaps you may have forgot—about old Sommerville who died?”
“Forgot!” said Mary. She felt it was coming now, and was rather glad to have it over. “I don’t know how I could forget, Hugh. What you said would have made one recollect anything; but you cannot make old Sommerville come alive again, whatever you do.”
“My dear, I spoke to you about some—about a—paper,” said the Major. “Lines—that is what the Scotch call them—though, I daresay, they’re very far from being poetry. Perhaps you have found them, Mary?” said Major Ochterlony, looking into her face in a pleading way, as if he prayed her to answer yes. And it was with difficulty that she kept as calm as she wished to do, and answered without letting him see the agitation and excitement in her mind.
“I don’t know where I have put them, Hugh,” she said, with a natural evasion, and in a low voice. She did not acknowledge having looked for them, and having failed to find them; but in spite of herself, she answered with a certain humility, as of a woman culpable. For, after all, it was her fault.
“You don’t know where you put them?” said the Major, with rising horror. “Have you the least idea how important they are? They may be the saving of you and of your children, and you don’t know where you have put them! Then it is all as I feared,” Major Ochterlony added, with a groan, “and everything is lost.”
“What is lost?” said Mary. “You speak to me in riddles, Hugh. I know I put them somewhere—I must have put them somewhere safe. They are, most likely, in my old desk at home, or in one of the drawers of the secretary,” said Mary calmly, giving those local specifications with a certainty which she was far from feeling. As for the Major, he was arrested by the circumstance which made her faint hope and supposition look somehow like truth.
“If I could hope that that was the case,” he said; “but it can’t be the case, Mary. You never were at home after we were married—you forget that. We went to Earlston for a day, and we went to your guardian’s; but never to Aunt Agatha. You are making a mistake, my dear; and God bless me, to think of it, what would become of you if anything were to happen to me?”
“I hope there is nothing going to happen to you; but I don’t think in that case it would matter what became of me,” said Mary in utter depression; for by this time she was worn out.
“You think so now, my love; but you would be obliged to think otherwise,” said Major Ochterlony. “I hope I’m all right for many a year; but a man can never tell. And the insurance, and pension, and everything—and Earlston, if my brother should leave it to us—all our future, my darling. I think it will drive me distracted,” said the Major, “not a witness nor a proof left!”
Mary could make no answer. She was quite overwhelmed by the images thus called before her; for her part, the pension and the insurance money had no meaning to her ears; but it is difficult not to put a certain faith in it when a man speaks in such a circumstantial way of things that can only happen after his death.
“You have been talking to the doctor, and he has been putting things into your head,” she said faintly. “It is cruel to torture me so. We know very well how we were married, and all about it, and so do our friends, and it is cruel to try to make me think of anything happening. There is nobody in the regiment so strong and well as you are,” she continued, taking courage a little. She thought to herself he looked, as people say, the picture of health, as he sat beside her, and she began to recover out of her prostration. As for spleen or liver, or any of those uncomfortable attributes, Major Ochterlony, up to this moment, had not known whether he possessed them—which was a most re-assuring thought, naturally, for his anxious wife.
“Thank God,” said the Major, with a little solemnity. It was not that he had any presentiment, or thought himself likely to die early; but simply that he was in a pathetic way, and had a naïf and innocent pleasure in deepening his effects; and then he took to walking about the room in his nervous manner. After a while he came to a dead stop before his wife, and took both her hands into his.
“Mary,” he said, “I know it’s an idea you don’t like; but, for my peace of mind; suppose—just suppose for the sake of supposing—that I was to die now, and leave you without a word to prove your claims. It would be ten times worse than death, Mary; but I could die at peace if you would only make one little sacrifice to my peace of mind.”
“Oh, Hugh, don’t kill me—you are not going to die,” was all Mary could say.
“No, my darling, not if I can help it; but if it were only for my peace of mind. There’s no harm in it that I can see. It’s ridiculous, you know; but that’s all, Mary,” said the Major, looking anxiously into her face. “Why, it is what hosts of people do every day. It is the easiest thing to do—a mere joke, for that matter. They will say, you know, that it is like Ochterlony, and a piece of his nonsense. I know how they talk; but never mind. I know very well there is nothing else you would not do for my peace of mind. It will set your future above all casualties, and it will be all over in half an hour. For instance, Churchill says——”
“You have spoken to Mr. Churchill, too?” said Mary, with a thrill of despair.
“A man can never do any harm speaking to his clergyman, I hope,” the Major said, peevishly. “What do you mean by too? I’ve only mentioned it to Kirkman besides—I wanted his advice—and to Sorbette, to explain that bad headache of yours. And they all think I am perfectly right.”
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