Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Heffie's trouble
I remember how late we all sat round the fire that night, Aunt Rachel, Cousin Lucy, and I. It was such a cold wild night, and such a tumult was going on out of doors, as made the pleasant cheerful warmth within seem doubly pleasant and cheerful.
My aunt had been left a widow some years since, with two children, a son and a daughter; my cousin Lucy, and Arthur, who was now in a government office in London. I had lived my childish years away, knowing no other home than my aunt’s pretty cottage at Ashwood, no mother’s face but hers. I had been given to her when my parents left England for India, when I was little more than four years old; it was there my mother died soon after their arrival, leaving my poor father desolate in a strange land. And now, after twelve years of Indian service, he had come back to live in the old Hall at Riverbank, a lovely spot, which had belonged to our family for many generations past.
To that sweet home, one golden June day, he had brought my gentle mother, a pretty bride of seventeen; and there, about a year after, I, their only child, was born. Being so young when I left it, I had of course little or no recollection of the place, nor do I remember having any desire to see it again. You call this strange and unnatural; perhaps it was, but then our home at Ashwood was very retired indeed, a sunny nook in a quiet comer of this busy moving world. Beyond the rector and his wife, we had very few neighbours. Lucy and I had only each other to play with while Arthur was away at school; and when he returned for the holidays, we were happy indeed.
So quietly and peacefully the narrow, waveless stream of our life flowed on, and we were happy and content; not knowing any other, we cared not to have it widened. I do not think this circumscribed life of ours did any real harm to Lucy; with me it was otherwise. I suffered, where she escaped untouched; for we were very different, very unlike each other.
Hers was a frank, sympathetic, trusting nature, that easily attached itself. You could not help loving her if you tried. She would creep into your heart like a little bird, and there make a green little nest for herself, even before you were aware. My disposition, on the contrary, was shy, reserved, and cold; or, rather, my affections were not easily stirred into warmth. I was slow to open my heart, and I opened it only to a few; but for them I had a kind of passionate worship, that would have considered no sacrifice too great, no self-renunciation too impossible. But, ah! at Ashwood my love had never been put to a severer test than the little daily efforts to please my gentle aunt and cousins. Beyond them I wanted no one else; I never cared to make friends. Even my father’s name, that name which above all others, should have had a sacred shrine in my heart (I say it now in all the anguish of a sorrowful shame burning at my breast), had little power to kindle any emotion there. And so, when one day the news had come to us that he was going to marry again (a widow lady, with an only daughter a little older than myself) it did not please or trouble me. I received it calmly and quietly, as something I had little concern in. But when, a little later, a letter came telling of their arrival in England, and that now he had returned home he wished to have his child again, I felt as if a heavy blow had fallen upon my heart, and only yielded as to a cruel necessity. Dreadful to me was the thought of leaving my aunt and cousins, of changing my calm, unruffled life at Ashwood for a new existence among strangers, for they were all more or less strangers to me.
And so, as I said before, we three sat round the fire very late that night. We heard the clock in the hall strike the hour of midnight, and still we never moved. I think each of us in her secret heart dreaded to be the first to break up that last home conference. Lucy, with an expression of touching sadness in her sweet face, sat looking into the fire far more gently and submissively than I into my future life; whilst dear, kind, Aunt Rachel would now and then try to cheer us by some pleasant, hope-assuring word, though I could see that her own eyes were growing dim while she spoke. And so at last we said good night, once more and for the last time; and once more Cousin Lucy and I lay down to sleep, side by side, in the two little French beds with rosebud curtains, in that same dear room we had called the nursery long ago. Before the sun went down again we were many long miles apart. The old life was gone; and Aunt Rachel’s fond, earnest blessing, and Lucy’s tearful embrace, were all that remained to me of the happy home days that would never come back.
Well, I arrived at the old house at Riverbank, that house which had been my mother’s home for nearly all her married life; yet my heart refused to recognise it as my own. My father met me in the hall and said, “Heffie, you are quite a woman; I am glad, very glad, to have my child again.” And my stepmother greeted me kindly, affectionately; and Agnes took my hand and said (with her eyes looking kindly into mine), “shall we be sisters?”
And so they took me in among them; and day by day they strove, with tender words and loving deeds, to win my wayward, sullen heart, that still remained shut up within itself, closely as ever door was locked and barred.
Day by day they strove with me, constantly, patiently, but in vain; because I would not strive with myself. The old life was gone—the old life around and within me; and instead of trying to read calmly the new leaf that lay open before me, I only stained it with my tears, and kept ever in my memory, turning again and again the pages I had for ever finished. I lived and moved in a kind of dream, seeing and hearing, yet taking no heed of what I saw or heard. I spent hours in my own room, reading over and over again the books Lucy had given to me the night before I left them. Most of them we had read together, she and I; and now I must read alone; and often, as the short winter afternoon was growing dark and cold, a sick, dreary feeling would creep over my heart—of miserable loneliness, that seemed consuming me in its very intensity. Ah! had I not brought all my trouble upon myself? No; I was not pretty, like Agnes. I knew that, and my father knew it also; and he was proud of her, I could see; but not proud of his poor, pale little Heffie. It was always Agnes who went out to ride with him, who was ready to walk wherever he liked, who read to him in the evening when he was tired. Why was it that I was seldom with him, that I never read or sang to him for hours as she did? Because I had a false feeling in my foolish heart that he could not love me, could not care for me. How should he, when I was so little to him, and she so much? So days grew into weeks, weeks into months, and summer came once more, once more to gladden men and women and children’s hearts, with long days of golden sunshine, and soft cool dewy nights. Yes, summer came once more, and with it came a change in my life, my self-inflicted, lonely life. One morning I received a letter from my Cousin Arthur, saying that his mother and Lucy were going to spend the next three months with some friends in Scotland; and that if his uncle and Mrs. Leigh would kindly receive him for a little while, he would so very much like to come and spend his summer holiday at Riverbank. He longed to see me again; it would be like a coming back of the old days.
“Yes, Heffie, certainly,” said my father, when I gave him Arthur’s message, “let him come by all means. We shall be delighted to see him; it will make a pleasant change, a very pleasant change for us all.”
As I rose to leave the room I saw his wife’s gentle eyes turned on me with a kind, half-pitying look I had often seen there of late, and heard her say (when she thought I was out of hearing), “Poor child, I am glad she will have this pleasure. I long to see a little colour in that pale face; it is too young to look so sad.” And my father answered, “Yes, it is too young; life should not be difficult at seventeen. Oh, Margaret! I have a great fear haunting me sometimes.” And here he lowered his voice to almost a whisper, so that I heard no more; and I hastened up-stairs to write my letter. What was this great fear that haunted my father? I could not tell. I had often remarked lately (as I said before) my stepmother’s eyes watching me with an anxious, half-pitying expression; and once or twice I had seen them fill with tears when she thought I was not noticing her. Did this great fear haunt her, too ? Three days passed by, and Arthur came—pleasant, cheerful, kind, Cousin Arthur. How my heart bounded at the sight of him, at the sound of his fine manly voice, that seemed to me like an echo from the old life,—the old life that was gone. All was changed during the few weeks he stayed at Riverbank. It was as if some kind fairy had come with her magic wand and touched the hours, and turned them into gold. I felt almost quite happy. Something of my old self seemed to have come back. It was a season of strange, wonderful gladness—a short, happy dreaming, that went too quickly by—and I awoke crying, to find it over, gone.
I knew he and Agnes liked each other from the beginning; nothing was more natural. Many of their tastes and pursuits were the same. And so it happened that day by day there grew up between them a sure, yet silent sympathy, so sure and silent that for a long time neither was conscious how much the other was helping to make the sunny June of life more bright and sunny still. Week after week went by, till we counted six, and then Arthur’s leave had expired, and he must return to London. The last evening came (how far away it seems, now as I look back). I was sitting alone in my own room, not reading or writing, or hardly thinking; but listening listlessly to the dull patter of the rain against the window, for it had been pouring all day.
Presently I heard a knock at my door, and Arthur entered, saying he wanted to talk with me. He had hardly seen me since the morning. “Dear Heffie,” he said, “I want to tell you something, something that I want you to feel glad for. Can you guess?”
“No. How should I?”
“Well, then, Agnes has promised to-day to be my wife. Say you are glad, Heffie, won’t you? You used to be glad years ago when I brought home a new prize from school; but now you do not speak.”
“Arthur, I am very glad.” I said it with my lips, but a voice in my heart answered, “No, Heffie, you are not glad; you know you are not.”
Because that moment had revealed to my heart a secret it had been keeping from itself, a secret it had not dared to discover; but now it had stolen out from the dark, silent corner where it had hidden itself away, and, standing out like a giant fierce and strong in the broad open daylight, it stared me in the face mockingly, cruelly; and I saw that it was an idol I had been bowing down to, a pillar I had been leaning on for strength; and the idol was crumbling, the pillar was falling, and I, who had leaned too long on that one support, was weak (oh! how weak) now it was gone.
Arthur stayed with me for a long while that evening, talking of many things,—of Agnes most of all. He asked me to be kind to her when he was gone, to show her love and sympathy for his sake.
He knew not he was asking me to do a hard thing. The next day he was gone, and Agnes moved about the house quiet and subdued, as if a little shadow had come to dim her sky for a moment; while I, who had no right to grieve, yet grieved more hopelessly. Now, at the distance of nearly twenty years, I can look back calmly on that time, as on the recollection of a troubled dream, from which the awakening was tranquil as the clear shining after rain. But then there was no shining, no rest, no comfort. The next few months that passed before the winter came (that was when the wedding was to be) were very dreary ones to me. There was a little brief while indeed, in which Aunt Rachel and Lucy paid us a visit on their way home from Scotland; but when that was over I felt even more lonely than ever. My heart was more than ever closed to Agnes. I felt towards her as if she had done me a cruel wrong; as if she had stolen from me something that might have been mine; that I would have valued, oh how pricelessly!
One afternoon, near the end of November, as I was sitting in the library with my father, he looked up from his newspaper suddenly, and said, “Heffie, my child, I wish I could see you happy, really happy. I cannot bear to see that pale face of yours day after day without a smile upon it. Can you not borrow a little sunshine from Agnes?”
I did not answer for a few moments. Then a desperate resolve seemed suddenly to shape itself into words on my lips, and I said, “Let me go away, father; let me leave Riverbank. I can never be happy while I stay here. Let me go.”
“Let you go away, Heffie! What can you mean? Where do you want to go?”
“Anywhere, father; anywhere! I will be a governess, or a companion. I will do anything; only let me go away.”
“Why, Heffie, you do not know what you are saying. Are you in your senses, child? What makes you so unhappy? Tell me.”
“I cannot, father; I cannot tell any one. But, oh! I want to go away! I want to go away!” And in the passion of my entreaty I sobbed bitterly.
“Heffie,” my father exclaimed half frightened, “what is the matter? Are you ill?”
Just then the door opened, and Mrs. Leigh entered the room. She tried to speak to me: but I rushed wildly past her into the hall and up-stairs, never pausing till I reached my own room, and there, sinking on the floor beside the sofa, I pressed my head against the pillows and wept as I had not wept for a long while.
Presently I heard a step in the passage. Some one knocked at my door. I did not answer, or even raise my head; I dreaded that they should see my tears. Again the knock was repeated; but I never moved. At length the door opened, and I knew, without looking back, that it was my stepmother who stood near me. She laid her hand gently on my shoulder, saying, “Heffie, my poor child, what is the matter? Are you ill, or in trouble, or has any one been unkind to you? Do tell me.”
But still I did not move, but kept my face buried in the sofa pillow.
“Heffie,” she said again, and this time there was even a little sternness in her voice, “Heffie, listen to me. I must speak to you; I must know what all this means.”
Her manner quieted me in an instant. I let her raise me from the floor, and, seating herself on the sofa, made me sit beside her, put her arm round me, and drew my head to rest on her bosom. She did not try to stop my tears altogether: they were flowing more quietly now; but I was cold and trembling, though my head was burning; and, taking one of my hands, she gently chafed it in her own without speaking a word for some time. At last, as I grew calmer still, she spoke again.
“Heffie, dearest love, why will you not tell me what is troubling this poor little heart so much?”
“Because, because I cannot tell any one. I must not; indeed I must not. Nobody could help me if I did.”
“Is it so very bad, dear,—so incurable? Oh, Heffie! I would be to you in your dear mother’s place if you would let me,—if you would open your heart to me, and trust me as you would have trusted her. You are too young to bear all this grief alone. Will you not trust me with part of it, at least?”
What right had I to all this tenderness from her, those words of sympathy,—I who, for nearly a whole year, had coldly cast away the love she would have given me? Did I deserve it now? I knew 1 did not; but that last appeal—so tenderly, so earnestly made—seemed to touch somewhere in my heart a chord that had never thrilled before. My proud, wayward heart was bowed in a moment, powerless to close itself any longer; for she had found the right key, and used it skilfully. Yes, after a year’s hard striving (cold and resisting on my side, patient and gentle on hers), I was conquered at last; and, subdued and humbled as a penitent child, I lay weeping in her arms, depending on her love. And there, in the shadow of the dark November twilight, I told her all my trouble: no, not all, only a part; but she (with the quick insight of her woman’s sympathy) guessed the rest. She did not say many words to comfort me. She only said, “My poor child!” But I could feel her silent sympathy far more than words. I felt it in the closer pressure of her arms round me, in the touch of her hand on my hair as she tenderly stroked it from my forehead, and pressed an earnest kiss upon it.
“You are very young, dear,” she said at length, “for such a hard battle; but you will gain the victory if you will ask for strength.”
I knew not how long we remained together that evening. I can dimly remember trying to raise my head to ask her forgiveness for the past, and being hardly able to speak for the burning pain in it. And I remember how kindly she helped me to bed, and sat by my side for a long while, till she thought I had fallen asleep; but the next few days I can very faintly recall: they are almost a blank in my memory. I knew that I was very ill, and at one time in danger of dying. I lay in a half-sleeping, half-waking state, having no part in the life that was going on around me. My dreams were restless and distressed; always haunted by that one image—the pillar I had leaned on too long for strength. Once I thought my cousin Arthur and I were walking on the side of a precipice: it was dark and foggy, and every step I was afraid of falling. At last I felt the arm I leaned on growing weak; but I thought it was still strong enough to support me. By degrees, however, it seemed to give way; my foot slipped, for the mist was in my eyes, and I felt myself falling. I cried out in my agony of fear, “Oh, Arthur, save me! do not leave me!” And then in my distress I awoke, to see Agnes bending over me, while she bathed my burning forehead.
“What is the matter?” I said. “Have I been ill? Where am I?”
“In your own room, Heffie dear. You have been ill; but you are better now,” she answered.
“Oh, yes, I am better now. Have you been near me long?”
“Mamma and I have both been with you. We want to make you well and strong again.”
“Do you? I thought you could not love me. Why do you stay with me?”
“Stay with you, Heffie! Why should I leave you? You would not send me away, would you?”
“I thought you would hate me. I was unkind, cruel to you.”
“Hush, Heffie, that is all over now. Let us try to forget it, shall we? But here is Dr. White coming to see you.” And at that moment the door opened, and my stepmother and the doctor came in.
I will not dwell on those days of weakness, and weeks of slow recovery, that were ended at last. I have said that that time, as I see it now, was a troubled evil dream, from which the awaking was calm and tranquil as the clear shining after rain. Yes, the shining came at last; the battle was won, because the strength that won it was not my own. Well, the day arrived—the wedding day—his and hers. I saw them kneeling side by side, and heard the words, “I, Arthur, take thee, Agnes, to be my wedded wife.” And in my heart I blessed them, him and her. And so they went away to London, and I tried to fill her place at home; tried to be to them what she had been; and they were very kind and patient with me, and would not let me see how sadly they missed her.
Nearly twenty years have come and gone since then, and many things are changed. My father and stepmother are sleeping side by side in the quiet village churchyard at Riverbank. The old Hall has been sold; but, as the new owner is now abroad, it has a melancholy, deserted look.
Arthur and Agnes have a sunny little home in Devonshire. They are very happy in each other; very happy in their one child, whom they have named Heffie. She is now a fair girl of eighteen, with the image of her mother’s youth upon her. And as I gaze into the blue depths of those true, earnest eyes, I think, half-mournfully, half-thankfully, of the old days at Riverbank.
Aunt Rachel has left her pretty cottage at Ashwood, for the new rector and his wife have begged her to make her home with them, the rector’s wife being Cousin Lucy.
And I, reader? my home is a small lodging in a quiet street in London—London, “that gathering-place of souls,” as Mrs. Browning has I have only two rooms; but they are snug and pleasant enough. And here I live, and write books, and make verses, very thankful if now and then I am allowed to add my little drop of help or comfort to the sea of human charity around me. And I am happy; for though my cup may never be full to the very brim, still I know it is fuller (how much fuller!) than I deserve.