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Mary Cholmondeley was an English novelist. Her best-selling novel, Red Pottage, satirised religious hypocrisy and the narrowness of country life. Collection of 11 Works of Mary Cholmondeley________________________________________A DevoteeDiana Tempest, Volume IDiana Tempest, Volume IIDiana Tempest, Volume IIIMoth and RustNotwithstandingPrisonersRed PottageThe Danvers Jewels, and Sir Charles DanversThe Lowest RungThe Romance of His Life
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The Collected Complete Works of Mary Cholmondeley
Diana Tempest, Volume I
Diana Tempest, Volume II
Diana Tempest, Volume III
Moth and Rust
The Danvers Jewels, and Sir Charles Danvers
The Lowest Rung
The Romance of His Life
BYMARY CHOLMONDELEYAUTHOR OF'DIANA TEMPEST,' 'SIR CHARLES DANVERS,' AND 'THE DANVERS JEWELS'
'Yet to be loved makes not to love again;Not at my years, however it hold in youth.'TENNYSON.
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 such a woeful mistake in your early youth before you know what love and life are. They are terrible things, Sibyl; I have known them. This beautiful generous feeling which you have for me is not love, and I should be base indeed to allow you to wreck your life upon it, your youth upon the rock of my age. You offer you know not what; you would sacrifice you know not what.' He smiled gravely at her, endeavouring to soothe her growing agitation. 'It would be like taking the Koh-i-Noor out of the hand of a child. I could not do it.'
Her mind was in too great a tumult wholly to understand him, but one thing was clear to her, namely, that he was refusing to marry her. She snatched her hands out of his, and, starting wildly to her feet with an inarticulate cry, ran a short distance and flung herself down on her face among the bracken.
He looked after her, but he did not follow her. He could do no more, and a sense of exhaustion and distress was upon him. He had been clumsy. He had hurt the poor butterfly, after all.
He sat a long time on the tree-trunk, the low sunshine on his worn, patient face, on which the refinement of suffering and of thought had set their indelible stamp. And now the thin high features wore a new look of present distress over the old outlived troubles, a new look which anyone who really loved him would have been heart-stricken to have called into it. But when love ceases to wound its object, and bears its own cross, it has ceased to be young.
As he sat motionless the sun sank. Far in the amber west the heavens had opened in an agony of glory. The knotted arms of the great oaks, upraised like those of Moses and his brethren, shone red as flame against the darkness of the forest. The first hint of chill after the great heat came into the still air.
Mr. Loftus rose and went slowly towards the prostrate figure in its delicate gleaming gown.
'Sibyl,' he said gently, but with authority, 'you must get up. I see Doll and your cousin coming up the glade to meet us.'
Sibyl started violently and raised herself, turning a white, hopeless face towards him. Her entire self-abandonment, which would have brought acute humiliation to another woman, brought none to her. Her despair was too complete to admit of any other feeling.
'Like a child's,' he thought, as he looked at her sorrowing.
He helped her to smooth her gown, and he set her hat straight, and took some pieces of dried bracken out of her crumpled shining hair. She let him do it, neither helping nor hindering him. She evidently did not care what impression might be made on the minds of the two young people leisurely approaching them. She would have lain on the ground if it had been a bog instead of dry turf until the ice fit of despair had passed. His thoughtfulness for her, and the ashen tint of his face, were nothing to her, any more than the moonshine is to the child who has cried for the moon and has been denied it.
At Mr. Loftus's bidding they went slowly to meet the others.
'Doll,' said Mr. Loftus, lingering behind as Peggy and Sibyl walked on together, 'give me your arm. I feel ill.'
'Won't she have me?' said Doll, biting his lip.
'No, my poor boy, she won't.'
'But we are tired. At Life's crude handsWe ask no gift she understands;But kneel to him she hates to craveThe absolution of the grave.'MATHILDE BLIND.
THE laws of attraction remain a mystery. Their results we see. Glimpses of their workings can occasionally be caught in their broken fragments. But the curve by which the circle may be drawn is nowhere to be found among those fragments. The first cause we cannot see. With sacrilegious hands we may rend the veil of its temple in the sacred name of truth, but we shall find nothing in its holy of holies save the bloodstains of generations of sacrifices on its empty altar, and the place where the ark has been.
Youth, beauty, wit—all these attract; but they are only the momentary disciples of a great master, and their power is from him. In his name they perform a few works, and cast out a few small devils.
But now and again a nature appears in our midst in the presence of which youth sinks its voice, and beauty pales and hangs its head, and wit bends its knee in reverence.
What talisman had Mr. Loftus brought into the world with him that disinterested love and devotion should with one exception have followed him all the days of his life? But whether it had been given to him at his birth, or he had found it alone upon the hillside, or Sorrow, who has many treasures in her lap, but will never give them to those who turn from her, gave it to him when he kissed her hand—however this may have been, he had it.
He had gone through his difficult life little realizing how much he owed to the impersonal love and respect which he inspired in men and women, as a beautiful woman seldom realizes how life has been coloured for her by the colour of her hair and eyes.
His poetic exalted nature, with its tender affections, its deep passions, with its refinement and its delicacy of feeling, too sensitive to bear contact with this rough world, and yet not content to dwell apart from awkward fellow-creatures who wounded when they touched it, had leaned twice on the frail reed of personal love, and twice it had pierced his hand. After the second time he withdrew his scarred hand in silence, and journeyed on with it in his bosom.
In the days of his youth he had been swept into the vortex of a deep passion which for the time engulfed his whole being. His early marriage and his romantic love, and his young wife's desertion of him, consumed like a rolling prairie-fire his early life. But he had emerged with the mark of fire upon him, and had taken up life again, and had made a career for himself in the world of politics.
And he had reached middle age, he was a grave man with gray in his hair, before love came to him the second time. How he fared the second time no man knew; but afterwards the love of woman, deep-rooted though it was, died down in Mr. Loftus's heart. He went quietly on his way, but the way wearied him. He confided in no one, for he was burdened with many confidences, and those on whom others lean can seldom find a hand to lean on in their greater weakness and their deeper troubles.
But his physical health wavered. At last his heart became affected, and after a few warnings he was obliged to give up public life. He ceased to be in authority, but he remained an authority, and so lived patiently on from year to year on the verge of the grave, aware that at any moment the next step might be across its brink.
He had spoken the bare truth to Sibyl when he told her that his life hung by a thread. That this is so with all human life is a truism to which we all agree, but which none of us believe. But in his case the sword of Damocles was visible in the air above him. He never took for granted, if he went out for a walk, that he should return; and on this particular May afternoon, as he looked out from a friend's house in Park Lane across the street to the twinkle of green and the coloured bands of hyacinths beyond the railings, he locked his writing-table drawer from force of long habit, and burned the letters he had just read as carefully as if he were going on a long journey, instead of a short stroll across the park to Lady Pierpoint's house in Kensington.
It was a heavy trouble that he had just locked into the writing-table drawer—nothing less than the sale of Wilderleigh, which he and Doll, after much laying together of the gray head and the brown one, had both come to the conclusion could not be staved off any longer. For the newly-imposed death-duties and the increasing pressure of taxation on land, in the teeth of increasing agricultural depression, had been the death-blow of Wilderleigh, as of so many other quiet country homes and their owners. The new aristocracy of the ironmaster and the cheesemonger and the brewer had come to the birth, and the old must give way before the power of their money. Mr. Loftus accepted the inevitable, and Wilderleigh was to be sold.
He did not know for certain where Lady Pierpoint was to be found, but he would try the little house in Kensington. He had seen her driving alone the previous day, and he knew that she had quite recently returned with her daughter and niece from Egypt, where they had spent the winter months. Something in the glimpse of her passing face yesterday had awakened in him a vague suspicion that she was in trouble. She looked older and grayer, and why was she alone?
He took up his hat and, entering the Park, struck across the grass in the direction of the Albert Memorial, blinking in all its gilt in the afternoon sun. The blent green and gray of a May day in London had translated the prose of the Park into poetry. Here in the very heart of the vast machine, Spring had ventured to alight for a moment, undisturbed by the distant roar of dusty struggling life all round her. The new leaves on the smoke-black branches of the trees were for a moment green as those unfolding in country lanes. Smoke-black among the silvery grass men lay strewn in the sunshine, looking like cast-off rags flung down, outworn by humanity, whose great pulse was throbbing so near at hand. Across the tender beauty of the young year fell the shadow of crime and exhaustion, and 'the every-day tragedy of the cheapness of man.'
The shadow fell on Mr. Loftus's mind, and he had well-nigh reached Lady Pierpoint's door before his thoughts returned to her and to her niece, Sibyl Carruthers.
'Pretty, delicate, impulsive creature, so generous, so ignorant, so full of the ephemeral enthusiasms of youth which have no staying power. The real enthusiasms of life are made of sterner stuff than she, poor child! guesses. What will become of her? What man in the future will take her ardent, fragile devotion, and hold it without breaking it, and bask in the green springtide of her love without desecrating it, like those poor outcasts in the Park?'
Lady Pierpoint was at home, and he was presently ushered into the drawing-room, where she was sitting in her walking things. The room was without flowers, without books, without any of the small landmarks of occupation. It had evidently been arranged only for the briefest stay, and had as little welcome in it as a narrow mind.
Lady Pierpoint, pouring tea out of a metal teapot into an enormous teacup, looked also as if she were on the point of departure.
She greeted him cordially, and sent for another cup. A further glance showed him that she looked worn and harassed. Her cheerful motherly face was beginning to droop like a mastiff's at the corners of the mouth, in the manner in which anxiety cruelly writes itself on plump middle-aged faces.
'I am not really visible,' she said, smiling, as she handed him the large cup which matched her own. 'I cannot bring forth butter in a lordly dish, as you perceive, for everything is locked up. I am here only for two days, cook-hunting.'
Mr. Loftus had intended to ask after Sibyl, but he asked after Peggy instead.
'She is quite well,' said Lady Pierpoint. 'She is always well, I am thankful to say. I have another Peggy coming out this year—Molly—perhaps you remember her; but how to bring her to London this season I don't know. I have hardly seen anything of her all last winter, poor child! as I was in Egypt with Sibyl. I have only just returned to England.'
'And Miss Carruthers?' he said, examining his metal teaspoon; 'will not she be in London with you this season, with your own daughters?'
'No,' said Lady Pierpoint, looking narrowly at him; 'Sibyl is ill. I have been very anxious about her all the winter. I greatly fear that she will sink into a decline. You know, her sister died of consumption a year or two ago.'
Mr. Loftus looked blankly at Lady Pierpoint.
'Sibyl!' he said—'ill? Oh, surely there is some mistake? What do the doctors say?'
'They all say the same thing,' said Lady Pierpoint, her lips quivering. 'She had a cough last winter, and she is naturally delicate, but there is no actual disease as yet. But if she continues in this morbid state of health—if she goes on as she is at present—they say it will end in that.'
Mr. Loftus was silent.
Lady Pierpoint looked at his unconscious, saddened, world-weary face, and clasped her hands tightly together.
'Mr. Loftus,' she said, 'I am going to put a great strain on our friendship, and if I lose it, I must lose it. I have been thinking of writing to you, but I could not. I had thought of asking you to come and see me while I was alone here, but my courage failed me. But now that you have come by what is called chance, I dare not be a coward any longer. Sibyl has told me of what passed last summer between you and her.'
A faint colour came into Mr. Loftus's pale face. He kept his eyes on the floor.
'I think,' he said gently, but with a touch of reserve in his voice which did not escape his companion, 'we must both forget that as completely as she herself has probably already forgotten it.'
'She has not forgotten it,' said Lady Pierpoint, ignoring, though with a pang, his evident wish to dismiss the subject. 'It is that which is causing her ill-health. She can think of nothing else. Some of us,' she said sadly, 'are so constituted that we can bear trouble and disappointment—others can't. This poor child, who has cried for the moon, is not mentally and physically strong enough to bear the disappointment of being denied it. And the doctors say that her life is dependent on her happiness.'
Mr. Loftus rose, and paced up and down the room. She dared not look at him.
Presently he stopped, and, with his face turned away, said with emotion:
'But the moon is a dreary place if it is seen as it is, with its extinct volcanoes and its ice-fields. Nothing lives there. The fire in it is burnt out, and there is snow over the ashes. It is only in the eyes of a child that the moon is bright. We elders know that it is dark and desolate.'
Lady Pierpoint was awed. She had known Mr. Loftus for twenty years. He had been kind to her in the early years of her widowhood, and in the later ones had helped on her boys by his influence in high quarters. She had often told him of her difficulties, but she had never till now heard him speak of himself.
Her great admiration for him, which was of a humbler kind than Sibyl's, led her to say: 'It is not only in the child's eyes that the moon is bright.'
She might have added with truth that in her own middle-aged eyes it was bright, too.
'I greatly honoured you when Sibyl told me about it,' she continued, after a long pause. 'It is because I have entire trust in you that I have told you the truth about this poor child, who is as dear to me as my own, though I hope my own will face life more bravely. Should you, after reflection, feel able to do her this—this—great kindness, I hope you will come and stay with us at Abergower for Whitsuntide. But—I shall not expect you, and I shall not mention to anyone that I have asked you.'
She rose and held out her hand. She looked tired.
He held it a moment, and she endeavoured to read the grave, inscrutable glance that met hers, but she could not.
'Thank you,' he said, and went away.
'How dare she think of him?' said Lady Pierpoint to herself.
'L'amour est une source naïve, partie de son lit de cresson, de fleurs, de gravier, qui, rivière, qui, fleuve, change de nature et d'aspect à chaque flot.'—DE BALZAC.
IN England Spring is a poem. In the Highlands of Scotland she has the intensity of a passion. The crags and steeps are possessed by her; they stand transfigured like a stern man in the eyes of his bride. And here in these solemn depths and lonely heights, as nowhere else, shy Spring abandons herself, secure in the fastnesses where her every freak is loved. She sets the broom ablaze among the gray rocks, yellow along the river's edge, yet hardly yellower than the leaves on the young oak just above. The larches hear her voice, and hundred by hundred peep over each other's heads upon the hillside, all a-tremble with fairy green. The shoots of the dwarf cherry, scattered wide upon the uplands, are pink among the grass. The primroses are everywhere, though it is Whitsuntide—behind the stones, among the broom, beside the little tumbling streams, in every crevice, and on every foothold. The mountain-ash holds its white blossoms aloft in its careful spreading fingers. Even the silver birch forgets its sadness while spring reigns in Scotland.
There are those to whom she speaks of love, but there are many more to whom she whispers, 'Be comforted.' When hope leaves us, it is well to go out into the woods and listen to what Spring has to say. Though life is gray, the primroses are coming up all the same, and the young shafts of the bluebell pierce the soft earth in spite of our heartache. A hedge-sparrow has built him a house in the nearest tangle of white hawthorn. There will be children's voices in it presently. Be comforted. Hope is gone, but not lost. You shall meet her again in the faces of the children, God's other primroses. She is not lost. She has only taken her hand out of yours. Be comforted.
But Sibyl refused to be comforted. Her love for Mr. Loftus, if small things may be called by large names, was the first violent emotion of a feeble and impulsive mind in a feeble body, both swayed by veering influences, both shaken by the changing currents of early womanhood, as a silver birch is shaken with its leaves.
A woman with a deeper heart, and with a slight perception of Mr. Loftus's character, would have reverently folded her devotion in her heart and have gone on her way ennobled by it. But with Sibyl, to admire anything was to wish to possess it; to tire of anything was to cast it away.
Mr. Loftus was in her eyes without an equal in the world. Therefore—the reasoning from her point of view was conclusive—she must marry him. She had no knowledge, she had not even a glimpse, of the gulf of feeling, far wider than the gulf of years, which separated him from her. She imagined no one appreciated him, or entered into the dark places of his mind, as she did. She mistook his patient comprehension of her trivial aspirations, and his unfailing kindness to all young and crude ideas, for the perfect sympathy of two kindred souls, and was wont to speak mysteriously to Peggy of how minds that were really related drew each other out and enriched each other.
It is always a dangerous experiment to awaken a sleeping soul to the pageant of life. Mr. Loftus had endeavoured to do this for Sibyl, consciously, gently, with great care, out of the mixed admiration and pity with which she inspired him, in the hope that, in later years, when her feet would be swept from under her, she might find something to cling to, amid the wreck of happiness which his dispassionate gaze foresaw that she would one day achieve out of her life.
He had run the risk which all who would fain help others must be content to run—the risk that their work will be thrown away. He saw that the little rock-pool which reflected his own face was shallow, but he had not gauged the measure of its shallowness. His deep enthusiasms, tried and tempered before she was born, weary now with his own weariness, aroused hers as the Atlantic wave, sweeping up the rocks, just reaches and arouses the rock-pool, and sends a flight of ripples over it, which, if you look very close, break in mimic waves against the further edge. And before the thunder of the wave is silent the pool is glass once more.
On natures like these the only influence which can make any impression is a personal one. It is overwhelming while it lasts; but it is the teacher who is everything—the teaching is nothing. And when he is removed, they passively drift under another personal influence, as under another wave, and the work of the first, the foundation patiently and lovingly built in its pretty yellow sand, is swept away, or remains in futile fragments, as a mark of the folly of one who built on sand.
Certain strong, abiding principles Mr. Loftus had sought to instil into Sibyl's mind. She had perceived their truth and beauty; but she cared nothing for them in reality, and had fallen at the feet of the man who had awakened those exquisite feelings in her.
And now either she would not, or could not, get up. She clung to her imaginary passion with all the obstinacy which is inherent in weak natures. The disappointment had undermined her delicately-poised health. As she walked down towards the Spey alone on this particular June afternoon, she looked more fragile and ethereal than ever. The faint colour had gone from her cheek, and with it half her evanescent prettiness had departed. Her slight, willowy figure seemed to have no substance beneath the many folds of white material in which her despairing dressmaker had draped her. With the suicidal recklessness of youth, she made no attempt to turn her mind to other thoughts, but pondered instead upon her trouble, with the unreasoning rebellion against it with which, in early life, we all meet these friends in disguise.
She picked her way down the steep hillside, through the wakened broom and sleeping heather, and along the edge of the little oasis of oatfield, where so many thousands of round, river-worn stones had been gleaned into heaps, and where so many thousands still remained among the springing corn. The long labour and the patience and the partial failure which that little field meant, reclaimed from the heather, but not wholly reclaimed from the stones, had often touched Lady Pierpoint, who knew what labour was; but it did not appeal to Sibyl.
She sat down with a sigh on the river-bank, a forlorn white blot against the crowded world of green, with Crack, her little Scotch terrier, beside her, and looked listlessly across the sliding water, which ran deep and brown as Crack's brown eyes, and loitered shallow and yellow as a yellow sapphire among its clean gray stones and gleaming rocks. A pair of oyster-catchers sped upstream, low over the water, swift as eye could follow, with glad cries, like disembodied spirits that have found wings at last and feel the first rapture of proving them.
'Happy birds!' said Sibyl to herself. 'They do not know what trouble means.'
Crack, who had heard this sentiment, or something very like it, before, stretched himself methodically, both front-legs together first, and then the hind-legs one by one, and walked slowly down to the edge of the water and sniffed sadly, as one who knows that search is vain among the stones for a rat which is not there. Crack had a fixed melancholy which nothing could dispel. His early life had been passed in the activity of a camp, and his spirit seemed to have been permanently embittered by the close contemplation of military character. He had been round the world. He knew the principal smells of our Eastern empire, but no reminiscences of his many travels served to brighten the gloomy tenor of his thoughts. He was sad, disillusioned, still apt to hurry and shorten himself through doors, and to retreat under sofas to brood over imaginary wrongs. All games distressed him. He went indoors at once when the red ball was produced which transformed Peter from an elegant poodle into a bounding demon. But in spite of his melancholy he was liked. He went out but little, but where he went he was welcomed. He was a gentleman and a man of the world. No dog ever quarrelled with him. He met bristling overtures with a mournful tact which turned growls into waggings of tails. He himself was seldom seen to wag his tail, except in his sleep.
He returned from the water's edge and sat down on an outlying fold of Sibyl's gown.
In the sunny stillness a wild-duck, with cautious, advanced neck, and a little fleet of water-babies, paddled past, bobbing on the amber shallows. Crack raised his ears and watched them. His feelings were so entirely under control that he could scratch himself while observing an object of interest; and he did so now. But he did not move from his seat on Sibyl's gown. He was disillusioned about wild-ducks, who did not play fair and stick to one element, but would take to their wings when hard pressed in the water, like a woman who changes her ground when cornered in argument.
Presently the afternoon sun shifted, and all the larches on the steep hillside opposite and all the broom along the bank stooped to gaze at a flickering fairyland of broom and larches in the wide water. The deep valley of the river was drowned in light. Only the bank on which Sibyl was sitting under the mountain-ash had fallen suddenly into shadow.
'Like my life,' she thought, and rose to go.
Who was this coming slowly towards her along the little path by the water's edge?
She stood still, trembling, her hands pressed against her breast.
It was he. It was Mr. Loftus. He was looking for her. He was coming to her. Joy and terror seized her.
He saw her standing motionless in her white gown under the white blossom-laden tree. And as he drew near and took her nerveless hands in silence, and looked into her face, he saw again in her deep eyes the shy, imploring glance which had met him once before—the mute entreaty of love to be suffered to live.
'Sibyl,' he said, and in his voice there was reverence as well as tenderness—reverence for her untarnished youth, and tenderness for the white flower of love which it had put forth, 'will you be my wife?'
'J'ai vu sous le soleil tomber bien d'autres chosesQue les feuilles des bois et l'écume des eaux,Bien d'autres s'en aller que le parfum des rosesEt le chant des oiseaux.'ALFRED DE MUSSET.
'MUMMY,' said Peggy, a few days later, coming into her mother's sitting-room and pressing her round, cool cheek against Lady Pierpoint's, 'why does Sibyl want to marry Mr. Loftus?'
'Because she thinks she loves him, Peggy, as many other women have done before her.'
'I think I love him, too, in a way,' said Peggy. 'He is better than anybody. When I am with him, I feel—I don't know what I feel, only I know it's good, and I want to do something for him, or make him something really pretty for his handkerchiefs; but—I don't want to marry him.'
'That is as well, my treasure, as he is going to marry Sibyl.'
'I never thought he would marry anybody. I can't believe it. It seems as if it could not happen.'
'It will happen,' said Lady Pierpoint, 'if he lives.'
'Sibyl says,' continued Peggy, 'that he enters into her feelings as no one else does, and that she understands him, and that hardly anyone else does except her, because he is so superior.'
'And she says she can speak to him of aspirations and things that she can't even mention to Molly and me. She says it isn't our fault—it is only because we are different to her.'
'You are certainly very different,' said Lady Pierpoint, compressing her lips.
'And to think that she might have married Mr. Doll,' continued Peggy, as if Sibyl's actions were indeed inscrutable. 'Mr. Doll will be twenty-eight next August. He was twenty-seven when we were at Wilderleigh last year. If I had been Sibyl, I would have married him, and then I'll tell you, mummy, what I would have done. I would have asked Mr. Loftus to let us live with him at Wilderleigh, and I would have taken such care of him—oh! such care—and I would have spent whole bags of money on the farms and fences and things, and he would have been happy, and Mr. Doll would have been happy, too.'
'Peggy,' said Lady Pierpoint, 'shall I tell you a secret? I think that is exactly what Mr. Loftus hoped Sibyl would do.'
Mr. Loftus returned to London a day or two later, and had an interview with Doll the day before the announcement of the engagement appeared in the Morning Post.
Mr. Loftus was attached to his nephew—people always looked upon Doll as his nephew, though he was in reality his first cousin—and to him and to him alone he told the circumstances which had led to his engagement.
What passed between the elder man and the young one during that interview will never be known. But when at last Mr. Loftus left him, Doll sat for a long time looking over the geraniums into the park. The somewhat dull, unimaginative soul that dwelt behind his handsome expressionless face was vaguely stirred.
'It's a mistake,' he said at last, half aloud. 'But Uncle George is on the square; he always is.'
And when he was ruthlessly twitted next day by his brother officers on being cut out by his uncle, he replied simply enough:
'He is a better man than me, as all you fellows know. She would not have looked at one of you any more than she would at me. I suppose she had a fancy for marrying a man who could spell, which none of us can.'
'Spelling or none,' said the youngest sub—'which is an indecent subject which should never be mentioned between gentlemen—anyhow, I mean to borrow a thousand or a fiver off him. Mr. Loftus always tipped me at school.'
One of Mr. Loftus's first actions was to stop the preliminary proceedings regarding the sale of Wilderleigh, which he had been arranging a month ago, on the afternoon when he had called on Lady Pierpoint. It was like awakening from a nightmare to realize that Wilderleigh would not be sold, after all. He almost wished that he might live long enough to set the place in order for Doll.
The engagement was a nine days' wonder, and those nine days were purposely spent by Mr. Loftus in London. He was aware that many cruel things would be said at his expense, and that the bare fact that a man of his years and in his state of health should marry a young heiress, and so great an heiress as Sibyl Carruthers, must call forth unfavourable comments. People who did not know him said it was perfectly shameful, and that it was just the sort of thing which those people who posed as being so extra good always did. How shocked Mr. Loftus had pretended to be when old Lord Bugbear, after his infamous life, married a girl of seventeen! And now he, Mr. Loftus, was doing exactly the same himself. Of course he had a very fascinating manner—just the kind of manner to impose on a young girl who, like Miss Carruthers, knew nothing of the world, and had been nowhere. And everyone knew he was desperately poor. Wilderleigh could hardly pay its way. A rumour had long been afloat that it would shortly be for sale. If he had not been so hard up for money it would have been different; but it was a most disgraceful thing, and Lady Pierpoint ought to be ashamed of having exposed the poor motherless girl left in her charge to his designs upon her. They wondered how much Lady Pierpoint, whose means were narrow, had been bought over for. The sums varied according to the sordidness of the different speculators, who of course named their own price.
Others who knew Mr. Loftus were puzzled and were silent. To know him at all was to believe him to be incapable of an ignoble action; yet this marriage had the appearance of being ignoble—not, perhaps, for another man, but certainly for him. His intimate friends were distressed, and greeted him with grave cordiality and affection, and hoped for an explanation. He gave none. And they remembered that never in his public or in his private life had he been known to give an explanation of his conduct, and came to the conclusion that they must trust him.
Mr. Loftus had recognised early in life that explanations explain nothing. If those who had had opportunities of knowing him well misjudged him after those opportunities, they were at liberty to do so as far as he was concerned. The weight of an enormous acquaintance oppressed him, and, though he had never been known to wound anyone by withdrawing from an unequal friendship, which he had not been the one to begin, and which was an effort to him to continue, still, he took advantage of being misunderstood to lay aside many such friendships. It was not pride which prompted this line of action on Mr. Loftus's part, though many put it down to pride, especially those who had held aloof from him at a certain doubtful moment, and in whose regard subsequent events had entirely reinstated him, and who complained that he expected to be considered infallible. It was, in reality, the natural inclination of a world-weary man of the world to lay aside, as far as he could courteously do so, the claims of the artificial side of life, its vain forms, its empty hospitalities.
He realized that for the purpose of winnowing its friendships the various events of life may be relied on to furnish the fitting occasions. Those who do not wish to offend others by leaving them need make no effort, for they will certainly be presently deserted by those who have never grasped the meaning of the character which has been the object of their transient admiration. 'If he is unequal he will presently pass away.' Mr. Loftus neither hurried the unequal, self-constituted friend, nor sought to detain him. But when he departed, shaking the dust from off his feet, the door was noiselessly closed behind him, and his knock, however loud, was not heard when he returned again.
A small batch of uneasy admirers left him on the occasion of his engagement. They said openly that they were much disappointed in him, and that he had shaken their belief in human nature.
'Will Sibyl also pass away?' Mr. Loftus wondered, as he sat on the terrace at Wilderleigh on his return from London. 'Yes, she, too, will presently pass away; but I shall not give her time to do so. She will be absorbed by her first love for a few years, and I shall only remain a few years at longest. By the time it wanes I shall be gone, and my departure will pain her but very slightly.'
His face softened as he thought of Sibyl. His nature, which, in its far-away youth, had been imaginative and romantic, had remained sympathetic. He gauged, as few others could have done had they been the object of it, the measure of her romantic attachment to himself. It was perhaps safer in his hands than in those of a younger man. For youth perpetrates many murders and mutilations in the name of love, as the schoolboy's love of a butterfly finds expression in a pin and a cork. But it would have cut Sibyl to the heart if she had even guessed that his tranquil mind took for granted that her adoration would not last until the stars fell from heaven and the earth fell into the sun. For 'Les esprits faibles ne sont jamais sincères.' That is a hard saying, but alas! and alas! that it is only the weak who believe that it is not true. The strong know better, but if they are merciful they are silent.
'And so my second wife is also to be an esprit faible,' said Mr. Loftus to himself, looking at the past through half-closed eyes. 'But in the meanwhile I have learnt a lesson in natural history. I shall not expect my butterfly to hew wood and draw water. And this time I shall not break my heart because pretty wings are made to flutter with.'
And the remembrance slid through his mind of Millais's picture of the dying cavalier, and the butterfly perched upon the drawn sword in the ardent sunshine. And he thought of the drawn sword of Damocles hanging over his own life, and Sibyl's love preening itself for one brief second upon it. And at the thought he smiled.
'Je suis l'amante, dit-elle.Cueillez la branche de houx.'VICTOR HUGO.
'When all the world like some vast tidal wave withdraws.'—BUCHANAN.
MANY persons prophesied that the marriage between Mr. Loftus and Sibyl would not take place, but it did.
On a burning day late in July they were married in London, for Sibyl's country place, where Mr. Loftus had hoped the wedding might have taken place, was shut up.
Lady Pierpoint did all in her power to make the wedding a quiet one, for his sake. Very few invitations were sent out, and there was no reception afterwards. But, nevertheless, though the season was at its last gasp, when the day came the unfashionable London church was crammed with that 'smart' world, half of which had condemned Mr. Loftus, while it showered invitations upon him.
Many hundreds of eyes were fixed upon his stately feeble figure as he moved slowly forward to place himself beside the young girl, whose emotion was plainly visible, and whose bouquet shook in her hand. The contrast between the two, as they stood together, was of that glaring description which appeals to the vulgar and conventional mind, on which shades of difference are lost.
Mr. Loftus went through the ceremony with equanimity. His grave face betrayed nothing except fatigue and the fact that he was suffering from a severe headache. Lady Pierpoint and Doll watched him with anxiety, while Peggy, standing close behind the bride, wept silently, she knew not why.
'Oh, mummy,' she said afterwards when it was all over, and Sibyl, anxious, preoccupied, had left Lady Pierpoint and Peggy and Molly, who had been mother and sisters to her, without a tear, without a regret, without a backward look, absorbed in the one fact that Mr. Loftus was ill—'oh, mummy, you say Sibyl loves him so much. Is that why she did not mind going away from all of us a bit? I know he had a headache, but she never used to mind when you had a headache, and when she was ill, do you remember how she always sent for you, even when I told her you were resting? And yet she used to be a little fond of us. But since he came she does not seem to care for us any more. If one loves anybody, does one forget the others?'
'Some women do,' said Lady Pierpoint, taking Peggy's red, tear-stained face in her hands and kissing it. She could not bear to own, even to Peggy, how wounded her warm maternal heart had been because Sibyl, whose delicacy had given her so many anxious hours, had shown no feeling at parting with her. Mr. Loftus had shown much more, when he had come to speak to her alone for a few minutes in her sitting-room, when the carriage was at the door.
'Some women,' said Lady Pierpoint, looking wistfully at her daughter, 'forget everyone else when they marry, and are very proud of it. They think it shows how devoted they are. A little cup is soon full, Peggy, and a shallow heart, if it takes in a new love, has no room left for the old ones. The new love is like the cuckoo in the nest—it elbows out everything else.'
'I will not be like that,' said Peggy, crushing her mother and her mother's bonnet in an impulsive embrace. 'I will have a deep, deep heart, mummy, and no one shall ever go out that once comes in—and—oh, mummy, you shall have the best bedroom in my heart always!'
'I have a very foolish girl for a daughter,' said Lady Pierpoint, somewhat comforted, smiling through her tears, 'and one who has no respect for my best bonnet.'
* * * * *
At Sibyl's wish she and Mr. Loftus went straight to Wilderleigh. They reached it after several hours' journey on the evening of their wedding-day. And gradually the nervous exhaustion and acute headache from which he had been suffering, and which had become almost unbearable in the train, relaxed their hold upon him. They were sitting in the cool, scented twilight on the terrace. Through the half-darkness came the low voice of the river talking to itself. Noise and light and other voices, and this dreadful day, were gone at last.
He gave a sigh of relief and smiled deprecatingly at her. They had hardly spoken since they were married. She was sitting near him, a slender figure in her pale gown, that shimmered in the feeble light. But there was light enough for her to see him smile, and she smiled back at him with her whole heart in her lovely eyes. No thought of self lurked in those clear depths, and Mr. Loftus, looking into them, and remembering how, on this her wedding day, her whole mind had been absorbed, to the entire oblivion of a bride's divided feelings, in the one fact that he was suffering, was touched, but not with elation.
The long listless hand lying palm upwards on his knee made a slight movement, and in instant response to it her hand was placed in his. His closed over it. Perhaps nothing could have endeared her more to him than the mute response that had waited on his mute appeal, and had not forestalled it.
His hand clasping hers, he drew her slightly, and, obeying its pressure, she leaned towards him.
'My Sibyl!' he said, and she involuntarily drew closer to him, for something in his voice and manner, in spite of their exceeding gentleness and tenderness, seemed to remove him from her. 'Fate has been hard upon you that I should have been ill on your wedding-day.'
'No,' she said, timidly pushing off from shore into the new world upon her little raft. 'Fate was kind, because to-day has been the first day when I could be with you and take care of you.'
'You take too much care of me.'
'I care for nothing else,' she said, her voice faltering, adoration in her eyes.
One white star peered low in the western heaven through the violet dusk.
'Once long ago, before you were born,' said Mr. Loftus, 'I loved someone, and she said she loved me, and we were married. But after a time she brought trouble upon me, Sibyl.'
The great current had caught the little raft, and was hurrying it out to sea.
'I will never bring trouble upon you,' said the young girl, her lips trembling as she stooped to kiss his hand. 'When you are tired you shall lean on my arm. When your eyes are tired I will read to you. I will take care of you, and keep all trouble from you.'
'Till I die,' he said below his breath, more to himself than to her.
'Till you die,' she answered.
And so, but this time very lightly, Mr. Loftus leaned once again, or made as if he leaned, on the fragile reed of human love.
'He has nae mair sense o' humour than an owl, and a' aye haud that a man withoot humour sudna be allowed intae a poopit.'—IAN MACLAREN.
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