Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/Bracken Hollow - Part 1

BRACKEN HOLLOW.

A Story in Two Parts.



PART I.

"Rough! do you know what this letter means? Finish your breakfast, old dog, and come for a walk up the glen to Bracken Hollow: for the old place shall be brightened up, the shutters shall be flung open, the chimneys shall smoke, and the trees shall move away from before the doors and windows. Youth,the fairy prince, is coming on tip-toe from beyond summer seas, to tread the paths green again, to spread sunshine on the threshold, and to wake the sleeper, Joy, who has so long lain dead in the dark chambers, waiting his voice to arise and fill the place with light. And when our glad errand is done, we will visit the valley churchyard."

So the day passes, and it is evening. Rough and I have been to see a grave. It is a lorn place, and the wind has grown shrill, and we come home feeling rather desolate. Clouds are gathering for a wild night. The old dog has curled in by the fender, and I have brought my arm-chair to his side, and dragged forth an old desk, and turned over its contents—packages of old letters, and loose leaves of an irregular journal.

Rough, we have set ourselves a hard task. To reach, with feeble voice, the ears of our city friends across the sea, and to make them turn on their busy road, and gaze over their shoulder down some slant sun-path to the steeps and tangles of our Glenariffe. To make them see, with their distant eyes, dimmed with gold and dust, our bay, as now, for instance, moonlit: with its stretch of pale sands, like a white projecting arm, curved round the margin of the dark water, with its lullaby music murmuring patiently from the Bar, its lapping waves flinging diamond circlets perpetually at the feet of the rocks, and with its uncertain glimpses into the soft gloom of silent glens, sheltered for many a mile under the strong arms of the mountains.

There! draw the curtain. Go back to your rug, old dog. What do you know about it? The sea is nothing to you but a broad shining fascination, towards which your lazy speculating eyes turn and return. You know nothing of spirits crossing, of the fatal hollows between waves, of the white curl of a squall spreading, like a plague-spot, on the breast of a fair ocean. Neither do you know anything of the unsounded depths of the human heart, of the shoals and wrecks in that sea, of the treacherous rocks and dizzy maelstroms, which, at every breath we draw, beat out, and suck in, mortal and alas! immortal life. And so, though you sit there, looking through me, with the almost human sympathy of your eyes, you are only a dog, old friend, and the old man must patch his story, and say his say alone.

Margaret Avon and I were old man and old woman together, and yet when she was the wedded mistress of Bracken Hollow, I was but a young lad going to school, and used in vacation times to ride my pony over the hills and hollows of Glenariffe for a cup of sweet tea at Mistress Avon's round tea-table, and a generous share of the cakes and marmalade with which that hospitable board was wont to be spread for my delectation. But at least half my errand there was to get a glimpse of tiny Mary Avon's sleeping face, so fair and plump, under the blue canopy of her cot. For baby Mary Avon was then to me the mystery of mysteries, as she was in years afterwards the pearl, the very sunbeam, the blush-rose of womanhood.

I will tread lightly, and but a few steps of this solitary by-path of my story. Let the roses moulder there where they fell, snapt from their stems so many years ago, and the passion-flowers shrivel into dust, and the dead leaves lie in shifting mounds, stirred only by the whisper of melancholy winds, undisturbed by the fall of even the holiest foot. Mary Avon fled from her home to be the wife of one who broke her heart and deserted her child. There are days upon which many of the aged can look back, when words and scenes which are burned into memory were first branded there. Such old scars still sting, when these dulled eyes glance again to the hour when, a strong and bearded man, I almost knelt to Margaret Avon in that old red drawing-room at Bracken Hollow, and sued for Mary's memory and Mary's child. But the crags of Lurgaedon are not to be toppled into the valley by pecking birds, nor was the wedge of stern resolve to be wrenched from Margaret Avon's soul by prayers. Mary was gone, and, as though she had never been, the existence of her child was to remain unrecognised. I took the little orphan home, and if Hugh was wronged, I at least was a gainer by his loss.

Up to this date I had known Margaret Avon as a large, comely matron, with prosperity lying smooth on her broad forehead, and a helpful magic lurking in the palm of her strong, white hand; with all her actions, impulses of charity, of pride, or of anger; but that blow struck to the root of her life. The tree did not fall, nor totter; it stood on, but the sap was gone. Years went by, and brought death twice again to the threshold of the old house, making her a widow, and bereft of her only son. Then the strong lines had hardened, the soft curves tightened, the good-humoured eyes grown cold, and the firm mouth hard. She became a gaunt woman, with a bent masculine figure, and a harsh countenance. As such I knew her, still as friend, and often as patient, about the time when, a middle-aged bachelor, I found myself settled down under this roof, with the physician's practice of the glens and village for my work, and with Mary's child for something to love, something to keep my heart green. For Margaret Avon, sitting sternly in that red drawing-room at Bracken Hollow, with her face from the world, and her eyes fixed perpetually on her desolate hearth, would not forgive the dead. The only tie she recognised was the child of her dead son. The little girl had been born in Italy, where her father had passed all the later years of his life. In this grandchild, whom she had never seen, all the woman's sympathies with life were bound up. The child was said to be delicate, and lest she should inherit her father's disease, consumption, the anxious grandmother had decreed, with bold self-denial, that she should remain abroad with the English lady to whose care her father had entrusted her education,—should be sunned and ripened by Italian skies, till the dawn of her womanhood, and that then, and then only, should Glenariffe be her home. And yet the old woman's yearning to see the child was piteous, and I knew that she dreaded lest death might seal her eyes before they could be satisfied.

Years passed. I was grey. Hugh was a man, and would soon be a doctor. A naval life would suit him. I felt that he would go off in a ship one day and leave me.

He had been studying too closely. I had sent for him, insisting on a holiday. We were chatting together in the garden. It was a bright May evening, the hawthorn blossoms were not yet done, the lilacs were in bloom. The sun was red on his face, and the lad was as glad as a child at his new freedom. Observing him with pride, I thought him more remarkable for an air of inherent power and a dash of frankness, than for mere handsome looks. I thought I saw his character in his bearing and countenance, pure honour ennobling the brow, fidelity to truth well-opening the eye, the hot generous temperament lighting the whole face with electric glows and sparkles; and the careless gaiety of youth dancing in lights and shadows on the tossing brown curls under his straw hat. Some one spoke to me at the gate. It was a messenger from Bracken Hollow, requesting me to visit Mrs. Avon. I left Hugh amusing himself with some little fellows on the beach, and went. Margaret had a request to make. Grace was on her way home, was in England. Friends returning from Italy had brought her as far as their home in London. Would I go and fetch her to Bracken Hollow?

I thought, Margaret Avon forgets that I am not still the boy who used to eat her marmalade at yonder table forty years since, and carry her footstool, and go on her errands whithersoever she pleased. But the next moment I felt this to be a churlish thought for one old friend to harbour towards another, and I promised to go.

Next day I went. A few words made Hugh understand the purpose of my journey. Beyond those few words nothing was said between us on the matter. Of course the lad knew all the details of his own story, but his position was a subject which he never approached, nor did I wish to hear him speak of it. I was sure of his fast affection; he was even too grateful for anything I had done for him; but I knew that the pride of the Avons smouldered in the depths of his nature. I saw it when he courteously uncovered his head to his grandmother on Sundays as she came forth from the village church to her carriage, with her eyes fixed on the ground lest she should see him. I detected it in the gnawing of the lip and contracting of the brows when we stood to admire some rich bit of wooded land with a tradition of the Avon family scrawled over the gnarled trunk of every old tree. And even more forcibly have I seen it when, by chance, he has heard himself alluded to by the kindly peasants who compassionated him as "poor Mr. Hugh." I knew he felt the sting of the fire himself, and dreaded the occasion which might stir it to a blaze. I knew that he wished all the world to recognise him as one who felt himself sufficient to carve his own fortune, and who was too high-spirited to claim any relationship which was so cruelly ignored.

I went upon my mission. I made my way to a gay house in a fashionable part of London. I arrived there in the midst of a brilliant entertainment. I was expected, and welcomed. It was all out of my way, and I should have yielded to the inclination of fatigue and retired quietly and at once, but that my curiosity to see Grace would not rest till morning. When I made my appearance among the guests, I found them engaged in witnessing the performance of charades. I took my place as a spectator, and quickly had Miss Grace Avon pointed out to me among the performers. Thus, for the first time, I saw her in whom afterwards I had so strange an interest.

Memory has odd whims in her dealings with the materials furnished to her. Some she lays by in dim scrolls, seldom to be opened and with difficulty. Others are spread, faultless charts, perpetually visible, and yet marked out in such dull ink that they are little better than blanks. While, again, some trivial chance becomes at once a picture, painted in imperishable colours, glowing with unfading life, refusing to grow pale with time, or to be darkened by shadows.

I see her now distinctly. It was a thoroughly Italian face, dark and clear, with bright lips and a rich cheek. I had never seen anything so sombre yet so lustrous as the eyes. Some brilliant drapery was folded round her head like a turban, giving an oriental effect. I do not know what the charade was; I never thought of asking. The idea must have been something about a slave; a slave loaded with splendour, and yet chafing under a sense of degradation and captivity. At least so she, in her acting, seemed to render it. She went through a strange pantomime, wrenching at the gilded chains that shackled her wrists, flinging her jewels passionately on the ground, and speaking forth shame and despair from her dumb face with terrible reality. I felt it unaccountably strange to see her thus for the first time, acting with such a piteous mimicry of truth in this gay crowd, dressed with such magnificence, and expressing so vividly her hatred of herself, her beauty, and her adornments. I said, how can this girl act so unless she feels it? What troubles her? Why is she so wretched? And then I smiled at myself for a foolish old man of the mountains, who was behind the age, and knew nothing of the cunning of such clever displays. But, my beautiful Miss Grace, I said, how will these fantastic accomplishments thrive at Bracken Hollow?

I saw her next at a distance in the ballroom, after the performance had ended. She was the centre of a group of evident admirers, and was laughing and sparkling all over with merriment. Her dress was a robe of something white, which flashed about her as she moved; and I remember that her hair was I bound with something blood-red, like coral. I saw our hostess move towards her, for the purpose, I knew, of acquainting her with the: fact of my arrival. Her cheeks had been flushing, her lips smiling, but all at once flush and smile vanished, leaving her pale and still. She turned abruptly away from the disappointed group, and slowly followed the lady messenger from the room. A minute afterwards I was introduced to her in a dim anteroom, where the softly-shed light was yet sufficient to show me the shrinking step, the pained lip, the white cheek, and the one rapid terrified glance from eyes that were instantly averted and obstinately refused to meet mine again.

What was it! Conscience winced. It was true that I had indulged an unwarrantable prejudice against this girl; and could it be also true that there may arise, without the communication of a word, with scarce that of a look, some swift subtle instinct, passing from one spirit to another, warning of the existence of dislike or distrust, even as such an instinct is said in other instances to herald the approach of faith or of love?

Our greeting was short and embarrassed. I had long since forgotten the more polished forms of address between ladies and gentlemen of the world. I could have spoken a kind word to this frightened child had I met her at home among the mountains, but here in these courtly chambers the mere spontaneous good-will of nature seemed out of place. I saw her glide back to the ball-room with a blanched, cowed aspect, but with a something of proud reserve that forbade observation. She seated herself at a distant table and affected to turn over some drawings, but her face was often averted to the shuttered window beside her, as though she studied some record of absorbing interest written on the blank of the painted wood. And so, despite my former determined indifference to everything concerning Miss Grace Avon, I retired that night filled with a troubled perplexity, and strangely interested in the owner of the cold, damp, little hand that had for a moment touched mine, and the sombre eyes that had shunned me with an expression so much like pain and fear scarcely hidden under their lids.

We accomplished our journey in safety, but without effecting much more progress towards friendship than we had made on the evening of our first acquaintance. An impenetrable reserve sheathed the girl. Once or twice I detected her studying my face with a wistful, questioning expression in her eye, as though some burdensome secret hovered on her tongue, and she tried, unseen to sound me, to discover whether or not I might be trustworthy to receive that which she had to tell. This was the idea which impressed me at the time, and from which I could not free my thoughts. It seemed an absurd fancy, for what trouble could she have? And yet the impression would not be shaken off, but clung to me with annoying tenacity.

I assured myself that she was only timid, and shy of appearing among new friends. It will wear away, I said; and I tried to win her confidence and to be as kindly towards her as the thought of Hugh would suffer me to be.

I thought the wondrous vision of our glens will wake her up, for I feel that she has a soul: and who has ever seen our Glenariffe without enthusiasm, with its mists and breakers, its heathery crags and mossy knolls, its vivid rainbows and thundering falls?—even in its winter aspect, when every mountain that searches its sky is white from base to crown, when every pure peak stands like a sinless soul expecting its palm, and when the cry of hunted waters leaps from crag to crag, and is lost in the appalling gusts blown landward from the lips of implacable sea storms. And how much more in summer, when the golden sheaves stand upon the sunny slopes, leaning their hot shoulders against one another, and waiting for the harvest-home; when the cunning blackbird scarce knows his way through the labyrinths of foliage, and when there is a hidden paradise in every far nook where the young ashes bend to the water under their secret, and drip, drip their mysterious whispers all day, till the sun gets tired searching for them among the thickets, and the moon sends a silver token floating down the beck, on the crest of a riplet.

As we entered the glens in the fading sunset, the bills smiled serenely, and the sea was a stretch of pale gold. The cry of the mountaineer, as he passed from height to height skyward, searching for stray lambs, fell in dreamy echoes through the ether, and we could hear at intervals the answering bleat of a sheep from some perilous ledge aloft, whore it looked to our upturned eyes like a snowflake drifted white upon the brilliant herbage. It was to me a moment of exquisite beauty and peace; but then in my ear the horses feet were trotting to the music of "Home, sweet home!" whereas Miss Grace Avon had been nursed under Italian skies, and beheld our wild highland scenery with a stranger's eyes. So I forbore to disturb her meditation as she sat, quite still, her veil just folded above her brows, her pale lips fast shut, and her heavy dark eyes fixed blindly on the dimming horizon.

Arrived at Bracken Hollow a touching picture met our eyes. Out in the purple twilight, sown with blazing stars, growing from the heavier shadows behind, and framed by the frowning doorway, a tall bent figure stood. A shaking, withered hand grasping a stick, a rugged face softened with yearning love, a hard-lined mouth unwontedly relaxed and quivering, and frozen eyes melting with foreign moisture. So I saw Margaret Avon, and in spite of fidelity to Hugh, I was touched to compassion for the woman who, having within her rills of tenderness so warm, could have suffered pride to petrify her life, and turn her to the thing of stone I had known her for the many past years.

So she stood with her one shrivelled hand stretched forth in eager greeting. I felt Grace's fingers slip from my arm, and before I could prevent her the strange girl had sunk upon her knees at her grandmother's feet, with her face to the flags on the threshold.

"My child, my dear, my darling! what is this?" quavered forth the poor old rusty voice, while the shaking hand tried to drag upward the bent dusky head from which the bonnet and veil had fallen. "Be not frightened, my love, but welcome, a thousand times welcome, to your poor old grandmother's home,—your poor old grandmother, your poor old lonely grandmother!" she kept on repeating, while Grace, creeping to her at last with a sob, suffered herself to be gathered to the old woman's heart. I left them sitting on the hearth in the red drawing-room, Grace with her face buried in Margaret's gown, and the old hand passing fondly over the thick curls.

Two mornings afterwards I was sitting by the open window in the sun, reading the "Lancet." Hugh was standing at the bookcase, poring into a book. The parlour door was ajar, and the hall door wide open, as it is the fashion for Glen's hall doors to stand during the day. I saw a phaeton, which I knew, draw up a few perches away, and in it I saw two figures, which I also recognised. The younger sprang from the step, and came quickly toward the cottage. She passed in at the gate, in at the open door; a tap came on the panel outside, and there she stood before us—Grace Avon.

Never had anything so bright gladdened our sober little parlour. The white dress, the black gossamer shawl hanging from her arms, the slouched hat, with its rose-coloured ribbon, crowning the ripe face and cloudy curls, all made up a picture whose rich sweetness was a feast to the eye. A glamour of enchantment seemed to enter the room with her, a southern breeze stirred in the motion of her gown, a streak of Italian sunshine seemed to follow in her wake through the door. I thought "Mary's hair was just one shade darker than the laburnum blossoms, and Mary's eyes were the colour of forget-me-nots, but this is a beautiful woman." As she entered Hugh started, and looked up with a hasty glance of honest and ardent admiration, whose warmth surprise forbade him to moderate. The young lady seemed to resent this involuntary homage of poor Hugh's, she flushed, returned his bow stiffly, and having delivered her message, followed me from the room.

"Who is he?" she asked, abruptly, in the hall.

I was angry for Hugh, and felt harshly towards her at the moment. I answered brusquely:

"He is your cousin, Miss Avon, who has at least as good a claim to your grandmother's favour as you. Were he righted, you would not be the wealthy heiress you now are."

She fell back as though stunned by my words, and I passed her to speak to Margaret at the carriage. She wished me to spend the evening with them. Margaret did not know of Hugh's presence at the cottage; but I think, even had he been absent, I should not have gone to them that night. Grace gave me a pleading word and look, but I was firm. I said:

"I am going to visit a patient up the Glen, but I shall not have time to call."

At twilight that evening I passed near the gates of Bracken Hollow at a part where the wall that separates the place from the Glen road runs very low, and a stream stumbles its way through the wild briars and the tall reeds and brackens from whose luxuriance the house takes its name. I was startled by a figure rising up like a ghost from among the ferns and moss-grown stones beside me. It was Grace. She had watched and waited for me there. She wanted to know the meaning of my words spoken in the hall that morning about her cousin. Was he her cousin? Why had he been wronged? Who had wronged him?

I considered a little, and then thought it best to tell her all. She would be sure to hear the story, and it was right she should. I told her all Hugh's history; not, I am sure, without a dash of the bitterness which would always escape me when I spoke on the subject. As I went on she flushed deeper and deeper, till the crimson blood burned under her hair, and even coloured her throat. When I had finished speaking it had ebbed away, leaving her unusually pale. She stood before me, straight and white and scared looking, with the breeze blowing the dark hair from her forehead. I moved to go on, but she stayed me again imploringly, and commenced asking rapid passionate questions. If she had never been born, or if—if she had died as a child, would Hugh's grandmother have been forced to give him her affection, to make him her heir?

I answered as my conscience dictated:

"I believe she would. Your grandmother can be stern, but she must have something to love. If there had been no one else, I think it is likely that she would have relented towards Hugh."

She opened her lips, and cried vehemently, with a strain of high-wrought suffering:

"Doctor! I—" She stopped short, her lips whitened, blue shadows gathered under her eyes. I thought she was going to swoon.

"My dear child!" I cried, in surprise and alarm, taking her cold hand and placing it firmly on my own arm, "my dear child, you must not distress yourself so deeply about this, It is not your fault."

She gave me a piteous glance, bent down her head, and burst into a passion of tears, sobbing violently, with her forehead against my sleeve.

"It is a strange, wayward, and I believe generous nature," I thought, as I went on my way, having sent her back to the house.

Returning past the gates, and finding myself in a different mood from that in which I had refused Margaret Avon's invitation, I turned into the avenue, and walked along by the soft, noiseless turf. Soon I was startled for the second time that night by seeing a slight figure moving among the trees. It was passing to and fro, to and fro upon the grass quite near me. I stopped where a tree hid me from the danger of being seen. Heaven knows I did not mean to be a spy upon the poor girl, but I was deeply interested in her. The moon shone large and clear down through the branches on the mossy roots and trunks, and on the rich wilderness of the underwood, throwing dim flitting shadows over the impatient white figure that paced and paced, and would not weary nor rest. While I stood, with a fear and a foreboding of I knew not what stealing upon me and mingling with the sympathy which had been keenly awakened, the figure suddenly paused in its walk, the arms were flung above the head in an attitude of abandonment, and a loud groaning whisper reached me through the clear still air—

"Not my fault—not my fault! O God, pity me!"

I went home.