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CHAPTER I. CHAPTER II. CHAPTER III. CHAPTER IV. CHAPTER V. CHAPTER VI. CHAPTER VII. CHAPTER VIII. CHAPTER IX. CHAPTER X. CHAPTER XI. CHAPTER XII. CHAPTER XIII. CHAPTER XIV. CHAPTER XV. CHAPTER XVI. CHAPTER XVII. CHAPTER XVIII. CHAPTER XIX. CHAPTER XX. CHAPTER XXI. CHAPTER XXII. CHAPTER XXIII. CHAPTER XXIV. CHAPTER XXV. CHAPTER XXVI. CHAPTER XXVII. CHAPTER XXVIII. CHAPTER XXIX. CHAPTER XXX. CHAPTER XXXI. CHAPTER XXXII. CHAPTER XXXIII. CHAPTER XXXIV. CHAPTER XXXV. CHAPTER XXXVI. CHAPTER XXXVII. CHAPTER XXXVIII. CHAPTER XXXIX. CHAPTER XL. CHAPTER XLI. CHAPTER XLII. CHAPTER XLIII. CHAPTER XLIV. CHAPTER XLV. CHAPTER XLVI. CHAPTER XLVII. CHAPTER XLVIII.
John Tatham, barrister-at-law, received one summer morning as he sat at breakfast the following letter. It was written in what was once known distinctively as a lady's hand, in pointed characters, very fine and delicate, and was to this effect:—
"Dear John, Have you heard from Elinor of her new prospects and intentions? I suppose she must have written to you on the subject. Do you know anything of the man?… You know how hard it is to convince her against her will of anything, and also how poorly gifted I am with the power of convincing any one. And I don't know him, therefore can speak with no authority. If you can do anything to clear things up, come and do so. I am very anxious and more than doubtful; but her heart seems set upon it.
"Your affect. "M. S. D."
Mr. Tatham was a well-built and vigorous man of five-and-thirty, with health, good behaviour, and well-being in every line of his cheerful countenance and every close curl of his brown hair. His hair was very curly, and helped to give him the cheerful look which was one of his chief characteristics. Nevertheless, when these innocent seeming words, "Do you know the man?" which was more certainly demonstrative of certain facts than had those facts been stated in the fullest detail, met his eye, Mr. Tatham paused and laid down the letter with a start. His ruddy colour paled for the moment, and he felt something which was like the push or poke of a blunt but heavy weapon somewhere in the regions of the heart. For the moment he felt that he could not read any more. "Do you know the man?" He did not even ask what man in the momentary sickness of his heart. Then he said to himself, almost angrily, "Well!" and took up the letter again and read to the end.
Well! of course it was a thing that he knew might happen any day, and which he had expected to happen for the last four or five years. It was nothing to him one way or another. Nothing could be more absurd than that a hearty and strong young man in the full tide of his life and with a good breakfast before him should receive a shock from that innocent little letter as if he had been a sentimental woman. But the fact is that he pushed his plate away with an exclamation of disgust and a feeling that everything was bad and uneatable. He drank his tea, though that also became suddenly bad too, full of tannin, like tea that has stood too long, a thing about which John was very particular. He had been half an hour later than usual this morning consequent on having been an hour or two later than usual last night. These things have their reward, and that very speedily; but as for the letter, what could that have to do with the bad toasting of the bacon and the tannin in the tea? "Do you know the man?" There was a sort of covert insult, too, in the phraseology, as if no explanation was needed, as if he must know by instinct what she meant—he who knew nothing about it, who did not know there was a man at all!
After a while he began to smile rather cynically to himself. He had got up from the breakfast table, where everything was so bad, and had gone to look out of one of the windows of his pleasant sitting-room. It was in one of the wider ways of the Temple, and looked out upon various houses with a pleasant misty light upon the redness of their old brickwork, and a stretch of green grass and trees, which were scanty in foliage, yet suited very well with the bright morning sun, which was not particularly warm, but looked as if it were a good deal for effect and not so very much for use. That thought floated across his mind with others, and was of the same cynical complexion. It was very well for the sun to shine, making the glistening poplars and plane-trees glow, and warming all the mellow redness of the old houses, but what did he mean by it? No warmth to speak of, only a fictitious gleam—a thing got up for effect. And so was the affectionateness of woman—meaning nothing, only an effect of warmth and geniality, nothing beyond that. As a matter of fact, he reminded himself after a while that he had never wanted anything beyond, neither asked for it, nor wished it. He had no desire to change the conditions of his life: women never rested till they had done so, manufacturing a new event, whatever it might be, pleased even when they were not pleased, to have a novelty to announce. That, no doubt, was the state of mind in which the lady who called herself his aunt was: pleased to have something to tell him, to fire off her big guns in his face, even though she was not at all pleased with the event itself. But John Tatham, on the other hand, had desired nothing to happen; things were very well as they were. He liked to have a place where he could run down from Saturday to Monday whenever he pleased, and where his visit was always a cheerful event for the womankind. He had liked to take them all the news, to carry the picture-papers, quite a load; to take down a new book for Elinor; to taste doubtfully his aunt's wine, and tell her she had better let him choose it for her. It was a very pleasant state of affairs: he wanted no change; not, certainly, above everything, the intrusion of a stranger whose very existence had been unknown to him until he was thus asked cynically, almost brutally, "Do you know the man?"
The hour came when John had to assume the costume of that order of workers whom a persistent popular joke nicknames the "Devil's Own:"—that is, he had to put on gown and wig and go off to the courts, where he was envied of all the briefless as a man who for his age had a great deal to do. He "devilled" for Mr. Asstewt, the great Chancery man, which was the most excellent beginning: and he was getting into a little practice of his own which was not to be sneezed at. But he did not find himself in a satisfactory frame of mind to-day. He found himself asking the judge, "Do you know anything of the man?" when it was his special business so to bewilder that potentate with elaborate arguments that he should not have time to consider whether he had ever heard of the particular man before him. Thus it was evident that Mr. Tatham was completely hors de son assiette, as the French say; upset and "out of it," according to the equally vivid imagination of the English manufacturer of slang. John Tatham was a very capable young lawyer on ordinary occasions, and it was all the more remarkable that he should have been so confused in his mind to-day.
When he went back to his chambers in the evening, which was not until it was time to dress for dinner, he saw a bulky letter lying on his table, but avoided it as if it had been an overdue bill. He was engaged to dine out, and had not much time: yet all the way, as he drove along the streets, just as sunset was over and a subduing shade came over the light, and that half-holiday look that comes with evening—he kept thinking of the fat letter upon his table. Do you know anything of the man? That would no longer be the refrain of his correspondent, but some absurd strain of devotion and admiration of the man whom John knew nothing of, not even his name. He wondered as he went along in his hansom, and even between the courses at dinner, while he listened with a smile, but without hearing a word, to what the lady next him was saying—what she would tell him about this man? That he was everything that was delightful, no doubt; handsome, of course; probably clever; and that she was fond of him, confound the fellow! Elinor! to think that she should come to that—a girl like her—to tell him, as if she was saying that she had caught a cold or received a present, that she was in love with a man! Good heavens! when one had thought her so much above anything of that kind—a woman, above all women that ever were.
"Not so much as that," John said to himself as he walked home. He always preferred to walk home in the evening, and he was not going to change his habit now out of any curiosity about Elinor's letter. Oh, not so much as that! not above all women, or better than the rest, perhaps—but different. He could not quite explain to himself how, except that he had always known her to be Elinor and not another, which was a quite sufficient explanation. And now it appeared that she was not different, although she would still profess to be Elinor—a curious puzzle, which his brain in its excited state was scarcely able to tackle. His thoughts got somewhat confused and broken as he approached his chambers. He was so near the letter now—a few minutes and he would no longer need to wonder or speculate about it, but would know exactly what she said. He turned and stood for a minute or so at the Temple gates, looking out upon the busy Strand. It was still as lovely as a summer night could be overhead, but down here it was—well, it was London, which is another thing. The usual crowd was streaming by, coming into bright light as it streamed past a brilliant shop window, then in the shade for another moment, and emerging again. The faces that were suddenly lit up as they passed—some handsome faces, pale in the light; some with heads hung down, either in bad health or bad humour; some full of cares and troubles, others airy and gay—caught his attention. Did any of them all know anything of this man, he wondered—knowing how absurd a question it was. Had any of them written to-day a letter full of explanations, of a matter that could not be explained? There were faces with far more tragic meaning in them than could be so easily explained as that—the faces of men, alas! and women too, who were going to destruction as fast as their hurrying feet could carry them; or else were languidly drifting no one knew where—out of life altogether, out of all that was good in life. John Tatham knew this very well too, and had it in him to do anything a man could to stop the wanderers in their downward career. But to-night he was thinking of none of these things. He was only wondering how she would explain it, how she could explain it, what she would say; and lingering to prolong his suspense, not to know too soon what it was.
At last, however, as there is no delay but must come to an end one time or another, he found himself at last in his room, in his smoking-coat and slippers, divested of his stiff collar—at his ease, the windows open upon the quiet of the Temple Gardens, a little fresh air breathing in. He had taken all this trouble to secure ease for himself, to put off a little the reading of the letter. Now the moment had come when it would be absurd to delay any longer. It was so natural to see her familiar handwriting—not a lady's hand, angular and pointed, like her mother's, but the handwriting of her generation, which looks as if it were full of character, until one perceives that it is the writing of the generation, and all the girls and boys write much the same. He took time for this reflection still as he tore open the envelope. There were two sheets very well filled, and written in at the corners, so that no available spot was lost. "My dear old John," were the first words he saw. He put down the letter and thought over the address. Well, she had always called him so. He was old John when he was fourteen, to little Elinor. They had always known each other like that—like brother and sister. But not particularly like brother and sister—like cousins twice removed, which is a more interesting tie in some particulars. And now for the letter.
"My Dear Old John: I want to tell you myself of a great thing that has happened to me—the very greatest thing that could happen in one's life. Oh, John, dear old John, I feel as if I had nobody else I could open my heart to; for mamma—well, mamma is mamma, a dear mother and a good one; but you know she has her own ways of thinking——"
He put down the letter again with a rueful little laugh. "And have not I my own ways of thinking, too?" he said to himself.
"Jack dear," continued the letter, "you must give me your sympathy, all your sympathy. You never were in love, I suppose (oh, what an odious way that is of putting it! but it spares one's feelings a little, for even in writing it is too tremendous a thing to say quite gravely and seriously, as one feels it). Dear John, I know you never were in love, or you would have told me; but still——"
"Oh," he said to himself, with the merest suspicion of a little quiver in his lip, which might, of course, have been a laugh, but, on the other hand, might have been something else, "I never was—or I would have told her—That's the way she looks at it." Then he took up the letter again.
"Because—I see nothing but persecution before me. It was only a week ago that it happened, and we wanted to keep it quiet for a time; but things get out in spite of all one can do—things of that sort, at least. And, oh, dear Jack, fancy! I have got three letters already, all warning me against him; raking up trifling things that have occurred long ago, long before he met me, and holding them up before me like scarecrows—telling me he is not worthy of me, and that I will be wretched if I marry him, and other dreadful lies like that, which show me quite plainly that they neither know him nor me, and that they haven't eyes to see what he really is, nor minds to understand. But though I see the folly of it and the wickedness of it, mamma does not. She is ready to take other people's words; indeed, there is this to be said for her, that she does not know him yet, and therefore cannot be expected to be ready to take his own word before all. Dear Jack, my heart is so full, and I have so much to tell you, and such perfect confidence in your sympathy, and also in your insight and capacity to see through all the lies and wicked stories which I foresee are going to be poured upon us like a flood that—I don't know how to begin, I have so many things to say. I know it is the heart of the season, and that you are asked out every night in the week, and are so popular everywhere; but if you could but come down from Saturday to Monday, and let me tell you everything and show you his picture, and read you parts of his letters, I know you would see how false and wrong it all is, and help me to face it out with all those horrid people, and to bring round mamma. You know her dreadful way of never giving an opinion, but just saying a great deal worse, and leaving you to your own responsibility, which nearly drives me mad even in little things—so you may suppose what it does in this. Of course, she must see him, which is all I want, for I know after she has had a half-hour's conversation with him that she will be like me and will not believe a word—not one word. Therefore, Jack dear, come, oh, come! I have always turned to you in my difficulties, since ever I have known what it was to have a difficulty, and you have done everything for me. I never remember any trouble I ever had but you found some means of clearing it away. Therefore my whole hope is in you. I know it is hard to give up all your parties and things; but it would only be two nights, after all—Saturday and Sunday. Oh, do come, do come, if you ever cared the least little bit for your poor cousin! Come, oh, come, dear old John!
"Your affect. E———."
"Is that all?" he said to himself; but it was not all, for there followed a postscript all about the gifts and graces of the unknown lover, and how he was the victim of circumstances, and how, while other men might steal the horse, he dared not look over the wall, and other convincing pleadings such as these, till John's head began to go round. When he had got through this postscript John Tatham folded the letter and put it away. He had a smile on his face, but he had the air of a man who had been beaten about the head and was confused with the hurry and storm of the blows. She had always turned to him in all her difficulties, that was true: and he had always stood by her, and often, in the freemasonry of youth, had thought her right and vindicated her capacity to judge for herself. He had been called often on this errand, and he had never refused to obey. For Elinor was very wilful, she had always been wilful—"a rosebud set about with wilful thorns, But sweet as English air could make her, she." He had come to her aid many a time. But he had never thought to be called upon by her in such a way as this. He folded the letter up carefully and put it in a drawer. Usually when he had a letter from Elinor he put it into his pocket, for the satisfaction of reading it over again: for she had a fantastic way of writing, adding little postscripts which escaped the eye at first, and which it was pleasant to find out afterwards. But with this letter he did not do so. He put it in a drawer of his writing-table, so that he might find it again when necessary, but he did not put it in his breast pocket. And then he sat for some time doing nothing, looking before him, with his legs stretched out and his hand beating a little tattoo upon the table. "Well: well? well!" That was about what he said to himself, but it meant a great deal: it meant a vague but great disappointment, a sort of blank and vacuum expressed by the first of these words—and then it meant a question of great importance and many divisions. How could it ever have come to anything? Am I a man to marry? What could I have done, just getting into practice, just getting a few pounds to spend for myself? And then came the conclusion. Since I can't do anything else for her; since she's done it for herself—shall I be a beast and not help her, because it puts my own nose out of joint? Not a bit of it! The reader must remember that in venturing to reflect a young man's sentiments a dignified style is scarcely possible; they express themselves sometimes with much force in their private moments, but not as Dr. Johnson would have approved, or with any sense of elegance; and one must try to be truthful to nature. He knew very well that Elinor was not responsible for his disappointment, and even he was aware that if she had been so foolish as to fix her hopes upon him, it would probably have been she who would have been disappointed, and left in the lurch. But still——
John had gone through an interminable amount of thinking, and a good deal of soda-water (with or without, how should I know, some other moderate ingredient), and a cigar or two—not to speak of certain hours when he ought to have been in bed to keep his head clear for the cases of to-morrow: when it suddenly flashed upon him all at once that he was not a step further on than when he had received Mrs. Dennistoun's letter in the morning, for Elinor, though she had said so much about him, had given no indication who her lover was. Who was the man?
It was a blustering afternoon when John, with his bag in his hand, set out from the station at Hurrymere for Mrs. Dennistoun's cottage. Why that station should have had "mere" in its name I have never been able to divine, for there is no water to be seen for miles, scarcely so much as a duckpond: but, perhaps, there are two meanings to the words. It was a steep walk up a succession of slopes, and the name of the one upon which the cottage stood was Windyhill not an encouraging title on such a day, but true enough to the character of the place. The cottage lay, however, at the head of a combe or shelving irregular valley, just sheltered from the winds on a little platform of its own, and commanding a view which was delightful in its long sweeping distance, and varied enough to be called picturesque, especially by those who were familiar with nothing higher than the swelling slopes of the Surrey hills. It was wild, little cultivated, save in the emerald green of the bottom, a few fields which lay where a stream ought to have been. Nowadays there are red-roofed houses peeping out at every corner, but at that period fashion had not even heard of Hurrymere, and, save for a farm-house or two, a village alehouse and posting-house at a corner of the high-road, and one or two great houses within the circuit of six or seven miles, retired within their trees and parks, there were few habitations. Mrs. Dennistoun's cottage was red-roofed like the rest, but much subdued by lichens, and its walls were covered by climbing plants, so that it struck no bold note upon the wild landscape, yet was visible afar off in glimpses, from the much-winding road, for a mile or two before it could be come at. There was, indeed, a nearer way, necessitating a sharp scramble, but when John came just in sight of the house his heart failed him a little, and, notwithstanding that his bag had come to feel very heavy by this time, he deliberately chose the longer round to gain a little time—as we all do sometimes, when we are most anxious to be at our journey's end, and hear what has to be told us. It looked very peaceful seated in that fold of the hill, no tossing of trees about it, though a little higher up the slim oaks and beeches of the copse were flinging themselves about against the grey sky in a kind of agonised appeal. John liked the sound of the wind sweeping over the hills, rending the trees, and filling the horizon as with a crowd of shadows in pain, twisting and bending with every fresh sweep of the breeze. Sometimes such sounds and sights give a relief to the mind. He liked it better than if all had been undisturbed, lying in afternoon quiet as might have been expected at the crown of the year—but the winds had always to be taken into account at Windyhill.
When he came in sight of the gate, John was aware of some one waiting for him, walking up and down the sandy road into which it opened. Her face was turned the other way, and she evidently looked for him by way of the combe, the scrambling steep road which he had avoided in despite: for why should he scramble and make himself hot in order to hear ten minutes sooner what he did not wish to hear at all? She turned round suddenly as he knocked his foot against a stone upon the rough, but otherwise noiseless road, presenting a countenance flushed with sudden relief and pleasure to John's remorseful eye. "Oh, there you are!" she said; "I am so glad. I thought you could not be coming. You might have been here a quarter of an hour ago by the short road."
"I did not think there was any hurry," said John, ungraciously. "The wind is enough to carry one off one's feet; though, to be sure, it's quiet enough here."
"It's always quiet here," she said, reading his face with her eyes after the manner of women, and wondering what the harassed look meant that was so unusual in John's cheerful face. She jumped at the idea that he was tired, that his bag was heavy, that he had been beaten about by the wind till he had lost his temper, always a possible thing to happen to a man. Elinor flung herself upon the bag and tried to take possession of it. "Why didn't you get a boy at the station to carry it? Let me carry it," she said.
"That is so likely," said John, with a hard laugh, shifting it to his other hand.
Elinor caught his arm with both her hands, and looked up with wistful eyes into his face. "Oh, John, you are angry," she said.
"Nonsense. I am tired, buffeting about with this wind." Here the gardener and man-of-all-work about the cottage came up and took the bag, which John parted with with angry reluctance, as if it had been a sort of weapon of offence. After it was gone there was nothing for it but to walk quietly to the house through the flowers with that girl hanging on his arm, begging a hundred pardons with her eyes. The folly of it! as if she had not a right to do as she pleased, or he would try to prevent her; but finally, the soft, silent apology of that clinging, and the look full of petitions touched his surly heart. "Well—Nelly," he said, with involuntary softening.
"Oh, if you call me that I am not afraid!" she cried, with an instant upleaping of pleasure and confidence in her changeable face, which (John tried to say to himself) was not really pretty at all, only so full of expression, changing with every breath of feeling. The eyes, which had only been brown a moment before, leaped up into globes of light, yet not too dazzling, with some liquid medium to soften their shining. Even though you know that a girl is in love with another man, that she thinks of you no more than of the old gardener who has just hobbled round the corner, it is pleasant to be able to change the whole aspect of affairs to her and make her light up like that, solely by a little unwilling softening of your gruff and surly tone.
"You know, John," she said, holding his arm tight with her two hands, "that nobody ever calls me Nelly—except you."
"Possibly I shall call you Nelly no longer. Why? Why, because that fellow will object."
"That fellow! Oh, he!" Elinor's face grew very red all over, from the chin, which almost touched John's arm, to the forehead, bent back a little over those eyes suffused with light which were intent upon all the changes of John's face. This one was, like the landscape, swept by all the vicissitudes of sun and shade. It was radiant now with the unexpected splendour of the sudden gleam.
"Oh, John, John, I have so much to say to you! He will object to nothing. He knows very well you are like my brother—almost more than my brother—for you could help it, John. You almost chose me for your friend, which a brother would not. He says, 'Get him to be our friend and all will be well!'"
He had not said this, but Elinor had said it to him, and he had assented, which was almost the same—in the way of reckoning of a girl, at least.
"He is very kind, I am sure," said John, gulping down something which had almost made him throw off Elinor's arm, and fling away from her in indignation. Her brother——!! But there was no use making any row, he said to himself. If anything were to be done for her he must put up with all that. There had suddenly come upon John, he knew not how, as he scanned her anxious face, a conviction that the man was a scamp, from whom at all hazards she should be free.
Said Elinor, unsuspecting, "That is just what he is, John! I knew you would divine his character at once. You can't think how kind he is—kind to everybody. He never judges anyone, or throws a stone, or makes an insinuation." ("Probably because he knows he cannot bear investigation himself," John said, in his heart.) "That was the thing that took my heart first. Everybody is so censorious—always something to say against their neighbours; he, never a word."
"That's a very good quality," said John, reluctantly, "if it doesn't mean confounding good with bad, and thinking nothing matters."
Elinor gave him a grieved, reproachful look, and loosened the clasping of her hands. "It is not like you to imagine that, John!"
"Well, what is a man to say? Don't you see, if you do nothing but blow his trumpet, the only thing left for me to do is to insinuate something against him? I don't know the man from Adam. He may be an angel, for anything I can say."
"No; I do not pretend he is that," said Elinor, with impartiality. "He has his faults, like others, but they are nice faults. He doesn't know how to take care of his money (but he hasn't got very much, which makes it the less matter), and he is sometimes taken in about his friends. Anybody almost that appeals to his kindness is treated like a friend, which makes precise people think——but, of course, I don't share that opinion in the very least."
("A very wasteful beggar, with a disreputable set," was John's practical comment within himself upon this speech.)
"And he doesn't know how to curry favour with people who can help him on; so that though he has been for years promised something, it never turns up. Oh, I know his faults very well indeed," said Elinor; "but a woman can do so much to make up for faults like that. We're naturally saving, you know, and we always keep those unnecessary friends that were made before our time at a distance; and it's part of our nature to coax a patron—that is what Mariamne says."
"Mariamne?" said John.
"His sister, who first introduced him to me; and I am very fond of her, so you need not say anything against her, John. I know she is—fashionable, but that's no harm."
"Mariamne," he repeated; "it is a very uncommon name. You don't mean Lady Mariamne Prestwich, do you? and not—not——Elinor! not Phil Compton, for goodness' sake? Don't tell me he's the man?"
Elinor's hands dropped from his arm. She drew herself up until she seemed to tower over him. "And why should I say it is not Mr. Compton," she asked, with a scarlet flush of anger, so different from that rosy red of love and happiness, covering her face.
"Phil Compton! the dis-Honourable Phil! Why, Elinor! you cannot mean it! you must not mean it!" he cried.
Elinor said not a word. She turned from him with a look of pathetic reproach but with the air of a queen, and walked into the house, he following in a ferment of wrath and trouble, yet humbled and miserable more than words could say. Oh, the flowery, peaceful house! jasmine and rose overleaping each other upon the porch, honeysuckle scenting the air, all manner of feminine contrivances to continue the greenness and the sweetness into the little bright hall, into the open drawing-room, where flowers stood on every table amid the hundred pretty trifles of a woman's house. There was no one in this room where she led him, and then turned round confronting him, taller than he had ever seen her before, pale, with her nostrils dilating and her lips trembling. "I never thought it possible that you of all people in the world, you, John—my stand-by since ever I was a baby—my—— Oh! what a horrid thing it is to be a woman," cried Elinor, stamping her foot, "to be ready to cry for everything!—you, John! that I always put my trust in—that you should turn against me—and at the very first word!"
"Elinor," he said, "my dear girl! not against you, not against you, for all the world!"
"And what is me?" she said, with that sudden turning of the tables and high scorn of her previous argument which is common with women; "do I care what you do to me? Oh, nothing, nothing! I am of no account, you can trample me down under your feet if you like. But what I will not bear," she said, clenching her hands, "is injustice to him: that I will not bear, neither from you, Cousin John, who are only my distant cousin, after all, and have no right to thrust your advice upon me—or from any one in the world."
"What you say is quite true, Elinor, I am only a distant cousin—after all: but——"
"Oh, no, no," she cried, flying to him, seizing once more his arm with her clinging hands, "I did not mean that—you know I did not mean that, my more than brother, my good, good John, whom I have trusted all my life!"
And then the poor girl broke out into passionate weeping with her head upon his shoulder, as she might have leant upon the handy trunk of a tree, or on the nearest door or window, as John Tatham said in his heart. He soothed her as best he could, and put her in a chair and stood with his hand upon the back of it, looking down upon her as the fit of crying wore itself out. Poor little girl! he had seen her cry often enough before. A girl cries for anything, for a thorn in her finger, for a twist of her foot. He had seen her cry and laugh, and dash the tears out of her eyes on such occasions, oh! often and often: there was that time when he rushed out of the bushes unexpectedly and frightened her pony, and she fell among the grass and vowed, sobbing and laughing, it was her fault! and once when she was a little tot, not old enough for boy's play, when she fell upon her little nose and cut it and disfigured herself, and held up that wounded little knob of a feature to have it kissed and made well. Oh, why did he think of that now! the little thing all trust and simple confidence! There was that time too when she jumped up to get a gun and shoot the tramps who had hurt somebody, if John would but give her his hand! These things came rushing into his mind as he stood watching Elinor cry, with his hand upon the back of her chair.
She wanted John's hand now when she was going forth to far greater dangers. Oh, poor little Nelly! poor little thing! but he could not put her on his shoulder and carry her out to face the foe now.
She jumped up suddenly while he was thinking, with the tears still wet upon her cheeks, but the paroxysm mastered, and the light of her eyes coming out doubly bright like the sun from the clouds. "We poor women," she said with a laugh, "are so badly off, we are so handicapped, as you call it! We can't help crying like fools! We can't help caring for what other people think, trying to conciliate and bring them round to approve us—when we ought to stand by our own conscience and judgment, and sense of what is right, like independent beings."
"If that means taking your own way, Elinor, whatever any one may say to you, I think women do it at least as much as men."
"No, it does not mean taking our own way," she cried, "and if you do not understand any better than that, why should I—— But you do understand better, John," she said, her countenance again softening: "you know I want, above everything in the world, that you should approve of me and see that I am right. That is what I want! I will do what I think right; but, oh, if I could only have you with me in doing it, and know that you saw with me that it was the best, the only thing to do! Happiness lies in that, not in having one's own way."
"My dear Elinor," he said, "isn't that asking a great deal? To prevent you from doing what you think right is in nobody's power. You are of age, and I am sure my aunt will force nothing; but how can we change our opinions, our convictions, our entire points of view? There is nobody in the world I would do so much for as you, Elinor: but I cannot do that, even for you."
The hot tears were dried from her cheeks, the passion was over. She looked at him, her efforts to gain him at an end, on the equal footing of an independent individual agreeing to differ, and as strong in her own view as he could be.
"There is one thing you can do for me," she said. "Mamma knows nothing about—fashionable gossip. She is not acquainted with the wicked things that are said. If she disapproves it is only because—— Oh, I suppose because one's mother always disapproves a thing that is done without her, that she has no hand in, what she calls pledging one's self to a stranger, and not knowing his antecedents, his circumstances, and so forth! But she hasn't any definite ground for it as you—think you have, judging in the uncharitable way of the world—not remembering that if we love one another the more there is against him the more need he has of me! But all I have to ask of you, John, is not to prejudice my mother. I know you can do it if you please—a hint would be enough, an uncertain word, even hesitating when you answer a question—that would be quite enough! John, if you put things into her head——"
"You ask most extraordinary things of me," said John, turning to bay. "To tell her lies about a man whom everybody knows—to pretend I think one thing when I think quite another. Not to say that my duty is to inform her exactly what things are said, so that she may judge for herself, not let her go forth in ignorance—that is my plain duty, Elinor."
"But you won't do it; oh, you won't do it!" she said. "Oh, John, for the sake of all the time that you have been so good to Nelly—your own little Nelly, nobody else's! Remember that I and everybody who loves him know these stories to be lies—and don't, don't put things into my mother's head! Let her judge for herself—don't, don't prejudice her, John. It can be no one's duty to repeat malicious stories when there is no possibility of proving or disproving them. Don't make her think—— Oh, mamma! we couldn't think where you had gone to. Yes, here is John."
"So I perceive," said Mrs. Dennistoun. It was getting towards evening, and the room was not very light. She could not distinguish their looks or the agitation that scarcely could have been hidden but for the dusk. "You seem to have been having a very animated conversation. I heard your voices all along the garden walk. Let me have the benefit of it, if there is anything to tell."
"You know well enough, mamma, what we must have been talking about," said Elinor, turning half angrily away.
"To be sure," said the mother, "I ought to have known. There is nothing so interesting as that sort of thing. I thought, however, you would probably have put it off a little, Elinor."
"Put it off a little—when it is the thing that concerns us more than anything else in the world!"
"That is true," said Mrs. Dennistoun, with a sigh. "Did you walk all the way, John? I meant to have sent the pony-cart for you, but the man was too late. It is a nice evening though, and coming out of town it is a good thing for you to have a good walk."
"Yes, I like it more than anything," said John, "but the evening is not so very fine. The wind is high, and I shouldn't wonder if we had rain."
"The wind is always high here," said Mrs. Dennistoun. "We don't have our view for nothing; but the sky is quite clear in the west, and all the clouds blowing away. I don't think we shall have more than a shower."
Elinor stood listening to this talk with restrained impatience, as if waiting for the moment when they should come to something worth talking about. Then she gave herself a sort of shake—half weary, half indignant—and left the room. There was a moment's silence, until her quick step was heard going to the other end of the house and up-stairs, and the shutting of a door.
"Oh, John, I am very uneasy, very uneasy," said Mrs. Dennistoun. "I scarcely thought she would have begun to you about it at once; but then I am doing the very same. We can't think of anything else. I am not going to worry you before dinner, for you must be tired with your walk, and want to refresh yourself before we enter upon that weary, weary business. But my heart misgives me dreadfully about it all. If I only had gone with her! It was not for want of an invitation, but just my laziness. I could not be troubled to leave my own house."
"I don't see what difference it would have made had you been with her, aunt."
"Oh, I should have seen the man: and been able to judge what he was and his motive, John."
"Elinor is not rich. He could scarcely have had an interested motive."
"There is some comfort in that. I have said that to myself again and again. He could not have an interested motive. But, oh! I am uneasy! There is the dressing-bell. I will not keep you any longer, John; but in the evening, or to-morrow, when we can get a quiet moment——"
The dusk, was now pervading all the house—that summer dusk which there is a natural prejudice everywhere against cutting short by lights. He could not see her face, nor she his, as they went out of the drawing-room together and along the long passage, which led by several arched doorways to the stairs. John had a room on the ground floor which was kept for gentlemen visitors, and in which the candles were twinkling on the dressing-table. He was more than ever thankful as he caught a glimpse of himself in the vague reflected world of the mirror, with its lights standing up reflected too, like inquisitors spying upon him, that there had not been light enough to show how he was looking: for though he was both a lawyer and a man of the world, John Tatham had not been able to keep the trouble which his interview with Elinor had caused him out of his face.
The drawing-room of the cottage was large and low, and had that faux air of being old-fashioned which is dear to the hearts of superior people generally. Mrs. Dennistoun and her daughter scarcely belonged to that class, yet they were, as ladies of leisure with a little taste for the arts are bound to be, touched by all the fancies of their time, which was just beginning to adore Queen Anne. There was still, however, a mixture of luxury with the square settees and spindle-legged cabinets which were "the fashion:" and partly because that was also "the fashion," and partly because on Windyhill even a July evening was sometimes a little chill, or looked so by reason of the great darkness of the silent, little-inhabited country outside—there was a log burning on the fire-dogs (the newest thing in furnishing in those days though now so common) on the hearth. The log burned as little as possible, being, perhaps, not quite so thoroughly dry and serviceable as it would have been in its proper period, and made a faint hissing sound in the silence as it burned, and diffused its pungent odour through the house. The bow window was open behind its white curtains, and it was there that the little party gathered out of reach of the unnecessary heat and the smoke. There was a low sofa on either side of this recess, and in the centre the French window opened into the garden, where all the scents were balmy in the stillness which had fallen upon the night.
Mrs. Dennistoun was tall and slim, a woman with a presence, and sat with a sort of dignity on her side of the window, with a little table beside her covered with her little requirements, the properties, so to speak, without which she was never known to be—a book for moments when there was nothing else to interest her, a case for work should there arise any necessity for putting in a stitch in time, a bottle of salts should she or any one else become suddenly faint, a paper cutter in cases of emergency, and finally, for mere ornament, two roses, a red and a white, in one of those tall old-fashioned glasses which are so pretty for flowers. I do wrong to dismiss the roses with such vulgar qualifications as white and red—the one was a Souvenir de Malmaison, the other a General —— something or other. If you spoke to Mrs. Dennistoun about her flowers she said, "Oh, the Malmaison," or "Oh, the General So-and-so." Rose was only the family name, but happily, as we all know, under the other appellation they smelt just as sweet. Mrs. Dennistoun kept up all this little state because she had been used to do so; because it was part of a lady's accoutrements, so to speak. She had also a cushion, which was necessary, if not for comfort, yet for her sense of being fully equipped, placed behind her back when she sat down. But with all this she was not a formal or prim person. She was a woman who had not produced a great deal of effect in life; one of those who are not accustomed to have their advice taken, or to find that their opinion has much weight upon others. Perhaps it was because Elinor resembled her father that this peculiarity which had affected all Mrs. Dennistoun's married life should have continued into a sphere where she ought to have been paramount. But she was with her daughter as she had been with her husband, a person of an ineffective character, taking refuge from the sensation of being unable to influence those about her whose wills were stronger than her own, by relinquishing authority, and in her most decided moments offering an opinion only, no more. This was not because she was really undecided, for on the contrary she knew her own mind well enough; but it had become a matter of habit with her to insist upon no opinion, knowing, as she did, how little chance she had of imposing her opinion upon the stronger wills about her. She had two other children older than Elinor: one, the eldest of all, married in India, a woman with many children of her own, practically altogether severed from the maternal nest; the other an adventurous son, who was generally understood to be at the ends of the earth, but seldom or never had any more definite address. This lady had naturally gone through many pangs and anxieties on behalf of these children, who had dropped away from her side into the unknown; but it belonged to her character to have said very little about this, so that she was generally supposed to take things very easily, and other mothers were apt to admire the composure of Mrs. Dennistoun, whose son might be being murdered by savages at any moment, for anything she knew—or minded, apparently. "Now it would have driven me out of my senses!" the other ladies said. Mrs. Dennistoun perhaps did not feel the back so well fitted to the burden as appeared—but she kept her own sentiments on this subject entirely to herself.
(I may say too—but this, the young reader may skip without disadvantage—by way of explanation of a peculiarity which has lately been much remarked as characteristic of those records of human history contemptuously called fiction, i.e., the unimportance, or ill-report, or unjust disapproval of the mother in records of this description—that it is almost impossible to maintain her due rank and character in a piece of history, which has to be kept within certain limits—and where her daughter the heroine must have the first place. To lessen her pre-eminence by dwelling at length upon the mother, unless that mother is a fool, or a termagant, or something thoroughly contrasting with the beauty and virtues of the daughter—would in most cases be a mistake in art. For one thing the necessary incidents are wanting, for I strongly object, and so I think do most people, to mothers who fall in love, or think of marriage, or any such vanity in their own person, and unless she is to interfere mischievously with the young lady's prospects, or take more or less the part of the villain, how is she to be permitted any importance at all? For there cannot be two suns in one sphere, or two centres to one world. Thus the mother has to be sacrificed to the daughter: which is a parable; or else it is the other way, which is against all the principles and prepossessions of life.)
Elinor did not sit up like her mother. She had flung herself upon the opposite sofa, with her arms flung behind her head, supporting it with her fingers half buried in the twists of her hair. She was not tall like Mrs. Dennistoun, and there was far more vivid colour than had ever been the mother's in her brown eyes and bright complexion, which was milk-white and rose-red after an old-fashioned rule of colour, too crude perhaps for modern artistic taste. Sometimes these delightful tints go with a placid soul which never varies, but in Elinor's case there was a demon in the hazel of the eyes, not dark enough for placidity, all fire at the best of times, and ready in a moment to burst into flame. She it was who had to be in the forefront of the interest, and not her mother, though for metaphysical, or what I suppose should now be called psychological interests, the elder lady was probably the most interesting of the two. Elinor beat her foot upon the carpet, out of sheer impatience, while John lingered alone in the dining-room. What did he stay there for? When there are several men together, and they drink wine, the thing is comprehensible; but one man alone who takes his claret with his dinner, and cares for nothing more, why should he stay behind when there was so much to say to him, and not one minute too much time till Monday morning, should the house be given up to talk not only by day but by night? But it was no use beating one's foot, for John did not come.
"You spoke to your cousin, Elinor, before dinner?" her mother said.
"Oh, yes, I spoke to him before dinner. What did he come here for but that? I sent for him on purpose, you know, mamma, to hear what he would say."
"And what did he say?"
This most natural question produced a small convulsion once more on Elinor's side. She loosed the hands that had been supporting her head and flung them out in front of her. "Oh, mamma, how can you be so exasperating! What did he say? What was he likely to say? If the beggar maid that married King Cophetua had a family it would have been exactly the same thing—though in that case surely the advantage was all on the gentleman's side."
"We know none of the particulars in that case," said Mrs. Dennistoun, calmly. "I have always thought it quite possible that the beggar maid was a princess of an old dynasty and King Cophetua a parvenu. But in your case, Elinor——"
"You know just as little," said the girl, impetuously.
"That is what I say. I don't know the man who has possessed himself of my child's fancy and heart. I want to know more about him. I want——"
"For goodness' sake, whatever you want, don't be sentimental, mamma!"
"Was I sentimental? I didn't mean it. He has got your heart, my dear, whatever words may be used."
"Yes—and forever!" said the girl, turning round upon herself. "I know you think I don't know my own mind; but there will never be any change in me. Oh, what does John mean, sitting all by himself in that stuffy room? He has had time to smoke a hundred cigarettes!"
"Elinor, you must not forget it is rather hard upon John to be brought down to settle your difficulties for you. What do you want with him? Only that he should advise you to do what you have settled upon doing. If he took the other side, how much attention would you give him? You must be reasonable, my dear."
"I would give him every attention," said Elinor, "if he said what was reasonable. You don't think mere blind opposition is reasonable, I hope, mamma. To say Don't, merely, without saying why, what reason is there in that?"
"My dear, when you argue I am lost. I am not clever at making out my ground. Mine is not mere blind opposition, or indeed opposition at all. You have been always trained to use your own faculties, and I have never made any stand against you."
"Why not? why not?" said the girl, springing to her feet. "That is just the dreadful, dreadful part of it! Why don't you say straight out what I am to do and keep to it, and not tell me I must make use of my own faculties? When I do, you put on a face and object. Either don't object, or tell me point-blank what I am to do."
"Do you think for one moment if I did, you would obey me, Elinor?"
"Oh, I don't know what I might do in that case, for it will never happen. You will never take that responsibility. For my part, if you locked me up in my room and kept me on bread and water I should think that reasonable; but not this kind of letting I dare not wait upon I would, saying I am to exercise my own faculties, and then hesitating and finding fault."
"I daresay, my dear," said Mrs. Dennistoun, with great tolerance, "that this may be provoking to your impatient mind: but you must put yourself in my place a little, as I try to put myself in yours. I have never seen Mr. Compton. It is probable, or at least quite possible, that if I knew him I might look upon him with your eyes——"
"Probable! Possible! What words to use! when all my happiness, all my life, everything I care for is in it: and my own mother thinks it just possible that she might be able to tolerate the man that—the man who——"
She flung herself down on her seat again, panting and excited. "Did you wear out Adelaide like that," she cried, "before she married, papa and you——"
"Adelaide was very different, Elinor. She married salon les règles a man whom we all knew. There was no trouble about it. Your father was the one who was impatient then. He thought it too well arranged, too commonplace and satisfactory. You may believe he did not object to that in words, but he laughed at them and it worried him. It has done very well on the whole," said Mrs. Dennistoun, with a faint sigh.
"You say that—and then you sigh. There is always a little reserve. You are never wholly satisfied."
"One seldom is in this world," said Mrs. Dennistoun, this time with a soft laugh. "This world is not very satisfactory. One makes the best one can of it."
"And that is just what I hate to hear," said Elinor, "what I have always heard. Oh, yes, when you don't say it you mean it, mamma. One can read it in the turn of your head. You put up with things. You think perhaps they might have been worse. In every way that's your philosophy. And it's killing, killing to all life! I would rather far you said out, 'Adelaide's husband is a prig and I hate him.'"
"There is only one drawback, that it would not be true. I don't in the least hate him. I am glad I was not called upon to marry him myself, I don't think I should have liked it. But he makes Adelaide a very good husband, and she is quite happy with him—as far as I know."
"The same thing again—never more. I wonder, I wonder after I have been married a dozen years what you will say of me?"
"I wonder, too: if we could but know that it would solve the question," the mother said. Elinor looked at her with a provoked and impatient air, which softened off after a moment—partly because she heard the door of the dining-room open—into a smile.
"I try you in every way," she said, half laughing. "I do everything to beguile you into a pleasanter speech. I thought you must at least have said then that you hoped you would have nothing to say but happiness. No! you are not to be caught, however one tries, mamma."
John came in at this moment, not without a whiff about him of the cigarette over which he had lingered so. It relieved him to see the two ladies seated opposite each other in the bow window, and to hear something like a laugh in the air. Perhaps they were discussing other things, and not this momentous marriage question, in which certainly no laughter was.
"You have your usual fire," he said, "but the wind has quite gone down, and I am sure it is not wanted to-night."
"It looks cheerful always, John."
"Which is the reason, I suppose, why you carefully place yourself out of sight of it—one of the prejudices of English life."
And then he came forward into the recess of the window, which was partly separated from the room by a table with flowers on it, and a great bush in a pot, of delicate maiden-hair fern. It was perhaps significant, though he did not mean it for any demonstration of partisanship, that he sat down on Elinor's side. Both the ladies felt it so instinctively, although, on the contrary, had the truth been known, all John's real agreement was with the mother; but in such a conjuncture it is not truth but personal sympathy that carries the day. "You are almost in the dark here," he said.
"Neither of us is doing anything. One is lazy on a summer night."