A Country Gentleman
“ Two little girls. He came over to tell us yesterday. Poor Theo! He is pleased, of coarse, but I think half ashamed too. It seems a little ridiculous to have twins, and the first.”
“ I can’t think how you can say it is ridiculous. It is very interesting. But nowadays people seem to be ashamed of having children at all. It used to be thought the strength of a country, and doing your duty to the state. But people have different notions now.”
“ Well,” said the rector, “ I should have thought Theo would be pleased ; for he likes to be original in everything, and two little girls are as unlike as possible to one little boy.”
Mrs. Warrender’s eyes shot forth a gleam, half of humorous acquiescence, half of irritation that Mr. Wilberforce should have divined her son’s state of mind. She had come to the Warren with Chatty for a few weeks, for what they called “ change; ” though the change of a six miles’ journey was not much. The Warren bore a very different aspect now from that which it had borne in former days. It was light and cheerful ; some new rooms had been built, which broke the commonplace outline of the respectable house. It was newly furnished with furniture not at all resembling the mahogany catafalques. Only the hall, which had been old-fashioned and harmonious, in which Chatty was attending to the flowers, was the same ; and so far as that went, it might have been the very day on which Dick Cavendish had paid his first visit, when Chatty with her bowl of roses had walked, as he declared, into his heart. There were still roses of the second bloom, with the heat of July in their fervent hearts : and she stood at the table arranging them, changed, indeed, but not so changed as to affect the indifferent spectator, to whom she still seemed a part of the background, a figure passive though sweet, with no immediate vocation in life. Old Joseph, too, was in the depths of the hall, just visible, doing something, — something that was not of the least urgency or importance, but which kept him about and hearing all that passed. He and his old wife were in charge of the Warren, in the present changed days: and though they both half resented the fact that the young master had abandoned his own house, they were yet more than half pleased to have this tranquillity and ease at the end of their long service. To do them justice, they had been glad to receive their old mistress and her daughter, welcoming them as visitors with a sense of hospitality, and declaring that they did not mind the trouble, notwithstanding that Joseph’s health was bad, and late dinner had always been an affliction to his wife.
“ I hope,” Mrs. Warrender said, continuing the conversation, that the two little girls will soon make their own welcome, as babies have a way of doing, and convince everybody that they are much sweeter than any one little boy.”
This was how Theo’s mother took the sting out of the rector’s speech, which was not intended to have any sting, and was only a stray gleam of insight amid his confused realization of the state of affairs; but it was so true that it was difficult to believe it was that, and no more. The Wilberforces had come to inquire, not only for Lady Markland and her babies, but into many other things, could they have found the opportunity. But Chatty’s presence stopped even Mrs. Wilberforce’s mouth. And when the visitors went in to inspect all the improvements and the new decorations and furniture, Chatty came with them, and followed everywhere, which seemed very strange to the rector’s wife. Did she mean to prevent them from talking ? Was that her purpose ? She took little part in the conversation. She was more silent than she had ever been, though she had never been given to much conversation ; and yet she came with them wherever they went, putting an effectual stop to the questions that quivered on the very edge of Mrs. Wilberforce’s lips. Nor had the rector the sense, which he might so easily have had, to engage her in talk, to occupy her attention, and leave his wife free to speak. Anybody but a man would have had the sense to have done that : but a man is an unteachable creature, and never will divine the things that are required of him which cannot be told him in plain words. Accordingly, the whole party strolled from one room to another, commenting upon the new arrangements without a possibility of any enlightenment as to the real state of affairs. Mrs. Wilberforce was very indignant with her husband as they left, — an indignation that seemed quite uncalled for to this injured man,
“ What you could have done ? Why, you could have talked to Chatty. You could have interested her on some subject or another, about where they were abroad, or about the parish, or — Dear me, there are always plenty of subjects. When you knew how anxious I was to find out all about it! Dick Cavendish is a great deal more a friend of yours than he was of theirs until this unfortunate business came about, and it seems very strange that we should know nothing. Why, I don’t know even what to call her, — whether she is still Miss Warrender, or what she is.”
“ You would not call her Miss Warrender in any case,” said the rector, with a little self-assertion. “ But of course you know that is her name: for the moment the other wife was proved to be living, poor Chatty’s marriage was as if it had not been.”
“Well, that is what I cannot understand, Herbert: to be married just like anybody else, and the ring put on, and everything (by the way, I did notice that she does not wear her ring), and then that it should be as if it had not been. Bigamy one can understand, but how it should come to mean nothing! And do you intend me to believe that she could marry somebody else, the same as if it had never happened?”
“ To-morrow, if she likes,—and I wish she would, poor Chatty. It would be the best way of cutting the knot.”
“Then I can tell you one thing that all your superior information would never teach you,” cried Mrs. Wilberforce, — “ that she never will! You may take my word for it. Chatty has far too much principle. What! be married to one man in church, and then go and be married to another ! Never, Herbert! Oh, you may tell me the ceremony is nothing, and that they can have nothing to say to each other, and all that: it may be quite true, but that Chatty will ever marry any one else is not true. She will never do it. For anything I can tell, or you can tell, she may never see Dick Cavendish again. But she will never marry any one else. It is very hard to be sure of anything nowadays, when all the landmarks are being changed, and the country is going headlong to — But if I know anything, I hope I know Chatty Warrender: and that, you may be sure, she will never do.”
This flood of eloquence silenced the rector : and indeed he had no objection to make; for he was aware of all those sacred prejudices that are bound in the hearts of women everywhere, and especially of ladies in the country, and he believed it very likely that Chatty would feel herself bound forever by what was no bond at all.
In the mean time there had been only one letter from Dick, a short and hasty one, telling that he was better, explaining that he had not been able to let them know of his illness, and announcing that he was off again as soon as he should be able to move upon his search. Chatty and her mother wondered over this, without communicating its contents to any one. His search ! — what did his search mean ? There was no search wanted for those proceedings which he had declared were so easy and so certain at that far end of the world. Evidently they had not been so easy, and the words that he used were very strange to the ladies. He had no doubt, he said, of his success. Doubt! He had spoken of it before he went away as a thing which only required asking for, to have ; and the idea that there was no doubt at once gave embodiment and force to the doubt which had never existed. Mrs. Warrender had joined the forces of the opposing party from the moment she had read this letter. After a day or two of great depression and seriousness, she had taken Chatty into her arms and advised her to give up the lover, the husband, who was no husband, and perhaps an unfaithful lover. “ I said nothing at first,” Mrs. Warrender had said with tears. “ I stood by him When there was so much against him. I believed every word he said, notwithstanding everything. But now, my darling, — oh, Chatty, now ! He was to be gone for three months at the outside, and now it is eight. And he was quite sure of being able to do his business at once ; but now he says he has no doubt, and that he is off on his search. HIs search for what ? Oh, my dearest, I am most reluctant to say it, but I fear Theo is right. To think of a man trying, and perhaps trying in vain, to get a divorce in order to marry you ! Chatty, it is a thing that cannot be; it is impossible, it is disreputable. A divorced man is bad enough,—you know how Minnie spaoke even of that, — but a man who is trying for a divorce with the object — Chatty, my darling, it is a thing which cannot be.”
Chatty was not a girl of many words, nor did she commit herself to argument: she would enter into no controversy with her mother. She said only that she was married to Dick. It might be that he was not married to her. She might never see him again : but she was bound forever. And in the mean time, until they knew all the circumstances, how could they discuss the matter ? When Dick returned and gave them the necessary information, then it would be time enough : at present she had nothing else to say. And nothing more could be got from her. Minnie came and quoted Eustace ; but Chatty only walked out of the room, leaving her sister in possession of the field, though without any of the satisfaction of a victory. And Theo came, but he contented himself with talking to his mother. Something of natural diffidence or feeling prevented him from assailing Chatty in the stronghold of that modest determination which they all called obstinacy. When Theo came he made his mother miserable, almost commanding her to use her authority, declaring that it would be her fault if this farce went on,— this disreputable farce, he called it; while poor Mrs. Warrender, now as much opposed to it as he, had to bear the brunt of his objurgations until she was driven to make a stand for the very object which she most disapproved.
In the midst of all this Chatty stood firm. If she wept, it was in the solitude of her own chamber, from which even her mother was shut out; if she ever wavered or broke down, it was in secret. Externally, to the view of the world, she was perfectly calm and cheerful, fulfilling all her little duties with the composure of one who has never known what tragedy means. A hundred eager eyes had been upon her, but no one had been able to tell how Chatty “ bore it.” She said nothing to anybody. It was thought that she held her head a little higher than usual and was less disposed for society : but then she had never loved society. She arranged her flowers, she took her walks, she carried beef tea and port wine to the sick people. She even sat down daily at the usual hour and took out her muslin work, a height of self-command to which it was indeed difficult to reach. But what woman could do Chatty would do, and she had accomplished even that. There are many in the world who must act and cannot wait, but there are also some who, recognizing action to be impossible, can sit still with the whole passive force of their being, until that passiveness becomes almost sublime. Chatty was of this kind. Presumably she did not torment herself hour by hour and day by day, as her mother did, by continual rearguments of the whole question : but if she did she kept the process altogether to herself.
There had been one interview, indeed, which had tried her very much, and that had taken place a day or two after her arrival at the Warren, when she had met Lizzie Hampson on the road. Lizzie had shrunk from the young lady in whose life she had interfered with such extraordinary effect, but Chatty had insisted on speaking to her, and had called her almost imperiously. “ Why do you run away ? Do you think I am angry with you ? ” she cried.
“ Oh, Miss Chatty ! ” The girl had no breath or courage to say more.
“ You did right, I believe,” Chatty said. “ It would have been better if you had come and told me quietly at home, before—anything had happened. But I do not blame you. I think you did right.”
“ I never knew till the last minute that it would hurt you so ! ” Lizzie cried. “ I knew it might be bad for the gentleman, and that he could be tried and put in prison; but she would never, never, have done that. She wanted him to be free. It was only when I knew, Miss Chatty, what it would do to you — and then it was too late. I went to Highcombe, but you had gone from there ; and then when I got to London ” —
A flush came over Chatty’s face, as all the extraordinary scene came back to her. " It seems strange that it should be you who were mixed up with it all,” she said. “ Things happen very strangely, I think, in life ; one can never tell. If you have no objection, I should like you to tell me something of — I saw her — do you remember? here, on this very road, and you told me — ah ! that to put such people in penitentiaries would not do ; that they wanted to enjoy themselves. Do you remember? It seemed very strange to me. And to think that ” — This moved Chatty more than all the rest had done. Her soft face grew crimson, her eyes filled with tears.
“ To think that she — Oh, Miss Chatty, I feel as if I ought to go down on my knees and ask you to forgive me for ever having anything to do with her.”
“ That was no fault of yours,” said Chatty very softly. “ It can have been nobody’s fault. It is just because — it has happened so: which makes it harder and harder. None of us meant any harm — except perhaps ” —
“ Miss Chatty, she did n’t mean any harm to you. She meant no harm to any one. She was never brought up to care for what was good. She was brought up just to please her fancy. Oh, the like of you can’t understand, if you were to be told ever so, nor should I if I had n’t seen it. They make a sort of principle of that, just to please their fancy. We ’re taught here that to please ourselves is mostly wrong : but not there. It’s their religion in a kind of a way, out in those wild places, just to do whatever they like ; and then when you come to grief, if you are plucky and take it cheerful — The very words sound dreadful, here where everything is so different,” Lizzie said, with a shudder, looking round her, as if there might be ears in the trees.
Chatty did not ask any further questions. She walked along very gravely, with her head bent. “ It makes one’s heart ache,”she said. There was an ease in speaking to this girl who had played so strange a part in her life, who knew her trouble as no one else did. “ It makes one’s heart ache,” she repeated. She was not thinking of herself. “ And where is she now ? Do you hear of her ? Do you know what has become of her ? ”
“ Only one thing can become of her,” said Lizzie. “ She’ll fall lower and lower. Oh, you don’t think a poor creature can fall any lower than that, I know,” for Chatty had looked at her with wonder, shaking her head; " but lower and lower in her dreadful way. One day there,” said Lizzie philosophically, but sadly, pointing to the high wall of the Elms, “ with her fine dresses and her horses and carriages, and the next in dirt and misery. And then she ’ll die, perhaps in the hospital. Oh, she ’ll not be long in anybody’s way. They die soon, and then they are done with, and everybody is glad of it ” — the girl cried, with a burst of sudden tears.
Chatty stopped suddenly upon the road. They were opposite to the gate from which so often the woman they were discussing had driven forth in her short-lived finery; the stillness as of death had fallen on the uninhabited house, and all was tranquil on the country road, stretching on one side across the tranquil fields, on the other towards the clustering houses of the village and the low spire which pointed to heaven. “ Lizzie,” she said, “ if it is never put right, — and perhaps it will never be put right, for who can tell? — if you will come with me, who know so much about it, we will go and be missionaries to these poor girls. I will tell them my story, and how I am married but have no husband, and how three lives are all ruined, — all ruined forever. And we will tell them that love is not like that, — that it is faithful and true ; and that women should never be like that,—that women should be — Oh, I do not believe it, I do not believe it ! Of her own free will no woman could ever be like that!” Chatty cried, like Desdemona, suddenly clenching her soft hands in a passion of indignation and pity. “ We will go and tell them, Lizzie! ”
“ Oh, Miss Chatty! They know it all, every word,” Lizzie cried.
Two little girls are as unlike as anything can be to one little boy. This gave Warrender a sort of angry satisfaction in the ridiculous incident which had happened in his life. For it was a ridiculous incident. When a man is hardened to it, when he has had several children and is habituated to paternal honors, such an event may be amusing and interesting. But scarcely a year after his marriage, when he was not quite four and twenty, to be the father of twins ! He felt sometimes as if it must be the result of a conspiracy to make him ridiculous. The neighboring potentates, when he met them, laughed as they congratulated him. “ If you are going to continue like this, you will be a patriarch before you know where you are,” one of them said. It was a joke to the entire country round about. Twins ! He felt scarcely any of the stirrings of tenderness in his heart which are supposed to move a young father, when he looked at the two little yawning, gaping morsels of humanity. If there had been but one, perhaps ! —but two! He was the laughing-stock of the neighborhood, he felt. The sight of his wife, pale and smiling, touched his heart, indeed. But even that sight was not without its pangs. For alas, she knew all about this position which was so novel to him. She understood the babies and their wants, as it was natural a mother who was already experienced in motherhood should. And finally she was so far carried away by the privileges and the expansion of the moment as to ask him — him! the last authority to be consulted on such a subject — whether Geoff was delighted to hear of his little sisters. Geoff’s little sisters ! The thought of that boy having anything to do, any relationship to claim, with his children clouded Warrender’s face. He turned it away, and Lady Markland, in the sweet enthusiasm of the moment, fortunately did not perceive the change. She thought, in her tender folly, that this would make everything right; that Geoff, as the brother of his little girls, would be something nearer to Theo, claiming a more favorable consideration. She preserved this hope for some time, notwithstanding a great many signs to the contrary.
Even Theo’s dark face, when he found Geoff one day in her room, looking with great interest at the children, did not alarm the mother, who was determined not to part with her illusion. “ Do you think it right to have a boy of Geoff’s age here in your room ? ” he said. “ Oh, Theo, my own boy, — what harm can it do?” she had said, — so foolishly ! forgetting that Geoff’s crime in the eyes of his young step-father was exactly this, that he was her own boy.
Thus the circumstance which every one hoped was to make the most favorable change in the position only intensified its difficulties. Geoff naturally was more thrown into the society of his stepfather during his mother’s seclusion, and Geoff was very full of the new event and new relationships, and was no wiser than his mother. When they lunched together the boy was so far forgetful of former experiences as to ply Theo with questions, as he had not done since the days when the young man was his tutor, and everything was on so different a footing. Geoff’s excitement made him forget all the prudence he had acquired. His “ I say, Warrender,” over and over repeated drove Theo to heights of exasperation indescribable. Everything about Geoff was offensive to his stepfather: his ugly little face, the nervous grimaces which he still made, the familiarity of his address, but above all the questions which it was impossible to silence. Lady Markland averted them more or less when she was present, and Geoff had learnt prudence to some extent : but in his excitement he remembered these precautions no more.
“ I say, Warrender ! shall you take mamma away ? Nurse says she must go away for a change. I think Markland is always the nicest place going, don’t you ? ”
“ No : I prefer the Warren, as you know.”
“ Oh ! ” Geoff could scarcely keep out of his voice the wondering contempt with which he received this suggestion: but here his natural insight prevailed, and a sort of sympathetic genius which the little fellow possessed. “ To be sure, I like the Warren very much indeed,” he said. “ I suppose what makes me like Markland best is being born here.”
“ And I was born there,” Theo said.
“ Yes, I know. I wonder which the babies will like best. They are born here, like me: I hope they will like Markland. It will be fun seeing them run about, both the same size and so like. They say twins are always so like. Shall we have to tie a red ribbon round one and a blue ribbon round the Other, to know which is which ? ”
To this question the father of the babies vouchsafed no reply.
“ Nurse says they are not a bit like me,” Geoff continued, in a tone of regret.
“ Like you ! Why should they be like you ?” said Warrender, with a flush of indignation.
“ But why not, Warrender ? Brothers and sisters are alike often. You and Chatty are a little alike. When I am at Oxford, and they come to see me, I shall like fellows to say, Oh, I saw your sisters, Markland.”
“ Your sisters ! ” Theo could scarcely contain his disgust, all the more that he saw the old butler keeping an eye upon him with a sort of severity. The servants in the house, Theo thought, all took part with Geoff, and looked to him as their future master. He continued hastily : “ I can only hope they will prefer the Warren, as I do: for that will he their home.”
“ Oh ! ” cried Geoff again, opening round eyes. “ But if it isn’t our home, how can it be theirs ? They don’t want a home all to themselves.”
“ I think they do,” said Theo shortly.
The boy gave him a furtive glance, and thought it wise to change the subject. “ But Mrs. Warrender is there now. Oh, I say ! She will be granny to the babies. I should like to call her granny, too. Will she let me, do you think, Warrender ? She is always so kind to me.”
“ I should advise you not to try.”
“ Why, Warrender ? Would she be angry ? She is always very kind. I went to see her once, as soon as she came home, and she was awfully kind, and understood what I wanted.” Geoff paused here, suddenly catching himself up, and remembering — with a forlorn sense that he had gone a long way beyond them in his little life — the experiences, which were sufficiently painful, of that day.
“ It requires a very wise person to do that,” said Warrender, with an angry smile.
“ Yes, to understand you quite right even when you don’t say anything. I say, Warrender ! if mamma has to go away for a change, where shall we go ? ”
“ We ! ” said Warrender significantly. “ Are you also in want of a change ? ”
The boy looked up at him suddenly, with a hasty flush. The tears came to his brave little eyes. He was overpowered by the sudden suggestion, and could not find a word to say.
“ Markland is the best change for you, after Eton,” said Theo. “ You don’t want to travel with a nursery, I suppose.”
Geoff felt something rise in his throat. Why, it was his own nursery, he wanted to say. It was his own family. Where should he go but where they went ? But the words were stopped on his lips, and his magnanimous little heart swelled high. Oh, if he could but fly to his mother ! — but to her he had learnt never now to fly.
“ Wherever we may go,” said Warrender coldly, “ I think you had much better spend your holidays here :" and he got up from the table, leaving Geoff in a tumult of feelings which words can scarcely describe. He had suffered a great deal during the past year, and had said little. A sort of preternatural consciousness that he must keep his own secret, that he must betray nothing to his mother, had come upon him. He sat now silent, his little face twitching and working, a sudden new, unlooked-for horror stealing over him : that he was to be separated from his mother; that he was to be left behind while they went away. It did not seem possible, and yet, with all the rapidity of a child’s imagination, Geoff’s mind flashed over what might happen, — he to be left alone here, while they went away. He saw his mother go smiling into the carriage, thinking of the babies, in their little white hoods, little dolls. Oh, no, dear little helpless creatures, to whom the boy’s heart went out; his babies as well as his mother’s. But of course she would think of them. She must think of them. And Geoff would be left behind, with no one, nobody to speak to, the great rooms all empty, only the servants about. He remembered what it had been when his mother was married: then he had the hope that she would come back to him, that all would be well; but now he knew that never, never, as of old, could he have her back. Geoff did not budge from the table for some time after, but sat with his elbows on it and his head in his hands, in the attitude which he had so often been scolded for, with nobody to scold him or take any notice. He thought to himself that he might put his elbows on the table as much as he liked, and nobody would care. It was only the return of the servants to clear the table, and the old butler’s question, “ What’s the matter, Master Geoff ? ” that roused him. The butler’s tone was far too sympathetic. He was an old servant, and the only one in the house who did not call poor little Geoff My lord. But the boy was not going to accept sympathy. He sprang up from the table, with a “ Nothing’s the matter. I’m going out for a ride,” and hurried towards the stables, which were now his resource more and more.
This knowledge rankled in Geoff’s heart through all the time of his mother’s convalescence. He was very brave, very magnanimous, without knowing that he was either. That he would not vex his mother was the determination of his soul. She was very sweet, sweeter than ever, but pale, and her hands so thin that you could see the light through them. Though he anticipated with a dull anguish the time when she should go away, when Warrender would take her away, leaving him behind, Geoff resolved that he would say nothing about it, that he would not make her unhappy. He would bear it; one could bear anything when one tried, even spending the holidays by one’s self. But his heart sank at the thought. Supposing she were to stay a month away, — that was four weeks, it was thirty days, — and he alone, all alone in Markland : and when she came back it would be time for him to go to school. Sometimes he felt as if he must cry out when he thought of it; but he would not say a word, he would not complain ; he would bear it rather than vex mamma. When she came down-stairs she was still very pale. She began to walk about a little, but only with Warrender’s arm. She drove out, but the babies had to be with her iu the carriage; there was no room for Geoff. He twisted his poor little face out of shape altogether in the effort to get rid of the scalding tears, but he would not betray the state of his mind ; nothing, he vowed to himself, should make him worry mamma.
One day he rode over to the Warren, pondering upon what Theo had said: that the Warren must be liked best by the babies, because it was their home. Would it ever really be their home ? Would Warrender be so hard as that, to take away mamma and the babies for good, and leave a fellow all alone in Markland, because it was Geoff’s, and not his own ? Geoff’s little gray face was as serious as that of a man of eighty, and almost as full of wrinkles. He thought and thought what he could do to please Warrender. Though his heart rose against this interloper, this destroyer of his home, Geoff was wise, and knew that to keep his mother he must please her husband. What could he do ? Not like him, — that was impossible. Riding along, now slowly, now quickly, rather at the pony’s will than at his own, Geoff, with loose reins in his hands and a slouch in his shoulders which was the despair of Black, pondered the subject till his little mind was all in confusion. What could he do to please Warrender? He would be good to the babies, by nature, and because he liked the two funny little things, but that would not matter. He would do almost anything Warrender chose to tell him, but that would n’t please him. What was there, then, that would do ? He did not know what he could do. He rode very carelessly, almost as much at the mercy of the pony as on the occasion when Theo picked him from under the wheels of the high phaeton; but either the pony was more wise, or Geoff stronger, for there was no question now of being thrown. When he came in sight of the little gate, he saw some one standing there, at sight of whom he quickened his pace. He knew the general aspect of the man’s figure though he could not see his face, and a welcome new excitement made the heart jump up again in Geoff’s breast. He hurried along in a sudden cloud of dust, and threw himself off the pony like a little acrobat. “ Mr. Cavendish! ” cried Geoff, “ have you come back ? ” with a glow of pleasure which drove all his troubles away.
It was Dick, very brown, very thin, a little wild in his aspect and dress. “ Hallo, Geoff! ” he replied. “ Yes, I have come back. Did n’t they expect me to come back ? ”
“ Oh, I don’t know. I think they wondered.”
“ That’s how it is in this world,” said the stranger: “ nobody trusts you ; as soon as you are out of sight — oh, I don’t say you ’re out of mind, but nobody trusts you. They think that perhaps, after all, you were a villain all the time.”
To this, naturally, Geoff had no reply to make; he said, “ Are you going in by that door, Mr. Cavendish ? ” Upon which Dick burst into a loud laugh, which Geoff knew meant anything but laughing.
“ What do you think, Geoff ? ” he cried. “ My wife’s inside, and they’ve locked me out here. That’s a joke, is n’t it? ”
“ I don’t think it’s any joke. And Chatty wants you so. Come round to the other door.”
“ Are you sure of that ? ” said Dick. “ Here’s that fellow been talking, — that Thynne fellow, — telling me ” — Then he paused and looked at the boy with another laugh. “ You ’re a queer confidant for a poor vagabond, little Geoff.”
“ Is it because I’m little ? ” cried Geoff. “ But though I am little there are a heap of things I know. I know they are all against you except Chatty. Come along and see Chatty. I want to go to her this moment and tell her ” —
“ I thought,” said Cavendish, “ I’d wait for her here. I don’t want to make a mummy of that fellow, my brother-inlaw, don’t you know, the first moment. Tell Chatty — tell my wife, Geoff, that I am waiting for her here.”
Geoff did not wait for another word, but clambered on to his pony again and was off like the wind, round by the village to the other gate. Meantime Dick stood and leaned upon the wooden paling. His face was sharp and thin with illness, with eagerness and suspense, his complexion browned and paled out of its healthful English tints. But this was not been use he was weak any longer, or in diminished health. He was worn by incessant traveling, by anxiety and the fluctuation of hope and fear; yet that great tension had strung his nerves and strengthened his vitality, though it had worn off every superfluous particle of flesh. A keen anxiety mingled with indignation was in his eyes as he looked across the gate which the clergyman had fastened against him, — indignation, yet also a smile. From the moment when Geoff’s little voice had broken upon his angry reverie, Dick had begun to recover himself. “ Chatty wants you so.” It was only a child that spoke. But a child does not flatter or deceive, and this was true. What Eustace Thynne thought, what anybody thought, was of little consequence. Chatty! — the simple name brought a softening glow to Dick’s eye. Would she come and open to him ? Would she reverse the judgment of the family by her own act, or must it be he who should emancipate Chatty ? He waited with something of his old gayety rising in his mind. The position was ludicrous. They had shut him out, but it could not be for long.
Geoff galloped his pony to the gate, and up the little avenue, which was still very shady and green, though so much of the wood had been cut. He threw himself off his pony and flung the reins to the gardener’s boy, who stood gazing open-mouthed at the little lord’s headlong race. The doors were not open, as usual, but Geoff knew that the drawing-room windows were seldom fastened in the summer weather. He darted along round the corner of the house, and fell against one of the windows, pushing it open. In the drawing-room there seemed a number of people assembled, whom he saw vaguely without paying any attention, — Mr. and Mrs. Thynne, and Warrender, in a group, talking with their heads together ; Mrs. Warrender standing between them and the tranquil figure of Chatty, who sat at work at the other end of the room, taking no part in the consultation of the others, paying no heed to them. Chatty had an almost ostentation of disregard, of separation from the others, in her isolated place and the work with which she was busy. She looked up with a little alarm, when Geoff came stumbling through the window : but she did not look as if she expected any one, as if she had heard who was so near at hand. The boy was covered with dust and hot with haste, his forehead bathed in perspiration. He called out to her almost before he was in the room : “ Chatty ! Mr. Cavendish is outside at the little gate. They will not let him come in. He sent me to tell you ” —
Chatty started to her feet, and the group in the end of the room scattered and hastened towards the new-comer. Theo seized his step-son by the collar, half choking the boy. “ You confounded imp ! ” he cried, “ what business is that of yours ? ”
“ Geoff, where, where ? ” Chatty rushed to the child and caught his hand. He struggled in Theo’s grasp, in a desperate, nervous anguish, fearing he could not tell what, — that he would be strangled, that Chatty would be put in some sort of prison. The strangling was in progress now ; he called out in haste, that he might get it out before his breath was gone : —
“ Oh, run, Chatty! The little gate In the road — the wooden gate.” She seemed to flash past his eyes, — his eyes which were turning in his head, with the pressure and the shaking of Warrender’s hand. Then the child felt himself suddenly pitched forward, and fell, stunned for the moment, and thinking, before consciousness failed him, that all was over, and that he was killed indeed ; yet scarcely sorry, for Chatty had his message and he had fulfilled his commission before he died.
Chatty flew along the shady paths, a line of whiteness fluttering through sunshine and shadow. She called out her lover’s name as she approached the gate. She had neither fear nor doubt in her mind. She did not know what news he was going to bring her, what conclusion was to be put to the story. She called to him as soon as he was within hearing, asking no questions, taking no precautions. “ Dick, Dick ! ” Behind her, but at some distance, Minnie too fluttered along, inspired by virtuous indignation, which is only less swift than love and happiness. The gentlemen remained behind, even Eustace perceiving that the matter had now passed beyond their hands. This is one of the points in which men have the advantage over women. They have a practical sense of the point at which opposition becomes impossible. And Warrender had the additional sense that he had done that in his fury which at his leisure it would be difficult to account for. Mrs. Warrender, who had not been informed of the crisis, nor known upon what matter her children were consulting, was too much horrified by what had happened to Geoff to think even of Chatty. She raised the boy up and put him on a sofa, and bathed his forehead, her own heart aching and bleeding, while Warrender stood dumbly by, looking at his handiwork, his passion still hot in him, and a half frenzy of dislike and repugnance in his mind.
“ Dick! ” Curiously enough Dick had not thought till then that even a high gate may be vaulted by a man whose heart has leaped it before him, and who is in perfect training and knows no fear. He had been more discouraged by Eustace Thynne than any authority on the part of that poor creature at all warranted, and his heart had failed him still more when he thought that perhaps Chatty might have been talked over, and might stand by him no longer. She was his wife, but what if her heart had given him up! But when a man hears the voice he loves best in the world calling him, everything takes a different aspect. “ Dick ! ” Her voice came first faint, so that he scarcely believed it; then nearer and nearer, giving life to the silent world. The thin brown face of the vagabond, as he had called himself, grew crimson with a flush of happiness and new life. He could not wait until she came; his soul flew to meet her in a great revulsion of confidence and joy. The gate was high, but he was eager and she was coming. He put his sinewy, thin hands upon it, and was over in a moment. And there she came, flying, fluttering, her light dress making a line of whiteness under the trees. She did not stop to ask a question, but ran straight to him, into his arms. “ Dick, Dick ! ” and “ Chatty, my darling, at last! ” — that was all they said.
Minnie did not run so fast. She had not the same inducement; for opposition, though very nearly as swift, has not quite the same impetus as love. She only came up to them when these first greetings were over, and when, to the consciousness of both, life had taken up its threads again exactly where they had broken off. Chatty did not ask any questions, — his presence was answer enough to all questions; but indeed she did not think of any. Everything else went out of her mind except that he was there.
“ Mr. Cavendish ! ” Minnie came up breathless, putting her hand to her side. “ Oh, Chatty, you are shameless ! Do you know what you are doing ? It was his duty — to satisfy us first. Mr. Cavendish, if she is lost to — all sense of shame ” —
Panting, she had got up to them, and was pulling Chatty away from him by her arm.
“ There is no shame in the matter,” he said. “ But, Chatty, your sister is right, and I must explain everything to your family at once. There is no time to lose, for the train leaves at six, and I want to take you away directly. If you can be ready ”—
“ Yes, Dick, I can be ready. I am ready whenever you please.”
He pressed her arm, which she had placed within his, with a look that said everything there was to say. But Minnie replied with a scream: “ Take her away ! What right have you to take her away ? Eustace will never consent, and my mother — oh, even my mother will not hear of that. If you were a hundred times divorced, — which it is a shame to think of, — you can’t take her away like that; you will have to be married again.”
“ I am sorry to push past you, Mrs. Thynne. It is your husband’s fault, who stopped my entrance in the natural way. But we have no time to lose.” He looked back, waving his hand to Minnie, whose wrath took away the little breath she had left. “ I am not a divorced man,” he said. Mrs. Eustace looked after them with feelings indescribable. They went hurrying along, the two figures melting into one, swift, straight, carried as by a wind of triumph. What did he mean? It was horrible to Minnie that she could not go so fast, that she had to wait and take breath. With a pang of angry disappointment, she felt at once that they were on the winning side, that they must inevitably reach the Warren before she could, and that thus she would not hear what Dick had to say. It may here be added that Minnie had, like Chatty, the most perfect confidence that all was right. She no more believed that Dick would have come here had the end of his mission been unsatisfactory than she believed that night was day. She would not have owned this for the world, and she was vexed and mortified by the conviction, but yet at the bottom of her heart, being not at all so bad as she wished to believe she was, she felt a sense of consolation and relief, which made it at once easier and more tantalizing to have to wait.
Foolish Chatty held Dick’s arm fast, and kept up a murmur of happiness. “ Oh, Dick, are you sure it is you ? Have you come at last ? Are you well now ? And I that could not go to you, that did not know, that had no one to ask ! Oh, Dick, did n’t you want me when you were ill ? Oh, Dick! oh, Dick ! ” After all, his mere name was the most satisfactory thing to say. And as he hurried her along, almost flying over the woodland path, Chatty, too, was soon out of breath, and ended in a blissful incapacity to say or do anything except to be carried along with him in his eager progress towards the tribunal which he had to face.
Eustace Thynne opposed his entrance, but quite ineffectually, at the drawingroom door. Dick with his left hand was more than a match for the Reverend Eustace. Warrender stood in the middle of the room, with his head towards the sofa, over which his mother was bending, though his eyes turned to the new-comers as they entered. He made a step towards them as if to stop them, but a movement on the sofa drew him back again as by some fascination. It was Geoff, who struggled up with a little pale, gray face and a cut on his forehead, like a little ghost. His sharp voice piped forth all at once in the silence: “I told her, Mr. Cavendish. I gave her your message. Oh, I’m all right, I ’m all right. But I told Chatty. It don’t matter about me.”
“ Mr. Cavendish ! ” cried Mrs. Warrender, turning from the child. She was trembling with the excitement of these hurrying events, though the sick terror she had been seized with in respect to Geoff was passing away. “ Mr. Cavendish, my son is right in this, — that before you saw Chatty we should have had an account of you, he and I.”
“ I should have said so, too, in other circumstances,” said Dick, holding Chatty’s arm closely within his own. “If my presence or my touch could harm her, even with the most formal fool ” — he flashed a look at Eustace, angrily, which glowed over the pale parson like a passing lamp, but left him quite unconscious. “ As it is, you have a right to the fullest explanation, but not to keep my wife from me for a moment.”
“ She is not your wife,” cried Warrender. “ Leave him, Chatty. Even in the best of circumstances she cannot be your wife.”
“ Chatty, do not move. I have as full a right to hold her here as you have your wife, or any married man. Mrs. Warrender, I don’t want to get angry. I will tell you my story at once. On our wedding-day, when that terrible interruption was, the poor creature whom I then thought, whom I then believed, to have been ” —
“ You mean Mrs. Cavendish, your lawful wife.”
“ Poor girl, do not call her by that name ; site never bore it. She did not mean to do any harm. There was no sanctity to her in that or any other tie.”
Chatty pressed his arm more closely in sympathy. Her clasp did not relax even at the recollection thus brought before her.
“ She meant no harm, from her point of view. She scarcely meant to deceive me. Mrs. Warrender, it was a fiction all through. There has been no need of any divorce. She was already married when — she made believe to marry me. Pile delusion was mine alone. I hunted the man over half the continent. I did not dare to tell you what I was doing, lest it should prove to be a false hope. But at last I found him, and I have all the evidence. I have never had any wife but Chatty. She forgives me what was done in folly so long ago, before I ever saw her. There was no marriage. What was done was a mere idle form, in deference to my prejudices,” he said, with a short laugh of excitement. “ I was a fool, it appears, all through ; but it was not as a wise man that Chatty married me,” he said, turning to her. “ Our marriage is as true as ever marriage was. I have no wife but Chatty. Mrs. Warrender, I have all the evidence. Don’t you believe me? Surely you must believe me!” Dick cried.
His voice was interrupted by a shrill little outburst from the sofa behind. “ Hurrah ! Hurrah ! ” cried little Geoff before Dick had ended. “ Chatty, it was me that brought the first news! Chatty, are you happy now ? ”
Mrs. Warrender, in the act of going forward to the pair who stood before her awaiting her judgment, turned with a thrill of anxious terror. “ Oh, hush, hush!” she cried, putting herself before the boy.
Theo, too, had turned round with a suppressed but passionate exclamation, clenching his hands. “ Mother, I can think of nothing till that imp is out of the way.”
“ He shall go, Theo. I will see to that; but speak to them, — speak to them!” cried the mother, anxiously, bending over the sofa, with an indescribable tumult in her heart. She had to leave her own child’s fate at its crisis to look after and protect this child who was none of hers, who was the stumbling-block in her son’s way. And yet her heart condemned her son, and took part with the little intruder. Thus Chatty for the moment was left to stand alone before her husband’s judge, but was not aware of it, thought nothing of it, in her confidence and joy. Warrender stood looking darkly on till his mother had taken his step-son out of the room. The pause, perhaps, was useful in calming the excitement of all. When the door closed Theo turned round, mastering himself with an effort. Geoff had diverted the rush of hasty temper which was natural to him. He looked upon the new-comer less severely.
“ We can have no interest,” he said, “ but that your story should be true. But it cannot rest on your word, Cavendish. You have been deceived once ; you may be deceived again. My mother is no judge of points of law, and she is favorable, too favorable, to you. You had better come with us into another room, and let us see what proofs you have of what you say.”
“ That is quite just,” said Dick. “ I’d like you to kiss that little beggar for me, Chatty; he knows what it is to stand by a man in trouble. It is all right, Warrender. Of course it is the interest of all of us that there should be no mistake. Send for Wilberforce, who will be impartial ; and if you could have Longstaffe, too ” —
Minnie came in, out of breath, at this stage of the affairs. “ What does he say, Eustace, — oh, what does he say ? Are you sure it is true ? What has he got to say ? And what does he mean about Mr. Longstaffe and Mr. Wilberforce ? Are n’t you good enough for him ? Can’t you judge without Wilberforce? Wilberforce,” she cried, with professional contempt for another clergyman, " is nothing so very wonderful ; and he is his friend and will be sure to be on his side. Why can’t Eustace do?”
Mrs. Warrender, with her anxious face, had now come back again alone. She went up to Dick, holding out both her hands. “ God bless you,” she said. “ I believe you, dear Dick, every word you say. But everything must be made as clear as daylight, both for her sake and your own.”
“ I know it, dear mother,” he replied. “ I am quite ready. I should be the first to ask for a full examination. Take care of my Chatty while I show my papers. I want to take my wife away with me. I cannot be parted from her again.”
“ Oh, Dick ! oh, Dick ! ” The mother, like the daughter, could find no other words to say.
Little Geoff found himself alone in Mrs. Warrender’s room. She had taken him there with much kindness and many tender words, and made a little nest for him upon the sofa. “ Lie down and try to go to sleep,” she said, stooping to kiss him, a caress which half pleased, half irritated, Geoff. But he obeyed, for his head was still aching and dazed with the suddenness and strangeness of all that had passed. To lie down and try to sleep was not so hard for him as for most children of his age, and for the first moment no movement of revolt was in him. He lay down in the silence, not unwilling to rest his head on a soft pillow. But the fire of excitement was in Geoff’s veins, and a restlessness of energy and activity which after a minute or two forbade all possibility of rest. Something had happened to him which had never happened before. He had not been quite clear what it was at first; whether it was the wonder of Dick’s return or of his own part in it, — the fact that he had been the messenger and had discharged his trust. But presently it all came to him, as he lay quietly with his aching head pressed against the cool pillow. Geoff had encountered many new experiences in the last two years of his life, but he had not known at any time what personal violence was. Everybody round him had made much of him; his delicate health had always been in the thoughts of those who were about him ; and his rank, to which he was so indifferent, of which he was scarcely conscious, had made him important. Till Theo had appeared upon the scene, Geoff had been the central figure in his own little world. Since that time, the boy had suffered, with a magnanimity which few men could have equaled, a gradual deposition from most of the things he prized. He was no longer first,; he had partially lost the mother who for so long had been his companion and playfellow as well as the chief object in his existence. Many humiliations had come to the keen feelings and sensitive heart of the little dethroned boy. Many a complaint and reproach had been on his lips, though none had got utterance. But now a deeper indignity still had befallen him. As Geoff lay in the room to which he had been banished to be out of Warrender’s sight, all this swept across his little soul like a tempest. He remembered the suffocating sensation in his throat, the red mist in his eyes, the feeling that he had but a moment left in which to deliver his message; and then the giddy whirl of movement as he was flung away like a rag or a stone, the crash in his ears, the sharp blow which brought back his scattered faculties for a moment, only to banish them again in the temporary unconsciousness which brought all this tingling and thrilling into his ears. How had it all come about? It was Warrender who had seized him, who had flung him upon the floor, who had—had he? tried to kill him? had he tried to kill him? Was that what Warrender meant ? A wild flood of feeling, resentment, terror, desire for revenge, swept through Geoff’s mind. Warrender, to whom already he owed so much ; Warrender, who had taken his mother from him, and his home, and everything he cared for in the world, — Warrender now wanted to kill him ! If mamma knew ! Mamma had not ceased to care for her boy. Even now that the babies had come she still loved Geoff, — and if she knew !
The boy jumped up from his couch. He was pale and trembling, and the cut on his forehead showed doubly from the total absence of color in his little gray face; but he got himself a great draught of water, and, restored by that and by the rush of rage that swelled all his veins, he flew down-stairs, past Joseph in the hall, who gave an outcry of astonishment, to where the gardener’s boy was still holding his pony outside. Geoff, scarcely able to stand, what with the shock and what with the emotion, clambered up upon the pony, and turned its head homewards. The pony was well pleased to find himself in that way, and obeyed with enthusiasm his little master’s impulse. The small steed and rider flew along the road to Markland. Geoff had no cap; he was dusty, as if he had been for days on the road; and as he flew by, the cottagers came out to the doors to look, and said to each other that the little lord must be mad, that he would have an accident like his father. He went on thus, with scarcely a pause till he reached the gates of Markland, wrath and pain carrying his mind at even a swifter rate than the pony carried his little person, eager for sympathy and for revenge.
Something stayed this headlong race all at once. It was when he came within sight of the avenue, which was so bare, which had no trees except at distant intervals. There he saw a speck upon the way, a slowly moving figure, which he recognized at once. It was his mother, coming down, as was her wont, to meet — whom ? Her husband. Geoff’s hot heart, all blazing with childish rage, sank into a shivering calm at the sight of her. In a moment he turned from heat to cold, from headlong passion to the chill of thought and self-sacrifice. Mamma ! She it was now who was " delicate,” as he had been all his life. It might make her ill ; it would make her miserable. What! she who had been everything to him, — was he now going to seize upon her as Theo had seized him, and shake her and hurt her, he, her own boy ? The child drew up his unwilling pony with a sudden force which almost carried him over its head. No, he could not do that. He would not. He would rather be shaken, strangled, thrown down, anything in the world, rather than hurt mamma. His little heart swelled with a new spring of impassioned emotion. He would bear it for her sake ; he would bear anything, he did not mind what, rather than do that. He would never, he cried to himself, with a rush of scalding tears to his eyes, hurt her. He turned the pony’s head round with a force of passion which that astonished animal could not resist, to give himself, after the wild rush of his flight homeward, a little time to think. And he thought, knitting his little brows, twitching his little face, his heart aching, his small body all strained with the effort. No ! whatever he did, whatever he had to bear, he would not hurt mamma.
Warrender had a long conference with Dick Cavendish in the old library at the Warren. Mr. Wilberforce, who had been sent for, came at once, full of curiosity and excitement; and though Mr. Longstaffe could not be had, the experience of the two clergymen, who knew all about marriage registers and the proofs that were necessary, was of use in this curious family crisis. It was all very important both to Chatty and to the family in general, and Theo did his utmost to keep his attention to it: but his thoughts were elsewhere. He was glad to be released, when all was done that could be done by the little family commission. The result was a kind of compromise. No one had any moral doubt that Dick was right, but some higher sanction seemed to be necessary before he could be allowed to take Chatty away. The ladies had to be called in to soothe and subdue his impetuosity, to get him to consent to delay. Warrender scarcely waited to see how it was settled. The impatience within him was not to be controlled. His heart was at Markland, hot with anger and anxiety, while he was forced to remain here and talk of other things. Yes, to be sure, Chatty’s good name, her happiness, — if she considered her happiness to be involved in that, — were important. It was important for Cavendish, too, if any one cared what was important for Cavendish : but good heavens, not so important — could any one suppose so for a moment? — as what had happened, what might be happening, elsewhere. Old Joseph had stopped him as he went through the hall to tell him that the little lord had run off and got on his pony, and was gone home. He was gone home. It was a relief for one thing, for Theo had felt that it would be impossible for him to carry that little demon back with him in the dog-cart, as it would have been his duty to do. But in another — how could he tell what might be happening while he was kept there, amid maddening delays and hesitations, looking over Dick Cavendish’s papers ? What could Dick Cavendish’s papers matter ? A few days sooner or later, what could it matter to Dick Cavendish ? Whereas to himself— That boy might be lying senseless on the road, for anything he knew; or, what was worse, he might have got home and told his story. And the sting was that he had a story to tell.
Warrender knew that he had done what he ought not to have done. He had treated the child with a violence which he knew to be unmanly. He had thrown him down, and stunned, and might have killed him. He did not deny to himself what he had done. He would not deny it to her, — and he fully expected that she would meet him with upbraidings, with anger. With anger! when it was he who was the injured person,— he, her husband, whose privacy was constantly disturbed and all his rights invaded by her son. He turned this over and over in his mind, adding to the accumulation of his wrongs, till they mounted to a height which was beyond bearing. The fire blazed higher and higher as he kept on throwing in fuel to the flames. It must come to some decision, he said to himself. It was contrary not only to his happiness, but to his dignity, his just position, to let it go on, to be tormented perpetually by this little Mordecai at the gate, this child who was made of more importance than he was, who had to be thought of, and have his wishes consulted, and the supposed necessities of his delicate health made so much of. Geoff’s generosities, the constant sacrifices of which he was conscious, were lost upon his step-father. He knew nothing of the restraint the child put on himself, or of the wistful pain with which Lady Markland looked on, divining more than she knew. All that was a sealed book to Theo. From his side of the question Geoff was an offense on every point. Why should he be called upon to endure that interloper always in sight,— never to feel master in his own house? To be sure, Markland was not his house, but Geoff’s; but that was only a grievance the more, for he had not wished to live in Markland, while his own house stood ready for his own family, with plenty of room for his wife and children. There grew upon Warrender’s mind a great resolution, or, rather, there started up in his thoughts, like the prophet’s gourd, full grown, a determination, — that this unendurable condition of affairs should exist no longer. Why should he be bound to Geoff, in whose presence he felt he was not capable of doing himself justice, who turned him the wrong way invariably, and made him look like a hot-tempered fool, which he was not ? No, he would not endure it longer. Frances must be brought to see that for the sake of her son her husband was not always to be sacrificed. It should not continue. The little girls must not grow up to see their father put in the second place, to think him an irritable tyrant. No, it must not continue, not for a day.
And there occurred to Theo, when he approached the gate of Markland, something like the same experience which had befallen Geoff. He saw going slowly along the bare avenue two figures, clinging closely together, — as he had seen them a hundred times, though never without jealousy, when he had no right to interfere. For a long time these walks had been intermitted, and he had almost forgotten that one among the many irritations of the past. But now it all surged back, with an exasperation entirely out of proportion to the offense. For the offense was no more than this : that Lady Markland was walking slowly along, Geoff clinging with both hands to her arm, clasping it, with his head almost on her shoulder, with a sort of proprietorship which made the spectator frantic. He stopped the dog-cart and sprang down, flinging the reins to the groom outside of the gate. The sight brought his resolution, his rage, the fierce passion within him, to a climax. Yes, he had been anticipated; that was clear. The story of all that had passed had been poured into his wife’s ear. She would meet him with reproaches, perhaps with tears, pointing to the cut on her son’s forehead. There came into Theo’s mind a maddening recollection that he himself had been once cut on the forehead for Geoff; but no one, not she, at least, would remember that now. She would meet him furious, like a tiger for her cub ; or, worse, she would meet him magnanimous, forgiving him, telling him that she knew it must have been an accident, — whereas it was no accident. He would make no pretense ; he would allow that he had done it, he would allow that he had meant to do it; he would make no further pretenses, and tolerate no pretenses from this day.
In his anger he was as swift and light as a deer. Their backs were turned towards him, and they were too much absorbed in their talk to hear his approach. He was close to them, on Lady Markland’s other side, before they heard anything. The mother and son looked up simultaneously, and started as if they were but one being at the sight of him. She gave a faint cry, — “ Theo! ” — and Geoff unclasped her arm and slid from her in a moment, which, though it was what he wished, made the lire burn still higher in Warrender’s heart.
“ So,” he said, with the harsh laugh of excited temper, “ he has been telling you his story. I knew he would.”
“ He has been telling me no story, Theo,” said Lady Markland. “ Oh, yes ; he has been telling me that Mr. Cavendish ” —
“ Confound Mr. Cavendish ! I am speaking of your boy, Lady Markland. He has been telling you about the cut on his forehead.”
She looked from the man to the child, growing pale. “ He fell,” she said, faltering. “ But he says it does not hurt.”
“ The little liar ! ” cried Theo, in his excitement. “ Why did n’t you tell your mother the truth ? ”
“ Warrender! ” said little Geoff, in a tone which conveyed such a warning as Theo would not have taken from any man in the excited state of his mind. The child was red with sudden indignation, but still he held fast to his part.
“ Geoff, run away home! ” cried his mother, trembling. “ Nurse will bathe it for you — and papa” — she had ventured to call her young husband by this name since the birth of the babies — “ will give me his arm.”
“ I tell you he is a little liar,” said Theo again. “ He did not fall. I threw him down. He thrust himself into the midst of my family affairs, a meddling little fool, and I caught hold of him and threw him out of the way. It is best that you should know the truth.”
They stood all three in the middle of the bare road, the afternoon sun throwing its level light into their eyes, —looking at each other, confronting each other, and standing apart.
“ Theo,” said Lady Markland, “ I am sure you did not mean to hurt him. It was — an accident,after all. And Geoff, I am sure, never meant to interfere. But, indeed, you must not use such words of my boy.”
“ What words would you like me to use ? He is the pest of my existence. I want you to understand this once for all. I cannot go on in this way, met at every turn by a rival, an antagonist. Yes, he is my rival in your heart, he is my opponent in everything. I cannot turn round at my own table, in my own house, without his little grinning face ” — Here Theo stopped, with a laugh still wilder than his words. The startled faces of the mother and son, the glance they gave at each other like a mutual consultation, the glow of indignation that overcame Lady Markland’s paleness, were all apparent to him in a flash of meaning. “ Oh, I know what you will say!” he cried. " It is not my house; it is Geoff’s. A woman has no right to subject her husband to such a humiliation. Get your things together, Frances, and come with me to my own house. I am in a false position here. I will bear it no longer. Let him have what is his right. I am resolved that he and I shall not sleep again under the same roof.”
“ Theo, you cannot mean what you say. You can’t be so— If Geoff has done anything wrong, he will beg your pardon. Oh, what is it, what is it?” She did not ask her son for his version of the story with her lips, but she did with her eyes, which exasperated Theo more and more.
“ It does not matter what it is,” he said. “ It is not any temporary business, to be got over with an apology. It is just this, that you won’t face what is inevitable. But it is inevitable. You must choose between him and me.”
Geoff had been overwhelmed by this sudden storm. He was so young to play the hero’s part. He was not above crying when such a tempest burst upon him, and he had hard ado to keep back his tears. But when he met his mother’s anguished, imploring look, Geoff felt in his little forlorn heart a courage which was more than man. “ Warrender,” he said, biting his lips to keep them from quivering, — “ Warrender, I say! As soon as the holidays are over, I — I’ll go to school. I’ll — be out of the way.”
“ Oh, Geoff ! ” Lady Markland said, with a heart-rending cry.
“ It’s — it’s right enough, mamma; it’s— quite right. I’m too old. I’m too — Warrender, I ‘ll be going back to school in about six weeks.” Alas, the holidays were just begun. “ Won’t that do?” cried little Geoff, with horrible twitchings of his face, intended to keep back the tears.
His mother went up to him, and kissed him passionately, and put him away with her hand. “ Go,” she said. “ Geoff, go, and wait for me in your room. We must talk — alone ; we must talk alone. Go. Go.”
Geoff would have given much to throw himself into her arms, to support and to be supported by her : but the child was moved beyond himself. He obeyed her without a word, turning his back upon the combat, though he would fain have stood by her in it. Warrender had taken no part in this ; he had made no response to Geoff’s appeal. He was walking up and down, with all the signs of impatience, pale with passion and opposition. He paused, however, as the boy went away, a solitary, forlorn little figure stealing along the avenue in silence, too dutiful even to look back. Lady Markland stood, too, and looked after him, with a pang of compunction, of compassion, of heart-yearning, which it would be impossible to put into words. Her boy ! who had been her chief, almost only companion for years ; who was more dear — was he more dear ? — than any one ; who was her very own, all her own, with no feeling in his mind or experience in his little consciousness that was not all hers, — and this man bade her send him away, separate from her child: this—man. It is not safe for a union when one of the parties thinks of the other as that man. All at once a light had flashed up in Lady Murkland’s heart. She had been made very soft, very submissive, by her marriage. She had married a young man, younger than herself. She had seemed to herself ever since to be asking pardon of him and of the world for doing so. But now his violence had called her back to herself. She had not been too soft or submissive in the old days. She had been a woman with a marked character, not always yielding. The temporary seemed suddenly to disappear out of her life, and the original came back. She stood for a moment looking after her child, and then, being feeble of body, though waking up to such force of mind, she went to a bench which stood on the edge of the road, and sat down there. “ If this is as you say, it is better that we should understand each other,” she said.
Her tone had changed. From the anxiety to soften and smooth everything, the constant strain of deprecation and apology which had become habitual to her, she had suddenly emerged into a composure which was ominous, which was almost tragic. Even the act of sitting down, which was due to her weakness, made her appear as if taking a high position, assuming an almost judicial place. She did not intend it so, but this was the effect it produced upon Warrender, stinging him more deeply still. He felt that he was judged, that his wife had thrown off the yoke which he had made so heavy, and that his chance of bringing her back to her subjection, and of forcing her into the new and sudden decision which he called for, was small. This conviction increased his fury, but it also made him restrain the outward signs of it. He went after her, and stood in front of the bench of which she had made a sort of judicial throne.
“ You are right in that,” he said. “ Things have gone too far to return to their old level. I must have my house to myself, and for that reason it must be my own. I wish you to come with me to the Warren, — the children and you.”
“ Your mother and your sisters are there,” she said, fixing upon him a steady look.
“ What does that matter ? There is room, I hope, at all times for the master of the house.”
“ You ask me,” she said, “ to turn all my life upside down, to change my habits and arrangements, at a moment’s notice. But you have not told me why. Have you told me? You have said that my little boy of twelve has offended you, and that you knocked him down. Is that why I must change my house, and all my life ? ”
The slow steadiness of her tone made him frantic; that, more than the deliberate way in which she was putting him in the wrong.
“ I have told you,” he cried, “ that I am in a false position altogether, and that I will not bear it any longer ! You ought to see that I am in a false position. As for your little boy — of twelve ” —
“ What of him ? ” she asked, growing very pale, and rising again from her seat.
“ Only this one thing, Frances: that you can’t serve God and mammon, you know ; you can’t keep both. You must choose between him and me.”
“ Choose ? ” She sat down again suddenly, as if her strength had failed her. “ Choose! between Geoff, my little Geoff — my boy — my baby — Geoff ” —
There was a kind of ridicule in her voice, a ridicule which was tragic, which was full of passion, which sounded like a scolf at something preposterous, as well as an indignant protest.
“ Your scorn does not make it different. Yes, Geoff — who is all that: and me, — between him and me.”
For a moment they gazed at each other, having arrived at that decisive point, in a duel of this kind, when neither antagonist can find a word more to say. Lady Markland was very pale. She had been brought in a moment from her ease and quiet, when she expected no harm, to what might be the most momentous decision. She was still feeble, her nerves strained and weak from the long tension at which they had been held. She had clasped her hands together, and the fingers quivered. Her eyes seemed to grow larger and more luminous as she looked at him. “ Theo,” she said, with a long breath. “ Then ! do you know — what you are saying ? Do you mean — all that — all that ? ”
He thought he was going to get an easy, an unlooked-for victory ; he congratulated himself with a swift Hash of premature triumph that he had pushed matters to a crisis, that he had been so firm. “ Yes,” he cried, “ I mean it all. We can’t go on longer as we are. You must choose between him and me.”
She kept looking at him, still without relaxing from that fixed gaze. “ Do you know what you are asking?” she said again. “ That I should give up my child, — my first-born child, my little delicate boy, who has never been parted from me. Was it ever heard of that a mother was asked to give up her child ?”
“ They have done it,” he said. — “ you must know that, — when a higher claim came in.”
“ Is there any higher claim? Every other is at our own choice, but this is nature. God made it. It cannot change. There may be other — other ” — she faltered, her voice grew choked, — “ but only one mother,” she said.
“ Other — other ? ” he cried ; “ what ? To me there has been but one, as you know. I have put all my choices in one. God made it ? Has not God made you and me one ? — whom God has joined together ” —
“ Oh, Theo.” She got up and came towards him, holding out her hands. “ One, to bear each other’s burdens, to help each other; not to go against nature, to abandon what is the first of duties. Theo! oh, help me; do not make it impossible, do not rend me in two ! What can I say to you ? Theo ! ” She tottered in her weakness ; her limbs were not strong enough to support her. But Warrender made no forward step, He did not take the hands she held out to him. He had to be firm. It was now or never, he said to himself.
“ If we are ever to live happily together the sacrifice must be made. I don’t want to hurt you, Frances. If I seem harsh, it is for our good, the good of both of us. Make up your mind. Can any one doubt what is your first duty ? It is to me. It is I that must settle what our life is to be. It is you who must yield and obey. Are you not my wife ? Spare yourself further pain—and me,” he went on, with all the absolute and cruel sincerity of youth. He made it up in his own mind that this was the right thing to do, and steeled himself to resist the appeal of her weakness, to see her flutter back to the hard bench, and drop down there, unsupported, unaided. It was for the best, it was for her good, to put things on a right footing at once and for always. After this, never a harsh word, never an opposition, more.
Her husband thus having her to himself, standing before her, magisterial, coldly setting down what her duty was, enforcing obedience, — he who little more than a year ago— She wavered back to her bare seat alone, and sat there looking up at him till the peroration came to an end. In these few minutes many things flew through Lady Markland’s thoughts, — unspeakable offense, revolt against this unlovely duty presented to her, a sudden fierce indignation against him who had thus thrust himself into her life and claimed to command it. At that moment, after all the agitation he had made her suffer, and before the sacrifice he thus demanded of her, she could scarcely believe that she too had loved him, that she had been happy in his love. It seemed to her that he had forced himself upon her, taken advantage of her loneliness, compelled her to put herself in his power. It had been all adoration, boundless devotion, help, and service. And now it was command. Ob, had he but said this before! Had he bidden her then choose between her child and him, before— And as she looked at him a wild ridicule added itself to those other thoughts. To see him standing making his speech, thinking he could coerce a woman like herself, thinking in his youthfulness that he could sway any woman’s heart like that, and cut off the ties that vexed him, and settle everything for the good of both ! Heaven ! to see him lifting up his authoritative head, making his decision, expecting her to obey ! Spare yourself — and me! That she should refuse did not enter into his mind. She might struggle for a time, but to what use? Spare yourself — and me! She could not help a faint smile, painful enough, bitter enough, curving her lips.
“ You speak at your ease,” she cried, when his voice stopped. “ It is easy to make up one’s mind for another. What if I should refuse —to obey, as you say ? A wife’s obedience, since you appeal to that, is not like a servant’s obedience nor a child’s. It must be within reason and within nature. Suppose that I should refuse ? ”
He had grown cool and calm in the force of his authority. The crimson flashed to his face and the fire to his eye at her words.
“ Refuse — and I have my alternative,” he cried. " I will never enter your house again nor interfere in your concerns more.”
Again they contemplated each other in a deadly pause, like antagonists before they close for the last struggle. Then Lady Markland spoke : —
“ Theo, I have done all that a woman could do to please you and satisfy you, — all, and more than all. I will not desert my little boy.”
“ You prefer Geoff to me ? ”
“ There is no preferring; it is altogether different. I will not give up my child.”
“ Then you give up your husband?”
They looked at each other again,— she deadly pale, he crimson with passion, both quivering with the strain of this struggle ; her eyes mutely refusing to yield, accepting the alternative, though she said no more. And not another word was said. He turned on his heel, and walked back down the avenue, with quick, swinging steps, without ever turning his head. She watched him till he was out of sight, till he was out of hearing, till the gate swung behind him, and he was gone. She did not know how she was to get back to the house, over that long stretch of road, without any one to help her, and thought with a sickening and failing of her heart of the long way. But in this great, sudden, unlooked-for revolution of her life she felt no weakness nor failing. The revulsion was all the greater after the self-restraint. For the first time after so long an interval she was again herself.
That night Lady Markland did not close her eyes. The strength of resistance, of indignation, of self-assertion, failed her, as was inevitable, in the long and slow hours, during which she looked out, at first with a certainty, then with a hope, that Theo would come back. He must come back, she said to herself, even if all were over, which seemed impossible, impossible !—all in an hour or two, in one afternoon, when she thought no evil —still the most prosaic of considerations, the least important, his clothes, if nothing more, must bring him back. She went on saying this to herself, till from a half scorn which was in it at first it came to a kind of despair. He must come back, at all events, for his clothes ! She could scarcely hear Geoff during the afternoon, though it was for him all this misery was. She never could, nor would, give up her child, but his society was intolerable to her just then; and she felt that if Theo came and found them together he might think — he would have a certain right to think — It was a relief to her when at last Geoff went to bed, all his questions silenced, chilled, terrified, yet still heroically restraining himself, and making up his mind that he was to be sent away. After this she felt a kind of relief, a freedom in being left to herself, in wandering about the rooms and looking out in succession at every window that commanded the avenue. When the hour came to shut up the house she gave the butler an elaborate explanation: how Mr. Warrender had been obliged to return to the Warren about some business ; how it was possible that he might not come back that night; in fact, she did not expect him that night; but still he might return. It was not necessary that any one should sit up, — oh, no, not necessary at all. She should hear him if he came, or he could let himself in. “ But I really do not expect him to-night. He has — business,” she said, with a smile, which the butler thought not at all like my lady. She was not given to explanations in an ordinary way. She was very kind and considerate ; but she was always a great lady, and not expansive to her servants. She smiled in a strange, conciliatory way, as if begging him to believe her, and explained, to make it all right. The butler was not deceived. When was any butler ever deceived by such pretenses? He knew better, — he knew that something had happened. He told the company down-stairs that he made no doubt there had been a row, and most likely about Master Geoff, and that they might make up their minds to see rare changes. They were all making their comments upon this in the servants’ hall, while Lady Markland, standing at the window, looked out with a sort of desperation, shaping the figure of Theo a hundred times in the distance, scarcely able to restrain the impulse to go out and look for him; saying to herself, no longer scornfully, but with the profoundest tragic gravity, that he must come back, if only for his clothes! It was a dim summer night, the sky veiled with clouds, and after midnight fitfully lit by the gleam of a waning moon. She went from window to window noiselessly, thinking that now one, now another, had the most perfect command of the avenue ; hearing a hundred sounds of footsteps, even of distant wheels and horses’ hoofs, which seemed to beat upon the ground far off, and never came any nearer. Then when the dawn began to be blue in the sky, she threw herself upon her bed and hid her face, knowing that all was over, and that he would come back no more.
Scarcely less was the consternation in the Warren when Theo, pale and silent, wrapped in silence as in a cloak, making no reply to the questions asked, ordering his old room to be made ready without any explanations, came back to the already excited house. Dick and Chatty and all their affairs were forgotten in the extraordinary new event. “ Oh, Theo, what has happened,” Mrs. Warrender cried, “ what has happened ? Are you not going home ? ”
“ This is my home, I suppose,” he said. “ unless you have any objections,” which closed her mouth. She thought there must have been a quarrel, and that Lady Markland had resented Theo’s treatment of Geoff, which his mother immediately began to justify to herself; saying that of course he did not mean to hurt the child, but that a person put in charge of the children of another, in any case, must have some power of correcting them when they want correction : — with great wonder and indignation at his wife, yet an obstinate counter-question in her mind if any one had corrected Theo so, when he was a boy — She did all she could to urge him to return, sitting up till very late, keeping the groom awake for possible orders. “ Frances will be very anxious,” she said to her son. “ She has no reason to be anxious; she knows where I am.” “ Oh, Theo, don’t let it come to a quarrel,”Mrs. Warrender urged imploringly, with tears in her eyes. Her attitude put him in mind of his wife’s attitude as she stood holding out her hands, and was intolerable to him. " Good-night, mother. I am going to bed,” he said. Mrs. Warrender was as restless as Lady Markland. She had come and listened to his breathing outside his door, and seen that his light was out, and that he had actually gone to bed, as he said, before she would allow herself to be convinced. It was a quarrel, then ; and what was to come of it, — what was to come of it? Lady Markland was very yielding and gentle, but Theo ! Theo was not yielding. Mrs. Warrender, too, lay down when it was nearly morning, as miserable as could be.
And yet none of them, not even the chief actors, who were both at the pitch of desperation, really believed that what this meant was a breach which should last for years. Even they did not believe it in their hearts. That things should not all come right was incredible. But as a matter of fact they did not come right. Lady Markland was not by nature the yielding and anxious woman which for this year of troubled wedlock she had appeared ; and everybody knew that Theo was neither persuadable nor reasonable, but had the hottest temper, the most rigid will, of his own, and that ingenuity in finding himself in the right which gives a fatal character to every quarrel. Lady Markland was willing to make any concession but the one which he required, the abandonment of Geoff. But he would make no concession ; he stood upon his rights. With all the fervor and absolutism of inexperience he stood fast. No! nothing less than everything, nothing but entire submission, nothing but obedience. Alarmed and anxious friends gathered to the fray, as was inevitable, and everything was made worse. The result was that within a few weeks Theo Warrender had gone off with a burning sense of injury and wrong, to travel he did not much care where, to forget himself he did not much care how ; and Lady Markland, feeling as if she had awakened suddenly from a strange dream, a dream full of fever and unrest, of fugitive happiness but lasting trouble, came to herself all alone, with the two little babies, in a strange solitude which was no longer natural, and with Geoff. She had chosen, who could say wrongly? — and yet in a way which set wrong all the circumstances of her life.
This was how for the moment her second venture came to an end. Theo went forth upon the world for that wander-year in which so much of the superfluous vigor of life is often expended, which it would have been so well for everybody if he had taken before, and stormed about the world for a time, no one knowing what volcanoes were exploding in his soul. How much he gathered of better wisdom it is not within the limits of this history to say.
The happy ones were Dick and Chatty, who began their life together as if there had been no cloud upon it. He had fully lived out his wander-year, and had paid dearly for the follies, which had been done with no evil meaning on his part, but in all honor and good intention, bitterly foolish though they were. And perhaps he never was very wise, nor rose above the possibility of being taken in, which is a peculiarity of many generous spirits. But why should we say they were the happy ones ? The really happy ones were Minnie and her Eustace, who never felt themselves to be in the wrong, or were anything less than the regulators of everybody’s life and manners wherever they went. It was Mrs. Eustace Thynne’s conviction to the last that all the misfortunes which temporarily befell her sister were owing to the fact that she herself was not on the spot to regulate affairs; and that Theo, if he had taken her advice, would never have placed himself in the way of the trouble which had overwhelmed his life.
M. O. W. Oliphant.