Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A dream of love - Part 1
A DREAM OF LOVE.
A STORY IN TWO PARTS.
My Grand Uncle interrupted me in the concluding paragraph of the Parliamentary debate which I had been reading aloud to him for the last hour; “Amyce, tell Butterworth to have the Alcove room prepared for to-morrow—I expect company.”
Never before in my short life had such a direction been given to me, and I dropped the “Times” in astonishment, and glanced inquiringly up in the old man’s face. If I had not stood in habitual awe of him, I should have poured forth a throng of eager questions.
We were sitting together in the old library at Cloyse Towers; my great uncle, Sir John Cloyse, a shrivelled, yellow-skinned old man, with prominent features and beady black eyes, crouching into the corner of the old-fashioned, high-backed chair which stood close to the fender: and I,—a sandy-haired girl, whose pallid face and grey eyes laid little claim to admiration,—only separated from him by a small round table on which rested a pair of ponderous silver candlesticks.
I had been brought up at Cloyse Towers, and I was reputed to be its heiress. My great uncle had voluntarily adopted me when, a puling, miserable infant, I was sent home from India on my parent’s death. In childhood I had been submitted to the guardianship of old Mrs. Butterworth, the housekeeper, a trusty, kind-hearted dame, who had been for many years at the head of the establishment, and even older than my uncle, was wont to regard him with a maternal affection that was often ludicrous and sometimes touching. She was a good old soul, blithe as a lark, and, despite her fourscore years, as active as a young girl. I believe she loved me better than all the world beside, saving and excepting her master, and to him she was literally devoted.
He was a strange man,—shy, reserved, gloomy, misanthropical, and, since of late years he had been incapacitated by severe attacks of rheumatic gout, subject to fits of nervous irritability which were peculiarly distressing to himself and all around him. I scarcely know how I should have endured life in that melancholy old house, and subjected to so many depressing influences, had it not been for the sunny disposition of Nurse Butterworth. She could not indeed entirely remove the clouds which separated me from my uncle, but she lightened them, over and over again, by recitals of his love and affection for me—love and affection felt, she said, for he was not a man to show warm feelings to any one, and I am sure she kept up his interest in me by sedulously repeating every anecdote which redounded to my credit, and by minutely describing every promising trait in my character. What sunshine I had had in my life had been flung on it by that dear old woman. From the days she used to devise dolls’ feasts, and send for the little Carmichaels from the Vicarage to share them with me,—herself making peace with my uncle when he discovered the intruders, and vowed that he wouldn’t have a host of other people’s nasty brats bothering in his house, and leading me into mischief,—to yesterday, when she had despatched the garden-boy into the nearest town to change a novel for me at the library, old Butterworth had been my firmest and best friend.
I had had governesses without end and at fabulous salaries, but none of them ever found their way to my heart in the same manner; perhaps they never stayed long enough to make themselves beloved. One after another they had left, wearied out by the dullness and monotony of life at Cloyse Towers. The school room was up-stairs, and looked out on the courtyard; no visitors came near the house and we were allowed to go nowhere, not even to walk beyond the grounds. On Sundays, we sat in a high square pew surrounded by curtains, which it was a capital offence to displace; we always went to church early to escape the throng of people, and came away again after the village congregation had dispersed. At home we were left entirely to ourselves; my uncle avoided the sight of every stranger; I rarely shared a meal with him during the governesses’ reign, and he never came near the schoolroom, or if he accidentally encountered the governess, he would turn off into the nearest room to avoid her.
One very smartly-dressed Frenchwoman, who lived for six months in the house, never saw him but once, and that once was merely a passing glimpse through the keyhole. But then he had a peculiar dislike to her, and always took to flight on the first indications of her rustling garments. I have seen him stand with his hand for full ten minutes on the lock of the library door, listening intently before he would venture to go up-stairs, if he fancied she was about; and even when he did make the attempt, it was with nervous, hurried steps, and eager glances from right to left. Indeed the suffering he experienced during her residence in the house was so unbearable, that he finally resolved to put a stop to it, by emancipating me from the schoolroom altogether; so Madame Defarge received an intimation that her services were no longer in demand, and I, a month after my seventeenth birthday, was elevated to the post of my uncle’s companion, to a place at the head of his table, and the privilege of spending in his society the long dreary hours which intervened between a six o’clock dinner and bedtime.
During the earlier portion of the day I was left very much to my own devices; I breakfasted and spent the morning alone, for he never appeared before luncheon time, when there was invariably some special excuse for grumbling over the basin of beef tea which formed his mid-day repast. The broth was either too hot or too cold, under-seasoned or over-seasoned; or, failing the broth, the day or the fire was too hot or too cold, or there was an east wind, or I didn’t take wine enough, I eat too many strawberries, or I sat crookedly in my chair and handled my fork ungracefully—to tell the honest truth, the sight of Uncle John’s shaky form, descending the wide staircase with emphatic jerks, was no welcome vision to me, any more than the heavy pit-pat of his silver-headed cane on the marble pavement of the hall was an agreeable sound.
For he was not the sort of person to win the love and sympathy of a fellow-creature, least of all of an impulsive young girl, who was jealous of affection and easily repulsed by a rough tone. Many a time when I had been moped and miserable from long solitude, and had almost pined for the sight or sound of a human being, I had tried to get up some feeling of warmth or welcome for the old man, my only relative, who, in his turn, was nearly as friendless and lonely as myself. I had met him with a longing to fling myself on to his breast and kiss his wan, wrinkled face, to try if words of tenderness would break down the barriers of his reserve. But, alas! in vain; the impulse died out at the sound of his cantankerous voice; when he coldly extended his claw-like hand, mine dropped into it as nervelessly; nay, I generally retreated in alarm,—for was not even one glance at me sufficient to draw forth some disparaging comment upon my appearance? “Did I call my hair tidy? Were those crushed sleeves fit for a lady to wear? Another time, perhaps, I would oblige him by putting my collar straight, before I made my appearance in the dining-room!” Oh, heiress though I was, I think few penniless girls could have carried such a heavy, mortified, unblessed heart as I did many and many a time! What a relief it was to go and weep away all the sorrow and disappointment and yearning on Nurse Butterworth’s loving breast, to have all the trouble soothed away by those kindly tones, which stood to me in place of the tender endearments of mother and brother!
“Amyce Cloyse,” my uncle reiterated that spring evening, in a voice of angry displeasure, indicating, with the point of his cane, the unfortunate paper which I had let fall in the astonishment induced by his communication: “What is the meaning of all this? Cannot you listen to what I have to say with the composure of a lady? Lift up the ‘Times,’ if you please; that rustling is particularly disagreeable to me. And, good gracious, young lady, can’t you bend more gracefully? What stooping, what a rounded back, what elbows! Do you know, Amyce Cloyse, your education has cost a fortune—a fortune, do you hear! And any reasonable creature would have thought that your governesses would at least have taught you how to pick up a newspaper from the floor without making a thousand contortions. I will have you ladylike; I don’t expect you to be a beauty, that’s hopeless; but with your expectations you must be ladylike, and you shall be! Ladylike,—what’s a woman who isn’t ladylike, she might as well be a housemaid! A ladylike woman can do anything; she’s always in her place; if she makes mistakes she does so in a ladylike manner which glosses them over, or if she does well it is in the best manner possible—a pretty woman who isn’t ladylike is nobody; a rich woman who isn’t is worse, she’s vulgar; but a ladylike woman, be she even poor, is in good taste, and be she rich, she’s charming, perfect, fascinating—that’s what you have to be, Amyce Cloyse!”
My uncle paused, for he was breathless with his exertions; his speech may be taken as a fair sample of one of my everyday persecutions. I listened to him at first with a shivering sensation, but at the conclusion I almost smiled. I saw a distorted reflection of myself on the polished base of the nearest candlestick. Think of any one expecting me to be fascinating!
Sir John’s keen eyes rapidly detected the change in my countenance, but the expression somehow puzzled him. His wiry voice was doubly peevish as he inquired, “what I was grinning about now?”
Of course I coloured up furiously; of course I hesitated for a reply. I was a stranger to equivocation or excuses, and there seemed to me no course but to tell the honest truth.
“Nothing, Uncle John, only it was so odd to think I could ever be fascinating—I—I’m too ugly.”
“Ugly!” he shouted in the excited tone a mother might have used in defending her offspring.
Uncle John with a groan at his self-inflicted pain, pulled himself upright from the heap of shawls and pillows, and began blustering ferociously.
“Ugly; who says you are ugly? who dare say anything of the kind? You’re not ugly, you’ve fine eyes, Cloyse eyes, and your complexion’s good. If you’d only hold yourself properly, you’d be a striking-looking woman. Plague take ’em, who dare talk about your being ugly. I’ll tell you what, Amyce Cloyse, you will have what would buy up half the pretty women in Christendom. I’ll take care it does! Ugly, indeed!” and he bent forward indignantly and peered straight into my face.
I cannot say his excitement pained me now. If the colour deepened on my cheek, it was only from pleasure at finding my looks a source of interest to anyone. Surely Uncle John must care about me in some degree when he defended me so eagerly even from myself!
He was back again amongst the pillows grumbling and peevish; he had discovered that my white muslin dress was neither well made nor becoming, and he worked himself up into a rage because I did not pay more attention to my appearance.
“Where’s Butterworth—ring for Butterworth. If you can’t see after your own dress, others must do it for you. And yet Butterworth hasn’t much taste.” (Uncle John was doubtless thinking of old nurse’s green merino and the yellow ribbons in her black cap.) “Is there no lady you could consult? I want particularly to have you look your best next week.”
“I might ask Rose Carmichael.”
“Rose Carmichael be hung! Amyce, I won’t have you go near Rose Carmichael; she’s a very objectionable girl, a great deal too pert and forward. I mistrust her, I always did. I don’t like her great rolling black eyes; she’s deep, I’m sure of it. You may believe me, for old dogs don’t bark at nothing,—I had rather see you in rags than decked off by Rose Carmichael!”
“Oh, Uncle John!”
I was as indignant as it is in my nature to be. Rose Carmichael was the only person whom I had ever accounted my friend. She was five years my senior: but for all that we had played together in childhood, that is to say, she had duly carried away the toys I was only too happy to give her, and she had been fonder of eating sweetmeats, saying affectionate things, and kissing people, than anyone I had ever met. Even now-a-days, she made a great many professions of love and regard which I believed to be genuine, and she came to Cloyse Towers whenever I could gain admittance for her, even venturing into my uncle’s sitting-room on a pretence of messages from her father, the rector, and striving to make herself popular with Sir John by unceasing efforts to please him. She offered to sing to him, to read to him, to arrange his cushions, to run his errands; she was always good-tempered, obliging, and charming; and being an exceedingly handsome woman, it was rather singular that she should be such an object of aversion to an old man. Are not old men generally flattered by the attentions of pretty girls? Be that as it may, Sir John took an invincible dislike to her, locked the library door when she was at hand, and all but forbade my receiving her. This had been one of the latest and bitterest grievances of my life.
“Ring for Butterworth,” my uncle reiterated fiercely, and I hastily complied.
Ere the bell could be answered, his tone changed, half shyly, half excusively! Very curiously he asked if I had any idea who the company was to be.
How could I, when never in my memory had a stranger crossed the threshold of the Towers?
For a minute or two he sat silent, strangely disregarding my negative, and I was almost disappointed, for I fancied by his manner he had been going to tell me something about the coming visitor. And even when he spoke again, it was on a topic apparently far removed from the subject in hand. He asked me if I remembered what I had been reading about.
I was caught. I had been getting through my task of leading articles in a monotonous, unthinking way, rendering the words slowly and clearly to suit my uncle’s impaired hearing, but all the while secretly regaling myself with surmises regarding the fate of the dramatis personæ in the novel which I had in hand.
I stammered—hesitated—thought it was something about the beer question. Oh, dear, politics were never in my line.
But either my answer satisfied Sir John, or he paid no regard to it, for he pursued in an animated tone:
“You remember that fine speech, excellent speech it was, clear, concise, forcible reasoning, worthy of the first statesman going. You read it twice over to me, Amyce; you liked it, didn’t you, my dear? Well, it was his, and take my word for it, he’ll be a noted man one of these days. He’s clever, promising, a deep thinker, observes keenly; you’ll be proud to see him here, Amyce, and it will fall to you to entertain him, for an old man like myself can’t do much. You must take the trouble off my hands, and make yourself very agreeable.”
I sat in bewilderment. My poor old uncle’s thoughts travelled far more rapidly than did his tongue. He evidently believed he had given me full explanations, whereas he had only imparted the fact of a visit from some public man, whose entertainment would devolve on me. I cannot say I felt comfortable under the disclosure. Not daring to ask further questions, I ran my eye down the columns of the “Times,” endeavouring to decide which was the speech to which my uncle had referred. How I wished then that I had paid more attention to my reading!
Who could it be? Mr. Cobden’s name was mentioned—could it be he? or Mr. Bright, perhaps? Or, let me see, who were people of note—Lord Palmerston? ah, but he could hardly be called a rising man—or was it?—but I paused, for the footman had summoned Mrs. Butterworth and she was already in the doorway.
My uncle did not notice her low tap, and I had to attract his attention. Glancing hurriedly round and observing her, he suddenly grew confused and uncomfortable, fidgeted his poor rheumatic hands about, threw down his cane, wondered what she had come for, or if anything was the matter.
I had to recal to him his own desire to consult her about my dress.
Oh, yes, he remembered; and he rambled off into childish abuse of my gown and hair-dressing; scolded Mrs. Butterworth about it, scolded me, and ended with a few weak tears because he said nobody cared for pleasing him and he never had things as he liked.
In the midst of all this, Nurse Butterworth had stolen round to the back of his chair and was busily arranging the pillows. It struck me that he shrunk from her eye and was unusually restless under her observation. He kept blustering on about this unfortunate muslin, and from time to time the old woman put in a soothing word.
“Yes, the frock wasn’t a nice one. Miss Amyce should have something smarter for Sunday, there then; wasn’t it almost bed-time?”
“No,” he growled out, turning his back upon her, “he wasn’t going to bed; he wasn’t going to be ordered about like a child, and Amyce should have a proper dress before Sunday—she must have one by to-morrow.”
“Well—well, we’ll see about it, but hardly by to-morrow,—day after, mebbe.”
“But it must be to-morrow. I will have her dressed properly with company in the house.”
Nurse Butterworth stopped short and glanced with curiosity from me to him. She, even better than I, knew that her master had refused to see anyone for long and dreary years.
Poor old Uncle John drew the fold of a tartan shawl close to his face, and seemed inclined to cover himself up altogether. I wondered what there was in the mere word company to discompose him so strangely. In half compassion to him, as well as the half hope of enlightening Butterworth, I ventured to say that a gentleman was coming to-morrow, and that Uncle John wished her to see that the Alcove room was made ready for his reception.
“A gentleman,” she enunciated slowly and drily, “and can you tell me what his name is, Miss Amyce?”
“No, I don’t think Uncle John said,” I was replying, when with an effort, Uncle John himself dropped his tartan shawl, and still averting his face from the housekeeper, explained:
“You’ll remember the name, Butterworth, it is Mr. Hedworth Charlton.”
“So?” and the sound which the old woman’s lips emitted was something between a whistle and a sigh.
Uncle John turned round quickly, and their eyes met. His dropped immediately, hers sparkled with intelligence; but the next moment she was saying something in her every-day voice about them new coals making a deal of nasty white ashes in the grates; and when we both directed our gaze to the fireplace, the old woman beat an unceremonious retreat from the room.
After she had left us my uncle leant back in his chair and closed his eyes, and, fancying that he had fallen asleep, I laid aside the “Times,” and drew from under the heap of papers at my side a certain large-printed volume with “Mudie’s” name on the cover, which I had concealed there when I heard his step in the hall after dinner. Like all young girls, I dearly loved a novel; but, having a shy conviction that this light kind of reading would scarcely be in accordance with my uncle’s peculiar views, I carefully kept my studies from his observation. I should scarcely have ventured to bring out the book now, had I not firmly believed him to be unconscious, and, moreover, been myself extremely interested in the tale.
Now, having once or twice glanced hastily up to assure myself he was sleeping, I luxuriously resigned myself to follow the adventures of my heroine.
About an hour passed away, and the silvery-voiced clock on the mantelpiece arousing me to the fact of having already outstayed my usual bedtime, I closed the volume and turned round to my uncle’s arm-chair.
To my surprise, he was wide awake, resting his chin on his hand, and gazing intently at me with his keen black eyes.
“What are you reading, Amyce?” he questioned, in a softer voice than it was his wont to employ, and his hand was out-stretched to receive the book.
I felt my cheeks burning, and instinctively my fingers folded tightly over the volume.
“Oh, Uncle John! you will think it such foolish reading.”
“Why should I, Amyce? I’ve been young myself, and enjoyed a novel, too—come!” and I had no alternative but to resign the treasure.
He spread it open on his knees, turned over a page or two, I standing at his side in shame-faced confusion. There was no harm in the story, only I felt that he must be laughing at its sentimentality and love; and, weak and girlish, I could not endure ridicule.
But, to my relief and almost astonishment, he returned the book with a half-sad smile, and laid his wizened hand upon mine with such a gesture of tenderness as he had never before granted me in his life.
“Poor little Amyce!” he said, “so you’ve come to the age of romance already, have you? Well, never mind. But don’t be frightened of me, child; I don’t mind your reading a good novel or two, it is a natural outlet for young feeling that is better evaporated. Better reading of love than thinking of it. But I flatter myself I’ve guarded you from that danger hitherto—eh?”
And in the feeble smile that flickered over the old man’s face, I fancied I read self-complacency at having so sedulously protected me from dangerous acquaintance.
I returned the smile, for my heart was as clear as day, and unable to resist the impulse which his betrayal of affection had awakened, I bent down and gave him a far more hearty salute than was my customary Good-night kiss.
I suppose I took him by surprise. I scarcely knew whether or not I pleased him, for he drew himself hastily away, pushing me rather ungraciously to one side, and in his most gruff and uncompromising voice bade me summon Stephen to put out the lights.
I felt cruelly repulsed, and collected my newspapers with lowered eyes, feeling ashamed of the mortified tears which struggled behind the lashes. One drop of moisture fell down on the open sheet, and I angrily dashed it away.
But in repassing his chair I could not help facing my uncle, and then my feelings had a quick reaction. I saw that the old man’s eyelids were red with suppressed emotion, and that his thin blue lips were trembling like a little child’s. Oh! he did love me then after all, it was only his harsh manner which concealed his heart!
I knew his nature well enough to avoid noticing his softened mood, but with my novel under my arm stole quietly up to my own room.
My little maid—a protégée of Butterworth’s—was waiting to undress me. But I was glad to dismiss her, and sit down and think over the unusual occurrences of the evening. The prospect of a visitor at the Towers was equally exciting and alarming—if his entertainment devolved on me, what could I do? I had no idea how to amuse people, especially gentlemen. I wished I had had Rose Carmichael to help me; but that was quite hopeless when Uncle John disliked her so much. Then that unexpected betrayal of my uncle’s affection for me recurred to my memory, and I felt very much tempted to cry about it. It convicted me of so much past coldness and ingratitude. Why hadn’t I taken the initiatory step long ago? How much happier we might both have been had I done so.
Instead of getting into bed, I sat down on the hearthrug and went on reading my novel. By and by I was at the end of the first volume, and the story had reached a most interesting climax. I longed to continue it, but, alas! the second volume was not here. I remembered leaving it on the writing-table of a little up-stairs sitting-room, which had been given up to my use when the departure of Madame Defarge enabled me to do away with the school-room.
This sitting-room was removed from my bed-chamber only by the length of the passage, and in my extreme anxiety to continue the story I determined to venture there. My uncle’s apartment was next to mine, but he was so deaf he was not likely to hear my footsteps; and carefully shrouding my candle with my hand, I stole along the passage and gained the sitting-room—“my lady’s boudoir,” as Butterworth always called it, for she remembered it by the name it used to bear in the days of Uncle John’s mother—that was nobody knows how many years ago.
It was a pretty little room, with a large oriel window facing the flower-garden; the walls paneled, and with handsome, carved oak cornices and skirting-boards; quaint oak furniture, tapestry-seated chairs and stools, and a wide old fireplace in the corner, over which hung a small picture in an oval frame. This picture had long been my admiration. What its intrinsic value or excellence might be I know not, but there was something so touching and beautiful in the thorn-circled head which it represented—something which so fully realised my girlish conceptions of the Saviour who had been in one, a God of Love and a Man of Sorrows, that I could never gaze upon it without quickening pulses.
Once I had questioned my uncle on the subject, and he had said that the picture had belonged to his mother, and had been painted by some unknown French artist, and he called my attention to the black-lettered scroll which formed part of the oval frame, and bore this short inscription from the French Sainte Ecriture:—“Je t’ai aimé d’un amour eternel.”
I quickly found the volume of which I had come in quest, and was about to leave the room, when I heard a sound of the opening and shutting of my uncle’s door, and saw a stream of candle-light falling across the passage. In one moment’s nervous apprehension, I blew out my own candle and darted back into the boudoir.
I heard the steps coming nearer, the heavy pit-pat of Uncle John’s cane. He seemed advancing in this direction, and afraid of being caught novel-reading at such unorthodox hours, I crept behind the heavy curtains of the oriel window, hoping that he would pass the door and give me the opportunity of returning unobserved to my room
But no such thing. He came straight into the boudoir, closed the door, and through a crevice of the curtain I could not fail to mark the traces of stormy agitation on his wrinkled face. He was in a long, gaudy-patterned dressing-gown, and his slippers flapped noisily as he shuffled along. His thin, white hair was disarranged, and after he put down his silver candlestick on the writing-table, he drew out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. There was no one now to mark his weakness, and he was not afraid to indulge it. For some minutes he sobbed like a child, and my heart throbbed sympathetically though in perplexity, for what could there be to affect him thus visibly?
How bitterly annoyed I was with myself for not having had moral courage to meet him in the first instance. Now I was a prisoner against my own will, and compelled to be an involuntary spy on his actions. For a moment the notion of confessing my presence suggested itself to me, but I quickly relinquished it as impolitic. In my uncle’s weak state I dared not run the risk of startling him, as I must inevitably have done, by speaking or moving. Hidden in the curtain, I ran comparatively little risk of discovery, only when my uncle came quite close to me and began fitting a key into the little carved oak davenport, which stood in the narrow space between the window recess and the wall, I could scarcely stifle the loud beating of my heart or the sobbing of my breath.
I leant against the wall, I fancied I was going to sneeze, and all the blood rushed to my face in agony. Uncle John’s slipper momentarily came in contact with my foot, and I recoiled horror-struck. He pushed a fold of curtain out of his way and it fell back against my face, almost stifling me.
He had been busy for some minutes—I wondered what he was doing, and ventured to advance my eye to a crevice in the moreen. I heard the crackling of paper. I saw that he had lifted up the davenport lid, and was hunting through the drawers. Those faded work materials, entangled wools of many colours, morsels of silk and velvet, rusty scissors, thimbles, trinkets, evidenced a woman’s presence in days gone by. I remembered how Butterworth had told me that this davenport had been constantly used by my grandmother, Uncle John’s mother; probably then the things had never been disturbed since her death.
Amongst the stores Uncle John had now found a bundle of old letters, tied together with time-yellowed pink ribbon. He had drawn forward a chair, and was reading them one by one, his eyes moist, the hands which held the open sheets trembling so painfully that he was compelled to rest them on the table.
I could not decipher the writing, but I stood near enough to distinguish that a woman’s clear, delicate hand had traced the characters, but so long ago that the ink was faded to a pale brown. There was not time to search through the whole packet, and presently the old man was gathering the letters together again, and striving with his feeble fingers, to knot the ribbon around them.
What had he discovered now, so carefully stored away in that sandalwood box?—Only an old-fashioned, long, white kid glove, that was mildewed by age—such a tiny hand as it must have fitted, and how dainty had once been the gold embroidery which surmounted the sleeve part—oh, well a day, where was the wearer and who had she been?
The sight of that old relic overpowered my uncle, he actually wept over it. He drew out the crushed fingers, he spread them upon his own horny palm, he even raised them to his lips. It would seem that some bygone vision came before him with that discoloured glove, for his eyes lightened, his cheek glowed, and his poor thin lips kept moving incessantly as if addressing some one.
Outside the door was a passing footstep. Uncle John did not hear it, but something was dropped in the corridor; there was a rattle as of a falling extinguisher, and he started violently, banged down the lid of the davenport and listened.
The steps were coming nearer; I distinctly heard Nurse Butterworth’s short dry cough; then the door of the boudoir was jerked open, and the old woman stood on the threshold, a very grotesque object to look upon.
She was in her night attire, her bare feet stuck into a pair of unlaced boots, a quarter of a yard of white drapery coming into view between these and the blue flannel petticoat which her short calico bedgown surmounted. A few thin, gray curls struggled from beneath a wide-frilled night cap, and a black bonnet finished off her costume, and gave peculiar effect to it. If I had not been in mortal terror of discovery, I could not have restrained my laughter.
“Good gracious, Sir John, what a fright you have given me, to be sure, sir,” she exclaimed, in the reproachful tone a nurse might have used in correcting a disobedient child. “What are you doing here at this time of night, and in the cold, too, and with them rheumatiz?—come, sir, go to your room, and let me see about something warm for you. Oh dear, to think that as soon as my back’s turned you’re in mischief! And I’d never have know’d, and you might have catched your death of cold, if Jane hadn’t seen the light under the door when she was scouring the backstairs, and comed up and telled me, and I didn’t even stop to put on my gown.” Mrs. Butterworth made this last remark in an excusing voice, and with a downwards glance to the white draperies, for she knew my uncle to be a remarkably shy and modest man, and she paid due regard to his prejudices.
But in the present instance he did not seem to be affected either by her omissions or her apologies. He stood speechless in the corner, like a child enduring correction, and feebly trifled with the lock of the davenport.
“What have you been after?” pursued the old housekeeper. “What—turning over them nasty rubbidge?—bless me, they’d be a deal better burnt nor made such a sorrow of. I don’t say it warn’t a mistake, Master John, but when it’s over and done for, years and years ago, why should you go on a fretting and a making troubles to no use? You’d better give me that key, sir, and I’ll get shot o’ the things an’ let little Miss Amyce have’t space for her gewgaws—it ’ud be a fine exchange. Ye sud think on her bits o’ pleasures an’ her prospects, honey, instead o’ addling over what’s all trash an’ nonsense.”
“I can’t help it, Butterworth. I don’t really care now, only I can’t help thinking,” groaned the poor old man, childishly.
“Don’t care!—can’t help thinking—bless me, Master John, you’ve nothing to care about, and you musn’t think o’ owt but keeping yoursel warm and getting strong. You’d be cured fast enough if ye set yer mind to trying, but not whiles ye go on fretting and grumbling—ye’ll never get free, while yu hug and draggle yer chain that way—snap it off like a man.”
“Oh Butterworth, I do. You know we never talk about it, and it was only to-night I came here, because——well, Amyce and I told you who is coming to-morrow. Now, Butterworth, you’ve no right to be so cross to me; it’s not proper, you forget that I’m your master, and I’m not going to be ordered about like a child.”
“Bless you, Sir John, I’m not ordering you, and I wouldn’t take liberties for owt in the world—its only for your own good, honey. Didn’t I use to nurse you when you was a small lad, and didn’t my poor lady, when she was dying, tell me, ‘Butterworth,’ says she, ‘look to your master, he’s that unfortunate, he’ll want yu’—an’ I’ve done it—come honey, don’t take on, go to bed.”
Uncle John let the faithful, kind-hearted creature take his arm, and lead him away; but at the door he paused, and I heard him saying, “You’ll see Amyce is nicely dressed to-morrow, and you’ll tell her how to behave. You don’t think I’ve done wrong in—you know what, Butterworth? I meant to have told you first, only I forgot. He could not leave London for more than a few days, and I did so wish to see him, and that’s why I asked him to come. And you know he ought to meet Amyce now for—” but the voices died away, Butterworth was closing the door, and to my intense horror I heard her turn the key in the lock outside—I was a prisoner!
I believe I called after them, but no one heard me; the next instant my uncle’s room door banged, and I was in darkness save for a faint line of moonlight creeping through the shutters of the oriel window—in silence, save for the low nibbling of a mouse behind the skirting board. I crept to the door and waited there, in the hope of being able to attract Butterworth’s attention as she left my uncle’s room: but I had a long period of waiting, and was even desperately resigning myself to the prospect of passing the night in confinement, and wondering what excuse I could offer to the housemaid in the morning, when at last the old woman came out into the passage on her way upstairs.
I called her—first too low for her to hear—then with a despairing energy, which brought her quickly to my rescue. She burst the door open and confronted me as I stood trembling on the other side, with a face nearly as white as my dressing-gown. A few words explained my situation and my misdemeanour, and Butterworth divided her efforts between scolding and consoling me. She saw me to my room, made up my fire, and insisted on waiting to tuck me up in bed, that, as she said, she might know I was out of harm’s way; and as for them nasty novels, if I didn’t give her my word of honour never to read them again at improper times, she vowed she’d pack ’em all back to Hemsley to-morrow, sure as a gun—a threat which immediately extracted from me the necessary promise.
“Butterworth,” I whispered, as she bent over my pillow to kiss me, “what is all this mystery—do tell me?”
“What mystery, dear?”
“About those things in the davenport, and what Uncle John and you were saying, and how has it all to do with the gentleman who is coming to-morrow.”
“Hush, Miss Amyce, you mustn’t be curious. You was never meant to know; wait a bit, and mebbe, you’ll be told some day.”
“Oh, but nonsense, I shan’t repeat it; and since I’ve heard half, you must tell me the rest. I’ll promise not to tell tales, and—well—oh, do Butterworth, like a good, kind creature.”
Butterworth had set down her candle and was wrinkling her forehead. I saw the hesitation in her mind, and by throwing in an adroit word of coaxing, gained the day.
“Well, Miss Amyce, then you must not let wit I told you owt about it, but you know that gentleman who is coming?”
“Well, Master John—Sir John I mean—ought to have married his mother a many years ago; she was a very nice, pretty young lady, and they were cousins, and the wedding-day and all was fixed; but master, he thought she didn’t care enough about him, and was marrying him for his money, or some such thing, and he jilted her. And then after all, when it was too late, he found out he had made a mistake, and behaved very cruelly, and he’s never been the same gentleman since.”
“Oh, tell me about it.”
“I can’t, now, its too long a story; but ye see, when master jilted her, Amyce Dillon,—you were called after her, dear,—Amyce Dillon went and married some one else off-hand—just to spite her old love, so it was said, which was very wrong of her if it was true; but I always think her nasty old mother made her do it; anyhow, poor thing, she died brokenhearted when her first child was born. This gentleman who is coming to-morrow is her son—Mr. Hedworth Charlton, they call him.”
“Oh, dear, what a pity—about her dying, I mean. And so Uncle John took her loss dreadfully to heart? I dare say it was her glove I saw him fondling to-night.”
“Likely enough, for he never forgets her. But Miss Amyce, you must really go to sleep, now; good night,” and despite my entreaties Butterworth took her departure from the room.
Long I lay awake, thinking of Butterworth’s story, and the strange scene I had witnessed in the boudoir. Poor old Uncle John, how dearly he must have loved Amyce Dillon. But I wondered why, if this had been the case, he invited to his house a man who was his rival’s son, and bore that rival’s name—was old love so all-powerful as to vanquish bygone resentment?—was the fact of his being Amyce Dillon’s offspring sufficient to ensure Hedworth Charlton a welcome at any price in the home and heart of one who had long ago loved his mother—yes, and injured his mother? For I heard the story in greater detail afterwards. In his youthful days my uncle had had a hasty and passionate disposition. When a trifle light as air roused his jealousy, he had cruelly flung his betrothed from him, paying no regard to her protestations of truth and unchanged love. They parted. The girl’s mother indignantly adopted the quarrel, and though aware of the state of her daughter’s heart, widened the breach between the lovers, and almost forced her into marriage with another. The end is easily guessed at. Amyce Charlton was a wretched wife, he who had deserted her an embittered, disappointed man. Once, and only once again in life they met. It was in a crowded street, and an unexpected encounter with the woman he had loved so dearly withdrew Sir John’s attention from the spirited horse he rode, and he was thrown and seriously injured. And then a woman, Hedworth Charlton’s wife, had fainted, surprised into a terrible confession of interest in one who ought to have been to her as a stranger, and too late—too late John Cloyse learned what a fatal mistake had been his. Amyce died (happily, perhaps, for her) in prematurely giving birth to a son. She died with her husband’s reproaches sounding in her ears, and—as one afterwards told John Cloyse—she died deliriously calling to him to save her. Not once or twice over did she say that he had broken her heart. And perhaps she said truth. It was a sad, sad history; no wonder it saddened all Uncle John’s after life, and made him shrink from intercourse with his fellow-creatures.