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IT was an old manor-house, not a deserted convent, as you might suppose by the name. The conventual buildings from which no doubt the place had taken its name, had dropped away, bit by bit, leaving nothing but one wall of the chapel, now closely veiled and mantled with ivy, behind the orchard, about a quarter of a mile from the house. The lands were Church lands, but the house was a lay house, of an older date than the family who had inhabited it from Henry VIII.’s time, when the priory was destroyed, and its possessions transferred to the manor.
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IT was an old manor-house, not a deserted convent, as you might suppose by the name. The conventual buildings from which no doubt the place had taken its name, had dropped away, bit by bit, leaving nothing but one wall of the chapel, now closely veiled and mantled with ivy, behind the orchard, about a quarter of a mile from the house. The lands were Church lands, but the house was a lay house, of an older date than the family who had inhabited it from Henry VIII.’s time, when the priory was destroyed, and its possessions transferred to the manor. No one could tell very clearly how this transfer was made, or how the family of Austins came into being. Before that period no trace of them was to be found. They sprang up all at once, not rising gradually into power, but appearing full-blown as proprietors of the manor, and possessors of all the confiscated lands. There was a tradition in the family of some wild, tragical union of an emancipated nun with a secularized friar—a kind of repetition of Luther and his Catherine, but with results less comfortable than those which followed the marriage of those German souls. With the English convertites the issue was not happy, as the story goes. Their broken vows haunted them; their possessions, which were not theirs, but the Church’s, lay heavy on their consciences; and they died early, leaving descendants with whose history a thread of perpetual misfortune was woven. The family history ran in a succession of long minorities, the line of inheritance gliding from one branch to the other, the direct thread breaking constantly. To die young, and leave orphan children behind; or to die younger still, letting the line drop and fall back upon cadets of the house, was the usual fate of the Austins of Whiteladies—unfortunate people who bore the traces of their original sin in their very name.
Miss Susan Austin was, at the moment when this story begins, seated in the porch of the manor, on a blazing day of July, when every scrap of shade was grateful and pleasant, and when the deep coolness of the old-fashioned porch was a kind of paradise. It was a very fine old house, half brick, half-timber; the eaves of the high gables carved into oaken lace-work; the lattice casements shining out of velvet clothing of ivy; and the great projecting window of the old hall, stepping out upon the velvet lawn, all glass from roof to ground, with only one richly-carved strip of panelling to frame it into the peaked roof. The door stood wide open, showing a long passage floored with red bricks, one wall of which was all casement, the other broken by carved and comely oaken doors, three or four centuries old. The porch was a little wider than the passage, and had a mullioned window in it, by the side of the great front opening, all clustered over with climbing roses. Looking out from the red-floored passage, the eye went past Miss Susan in the porch, to the sweet, luxuriant greenness of the lime-trees on the farther side of the lawn, which ended the prospect. The lawn was velvet green; the trees were silken soft, and laden with blossoms; the roses fluttered in at the open porch window, and crept about the door. Every beam in the long passage, every door, the continuous line of casement, the many turns by which this corridor led, meandering, with wealth of cool and airy space, toward the house, were all centuries old, bearing the stamp of distant generations upon the carved wood and endless windings; but without, everything was young and sunny,—grass and daisies and lime-blossoms, bees humming, birds twittering, the roses waving up and down in the soft wind. I wish the figure of Miss Susan had belonged to this part of the landscape; but, alas! Historical accuracy forbids romancing. She was the virtual mistress of the house, in absence of a better; but she was not young, nor had she been so for many a long day.
Miss Susan was about sixty, a comely woman of her age, with the fair hair and blue eyes of the Austins. Her hair was so light that it did not turn gray; and her eyes, though there were wrinkles round them, still preserved a certain innocence and candor of aspect which, ill-natured people said, had helped Miss Susan to make many a hard bargain, so guileless was their aspect. She was dressed in a gray gown of woollen stuff (alpaca, I think, for it is best to be particular); her hair was still abundant, and she had no cap on it, nor any covering. In her day the adoption of a cap had meant the acceptation of old age, and Miss Susan had no intention of accepting that necessity a moment before she was obliged to do so. The sun, which had begun to turn westward, had been blazing into the drawing-room, which looked that way, and Miss Susan had been driven out of her own chair and her own corner by it—an unwarrantable piece of presumption. She had been obliged to fly before it, and she had taken refuge in the porch, which faced to the north, and where shelter was to be found. She had her knitting in her hands; but if her countenance gave any clue to her mind’s occupation, something more important than knitting occupied her thoughts. She sat on the bench which stood on the deepest side between the inner and the outer entrance, knitting silently, the air breathing soft about her, the roses rustling. For a long time she did not once raise her head. The gardener was plodding about his work outside, now and then crossing the lawn with heavy, leisurely foot, muffled by the velvet of the old immemorial turf. Within there would now and then come an indistinct sound of voice or movement through the long passage; but nothing was visible, except the still gray figure in the shade of the deep porch.
By-and-by, however, this silence was broken. First came a maid, carrying a basket, who was young and rosy, and lighted up the old passage with a gleam of lightness and youthful color.
“Where are you going, Jane?” said Miss Susan.
“To the almshouse, please,” said Jane, passing out with a curtsey.
After her came another woman, at ten minutes’ interval, older and staider, in trim bonnet and shawl, with a large carpet-bag.
“Where are you going, Martha?” said the lady again.
“Please, ma’am, to the almshouse,” said Martha.
Miss Susan shrugged her shoulders slightly, but said no more.
A few minutes of silence passed, and then a heavy foot, slow and solemn, which seemed to come in procession from a vast distance, echoing over miles of passage, advanced gradually, with a protestation in every footfall. It was the butler, Stevens, a portly personage, with a countenance somewhat flushed with care and discontent.
“Where are you going, Stevens?” said Miss Susan.
“I’m going where I don’t want to go, mum,” said Stevens, “and where I don’t hold with; and if I might make so bold as to say so, where you ought to put a stop to, if so be as you don’t want to be ruinated and done for—you and Miss Augustine, and all the house.”
“ ‘Ruinated’ is a capital word,” said Miss Susan, blandly, “very forcible and expressive; but, Stevens, I don’t think we’ll come to that yet awhile.”
“Going on like this is as good a way as any,” grumbled the man, “encouraging an idle set of good-for-nothings to eat up ladies as takes that turn. I’ve seen it afore, Miss Austin. You gets imposed upon, right hand and left hand; and as for doing good!—No, no, this ain’t the way.”
Stevens, too had a basket to carry, and the afternoon was hot and the sun blazing. Between the manor and the almshouses there lay a long stretch of hot road, without any shade to speak of. He had reason, perhaps, to grumble over his unwilling share in these liberal charities. Miss Susan shrugged her shoulders again, this time with a low laugh at the butler’s perturbation, and went on with her knitting. In a few minutes another step became audible, coming along the passage—a soft step with a little hesitation in it—every fifth or sixth footfall having a slight pause or shuffle which came in a kind of rhythm. Then a tall figure came round the corner, relieved against the old carved doorway at the end and the bright redness of the brick floor; a tall, very slight woman, peculiarly dressed in a long, limp gown, of still lighter gray than the one Miss Susan wore, which hung closely about her, with long hanging sleeves hanging half way down the skirt of her dress, and something like a large hood depending from her shoulders. As the day was so warm, she had not drawn this hood over her head, but wore a light black gauze scarf, covering her light hair. She was not much younger than her sister, but her hair was still lighter, having some half visible mixture of gray, which whitened its tone. Her eyes were blue, but pale, with none of the warmth in them of Miss Susan’s. She carried her head a little on one side, and, in short, she was like nothing in the world so much as a mediæval saint out of a painted window, of the period when painted glass was pale in color, and did not blaze in blues and rubies. She had a basket too, carried in both her hands, which came out of the long falling lines of her sleeves with a curious effect. Miss Augustine’s basket, however, was full of flowers—roses, and some long white stalks of lilies, not quite over, though it was July, and long branches of jasmine covered with white stars.
“So you are going to the almshouses too?” said her sister. “I think we shall soon have to go and live there ourselves, as Stevens says, if this is how you are going on.”
“Ah, Susan, that would indeed be the right thing to do, if you could make up your mind to it,” said her sister, in a low, soft, plaintive voice, “and let the Church have her own again. Then perhaps our sacrifice, dear, might take away the curse.”
“Fiddlesticks!” said Miss Susan. “I don’t believe in curses. But, Austine, my dear, everybody tells me you are doing a great deal too much.”
“Can one do too much for God’s poor?”
“If we were sure of that now,” said Miss Susan, shaking her head; “but some of them, I am afraid, belong to—the other person. However, I won’t have you crossed; but, Austine, you might show a little moderation. You have carried off Jane and Martha and Stevens: if any one comes, who is to open the door?”
“The doors are all open, and you are here,” said Miss Augustine calmly. “You would not have the poor suffer for such a trifle? But I hope you will have no visitors to disturb your thoughts. I have been meditating much this morning upon that passage, ‘Behold, our days are as a weaver’s shuttle.’ Think of it, dear. We have got much, much to do, Susan, to make up for the sins of our family.”
“Fiddlesticks,” said Miss Susan again; but she said it half playfully, with tones more gentle than her decided expression of face would have prophesied. “Go away to your charities,” she added. “If you do harm, you do it in a good way, and mean well, poor soul, God knows; so I hope no mischief will come of it. But send me Stevens home as soon as may be, Austine, for the sake of my possible meditations, if for nothing else; for there’s nobody left in the house but old Martin and the boy, and the women in the kitchen.”
“What should we want with so many servants?” said Miss Augustine with a sigh; and she walked slowly out of the porch, under the rose-wreaths, and across the lawn, the sun blazing upon her light dress and turning it into white, and beating fiercely on her uncovered head.
“Take a parasol, for heaven’s sake,” said Miss Susan; but the white figure glided on, taking no notice. The elder sister paused for a moment in her knitting, and looked after the other with that look, half tender, half provoked, with which we all contemplate the vagaries of those whom we love, but do not sympathize with, and whose pursuits are folly to us. Miss Susan possessed what is called “strong sense,” but she was not intolerant, as people of strong sense so often are; at least she was not intolerant to her sister, who was the creature most unlike her, and whom she loved best in the world.
The manor-house did not belong to the Misses Austin, but they had lived in it all their lives. Their family history was not a bright one, as I have said; and their own immediate portion of the family had not fared better than the previous generations. They had one brother who had gone into the diplomatic service, and had married abroad and died young, before the death of their father, leaving two children, a boy and a girl, who had been partially brought up with the aunts. Their mother was a Frenchwoman, and had married a second time. The two children, Herbert and Reine, had passed half of their time with her, half with their father’s sisters; for Miss Susan had been appointed their guardian by their father, who had a high opinion of her powers. I do not know that this mode of education was very good for the young people; but Herbert was one of those gentle boys predestined to a short life, who take little harm by spoiling. He was dying now at one-and-twenty, among the Swiss hills, whither he had been taken, when the weather grew hot, from one of the invalid refuges on the Mediterranean shore. He was perishing slowly, and all false hope was over, and everybody knew it—a hard fate enough for his family; but there were other things involved which made it harder still. The estate of Whiteladies was strictly entailed. Miss Susan and Miss Augustine Austin had been well provided for by a rich mother, but their French sister-in-law had no money and another family, and Reine had no right to the lands, or to anything but a very humble portion left to her by her father; and the old ladies had the prospect before them of being turned out of the house they loved, the house they had been born in, as soon as their nephew’s feeble existence should terminate. The supposed heir-at-law was a gentleman in the neighborhood, distantly related, and deeply obnoxious to them. I say the supposed heir—for there was a break in the Austin pedigree, upon which, at the present time, the Misses Austin and all their friends dwelt with exceeding insistance. Two or three generations before, the second son of the family had quarrelled with his father and disappeared entirely from England. If he had any descendants, they, and not Mr. Farrel-Austin, were the direct heirs. Miss Susan had sent envoys over all the known world seeking for these problematic descendants of her granduncle Everard. Another young Austin, of a still more distant stock, called Everard too, and holding a place in the succession after Mr. Farrel-Austin, had gone to America even, on the track of some vague Austins there, who were not the people he sought; and though Miss Susan would not give up the pursuit, yet her hopes were getting feeble; and there seemed no likely escape from the dire necessity of giving up the manor, and the importance (which she did not dislike) of the position it gave her as virtual mistress of a historical house, to a man she disliked and despised, the moment poor Herbert’s breath should be out of his body. Peacefully, therefore, as the scene had looked before the interruptions above recorded, Miss Susan was not happy, nor were her thoughts of a cheerful character. She loved her nephew, and the approaching end to which all his relations had long looked forward hung over her like a cloud, with that dull sense of pain, soon to become more acute, which impending misfortune, utterly beyond our power to avert, so often brings; and mingled with this were the sharper anxieties and annoyances of the quest she had undertaken, and its ill success up to this moment; and the increasing probability that the man she disliked, and no other, must be her successor, her supplanter in her home. Her mind was full of such thoughts; but she was a woman used to restrain her personal sentiments, and keep them to herself, having been during her long life much alone, and without any companion in whom she was accustomed to confide. The two sisters had never been separated in their lives; but Augustine, not Susan, was the one who disclosed her feelings and sought for sympathy. In most relations of life there is one passive and one active, one who seeks and one who gives. Miss Augustine was the weaker of the two, but in this respect she was the more prominent. She was always the first to claim attention, to seek the interest of the other; and for years long her elder sister had been glad to give what she asked, and to keep silent about her own sentiments, which the other might not have entered into. “What was the use?” Miss Susan said to herself; and shrugged her shoulders and kept her troubles, which were very different from Augustine’s in her own breast.
How pleasant it was out there in the porch! the branches of the lime-trees blown about softly by the wind; a daisy here and there lifting its roguish saucy head, which somehow had escaped the scythe, from the close-mown lawn; the long garlands of roses playing about the stone mullions of the window, curling round the carved lintel of the door; the cool passage on the other side leading into the house, with its red floor and carved doors, and long range of casement. Miss Susan scarcely lifted her eyes from her knitting, but every detail of the peaceful scene was visible before her. No wonder—she had learned them all by heart in the long progress of the years. She knew every twig on the limes, every bud on the roses. She sat still, scarcely moving, knitting in with her thread many an anxious thought, many a wandering fancy, but with a face serene enough, and all about her still. It had never been her habit to betray what was in her to an unappreciative world.
She brightened up a little, however, and raised her head, when she heard the distant sound of a whistle coming far off through the melodious Summer air. It caught her attention, and she raised her head for a second, and a smile came over her face. “It must be Everard,” she said to herself, and listened, and made certain, as the air, a pretty gay French air, became more distinct. No one else would whistle that tune. It was one of Reine’s French songs—one of those graceful little melodies which are so easy to catch and so effective. Miss Susan was pleased that he should whistle one of Reine’s tunes. She had her plans and theories on this point, as may be hereafter shown; and Everard besides was a favorite of her own, independent of Reine. Her countenance relaxed, her knitting felt lighter in her hand, as the whistle came nearer, and then the sound of a firm, light step. Miss Susan let the smile dwell upon her face, not dismissing it, and knitted on, expecting calmly till he should make his appearance. He had come to make his report to her of another journey, from which he had just returned, in search of the lost Austins. It had not been at all to his own interest to pursue this search, for, failing Mr. Farrel-Austin, he himself would be the heir-at-law; but Everard, as Miss Susan had often said to herself, was not the sort of person to think of his own advantage. He was, if anything, too easy on that head—too careless of what happened to himself individually. He was an orphan with a small income—that “just enough” which is so fatal an inheritance for a young man—nominally at “the Bar,” actually nowhere in the race of life, but very ready to do anything for anybody, and specially for his old cousins, who had been good to him in his youth. He had a small house of his own on the river not far off, which the foolish young man lived in only a few weeks now and then, but which he refused to let, for no reason but because it had been his mother’s, and her memory (he thought) inhabited the place. Miss Susan was so provoked with this and other follies that she could have beaten Everard often, and then hugged him—a mingling of feelings not unusual. But as Everard is just about to appear in his own person, I need not describe him further. His whistle came along, advancing through the air, the pleasantest prelude to his appearance. Something gay and free and sweet was in the sound, the unconscious self-accompaniment of a light heart. He whistled as he went for want of thought—nay, not for want of thought, but because all the movements of his young soul were as yet harmonious, lightsome, full of hope and sweetness; his gay personality required expression; he was too light-hearted, too much at home in the world, and friendly, to come silent along the sunshiny way. So, as he could not talk to the trees and the air, like a poetical hero in a tragedy, Everard made known his good-will to everything, and delicious, passive happiness, by his whistle; and he whistled like a lark, clear and sweet; it was one of his accomplishments. He whistled Miss Susan’s old airs when she played them on her old piano, in charming time and harmony; and he did not save his breath for drawing-room performances, but sent before him these pleasant intimations of his coming, as far as a mile off. To which Miss Susan sat and listened, waiting for his arrival, with a smile on her face.
“IHAVE been waiting for you these fifteen minutes,” she said.
“What—you knew I was coming?”
“I heard you, boy. If you choose to whistle ‘Ce que je desire’ through St. Austin’s parish, you may make up your mind to be recognized. Ah! You make me think of my poor children, the one dying, the other nursing him—”
“Don’t!” said the young man, holding up his hand, “it is heart-breaking; I dare not think of them, for my part. Aunt Susan, the missing Austins are not to be found in Cornwall. I went to Bude, as you told me, and found a respectable grocer, who came from Berks, to be sure, and knew very little about his grandfather, but is not our man. I traced him back to Flitton, where he comes from, and found out his pedigree. I have broken down entirely. Did you know that the Farrel-Austins were at it too?”
“This search after our missing kinsfolk. They have just come back, and they look very important; I don’t know if they have found out anything.”
“Then you have been visiting them?” said Miss Susan, bending her head over her knitting, with a scarcely audible sigh; it would have been inaudible to a stranger, but Everard knew what it meant.
“I called—to ask if they had got back, that was all,” he said, with a slight movement of impatience; “and they have come back. They had come down the Rhine and by the old Belgian towns, and were full of pictures, and cathedrals, and so forth. But I thought I caught a gleam in old Farrel’s eye.”
“I wonder—but if he had found them out I don’t think there would be much of a gleam in his eye,” said Miss Susan. “Everard, my dear, if we have to give up the house to them, what shall I do? And my poor Austine will feel it still more.”
“If it has to be done, it must be done, I suppose,” said Everard, with a shrug of his shoulders, “but we need not think of it until we are obliged; and besides, Aunt Susan, forgive me, if you had to give it up to—poor Herbert himself, you would feel it; and if he should get better, poor fellow, and live, and marry—”
“Ah, my poor boy,” said Miss Susan, “life and marriage are not for him!” She paused a moment and dried her eyes, and gulped down a sob in her throat. “But you may be right,” she said in a low tone, “perhaps, whoever our successors were, we should feel it—even you, Everard.”
“You should never go out of Whiteladies for me,” said the young man, “that you may be sure of; but I shall not have the chance. Farrel-Austin, for the sake of spiting the family generally, will make a point of outliving us all. There is this good in it, however,” he added, with a slight movement of his head, which looked like throwing off a disagreeable impression, and a laugh, “if poor Herbert, or I, supposing such a thing possible, had taken possession, it might have troubled your affection for us, Aunt Susan. Nay, don’t shake your head. In spite of yourself it would have affected you. You would have felt it bitter, unnatural, that the boys you had brought up and fostered should take your house from you. You would have struggled against the feeling, but you could not have helped it, I know.”
“Yes; a great deal you know about an old woman’s feelings,” said Miss Susan with a smile.
“And as for these unknown people, who never heard of Whiteladies, perhaps, and might pull down the old house, or play tricks with it—for instance, your grocer at Bude, the best of men, with a charming respectable family, a pretty daughter, who is a dress-maker, and a son who has charge of the cheese and butter. After all, Aunt Susan, you could not in your heart prefer them even to old Farrel-Austin, who is a gentleman at least, and knows the value of the old house.”
“I am not so sure of that,” said Miss Susan, though she had shivered at the description. “Farrel-Austin is our enemy; he has different ways of thinking, different politics, a different side in everything; and besides—don’t laugh in your light way, Everard; everybody does not take things lightly as you do—there is something between him and us, an old grievance that I don’t care to speak of now.”
“So you have told me,” said the young man. “Well, we cannot help it, anyhow; if he must succeed, he must succeed, though I wish it was myself rather for your sake.”
“Not for your own?” said Miss Susan, with restrained sharpness, looking up at him. “The Farrel-Austins are your friends, Everard. Oh, yes, I know! Nowadays young people do not take up the prejudices of their elders. It is better and wiser, perhaps, to judge for yourself, to take up no foregone conclusion; but for my part, I am old-fashioned, and full of old traditions. I like my friends, somehow, reasonably or unreasonably, to be on my side.”
“You have never even told me why it was your side,” said Everard, with rising color; “am I to dislike my relations without even knowing why? That is surely going too far in partisanship. I am not fond of Farrel-Austin himself; but the rest of the family—”
“The—girls; that is what you would say.”
“Well, Aunt Susan! The girls if you please; they are very nice girls. Why should I hate them because you hate their father? It is against common-sense, not to speak of anything else.”
There was a little pause after this. Miss Susan had been momentarily happy in the midst of her cares, when Everard’s whistle coming to her over the Summer fields and flowers, had brought to her mind a soft thought of her pretty Reine, and of the happiness that might be awaiting her after her trial was over. But now, by a quick and sudden revulsion this feeling of relief was succeeded by a sudden realization of where Reine might be now, and how occupied, such as comes to us all sometimes, when we have dear friends in distress—in one poignant flash, with a pain which concentrates in itself as much suffering as might make days sad. The tears came to her eyes in a gush. She could not have analyzed the sensations of disappointment, annoyance, displeasure, which conspired to throw back her mind upon the great grief which was in the background of her landscape, always ready to recall itself; but the reader will understand how it came about. A few big drops of moisture fell upon her knitting. “Oh, my poor children!” she said, “how can I think of anything else, when at this very moment, perhaps, for all one knows—”
I believe Everard felt what was the connecting link of thought, or rather feeling, and for the first moment was half angry, feeling himself more or less blamed; but he was too gentle a soul not to be overwhelmed by the other picture suggested, after the first moment. “Is he so very bad, then?” he asked, after an interval, in a low and reverential tone.
“Not worse than he has been for weeks,” said Miss Susan, “but that is as bad as possible; and any day—any day may bring—God help us! in this lovely weather, Everard, with everything blooming, everything gay—him dying, her watching him. Oh! How could I forget them for a moment—how could I think of anything else?”
He made no answer at first, then he said faltering, “We can do them no good by thinking, and it is too cruel, too terrible. Is she alone?”
“No; God forgive me,” said Miss Susan. “I ought to think of the mother who is with her. They say a mother feels most. I don’t know. She has other ties and other children, though I have nothing to say against her. But Reine has no one.”
Was it a kind of unconscious appeal to his sympathy? Miss Susan felt in a moment as if she had compromised the absent girl for whom she herself had formed visions with which Reine had nothing to do.
“Not that Reine is worse off than hundreds of others,” she said, hastily, “and she will never want friends; but the tie between them is very strong. I do wrong to dwell upon it—and to you!”
“Why to me?” said Everard. He had been annoyed to have Reine’s sorrow thrust upon his notice, as if he had been neglecting her; but he was angry now to be thus thrust away from it, as if he had nothing to do with her; the two irritations were antagonistic, yet the same. “You don’t like painful subjects,” said Miss Susan, with a consciousness of punishing him, and vindictive pleasure, good soul as she was, in his punishment. “Let us talk of something else. Austine is at her almshouses, as usual, and she has left me with scarcely a servant in the house. Should any one call, or should tea be wanted, I don’t know what I should do.”
“I don’t suppose I could make the tea,” said Everard. He felt that he was punished, and yet he was glad of the change of subject. He was light-hearted, and did not know anything personally of suffering, and he could not bear to think of grief or misfortune which, as he was fond of saying, he could do no good by thinking of. He felt quite sure of himself that he would have been able to overcome his repugnance to things painful had it been “any good,” but as it was, why make himself unhappy? He dismissed the pain as much as he could, as long as he could, and felt that he could welcome visitors gladly, even at the risk of making the tea, to turn the conversation from the gloomy aspect it had taken. The thought of Herbert and Reine seemed to cloud over the sunshine, and take the sweetness out of the air. It gave his heart a pang as if it had been suddenly compressed; and this pain, this darkening of the world, could do them no good. Therefore, though he was fond of them both, and would have gone to the end of the world to restore health to his sick cousin, or even to do him a temporary pleasure, yet, being helpless toward them, he was glad to get the thoughts of them out of his mind. It spoilt his comfort, and did them no manner of good. Why should he break his own heart by indulging in such unprofitable thoughts?
Miss Susan knew Everard well; but though she had herself abruptly changed the subject in deference to his wishes, she was vexed with him for accepting the change, and felt her heart fill full of bitterness on Reine’s account and poor Herbert’s, whom this light-hearted boy endeavored to forget. She could not speak to him immediately, her heart being sore and angry. He felt this, and had an inkling of the cause, and was half compunctious and half disposed to take the offensive, and ask, “What have I done?” and defend himself, but could not, being guilty in heart. So he stood leaning against the open doorway, with a great rosebranch, which had got loose from its fastenings, blowing in his face, and giving him a careless prick with its thorns, as the wind blew it about. Somehow the long waving bough, with its many roses, which struck him lightly, playfully, across the face as he stood there, with dainty mirth and mischief, made him think of Reine more than Miss Susan’s reminder had done. The prick of the branch woke in his heart that same, sudden, vivid, poignant realization of the gay girl in contrast with her present circumstances, which just a few minutes before had taken Miss Susan, too, by surprise; and thus the two remained, together, yet apart, silent, in a half quarrel, but both thinking of the same subject, and almost with the same thoughts. Just then the rolling of carriage wheels and prance of horses became audible turning the corner of the green shady road into which the gate, at this side of the town, opened—for the manor-house was not secluded in a park, but opened directly from a shady, sylvan road, which had once served as avenue to the old priory. The greater part of the trees that formed the avenue had perished long ago, but some great stumps and roots, and an interrupted line of chance-sown trees, showed where it had been. The two people in the porch were roused by this sound, Miss Susan to a troubled recollection of her servant-less condition, and Everard to mingled annoyance and pleasure as he guessed who the visitors were. He would have been thankful to anyone who had come in with a new interest to relieve him from the gloomy thoughts that had taken possession of him against his will, and the new comers, he felt sure, were people whom he liked to meet.
“Here is someone coming to call,” cried Miss Susan in dismay, “and there is no one to open the door!”
“The door is open, and you can receive them here, or take them in, which you please; you don’t require any servant,” said Everard; and then he added, in a low tone, “Aunt Susan, it is the Farrel-Austins; I know their carriage.”
“Ah!” cried Miss Susan, drawing herself up. She did not say any more to him—for was not he a friend and supporter of that objectionable family?—but awaited the unwelcome visitors with dignified rigidity. Their visits to her were very rare, but she had always made a point of enduring and returning these visits with that intense politeness of hostility which transcends every other kind of politeness. She would not consent to look up, nor to watch the alighting of the brightly-clad figures on the other side of the lawn. The old front of the house, the old doorway and porch in which Miss Susan sat, was not now the formal entrance, and consequently there was no carriage road to it; so that the visitors came across the lawn with light Summer dresses and gay ribbons, flowery creatures against the background of green. They were two handsome girls, prettily dressed and smiling, with their father, a dark, insignificant, small man, coming along like a shadow in their train.
“Oh, how cool and sweet it is here!” said Kate, the eldest. “We are so glad to find you at home, Miss Austin. I think we met your sister about an hour ago going through the village. Is it safe for her to walk in the sun without her bonnet? I should think she would get a sunstroke on such a day.”
“She is the best judge,” said Miss Susan, growing suddenly red; then subduing herself as suddenly, “for my part,” she said, “I prefer the porch. It is too warm to go out.”
“Oh, we have been so much about; we have been abroad,” said Sophy, the youngest. “We think nothing of the heat here. English skies and English climate are dreadful after the climate abroad.”
“Ah, are they? I don’t know much of any other,” said Miss Susan. “Good morning, Mr. Farrel. May I show you the way to the drawing-room, as I happen to be here?”
“Oh, mayn’t we go to the hall, please, instead? We are all so fond of the hall,” said Sophy. She was the silly one, the one who said things which the others did not like to say. “Pleaselet us go there; isn’t this the turn to take? Oh, what a dear old house it is, with such funny passages and turnings and windings! If it were ours, I should never sit anywhere but in the hall.”
“Sophy!” said the father, in a warning tone.
“Well, papa! I am not saying anything that is wrong. I do love the old hall. Some people say it is such a tumble-down, ramshackle old house; but that is because they have no taste. If it were mine, I should always sit in the hall.”
Miss Susan led the way to it without a word. Many people thought that Sophy Farrel-Austin had reason in her madness, and said, with a show of silliness, things that were too disagreeable for the others; but that was a mere guess on the part of the public. The hall was one of the most perfectly preserved rooms of its period. The high, open roof had been ceiled, which was almost the only change made since the fifteenth century, and that had been done in Queen Anne’s time; and the huge, open chimney was partially built up, small sacrifices made to comfort by a family too tenacious of their old dwelling-place to do anything to spoil it, even at the risk of asthma or rheumatism. To tell the truth, however, there was a smaller room, of which the family now made their dining-room on ordinary occasions. Miss Susan, scorning to take any notice of words which she laid up and pondered privately to increase the bitterness of her own private sentiments toward her probable supplanters, led the way into this beautiful old hall. It was wainscoted with dark panelled wood, which shone and glistened, up to within a few feet of the roof, and the interval was filled with a long line of casement, throwing down a light which a painter would have loved upon the high, dark wall. At the upper end of the room was a deep recess, raised a step from the floor, and filled with a great window all the way up to the roof. At the lower end the musicians’ gallery of ancient days, with carved front and half-effaced coats-of-arms, was still intact. The rich old Turkey carpet on the floor, the heavy crimson curtains that hung on either side of the recess with its great window, were the most modern things in the room; and yet they were older than Miss Susan’s recollection could carry. The rest of the furniture dated much further back. The fire-place, in which great logs of wood blazed every Winter, was filled with branches of flowering shrubs, and the larger old-fashioned garden flowers, arranged in some huge blue and white China jars, which would have struck any collector with envy. Miss Susan placed her young visitors on an old, straight-backed settle, covered with stamped leather, which was extremely quaint, and very uncomfortable. She took herself one of the heavy-fringed, velvet-covered chairs, and began with deadly civility to talk. Everard placed himself against the carved mantel-piece and the bank of flowers that filled the chimney. The old room was so much the brighter to him for the presence of the girls; he did not care much that Sophy was silly. Their pretty faces and bright looks attracted the young man; perhaps he was not very wise himself. It happens so often enough.
And thus they all sat down and talked—about the beautiful weather, about the superiority, even to this beautiful weather, of the weather “abroad;” of where they had been and what they had seen; of Mrs. Farrel-Austin’s health, who was something of an invalid, and rarely came out; and other similar matters, such as are generally discussed in morning calls. Everard helped Miss Susan greatly to keep the conversation up, and carry off the visit with the ease and lightness that were desirable, but yet I am not sure that she was grateful to him. All through her mind, while she smiled and talked, there kept rising a perpetual contrast. Why were these two so bright and well, while the two children of the old house were in such sad estate?—while they chattered and laughed what might be happening elsewhere? And Everard, who had been like a brother to Herbert and Reine, laughed too, and chattered, and made himself pleasant to these two girls, and never thought—never thought! This was the sombre under-current which went through Miss Susan’s mind while she entertained her callers, not without sundry subdued passages of arms. But Miss Susan’s heart beat high, in spite of herself, when Mr. Farrel-Austin lingered behind his daughters, bidding Everard see them to the carriage.
“Cousin Susan, I should like a word with you,” he said.
THE girls went out into the old corridor, leaving the great carved door of the dining-hall open behind them. The flutter of their pretty dresses filled the picturesque passage with animation, and the sound of their receding voices kept up this sentiment of life and movement even after they had disappeared. Their father looked after them well pleased, with that complacence on his countenance, and pleasant sense of personal well-being which is so natural, but so cruel and oppressive to people less well off. Miss Susan, for her part, felt it an absolute insult. It seemed to her that he had come expressly to flaunt before her his own happiness and the health and good looks of his children. She turned her back to the great window, that she might not see them going across the lawn, with Everard in close attendance upon them. A sense of desertion, by him, by happiness, by all that is bright and pleasant in the world, came into her heart, and made her defiant. When such a feeling as this gets into the soul, all softness, all indulgence to others, all favorable construction of other people’s words or ways departs. They seemed to her to have come to glory over her and over Herbert dying, and Reine mourning, and the failure of the old line. What was grief and misery to her was triumph to them. It was natural perhaps, but very bitter; curses even, if she had not been too good a woman to let them come to utterance, were in poor Miss Susan’s heart. If he had said anything to her about his girls, as she expected, if he had talked of them at all, I think the flood must have found vent somehow; but fortunately he did not do this. He waited till they were out of the house, and then rose and closed the door, and reseated himself facing her, with something more serious in his face.
“Excuse me for waiting till they had gone,” he said. “I don’t want the girls to be mixed up in any family troubles; though, indeed, there is no trouble involved in what I have to tell you—or, at least, so I hope.”
The girls were crossing the lawn as he spoke, laughing and talking, saying something about the better training of the roses, and how the place might be improved. Miss Susan caught some words of this with ears quickened by her excited feelings. She drew her chair further from the window, and turned her back to it more determinedly than ever. Everard, too! He had gone over to the prosperous side.
“My dear cousin,” said Mr. Farrel-Austin, “I wish you would not treat me like an enemy. Whenever there is anything I can do for you, I am always glad to do it. I heard that you were making inquiries after our great-uncle Everard and his descendants, if he left any.”
“You could not miss hearing it. I made no secret of it,” said Miss Susan. “We have put advertisements in the newspapers, and done everything we possibly could to call everybody’s attention.”
“Yes; I know, I know; but you never consulted me. You never said, ‘Cousin, it is for the advantage of all of us to find these people.’ ”
“I do not think it is for your advantage,” said Miss Susan, looking quickly at him.
“You will see, however, that it is, when you know what I have to tell you,” he said, rubbing his hands. “I suppose I may take it for granted that you did not mean it for my advantage. Cousin Susan, I have found the people you have been looking for in vain.”
The news gave her a shock, and so did his triumphant expression; but she put force upon herself. “I am glad to hear it,” she said. “Such a search as mine is never in vain. When you have advantages to offer, you seldom fail to find the people who have a right to those advantages. I am glad you have been successful.”
“And I am happy to hear you say so,” said the other. “In short, we are in a state of agreement and concord for once in our lives, which is delightful. I hope you will not be disappointed, however, with the result. I found them in Bruges, in a humble position enough. Indeed, it was the name of Austin over a shop door which attracted my notice first.”
He spoke leisurely, and regarded her with a smile which almost drove her furious, especially as, by every possible argument, she was bound to restrain her feelings. She was strong enough, however, to do this, and present a perfectly calm front to her adversary.
“You found the name—over a shop door?”
“Yes, a drapery shop; and inside there was an old man with the Austin nose as clear as I ever saw it. It belongs, you know, more distinctly to the elder branch than to any other portion of the family.”
“The original stock is naturally stronger,” said Miss Susan. “When you get down to collaterals, the family type dies out. Your family, for instance, all resemble your mother, who was a Miss Robinson, I think I have heard?”
This thrust gave her a little consolation in her pain, and it disturbed her antagonist in his triumph. She had, as it were, drawn the first blood.
“Yes, yes; you are quite right,” he said; “of a very good family in Essex. Robinsons of Swillwell—well-known people.”
“In the city,” said Miss Susan, “so I have always heard; and an excellent thing, too. Blood may not always make its way, but money does; and to have an alderman for your grandfather is a great deal more comfortable than to have a crusader. But about our cousin at Bruges,” she added, recovering her temper. How pleasant to every well-regulated mind is the consciousness of having administered a good, honest, knock-down blow!
Mr. Farrel-Austin glanced at her out of the light gray eyes, which were indisputable Robinsons’, and as remote in color as possible from the deep blue orbs, clear as a Winter sky, which were one of the great points of the Austins; but he dared not take any further notice. It was his turn now to restrain himself.
“About our cousin in Bruges,” he repeated with an effort. “He turns out to be an old man, and not so happy in his family as might be wished. His only son was dying—”
“For God’s sake!” said Miss Susan, moved beyond her power of control, and indeed ceasing to control herself with this good reason for giving way—“have you no heart that you can say such words with a smile on your face? You that have children yourself, whom God may smite as well as another’s! How dare you? How dare you? For your own sake!”
“I don’t know that I am saying anything unbecoming,” said Mr. Farrel. “I did not mean it. No one can be more grateful for the blessings of Providence than I am. I thank Heaven that all my children are well; but that does not hinder the poor man at Bruges from losing his. Pray let me continue: his wife and he are old people, and his only son, as I say, was dying or dead—dead by this time, certainly, according to what they said of his condition.”
Miss Susan clasped her hands tightly together. It seemed to her that he enjoyed the poignant pang his words gave her—“dead by this time, certainly!” Might that be said of the other who was dearer to her? Two dying, that this man might get the inheritance! Two lives extinguished, that Farrel-Austin and his girls might have this honor and glory! He had no boys, however. His glory could be but short-lived. There was a kind of fierce satisfaction in that thought.
“I had a long conversation with the old man; indeed, we stayed in Bruges for some days on purpose. I saw all his papers, and there can be no doubt he is the grandson of our great-uncle Everard. I explained the whole matter to him, of course, and brought your advertisements under his notice, and explained your motives.”
“What are my motives?—according to your explanation.”
“Well, my dear cousin—not exactly love and charity to me, are they? I explained the position fully to him.”
“Then there is no such thing as justice or right in the world, I suppose,” she cried indignantly, “but everything hinges on love to you, or the reverse. You know what reason I have to love you—well do you know it, and lose no opportunity to keep it before me; but if my boy himself—my dying boy, God help me!—had been in your place, Farrel-Austin, should I have let him take possession of what was not his by right? You judge men, and women too, by yourself. Let that pass, so far as you are concerned. You have no other ground, I suppose, to form a judgment on; but you have no right to poison the minds of others. Nothing will make me submit to that.”
“Well, well,” said Mr. Farrel-Austin, shrugging his shoulders with contemptuous calm, “you can set yourself right when you please with the Bruges shopkeeper. I will give you his address. But in the meantime you may as well hear what his decision is. At his age he does not care to change his country and his position, and come to England in order to become the master of a tumble-down old house. He prefers his shop, and the place he has lived in all his life. And the short and the long of it is, that he has transferred his rights to me, and resigned all claim upon the property. I agreed to it,” he added, raising his head, “to save trouble, more than for any other reason. He is an old man, nearly seventy; his son dead or dying, as I said. So far as I am concerned, it could only have been a few years’ delay at the most.”
Miss Susan sat bolt upright in her chair, gazing at him with eyes full of amazement—so much astonished that she scarcely comprehended what he said. It was evidently a relief to the other to have made his announcement. He breathed more freely after he had got it all out. He rose from his chair and went to the window, and nodded to his girls across the lawn. “They are impatient, I see, and I must be going,” he went on. Then looking at Miss Susan for the first time, he added, in a tone that had a sound of mockery in it, “You seem surprised.”
“Surprised!” She had been leaning toward the chair from which he had arisen without realizing that he had left it in her great consternation. Now she turned quickly to him. “Surprised! I am a great deal more than surprised.”
He laughed; he had the upper hand at last. “Why more?” he said lightly. “I think the man was a very reasonable old man, and saw what his best policy was.”
“And you—accepted his sacrifice?” said Miss Susan, amazement taking from her all power of expression;—“you permitted him to give up his birthright? you—took advantage of his ignorance?”
“My dear cousin, you are rude,” he said, laughing; “without intending it, I am sure. So well-bred a woman could never make such imputations willingly. Took advantage! I hope I did not do that. But I certainly recommended the arrangement to him, as the most reasonable thing he could do. Think! At his age, he could come here only to die; and with no son to succeed him, of course I should have stepped in immediately. Few men like to die among strangers. I was willing, of course, to make him a recompense for the convenience—for it was no more than a convenience, make the most you can of it—of succeeding at once.”
Miss Susan looked at him speechless with pain and passion. I do not know what she did not feel disposed to say. For a moment her blue eyes shot forth fire, her lips quivered from the flux of too many words which flooded upon her. She began even, faltering, stammering—then came to a stop in the mere physical inability to arrange her words, to say all she wanted, to launch her thunderbolt at his head with the precision she wished. At last she came to a dead stop, looking at him only, incapable of speech; and with that pause came reflection. No; she would say nothing; she would not commit herself; she would think first, and perhaps do, instead of saying. She gave a gasp of self-restraint.
“The young ladies seem impatient for you,” she said. “Don’t let me detain you. I don’t know that I have anything to say on the subject of your news, which is surprising, to be sure, and takes away my breath.”
“Yes, I thought you would be surprised,” he said, and shook hands with her. Miss Susan’s fingers tingled—how she would have liked, in an outburst of impatience which I fear was very undignified, to apply them to his ear, rather than to suffer his hand to touch hers in hypocritical amity! He was a little disappointed, however, to have had so little response to his communication. Her silence baffled him. He had expected her to commit herself, to storm, perhaps; to dash herself in fury against this skilful obstacle which he had placed in her way. He did not expect her to have so much command of herself; and, in consequence, he went away with a secret uneasiness, feeling less successful and less confident in what he had done, and asking himself, Could he have made some mistake after all—could she know something that made his enterprise unavailing? He was more than usually silent on the drive home, making no answer to the comments of his girls, or to their talk about what they would do when they got possession of the manor.
“I hope the furniture goes with the house,” said Kate. “Papa, you must do all you can to secure those old chairs, and especially the settee with the stamped leather, which is charming, and would fetch its weight in gold in Wardour street.”
“And, papa, those big blue and white jars,” said Sophy, “real old Nankin, I am sure. They must have quantities of things hidden away in those old cupboards. It shall be as good as a museum when we get possession of the house!”
“You had better get possession of the house before you make any plans about it,” said her father. “I never like making too sure.”
“Why, papa, what has come over you?” cried the eldest. “You were the first to say what you would do, when we started. Miss Susan has been throwing some spell over you.”
“If it is her spell, it will not be hard to break it,” said Sophy; and thus they glided along, between the green abundant hedges, breathing the honey breath of the limes, but not quite so happy and triumphant as when they came. As for the girls, they had heard no details of the bargain their father had made, and gave no great importance to it; for they knew he was the next heir, and that the manor-house would soon cease to be poor Herbert’s, with whom they had played as children, but whom, they said constantly, they scarcely knew. They did not understand what cloud had come over their father. “Miss Susan is an old witch,” they said, “and she has put him under some spell.”
Meanwhile Miss Susan sat half-stupefied where he had left her, in a draught, which was a thing she took precautions against on ordinary occasions—the great window open behind her, the door open in front of her, and the current blowing about even the sedate and heavy folds of the great crimson curtains, and waking, though she did not feel it, the demon Neuralgia to twist her nerves, and set her frame on an edge. She did not seem able to move or even think, so great was the amazement in her mind. Could he be right—could he have found the Austin she had sought for over all the world; and was it possible that the unrighteous bargain he had told her of had really been completed? Unrighteous! For was it not cheating her in the way she felt the most, deceiving her in her expectations? An actual misfortune could scarcely have given Miss Susan so great a shock. She sat quite motionless, her very thoughts arrested in their course, not knowing what to think, what to do—how to take this curious new event. Must she accept it as a thing beyond her power of altering, or ought she to ignore it as
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