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A young girl sat on the sunny beach of a southern shore. The deep liquid blue overhead; the glittering, heaving, false sea before; and the arid, scorching coast behind, with its scanty adornment of grizzly cactus, or fierce-bristling aloe. She was a fair English girl, with sunny hair, and full, grey eye. A guileless, loveable young face it was, as it looked up at the sound of steps approaching on the shingle.
“What, just where I left you an hour ago! Are you scorched to death? The sun is singeing your white umbrella.”
“You said you would come back, Marston, so I waited for you,” was the gentle reply to the somewhat impatiently spoken address; “but let us go in now; I am very tired.”
“Well, really, Marion, it’s your own fault; no one ever expected you to sit in the sun all this while; come in, and let us try that new song I got yesterday.”
Poor Marion was very tired; but, instead of resting in her room, as she felt very much inclined to do, in ten minutes she was at the piano, patiently working away at the song which Marston (who was not a bit tired) intended to sing that evening at a private concert.
To the practising succeeded visitors, to the visitors the table d’hôte, at which Marion’s evident fatigue attracted her aunt’s notice. She dismissed her to lie down, till it should be time to dress for the concert. As Marston lighted a candle, and gave it to her, he said, kindly:
“I believe I was very unmerciful to you this evening; I did not know you were really so tired.”
He spoke with concern; and the foolish little heart was so happy, that, instead of allowing him to be slightly penitent, which might have done him good, she hastened to console him by saying she was only sleepy, and it was not his fault at all.
“Dear child!” said Aunt Howard, as the door closed upon her, “how unselfish she is! You will be a happy man, Marston.”
“I intend to be,” was the curt rejoinder, as the young man carefully selected a cigar and stepped out on the verandah.
Marion Maitland had been sent to England as an infant, to her aunt’s care. Her mother remained in India, putting off her return from season to season, always, when the time came, unwilling to leave her husband. At last she really did embark; but when Mrs. Howard took the little Marion to Southampton to meet the steamer, and to restore the child to the mother, she was met by the sad intelligence that the poor lady had died of exhaustion on the voyage. The little girl, therefore, remained under her aunt’s charge. Mrs. Howard was worthy of the confidence reposed in her by her brother. She loved her niece, and acted by her—it would be too much to say judiciously—but, at least, as she would have acted by her own child.
Dr. and Mrs. Howard had been long married; they had no family. The Doctor had adopted as his own, his younger brother’s only son; the Marston already introduced to the reader. The uncle intended the young man for the Church, hoping he might one day succeed him in the living he held—a family one; but Marston’s talents and predilections all pointed him out as fitted more for the Bar than the Church. Possessed of superior, if not first-rate abilities, he made his way slowly but surely on that up-hill road. Before Dr. Howard died, he had the gratification of seeing his nephew established in his self-chosen profession, with a fair start. Mrs. Howard had, from the first, warmly seconded her husband’s views with regard to his adopted son. She was strongly attached to him, and after the Doctor’s death, her house continued to be the young man’s home. She was a good, amiable woman, not wanting in parts. Her life had been chiefly spent in the society of men of education and letters; and though not herself scholar or artist, she had in no mean degree, what men of talent value, the power of appreciation. Her peculiar failing was an inordinate appreciation of the master sex. Like most failings, it was only a merit in excess. It arose from her profound affection and veneration for her own lord and master. Attributing to him all perfections of soul and intellect, she charitably and generously endowed all other lords with the same; and invariably—from an honest conviction, not from cowardice—leaned to the stronger side.
Woman she regarded—and truly—as the complement of man; but it is doubtful if her mind ever embraced the reverse of the proposition.
Her own life had been one of voluntary and entire surrender; happily for her the hand on the reins had been uniformly steady and light.
This influence had, of course, worked on the young Marion, and had not been without effect on Marston Howard. As Marion grew up there was frequent talk of her going out to rejoin her father. But the General was often on active service, and looked forward to settling down by-and-by in an English home, warmed by the sunshine of a daughter’s love and care. He shrewdly guessed that bringing her over to India would not be the most direct way to ensure the accomplishment of his hopes, and therefore begged his sister to continue her guardianship until he could come home himself to claim his daughter.
A word now in praise of Marion. Gentle and submissive, she had aptly learned her aunt’s oft-inculcated lesson that obedience is the first virtue of woman. She always yielded to the slightest wish of those placed over her; and this habit of deference, united to a sweet, courteous manner, made her a general favourite. Pliant, however, as she seemed and was, Marion was yet a vertebrate animal. She sometimes, not often, refused to bend at the first summons, and questioned, timidly but pertinaciously, matters which her aunt would have had her receive, as she herself received them, as articles of faith. Such questionings were usually addressed to Marston, for whom she entertained, as was right and mete, a profound esteem and admiration. Him and his acts and fiats she never questioned; that would have been a presumption at which she would have started aghast. And she was in truth much indebted to her cousin by adoption. Marston was a deep thinker, a good linguist, a man of much general information and refined tastes. As a youth he had made the child his plaything and messenger; as a young man he had found the graceful girl a very pleasant attraction to his uncle’s house. Half unconsciously he had called out her dormant powers, and opened to her paths of study and reflection which she had patiently followed up, occasionally coming to him to lift her over some difficulty which she could not surmount alone. She had thus become an intelligent companion; always glad to be conversed with, grateful for instruction, and humbly obliged for her cousin’s notice. What wonder that by degrees Marston Howard came to the conclusion that his pretty cousin Marion was the woman among all with whom he was acquainted most fitted to be the helpmate of a rising barrister? She was intelligent enough for a domestic whetstone when such an article was in demand; accomplished enough to adorn her—no, his station; pretty enough and graceful enough to make his house attractive; rich enough to make an addition to his means that would be very advantageous at the commencement of a career. So he resolved to marry as soon as Marion should have completed her nineteenth year. It is not certain whether he ever expounded his views on this subject to Marion. Mrs. Howard had long ago destined the young people for each other, and there came to be in time a sort of tacit understanding on the matter.
About three months before Marion’s birthday General Maitland fixed the period of his often-postponed return, and named the mail by which he was to be expected. After so many years of residence in a hot climate, it was considered hardly prudent to re-commence his European life by an English winter. Therefore, in the autumn, Mrs. Howard took her niece for a tour on the Continent, resolving to wind it up in the south of France, there to wait the General’s arrival.
“Has Giuseppe brought the carriage an hour too soon?” said Mrs. Howard, as she heard a confused noise in the hall, and distinguished her name, “or is it—yes!—my dear, dear brother!” And General Maitland and Mrs. Howard met after a separation of thirty years.
Marston lifted the heavy striped curtain and stood against the moonlight; the opposite door opened and Marion entered; behind her a servant held a lamp high to light her young mistress. The Italian girl’s deep rich colouring, with the orange handkerchief on her glossy hair, contrasted well with the signorina’s pale muslin,—a white rose her only ornament. Another moment and the child was clasped once more in her father’s arms.
The first days of such reunion are not a happy time. The reality falls so far short of the anticipations formed, no matter how carefully those anticipations may have been curbed and guarded.
Friends feel, after long separation, that a rift has opened which letters have never plumbed and scarcely spanned. Each dreads to open an old, remembered wound, that perchance has healed long since, and scarcely left a scar; but the sudden start shows him too late that some chance-thrust has probed a newer, unsuspected anguish to the quick.
What meetings there are, too, in the cruel, unnatural, Indian life, when father and daughter, mother and son, even husband and wife, meet almost as strangers. Such meetings are worse than partings; for in most partings there is hope: in these meetings, too often, only chill disappointment.
Marston Howard derived less pleasure from the General’s return than his aunt and cousin. He began to be uneasily conscious that possession is not nine points of the law. Possession of what, though? Of Marion’s hand and heart. But he must ask confirmation in this possession of her father; and what had he to allege in support of his claim? Not her promise, for he had never sought it; and to seek it now would be ungentlemanly.
Chance relieved him from the dilemma. Mrs. Howard, in speaking of Marion one day, associated Marston’s name with hers, as she had long been used to associate them in her own mind. It was spark and tow.
“Eh? What? That young fellow got his eye on my little girl? Confound his impudence! A likely matter! Just as I’ve come home, old and broken down, to enjoy her myself, to think I’m going to give her up to a scamp of a—”
“But, my dear brother,” interposed Mrs. Howard, timidly.
“Not a bit of it; let him come and tell me himself; I’ll not keep him long for my answer; I’ll tell him what I think of him—talents, fortune, forsooth!” and the indignant General strode to the other end of the room and back, pulling his grey moustache.
“’Pon my honour! I’ve heard it said that men are selfish—I deny it. I never was selfish; but those young fellows are, to want to leave me alone—stealing her little heart from her old father! And the child—has she given herself away without my consent?”
But poor Mrs. Howard, terrified at the storm she had brought down, hurried away, her handkerchief to her eyes, just as the chief offender entered, umbrella in hand, from his morning walk.
“Hallo! you, sir!” shouted the General; “a word with you, Mr. Howard, if you please,”—the irate tones of the soldier subsiding gradually before the cool dignity of the civilian.
What passed between the two gentlemen never transpired. Marston’s announcement that afternoon, that he was going on a three days’ shooting excursion into the hills, was probably one result of the interview: the General’s intimation to his sister that “Howard was a very fine young man, straightforward, and gentlemanlike,” was another.
Innocent Marion, who was recovering her playfulness as the first awe of her tall father wore off, made herself very merry about her cousin’s proposed expedition, and maliciously speculated whether his bag would suffice to provide one day’s game course at the table d’hôtel.
Something in Marston’s manner, as he bade her good-night, made Marion pause on the stairs, and look back at him; and as he, too, looked up, she kissed her hand, and said again, in sweet accents, “Good-night—good-bye!”
The young man stood still till the last fold of her dress passed from his sight. A weight fell on his spirit: and when he re-entered the sitting-room, he felt that the first shaft of sorrow from the bow of life had penetrated the joints of his armour.
Mrs. Howard began to sigh for home. General Maitland and his daughter were to proceed to Italy—all to meet in the spring in Paris or London. The pleasure of making out routes, and looking-up maps and hand-books, kept Marion’s mind from dwelling on the parting. The General’s resolves were sudden; his decrees irreversible. On the third morning a travelling carriage, packed and loaded, stood at the door of the hotel. The six white horses kicked and shuffled, and shook the bells and tassels of their quaint head-gear, as the men in blouses crept in and out between their legs, violently but vainly endeavouring to disentangle that rope harness, that always was, and always will remain, in hopeless complication.
The General stood on the steps, in two great-coats and a plaid, superintending with authoritative gestures; the dashing Neapolitan courier, black-bearded and ear-ringed, gesticulated wildly; Myrawd, the General’s body-guard, a slim, graceful kitmutgar, in white robe and crimson turban, stood calmly observant under a palm-tree. Her father called “Marion,” quick and loud. One more embrace from her mother-aunt, and she came down the stairs and entered the carriage. The prim English maid was already in the front calêche; the courier sprang to her side; the native, complaining neither of sun nor wind, mounted behind. The maître d’hôtel, bare-headed, shut the carriage door; the postilions lashed whips; and, kicking, screaming, rattling, jolting, the six horses and lumbering vehicle dashed off.
Not till they had left the glaring level road, and commenced a long ascent, did Marion raise her veil and speak. Then face and voice were both in order. Her first words were very consolatory to her father:
“How sorry poor Marston will be to-night to find us gone!”
General Maitland then told her that Giuseppe had returned late the night before, with a note. Mr. Howard had received a telegram from his clerk, summoning him in all haste to town: he expressed many regrets at being obliged to leave his aunt to Giuseppe’s escort.
Marion enjoyed her journey. She thought it very pleasant, travelling in such ease, with her father lavishing on her every care and attention. Past beautiful Monaco, lovely Mentone; along the giddy Cornice, with the white spray dancing below—to lordly Genoa; and over the blue Mediterranean, through squalid Civita Vecchia, to Imperial Rome. Letters passed regularly between the old capital of the world and the new. Marion did not write to Marston; she never had written to him, and it did not occur to her to do so now. She concluded that he would see her letters to her aunt, in which there was generally some special message for him, to which she received a message in reply.
Rome was an unfathomable enjoyment to Marion. Well read in its history, with unwearying pleasure she explored its ruins, tracing the old classic landmarks. There, patriots sacrificed self-interest, or life: here, mighty orators swept the many-stringed heart of the multitude with master hand. There, heroes bled: here, martyrs suffered in a nobler cause, and died triumphant over a mightier enemy, even death himself. A holier, deeper interest yet, filled her heart as she threaded the dark labyrinths consecrated by the memory of the saintly dead; pausing before the rudely sculptured cross, and martyr’s palm, or sacrificial lamb, and winged sceptre;—emblems of suffering and victory, death and resurrection.
The tastes also which Marston had awakened, ripened rapidly in the atmosphere of gallery and studio, and she drank deep draughts of exquisite delight from the rich, clear, harmonies pealing through vaulted aisle and pillared nave.
Nor was her father an uncongenial companion.
General Maitland was a man of education and intelligence: he remembered well the lessons of his youth. After long years he had brought back to Europe something of that boyish eager interest in things new and old that one sometimes sees in elderly men whose lives, though outwardly stirring, and wearing to the bodily frame, have not been drained by constant anxiety or sorrow.
In his youth General Maitland had made the grand tour; which, by the way, meant a great deal more then than now. He had associated with men whose names live in history; he had seen the whirlpool of Europe in which dynasties went down; and even dipped his oar in the outer circle of the seething waters. Truth to tell, he had worn his recollections of these days and things somewhat threadbare, and did not always give to the separate points their relative proportions. To some he gave an undue prominence (chiefly with the meritorious design of proving the superiority of those times to these; as an artist exaggerates a part to give force to the whole); while others that militated strongly against his views were gradually subdued and forgotten.
The veteran’s preface: “When I was taken prisoner in 17—,” had come at last to be the signal for rising from table.
It must be confessed that his ideas on many subjects did not march with the times. He depreciated modern literature, which he did not read; he was, therefore, totally unprepared for, and horribly scandalised by theories and principles which he hotly contested; then found, to his dismay, were universally recognised, and accepted as dogmas. Perhaps, this sojourn on the Continent, where, though the newest theories are sometimes hatched, they obtain less widely, and are discussed less freely—was a good preparation for England, where the sudden shock to his prejudices might have driven him desperate; or, back to Bengal by the next mail! It served as a sort of ascending temperature preparatory to the final fusion.
Sometimes—not often, but at gradually decreasing intervals—the father’s mind and the daughter’s came into collision. The younger set up a signal on the scene of the disaster, to exercise caution in future: she did not forsake her own line, and carry on the traffic by another’s.
Marion Maitland’s mind was progressive, keen, and of good strong fibre. She was essentially a woman of to-day. A woman; not a girl: for her powers of mind were strengthening daily: she grew fast. There is no better finishing-school than travelling.
The heart has to go through its preparatory schooling, its college course and final examination, as well as the intellect. It needs a longer education—perfection is a yet more distant goal—it awaits the award of a higher tribunal. The heart is bound to a longer, harder apprenticeship than its younger brother the head. Its books are men; its tutors many: all guided and directed by its Master, Judge, and Maker; who, alone holding the key to its wondrous mechanism, alone chooses and appoints His agents in the work. Numberless are His instruments: but on all hearts alike He, in His sovereign wisdom, inflicts, sooner or later, the “sharp surgery of pain.”
Marion had never known sorrow. Tenderly guarded, solicitously cared for, she had grown up in tranquil sunshine. To the coercion of stronger wills she had indeed been subjected; but in her case this had been salutary, as the stake and brambles to a sapling.
Her affections had been restricted to a narrow circle: they were the more intense. A great heart can hold a great deal: love is diffusive. But a child’s heart is not great: it is warm and soft. Its love deepens and refines, if restrained for a time from spreading shallow in too wide a bed.
The daughter had her father’s sympathy in all her pursuits and pleasures. Her warm response to his love called forth all the best qualities of his heart, whilst her grace and talent gratified not only his paternal affection but his pride. Yet there was one topic on which she soon learned to dread his chilling coldness. Any allusion to Marston Howard was met by a short reply or depreciatory comment. She owed him much; she was grateful and generous; the cause of the absent was sacred to her, and her heart rebelled against her father’s injustice. So she spoke of Marston less often; and, as a natural consequence, thought of him more.
It was the cloud, “no bigger than a man’s hand,” heralding the storm that was to wrench and strain, but root the young tree. Amid antiquities, arts, balls, and operas the winter passed away. To the motley revel of the Carnival succeeded the ecclesiastical gaieties of Lent. Easter fell early. The season was unusually severe. On Easter-eve General Maitland received a telegram announcing his sister’s sudden death, and summoning him to the funeral. To leave Rome at that moment was impossible. The Campagna was flooded—the communication by sea perilous and uncertain. A week’s delay made the journey useless.
The blow fell heavily on Marion. It was the first time she had come to close quarters with Death—heard the twang of the bowstring and felt the shriek of the air as the bolt sped to its mark.
She drooped. The usual remedy was prescribed—change of air and scene: in other words, mental excitement and bodily fatigue, till exhaustion of both moral and physical powers supervenes. The case becomes complicated: more doctors are called in, and if one of them happens to be a man of discernment, he orders “letting the patient alone;” if not, decline solves the difficulty.
It was May. The Maitlands occupied one of the lovely villas of Sorrento. Marion rested from the mid-day heat on the piazza, shaded by umber-striped curtains from the ultramarine sky. Her gaze travelled over the orange-gardens and the bay, and rested on the unseen. Her father paused beside her sofa.
“Papa, when shall we go home?”
“Next week, if it please the signorina,” he said, kindly; “but I thought you liked this place?”
“Who would not, papa? But we have been so long away from home.”
“And where in England shall we pitch our tent? Come, let us sit in council—you know more about it than I do.”
She smiled—a more animated smile than had gladdened her father’s heart for weeks.
“You want to turn shepherdess?”
“I am very fond of country life; but you would never live out of London.”
“I’ll try—I can run up and down by train, you know.”
“I do believe, papa, you are as eager to try the Great Western express as a boy to try a new kite.”
“Yes, and to see machinery at work in the great manufactories.”
“Ah! you are to take me to Manchester. We must ask Marston to go with us, he understands all about manufactures and factories and such things.”
The General took snuff.
“I think we need not trouble Mr. Howard.”
“Does Marston never write, papa?”
She spoke with an effort that brought the rose to her cheeks; she was determined to break the spell that seemed to stifle his name on her lips.
“Aye; he writes. What’s that fool Jacopo doing with the watering-pot?”
“Does he never send a word to me?”
“He sends his—kind regards.”
“Kind regards! I should as soon have expected him to—”
She stood, indignation and perplexity blended in her expression.
“His compliments would be too formal to one he has known from a child,” resumed the General. “He is overwhelmed with business—I wonder he recollects polite messages at all.” And he entered the house.
Marion looked ill and weak next morning. Her father felt guilty, but said to himself that she would get over it; so he ordered his horse and set off for a long day’s ride, to be out of sight of her pale sad face.
The longing to be “at home” gave her strength and energy. In three weeks’ time they were at home—if that term can be applied to an hotel in Piccadilly.
On the fourth day Miss Maitland was alone in the drawing-room when the servant announced “Mr. Howard.” Sadness and a slight reproach were in her voice as she greeted him.
“So long before you came!”
“This is my third visit—”
“You are very good to call so early, Mr. Howard,” said General Maitland, entering at the moment. “I am at your service at once.”
And with something about “military dispatch,” he carried the visitor off to his business room.
One evening her father placed a lithograph, such as land-agents have in their offices, on Marion’s desk.
“Tremawr? is it not, papa?”
“You like it?”
“I used to think it a lovely place when the K——s lived there.”
“I am glad you like it; I have taken it on a long lease.”
There was much to do; furniture to be bought; an establishment to be formed. General Maitland was indefatigable in attending his daughter from warehouse to warehouse. He gave her carte blanche for the exercise of her taste, and her recollections of Tremawr guided her choice. Marston sometimes was of the shopping party, and Marion would soon have fallen into her old happy intercourse with him, but she was conscious of a formality in his manner that checked the ease of her own.
In due time all was ready for departure, and, amid piles of luggage, General Maitland strode up and down the Paddington platform. Marion sat in the waiting-room.
“At last,” said a well-known voice, and Marston stood by her side. “Why do you avoid me, Marion?”
“Yes; I am kept from seeing you on the most trivial pretences. Are they another’s, or your own?”
“Not mine,” she answered, colouring deeply, and looking down.
“Then, you are the same, Marion?” he continued, eagerly. “You care for me still?”
He had put out his hand; she placed hers in it.
“Did you think I could forget so easily, Marston?”
“There is the bell; may I write to you? God bless you, Marion!”
They reached Tremawr by evening.
“The country air has done you good, already,” said her father, and certainly she looked like her old self again. He did not know the secret spring of joy that caused the bright smiles.
The letter came. General Maitland had left home for two days, on business, so Marion could rejoice over it to her heart’s content.
But she was obliged to tell her father of it on his return.
“Papa, I have had a letter from Marston Howard.”
“The deuce you have! And what does he say for himself?”
“He asks me to be his wife, papa.”
“And you have given him your answer?”
“I wait for you to endorse it.”
She had turned very pale.
“Then write and decline, with thanks. Here is my desk—write.”
“I cannot write that, papa.”
“What? Eh? then I’ll write for you.”
She moved from the escritoire.
“I will write for myself; you can enclose it in yours.”
“Very fine; and call me a tyrant; fancy yourself a victim?”
“I will tell him the truth.”
“And pray what may that be?”
“That I love him,” she answered, proudly.
He said no more. When, an hour later, she brought him her note, he put it in his envelope and sealed it in silence.
She received one more letter from Marston: it was harsh and bitter. He accused her of coquetry in their last interview; “if she had not intended to accept him, why have allowed him to write. As to obedience, the wife of a professional man,” he was well aware, “could not command the luxuries to which she had grown accustomed. He did not doubt she had chosen wisely.” With scalding tears she read the cruel words; then threw them into the flames, and prayed that they might be forgiven him.
The life at Tremawr was retired. Miss Maitland had too many resources ever to feel time hang heavy upon her hands. The clergyman and his wife were old acquaintances, and soon became friends, worthy of regard and trust. Dinners and visits to the neighbouring country houses relieved the monotony of winter, and the facility of intercourse with London kept the General from feeling dull. He took pleasure in the country life; inspected his stables; demanded vegetables from the perplexed gardener at impossible seasons, and played at farming: his daughter was sometimes startled at the rate of mortality in mutton, but forbore remark.
She had trusted that time would soften her father’s feelings towards Marston Howard. Of the cruel wound she had herself experienced at his hands she kept the secret. Winters and summers passed away, and still, though he did not seem untouched by his daughter’s gentle and dutiful demeanor, he made no allusion to the past.
Once again she saw Marston. They were travelling in the Highlands, and were detained by a mountain storm at a wayside inn. A party of pedestrians entered the kitchen to dry their plaids. She heard his voice, and a companion called him by name. “What’s to be done, Howard? Mrs. Marston won’t thank us for keeping dinner waiting.” Whom could he have meant? Her father thought she had taken cold, and hurried her home, desiring her maid to nurse her well. She was glad to escape his scrutiny. She supposed afterwards that he too had seen Marston, for he said, “I don’t hear of Howard; I suppose he’s getting up in his profession: he’s a clever fellow, but I suspect with a heart as hard as his head. A proud, selfish man.”
We may not crouch on the steps of our broken altars, and let the weeds grow and the cobwebs thicken round us; whilst we sleep in selfish torpor the halt, and the sick, and the blind, and the sorrowing toil past, needing the succour which we could give. We may not hide our talent in the earth, for how then shall we answer our Lord when He reckons with us at his coming? So Marion rose, and girt on her armour, and found that life had work for her to do, and a blessing to bestow.
Her idol was dimmed—tarnished, but not destroyed. Sorrow and disappointment did not sour her generous nature: it mellowed and refined it. Her own grief made her pitiful and loving to all who needed sympathy. On rich and poor alike her care was lavished: the young and the old came to her to share their trouble or their joy. Nor could her father complain—however willing at times to find fault—that he was in any danger of being neglected for others. All engagements were made to yield to his convenience. As his health grew less robust, and his temper more and more irritable, his demands on her time and patience were often harassing and unconscionable; but her sweetness of temper was proof against all vexation, and sometimes drew an apology even from him.
The children from the Rectory ran up the garden one morning, as she was tending a favourite rose-tree.
“Dear Miss Maitland, only think where we went yesterday! We had a whole holiday, and papa took us to B—— to see the manufactory. And it was the treat that the children have every year; there were such crowds of people in the park—”
“A nasty, black, cindery place! I spoilt my nice lavender boots,” interrupted a little girl.
“You shouldn’t have gone in them,” retorted her brother, then hastened on with his story. “And they had games and roast beef—I mean the men and women had dinner, and the children had tea and cakes. And there was such a nice gentleman, a Mr.—Mr.—”
“Howard,” said the little girl.
“Yes, Howard; and he told them such pretty stories about children working for their parents, and taking care of them, and all that, you know, and talked to them, and so did papa. And then they all went to the Town-hall, that is, the grown-up people did, and papa says that he—I mean Mr. Howard—gave such a beautiful lecture to the masters about being just to their men, you know.”
“Well, that was but fair,” said a second boy, who had not spoken, “because he had told the men all about their duty—”
“And what did he say was their duty?” asked Miss Maitland, who saw some remark was expected from her.
“That they were to serve, not with eye-service as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, doing service as unto God, not unto men,” answered the boy, with reverent voice.
“And wasn’t it funny,” added the sister, “when he knew we came from Tremawr—he used to be here long ago—and asked so many questions about it, and you too—”
“Not so fast, Cissy; your imagination is running away with you,” said Mrs. Wilmot, who had joined the group. “Mr. Howard only asked who was at the Hall now, and when he heard he seemed glad to know that it was any one who was active among the people.”
Mrs. Wilmot had a tolerably correct understanding of the state of affairs; at the secret sorrow she of course could not guess. She thought the children’s account of their holiday, and their new friend, could do no harm; it might gratify, and could not grieve.
Mr. Wilmot was warmly interested in all measures of factory and prison discipline and reform. He had always found Miss Maitland a ready listener; he now (on a hint from his wife) kept her supplied with Reports and Returns, so that she was soon quite up in the subject. To her surprise and pleasure she found her cousin’s name in the foremost lists of those who not only gave the movement their countenance and approval, but their active assistance and furtherance. He was no longer a sympathiser merely, but a toiler in the good cause.
His labours for the weal of his fellows seemed to have no special limit, or definition. All outcasts, in or out of stone walls, apparently came in for a share of his attention. Here, four or five; there, ten or a dozen; elsewhere, a score or two. Marion was rejoiced; she could imagine no trace remaining of the old self-worship to which, after all these years, she could now give the right name. A man who loved himself first of all, would hardly devote all his leisure to so unengaging a work.
Nor was it his leisure only that was willingly offered. Hours and days were taken from his profession, in which formerly it had been his dearest ambition to achieve fame. There was real sacrifice here. And she was struck, too, by the unambitious, almost private manner in which he seemed to carry it on. Seldom, or never heard of at popular meetings, his work only came to light now and then. The organised army of philanthropists, with commissariat and baggage waggons, when they came, in their march, to a tract of land which they expected to find particularly sterile, were occasionally surprised to find the ground well broken up, and ready for the crop. Marston Howard had but small funds at his command, and no apparatus but heart, head, and hands. Like that unappreciated husbandman the mole, he ran his galleries hither and thither, turning up fresh earth to air and light: when he heard the noise of the pickaxe, and knew that other agents were at work, he was satisfied, and turned his own course in a new direction.
Marion was rejoiced. But there was a question that would rise to trouble her, and would not be trodden down. These out-door interests did not argue a cheerful fireside; yet, there was an occasional covert allusion hardly perceptible to a less keen observer—to an impulse given by a woman—a dear friend—as by one lost; then again, ever at hand. Her memory travelled back to the Highland inn. Who was that Mrs. Marston?
General Maitland was in town in June, 1857. He used a cane now when he walked, and had a habit of looking on the ground: his sight was not so good as it had been. Thus, it came to pass, that as he mounted the steps of a club-house, to call on a friend, and opened the heavy glass doors, he pushed against a gentleman coming out.
“Your pardon, sir?”
“Ah! Mr. Howard! glad to see you: have not met for many years.”
Marston answered a few words, and then, pleading an engagement, the General asked him to dinner next evening, at his club, and bowing, left him.
To dine with General Maitland was an honour which Marston Howard would rather have declined: it would be disagreeable to him: but a voice stronger than inclination, less severe than duty, prompted him to accept the invitation.
At seven, therefore, precisely, for he did not desire a tête-à-tête, and knew his host’s military punctuality, Mr. Howard presented himself.
There were, besides himself, a brother officer of General Maitland’s, a much younger man, and one on whom the eyes of Europe had rested;—a splendid soldier, and a quiet, courteous gentleman. Also, his brother, a barrister, and a man of some literary reputation. The party was well assorted; the dinner excellent; the wines superlative. Conversation never flagged, and was above the average. The varying ages and professions of the company averted the gossip, not to say scandal, which would inevitably have entered, had all four been “old Indians.” Beyond inquiries after their host’s daughter, no allusion was made to Miss Maitland. Marston listened for her name in vain. He had not known how his heart longed for it.
That night, even as they sat over their wine, in the luxurious dining-room, came the earthquake shock, that made the pulses of England’s great heart stand still for a moment;—the horror that made the firm earth reel, and Europe sicken and grow pale.
And after the first reverberating blow, in the awful hush arose clear and shrill, and ever gathering force, the trumpet call to arms! Justice and Mercy grasped one blade; every sword sprang from the sheath, and Britain’s sons went forth to avenge her slain.
The notes of the réveille kindled the yet hot blood in the veteran’s heart. He panted like a charger for the din of the battle-field. The next mail-steamer that left Southampton numbered General Maitland among her passengers. Oh! what anxious eyes and throbbing hearts watched that vessel leave the dock. Slowly at first, as if reluctantly following the little impetuous “tug;” then, in the broad water putting out her own vast energies and steaming on alone. What a priceless freight of brave hearts she carried; what love and prayers followed in her track, till the last cloudlet of her hot breath melted on the blue horizon! And a woman, gentle and brave, was with him.
“I have none but you, father,” she said; “take me.”
Fugitives flocked to the capital as boats to a harbour of refuge, from the black storm thundering in their rear. In that first agony of sorrow and dismay hearts and doors were opened wide. And then the shattered fragments of the wreck came drifting in.
Suffering and sorrowing, destitute and desolate they came: was ever such a lazar-house of human woe? And amongst them all, one of a self-devoted band, binding up their wounds, and pouring balm into their bleeding hearts, moved Marion Maitland.
The Indian moon shone broadcast on the deep river, flowing past the flowery lawns and sleeping country houses of Garden Reach, on to the city of palaces; lighting up Corinthian pillars, and sculptured architrave, where the adjutants stood in lines, motionless as sentinels; silvering the bayonets of the guard, and flooding with white light a lofty chamber in a stately mansion.
It glanced on polished mirrors and carved furniture, and on a woman kneeling—a letter in her hand.
The veteran’s sun had set in blood-red glory; and his daughter was left desolate.
She was urged to go home.
“I have no home,” she answered, sadly; “why should I hasten away from hence, where I can be of a little use to some more lonely than myself?”
So she stayed; and after the first bitterness of grief was past she returned to her self-appointed work. She remained at her post many long months. The nature of her work underwent a change, but it was still arduous, and such as not every woman could have undertaken.
About this time she wrote to Mrs. Wilmot:—“I often dwell on the memory of the tranquil life at Tremawr. Only last Christmas, and what a change! I think some of the mysteries of life have been solved to me since then. I now know why, to some of us is ordained that long, galling period of inaction, that seems to eat away the very pith and marrow of our prime. Is it not that there awaits such a moment, a mere spasm, perhaps, of such intense exertion, that the forces of a lifetime concentrated into that space are but sufficient to provide the vital energy requisite for that demand? How often do we chafe and fret to use our strength—we feel so strong and eager to be up and doing! But if we leave our stand till our name is called, when the bugle summons us to the work for which we are destined, our little force is spent, and we are useless. It is not flattering to our pride to learn that our boasted power is after all so weak, capable of so little endurance, good for so short a time. Give my love to Cissy. Tell her not to complain of her time as ‘lost in the school-room;’ not to ask again the ‘cui bono’ of music, German, Italian, and all other things that she may have the happy privilege of learning. Ah! that ‘cui bono!’ how have I wearied myself with that dreary question? I used to preach to Cissy of these things, but I fear I wrought little good; my texts were but theories then. Tell her I have proved them now. No knowledge, no experience is lost.
“Many a time in this sad year I have been, O! so thankful for my familiarity with German. So many sufferers of the middle class have come under my charge—poor creatures to whom the sound of their mother-tongue, and the liberty of expression it restored to them, worked almost a cure. Think of the pain of spelling out the griefs of a bereaved heart in a foreign, unfamiliar speech! And one Italian I shall never forget. He had been a cook in a great hotel; his wife and children had been barbarously murdered; his wife had spoken English, he knew no word of any language but his own beautiful Tuscan. O! if Cissy could have seen that poor man’s tears of joy, her hand have felt the kisses with which he strove to speak his gratitude for the little service I was able to render him, she would never begrudge the few hours’ trouble of preparing for poor old Signor Brizio’s lesson.
“I have arranged to leave India before the next hot season. It will be long before I see dear England again; shall I ever have the courage to return to Tremawr? Two friends with whom sorrow has united me very closely have persuaded me to spend some months with them in the south of Europe. The health of one will not bear our northern climate yet. I believe that with them I shall be in the path of duty. You shall hear of my further plans. Adieu!”
Towards the close of her residence abroad, Marion received from India a relic of her father’s, which she greatly valued—the General’s old camp-desk. It had been lost in the confusion of a campaign, and accidentally recovered by an officer—an old friend—who forwarded it immediately to Miss Maitland. Many tears fell on the worn leather and yellow papers. They were chiefly military memoranda and accounts which she could not decipher. As she was closing the desk again her eye fell upon her own name in her father’s handwriting. She drew out the letter eagerly, trimmed her lamp, and sat down to read. It was evidently his farewell, written at intervals snatched from rest. Some passages were not complete. The last paragraph was dated the eve of his last battle, and bore no signature. With what exquisite sensations of thankfulness and comfort the daughter traced those blurred lines! He reproached himself bitterly with having so often thwarted her wishes and subjected her to his own whims. He said his last days were embittered by the thought that but for him she would not now be alone and without a protector. He asked her forgiveness for the pain he had inflicted. “But,” he went on, “my daughter will believe that I was sincere in my desire to secure her happiness. I did not see in Marston Howard then the man to whose keeping I could confide my treasure. I judged him wrongly, perhaps. I now see I judged him wrongly, and I acted very harshly and despotically by you, my child. Your patient endurance, your generous, entire forgiveness, your sweet cheerfulness melted my heart. I bless you, Marion, for all you have been to me; and if you are yet to be—as I pray you may—the sunshine of another’s home, as you have been of mine, think sometimes when you are happy of your poor old selfish father, and forgive him all his faults, for he loved you,—
“Ask Marston Howard for his forgiveness, too; I would die in peace with all—
“Tell M. H. that he will find my . . . . codicil—”
The ants had destroyed the rest of the sentence.
The dreary March afternoon is drawing to a close. London is cold and windy and dusty and cheerless, even at the West-end: far worse in the great barren squares inclosed with sooty houses, once handsome, but now more dismal even than their pert stuccoed rivals in the new quarters.
In the middle window of one of those faded grand drawing-rooms there stands a writing-table strewed with papers. The room is lined with books; books from wainscot to ceiling; books between the windows; books behind the door; books on the tables; books under the tables. Only one part is free from them. Above the mantelpiece and on either side are some choice engravings. By the fireside is a well-worn easy-chair, and on a handsome Turkey rug in the front of the fire lie a beautiful tortoiseshell cat and her kitten. They were the only comfortable-looking things in the room. The immediate precincts of the fire were evidently the “drawing-room”—all the rest was “office.”
A gentleman sat at the writing-table in the centre window, of whom it would have been difficult at the first glance to guess the age. Not old, by the firm set of the head on the broad shoulders and the vigorous hand that rested clenched on the desk; nor young, for the hair on the temples was grey, and the lines of the face were deeply worn, the expression stern, except when a rare smile revealed the kindly light in the eyes. He had let the ink in his pen grow dry as he sat musing, his head on his hand. Then he roused himself with something between a groan and a sigh—not of vexation nor of impatience, as at some transient annoyance, but as if some deeply-rooted sadness oppressed him.
There was a sound of softly-falling steps on the stone staircase, and a timid knock at the door. To his hasty “Come in” a lady entered, dressed in soft dark furs. Marston Howard rose and offered a chair, but she advanced.
“It is I,” she said. “You do not know me?”
“Yes, I know you,” was the answer spoken through the teeth. “Why are you come?”
“To fulfil my dear father’s last commands.” And she held the letter towards him.
“Aye; obedient still!”
He repented the bitter words before they were well spoken. With a grave but gentle inclination the lady turned to the door.
“Forgive me! Stay! O, Marion!”
She led him to the chair by the fire, and held a glass of water to his lips in silence.
“My Marion?” he whispered, hoarsely.
“For ever!” was her low reply.
“And have you always lived in these dreary rooms?” she asked, one day, after they had been talking long over the sad past and happy future of love and mutual confidence.
“Yes; my cousin Marston and his good little wife sometimes took pity on me.”
“Then she was Mrs. Marston!”