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Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (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".This is an autobiography.
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I WAS going home from the village, and it was an autumn evening, just after sunset, when every crop was cut and housed in our level country, and when the fields of stubble and browned grass had nothing on them, except here and there, a tree. They say our bare flats, in Cambridgeshire, are neither picturesque, nor beautiful. I cannot say for that—but I know no landscape has ever caught my eye like the long line of sunburnt, wiry grass, and the great, wide arch above, with all its shades of beautiful color. There were no hedgerows to skirt the path on which I was, and I saw nothing between me and the sky, save a solitary figure stalking along the highway, and in the other direction the clump of trees which surrounded Cottiswoode; the sky, in the west, was still full of the colors of the sunset, and from the horizon it rose upward in a multitude of tints and shades, the orange and red melting into a rosy flush which contrasted for a while, and then fell into the sweet, calm, peaceful tone of the full blue. In the time of the year, and the look of the night, there was alike that indescribable composure and satisfaction which are in the sunny evenings after harvest; the work was done, the day was fading, everything was going home; the rooks sailed over the sky, and the laborer trudged across the moor. Labor was over, and provision made, and the evening and the night, peace and refreshment, and rest were coming for every man. I do not suppose I noticed this at the time, but I have the strongest impression of it all in my remembrance now.
And I was passing along, as I always did, quickly and, perhaps, with a firmer and a steadier step than was usual to girls of my years, swinging in my hand a bit of briony, which, for the sake of its beautiful berries, I was carrying home, but which stood a good chance of being destroyed before we got there—not taking leisure to look much about me, thinking of nothing particular, with a little air of the superior, the lady of the manor, in my independent carriage—a little pride of proprietorship in my firm footstep.
I was going home—when there suddenly appeared two figures before me, advancing on my way. I say two figures, because in our country everything stands out so clear upon the great universal background of sky, that I could not so truly say it was a man and a boy, as two dark outlines, clearly marked and separated from the low, broad level of the country, and the arch of heaven, which now approached upon me. I cannot help an unconscious estimate of character from the tricks of gesture and carriage, which, perhaps, could not have been so visible anywhere else, as here, upon this flat, unbroken road. One of these figures was a stooping and pliant one, with a sort of sinuous twisting motion, noiseless and sidelong, as if his habit was to twist and glide through ways too narrow to admit the passage of a man; the other form was that of a boy—a slight figure, which, to my perfect health and girlish courage, looked timid and hesitating; the brightness of the sky behind cast the faces of the strangers into shadow—but my eye was caught by the unfamiliar outlines; they were strangers, that was sure.
We gradually approached nearer, for I was walking quickly, though their pace was slow; but before we met my thoughts had wandered off from them, and I was greatly astonished by the sudden address which brought me to an abrupt pause before them. “Young lady,” the man said, with an awkward bow, “what is your name?”
I was a country girl, and utterly beyond the reach of fear from impertinence. I was my father’s daughter, moreover, and loftily persuaded that nothing disrespectful could approach me. I answered immediately with a little scorn of the question—for to be unknown in my own country was a new sensation—“I am Hester Southcote, of Cottiswoode,” and having said so, was about to pass on.
“Ah, indeed! it is just as I thought, then,” said the stranger, wheeling his young companion round, so as to place him side by side with me. “We are going back to Cottiswoode—we will have the pleasure of your company; I am quite happy we have met.”
But my girlish disdain did not annihilate the bold intruder; it only brought a disagreeable smile to his mouth which made him look still more like some dangerous unknown animal to me. I was not very well versed in society, nor much acquainted with the world, but I knew by intuition that this person, though quite as well dressed as any one I had ever seen, was not a gentleman; he was one of those nondescripts whom you could not respect either for wealth or poverty—one of those few people you could be disrespectful to, without blushing for yourself.
“Do you want any thing at Cottiswoode?” I asked accordingly, not at all endeavoring to conceal that I thought my new companion a very unsuitable visitor at my father’s house.
“Yes! we want a great deal at Cottiswoode,” said the stranger, significantly; and as I raised my head in wonder and indignation, I could not but observe how the boy lagged behind, and how his companion constantly attempted to drag him forward close to me.
With an impatient impulse, I gathered up the folds of my dress in my hand and drew another step apart. I was the only child of a haughty gentleman. I did not know what it was to be addressed in the tone of a superior, and I was fully more annoyed than angry—but with a young girl’s grand and innocent assumption, I held my head higher. “You are not aware whom you are speaking to,” I said, proudly; but I was very much confused and disconcerted when the stranger answered me by a laugh—and the laugh was still less pleasant than the smile, for there was irritation mingled with its sneer.
“I am perfectly aware whom I am speaking to, Miss,” he said, rather more coarsely than he had yet spoken; “better aware than the young lady is who tells me so, or than my lord himself among the trees yonder,” and he pointed at Cottiswoode, to which we were drawing near. “But you will find it best to be friends,” he continued, after a moment, in a tone intended to be light and easy, “look what I have brought you—here’s this pretty young gentleman is your cousin.”
“My cousin!” I said, with great astonishment, “I have no cousin.”
“Oh, no! I dare say!” said the man, with such a sneer of insinuation, that in my childish passion I could have struck him, almost. “I’d disown him, out and out, if I were you.”
“What do you mean, sir?” I said, stopping short and turning round upon him; then my eye caught the face of the boy, which was naturally pale, but now greatly flushed with shame and anger, as I thought; he looked shrinking, and timid, and weak, with his delicate blue-veined temples, his long, fair hair, and refined mild face. I felt myself so strong, so sunburnt, so ruddy, and with such a strength and wealth of life, in presence of this delicate and hesitating boy. “What does he mean,” I repeated, addressing him, “does he mean that I say what is not true?”
“I will tell you what I mean, my dear young lady,” said the man, suddenly changing his tone, “I mean what I have just been to tell your amiable father; though, of course, both yourself and the good gentleman have your own reasons for doubting me—I mean that this is your cousin, Mr. Edgar Southcote, the son of your father’s elder brother, Brian Southcote, who died in India ten years ago—that’s what I mean!”
The man had his eyes fixed upon me with a broad full gaze, as if he expected a contradiction; but, of course, after hearing this, I did not care in the least how the man looked, or what he had to do with it—I turned very eagerly to look at the boy.
“Are you really my cousin?” said I, “have you just come from India? why did we never know before? and your name is Edgar?—a great many of the Southcotes have been called Edgar—how old are you?—I never knew I had a cousin, or any near friends, and neither did papa; but I have heard every body talk of uncle Brian. Poor boy! you have no father—you are not so happy as I—”
But to my great amazement, and just at the moment I was holding out my hand to him, and was about to say that my father would love him as he did me—my new cousin, a boy, a man—he ought to have had more spirit!—suddenly burst into a great fit of tears, and in the strangest passionate manner, cried out to the man, “I cannot bear it, Saville—Saville, take me away!”
I had no longer any curiosity or care about the man; but I was very much surprised at this, and could not understand it—and I was a little ashamed and indignant besides to see a boy cry.
“What is the matter?” I asked again, with some of my natural imperiousness, “why do you cry—is anything wrong? Is your name Edgar Southcote, and yet you cry like a child? Do you not know we are called the proudest house in the country; and what is this man doing, or what does he want here? why should he take you away? you ought to be at Cottiswoode if you are Edgar Southcote—what do you mean?”
“Cheer up, Master Edgar—your cousin is quite right, you ought to be at Cottiswoode, and nowhere else, my boy,” said the man, giving him such a blow on the shoulders, in encouragement, that the delicate boy trembled under it. “Why, where is your spirit! come, come, since the young lady’s owned you, we’ll go straight to the old gentleman again; and you’ll see what papa will say to you, Miss, when he sees what you bring him home.”
I did not answer, but turned away my head from this person, who filled me with disgust and annoyance: then their slow pace roused me to impatience. I was always a few steps before them, for Saville’s gliding pace was uniformly slow, and the pale boy, who was called my cousin, lingered still more than his companion. He never answered me—not a word, though I put so many questions to him, and he seemed so downcast and sad, so unlike a boy going home—so very, very unlike me, that I could not understand him. I was so very eager to return to tell my father, and to ask him if this was truly an Edgar Southcote, that our slow progress chafed me the more.
We were now drawing very near to Cottiswoode; every dark leaf of the trees was engraved on the flush of many colors which still showed in the sky the road where the sun had gone down—and among them rose my father’s house, the home of our race, with its turrets rising gray upon the sky like an old chateau of France or Scotland, without a hill in sight to harmonize that picturesque architecture: nothing but the elm trees and the olive shade of the great walnut, with the flat moors and sunburnt grass, running away in vast level lines into the sky. Cottiswoode, the house of all our ancestors, where every room was a chapter in the history of our name, and every Southcote of renown still lived upon the ancient walls—I could not fancy one of us approaching, without a flush and tremor, the family dwelling-place. But Edgar Southcote’s pale cheek was not warmed by the faintest color—I thought he looked as if he must faint or die—he no longer glanced at me or at his companion; and when I turned to him, I saw only the pale eyelids with their long lashes, the drooping head, and foot that faltered now at every step—a strange boy! could he be of our blood after all?
The front of Cottiswoode was somewhat gloomy, for there was only a carriage-road sweeping through the trees, and a small shrubbery thickly planted with evergreens before the great door. When we were near enough, I saw my father pacing up and down hurriedly through the avenue of elms which reaches up to the shrubbery. When I saw him, I became still more perplexed than before—my father was reserved, and never betrayed himself or his emotions to the common eye; I could not comprehend why he was here, showing an evident agitation, and disturbed entirely out of his usual calm.
And as quickly as I did, the stranger noticed him. This man fixed his eye upon my father with a sneer, which roused once more to the utmost, my girlish passion. I could not tell what it meant, but there was an insinuation in it, which stung me beyond bearing, especially when I saw the trouble on my father’s face, which was generally so calm. I hurried forward anxious to be first, yet involuntarily waiting for my strange companions. The man too quickened his pace a little, but the boy lagged behind so drearily, and drooped his head with such a pertinacious sadness—though the very elm trees of Cottiswoode were rustling their leaves above him—that in my heat, and haste, and eagerness, I knew not what to do.
“Papa!” I said anxiously; my father heard me, and turned round with a sudden eager start, as though he was glad of my coming; but when he met my glance, and saw how I was accompanied, I cannot describe the flash of resentment, of haughty inquiry, and bitterness that shone from my father’s eye—I saw it, but was too much excited to ask for an explanation. “Papa,” I cried, again springing forward upon his arm, “this is Edgar Southcote, my cousin—did they tell you? I am sorry he does not seem to care for coming home, but he has been all his life in India, I suppose—Uncle Brian’s son, papa—and his name is Edgar! did you send him to meet me? tell him you are glad that he has come home; look at Cottiswoode, Edgar—dear Cottiswoode, where all the Southcotes lived and died. What ails him? I believe he will faint. Papa—papa, let the boy know he is welcome home!”
“Hester!” said my father in an ominous cold tone, “restrain your feelings—I have no reason to believe there is an Edgar Southcote in existence. I do not believe my brother Brian left a son—I cannot receive this boy as Edgar Southcote—he may be this man’s son for aught I know.”
The boy’s wan face woke up at these words; he shook his long hair slightly back upon the faint wind, and raised his eyes full of sudden light and courage. I understood nothing of my father’s reluctance to acknowledge the stranger. I pleaded his cause with all my heart.
“He is not this man’s son,” I exclaimed eagerly, “papa, he is a gentleman! Look, he has been so sad and downcast till now, but he wakes when you accuse him—he is an orphan, poor boy, poor boy! say he is welcome home.”
“You had best,” said Saville, and the contrast between my own voice of excitement, and these significant tones with their constant sneer and insinuation of evil, struck me very strangely, “the young lady is wise—it is your best policy, I can tell you, to receive him well in his own house.”
My father’s haughty face flushed with an intolerable sense of insult, and I saw Edgar shrink as if something had stung him. “Hester, my love, leave me!” said my father, “I will deal with this fellow alone. Go, keep your kind heart for your friends. I tell you these pretensions are false—do you hear me, child?”
I never doubted my father before; when I looked from his face which was full of passion, yet clouded with an indescribable shadow of doubt, to the insolent mocking of the man beside him, I grew bewildered and uncertain; did my father believe himself? Yet I neither could nor would put faith in the elder stranger. I had been so constantly with my father, and had so much licence given me, that I could not obey him; and I did what I have always done—I suddenly obeyed my own sudden impulse, and turned to the boy.
“I do not believe what he will say,” I said rapidly, “but I will trust you; are you Edgar Southcote? are you my cousin? you will not tell a lie.”
The boy paused, hesitated; but he had raised his eyes to mine, and he did not withdraw them. His face crimsoned over with a delicate yet deep flush, like a girl’s—then he grew pale—and then he said slowly—
“I cannot tell a lie—my father’s name was Brian Southcote, I am Edgar; I will not deny my name.”
I cried out triumphantly, “Now, papa!” but my father made an impatient gesture commanding me away; it was so distinctly a command now, that I was awed and dared not disobey him. I turned away very slowly through the thick evergreens, looking back and lingering as I went. I was just about to turn round by the great Portugal laurel, which would have hid from me these three figures standing together among the elm trees and against the sky, when my father called me to him again. I returned towards him gladly, for I had been very reluctant to go away.
“Hester, these gentlemen will accompany you,” he said, with a contemptuous emphasis, “show them to my library, and I will come to you.”
I cannot tell to what a pitch my anxiety and excitement had risen—it was so high, at least, that without question or remark, only very quickly and silently, I conducted my companions to the house, and introduced them to my father’s favorite room, the library. It was a very long, large room, rather gloomy in the greater part of it, but with one recessed and windowed corner as bright as day. My life had known no studies and few pleasures, that were not associated with this un-bright corner, with its cushioned window-seat and beautiful oriel. When we entered, it was almost twilight by my father’s writing-table, behind which was the great window with the fragrant walnut foliage overshadowing it like a miniature forest—but a clear, pale light, the evening blessing—light, as sweet and calm as heaven itself, shone in upon my little vase of faint, sweet roses—roses gathered from a tree that blossomed all the year through, but all the year through was sad and faint, and never came to the flush of June. Edgar Southcote sank wearily into a chair almost by the door of the library, but Saville, whom I almost began to hate, bustled about at once from one window to another, looking at everything.
“Fine old room—I’d make two of it,” said this fellow; “have down a modern architect, my boy, and make the place something like. Eh, Edgar! what, tired? you had better pluck up a spirit, or how am I to manage this worthy, disinterested uncle of yours?”
I could not let the man think I had heard him, but left the room to seek my father—what could he mean? I met my father at the door, and with a slight wave of his hand bidding me follow him, he went on before me to the dining parlor, the only other room we used; my excitement had deepened into painful anxiety—something was wrong—it was a new thought and a new emotion to me.
“What is the matter, papa?” I said, anxiously, “what is wrong? what has happened? do you think this is not my cousin, or are you angry that he has come? Father, you loved my uncle Brian, do you not love his son?”
“Hester!” said my father, turning away his troubled face from my gaze and the light, “I will not believe that this boy is my brother Brian’s son.”
“But he says he is, papa,” I answered, with eagerness; I did not believe in lying, and Edgar Southcote’s pale face was beyond the possibility of untruth.
“It is worth his while to say it,” my father exclaimed hurriedly; then a strange spasm of agitation crossed his face—he turned to me again as if with an irrestrainable impulse to confide his trouble to me. “Hester! Brian was my elder brother,” he said in a low, quick whisper, and almost stealthily. I did not comprehend him. I was only a child—the real cause of his distress never occurred to me.
“I know it would be very hard to take him home to Cottiswoode for a Southcote, and then to find out he was not uncle Brian’s son,” I said, looking up anxiously at my father, “and you know better than I, and remember my uncle; but papa—I believe him—see! I knew it—he is like that picture there!”
My father turned to the picture with a start of terror; it was an Edgar Southcote I was pointing to—a philosopher; one of the few of our house, who loved wisdom better than houses or lands, one who had died early after a sad short life. My father’s face burned as he looked at the picture; the refined visionary head drooping over a book, and the large delicate eyelids with their long lashes were so like, so very like!—it struck him in a moment. “Papa, I believe him,” I repeated very earnestly. My father started from me, and paced about the room in angry agitation.
“I have trained you to be mistress of Cottiswoode, Hester,” he said, when he returned to me. “I have taught you from your cradle to esteem above all things your name and your race—and now, and now, child, do you not understand me? if this boy is Brian’s son, Cottiswoode is his!”
It was like a flash of sudden lightning in the dark, revealing for an instant everything around, so terribly clear and visible—I could not speak at first. I felt as if the withering light had struck me, and I shivered and put forth all my strength to stand erect and still; then I felt my face burn as if my veins were bursting. “This was what he meant!”
“What, who meant? Who?” cried my father.
“You believe he is Edgar Southcote, papa?” said I, “you believe him as I do; I see it in your face—and the man sneers at you—you, father! because it is your interest to deny the boy. Let us go away, and leave him Cottiswoode if it is his; you would not do him wrong, you would not deny him his right—father, father, come away!”
And I saw him, a man whose calm was never broken by the usual excitements of life, a man so haughty and reserved that he never showed his emotions even to me—I saw him dash his clenched hand into the air with a fury and agony terrible to see. I could not move nor speak, I only stood and gazed at him, following his rapid movements as he went and came in his passion of excitement, pacing about the room; the every day good order and arrangement of every thing around us; the calm light of evening, which began to darken; the quiet house where there was no sound of disturbance, but only the softened hum of tranquil life—the trees rustling without, the grass growing, and night coming softly down out of the skies; nothing sympathized with his fiery passion, except his daughter who stood gazing at him, half a woman, half a child—and nothing at all in all the world sympathized with me.
Very gradually he calmed, and the paroxysm was over; then my father came to me, and put his hands on my shoulders, and looked into my strained eyes; I could not bear his gaze, though I had been gazing at him so long, and thick and heavy, my tears began to fall; then he stooped over me and kissed my brow. “My disinherited child!” that was all he said—and he left me and went away.
Then I sat down on the carpet by the low window, and cried—cried “as if my heart were breaking,” but hearts do not break that get relief in such a flood of child’s tears. I felt something in my hand as I put it up to my wet eyes. It was the bit of briony which I had carried unwittingly a long, long way, through all my first shock of trouble. Yes! there were the beautiful tinted berries in their clusters uninjured even by my hand—but the stem was crushed and broken, and could support them no longer; the sight of it roused me out of my vague but bitter distress—I spread it out upon my hand listlessly, and thought of the low hedge from which I had pulled it, a bank of flowers the whole summer through. It was our own land—our own land—was it ours no longer now?
In a very short time, I was disturbed by steps and voices, and my father came into the room with Edgar and his disagreeable companion; then came Whitehead, bringing in the urn and tea-tray, and I had to make tea for them. I did not speak at all, neither did my new cousin; and my father was polite, but very lofty and reserved, and behaved to Saville with such a grand courtesy, as a prince might have shown to a peasant; the man was overpowered and silenced by it, I saw, and could no longer be insolent, though he tried. My father took his cup of tea very slowly and deliberately, and then he rose and said, “I am quite at your service,” and Saville followed him out of the room.
We two were left together; my new cousin was about my own age I thought—though indeed he was older—but while I had the courage of health and high spirits, of an unreproved and almost uncontrolled childhood, the boy was timid as a weak frame, a susceptible temper, and a lonely orphanhood could make him. We sat far apart from each other, in the large dark room, and did not speak a word; a strange sudden bitterness and resentment against this intruder had come to my heart. I looked with contempt and dislike at his slight form and pallid face. I raised my own head with a double pride and haughtiness—this was the heir of Cottiswoode and of the Southcotes, this lad whose eye never kindled at sight of the old house—and I was disinherited!
It grew gradually dark, but I sat brooding in my bitterness and anger, and never thought of getting lights. The trees were stirring without, in the faint night wind which sighed about Cottiswoode, and I could see the pensive stars coming out one by one on the vast breadth of sky—but nothing stirred within. Edgar was at one end of the room, I at the other—he did not disturb me, and I never spoke to him, but involuntarily all this time, I was watching him—he could not raise his hand to his head but I saw it; he could not move upon his chair without my instant observation; for all so dark as the room was, and so absorbed in my own thoughts as was I.
At length my heart beat to see him rise and approach towards me. I was tempted to spring up, to denounce and defy the intruder, and leave him so—but I did not—I only rose and waited for him, leaning against the window. He came up with his soft step stealing through the darkness. “Cousin,” he said, in a low voice, which sounded very youthful, yet had a ring of manhood in it, too, “cousin, it is not Edgar Southcote who has come to Cottiswoode, but a great misfortune—what am I to do?—you took part with me, you believed me, Hester: tell me what I am to do to make myself something else than a calamity to my Uncle and to you?”
He spoke very earnestly, but his voice did not touch my heart, it only quickened my resentment. “Do nothing except justice,” said I, in my girlish, passionate way. “We are Southcotes, do you think we cannot bear a misfortune? but you do not know your race, nor what it is. If you are the heir of Cottiswoode do you think anything you could do, would make my father keep what is not his? No, you can do nothing except justice. My father is not a man to be pitied.”
“Nor do I mean to pity him,” said the boy, gently, “I respect my father’s brother, though my father’s brother doubts me. Will you throw me off then? you judge of me, perhaps, by my companion. Ah! that would be just; I do not care for justice, cousin Hester; I want that which you reject so bitterly—pity, compassion, love!”
“Pity is a cheat,” said I, quoting words which my father had often said, “and when you have justice you will not need pity.”
He stood looking at me for a moment, and though my pride would not give way, my heart relented. “When I have justice—is that when I have my father’s inheritance?” said Edgar, slowly, “that will not give me a father, or a mother, or a friend. I will need pity more, and not less, than now.”
He did not speak again, and I could not answer him; no, I could not answer his gentle words, nor open my heart to him again. A stranger, an unknown boy; and he was to take from my father his ancestral house, his lands, his very rank and degree! I clasped my hands and hardened my heart; let him have justice, I said within myself—justice—we would await it proudly, and obey it without a murmur; but we rejected the sympathy of our supplanter; let him, as we did, stand alone.
But I could not help a wistful look after him as Edgar went away with his most unsuitable companion along the level, dark, long road to the village inn. My father stood with me at the door gazing after them, with a strange, fascinated eye, and when they passed into the distance out of our sight, he drew a long breath of relief, and, in a faint voice, bade me come in. I followed him to the library where lights were burning. The large, dim room looked chill and desolate as we entered it, and I saw a chair thrust aside from the table, where Saville had been sitting opposite my father. I stood beside him now, for he held my hand and would not let me go. He had been quite dignified and self-possessed when we parted with the strangers, but now his face relaxed into a strange ease and weariness. We were alone in the world, my father and I, but his thoughts were not often such as could be told to a girl like me; and I think I had never felt such a thrill of affectionate delight as now, when I saw him yield before me to his new trouble—when he took his child into his confidence, and suffered no veil of appearance to interpose between us.
“Hester,” he said, holding my hand lightly in his own; “I have heard all this story; the man is a relation, he tells me, of Brian’s wife; and though I cannot understand how my brother should so have demeaned himself, yet the story, I cannot dispute, has much appearance of truth. I like to be prepared for the worst—Hester! I wish you to think of it. Do you understand at all what will happen to us if this be true?”
“Scarcely, papa,” said I.
“Cottiswoode will be ours no longer; the rank and consideration we have been accustomed to, will be ours no longer,” said my father, with a slight shudder. “Hester, do you hear what I say?”
“Yes, I am thinking, papa,” said I, “poverty, want—I know the words; but I do not know what they mean.”
“We shall not have poverty or want to undergo,” said my father quickly, with a little impatience, “we will have to endure downfall, Hester—overthrow, exile and banishment—worse things than want or poverty. We shall have to endure—child, child, go to your child’s rest, and close those bright, questioning eyes of yours! You do not understand what this grievous calamity is to me!”
I withdrew from him a little, pained and cast down, while he rose once more, and paced the room with measured steps. I watched his lofty figure retiring into the darkness and returning to the light with reverence and awe. He was not a country gentleman dispossessed of his property to my overstrained imagination, but a king compelled to abdicate, a sovereign prince banished from his dominions; and his own feelings were as romantic, as exalted, I might say as exaggerated as mine.
After a little while he returned to me, restored to his usual composure.
“It is time to go to rest, Hester—good-night. In the morning I will know better what this is; and to-morrow—to-morrow,” he drew a long breath as he stooped over me, “to-morrow we will gird ourselves for our overthrow. Good-night!”
And this was now the night-fall on the first day which I can detach and separate from all the childhood and youthful years before it—the beginning of the days of my life.
IT was late in October, and winter was coming fast; in all the paths about Cottiswoode the fallen leaves lay thick, and every breath of air brought them down in showers. But though these breezes were so melancholy at night when they moaned about the house, as if in lamentation for us, who were going away, in the morning when the sun was out the chilled gale was only bracing and full of wild pleasure, as it blew full over the level of our moors, with nothing to break its force for miles.
My own pale monthly rose had its few faint blossoms always; but I do not like the flowers of autumn, those ragged dull chrysanthemums and grand dahlias which are more like shrubs than flowers. The jessamine that waved into my window was always wet, and constantly dropping a little dark melancholy leaflet upon the window-ledge—and darker than ever were the evergreens—those gloomy lifeless trees which have no sympathy with nature. Before this, every change of the seasons brought only a varied interest to me; but this year, I could see nothing but melancholy and discouragement in the waning autumn, the lengthening nights and the chilled days. I still took long rambles on the flat high roads, and through the dry stubble fields and sun-burnt moors—but I was restless and disconsolate; this morning I returned from a long walk, tired, as it is so unnatural to feel in the morning—impatient at the wind that caught my dress, and at the leaves that dropped down upon me as I came up the avenue—wondering where all the light and color had gone which used to flush with such a splendid animation the great world of sky, where everything now was cold blue and watery white—looking up at Cottiswoode, where all the upper windows were open, admitting a damp unfriendly breeze. Cottiswoode itself, for the first time, looked deserted and dreary; oh, these opened windows! how comfortless they looked, and how well I could perceive the air of weary excitement about the whole house—for we were to leave it to-day.
The table was spread for breakfast in the dining-parlor; but already a few things were away, an old-fashioned cabinet which had been my mother’s and the little book-case where were all the books in their faded pretty bindings which had been given to her when she was a young lady and a bride—these were mine, and had always been called mine, and the wall looked very blank where they had stood; and my chair, with the embroidered cover of my mother’s own working; I missed it whenever I came into the room. There were other things gone too, everything which was my father’s own, and did not belong to Cottiswoode, and everybody knows how desolate a room looks which has nothing but the barely necessary furniture—the table and the chairs. To make it a little less miserable, a fire had been lighted; but it was only raw, and half kindled, and, I think, if possible, made this bare room look even less like home. My tears almost choked me when I came into it; but I was very haughty and proud in my downfall and would not cry, though I longed to do it. My father was still in the library, and I went to seek him there. He was sitting by his own table doing nothing, though he had writing materials by him, and a book at his hand. He was leaning his head upon both his hands, and looking full before him into the vacant air, with the fixed gaze of thought—I saw, that from his still and composed countenance, his proud will had banished every trace of emotion—yet I saw, nevertheless, how underneath this calm exterior, his heart was running over with the troubles and remembrances of his subdued and passionate life.
For I knew my father was passionate in everything, despite his habitual restraint and quietness—passionate in his few deep-seated and unchanging loves—and passionate in the strong, but always suppressed resentment which he kept under as a Christian, but never subdued as a man. I stood back as I looked, in reverence for the suffering it must have cost him to retrace, as I saw he was doing, all his life at Cottiswoode; but he heard the rustle of my dress, and, starting with an impatient exclamation, called me to him. “Breakfast, papa,” said I, hesitating, and with humility—a strange smile broke on his face.
“Surely, Hester, let us go to breakfast,” he said, rising slowly as if his very movements required deliberation to preserve their poise and balance—and then he took me by the hand, as he had done when I was a child, and we went from the one room to the other, and sat down at a corner of the long dining-table—for our pleasant round table at which we usually breakfasted, had, like the other things, been taken away.
My father made a poor pretence to eat—and kept up a wavering conversation with me about books and study. I tried to answer him as well as I was able; but it was strange to be talking of indifferent things the day we were to leave Cottiswoode, and my heart seemed to flutter at my throat and choked me, when I ventured a glance round the room. More than a month had passed since that visit of misfortune had brought a new claimant upon our undisturbed possession, and Edgar Southcote’s rights had been very clearly made out, and this was why we were to leave to-day.
We were still sitting at the breakfast-table, when the letters were brought in. My father opened one of them, glanced over it, and then tossed it to me. It was a letter from my cousin, such a one as he had several times received before, entreating him with the most urgent supplications to remain in Cottiswoode. It was a very simple boyish letter, but earnest and sincere enough to have merited better treatment at our hands—I have it still, and had almost cried over it, when I saw it the last time—though I read it with resentment this morning, and lifted my head haughtily, and exclaimed at the boy’s presumption: “I suppose he would like to give us permission to stay in Cottiswoode,” I said bitterly, and my father smiled at me as he rose and went back to the library—I knew him better than to disturb him again, so I hurried out of the room which was so miserable to look at, and went to my own chamber up-stairs.
My pretty room with its bright chintz hangings, and its muslin draperies which I did not care for, and yet loved! for I was not a young lady at this time, but only a courageous independent girl, brought up by a man, and more accustomed to a library than a boudoir; and feminine tastes were scarcely awakened in me. I was more a copy of my father than anything else; but still with a natural love of the beautiful, I liked my pretty curtains, and snowy festoons of muslin—I liked the delicacy and grace they gave—I liked the inferred reverence for my youth and womanhood which claimed these innocent adornments; and more than all I loved Alice, who provided them for me. Alice was my own attendant, my friend and guide and counsellor; she was a servant, yet she was the only woman whom I held in perfect respect, and trusted with all my heart. After my father, I loved Alice best of all the world; but with a very different love. In my intercourse with my father, he was the actor and I the looker-on, proud when he permitted me to sympathize with him, doubly proud when he opened his mind, and showed me what he felt and thought. To bring my little troubles and annoyances, my girlish outbreaks of indignation or of pleasure to disturb his calm, would have been desecration—but I poured them all in the fullest detail into the ear of Alice, and with every one of the constant claims I made upon her sympathy, I think Alice loved me better. When I was ill, I would rather have leaned upon her kind shoulder than on any pillow, and nothing ever happened to me or in my presence, but I was restless till Alice knew of it. I think, even, her inferior position gave a greater charm to our intercourse—I think an old attached and respected servant is the most delightful of confidants to a child; but, however that may be, Alice was my audience, my chorus, everything to me.
Alice was about forty at this time, I suppose; she had been my mother’s maid, and my nurse, always an important person in the house; she was tall, with rather a large face, and a sweet bright complexion, which always looked fresh and clear like a summer morning; she was not very remarkable for her taste in dress—her caps were always snow-white, her large white aprons so soft and spotless, that I liked to lay my cheek on them, and go to sleep there, as I did when I was a child; but the gown she usually wore was of dark green stuff, very cold and gloomy like the evergreens, and the little printed cashmere shawl on her shoulders would have been almost dingy, but for the white, white muslin kerchief that pressed out of it at the throat and breast. She had large hands, brown and wrinkled, but with such a soft silken touch of kindness;—and this was my Alice as she stood folding up the pretty chintz curtains in my dismantled room.
“Oh, Alice! isn’t it miserable?” I cried while I stood by her side, looking round upon the gradual destruction—I did not want to cry; but it cost me a great effort to keep down the gathering tears.
“Sad enough, Miss Hester,” said Alice, “but, do you know, if you had been brought up in a town, you would not have minded a removal; and you shall soon see such a pretty room in Cambridge that you will not think of Cottiswoode—”
“No place in the world can ever be like Cottiswoode to me,” said I with a little indignation that my great self-control should be so little appreciated. “Of course, I should not wish to stay here when it is not ours,” I went on, rubbing my eyes to get the tears away, “but I will always think Cottiswoode home—no other place will ever be home to me.”
“You are very young, my dear,” said Alice quietly. I was almost angry with Alice, and it provoked me so much to hear her treating my first grief so composedly that the tears which I had restrained, came fast and thick with anger and petulance in them.
“Indeed, it is very cruel of you, Alice!” I said as well as I was able, “do you think I do not mean it?—do you think I do not know what I say?”
“I only think you are very young, poor dear!” said Alice, looking down upon me under her arm, as she stretched up her hands to unfasten the last bit of curtain, “and I am an old woman, Miss Hester. I saw your poor mamma come away from her home to find a new one here; it was a great change to her, for all so much as her child likes Cottiswoode—she liked her own home very dearly, Miss Hester, and did not think this great house was to be compared to it—but she came away here of her own will after all—”
“But that was because she was married, Alice,” said I hastily.
“Yes! it was because she was married, and because it is the common way of life,” said Alice; “but, the like of me, Miss Hester, that has parted with many a one dear to me, never to see them again, thinks little, darling, of parting with dead walls.”
“Alice, have you had a great deal of grief,” said I reverently; my attention was already diverted from the main subjects of my morning’s thoughts—for I was very young, as she said, and had a mind open to every interest, that grand privilege of youth.
“I have lost husband and children, father and mother, Miss Hester,” said Alice quietly; she had her back turned to me, but it was not to hide her weeping, for Alice had borne her griefs with her for many, many years. I knew very well that it was as she had said, for she had often told me of them all, and of her babies whom she never could be quite calm about—but she very seldom alluded to them in this way, and never dwelt upon her loss, but always upon themselves. I did not say anything, but I felt ashamed of my passion of grief for Cottiswoode. If I should lose Alice—or, still more frightful misfortune, lose my father, what would Cottiswoode be to me.
“But, my dear young lady was pity herself,” said Alice, after a short pause, “I think I can see her now, when I could not cry myself, how she cried for me; and I parted with her too, Miss Hester. I think she had the sweetest heart in the world; she could not see trouble, but she pitied it, and did her best to help.”
“Alice,” said I hastily, connecting these things by a sudden and involuntary conviction, “why is it that papa says: ‘pity is a cheat.’”
“It is a hard saying, Miss Hester,” said Alice, pausing to look at me; and then she went on with her work, as if this was all she had to say.
“He must have reason for it,” said I, “and when I think of that Edgar Southcote presuming to pity us, I confess it makes me very angry—I cannot bear to be pitied, Alice!”
But Alice went on with her work, and answered nothing; I was left to myself, and received no sympathy in my haughty dislike of anything which acknowledged the superiority of another. I was piqued for the moment. I would a great deal rather that Alice had said, “no one can pity you”—but Alice said nothing of the kind, and after a very little interval my youthful curiosity conquered my pride.
“You have not answered me, but I am sure you know,” said I, “Alice, what does papa mean?”
Alice looked at me earnestly for a moment. “I am only a servant,” she said, as if she consulted with herself, “I have no right to meddle in their secrets—but I care for nothing in the world but them, and I have served her all her days. Yes, Miss Hester, I will tell you,” she concluded suddenly, “because you’ll be a woman soon, and should know what evil spirits there are in this weary, weary life.”
But though she said this, she was slow to begin an explanation—she put away the curtains first, carefully smoothed down and folded into a great chest which stood open beside us, and then she began to lift up my few books, and the simple furniture of my toilette-table, and packed them away for the removal. It was while she was thus engaged, softly coming and going, and wiping off specks of dust in a noiseless, deliberate way, that she told me the story of my father and mother.
“My young lady was an only child, like you, Miss Hester,” said Alice, “but her father’s land was all entailed, and it has passed to a distant cousin now, as you know. I think she was only about eighteen when the two young gentlemen from Cottiswoode began to visit at our house. Mr. Brian came as often as your father—they were always together, and I remember very well how I used to wonder if both of the brothers were in love with Miss Helen, or if the one only came for the other’s sake. Mr. Brian was a very different man from your papa, my dear—there was not such a charitable man in the whole country, and he never seemed to care for himself—but somehow, just because he was so good, he never seemed in earnest about anything he wished—you could not believe he cared for anything so much, but he would give it up if another asked it from him. It’s a very fine thing to be kind and generous, Miss Hester, but that was carrying it too far, you know. If I had been a lady I never would have married Mr. Brian Southcote, for I think he never would have loved me half so much as he would have loved the pleasure of giving me away.
“But you know how different your papa was; I used to think it would be a pleasure to trust anything to Mr. Howard, because whatever he had and cared for, he held as fast as life; and my young lady thought so too, Miss Hester. They were both in love with Miss Helen, and very glad her papa would have been had she chosen Mr. Brian, who was the heir of all. It used to be a strange sight to see them all, poor Mr. Brian so pleasant to everybody, and Mr. Howard so dark and passionate and miserable, and my sweet young lady terrified and unhappy—glad to be good friends with Mr. Brian, because she did not care for him; and so anxious about Mr. Howard, though she scarcely dared to be kind to him, because she thought so much of him in her heart. Your papa was very jealous, Miss Hester, it is his temper, and I am not sure, my dear, that it is not yours; and he knew Mr. Brian was pleasanter spoken than he was, and that everybody liked him—so, to be sure, he thought his brother was certain to be more favored than he—which only showed how little your papa knows, for all so learned a man as he is,” said Alice, shifting her position, and turning her face to me to place a parcel of books in the great chest; “for Mr. Brian was a man to like, and not to love.”
She was blaming my father, and, perhaps, she had more blame to say; but her blame inferred more than praise, I thought, and I listened eagerly. Yes! my father was a man to love and not to like.
“They say courting time is a happy time,” said Alice with a sigh, “it was not so then, Miss Hester. However, they all came to an explanation at last. I cannot tell you how it came about, but we heard one day that Mr. Brian was going abroad, and that Mr. Howard was betrothed to Miss Helen. I knew it before any one else, for my young lady trusted me; and when I saw your papa the next day, his face was glorious to behold, Miss Hester. I think he must have had as much joy in that day as most men have in all their lives, for I don’t think I ever saw him look quite happy again.”
“My dear, it is quite true,” said Alice quietly, and with another sigh: “I could not tell for a long time what it was that made him so overcast and moody, and neither could my young lady. It could not be Mr. Brian, for Mr. Brian gave her up in the kindest and quietest way; you could not have believed how glad he was to sacrifice himself to his brother—and went away to the West Indies where your grandmamma had an estate, to look after the poor people there; so then the marriage was over very soon, and your grandpapa Southcote took the young people home to live with him at Cottiswoode, and any one that knew how fond he was of Miss Helen, would have thought Mr. Howard had got all the desire of his heart. But he had not, Miss Hester! The heart of man is never satisfied, the Bible says—and I have often seen your papa’s face look as black and miserable after he was married, as when he used to sit watching Mr. Brian and my poor dear young lady. Your mamma did not know what to think of it, but she always hung about him with loving ways and was patient, and drooped, and pined away till my heart was broken to look at her. Then she revived all at once, and there was more life in the house for a little while—she had found out what ailed him: but oh! Miss Hester, a poor woman may set her life on the stake to change a perverse fancy, and never shake it till she dies. Your papa had got it into his head that my young lady had married him out of pity; and all her pretty ways, and her love, and kindnesses, he thought them all an imposition, my dear—and that is the reason why he says that hard, cruel saying, ‘Pity is a cheat!’”
“And then, Alice?” said I, eagerly.
“And then? there was very little more, Miss Hester—she was hurried out of this world when you were born; she had never time to say a word to him, and went away with that bitterness in her heart, that the man she had left father and mother for, never understood her. Death tries faith, my dear, though you know nothing of it! think how I stood looking at her white face in her last rest! Thinking of her life and her youth, and that this was the end of all; so carefully as she had been trained and guarded from a child, and all her education and her books, and such hopes as there were of what she would be when she grew up a woman; but soon I saw that she grew up only to die—God never changes, Miss Hester—he tries a poor woman like me very like the way he tried Abraham—and that was what I call a fiery passage for faith!”
“And my mother, Alice? and poor, poor papa! oh! how did he ever live after it?” cried I, through my tears.
“He lived because it was the will of God—as we all do,” said Alice, “a sad man, and a lonely he is to this day: and will never get comfort in his heart for the wrong he did my dear young lady—never till he meets her in heaven.”
At that moment Alice was called and went away. Poor, poor papa! he was wrong; but how my heart entered into his sufferings. I did not think of the bitterness of love disbelieved and disturbed, of my mother’s silent martyrdom—I thought only of my father, my first of men! He loved her, and he thought she pitied him. I started from my seat at the touch of this intolerable thought. I realized in the most overwhelming fulness, what he meant when he said, “Pity is a cheat!” Pity! it was dreadful to think of it—though it was but a mistake, a fancy—what a terrible cloud it was!
I will not say that this story filled my mind so much, that I do not recollect the other events of that day; on the contrary, I recollect them perfectly, down to the most minute detail; but they are all connected in my mind with my grief for my father—with the strange, powerful compassion I had for him, and some involuntary prescience of my own fate. For it was him I thought of, and never my mother, whom I had never seen, and whose gentle, patient temper was not so attractive to my disposition. No—I never thought he was to blame! I never paused to consider if it was himself who had brought this abiding shadow over his life. I only echoed his words in my heart, and clung to him, in secret, with a profound and passionate sympathy. Pity! I shuddered at the word. I no longer wondered at his haughty rejection of the slightest approach to it—for did not I myself share—exaggerate this very pride.
This mournful tedious day went on, and its dreary business was accomplished: all our belongings were taken away from Cottiswoode, and Alice and another servant accompanied them to set our new house in order before we came. Just before she went away, at noon, when the autumn day was at its brightest, I found Alice cutting the roses from my favorite tree. I stood looking at her, as she took the pale faint flowers one by one, but neither of us spoke at first: at last I asked her, “why do you take them, Alice?” and I spoke so low, and felt so reverential that I think I must have anticipated her reply.
I had to bend forward to her, to hear what she said. “They were your mother’s,” said Alice, “I decked her bride chamber with them, and her last bed. They are like what she was when trouble came.”
She had only left one rose upon the tree, a half blown rose, with dew still lying under its folded leaves, and she went away, leaving me looking at it. I felt reproved, I know not why, as if my young mother was crying to me for sympathy, and I would not give it. No! I went back hastily to the dreary half-emptied library where my father sat. My place was by him—this solitary man, who all his life had felt it rankling in his heart, that he was pitied where he should have been loved.
In the evening, just before sunset, I heard wheels approaching, and on looking out, saw the post-chaise which was to take us to Cambridge coming down the avenue. My father saw it also; we neither of us said anything, but I went away at once to put on my bonnet. It was dreadful to go into these desolate rooms, which were all the more desolate because they were not entirely dismantled, but still had pieces of very old furniture here and there, looking like remains of a wreck. After I had left my own room—a vague dusty wilderness now, with the damp air sighing in at the open lattice, and the loose jessamine bough beating against it, and dropping its dreary little leaves—I stole into the dining parlor for a moment to look at that picture which was like Edgar Southcote. I looked up at it with my warm human feelings, my young, young exaggerated emotions, full of resentful dislike and prejudice; it looked down on me, calm, beautiful, melancholy, like a face out of the skies. Pity, pity, yes! I hurried away stung by the thought. Edgar Southcote had the presumption to pity my father and me.
With a last compunctious recollection of my poor young mother, I went to the garden and tenderly brought away that last rose. I could cry over it, without feeling that I wept because Cottiswoode was my cousin’s and not mine. “I will always keep it!” I said to myself, as I wrapped some of the fragrant olive-colored leaves of the walnut round its stalk; and then I went in to my father to say I was ready. He had left the library, and was walking through the house—I could hear his slow heavy footsteps above me as I listened breathlessly in the hall. Whitehead, and the other servants, had collected there to say good-bye. Whitehead, who was an old man, was to remain in charge of the house; but all the others, except his niece Amy, were to go away this very night. While I stood trying to speak to them, and trying very hard not to break down again, my father came down stairs, went into the dining-parlor, and passed through the window into the garden. I thought he wished to escape the farewell of the servants, so I said good-bye hurriedly and followed him; but he was only walking up and down, looking at the house. He took my hand mechanically, as I came up to him, and led me along the walk in silence; then I was very much startled to find that he took hold of my arm, and leaned on it as if he wanted a support. I looked up at him wistfully when he paused at last—he was looking up at a window above; but he must have felt how anxiously my eyes sought his face, for he said slowly, as if he were answering a question, “Hester, I have lived
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