Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The strong heart
THE STRONG HEART.
In a great factory, almost grand from its vastness and the might of its machinery, though without architectural elegance or æsthetical design, a long file of girls were working at their noisy looms. Most of them presented the common type of the factory girl, the independence, the self-assertion, the love of snatches of finery in the shape of necklaces and earrings, in the middle of the dusty clothes, with their bursts of gossip and merriment at every pause in their routine. One girl was an exception. She worked in a corner, told off by a necessary angle of the building from the stands of her companions. She preferred that situation, and had selected it without opposition. She was not better dressed than her neighbours; she had the ordinary calico gown, and the cap with which the wise ones protected their heads from the fluff flying through the room. If there was any difference, her dress was more scrupulously clean and more precisely, and primly fitted, and pinned more smooth and neat, than the dresses of the other girls. But she was clearly a woman of a higher cast; you saw it in her turn of features, her expression, her intercourse with her fellow-workers and the manager. Although she was quite a young woman, and not unusually skilled in her trade, there was a tacit respect paid to her, that unconscious demonstration which often marks the difference between inevitable “just supremacy” and unwarrantable usurpation. No one in the Mile-end Mill accused Letty Brown of airs or resented her dignity: and mill “hands” are notoriously shrewd observers. They did not take to her much; they did not like her over much; she was a woman to be trusted and treated with indifference at that stage, by the many as beyond their comprehension and their instincts, and to be loved engrossingly by the few.
In the same way there are characters which by natural impulse, as flowers turn to the sun, turn to whatever of higher intelligence and refinement comes within their reach. It is not respect of persons, it is at the antipodes from sycophancy and snobbishness,—it is simply the like drawing to the like, the magnetism between whatever is brighter and higher in our humanity. So Letty’s friends were often distinguished in one way or another, not by any means always in rank, for she numbered them in the workhouse and the hospital, but they were more or less geniuses in their several orders. One was a poor politician, one a runner after tiny emerald mosses with their brown fairy cups. Letty was taken notice of by no less a person than a clever, managing housekeeper in the family of a wealthy cotton lord; nay, Letty was engaged in marriage to a young man with education enough to be a clerk in the factory where she worked, and not only with such chance advantages in book-keeping, but with that intense love of the beautiful in all its shapes which belongs to some of the tenderest and most dependent of our race. Yet Letty was only the orphan daughter of a mechanic, who had been rather remarkable for his incapacity than for anything else. She must have gone back to some more distant ancestor for her faculties, because Letty was born a rising young woman.
I would like to show you Letty in the physique before she leaves the factory this night, as it happens, never to return. She is not a little sprite of a woman, as it is the fashion of the day to find embodiments of latent power. I suspect the size of the lantern has really nothing to do with the strength of the flame within. Letty was fair and pale—so fair and pale that there would have been something insipid about her person, had it not been thrown into a grand mould. She was a big woman, rendered only slightly ungainly by her compressed drapery. Her face was one of those statuesque faces which are apt to be heavy in repose, but it was an open, noble face, notwithstanding; and when heated and animated it lit up into a positive splendour of beauty, but a beauty more of form and tone than of the clear, cool colour which subdued it, as a painter subdues his brilliance by deep shades and grave backgrounds. It was what some would have called a solemn, cathedral face: yet believe me, when it was blithe, it was with an exuberance and abandonment of gladness, like Rome at the Carnival, and as your stern, good persons laugh, on rare occasions, with a pure sweet passion of laughter.
Above Letty Brown’s loom was the instance of a pleasant fashion, which belongs more to country than to town mills—a bunch of hawthorn, such as those with which old country wives used to fill their grates, was still pearly and almond scented in the dim, loaded air which no ventilators and no open windows could entirely clear. Spring, summer, autumn, winter, Letty’s loom showed such traces. Though she lived in a great town, she was never without her supplies of holly, daffodils, roses, wallflowers. He could not live without such fresheners of his existence, and he lavished them on Letty, who, in her native stateliness and peacefulness, loved them better than she would have done jewels. That night, at the ringing of the factory bell, Letty sorted her loom as she was wont, in her orderly fashion, and went out slowly and singly, lingering behind the riotous troops of her companions, in order to be joined by George Ashe. There he was, by her side, a slight lad, more youthful-looking than Letty, though he was her senior, with that ineffable air of refinement which some people confusedly call a genteel address, and with one of those bright and spiritual faces, set in soft, dark, curly hair, which we are driven to look on in a man with dim doubts and forebodings.
Letty no more dreamt that she would not return to the mill on the morrow than that she would wed George Ashe—an orphan like herself—offhand, without money laid by, taking on their furniture, and launching him at once on a muddy sea of debt. A common measure which Letty, with her abundant sense, held in horror—the more extreme that George did not contemplate it so severely or take steps against it so decisively. He had honest principles but extravagant habits for his station, though they were lovely, lovable habits at the same time, and the two struggled together within the man in equal entanglement and in a kind of drawn hostility.
That very evening—one of the memorable ones in Letty’s life—she went by appointment to see her friend, Mrs. Peaston, whose scullion she had comforted in her visits to the hospital, and whose clothes she had helped to carry from the washerwoman’s when the laundress and the other servants of the great house were busy, and for whom she had procured a sovereign recipe from an amateur chemist for taking iron stains out of linen. At the great house in the suburbs Letty heard that the family were in sharp and sudden distress. One of the sons had been seized with violent illness, and was under active treatment from the doctors, while his relatives and the household generally were struggling more or less with grief and fear. It was not from pure regard to the sufferer—he had been an ill-conditioned lad as ever existed, and cost his kindred sorrow and shame—but they would fain save him from perishing in those pangs of body and mind which were exciting the whole house, and casting down all the ordinary barriers of wealth and station, pride and reserve. Letty Brown would have gone away again immediately, seeing her visit had been paid at an unpropitious moment, but it went sorely against the grain with the girl to quit a scene of suffering: something might be needed from her—there might be something for her to do.
Letty lingered, full of stillness and sympathy, and something was needed from her ere long. An excitable maid-servant employed to convey hot water to the patient’s room, and compelled to witness his agony, fell down in a swoon on the kitchen floor, and while her fellow-servants crowded round her to recover her, Letty carried up the next supply of water in the general confusion. A medical man was endeavouring to restrain the convulsions of the young man, and while he did so he caught Letty’s eye—that rational, full, deep, well-set eye—as she stood on the threshold, and, with an imperative sign, he summoned her to his assistance. He kept Letty hours by the bed, until even her strength was deserting her. Just before he dismissed her he inquired curiously,
“Have you ever seen a case of this kind before?”
“No, sir, never,” answered Letty, thankfully.
“Invaluable young woman that,” he observed, energetically, the moment she had left the room; “firm nerves, quick observation, a kind heart, takes a hint, develops a resource. Probably lost where she is,” he continued, grudgingly. “Should like to tempt her to take service in my ward.”
The words pierced the ears dulled and afflicted by poor Fred’s frightful attack. “Who is she? How did a stranger come here at such a time? A protégée of Peaston’s? Very indiscreet of Peaston. Providential, did you say? Peaston could not know that,” spoke the woman’s sentiment brokenly first; and the man’s reason replied resolutely, “Never mind, my dear, you heard what the doctor remarked; engage her as a nurse for poor Fred if he is spared. Offer her any wages.”
And Letty remained at the post which had presented itself to her. She would have done so without fee, had none been forthcoming. She could please herself, and she was pleased and proud, with a womanly breadth of satisfaction and benevolence, that she could relieve the unhappy young man, though he was only a poor, stupid, vicious, wrecked sot of a gentleman, under the ghastly thunder-cloud of delirium tremens.
In a month from that date Letty Brown went abroad with the Bridgewaters, who, in ordinary, accommodating phrase, had taken a fancy to the superior mill girl, not as nurse to Mr. Fred, who was again partially restored to sense and action, and on his own hands, to the great loss to himself and the smaller injury to society, and who was left behind the travelling party, judiciously, as far as the comfort of the other members was concerned. Letty went as aide to Mrs. Peaston, to Mrs. Bridgewater’s maid, to the head nurse of the young Bridgewater’s. She got higher wages as an amphibious domestic than she could win working in the factory. She would see the world and improve herself, as the quiet young woman had an ardent desire to do, and her George was reconciled to the separation because he could trust her, and he was as proud that she should command these advantages as he was mortified that they should be got without his instrumentality and not in his company.
The next time that we see Letty Brown is with other surroundings, and under a different aspect. The Bridgewaters’ tour had been protracted from months to years, and Letty had tasted a little of the bitterness of hope deferred; but that honourable purse of hers was always growing heavier, and that mind and heart of hers better instructed, and though George Ashe was too true not to want her back to him, he was compelled to submit to circumstances. If you were a light observer, you would scarcely know Letty Brown again—Miss Brown now—in her plain, tasteful, lady-like dress, acknowledged maid to the young ladies, and factotum to the housekeeper. In learning to dress her young mistresses’ hair, Letty had learnt to dress her own—that pale brown hair without any of the red of the chestnut, a little too fair and cold, but which formed, for all you might know no better, so fitting a setting to the large, finely featured, tranquil, sweet face—Juno, without Juno’s jealousies; Minerva, without the divine maid’s pretensions; Deborah, who lived with her husband and judged Israel under the fig-tree; Lydia, who heard Paul lovingly and entertained him nobly. In continual association with harmony and elegance, the former intelligent, reverent factory girl had inevitably imbibed and appropriated a portion of these qualities, until, to her own surprise and annoyance, she began to be mistaken for one of the daughters of the family she served. In daily and hourly conversation with educated people, and even in acquiring those soft Italian words, Letty had got rid of the worst part of her provincial dialect, her illiterate sentences and obsolete expressions. In the thin woollen or cambric gown, with the little collar, the light jacket, the shady hat—a necessity of equipment in the sunny south; able to give a wonderfully artistic opinion of the amateurs’ sketches, until she was persuaded to try sketching herself, and was fascinated by her own share of success; betraying naïvely considerable natural talents for music and painting, until her masters and mistresses discovered a fresh charm in carrying her with them to churches and galleries,—what would George Ashe think of his sweetheart when she was restored to him “finished” by the only possible effectual education for a poor girl? It was likely he would be as much abashed as captivated; foolishly over-valuing her acquired information and polish; foolishly under-valuing his own original rough, uncut gifts. But it was certain what Letty would do in the relation that bound them, one of those wonderful, winning relations between the sexes, where George Ashe was half Letty Brown’s sovereign, half her darling, half her husband, half her son; in the hour of reunion Letty would clasp George’s hand and look into his face, and if there were nobody by to see, put her arm round his neck and kiss him, to show him that, though she had crossed the Channel and wandered over hills and plains, she had seen nobody to her mind like George Ashe. Letty was not the woman to forget her old friends from adventitious circumstances. She was sterling metal. You might as soon expect the deep stream to show an empty bed, or the day to return without its faithful, cheerful handmaid, the dawn.
Letty Brown was in Italy when the next event in her history occurred. The Bridgewaters were posting between Leghorn and Rome. They had just courteously added to their company a sensitive invalided Lieutenant-Colonel, with whom they had some little acquaintance, a poor man who was travelling for his health and excruciating himself with the discomforts and loneliness of his life. They were in all the exigencies of the road, when their courier was suddenly taken from them by an official mandate in order to deliver evidence on an unusual act of violence which he had seen perpetrated when he was travelling with the illustrious Inglese who had been his last employer. The judge concerned had cleverly caught the witness when he was passing through the town again, and would on no account let him go till he had told his story formally, in spite of the threats and complaints and shamefaced donations of the other illustrious Inglese who must proceed; the latter would be driven into a fit of the spleen if he did not go forward, and yet it was certain he could not move without the hired escort and patronage of his ubiquitous, all important Joachim.
The affair was not very formidable. The little posting town, with its grey gateway and gaudy shrine, where the arrest took place, afforded at least decent accommodation for a halt. There was not the most distant suspicion or apprehension of collusion, fraud, or pillage. “Per Bacco!” as Joachim swore passionately, an English subject was safe in his own castle anywhere. It was only a temporary delay with its temporary discomforts, still it put these good Bridgewaters to their wits’ end. They were good—so well bred that they had little assumption, so upright as to have few suspicions; but I never said they were perfect, and one phase of refinement and amiability is almost as bad as a lie which has no legs—it cannot stand alone.
How Letty ran up and down, how she spun out her stock of Italian, how she unroped boxes and unclasped cases, found this clothes-brush and that spirit lamp, and soothed the disconsolate family and their more disconsolate satellites, who of course, as a rule, copied their principals, is a matter which fairly baffles all description.
The Colonel was an admirer of despatch and ingenuity; he had learned their benefit in his military shifts. He pulled his grizzled moustache in admiration of this young woman. She was more valuable than Joachim, if anybody could be more than all important; and whereas Joachim was ugly as a baboon and like a galvanised figure tucked into a skin of brown leather, this young woman was handsome, was neat-handed—which was the Colonel’s definition of graceful,—she had spirit, she had ability, she was fit to be a general. When Joachim was free, and the travellers had gone their way, reached their destination, and were settled in different quarters of the Eternal City, the first time the Colonel had an attack of chronic ague, he sent his landlady, who on holidays displayed the richest mass of black hair and the heaviest gold earrings in the locality, with his respects and apologies, and an earnest solicitation that Mrs. Bridgewater would spare him Miss Brown to preside over his soup and chocolate to see that he was not poisoned, to read his Times to him, and prevent him going distracted with the half-foreign gibberish of the puppy who had undertaken the task.
The poor Colonel’s unsophisticated petition afforded no little amusement even to these complaisant hearts, but Mrs. Bridgewater did not hesitate to comply with its prayer. The Colonel was an honourable old man, and there was no etiquette for a girl in Brown’s rank.
As for Letty, she would as soon live on the one side of the giant dome as on the other, and she rightly judged the invitation a great compliment: so Letty went to the old Colonel’s establishment above an artist’s studio, and took care of the Colonel and cheered him back to comparative health like an attentive, deferential daughter.
It was as much to Letty Brown’s amazement as to the Bridgewaters’ consternation, that the night before that on which she was to return to her real employers, the Colonel called her to his side, and, in brief but perfectly respectful terms, asked her to become his wife. Letty had no wish to consider her answer, but the Colonel insisted that she should take time to think over his proposal, and gave her liberty to submit it to her mistress, and I need not say the Colonel was accustomed to be obeyed.
The Bridgewaters had a true regard for Letty, but the communication put them dreadfully about—it was worse than Joachim’s compulsory desertion. Travelling, like poverty, might induce them to fraternise with their inferiors; but to marry them—where the one party was a Lieutenant-Colonel of good family, and in possession of an ample fortune besides his pay, and, not till now reckoned more than crabbed, on the high road to craziness, and the other was a waiting-maid, born a factory girl—well, this was an extension of the suffrage with a vengeance! Had the Bridgewaters lent a hand to entangle the wilful old Colonel in the net he had woven for himself, would not all his friends, from the nearest to the most distant, come upon the Bridgewaters in their righteous indignation, and demand unimaginable compensation?
My readers must feel that these affable Bridgewaters were in a disagreeable predicament.
Mrs. Bridgewater was never more relieved in her life than when Letty, blushing very much, but quite determinedly, declared her intention of declining, with her service and her thanks, the proposal which would have turned the heads of half the girls in Letty’s line. Mrs. Bridgewater could have kissed and hugged her favourite on the spot. Such a perception of propriety, so much moderation and consideration! Letty was a fine creature; moreover, she had proved herself a philosopher.
While rejoicing in the result, Mrs. Bridgewater, in the middle of her lady-like gentleness and softness, was very inquisitive to penetrate the origin of such philosophy. Then Letty confessed, with charming confusion in so wise and clever a woman, that there was a clerk lad at home, an old acquaintance, and that indeed she had not concealed the engagement between them from any deceit, Letty was troubled lest she should give that impression, but her friend Mrs. Peaston had known it all along, and for any one else Letty did not know how to speak of such things. That was Letty’s explanation of the fact that, with her, love was as sacred and deeply rooted as religion, and one of Letty’s young ladies, who was unavoidably privy to the incident, cried out with refreshing satisfaction that she had guessed the solution of Letty’s riddle.
Mrs. Bridgewater, affectionate though she was, had very little pity to spare to the Colonel’s disappointment—an absurd old man to be impetuous and heedless at his years—and he took his refusal coolly, after all; she saw him having his customary airing, and he sent and borrowed Mr. Bridgewater’s “Galignani,” exactly as if nothing had happened.
Naturally Letty experienced deeper gratitude and more tender pity, the more clearly defined and unmixed because the Colonel, once satisfied of her calm, deliberate decision, did not attempt to shake it. Though Letty was true as steel to George Ashe—and it was not a distinguished half-martial, half-superannuated Colonel who could have moved her from her allegiance—her heart smote her when the old man’s voice faltered as he bade her a courteous good-bye, and she turned back again to give more emphatic instructions to the good-humoured cook how her Colonel liked his lamb and salad, and to implore the gallant Italian, for her friendship, to serve with clockwork punctuality the meals of this generalissimo.
Afterwards, the episode faded from Letty’s preoccupied heart and active life, and left only a shadowy incident—half-mirthful, half-melancholy—behind.
Letty Brown’s travels were over, and her single life with them. She was Letty Brown no more, but Letty Ashe, one of the million; the poor clerk’s wife, with her narrow household cares, and toilsome household drudgery. Never mind, Letty never looked handsomer or happier than when she arranged the scanty furniture, and made the markets in the circumscribed flat in the ugly, crowded manufacturing town. Letty was such a young wife, so stately, and so sweet, so civil to her neighbours, so genuinely frank and kind to old friends, and above all, such a companion, friend, mistress, lady to George Ashe, though she had worked as a factory girl once, and he was never likely to be more than a poor clerk to the end of the chapter, that it was good to see her.
Letty had been cooking her husband’s dinner, and was skilfully and pleasantly beautifying his dwelling; she was dusting the cage with her turtle—a remembrance from the land of turtles—and she was setting out her flowers, cheap primroses and periwinkles, as she used to deck her old Mile-end factory loom, and with new, graceful ideas, brought from the fragrant myrtles and oleanders on the altars in old classic Roman lands, when the postman’s knock resounded, and she received a letter—a London letter—not for Mrs. George Ashe, but for Lettice Brown.
Letty was a little puzzled as she read the address in an unfamiliar hand; she had no friend that she knew of in London but the Bridgewaters, and they not only were apprised of her marriage, but had loaded her with wedding-presents, useful and ornamental—the polished chiffonnier, the embroidered table-cover, the fanciful cake-basket (Letty would surely eat cake sometimes) were all from the Bridgewaters.
Letty did not open the letter instantly, and reach the bottom of the mystery. She was not excitable, this young woman, in her sound sagacity: she was rather slow at adopting a fancy, though swift at making an observation. She was engrossed with what she was about—she had no pressing interests apart from her own home. She put down the letter, half-determining not to open it till George came home; then she took it up again, and burst the envelope, and read, first a lawyer’s exceedingly civil preamble, second a copy of the substance of the will of the late Hugh William Annesley, Lieutenant-Colonel in one of Her Majesty’s dragoon regiments, devising and bequeathing to Lettice Brown, formerly of Moorfield (he had incidentally, as it were, asked her the name of her native place the very morning she took leave of him), the bulk of his fortune, and his house at Bayswater, with its plate and furniture. The testator stated that all his relations were distant in degree, and in affluent circumstances, and that he made this disposition of his property, he being in sound mind, as a proof of his respect and esteem for the said Lettice Brown, in further testimony of which he left the legacy without limitation or reservation, beyond the necessary legacy duty, which the lawyer took the opportunity to apprise her it was her business to pay.
Letty read the communication three times before she admitted the importance of its contents, and laid them to heart; and the first thing she did after she knew that she was an heiress—a great heiress for Letty’s antecedents—and that George Ashe was rich and able to lead a life of leisure, and indulge his tastes, was to sit down with the tears rolling down her cheeks, making them wan in their paleness—and Letty seldom cried—and to pray God that He would enable her and her husband to bear their unexpected and unexampled prosperity. It was not that Letty was narrow-minded, or superstitious, or childish, and so incapable of comprehending riches, but because she fathomed not only their advantages and benefits, but their temptations and trials, both with judgment and sensibility; and the first abrupt contemplation overcame her, sitting there crying and shaking, half with pleasure, half with pain, trying to recall her stiff, eccentric benefactor, trying to think of telling George, and of what he would feel and say. Letty was roused by her turtle, accustomed to leave his cage and fly to her shoulder, coming softly to his resting-place, and pressing his silver-grey and cinnamon-brown plumage against her wet cheek, and a touch of a common natural object is a great boon sometimes.
The exultation, the triumph, the delirium of pride and joy were all for George Ashe, when he arrived at last, and was gravely, almost diffidently, informed of the Aladdin’s lamp that had been handed in at his door. It was not that George was mercenary, but he had all the vehement impulses which were calm in Letty. There was no end to his brilliant dreams. The poor Colonel’s bank-notes and bonds might have had the lustre of Aladdin’s charmed stones, the hard, glittering fruit of his unnatural, artificial trees; Bayswater might have been Paradise, considering how the simple fellow, with his poetic imagination, brought to bear on his prosaic luck, plans regarding them. It took all the influence of Letty’s controlling power to restrain him. She was not without fear at his fever, though it was not in her nature to show her fear. She was a woman who could be modestly silent alike in trepidation and mortification, in pain of body and anguish of mind.
“If I were you, George, I would go to the factory as usual,” proposed Letty, earnestly. “People will not believe at first in our fortune; I can scarcely believe in it myself. There may be some obstacle yet of which we are not aware, though the lawyer speaks fair. It is silly to care too much for our neighbours’ opinions, but I should not like them to say that we were lifted clean off our feet before we were sure of a higher perch, too,” added Letty, with a faint smile, stroking her turtle.
This young woman had a wholesome regard for public opinion, and a tolerable aversion to ridicule. George Ashe had sufficient discretion to enable him to see the merit of Letty’s counsel. He compelled himself to attend the factory and keep accounts, while he was exchanging momentous letters with the London lawyer, until Letty herself observed that the effort was so painful, and the oversights and blunders he committed so flagrant and absurd, that she herself freed him from the obligation before he was dismissed in disgust by his employers. Then he wandered about aimlessly, could not resist taking all sorts of people into his confidence, until the rumour spread to circles which had never heard of this humble young couple; then he built castles in the air and pulled them down again, overturned all their old domestic arrangements, and neglected their household rules, until Letty learnt by experience that the early days of moneyed consequence are desultory and disagreeable.
But the correspondence with the lawyer was very plain sailing.
Colonel Annesley’s will was undoubtedly formal and legal—not a question but the old soldier had died in his sound mind, and no opposition would be made by his cousins, whatever their private feelings. Mr. and Mrs. Ashe, whose most obedient servant the lawyer was, literally and figuratively had only to go up to London and take possession.
Letty drew a long breath; her husband was not ruined by a false expectation; now she might honestly accept the congratulations poured upon her by a crowd of strangers, suddenly and not insincerely grown friendly. Their hearts were warmed by the liberality of fortune to the Ashes: who knew but his and her turn might come next? Now Letty might make use of that letter of credit at the banker’s, the responsibility of whose possession had impressed her so seriously; and Letty went out and was as foolish as any other dear woman, committed the enormity of buying a ten-pound shawl for herself and a flowing dressing-gown for George Ashe. Letty had a fancy for expensive shawls, and an innocent, ancient ambition to see George in a flowing dressing-gown; she had dreamt many a quaint dream of him in her working days, attired in the slippered ease and old-fashioned majestic gown and student’s cap in the portraits of the poets, whose works he picked up at book-stalls, before she had the least acquaintance with these great men and their worries and troubles.
That shawl and that dressing-gown happened to be nearly the sole luxuries of her fortune on which Letty put her hands.
The zealous lawyer pressed on Mr. and Mrs. Ashe to come up to town and satisfy themselves with regard to their legacy; he even hinted at their immediately occupying the house at Bayswater, and seeing something of the season. Letty recoiled in horror from this extravagance, considering their late position; but when she urged fresh delay and consideration, woman-like, exaggerating her caution till it verged on cowardice, George Ashe proposed to go up to town alone, and receive and invest their funds. Letty objected hastily and strongly to this solitary expedition, and instanced that, with a very little more time and trouble, she could accompany him. It would not do. George was affronted, restive, unmanageable, and he was quite ready to throw out hints that Letty was looking upon herself as an heiress, was wishing to act upon her heiress-ship, to establish her independence of him, or at least to imply his subordination to her.
Letty was really wounded. It was the first unjust, ungenerous treatment she had experienced from George Ashe. The fact was, he was rapidly getting captious and overbearing. It was as if the golden mist of his imagination was converted into clouds of dim smoke, blinding and confounding him. He was a fine fellow, but he could not stand his sudden rise in the world; his temper and principles were tottering under it.
Letty settled with herself that it was better George Ashe should go up to London alone. There was delicacy in this, and there was a little stubbornness. Any way it was the first parting between those who had been made one flesh; and it had not been without previous roots of bitterness and seeds of disunion. You may feel for poor Letty, with her womanly sentiments all the more swelling in her throat and tightening her breast, because it was a strong heart which gave them birth.
Letty knew what loneliness was after she had succeeded to her fortune, and was left alone in the manufacturing town. Her husband was up in that London, whose vastness and unebbing tide of humanity oppressed her even to think of. The fortune he claimed appeared a drop in the bucket of its millions, and yet that drop so lured him that it divided him effectually from her, from what looked now the peaceful, happy days of their past, and from all they had so cheerfully anticipated in the hopeful struggles of their future. Surely human nature should have been above such fluctuations, such oblivion!
Letty knew what it was to grow haggard in her matronly beauty, and heart-weary as one of the chosen few, the favourites of Fortune, to whom the envy of the world was mockery in the canker at the root of the prosperity, while they covered over the sore with decent reticence. There were gossiping, suspicious eyes upon her too; but Letty had not even required to hear in her travels the story of the lioness without the tongue. Yet the poor Colonel had meant to crown her with his favour, and Letty would no more reproach his ghost with framing for her a crown of thorns, than she would fling away her turtle because its meek, tenderly prolonged cooings contrasted broadly with those proud, brief letters from London.
You have heard of a man going straight to destruction. George Ashe went far to it, without turning to look behind him. He fell from his naturally lofty principles and high standard in an incredibly, mournfully, humiliatingly short space of time. I suppose it was in the mystery of evil. The young man was green—green in his rare rise in life, and there were grey beards who thought it no shame to rob and to fool him. There are thieves for men to fall among in other localities than that between Jerusalem and Jericho. There are men of business to excuse themselves for making their own of their client, though it should be by subduing and deteriorating those notorious geese, natural geniuses. There are men of wit who reckon “spoons” fair game in society, however the “spoons” may be battered in the process. In this case there were no friends to interfere, to render the conquest less complete. Letty heard of George Ashe’s wild purchases and injurious excesses, and wrung her hands and reproached herself that she had not gone with him or followed him to that London, which, she said to herself, in an agony of defence of the culprit, was drunk with its own snares and sins. Why had she been so selfish, so mad, in her pride? and now it was too late, when he only regarded her entreaties to laugh at them and despise them, and to forbid her joining him. Poor great-hearted, devoted Letty, as if a woman’s husband could ever, except in an extraordinary case, be treated with profit as her baby.
Months had passed, and Letty sat alone one night, comfortless, in her little sitting-room, which looked mean even in her own eyes now-a-days, pondering on her cares. A ring came to the bell—and surely Letty should know that ring—but alas! she had undergone so many false starts, that she dared not trust her heart. She went to the door, trembling, opened it, recognised her husband, and fell upon his breast. She had him again, and she clung to him, without another thought. She brought him into the parlour, still clasping his arm, though he returned her caress mechanically, and only spoke to her by a muttered greeting. It was autumn and stormy weather, and he looked miserably cold and knocked up. She lit a fire for him, kneeling down and puffing at the match in the laid wood with all her might, drew his chair before it, and brought him her own tea and toast, till something better could be prepared for him. She did not ask him why he had come without announcing his arrival; why he had travelled in a summer coat, and without wrap or luggage, like an adventurer, or a man flying from his enemies. She put away every thought but that of his presence, and built herself up in it till her eyes shone like stars, and her cheeks bloomed like blush-roses. He saw it, and rose up with a bitter cry: “Letty, I have brought you back nothing. I have wasted it all. I have only brought back my miserable self.”
“You have brought back yourself, George,” repeated Letty, in her quiet accents of deep, strong fidelity, in which there was full forgiveness, and under which there throbbed and thrilled such hidden pulses of fondness as only beat in such strong and faithful beings. “You have brought back yourself, and what could you bring to me like yourself? We will be as we were before, George. How gladly we will forget what has come between, except as a warning of evils to be avoided for ever.”
I am glad that Letty was not repaid by signal ingratitude and a recurrence of the offence. George Ashe was not such an ingrate. He was filled with the forbidden fruit of his folly, and found his teeth too much set on edge for him to crave to bite the apple of knowledge again. He had no relapse, though he could not escape a rebound. The sweet-natured, enthusiastic man had taken leaven into his composition which leavened the whole lump. He had been to a school where he was not only instructed but inoculated in coldness, scepticism, and sarcasm.
George Ashe had spent an incredible amount of worldly substance, but he was not so penniless as, in his despair, he had represented himself. From the fragments of Letty’s legacy enough was saved to buy a small farm to maintain the couple. Letty and George went to that little farm with its pretty northern name of the Hollens, and there practised, with economy, being yeomen, pastoral poets and patriarchs. Well, what would you have? it would have been a great independence to them once on a day, and at least one of them knew both how to be abased and how to abound, and the hardest feat of all, how to curb high-vaulting imaginations within their old narrow bounds. There the Ashes were cordially visited by the Bridgewaters and other friends, and there they lived to secure the regard of their world though not in the same degree. He was a wonderful fellow no doubt, well educated at last, even accomplished, liberal, friendly; but he was uncertain, a little morbid, self-conscious, crotchety. And Letty was such a noble-hearted woman, he was so well off with her, as he was thoroughly aware in every respect; she was so tranquil in her comparative exaltation, so serene under her losses, so unpretendingly exact and honourable in all her duties so genial in her quiet way, with such a lovable inclination to plants and animals and other people’s children besides her own. People said she was a born lady, that mistress of the Hollens. That was small praise—say rather hers was a strong, pure heart early anchored in still, profound faith in goodness and God.