"IS THERE ANYTHING AMISS, FATHER" HE ASKED.—P. 268
"Sir," said Dr. Johnson, "I like a good hater." Philip Rayner used to boast that that in this respect he was a man to the great lexicographer's heart "I never forgive an enemy," he said, "and I never forget a kindness." True, there are certain gracious sentences recorded in the teaching of our Saviour and treasured in the writings of St. Paul which do not quite harmonize with Samuel Johnson's dictum—sentences which inculcate an inexhaustible capacity for the pardon of wrongs, precepts which show us how poor a thing it is only to love those who love us. Philip Rayner would have been very angry in those early days if any one had disputed his claim to the title of Christian. He went to church once every Sunday—twice sometimes, when the day of rest seemed especially long, and he had nothing better to do with his afternoon leisure; and if he did not listen very attentively to the voice of the.preacher or join with any great fervor in the ritual, he at least offered a good example to the multitude by his well-brushed clothes, spotless linen and decorous behavior. He paid his debts to the uttermost farthing, and was not altogether wanting in benevolence, contributing to certain old-established respectable charities in a fair proportion to his income.
The world in which he lived spoke well of Philip Rayner. He was a clever prosperous young man, with a character unsullied by vice, an agreeable personal appearance and a manner that was very quiet but not wanting in pleasantness. A thoughtful young man, too, who was apt to contemplate all things in their gravest aspect. For the rest he was very happily placed in the world, being the only son of a wealthy leather-merchant who had carried on a prosperous trade for the last forty years in some gloomy old premises in the river-district beyond the Tower.
His father had educated this only son upon a rough and ready principle of his own. No Eton or Harrow, no expensive university education, no riotous career amongst the patrician youth of Oxford or Cambridge, to spoil the lad for commercial pursuits and a quiet, humdrum middle-class life. Old Samuel Rayner sent his boy to a respectable mercantile academy, the principal whereof was instructed to give his pupil a sound mercantile education. No perpetual grinding at the adventure of pious Æneas, no useless grubbing amongst Greek roots, but plenty of book-keeping by double entry, a profound study of tare and tret and a familiar acquaintance with fractions. This was the kind of teaching Mr. Rayner demanded for his lion, and the boy had it. Him education seemed to him rather a dull business altogether, but he went through it patiently enough, and finally emerged from the mercantile academy a first-rate arithmetician, a very fair French and German scholar and a marvel of excellence in the way of penmanship.
Philip Rayner's home life for the first five years after he left school was not particularly cheerful. The old man elected to live, where his forefathers had lived before him, in a big gloomy mansion adjoining the business premises of Rayner, Rayner & Sons. The brass plate on the counting-house door which bore this inscription had become old and worn when Samuel Rayner wan a little boy, and the Rayner, Rayner referred to thereby were two dry-as-dust brothers, who had worn snuff-colored small clothes and snuff-colored coats with bright brass buttons, and brown George wigs on their elderly heads, in the days of the great rebellion. They had traded in hides when Lovat lay in the Tower close at hand, these departed gentlemen, and now slept side by side in a queer little old churchyard beneath the shadow of the great fortress, a burial-place that had long been shut up. Philip Rayner used to stand at the rusty iron gate and stare listlessly in at the nettle-grown graves sometimes of a summer evening when he took his solitary walk abroad, and was sorely perplexed how to dispose of his leisure in that remote city region.
It was a dismal home for youth, certainly, that great gaunt red-brick mansion, with its wide, ghastly oaken staircase, where in the twilight it would seem more natural to meet some phantasmal lady in a brocaded sacque, or some withered gentleman in powder and velvet, with silk stockings rolled over his knees, than to encounter any modem flesh-and-blood creature. Such deep-toned oaken wainscots; such marvels of wood-carving over obscure doors and in forgotten passages; such vast and darksome closets in every direction; such a delicious house altogether for a connoisseur in old houses, but oh, such a grewsome place to live in!
Happily, Philip Rayner was not troubled with an imaginative temperament; he accepted his life very quietly, only thinking that it was rather a dull world, upon the whole, and that perhaps his happiest days had been those of his academical existence, with their riotous gambollings in the great playground at Peckham and their stolen festings in the dormitories. He thought it rather a hard thing that his father had not a fine country-house, with gardens and hothouses stabling and billiard-room, like other men in his position; but whenever he ventured to argue the point with the old gentleman, he ended by agreeing with his parent that it was a foolish thing for a man to waste all his substance on splendor and show, and to be obliged to face the bankruptcy court in his old age.
"When I die, you will he one of the richest men in the leather trade, Phil," the old man usually wound up by saying; "and you wouldn't have been that if I'd sent you to the university, and squandered my income on country-housed and carriages and horses."
So Philip, not having any extravagant propensities, came to consider things from his father's point of view, and to think that it was, after all, a good thing they had no splendid suburban mansion at Clapham, Sydenham or Richmond, to absorb the profits of their trade. He came very soon—too soon considering how young a man he was in those days—to have the same keen interest in savings and investments, for their own sake, that his father had; to thrust his hands deep down in his pockets with a sense of satisfaction when he remembered how little he and his father spent in their quiet city life, and how much there was out at interest and growing more day by day. He read the money-article in the Times every morning directly after his father, and they discussed the state of things on 'Change with never-failing interest.
He grew in time, too, to have a warm liking for that gloomy old house—grew to have prim bachelor ways in advance of his years and to think it mattered very little where a man lived, so long as he was comfortably lodged and well catered for. It was not a mean or sordid household by any means. There was a grey-headed old butler, who had been custodian of the cellars and the massive old plate for the last thirty years, and who would have laid his head on the block in the adjacent Tower rather than compromise the family dignity by any neglect of his duties; there was a housekeeper of fabulous antiquity, who remembered the last hours of the last snuff-colored gentleman; and there were a couple of prim, sour-visaged maid-servants of a discreet age, selected by the housekeeper, who, change as they might as to their individuality, never underwent any variation as to those two qualities of primness and sourness,
There was no other woman in the little household. Philip's mother had died years before, when he was quite a small boy in brown-holland pinafores, and with what seemed to his young mind a perpetual whooping-cough. She was dead. There was a portrait of her in an obscure room opening out of Philip's bedchamber—a picture which had been banished there in the early days after her death, when the bereaved husband could not endure to be reminded of his affliction, and which had never been restored to its place of honor. Philip used to look at this portrait sometimes, wondering what difference it would have made in his life had his mother lived, He felt that there would have been a great difference somehow, but could not divine the nature of it. The face in the picture was a pretty face enough, fair and girlish and gentle, but to the son it seemed of an angelic beauty. Perhaps this feeling for the mother whose living presence he could scarcely remember was the one touch of romance in Philip Rayner's character.
He was thirty years of age, and had been his father's coadjutor and representative in the business for the last ten years of his life. The father was growing quite an old man now, was subject to severe attacks of gout, which kept him a prisoner to his arm-chair much to his aggravation, and Philip was almost sole manager of the business. He consulted his father day by day, it in true, but the consultation was a kind of formula for Samuel Rayner's brain was beginning to lose its business faculty.
In all these years since he had left school upon his seventeenth birthday to enter into the proud possession of a stool in his father's counting-house Philip Rayner had made only one friend. This was a young man who came into the office a little later as corresponding clerk, more especially for the foreign correspondence, which was heavy in the house of Rayner, Rayner & Sons. The lad was two years younger than Philip, and was little more than a lad fresh from a German university, when he began his commercial career. His name was George Tolson, and he was the son of a major in a crack regiment, who had made ducks and drakes of a very handsome fortune, and had cut hid throat one morning in a fit of delirium tremens, leaving a widow and two helpless orphans to face a life which he had done his best to render hard for them.
Some benevolent friends had come forward to help the forlorn woman and the boy had been sent to Germany, the girl to a semi-charitable school for the rearing of officer's daughters; so they had struggled on somehow until the boy was able to win a livelihood by his industry and the girl old enough to go out as governesses. The mother had a lodging somewhere in an obscure street on the Surrey side of the Thames and here George used to return every evening when his office-duties were over.
The friendship between these two young men did not arise all in a moment. Philip Rayner was by no means impulsive, and George Tolson, though free and frank as the winds of heaven, was too proud to make the faintest advance toward the son of his employer. For some time these two behaved toward each other with a supreme reserve, bot they were the only young men in the office and little by little the ice melted, until acquaintance ripened into friendship. They had few tastes in common. George Tolson was much more versatile, of a brighter and more joyous nature, than his master's son, but they were both young, and that made a bond between them. Nor was this the only link. There were circumstances in George Tolson's life which awakened a keen interest in the mind of Philip. He had discovered that George was the chief support and devoted companion of his mother, and he envied him so tender a tie so precious a duty. He used to walk home with George on summer evening, now and then, and growing bolder and more familiar by slow degrees, would consent by and by to drop in upon the widow and take a late cup of tea after his walk, or play a game of chess with George while the mother looked on. If he had possessed the power to help his friend in any substantial manner, he would have done it; but he was still in a state of tutelage, and Samuel Rayner thought he did quite enough in giving the young man a liberal salary. All that Philip could do was to testify his regard for the widow by such small gifts as he could afford for the embellishment of her scantily-furnished lodging—a plated tea-service, a new chessboard and men, a pair of china vases for the mantel-piece, and so on. They were trifling gifts, but very precious to Mrs. Tolson, who had not been favored by such tributes of late years.
And so the years went on, with a quiet monotony which was pleasant enough to Philip, who had no yearning for change. He and George used to walk together a great deal in those long summer evenings, late into the autumn even, when lamps were flaming in the city streets, or in the cold spring nights, when a great wind blustered in every open space and at every street corner. There was not a nook in the old city they left unexplored in these evening rambles, only now and then pushing their way beyond that labyrinth of brick and mortar to some heathy hillside out north or rural-looking common in the south. They were very happy together, George full of wild, reckless talk about lives that were different from theirs—lives of adventure in distant lands, lived in camp and on board ship, tossed about by the winds and waves, and in frequent content with savage foes; the kind of life he longed to lead, in short, instead of that dry-as-dust life of the counting-house which might go on for ever, and leave him no better man than he was now.
"You get an increase of salary every year, you know, George," suggested the practical Philip, "It's not such a bad thing, after all. And if you stick to business, by and by, when we are both middle-aged men, I may be able to give you a junior partnership."
"Yes, I know you're very good, old fellow, and the governor is very good, and I'm altogether better off than I deserve. But you see I don't think I was intended for that sort of life. There's too much of my father's blood in me. The Tolsons have been soldiers time out of mind. If it hadn't been for my mother, I should have enlisted ever so long ago."
He looked very handsome as he said this, with his hat off and his waving auburn hair blown off his forehead by the light summer wind. The two young men were sitting on an old bulkhead in a deserted wharf above the swift-flowing river, a pleasant solitary spot enough in the heart of the great city, and a favorite resting-place with them after a long ramble.
Yes, he was very handsome, in a noble picturesque style. One could fancy that the blood of fighting Cavaliers, rebellious Jacobite gentlemen of the old time, ran in his veins. There was an ardor andof life about him not common to modern commercial youth. The bright blue eyes used to light up with a sudden fire when he was vehement, the flexible lips had a hundred mutations of expression. He was a striking contrast to his friend in this, whose dark, good-looking face underwent few changes. A solid, square forehead, deep-set, grave, gray eyes, a firm mouth and a clear, dark akin were the distinguishing marks of Philip Rayner's physiognomy.
A change came in Philip's life soon after this—a change which seemed to make a new man of him from which he afterward dated the beginning of another existence. It was as if a door had opened and shut upon all the life that had gone before, and he had passed out of that close narrow atmosphere into a new world—a world of light, and air, and sunshine, that was brighter and fairer than anything he had ever known or dreamt of before. In plain words, Philip Rayner fell in love.
It happened one morning that the old dealer in hides took less interest than usual in the money-article, laid aside his particular portion of the Times with a long-drawn sigh, and sat gazing meditatively at the fire in so fixed an attitude, and with such a rapt countenance, that Philip laid down his paper too and looked at his progenitor wonderingly.
"Is there anything amiss, father?" he asked.
"No, no, Phil, no; nothing amiss, nothing amiss. The fact is, I've had a letter."
"Some very particular letter, I suppose?" the younger man hazarded, anxiously.
"Yes, a particular letter, Phil, in a hand I never thought to see again in this world—a letter from the dead."
"What do you mean, father?"
"When I married your mother, Philip, it wasn't exactly to be called a love-match, though I was fond of her then, and grew to be fonder of her afterward, poor soul! But I had been in love before, and she knew it. I was in love with a first cousin of mine, an orphan girl that my father and mother had brought up on charity. You'd laugh at me, I dare say, if I were to tell you how I loved that girl, for such things sound foolish when a man is old and feeble, with one foot in the grave. But I loved Catherine Marsh with all my heart and soul. The old people were dead against our marrying at firsts seeing that Catherine was no better than a pauper, as they said, but they were fond of her in spite of their talk; and finding that my heart was set upon the business, my father gave way, and of course my mother didn't hold out after him. It was all settled. I fancied myself the happiest man in Christendom. Well, Phil, it's an old story, and common enough. She jilted me. She never had loved me, I suppose. However that was, she ran away with an Italian fellow called Paroldi—Joseph Paroldi—who taught my sister Rosa singing; an idle scapegrace, with nothing in his favor but a handsome face and a specious, taking manner. She ran away with him one morning, leaving a penitent little note for me, to say that she had turned Catholic some time before, and that they had been married at the Roman Catholic church in Moorfields."
"What a heartless!" cried the son. "You never could forgive such treachery as that, father?"
"Well, Phil, it was a hard thing for a man to forgive, wasn't it? I was furious against her at first, and felt as if I could have killed her if she had come across my path in those days. But little by little I got to think of her differently, remembering what a young thing she was—only just turned eighteen—when she married that scoundrel, and recalling looks and words of hers that had hinted at some secret trouble weighing upon her mind, until I began to believe that she had struggled hard to be true to me and had often wanted to tell me all. So, you see, it ended by my forgiving her."
Philip Rayner shrugged his shoulders with an involuntary expression of contempt for his father's weakness.
"I could never have brought myself to do that," he said.
"Ah, you think not, Phil," answered the old man—"you think not; but when a man has once loved a woman, her face is always rising up before him, pleading to him to think tenderly of her, let her have treated him as badly as she may. It always ends with his forgiving her. The memory of the days when he thought she loved him is too much for his manhood. It always ends so."
"It would never end so with me," muttered the young man, clenching his fist vindictively. "Nothing upon this earth could induce me to forgive a woman who had jilted me. But how about the letter, father, and what has that to do with this old story?"
"It is from her, Philip, from Catherine Marsh—Catherine Paroldi—the last letter she ever wrote. She is dead. Another hand tells me that at the end of the letter—her daughter's. She is dead, and has left one child, a girl, the last of a large family, all dead but this one. Paroldi took her out to the West Indies, it seems, where they did well enough for many years, but had much sorrow, the climate killing their children one after another; the last of the flock lived—that was all. Then came reverses; the man's health failed him, and ten years ago he died. After that the poor soul kept herself and her child by teaching. She was always a sweet musician, with a voice as dear and fresh as the skylark's, and I think it was that fellow's music tempted her away from me. And so she got on somehow, she says in her letter, till she felt death close at hand; and then, not having one wealthy friend in the world whose bounty she could entreat for her child except myself, and knowing that I was a good man, she says, poor soul! she turns to me, beseeching me for Christian charity if not for the memory of those days when I loved her—when did I not love you, my sweet, cruel Catherine?—to befriend her orphan daughter. She does not ask me to do much for the girl—not to adopt her or maintain her in a life of idleness—only to put her into some way of making an honest living and to keep her from falling into dangerous hands. The letter came by hand this morning. The girl is in London. What am I to do, Phil? You are the master now, as I take it. Whatever I save is saved for you; whatever I spend is so much out of your pocket. What shall we do with Catherine Paroldi? She has been christened after her mother—Catherine."
"It is hard for a woman to get her living nowadays," Philip answered, thoughtfully—"a young woman too, and a foreigner, as you may say. A girl's keep costs next to nothing. She might live here, surely, father. Mrs. Dorkin would take good care of her."
"Yes, that would be well enough for the girl for the time. But by and by; she must get her living by and by, Phil."
"She would be better used to English ways after a year or two, and you would leave her a trifle, I dare say, father."
"I don't know about that; it's generous of you to think of it, Phil."
Philip Rayner was not ungenerous. He liked the idea that the profits of the business were yearly increasing, and that there was money being sunk from time to time of which he must needs be master by and by. But he was not a miser, and he did not care about spending money. His narrow life had crippled his imagination in that respect. He had no yearning for the frolics or pleasures upon which the spendthrift wastes the hard-earned thousands of his forefathers.
"ROAMED AWAY INTO THE DREARIEST OUTSKIRTS OF THE CITY."—P. 289
Catherine Paroldi came to the old house near the Tower, A tall, slim, slip of a girl, with a very dark complexion, browned by West Indian suns, not lovely to look upon, by any means, Philip thought at first, but with eyes of wondrous power and beauty, as he came to understand before long and with a tender half-pleading half-bewitching manner not long to be resisted by the heart of man.
She was not very gay at first, this friendless, orphaned girl of seventeen years old, for the shadow of a great sorrow was still upon her, yet she brightened the old home by her presence in a greater degree than Philip Rayner could have imagined possible. It was a new thing to come home and see her sitting in the grim wainscoted parlor; it made his coming home something different from what it had been. He used to be startled by finding himself thinking of this dark-eyed Catherine sometimes in business hours, when he had a file of accounts or a ponderous ledger before him. The days seemed longer to him than of old, and he wondered at his eagerness to go home to the quiet dinner and long quiet evening, when Catherine sat at a little table near the old man, busy with some complicated piece of embroidery, for which, with all other delicate kinds of fancy-work, she had an especial genius.
There would be no difficulty about her getting her own living by and by, Samuel Rayner said, seeing how industrious the girl wan. Philip thought that she might never have any occasion to earn a living for herself. It would have seemed a hard thing for one so tender and gentle to he turned adrift upon a cold, cruel world. And what could they do without her in that dreary old house having once known the magical, brightening influence of her presence? She had a hundred little arts by which a woman can embellish the dullest home, and little by little as she found herself privileged to do these things, exercised her pretty trivial arts. Quaint old china jars and bottles, and cups and teapots that had been hidden away in remote cupboards, blackened with the dust of age came out of their hiding-places and were placed about, here and there making patches of light and color in the darksome rooms. The ponderous old furniture was polished into a kind of beauty, and by a new disposition of old materials she brought light and air into gloomy corners. Flowers bloomed here and there in the windows, and a pair of pet birds of gay plumage, which she had brought with her from Trinidad, enlivened the family parlor. There was a new atmosphere in the house, somehow and Philip felt the change keenly.
Perhaps at this time Mr. Rayner the younger did not care quite to much for the society of his chosen friend, George Tolson. It was midwinter, and there wan considerable excuse for the suspension of their evening rambles; but Philip felt that he was not treating his friend quite fairly, and in order to make some amends invited him home to dinner once or twice a week. The old man had no objection to his company; the son was quite master now.
It may be that Philip wanted to hear Catherine Paroldi's praises from the lips of the friend whose judgment he believed in. He was certainly gratified when George spoke of the beauty of her dark eyes and the charm of her singing. She had found the key of the old-fashioned square piano in a corner of the parlor—the piano at which her father had taught Miss Rayner singing; and she sang and played to her benefactor and his son sometimes of an evening. Her voice was a clear, thrilling soprano, her touch upon the keys full of tenderness and feeling. She sang all the old English ballads which Samuel Rayner loved, besides Italian music of the best kind, which her father had taught her while she was quite a child.
Philip was no musician. He had only a vague consciousness of melody in Catherine's singing. It was a pleasant, soothing influence for him—a little melancholy perhaps, awakening a dim sense of sadness in his breast—that was all, He would scarcely have distinguished one of her songs from another without the words. He felt this deficiency of his rather keenly when George Tolson was with them, for George had a fine baritone voice and considerable taste for music, and would sing a duet with Catherine very often. It seemed to bring those two closer together, and for the first time Philip felt a pang of jealousy. He was angry with himself for the feeling, and made a great effort to overcome it, asking his friend to the old house all the oftener because of this secret weakness.
"What fear need I have of him if she loves me?" he argued with himself; "and if not, what can it matter whom she sees? But I think she loves me; yes, I believe she loves me."
He thought she loved him. He had some justification for so thinking, undoubtedly. The girl was of a confiding, affectionate disposition, and was deeply grateful to these friends who had given her a home. Perhaps in her eagerness to prove her gratitude in all the trivial ways that lay in her power, she may have have been dangerously kind to her cousin, watching for every little opportunity of giving him pleasure, deferring to his wishes with a sweet, childlike submission, going out to meet him with bright welcoming looks when he came home, making his life Altogether bewilderingly happy, to the peril of his peace.
She was quite different to George Tolson. Philip saw the difference, and the fact of it much to his happiness. To George her manner was reserved—singularly cold and distant, Philip thought; she took no pains to please him, and never betrayed any pleasure in his presence. No, there was no fear of George.
So the days and weeks drifted on with a gentle monotony that would have been irksome to restless spirits, but Philip's life was a new life, and he wondered how he could ever have existed in a world unbrightened by Catherine Paroldi. Little by little she who had been unlovely at first grew to be most beautiful in his sight. The tawny hue of her skin faded in the cool English atmosphere, leaving her pale and fair, like a white lily. Her smile grew radiant as her spirits improved, and lighted up the pale face with a kind of glory, like light in an old altar-piece when it all comes from one divine face—a mere trick of art, perhaps, but with a lovely meaning in it.
Philip was in no hurry to urge his suit. His was a reserved nature, with much latent pride beneath a quiet manner. He watched her closely, and fancied himself secure of her love. He had only to speak when the fitting time came; she must know how much he loved her. In the mean while all his dreams were of a future in which she was to be his wife. He could not think of himself for a moment apart from her. The possibility that this desire of his heart might be denied him never came into his mind.
And so the time went on in the old house near the Tower with a profound peacefulness, George Tolson coming very often in the lengthening spring evenings, almost their only visitor. The three young people used to walk together of an evening in the empty city streets sometimes, as the weather grew milder, Catherine arm in arm with her cousin, George Tolson walking by her side, expounding curious scraps of arcæological churches and quaint old buildings of divers kinds in the narrow streets and lanes.
So the time went on until there came a sudden break in this monotonous life for Philip Rayner, His father insisted upon his going on a round among their customers in the north of England. There were details in the management of the trade that wanted revision and rearrangement. There had been numerous complaints of late from provincial customers; prices must be lowered to meet the march of the times. It was altogether a delicate business, requiring the exercise of commercial diplomacy, and necessitating, Samuel Rayner said, the presence of a principal.
He was surprised to find his son disinclined for the performance of this duty, anxious to delegate it to a clerk—in fact, anything rather than to go himself. But upon this point the old man was absolute. Roused by a threatened danger to his house, he showed himself as keen a man of business as in his best days, Rayner, Rayner & Sons must show themselves prompt to satisfy the demands of the times. His son Philip must go, and no other. So Philip went. It was only a business of a month or six weeks, yet he felt as if the very mainspring of his life was broken when he turned his back upon the familiar old home.
He never forgot that parting. He was to go by the night mail, and it was a calm, airless evening early in May when he left his familiar house. Catherine came to the hall door to bid him good-bye. For the first time in his life he kissed her. Just at the last, when his portmanteau had been put on the roof of the cab and the old butler was standing on the doorstep talking to the driver, Philip took his cousin in his arms and kissed her on the lips. It was one long, passionate kiss and he fancied that it was at once the declaration and the seal of his love. She could not misunderstand him after that; she was her own from that moment.
Catherine Paroldi gave a little cry of astonishment or reproof, and ran back to the parlor. There was not a moment to lose. Philip sprang into the cab and drove off. He saw her for an instant at the open window watching him, with the evening sun upon her face. That picture—the pale young face, the shadowy eyes and loose brown hair—framed in the window haunted him all through the long night journey. The memory of that one unpremeditated kiss haunted him too, the seal which he had set upon his love.
The six weeks were dragged out into two months. People in the north were slow, and Philip Rayner had a great many places to visit. Having once undertaken the business, he was determined to do it thoroughly, and he found matters regulated themselves easily and pleasantly enough by the exercise of a personal influence and a little judicious liberality. Altogether, his mission was a successful one.
It was the end of June when he turned his face homeward, brilliant weather, and the country through which he went looking its fairest. But Philip Rayner did not think much of the verdant summer world through which he was travelling. His thoughts sped on before him to the end of his journey. How would she receive him, Catherine, his idol? With blushes and by downcast looks? No, he scarcely thought that. There had been no blush upon the face that looked out at him from the open window. How would she receive him, his darling, his own?—doubly his own from the moment in which he had impressed that passionate kiss upon her unresisting lips.
His only letters from home had been from her—dear little letters telling him all the trivial news of the old house, his father's talk of him the blank caused by his absence—sweet, womanly letters which a sister might have written to a brother. He never thought of that. To him they were the letters of his plighted wife.
For the last few day a he had heard nothing. His movements just at the end had been uncertain. But he had no fear of evil or that he should find any change in his dull, peaceful home.
It was beginning to grow dusk when the cab drew up at the familiar door, with its carved wooden canopy of the William and Mary period, supported by two chubby-faced cherubs. Looking eagerly up at the old house, a great shock fell upon him. The blinds were all drawn closely down in the still summer evening. His first thought was of his father. His first thought was of the truth. The old man was dead.
The ancient butter opened the door and received his new master with a solemn face—a face in which there was real grief, for the man had loved his employer of so many years.
"There never was a better master or a better man," he said, with something like a sob. "Yes, Mr. Philip, we've lost him. He fell down in a fit just after breakfast, though he'd read his newspaper and everything just the same as usual, and he never spoke again, poor dear gentleman! There was at many as four doctors with him at one time, for Miss Paroldi wouldn't believe as there was no hope, but they could do nothing for him. There was a telegram sent to you at Sheffield the night before last. You got it, didn't you, sir?"
"No; I left Sheffield last week. I came here straight from Hull. Let me go to his room at once, Jackson; I would like to see him at once."
"He looks as calm as a sleeping baby, God bless him. I'm very glad you've come home, sir. There's many things about the funeral we couldn't settle without you. I told the undertaker I knew you'd have everything of the handsomest, but of course I could say no more than that."
Philip went up stairs to the solemn death-chamber, a long oak-panelled room with four tall, narrow windows which had been gloomy enough even when inhabited by the living. He had scarcely known until this moment how much he loved his father or how bitter a blow their parting was to be. For the time even the image of Catherine Paroldi was blotted out from his mind. He stopped in that darkened room for a long while—nearly an hour; and then went slowly down stairs in the deepening summer dusk. Day was not quite ended even yet, though the early stars were shining faintly through the long staircase window as he went down.
There was a lamp burning dimly in the hall. Catherine came out of the parlor very pale and dressed in black. It was one of the black dresses she had worn in memory of her mother. She gave him her hand, looking at him with a grave, pitying face.
"I'm so sorry for you, Cousin Philip," she said—"so sorry for my own sake, too. I loved him very dearly. Indeed, I had good reason to love him," she added, breaking down with a little choking sound.
They went into the parlor, and sat there in mournful silence till very late, only saying a few words now and then. On the next day Catherine told Philip all about his father's last moments—about that last breakfast, too, when he had been quite himself, and had talked as cheerfully as ever he had done within her knowledge of him, speaking of his son's approaching return, and looking forward with evident pleasure to that event.
Two days afterward came the funeral, a stately ceremonial; for Philip Rayner chose this conventional mode of testifying to his respect for the dead man as the only manner in which he could exhibit such a feeling to the eyes of the commonplace world in which his father had lived. The city churchyard wherein the brothers Rayner lay buried had long ago been closed, so the old man's bones were carried to Norwood cemetery, by and by to rest under a handsome and appropriate monument.
It was with profound sadness in his heart that Philip rode homeward through the summer sunlight, and amidst the busy life of suburb and city, when all was over and the dreary day's work done. No, all was not quite over. There was the will to be read—a ceremony which did not involve much anxiety or heartburning; for Samuel Rayner had not many relatives, and those he left behind him were, with the exception of Catherine Paroldi, wealthy traders settled in remote colonies. There wax no one but Philip and the two old servants, Mrs. Dorkin the housekeeper and Jackson the butler to hear the reading of the will, which was read with all due solemnity by the family solicitor in the grim, darksome dining-room, a spacious chamber only used on state occasions.
The will was an old one, dated six years ago and worded in a very simple manner. The old man left an annuity to each of his faithful servants, a mourning ring or so to the distant traders, a small legacy to the doctor who had attended him for some thirty years of his life, and all the rest to his only son. There was nothing for Catherine Paroldi. The will had been executed before Samuel Rayner knew of the girl's existence and there was no codicil.
It mattered very little, Philip thought. All that he had would be Catherine's. It was time for him now to speak plainly; the dear girl must not have an hour's doubt as to the security of her position. He would speak to her that very evening. There was no indecency, no lack of reverence for the dead, in such promptitude. Philip fancied that his marriage with Catherine would have been the desire of his father's heart. The old man must have surely foreseen their union, or he would never have left Catherine Marsh's daughter penniless.
The cousins sat alone together that evening, after a dinner of which neither had eaten anything. It was a warm, sunny midsummer evening, and the faint hum of the declining city life came to them through the open windows with a distant drowsy sound. The old house had that aspect of profound dulness peculiar to a habitation in the heart of a city on a summer evening, when mankind has a natural yearning for the sweet freedom of the hillside and for the green leaves in the woodland. Philip had no such yearning to-night, however. To him the shadowy oak-panelled room was paradise. He forgot that he had seen his kind old father laid in the grave that day. He could think of nothing but Catherine's pensive face as she sat by the open window, with the low western sunlight shining upon her as it had shone on the evening when he kissed her. The words which he had to speak did not come to him very easily; he loved her too much to be over bold. But in that last happy hour of his youth there was no shadow of doubt in his mind. He had never contemplated the possibility of a refusal on Catherine's part. He had never told himself that he might have a rival; he had never doubted that she loved him. In perfect faith he had accepted her grateful affection, her frank, sisterly regard, as an earnest of the love that was to be given to him when he pleaded for it. He was rather ashamed of himself for having been so backward in pleading, that was all.
"Catherine," he said, at last, drawing his chair nearer her, "I have something to say to you."
She had been working busily until this moment, but she laid aside her work as he spoke and turned her calm pensive face toward him.
"And I want to speak to you, cousin" she answered, blushing a bright, rosy red all of a sudden. "There is something I have been wanting to say for the last three days, but I hadn't the courage. And yet I know how good you are, and that nothing in the world could make you unkind to me."
"Surely not, my dear. Unkind to you, Catherine! How could I ever be that?"
"Of course not; and that's why it has been so foolish in me to feel afraid of speaking frankly. I think you must know how happy and peaceful my life has been in this dear old house, Cousin Philip, and how grateful I must ever be to you and your dear father for all your goodness to me, but—but we are both young, and it would not do for us to go on living here together. People would think it strange. Mrs. Dorkin told me as much a day or so ago, and the evening after Cousin Samuel's death I had the offer of a new home. Don't think me ungrateful, pray, Cousin Philip, or that I want to run away from you. Indeed, I cannot fancy a sister loving her brother better than I love you, but I must go away, every one says that."
She looked at him just a little anxiously, the blush fading slowly away from the sweet face.
"A new home! Why should you go away, Catherine? What need you care if some malicious fool should slander us? It is hardly possible for malice to go as far as that; and it can matter so little to us, for—" And then, without finishing the sentence, he exclaimed, "The offer of a new home, Catherine! What home?"
"Mrs Tolson's—George's mother—had asked me to stay with her till—till I am married."
She was blushing again by this time and the heavy lids had dropped over the glorious dark eyes.
"Till you are married?"
"Yes, Cousin Philip. I ought to have told you sooner, perhaps, but it happened while you were away, and it seemed such a stupid thing to write about somehow. George Tolson has asked me to be his wife, and—and I love him very dearly-and we are to be married in a month or two. We shall not be rich, of course for George has his mother to keep—that is his first duty—but we can live happily on a very little, we love each other so truly."
The ghastly change in her cousin's face stopped her suddenly in the middle of her innocent confession.
"Cousin, dear Cousin Philip" aha exclaimed, "you are not angry?"
"Angry?" cried the young man; "you have broken my heart. What! didn't you know that I loved you? didn't you know that every hope I had was built upon the security of your love? When I kissed you that night I went away, if you had doubted before, could you doubt then what I felt for you?"
"Indeed, Philip, I thought it was only a cousin's kiss. We have been like brother and sister; I never dreamt you cared for me more than you might have cared for a sister."
"Of course not!" Philip Rayner cried, with a bitter laugh. "What is easier than to say that? And he, the scoundrel, the traitor, the false friend I brought to this house, the sneaking villain who came into our firm a beggar—he to go behind my back and steal you!"
"Stop, Philip! I cannot hear you say those things of him. What right had he to suppose that you cared for me? It is too cruel, too unjust; dear cousin, be reasonable, be like yourself. Whatever sin I have committed against you has been done in ignorance. I shall never cease to be grateful to you—never cease to feel affectionately toward you. Be generous, Cousin Philip; tell me that you forgive me."
"Forgive you!" cried the man, in a blind fury. "To the last hour of my life, if I live to be a hundred years old, I will never speak to you again! I pray God I may never see your face any more!"
And with those words upon his lips he went out of the room—went away from her with a sullen determination to hate those two who had wronged him until the end of his days.
He left the house at once and roamed away into the dreariest outskirts of the city, a desert tract where there were buildings newly begun, abandoned skeletons of houses and a wide margin of brick-fields. All the night through he rambled about this dismal region with a fever in his brain, and no consciousness of fatigue, no consciousness even of the scene around him. If any one had told him he had been walking on the shore by some roaring sea, he could only by circumstantial evidence have perceived the falsehood involved in the assertion.
It was in the broad summer sunshine that he went home, his clothes whitened with dust and stained with the night dews, his face wan and haggard. Laborers going to their work in the early morning stopped to stare at him as he passed them. One of the sour-faced maid-servants was cleaning the doorstep when he went in and gazed at him aghast, but he scarcely saw her. He washed himself and changed his clothes with a half-mechanical sense of the proprieties, and then went down to that everyday parlor which had a little while ago seemed to him such a pleasant, home-like room. There was a solitary-looking breakfast-table laid for one, and instead of Catherine Paroldi's presence there was a little note addressed to Philip Rayner—a tender, pleading little letter assuring him once again of her gratitude for his goodness to a friendless orphan, beseeching him once more to be generous and forgiving, and telling him that, let him act toward her he would, she would never cease to be his grateful and affectionate Catherine.
He read the letter three times with a fierce hungry look in his face, a rage of mingled hate and love, then crushed it in his hand and flung into the empty grate. And having done that he determined to recommence his life upon a new system—to shut that false girl's image out of his mind, to devote all his energies and all his thoughts to business.
The first letter he wrote when he had seated himself at his desk in his private counting-house, for the first time since his journey, was a brief epistle to George Tolson, informing him that his services were no longer required, and that if he preferred any pecuniary compensation, instead of the ordinary term of notice, such a course would be more agreeable to the feelings of his obedient servant, Philip Rayner.
The answer to this was prompt enough. It told the new chief of Rayner, Rayner & sons that Mr. Tolson required neither notice nor compensation and that he should have quitted the office for ever before his note could be delivered to Mr, Rayner.
"He will find another situation, I suppose," Philip said to himself, "for the scoundrel is clever. He had a hundred and fifty a year with us; he will scarcely get so much elsewhere. At best it can only be genteel beggary—a perpetual struggle for bare existence. And what is there that I could have denied her if she had married me? She will think of that sometimes, surely."
"HE STARTED TO HIS FEET WITH A LOUD CRY."—P. 310
How far Philip Rayner succeeded in shutting out the image of the girl he had loved was best known to himself. From the hour in which he left her on the night of his father's funeral he never spoke of her again to any human creature. Whatever curiosity he may have felt as to her fate he kept locked in his own breast, making no attempt to discover what became of her.
It was from this time forth that he spoke of himself as a good hater. He had a kind of sullen pride in his hatred of George Tolson and Catherine Paroldi. And yet, as is has been said before, he would, no doubt, have called himself a Christian. He had always been a good man of business, but from the hour of his disappointment he devoted himself to the dray-as-dust labors of his daily life with a new energy. His father had left him a rich man, and every year added to his wealth, while his expenses diminished instead of increasing. The faithful butler retired to live upon his savings and his dead master's legacy in a congenial retreat beyond Wapping, and Philip mad no attempt to supply his place. He was waited upon after this by the middle-aged housemaid who had amassed money in the savings-bank and acquired some distinction in a community of Primitive Methodists, whose place of worship was in a darksome lane near the East India docks. He was quite content with this reduction of his former state. It was a means of saying money, and he had a stolid satisfaction in the accumulation of his wealth.
The years passed, and he lived on, without change of any kind, in the dull old city house. Friends he had none. The only man he had ever made a companion was George Tolson. Acquaintances of course he had in the way of business—people who thought well of him, and would fain have had him for a guest at their houses, but he refused all invitations. The gloomy solitude of the old house near the Tower best suited his gloomy humor. People asked him sometimes why he did not buy a place at Clapham or Dulwich or Norwood, and live more in accordance with his fortunes; he always told them, with the same dreary smile, that he did not care for the country, he was fond of London. One day a bolder spirit than the rest asked him plainly why he had never married. The dark look with which Philip Rayner answered the question put an effectual stop to all further inquiries on that head.
So his life went on, buying and selling, and daily growing richer; coming home every day to the same lonely room; eating and drinking sparingly in solitude; sitting alone through the long evening with a neglected book lying on the table before him, or wandering alone in the familiar streets and in the suburban roads that he had trodden long ago with George Tolson; and for any pleasure or variety there was in his life, he might as well have been some wretched galley-slave toiling under the sunshine of southern France. So the years went by, and brought him no tidings of those he hated, no mutation in his own monotonous life. It was ten years after she had left his house when he saw Catherine Paroldi, or Catherine Tolson, as, of course, she must be now. She flashed past him one winter's afternoon at dusk in a crowded city street, a tall, slim figure dressed in black, with great dark eyes and a wan face. It was only when she had passed him some moments that he knew, by the quickened beating of his heart, who it was that had been so near to him. He turned, and would fain have followed her, impelled by a strange curiosity to learn the circumstances of her life but she was lost in the crowd by the time he had recovered himself so far as to be able to look about for her.
Great Heaven, how her face haunted him after that November twilight! She was poor—he was sure of that; he had read as much even in his brief glimpse of that wan face—poor and careworn, alone in the city street jostled by the crowd, hurrying homeward to some sordid refuge; she for whom life should have been one bright holiday had she chosen to be his wife. He laughed aloud as he thought of his money and the home he could have given her. Not that dull city mansion which served well enough for him, but a suburban palace set in a fairy-land of gardens, carriages, lackeys, diamonds to crown the pale brow. Alas! how different life might have been for both of them had she but loved him! He hated her with a double hatred as he thought of what they had each lost—hated her for the wrong done to herself as well as for the wrong done to him.
He took out his bank-book that night, the modest parchment-bound volume in which a prosperous trader is apt to find a more soothing influence than in the brightest dreams of poets or the most profound philosophizing of sages. Yes, a loose thousand or two had accumulated since he had last taken a survey of his affairs—a little more to invest in some safe and profitable way, in India bonds or unimpeachable railway debentures. A couple of thousand pounds! and that poor pinched face of hers had looked as if a ten-pound note would have been a boon to her.
"I never thought that George Tolson would succeed in life," Philip Rayner said to himself that night; "he was too volatile. Clever, I admit, but with that sort of superficial cleverness which seldom helps a man to make a fortune."
From that time forward the face that had flashed past him in the crowded street was always with him. She had haunted him before in her girlish grace and beauty; she came before him now like the sad shadow of some wandering soul in Hades, and still he told himself that he hated her. What was her poverty to him? If she had been on her knees before him pleading for help, he would have been deaf as stone to her prayers. She had chosen for herself; let her abide the issue.
It was more than a year after this when he saw the man who had once been his friend—George Tolson. The two men met at an obscure street corner near the Royal Exchange, Philip returning from an agreeable visit to his stockbroker, the other emerging suddenly from a public-house a gaunt, shabby figure with a haggard, unshaven face.
A feint flush lit up the careworn face as the man recognized the son of his old employer, and he made as if he would have spoken to him, but Philip Rayner brushed past him and hurried on, very pale and with a dark forbidding countenance. No, there was nothing but hatred in his heart for this man. George Tolson looked after him, irresolute, for a minute or so, then gave a heavy sigh and walked slowly on. Whatever vague hope might have impelled him to approach that sometime friend died out at sight of the pale angry face.
Thus Philip Rayner twice lost the opportunity of discovering the fate of these two people who had once been so much to him.
And yet there were times when he would have given the world to know how they fared—whether they had drained the cup of misfortune to the very dregs, and whether Catherine repented the sacrifice she had made. Do what he would, work as hard as he would, he could not banish her from his thoughts. The contemplation of his own prosperity was a pleasant thing enough, but her sad face came between him and that image of the golden calf which he had set up for himself. Was he sorry for her? No, surely not. He was not made of the staff to forgive such a wrong as he had suffered. He was a good hater.
Another year had gone, and Philip Rayner was forty years of age. It was his birthday—a dull, sunless day late in October, with a cruel easterly wind blowing all day long. Rather a dreary occasion, a birthday, for a man who stands quite alone in the world. No one congratulated Philip Rayner upon this completion of another year in his life, not even his servants, for he had long ago dropped all ceremonial on such anniversaries, and no bottle of wine was opened in the kitchen for the drinking of the master's health. He was a man who abjured all sentiment, and yet his loneliness, his utter isolation, did strike him just a little painfully upon this particular day. And it must needs be always so for all the years to come. He had not a friend in the world. He might live forty years more, and see forty more such birthdays, in the same dull old house, in the same deathlike silence and solitude. For the first time he felt as if those grim panelled walls were horrible to him. They seemed to close in upon him like the walls of a vault. He started up from his fireside in a sudden paroxysm of despondency and hurried out of the house. Once in the open air, it muttered to him nothing where he went. The clocks were striking seven, and the traffic of the day was for the most part over. He had the streets all most to himself. It was a supreme relief to him to have left that silent, shadowy parlor, always haunted now by the ghost of what once had been, and to be out under the open sky. He walked on, careless where he went, crossed London bridge, and made his way far out by obscure streets and byroads till he found himself in a dismal neighborhood beyond Walworth—a bleak, barren outskirt, where there was a ghastly patch of waste ground that had once been a common, hemmed in by shabby streets of new-built houses, the greater part of which seemed to be still untenanted.
The exploration of the sordid streets afforded some kind of amusement to Philip Rayner. Perhaps it was pleasant to him to contrast the squalor which prevailed in this small obscure world, making itself manifest in a hundred trivial ways, with his own prosperous condition. If he had no one else to wish him joy upon his birthday, he could at least congratulate himself upon his wealth, and wonder how these people endured the burden of their existence—he who, an hour ago, had rushed out of his comfortable home, unable to bear the sudden agony of its solitude, the thought of all the monotonous, joyless years that he was to live in it.
The dwellers in this region were at least, not lonely. Wherever he caught a glimpse of a lighted room, he saw a family group assembled. He heard children's voices here and there through open doors, or a couple of matrons gossiping sociably on a doorstep. These wretched creatures seemed almost happy in spite of their poverty. It gave him an angry feeling to think that it was so—that so little was needed for happiness, and that he had missed it.
He turned presently into a darker and lonelier street than the rest, where there were more empty houses and an air of desolation more profound than anything he had seen elsewhere. Yet the houses were better and larger than those in the neighborhood, with little bits of garden ground before them.
Here all was so silent that Philip Rayner could hear the suppressed sobbing of a child who stood on the opposite side of the road, looking down at something on the ground, with clasped hands, a humble image of despair. He was not a hard-hearted man in a general way, and could not witness a child's distress quite unmoved. He crossed the street quickly, and went up to the child. She was a small, delicate-looking girl, with an air of shabby gentility, and a pale thoughtful little face—a girl who might have been any age from eight to twelve.
"What is the matter, my child?" Philip asked, in a kindly manner.
"The medicine, sir—the medicine for mamma," the girl answered, still looking down at the ground, where Philip now perceived the relics of a broken bottle. "It is very particular and very dear. I had to fetch it from the chemist's, and it slipped out of my hand somehow just a I was close to home, and yet I meant to be so careful. Oh dear, dear, dear! what can I do?"
"Why, leave off crying, to be sure, my little maiden, and get another bottle of medicine. That is the best thing to be done."
"But the money, sir. I oughtn't to say such things to a stranger, but it was the last there was in the house. There's no more. Mamma will have to go without the medicine and she's so very, very ill."
"That she shall not, little one. Come hack to the chemist with me and I'll find plenty of money for him."
"Oh, will you really, sir? How good, how very good!"
The girl clapped her hands, and looked up at him with a rapturous face. They were standing just under the solitary lamp of the street. What was it in the little one's face that moved him with a sudden thrill? Something, a look, an air, that brought back another face, seldom absent from him now. And yet there was no special likeness between those two faces. The girl's eyes were blue, her hair a pale auburn. It was in expression alone that she could resemble Catherine Paroldi in the decline of her beauty. But the expression was there—a pleading, piteous look that went straight to his heart. And he had no reason to steel his mind against this child. He might indulge the fanciful feeling which that vague something in her looks had awakened in him—he might be kind to this poor waif and stray without any derogation from the dignity of his hate.
It was rather a long walk to the high rood where the chemist lived, and he had plenty of time to study the little creature who walked so patiently beside him, looking up in his face and answering all his questions with a meek gratitude that touched him profoundly. It was so small a thing that he was doing—a matter of a couple of shillings, perhaps, at most. How friendless the poor must needs be, when such a trifling service seemed so much to them!
The girl was eleven years old, the eldest of the family. There were three other little ones at home, two girls and a boy. Papa's name was Turner. He had been very unfortunate, could not get a situation in the city, and was earning a very little now by writing for some obscure newspaper. He was very clever, the child said, hut not so good as mamma; And poor mamma had felt all the trouble so much, and it had made her very ill. It was her heart, the doctor said.
All this the little girl told him with childish frankness, and yet with the womanly tone of a child whom hard experience had made older than her years. They found the chemist's shop still open, had the prescription made up again, and then Philip Rayner, loth to lose sight of the little girl just yet, or to leave her unprotected in the street, went back with her. She entreated him earnestly not to put himself out of his way on her account. She was quite accustomed to be out as late as that, she said; but he would take no denial, and went home with her, impelled by a strange curiosity to see the place where she lived.
She led him into the parlor—a bare, wretched-looking room, though it was clean, and there had evidently been some feeble attempt to make things comfortable. The furniture was of the scantiest and the shabbiest—a rickety-looking Pembroke table and three or four dilapidated cane chairs. That was all. An unkempt servant-maid, a mere girl of fifteen or so, emerged from the back premises as they went into the little passage, carrying a tallow candle, by the light of which Philip Rayner took his first survey of the parlor. It seemed as if the child divined the meaning of that look.
"It's not our furniture," she said—"that was taken away for the rent more than a month ago. Some kind neighbors lent us these things, and the landlord let us stay till the house is let: when it is, we must go."
"What a time you've been, Miss Mary!" exclaimed the servant, looking rather curiously at the unknown visitor, "Your mar has been frightened about you."
"I had an accident with the medicine, Sally. I shouldn't have been able to bring any at all but for this gentleman's kindness."
The unkempt handmaiden, who was evidently of a soft-hearted nature threw up her hand and stared at the stranger with evident admiration.
"It's not many friend you've got, poor child, goodness knows," she said. "It's well there's some can feel for you."
"And mamma?" asked the little girl, eagerly. "Has she been better while I've been away, Sally?"
"She's been very quiet," the servant answered, dubiously, "but you know she's always that. Complaints never pass her lips."
"And have the children slept?"
"Like tops, Miss Mary. I only wish you'd been in bed along of 'em, as you ought to be at your age."
"Yes," responded Philip; "it's late for this poor child to be about, and she seems a fragile little creature."
"Ah, sir," replied the servant with a groan, "if you knew what that child goes through, and how patient she is, and what a head she has, beyond her years! She's kept the house together somehow, when things must all have gone to ruin but for her. And as to me—there! I haven't had a halfpenny for wages or beer-money for the last six months, and have hard words besides from master when he's out of sorts. But, lor, I haven't got the heart to leave her."
"No, no, Sally dear, you couldn't leave me," said the child, clinging to her.
Philip Rayner looked down at them, wondering at them and at this new glimpse of life. The child was such a little lady in the midst of her poverty, had such an air of grace and refinement in her premature womanliness, that he was more interested in her than he could have believed it possible for him to be in a creature so far away from himself. He stood looking down at her, wondering what he could best do to help her, and as shy and awkward as if he had found himself suddenly in the presence of a duchess.
"I shall come back to-morrow evening to inquire how your mamma is, Miss Turner," he said, "if you have no objection."
"Oh no, no, no, indeed; I am so grateful to you."
Then he shuffled out of the place somehow, contriving, as he departed, to slip a half-sovereign into the palm of the slipshod handmaiden. He had a notion that anything given to the servant would be for the general benefit, and he could not for the life of him, have offered money to the child, although she had so freely confessed their poverty.
He thought of her many times next day in the midst of his business, and at dusk drove to the house in a cab, carrying all manner of small luxuries which he fancied might be of use to the invalid—a hamper containing half a dozen bottles of the choicest wine in his cellar, a basket of rare hot-house grapes, a package of superfine tea, some tin cans of preserved soup. This sensation of doing something personally for the good of another was quite a new feeling to him, and seemed to give a zest to his life. Perhaps he had felt the utter loneliness and uselessness of his long blank evenings more than he had ever confessed to himself.
He was not content even with taking these things to the invalid, but catching sight of a gay-looking fancy repository on his way through the borough, stopped the cab and alighted to buy a glistening work-box for his little favorite. It might not be of much use to her, but it would please her; he was sure of that.
He found the parlor very neat and clean, a little bit of fire burning brightly in the small grate, mod Mary Turner at work by the light of one tall candle, which made her look very small. He was evidently expected, and she flushed with pleasure when the maid announced him as "the strange gentleman."
But what was this compared with her rapture when she saw the treasures he had brought her? The wine—
"Oh, sir," she cried, with clasped hands. "The doctor has said so often that mamma ought to have wine, and we could not give it to her. You are like an angel come down from heaven!"
And then the fruit, big purple grapes with a powdery bloom upon them, and then the tea. Poor mamma was so fond of tea; it was the only thing she really did care for, and the tea they got in that neighborhood was so bad, and often they had been obliged to go without any. How should she ever thank him enough?" she asked, in her delight.
"I don*t want any thanks. It is a great pleasure to me to be able to do this small service for you. I would do much more, believe me."
He stayed there some time; saw her open one of the wine-bottles deftly—they had first to send to a neighbor to borrow a corkscrew—and fill a glass with the rich golden-hued Madeira, and then place a plate with a few grapes on a little tray beside it to carry up stairs to her mother. He waited to hear how mamma had taken the wine—it had been great work to make her drink it all, it was so strong and good—and how she admired the grapes, and how she thanked him for his goodness with all her heart. And then he gave Mary her work-box, and saw her blue eyes opened to their widest as she admired this precious mother-of-pearl fittings and the dainty quilted blue silk.
"You couldn't have given me a better present," she said. "I have a great deal of work to do, for I make all the things for my little brothers and sisters."
She might better have said she mended all the things for there was much more mending than making to be done in that establishment.
"What have I done to deserve such kindness from you?" she exclaimed, gazing at her open work-box in a rapture of contentment.
"You have encountered misfortune nobly," he answered.
She looked at him wonderingly, it seemed such a thing to her to be praised and rewarded for doing what it was so natural for her to do.
Before he left her he contrived to ascertain the address of the landlord, and called upon him before going that night. The man was a small publican in the neighborhood, and gave Mr. Rayner the history of his tenants readily enough.
They had occupied his house nearly two years, and had paid their rent pretty well for the first twelve months but after that had got altogether behindhand, so that he had been obliged to send in a broker and sell them up.
"But after I had done it I hadn't the heart to turn them out, sir," said the landlord. "That child, the eldest girl—a slip of a creature, but with a woman's spirit in her bit of a body—begged and prayed of me, and the mother was ill, and so on, and I let 'em stay. I haven't even made an attempt to let the house, though I told the girl they must go when it is let. The mother's a good soul, I believe and worked at her needle like a galley-slave till she felt ill. The father isn't much good—an idle scoundrel, I fancy. He was clerk somewhere in the city when they took the house but he lost his situation somehow a year ago and now he on some newspaper, not earning much over a pound a week. There's no margin for a man to pay back debts in that."
No, Philip Rayner was fain to confess that there is not much margin for anything in a pound a week, after food and raiment for a family have been provided out of it. What was he to do for thee people? It was all very well to indulge his sympathetic feeling for the little girl, but he did not want to do anything quixotic, or to burden himself with the maintenance of an unknown pauper household for the rest of his days. He wanted to he prudent, and yet to help them.
"I don't think you'll lose by your kindness in the long run," he said to the landlord. "I shouldn't like the people to be turned adrift, not while the mother's ill, at any rate; and I should be glad to pay you a quarter's rent in advance, dating from to-night, to secure them three month's shelter, leaving the arrears in statu quo."
"That's kindly, sir," answered the man, "and I'm agreeable."
So Philip Rayner paid him something over a five-pound note:, and took a formal receipt for a quarter's rent of 11 Belvidere street, East Woolworth.
As he drove home that night, he remembered the existence of some spare furniture stowed away in a lumber-room at the top of his house—substantial old-fashioned stuff, good old bedding, some faded damask curtains, excellent in its way, but superannuated, and put aside some fifty years ago, when the best bed-rooms had been refurnished in the unlovely fashion of the Regency, He was up in this lumber-room at daybreak making a selection from these stores and on his way to the office ordered a carman he sometimes employed to take the things he had chosen to Belvidere street that afternoon; but as he valued Mr. Rayner's custom and good-will, the man was to be sure and hold his tongue us to where and whom the things came from.
"I want to help some people in reduced circumstances, and don't want to give them a claim on me in the future," he said; "you are man of the world enough to understand that, I'm sure, Potts."
When Philip Rayner went to Walworth in the evening—and it seemed to him the most natural thing in the world for him to go there—he found the parlor made quite splendid by means of those superannuated curtain; and tables which he had found in the lumber-room. Mary and the faithful Sally had been busy ever since the goods arrived arranging and rearranging. There was a long, narrow couch by the fireplace—a couch of strictly classic form, and the hardest thing imaginable in couches, but to Mary's fancy upholsterer never devised anything more elegant or more luxurious. There was a solid table instead of the rickety Pembroke, a comfortable square arm-chair for papa to sit in of a morning when he wrote.
"The curtains are up in mamma's room," cried Mary; "they make it so warm and comfortable, and there were such draughts before. Of course the things come from you; I have not even wondered about them, It's like the story of Aladdin, and you are the genius of the lamp."
He stayed with her for two hours or more that evening, hearing her half-childish, half-womanly talk about this furniture. It was a delight to her to tell him her little old-fashioned arrangements, it was a delight to him to listen. Discovering by chance that the devoted Sally was in the habit of spending her evenings with her young mistress—there being no fire in the kitchen, and that apartment being, moreover, pervaded by a peculiarly audacious species of black beetle, which made nothing of human presence, but rioted at its pleasure after nightfall—he insisted that his visits should cause no alteration in this custom; upon which, with much hesitation, Sally was induced to appear, and took her seat by the farthermost corner of the table provided with something rather formidable in the way of needlework.
"You see papa is never at home of an evening," Mary said, in explanation of this arrangement. "He is obliged to be at the newspaper office every night."
And then she went on to tell how grateful her father was for his goodness, and how glad he should be to have any opportunity of thanking him in person, which kind of demonstration Philip Rayner, who was by reason of his lonely habits one of the shyest of men, was religiously determined to escape. If he had not been secure of finding Mary alone of an evening, his visits to Belvidere street would have speedily ceased.
But Mary was always alone, and he came night after night. He had begun even to wonder what he should do with his evenings when there was no longer any excuse for his coming. Very rarely did he appear empty-handed, and he exhibited a marvellous ingenuity in the judicious selection and variety of his offerings. The younger children had been presented to him, and he catered for their small wants with an almost childlike delight in childish things. It was so new to him to be interested in any human creature, so new for him to live out of himself. But he never gave Mary money. It seemed to him that to do that would have been to vulgarize their friendship. He slipped a liberal donation into the servant's hand from time to time, and he could see, by the increased comfort and order of everything in the house, that his gifts were employed, as he had fancied they would be, for the general good.
Of course he heard a great deal about Mr. Turner as his intimacy with Mary increased—how nobly she had borne their poverty, how patiently she had worked, now giving music or singing lessons for the small recompense to be obtained in a poor locality, now toiling incessantly at her needle. She was very clever, the girl said, and papa too, and yet they had found it so hard to live. He heard all about her slow progress from a state of utter prostration toward recovery, and how hopeful the doctor was now—the kind doctor who had a great practice in the Camberwell road, and yet came to them three times a week without any fee. And so the time went on till Philip had known Mary more than a month, and Mrs. Turner was now strong enough to sit up a little in the early part of every day, and would soon be able to come down stairs.
"And when she comes down, you will let her thank you, won't you?" the child pleaded. "You won't avoid her as you have avoided papa?" It was a hard thing for Philip Rayner to say yes, but the child seemed to have set her heart upon this business, and he could not refuse to please her.
"I don't want any thanks, my dear," he said; "what I have done has been done for my own pleasure. But—but if you really wish it, I shall be very happy to see your mamma."
In all this time he had never told Mary his name or abode. If he had been indeed the genius of the lamp, she would have known as much about his worldly circumstances as she knew now; nor had the child ever evinced the faintest curiosity. It seemed her nature to be a lady.
At last the important day came. Mamma was well enough to spend an afternoon down stairs. There was to be a little tea-drinking in honor of the event, and Philip Rayner had consented to come much earlier than usual in order to assist at the ceremonial. He had to leave business before his usual time, and to go without his dinner, in order to do this but he thought nothing of those small sacrifices. He felt nothing but a sense of shyness in being presented to a stranger whom he had benefited.
He found Mary watching for him at the garden gate, bleak and cold as the weather was without shawl or bonnet, and with her pale auburn hat blowing in the wintry wind. She clapped her hands joyfully when she saw him.
"Everything in ready," she said, "and the parlor looks so nice, mamma won't know it. She'll think the fairies have been really at work. Come and see. She's not down yet, but is to come down in a few minutes."
Yea, the parlor looked very snug and comfortable. Such a ruddy little fire, such sparkling tea-things—Britannia metal polished till it was brighter than most people's silver; and muffins and marmalade and unheard-of luxuries of that kind, and an all-pervading odor of tea and toast. The inexorable classic sofa was wheeled down to the fire ready for mamma. Papa was not at home—that newspaper absorbed a great deal of his time.
Philip Rayner took his seat where Mary told him—in the post of honor opposite the invalid's sofa. Her radiantly joyous face moved him deeply. To think that such small things could give to much happiness and that he had missed it That was always the burden of his thoughts at such times. He sat where she placed him, waiting for the convalescent's appearance.
Presently there came the sound of a light, feeble step upon the stairs, then the faint rustling of a woman's dress and then the door was opened softly, and a lady came in—tall and slim and pale with great dark eyes.
He started to his feet with a loud cry:
Yes, it was she—not the bright Catherine of his youth, but the wan, faded woman who had had flashed past him in the city street, faded, and yet most beautiful to him in the wreck of her loveliness—the woman he had sworn to hate, whose face he had prayed God he never might look upon again.
She echoed his cry faintly, and tottered a few paces forward as if she would have fallen at her feet; but he caught her in his arms and held her to his breast, looking down at her with a tender smile.
"Catherine," he said, "do you remember the first time I kissed you? Once more, my love—only once more;" and he placed his lips upon the pale, careworn forehead. "There was selfish passion in that first kiss. Remorse and forgiveness are in this."
After this there came explanations, and she told her cousin of the evil days that had fallen upon her since her marriage, and how in the last place where they lived they had been in deeply in debt, and so utterly unable to pay, that they had been fain to leave by stealth, and to enter a new neighborhood under an assumed name, lest their creditors should follow them. There were no words needed to tell how bitter this had been to the woman's honorable mind, or how the man's character had deteriorated before it came to this. She spoke of him with unvarying love and gentleness, but she did not pretend that he had been blameless.
"I think he might have done better if he had had one friend to help him," she said plaintively; "but he had none. We were quite friendless."
"He shall have a friend in future," Philip answered promptly; "he shall come back to my office. He has formed bad habits, perhaps; never mind, Catherine, we will cure him of them. It was I who turned him out. I owe him an atonement. His debts shall be paid and he shall come to me on better terms than when he left the firm; and you and Mary and the little ones must have a pretty cottage farther away, somewhere in the country, where my sweet, pale lily will blossom into a rose."
He laid his hand tenderly upon the child's head. "My darling," he said, "I think my love for for you has made me a new man."
Nor did his love for her change. She was always the delight of his life, and afterwards became a great heroine, the beloved adopted daughter of that man whose favorite boast had been that he was "a good hater."
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