The Second Son
THE CULPRIT’S REVENGE.
THEY were left, as the exit of an important actor in a stirring scene leaves the rest of the parties to it, in an enforced pause before the movement can be resumed, at watch upon each other, distracted for the moment, each antagonist a little astray, not knowing how the debate is to be resumed, and against which of the adversaries he is to find himself engaged. To Stephen it was a moment of relief. Among the others, there seemed no one whom he could not cow by his louder voice and stronger denial. It appeared to him that he could crush that slight creature standing opposite by the mere lifting of his hand. But for the moment he did not know whether it were she or some other against whom he would have to stand.
“ Dear, dear! ” said Mrs. Travers, leaning back a little upon Lily, who stood behind her. The old lady was frightened, flurried, horror-stricken. “ Oh dear, dear! ” she cried, wringing her little transparent hands. “ I knew there was something, but I never knew how bad it was. Oh dear, dear ! — oh dear, dear ! ”
“ Stephen,” said Edmund, “ I think we had better follow my father. After what has passed, it can do you no good to stay here.”
“ After what has passed ! What has passed ? The story of a — of a — the sort of creature no man is safe from. It might have been you instead of me. Would you slink off, and let her have it all her own way ? I ’ll appeal to Mrs. Travers. You know what the world is : will you trust that woman against me ? a girl that has nothing to lose against" —
“ Oh, hush ! ” interposed Elizabeth. “ For Heaven’s sake, don’t go any further, — there has been enough. Oh, get your brother to go away! We do trust her, — we know her better than we know him. Oh, get him to go away! ”
“ Dear, dear ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Travers, “ oh dear, dear ! I can’t bear this sort of thing, Elizabeth. He ’s a gentleman, a military man. And don’t you hear him ? He appeals to me. Lily may have been mistaken ; he may be able to explain. Oh dear, dear! Mr. Mitford will have a fit, and it will kill me. To have such a disturbance and such things talked of in a lady’s house, — oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! ”
“ Let me alone, Ned,” cried Stephen ; “ it’s my character, not yours, that is at stake.” He straightened himself, and looked round him with rising courage. “ You say true,” he continued. “ Mrs. Travers, you understand. How am I to explain before ladies ? Things look dreadful to ladies that are no harm among men. If you will get Miss Travers to go away, and that girl, I will tell you all I can. I ’ll explain as well as I can — to you ” —
“ To me ! ” interrupted the old lady, with a subdued shriek, — “ explain improprieties to me ! Lizzy, he ought n’t to be allowed to talk to me like this. Unless she has made a mistake — Oh, don’t be too hasty, my dear ! Are you sure, are you quite sure, it’s the same gentleman ? Oh, Lily, look again ; you might be mistaking him for some one else. Are you sure it is the same gentleman, Lily ? If it was the right one, do you think he’d appeal to me ? ”
“It is the man whom I was going to marry,” returned Lily, drooping her head. “ How could I make a mistake as to him ? ”
“ That was my brother Roger,” said Stephen, “ as is well known. Why she should wish to ruin me in your opinion, I can’t tell. She came up to London to Roger. What happened to her there, who knows ? ” he added, with an insulting laugh. “ Perhaps it’s natural she should seek out some one to answer for that adventure, — I should n’t blame her. It’s fair enough to do what you can in self-defense.”
“ Let my brother Roger’s name be left out of this,” said Edmund, sternly. “ Say what you will for yourself. She never went to London to Roger. He was as delicate and tender of her and her good name as if she had been the Queen’s daughter. Keep his name out of it. I cannot allow any reference to him.”
Mrs. Travers sat up erect in her chair, and looked at Stephen with her small, keen eyes. “ They are not like each other,” she said ; “ and how could she mistake the man she was going to marry, as she says ? Captain Mitford, I think you had better go away. I am very sorry, for I have a partiality for military men, but I don’t really see how there could be any mistake. And you mustn’t speak about the girl and that sort of thing. We know her, as Elizabeth has told you, a great deal better than we know you.”
Stephen looked round upon the audience, which he began to perceive was hostile to him, with lessening self-command and growing wrath. His father’s departure had sobered him out of the first burst of passion, but he was not a man to fight a losing battle. He went on, however, repeating his plea. “ I can’t go into it now, before ladies. Name a man, and I ’ll explain everything. I can’t speak before ladies. A man would soon see it was all a madeup story. Send for old Gavelkind, or somebody. I ’ll explain to a man.”
“ You are not upon your trial here, Captain Mitford,” remarked Elizabeth. “We have nothing to do with it. It has been all very unexpected and very painful.” She turned to Edmund with an appealing gesture. “ It would be much better if it could end here. There is nothing more for us to do; it is no business of ours.”
“ That is to say,” cried Stephen quickly, “I am to consent to a slur upon my character because there is n’t a man in the house to whom I can speak, nor any one who can see through a made-up story. I sha’n’t do that ! Send that little devil away, and not me. You can’t know her half so well as I know her. How should you ? She puts on one face to her backers-up. but quite a different one to me. She’s ” —
“ Captain Mitford,” Mrs. Travers said, “ you seem to think, after all, that you know Lily very well.”
He stopped short, confounded, and looked at the old lady with a dangerous glitter in his eyes — like a bull putting down its head before it charges.
“ You think you know Lily very well,” she repeated; “and how should you know her, unless what she says is true ? I’m very sorry, for you are a near neighbor, and I always thought I should like you best of the family. If you please, Captain Mitford, will you go away ? I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but there’s no man in the house, as you say. We are only ladies; we have ourselves to take care of. Please go. And I don’t think,” added the old lady, upon whose face there had come a little color, a flush of roused temper and feeling, “ that so long as this is my house I shall want to see you here again.”
He burst out suddenly into a loud laugh. He was exasperated by her little air of authority; her precise words, the majestic aspect she put on, and he was half mad with the efforts he had made to restrain himself, and the sense that he had failed, and the fury and shame of the exposure. No one had listened to what he said in his own defense; but he had it in his power to startle them into listening to him at last. “ Your house ? ” he cried, hurling the words at her as if they had been a stone picked up in haste ; “ you’ve no house, any more than you have the right to judge me ! ”
“No house! The man must be going mad! ” Mrs. Travers exclaimed.
“ Captain Mitford,” cried Elizabeth, " if you have any sense of honor, go, — go away ! ”
“ I ’ll not allow myself to be insulted,” he returned, “ not even by an old woman. Her house ! It’s no more hers than it’s mine. She’s got no house, — she has not a penny but what you give her. Do you think I don’t know? Do you think that everybody doesn’t know? Let go, Ned. I ’ll not be put out, either by her or you. By Jove! to order me out of her house, when she’s a pauper, a pensioner, a— Good-evening, Mrs. Travers. I hope I’ve given you a piece of information which is as good as yours to me ! ”
The little old lady had risen to her feet. It was not possible for the small, worn face in the white circle of her widow’s cap to be paler than it habitually was ; but her eyes were opened more widely than usual, and her lips were apart. “ Lizzy ! ” she said, with a gasp, putting out her hands. She paused until Stephen had gone out of the room before she said any more. Then she resumed : “ Lizzy! Is that true ? ”
“ Mrs. Travers,” replied Edmund. “ my brother is entirely in the wrong. He has received a dreadful blow. I am dazed and confused by it, though I have nothing to do with it. He did not know what he was saying. He wanted to revenge himself on some one. It was a dastardly thing to do ; but that is all. Don’t think of it more.”
“ I am asking Lizzy. Lizzy,” said the old lady, “ is that true? ”
“ Aunt, listen to him, he knows everything, and we’ve done him injustice ! ” cried Elizabeth, with an effort, scarcely conscious, to turn the discussion into another channel. “ Ask him to forgive me. I thought he was involved in all this dreadful story. I thought it was all different.”
“ Lizzy,” said Mrs. Travers, “ is that true ? ”
“ Aunt, how can you ask me ? It is nothing ; it is revenge, as he tells you.”
“ What does it matter what he tells me, or the other ? The other meant what he said. Lizzy, is it true ? ”
“Aunt, dear aunt! ”
“ You call me by my name, but that’s no answer; nor is it an answer,” cried the old lady, holding Elizabeth at arm’s length, thrusting her away, “ to come and coax me and kiss me. Is it true — true ? ” She grasped Elizabeth’s shoulder after a moment, and shook her, as a child might grip a woman in vain passion. “ I want an answer, — I want an answer. My husband thought it right to leave you everything — after me : that’s what I’ve been told, and I thought it was hard. Was there more than that ? I ’ll not be deceived any longer ! ” she cried, stamping her foot. “ If I’m a pauper, a pensioner, as he said, tell me. I ’ll not be deceived any more !
“ Oh, aunt! Never, never that! Oh, never that! ”
“ Never what ? There may be degrees of lies, but there can be but one truth. What ? I will know ! ”
“ Aunt,” said Elizabeth, who had grown very pale, “ there is but one truth, but I might tell that truth so that it would be almost a lie. If you will sit down, and have patience, and let me explain ” —
“Explain, when it’s a simple matter of yes or no? Mr. Edmund Mitford, this is between my niece and me ; but she seems to wish you to remain.” Mrs. Travers added, querulously. “And I suppose you know, as he said everybody knows. Oh, that Mr. Gavelkind should have gone, just when he was wanted ! ” Mrs. Travers began to moan. She clasped her little attenuated hands together ; tears began to gather in her eyes. “ Lily Ford,” she said, “ I’ve been kind to you, I ‘ve asked you no questions, you ‘ve been living in my house — In my house ? I don’t know if I have a house. Oh, what am I to do, — what am I to do ? ” She sank back into her chair, and began to whimper and cry. " I was his faithful wife for forty years. I brought him a bit of money that was of great use to him at the time. I was never extravagant, — never wanted anything that he was n’t the first to get! The plate-glass and all that, — was it my doing ? I never had any interest but his. And now he’s left me without a home, without a home, after being his wife for forty years! ”
“ Oh, dear aunt,” cried Elizabeth, flinging herself on her knees beside Mrs. Travers’s chair, “ he never thought of that. You were like himself to him. It was a mistake, it was some delirium, he never thought.”
“ Ah! ” she said, “ there’s mistakes ; yes, there’s mistakes. You asked me, Lily Ford, if you could mistake the man you were going to marry ; and it seemed both to me and you as if you could n’t. But I was married to mine for forty years, and I was mistaken in him all the time, it appears. I never thought he would leave his wife a — a pauper, a pensioner, as that villain said. Oh, that villain ! Get up, Elizabeth, get up ; don’t hang on me. I ’ll be your pensioner no more.”
Elizabeth, repulsed, still knelt at her aunt’s feet, her hands clasped, the tears streaming from her eyes. Lily Ford, behind the old lady’s chair, put her arms timidly round her, caressing her, crying too. Beside all these weeping women, what could Edmund do ? He stood irresolute in sheer masculine disability to bear the sight of their tears : and yet he could not go away, nor desert Elizabeth at this crisis. Not a word had been said between them, and yet she had called him, bound him to her side. He turned from them, and walked about the room in the confusion of despair.
“ That’s what marriage is,” Mrs. Travers resumed after an interval of sobs. “ I ’ll go out of my husband’s house with the little bit of money I brought into it, and glad to have that. It was all mine for forty years ; but what was I all the time ? What’s a wife but a pensioner, as that man said. She has no right to anything; it’s all in the man’s hands, though she’s helped him to make it, though she’s taken care of it and saved it, and done her work as honest as he. But when he dies, he does what he likes ; he takes her home from her, and gives it to some one else. She’s got no right to anything. Oh, talk of mistakes, Lily Ford ! You might well mistake the man you were going to marry, when I ‘ve mistaken mine, after I ‘ve been his wife for forty years.”
“ Aunt,” Elizabeth cried, “ have some pity upon me! You cannot have the heart to leave me ! I would have died rather than let you find out — anything to wound you. Every word you say goes to my heart. It’s all true ; but he never meant it so. He never, never meant it. It’s true, and yet it’s not true. And why should you punish me ? What have I done ? Will you leave me alone in the world, in a house that’s no longer a home, because I have been put in a wrong position, and because his mind got confused at the end ? ”
“ Hold your tongue,” said Mrs. Travers angrily, turning sharply upon her. “ Don’t say a word against my husband to me. I know what I think ; but it’s not for you to say it, — you that he was always so good to. Respect your uncle, if you please. You shall not say a word against him to me. And as for leaving you, why, what’s this young man here for, Lizzy ? He wants to go away, he has feeling enough to see he has no business here; but you won’t let him ; you keep him with your eye. I suppose you ’ll marry him, and then you ’ll want nobody, — there will be no further need for an old woman ; though perhaps she is wanted, enough to earn her living, enough not to be a pauper,” Mrs. Travers said, drying her eyes indignantly.
“ I must speak, if I am to be here at all,” said Edmund, coming forward ; “ let me be of some use now, at least. You are all excited, — too much excited to decide anything. If Elizabeth will have me, I have been long at her disposal, Mrs. Travers ; and in that case I can speak for her as well as for myself. This house will never, by my consent, be anybody’s but yours. She will never live in it, with my approval, except as your daughter should live. It is better this should be cleared up, perhaps, and that we should all understand each other. You shall never leave here with my consent. I can’t but be of some importance, if what you think is true. All the rest is little, and means nothing. These are the facts of the case: you are here at home, and Elizabeth lives with you. What is to happen after shall be arranged between us, — you, as the head of the house, having the first voice. I know nothing about wills and law ; in nature you are the head of the house and the mistress of the house, and so you shall always be for me.”
When a man speaks words of wisdom, it is very seldom that they are not received by the women about him as oracles from heaven. Elizabeth rose from her knees, and came and stood by his side, putting her arm into his with a timidity unusual to her. Mrs. Travers sat up in her chair, with her face raised to him, in attention, half bewildered but wholly respectful. Even Lily Ford, behind the old lady’s chair, looked up as if her salvation depended upon this supreme and serious statement. When he stopped, there was a breathless pause.
“ Well, if it’s any satisfaction to you, Lizzy, I think he speaks up like a man,” Mrs. Travers said.
THE SQUIRE GOES HOME.
The Squire went out of the house like a man distracted, his brain on fire, a surging as of a flood in his head. He passed out into the hot sun, with his hat in his hand, feeling the rush in his ears too hot and terrible to permit of any covering upon the temples, which throbbed as if they would burst. Very few times in his life had it happened to him that the fiery commotion within dazed and confused him as to what was going on without, but so it was to-day.
He had been without any premonition of trouble, when he climbed that slope with Stephen. He was going to smooth over all offense on Elizabeth’s part. Stephen was to tell his tale, to explain, as he seemed convinced he could. “ Let me alone. I hope I know how to talk over a woman,” he had said. Mr. Mitford had been such a fool as to trust to him. Such a fool! he said to himself now. As if Elizabeth had been an ordinary woman, as if the circumstances had been so simple ! The Squire could not imagine how he had been such a fool, forgetting that he had known none of the circumstances. Now it seemed as if his own folly were the thing most apparent. How could he think that it would be so easily disposed of! How could he imagine that all would be well!
Mr. Mitford was not a severe judge. He had, perhaps, in his heart more sympathy with Stephen’s errors than with the virtue of his other sons. He was not a man to make any fuss about a little irregularity, about what had been called youthful folly in the days when he was himself subject to such temptations ; so long as there was nothing disgraceful in it, he had said. But a girl upon his property, the daughter of an old servant, his wife’s favorite, — nay, good heavens ! the girl whom Roger had meant to marry ! Was there ever such a hideous combination ? To entice that girl away on the old pretense of marriage, what a scoundrel! and to let her slip through his fingers, what a fool! Everything that was most unbearable was involved in it. It would be over the whole county to-morrow, flying on the wings of the wind, — a scandal such as had not happened for a generation, and ridicule worse still than the scandal. It was like a Surrey melodrama, the Squire said to himself, crossed with a screaming farce. To have meant to outwit the girl, and to have found her too sharp for him! A Lovelace plantéla! a brilliant and conquering hero, made a fool of, like the old nincompoop in the plays. Jove ! and this was his son ! And the scandal and the derision, the county talk, the shaking of the wise heads, the roar of ridicule would peal round the house, like a storm. The laughter, that was the worst. Had Lily been altogether lost, Mr. Mitford would have been perhaps not much less disturbed : he would have felt keenly the shame of such a scandal, the noisy echoes awakened, the shock of that overthrow of all the decorums and betrayal of all those trusts which an old servant puts in his master, and which public feeling protects and authorizes. But that the laugh should be added to the shame; that when people heard what villainy Stephen had been about, they should also hear how the tables had been turned upon him, how the biter had been bit and the deceiver deceived, — that was more unbearable still! The echoes seemed all to catch it up, to breathe it about him, to come back laden with derision and scorn. Stephen, who had been admired in the county, who had a reputation as a dashing fellow, of whom his father had been proud ! Proud! Jove! there was not much to be proud of: a base, abominable seduction, and not even a successful one, the laugh turned against him, the victim holding him up to shame. If everything had been put together that could most humiliate and expose the family, — just on the edge of a family affliction, too, when decorum ought to have the strongest hold, — it could not have been more thoroughly done!
It was a very hot day, the very height and crown of summer, and the road between Mount Travers and Melcombe was for a great part of the way quite unshaded, exposed to the full beating of the afternoon sun. It was afternoon, but the sun was still high in the heavens, and the air was penetrated by the fierceness of its shining. Three o’clock is almost more than the climax of day ; it has the meridian heat, with an accumulation of all the fiery elements stored up in every corner and in the motionless air, which has not yet been freed from the spell of noon. After a while, Mr. Mitford put on his hat mechanically, to interpose something between him and that glow of heat and brightness. The waves of the flood of passion, of coursing blood and heat, rose one after another, ringing and surging in his ears. He knew what his doctors had told him about that overwhelming sensation, — that he ought at once to get into a darkened room, and lie down and keep quiet, when he felt it. None of these things could he do now. This rushing along in the full sun, with his head uncovered for part of the way, no shade, no possibility of rest, and some miles of blazing road before him, was enough to have given Dr. Robson a fit, not to speak of the patient, whom he had warned so seriously. The Squire felt this dully in his confused brain, but also felt that he could not help it; that everything was intolerable ; that he must get home, and do something at once. He must do it at once ; there was no time to lose. A fellow who had exposed himself to the county, to the whole world, like that, could not be permitted to be the representative of the Mitfords. He had always felt uncomfortable about it, always since poor Roger was taken away. Poor Roger! It seemed to the Squire that only death had taken his eldest son away, and that it was somehow a grievance to himself that Stephen had been put in that eldest son’s place ; he could not make out, in his confusion, how it had come about. It was a wrong to Edmund, — he had always said so, — a great injustice, an injury, a — And now the fellow had proved how impossible it was to keep up such an arrangement. It was all his own doing, as somehow the other, the injury to Edmund, appeared to be Stephen’s doing. But the Squire felt that if he could only get home in time, only reach his writing-table and his quiet library and the cool and the shade, and get his pulses to stop beating, and that rushing surge out of his ears, things might still be put right.
But the road stretched out white before him, like something elastic, drawing out and out in endless lengths, such as he had never been conscious of before ; and the sun blazed, without a tree to subdue that pitiless glare. He had a vague notion that there was some way with a handkerchief to stop the beating of the light upon his head, but his thoughts were not free enough to arrange it, or think how it could be done. And still, the further the Squire walked, the further and further before him seemed to stretch on these lengths of expanding road. If he could but get home ! Presently the name of Pouncefort surged up into his head on those rising waves. Pouncefort! — he must send for Pouncefort : by an express, a man on horseback, in the old way, or by the telegraph, — there was the telegraph. Vaguely it came into his mind that he might stop at the station which he had to pass, and send a message ; but that would keep him longer, would prevent his getting home. To get home was the first necessity, — into the cool, into the dark, with the shutters shut. The idea of shutting the shutters came with a sense of relief to his brain. Somebody could go to the office and send the message ; or a man could go, on horseback, the old way.
The laughing-stock of the county ! It seemed to him now, somehow, as if it were he who would be laughed at, he who had been outwitted, though without any fault of his. The laugh would be turned against him all over the place, who had meant to play the gay Lothario, and had been made a fool of by a little chit of a girl! Something of the mortification and rage with which Stephen himself thought of that failure entered strangely into his father’s brain, but with a confused sense that he had been got into that position without any fault of his; that it was the trick of an enemy; that he had been made to appear ridiculous in the eyes of all men, by something with which his own action had nothing to do. He seemed to hear the ring of that derision all about him. Ha, ha, ha ! did you hear that story about Mitford ? about the Mitfords ? about old Mitford ? That was what it came to at the last. Old Mitford ! though he was a man that had never made a laughingstock of himself, always kept clear of that; had been respected, feared, if you like ; an ugly soil of fellow to be affronted or put upon, but laughed at, never ! And now this was his fate, for the first time in his life, and by no fault of his.
How good it would be to have the shutters closed, all along the side of the house ! What a change it would make all at once ! — out of that beating and blazing, the pitiless heat, the sound of the laughter; for somehow the laughter appeared to come in, too. Meanwhile, the road did nothing but grow longer and longer, stretching out like a long white line, endless as far as one could see, not diminishing, extending as one rushed on; until at last, when the heat was at its highest, the sunshine almost blinding, the surging in his ears worse than ever, Mr. Mitford suddenly found a coolness and shelter about him, and saw that he was stumbling in at his own door.
“ Shut all the shutters,” he said to the first servant he saw.
“ The shutters, sir ? ”
“ Every shutter in the house. Don’t you see how the sun is blazing ? And I want something to drink, and a horse saddled at once.”
“ A horse, sir ? ”
“ Don’t I speak plain enough ? Send Larkins, — he ’ll understand ; but shut the shutters, every shutter ; keep out the sun, or we ’ll go on fire,” Mr. Mitford said.
Larkins was sought out in the housekeeper’s room, with a message that master had come in, off his head, as mad as mad, calling for the shutters to be shut, and for a horse. The butler had been dozing pleasantly, and was just waking up to enjoy his afternoon tea.
“ Rubbish,” he said. “ I dare say as he’s hot with his walk, and wants a drink ; they allays does, when a man’s comfortable.”
But Mr. Larkins was not an ill-natured man, and he had a sympathy for people who wanted a drink. He sent for ice and various bottles, and there was a popping of corks which occupied some time ; and finally he took in himself to the library a tray, which the footman carried to the door. He found, what alarmed even his composure, his master tugging at the shutters to close them, though the sun had passed away from that side of the house.
“ Bless me, sir, let me do that! But the sun’s gone,” he said, hurrying to set down his tray.
The Squire was purple. He fumbled about the shutters as if he did not see, his eyes seemed starting out of his head, and he was panting, with loud, noisy breath. “ Every shutter,” he said, “ or we ’ll go on fire ; and, Larkins, have a horse saddled, and send a groom ” —
“ Yes, sir, but please leave all that to me, and take a seat, sir; you ’re rather knocked up with the heat, and I’ve brought some of that Cup.”
Larkins, alarmed, had to guide his master to his big chair, and while he brought him a large glass of that skillful decoction, with the ice jumbling delightfully and making a pleasant noise, he resolved within himself that the groom should go for Dr. Robson, and that without a moment’s delay.
“ For Pouncefort, for Pouncefort,” said the Squire; “ a man on horse, the quickest way.”
“ If I were to send a telegram ? ” said Larkins, more and more decided that the doctor should be the groom’s errand.
“ That’s it,” said Mr. Mitford, and he took a deep and long draught; then repeated, “ The shutters, the shutters, — shut the shutters! ” Larkins moved away to humor his master. But his back was scarcely turned when there was a great noise, amid which the sharp sound of the glass breaking caught the butler’s ear, a rumbling as when a tower falls, all the courses of the masonry coming down upon each other; and there lay the Squire, all huddled on the floor, with his purple face fallen back, and his breathing like the sound of a swollen stream.
Stephen left Mount Travers as hastily, and not much more pleasantly, than his father. The thing had come upon him which, with horrible premonitions of shame and discomfiture, he had feared, ever since that night when his victim, at the moment of his triumph, had slipped out of his hands. The sensation had been almost worse than he had imagined it would be. The sight of Lily had filled him with a rage which he felt to be cowardly, and which he would have resisted had he known how to do so; a desire to strangle her, to crush her, to stop that explanation by any means, however brutal. And Elizabeth’s look of horror, and even the little white face of Mrs. Travers, avowing with a sigh her partiality for military men, had been terrible to him. But after the shock and sting of that crisis, there came to Stephen a sense of relief. The story would have flown to all the winds, if but one of the fellows in the regiment had been there, or any man who could communicate to them this too delightful tale. But the ladies would not spread it abroad, — they were too much horrified ; and the Squire and Edmund would be silent. They would know, and would not forget the story of his disgrace, and that was bad enough ; but they would not tell it, for their own sake, if not for his. Nor would she repeat it, for her own sake. It was more safe than he could have hoped ; the horrible moment of the disclosure had come, but it was over, and nothing was so bad as he had feared. True, Elizabeth’s money was not for him ; the tramp to whom he threw a sixpence was as likely now to be received as a wooer as he was ; but what then ? There were as good fish in the sea as had ever been drawn out of it. For his part, he had no taste for such women ; he could very easily make up his mind to the loss of Elizabeth: a prim woman, with that sanctimonious horror in her eyes, she was no loss at all. They were as safe an audience as he could have chosen, had he had the choosing of them. Not one of them would repeat it; and that, not for Stephen’s sake, but for their own. And to console him further, he had the comfort of having revenged himself, which was sweet. He had thrown a firebrand among them, for them to extinguish as best they could. On the whole, he said to himself, with fierce exultation, it was he who had come out of it best.
Therefore his excitement calmed down more easily than his father’s. There remained the question as to what the Squire would do, which was a serious one. He had been furious ; he had taken it as Stephen himself did, with rage and a sense of the mortification, the failure, the horrible ridicule to which he would be exposed. But Stephen hoped that he might make his father see what he so clearly saw himself ; this shameful secret had been revealed to the most harmless audience that could have been chosen ; that from Mount Travers it was very unlikely to spread or be repeated, or even whispered about; that the ladies would not do it, nor Edmund ; and that the little devil herself, — the little — He set his teeth when he thought of her. He would like to meet her once more, only once more, in the park, and see what she would say then.
He went home more quickly than his father had done, thinking nothing of the length of the way, nor of the heat, nor of the want of shade. He must see what temper his father was in ; and if it were very bad, he would pack up and be off. Happily, he had not sent in his papers ; and if the worst came to the worst, there would be this compensation in losing his heirship, — that he should no longer be compelled to remain at home. There was always that to be said on the other side. He met a groom on horseback, tearing down the avenue, but paid no particular attention ; nor was he roused by the scared face of Larkins, who met him at the door. He thought, indeed, that Larkins had been sent to warn him that the Squire would not see him; but this alarm lasted only for a moment. The butler looked very pale and frightened. He came forward anxiously as soon as Stephen appeared.
“ I ’m very thankful as you’ve come, sir. I did n’t know how to act on my own responsibility. Master’s not at all well.”
“ Not well ? What is the matter ? ” Stephen said.
“ He came in what I might make bold to call very queer, sir, calling out to shut the shutters, to keep the sun out. Now the sun’s gone from the library, captain, an hour ago, as you know. John Thomas was clean scared, and came and told me as master was off his head. I says, ‘ Rubbish! ’ and I carries him in some of his own particular Cup as he ’s fond of. He was an awful color, sir, — purple-like, and breathing hard. He told me to shut the shutters and then to send a man on horseback for Mr. Pouncefort. I turned my back for a moment, and there he was, smash down upon the floor.”
“ A fit! Did you send for the doctor ? Have you got the doctor ? ”
“ I did n’t lose a moment, captain. I sent off the groom at once. We laid him on the sofa, and Mrs. Simmons is with him. He looks awful bad. That’s his breathing, sir, as you can hear.”
Stephen steadied himself by a chair. “ This is what Robson feared,” he said.
“ Yes, captain, doctor always said as his was a risky life; and master’s feared it, too. Getting in a passion’s bad for him, sir, and so is the great heat and being out in the sun. Mrs. Simmons has got ice to his head, and we ’re doing all we know till the doctor comes. Had master been badly put out, sir, by anything ? You will perhaps know ? ”
Stephen made no reply. He stood and listened to the loud breathing, with which the very house seemed to vibrate. Did you send for Mr. Pouncefort, as my father directed ? ”
“ We ’ve had no time to think of that. I thought the doctor was the first thing.”
“You were right, Larkins ; it was better not to worry him, in that state.”
“ Shall I telegraph now, sir, to Mr. Pouncefort ? I thought I ’d wait till one of you gentlemen came home.”
Stephen again stood silent for a long minute, paying no attention. At length, “ I don’t think you need trouble yourself further,” he said.
AFTER THE STORM.
Tumult and trouble seemed to have died out of the house on the hill; the vacant room alone showed a few traces of the passion and conflict that had been there. The screen had been pushed aside, showing the little table and chair behind it, which Lily had used all the time she had been at Mount Travers, in her nervous dread of being seen by any visitors ; and Mrs. Travers’s chair with its cushions, her footstool, and the pretty stand with all her little requirements, stood astray, as they had been thrust to one side and another, in the sudden commotion which Stephen, before his exit, had flung into the enemy’s country. There Elizabeth had knelt, distracted, imploring her aunt not to believe what was nevertheless true ; and there the little lady had stood, thrusting them all away, repulsing her footstool, as though that, too, had been an enemy, in the heat of her indignation. The inanimate things showed these traces of human emotion in a way which was curiously telling, with a suggestiveness partly comic, partly pathetic. The footstool had been turned over with the vehemence of the foot which on ordinary occasions rested on it so peacefully. The chair in which Stephen had first seated himself kept its place, — turned with an ingratiating expression towards that of Elizabeth, which had been pushed back a little, — with its chintz cover all dragged out of place by the man’s impetuous movements. But all was perfectly silent here, as on other fields of battle ; and in a few minutes the butler, coming in with his tea-tray, had it all put straight again. Nothing could exceed the surprise of that respectable functionary : no bell had been rung, no one had been called to open the door ; and yet the gentlemen whom he had admitted had all melted away, leaving no trace, and even the ladies had forgotten that it was time for tea.
Lily Ford came into the room while he was in the act of calling upon some of his subordinates to rearrange this place of conflict. Lily had become Miss Ford, — she was a visitor, and had no dealings, except in that capacity, with the servants ; but they all knew who she was, and had a certain reluctance in serving her. It is all very well to talk of rising in the world, and bettering yourself ; but to wait upon one of his own class who has succeeded in doing this is more than any free-born servant can be expected to do.
“ Will you kindly take up tea to Mrs. Travers’s room ? She is not coming down,” Lily said.
She had been crying ; her lips had still a faint quiver in them, and somethinglike the echo of a sob came into her voice as she spoke. Though it had been her mother’s delight to think that she was quite a lady, Lily, in fact, had rather the air of a very pretty, very refined lady’s-maid. That is not saying much, for it is sometimes difficult enough to tell which is which, especially when the inferior in position is the prettier by nature, as sometimes happens. It is only, perhaps, a certain want of freedom, a greater self-restraint, — such as is not unlikely to add to the air of refinement, — which marks the difference. Lily was very quiet, very reticent and subdued, and those signs of emotion seemed to betray to the man’s eyes tokens of “ a smash-up.” That his two mistresses should have quarreled did not, with his knowledge of them, appear very probable ; but that Miss Ford — Miss, indeed ! — should have found her level and got the “ sack,” according to the phraseology of the servants’ hall, was the most natural, not to say pleasing thing in the world.
“ Tea for one, miss ? ” the butler said, with a look that gave meaning to the words.
Lily replied only with a wondering glance, but she said in a low voice, “ You may put away the screen, if you please.”
It was very evident then to the household, through which the news flashed in a moment, that there was an end of Miss Ford; that she had got the sack, and would trouble them with her obnoxious superiority no more.
What went on, however, in Mrs. Travers’s room during the remainder of the afternoon was little like this. There the old lady sat, propped up with more cushions than usual, in a state of tearful dignity and exaltation. She had felt the blow profoundly, — as much as nature would allow her to feel. But there is this advantage in a very small body, possessed by a not very great mind : that its physical capabilities are limited, and that the greatest anguish wears itself out proportionately soon. Mrs. Travers had been deeply wounded ; she had been very indignant, very angry, and then had recurred to the first pang, and felt the slight and the cruelty of her husband’s injustice to the bottom of her little but affectionate heart. But when she had gone through that round of feeling twice or thrice she was exhausted, and for the time could feel no more. Everything that Elizabeth, in a compunction which was very deep though quite uncalled for, since she had no part in the offense, and in her anxiety to soothe, and in her real gratitude and affection, could do had been lavished upon her aunt ; while Lily, all overwhelmed still by the event in which she had taken so great a share, and unable to restrain her sobbing, had lingered round the other sufferer with that fellowship which trouble has with trouble and pain with pain. Mrs. Travers, comforted by every outward appliance, — by cushions applied skillfully at the very angles of her back which wanted support, and tender bathings of her hot eyes and forehead, and gentle ministrations with a fan, and arrangements of blinds and curtains to temper the light, — sank at last into a condition of not disagreeable weakness, with all the superiority in it of undeserved affliction.
“ Yes, I am a little better now. I believe that you mean well, Lizzy. I am sure you would never be unkind to me, my dear. Perhaps, as you say, it was all a muddle, just a muddle at the end. And Edmund Mitford spoke up very fair. Oh, I don’t say it’s your fault, or his fault. But I should n’t wonder if I’d be better with Lily, for a bit; leave me with Lily, for a bit. We ’ve both been badly used ; and she’s very feeling; and you can’t be expected to feel just the same, when it’s all to your advantage. Oh, I did n’t mean to say anything unkind. Leave me for a bit with Lily, till I come to myself.”
This was what she had said, sending Elizabeth away ; and then Mrs. Travers lay back in her chair, with that sense of being a martyr which is never without a faint touch of pleasure in it. She had been overwhelmed by sudden trouble, which nobody could say she had deserved ; she had deserved nothing but good, and evil was what had come upon her. But now the sensation of quiet after a storm, of rest after suffering, was softly diffused through the atmosphere : the storm had passed over the gentle victim, — that storm which she had done nothing to bring down ; her wrongs had subsided into that quiescent condition in which, while ceasing to hurt, they continued to give her a claim upon the respect and sympathy of all near. She said in a half-audible voice, “ Let them bring the tea here, Lily ; ” and after her docile companion had accomplished that commission, she called her close to her chair.
“ Sit down by me, my poor dear, and tell me everything,” she said.
When Saunders, the butler, brought in the tea (which after all he had not ventured to bring in for only one), it is to be hoped it was a lesson to him to see Miss Ford seated on a stool close to Mrs. Travers’s side, while the old lady held her hand, and patted it from time to time, saying, “ My poor dear, my poor dear ! ” Saunders said, in the servants’ hall, that they were crying together, and as thick as they could be ; and that he shook in his shoes for fear Mrs. Travers should say something about the tea for one ; but she might be keeping it up for him, for another time. They stopped talking while he was there, so he could n’t tell what the fuss was about; but they were as thick as thick, — that he could swear. He withdrew very quietly, treading as lightly as a man of fourteen stone could do, not to call Miss Ford’s attention to him, and never was more thankful than when he found himself safe outside the door.
Mrs. Travers heard all Lily’s story, every word, with the keenest interest. To have a romance in real life thus unfolded to her from the heroine’s own lips, more exciting than any novel, would have been an enchantment to her at any time ; and now afforded such a diversion from her own trouble as nothing else could have supplied, especially as her curiosity had been roused by partial revelations before. She would not miss a detail of the terrible night in the street, nor of how the poor girl felt when she found herself lying on a sofa in the railway waiting-room, with Miss Travers bending over her, and the kind woman who was the attendant there standing by her side with a cup of tea. Miss Travers had been her salvation, Lily said with tears; she had telegraphed at once to the mother, making it all appear quite natural, so that even her own people knew nothing, except that Miss Travers had taken her to town and was making a companion of her. They were not to say where she was, at first, on account of poor Mr. Roger, for whose sake the Fords had supposed their daughter had run away. All this had seemed most plausible to her father and mother : and thus Lily’s terrible adventure had turned out the most fortunate incident in her life. Mrs. Travers asked and was told much more than this, especially about the state of Lily’s heart, and how she now believed that she had never loved Stephen at all, but had only been flattered and excited by his attentions ; for the sight of him, Lily declared, had not called her heart back to him at all, but made her feel that she wished never to see him again, and that if there was not another man in the world ! This she protested with many tears.
“ And all the time Lizzy thought it was poor Roger, and begged me to say nothing, for he was dead ; and yet could n’t quite forgive poor Edmund, thinking he knew ; and was angry, something about money that Roger had left, thinking they wanted to make it up to you with money. It has been hard for you, my poor dear,” Mrs. Travers said ; “ but it is a good thing for Lizzy that all this has come out. It shows what a man he is, that in his revenge he should have taken it out on me. Lily, my child, give me a cup of tea. I want it very much, and so must you, my dear ; there is nothing that revives one so, when one is exhausted with crying and trouble, and when one’s nerves are shattered. Lily, there is one thing this discovery has done, — it has set me quite free. I always thought, whatever happened, I was bound to Lizzy, and to my own house, and all that. But now that I find out I have got no house, and Lizzy will be getting married, how should you like to go away traveling, to Switzerland, and all kinds of beautiful places, Lily Ford ? ”
“ Oh, Mrs. Travers ! ” cried Lily, drying her eyes.
“You need n’t say any more, my dear ; it has brought back the light into your face in a moment. We ‘ll go away and travel, you and I. I have thought of it a long time, but I have never said anything about it. In the first place, Lizzy never cared for going abroad ; and then, though I’m very fond of Lizzy, she is a kind of tall character, you know, that does not always do to go about with a small body like me. I have always been on the lookout for a nice quiet girl that I could be fond of, that would n’t be too serious or distracted, with other things to think of. Lily, since the first day you came here, I have always felt I could get on with you.” Mrs. Travers raised herself a little upon her cushions, as she sipped her tea, and a faint animation came into her face. “ I never could have done with a companion that had been got by an advertisement, or recommended by a clergyman, or anything of that sort. But getting fond of you before one ever thought of anything of the sort, — it is just a Providence, Lily! And your father and mother, — Lizzy has quite settled about them, so they can have no objections. We ’ll go abroad, you and I : we ’ll he quite comfortable, and take Martha, and perhaps a man too, if you think that would be a comfort, — for I have a little money of my own, enough for all we shall want. We ’ll make no plans, but just go wherever it will be nicest, wherever we like best : we ’ll be quite free and independent, for we ’ll be company for each other, which is what I have always wanted. Don’t you think it will be very nice, Lily ? It’s what I’ve always wanted, but never have seen my way to, till now.”
“ Oh, Mrs. Travers, it is like a dream ; like nothing but a dream ! ” Lily cried.
And these two innocent creatures dried their tears, and began to talk of traveling-dresses and the most beautiful places they had ever heard or read about. All the world was “ abroad.” to them ; it meant everything, from Boulogne to Bombay, the first seeming about as far off as the last ; and in the novelty and delight of this thought, their troubles floated away.
Elizabeth had left her aunt’s room with a beating heart. To reckon up all that had passed in this eventful afternoon was impossible : the one thing important was the question whether she should find Edmund waiting for her down-stairs. The current of these hasty events had swept the two together in a way she had never intended, nor thought of. She had put out her hand to him in her first astonishment in the shock of Lily’s revelation, and in the force and impetuosity of her feelings had called him by his name. Up to that moment, Elizabeth had sorrowfully believed that it was Roger who was the pitiful hero of Lily’s adventure. The girl had not said it, had not, as Miss Travers now perceived, given any indication that it was he ; but Elizabeth had convinced herself of it by reasonings which it is unnecessary to follow, by one piece of circumstantial evidence after another. In all that Roger had done, Edmund had involved himself. In her own hearing, he had spoken of money which Roger had destined for Lily, and which, Elizabeth took it for granted, was given as compensation for the wrong he had intended to do. Her heart had been hot and sore with the secret which nobody knew. She could not bear to stand by and witness the love and the grief and the honor with which Roger’s name was surrounded, — Roger, who she believed had stained that name with such schemes and artifices at the very end of his life ! It had been intolerable to her to hear the universal praises that followed him, to feel herself compelled to acquiesce in what was said. She had stood silent, in painful repression, unwilling to consent, still more unwilling to condemn him who had gone before a higher tribunal. She had determined at last, that very day, to tell Edmund her secret, — that it was she who had recovered Lily and brought her home, and that she knew everything. When the discovery came, and she was made aware that she had been wronging Roger all the time, Elizabeth’s generous heart had turned, with a bound of repentance and acknowledgment, to Roger’s faithful brother, whom she had been holding at arm’s length, knowing well — as how could she help knowing ? — what was on his lips. Her subdued scream of horror and compunction, her call to Edmund to forgive her, her hand put into his, had all been signs which she had no power to restrain. She had done this involuntarily, throwing herself at Edmund’s head, as the vulgar say. And afterwards it had all seemed to be taken for granted by him and every one, she could not tell how. He had spoken for her, and she had accepted his guidance with proud humility, standing up by him, putting her hand on his arm. It all appeared to have been settled for them without a word said between them, without anything which usually constitutes such a bond. He had not said that he loved her, nor that he wanted her ; there had been no asking, no consent. If there had been any advance made, it had come from her, with that unconscious cry of “ Edmund ! ” with the giving of her hand. When she left her aunt’s room, Elizabeth, for the first time able to think of herself, went down the stairs very slowly, in great agitation, not knowing what she was to find. Would he still be there ? Would he have seized the opportunity to escape from a position which was not, after all, of his seeking ? Or if he remained, would it be with an embarrassed acquiescence in what had happened, which had been none of his doing ? She could not tell. Her heart was heating very fast, though her foot was slow. She was not a humble girl, ready to acknowledge her lord, but a woman full of natural pride and independence, very sensitive, deeply wondering what on his side the man had thought and now had to say.
She was not left long in doubt. Edmund was waiting in the hall, at the foot of the stairs. The first thought of her alarmed soul was that he was on his way out, that he was about to leave the house ; and her heart stopped beating for a moment. But Edmund was not going away ; he put out his hands to take hers, drawing one through his arm.
“ Come out,” he said ; “ now that you have come, I don’t feel that the house can contain me. I have a thousand and a thousand more things to say.”
“ Oh ! ” she cried, “ what must you think of me ? What can I say to you ? Everything seems to have been taken out of our hands.”
“ Think of you ? It will take a long time to tell you all that. Say to me ? Everything, whatever comes into your mind ; for now you are I, and I am you. Come out into the free air ; there is too much of me to be contained in any house. Dear Elizabeth, ever dear, there is no ghost to stand between us now ? ”
“ Did you feel it,” she said, “ that spectre ? Oh, how could I ever have entertained such an unworthy thought ! ”
“ I knew it was not Roger,” he said. “ Some time you shall hear what he said of you and me, that last night. But in the mean time we have everything to say between ourselves and about ourselves. I cannot withhold a word ; events seem to have settled it for us. Elizabeth, I am going to begin at the beginning.”
They took refuge from the wide landscape in a summer-house which, but that nature had laden it with a wild and tangled growth of honeysuckle and jessamine, would have been an entirely cockney erection, in the taste of the late Mr. Travers, and there reviewed the complete rise and progress of a love which was now by mere force of development clear to both from the beginning, conscious as it had scarcely been, until a recent period, but of this both were now completely unaware. The sunny afternoon sped over them, the shadows lengthened, a cool breeze tempered the heat, blowing straight over the tree-tops from the sea. Everything was sweet to them, — the light and the shadows, the heat and the coolness, the sun and the breeze. The honeysuckle breathed out its sweetness into the air ; and so did the birds, singing all manner of love songs and bridal ditties, selecting the best out of their stores, such as they had used on their own account in spring. These two, sitting wrapt in airs of heaven, neither heard the birds nor smelt the flowers ; they had all music and fragrance and sweetness in themselves. They were as little concerned in, as little conscious, as little prescient of the scene going on at Melcombe as if they had lived in another world.
Thus the conflict and the misery which for an hour or so had seemed to concentrate in this innocent house, and which had overshadowed it with gloom, and given a tragic color to every ray of light, passed away, being in no manner native to the place. Within doors, the two injured persons who had been the chief sufferers forgot everything, and planned their little consolatory travels with the freshness of delighted children ; while here every cloud flitted away from the two most blest, united after long, tantalizing drifts asunder, in the enjoyment of that most perfect hour of human fellowship, the lovers’ first mutual understanding. It does not always happen ; but here for once life and the hour brought no injustice. The clouds passed away from the innocent household, and did no harm.
The other house on the plain below was not so easily delivered. It was not innocent, but guilty ; and on it the clouds descended, full of lightning and thunder and storm.
M. O. W. Oliphant.
T. B. Aldrich.