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He entered the shrubbery which Allan had entered before him; crossed the
paddock and the rustic bridge beyond; and reached the major's cottage. His ready
mind seized the right conclusion at the first sight of it; and he stopped before the
garden gate, to look at the trim little residence which would never have been
empty, and would never have been let, but for Allan's ill-advised resolution to
force the steward's situation on his friend.
The summer afternoon was warm; the summer air was faint and still. On the
upper and the lower floor of the cottage the windows were all open. From one of
them, on the upper story, the sound of voices was startlingly audible in the quiet
of the park as Midwinter paused on the outer side of the garden inclosure. The
voice of a woman, harsh, high, and angrily complaining--a voice with all the
freshness and the melody gone, and with nothing but the hard power of it left--
was the discordantly predominant sound. With it, from moment to moment, there
mingled the deeper and quieter tones, soothing and compassionate, of the voice of
a man. Although the distance was too great to allow Midwinter to distinguish the
words that were spoken, he felt the impropriety of remaining within hearing of the
voices, and at once stepped forward to continue his walk.
At the same moment, the face of a young girl (easily recognizable as the face of
Miss Milroy, from Allan's description of her) appeared at the open window of the
room. In spite of himself, Midwinter paused to look at her. The expression of the
bright young face, which had smiled so prettily on Allan, was weary and
disheartened. After looking out absently over the park, she suddenly turned her
head back into the room, her attention having been apparently struck by
something that had just been said in it. "Oh, mamma, mamma," she exclaimed,
indignantly, "how can you say such things!" The words were spoken close to the
window; they reached Midwinter's ears, and hurried him away before he heard
more. But the self-disclosure of Major Milroy's domestic position had not reached
its end yet. As Midwinter turned the corner of the garden fence, a tradesman's boy
was handing a parcel in at the wicket gate to the woman servant. "Well," said the
boy, with the irrepressible impudence of his class, "how is the missus?" The
woman lifted her hand to box his ears. "How is the missus?" she repeated, with an
angry toss of her head, as the boy ran off. "If it would only please God to take the
missus, it would be a blessing to everybody in the house."
No such ill-omened shadow as this had passed over the bright domestic picture of
the inhabitants of the cottage, which Allan's enthusiasm had painted for the
contemplation of his friend. It was plain that the secret of the tenants had been
kept from the landlord so far. Five minutes more of walking brought Midwinter to
the park gates. "Am I fated to see nothing and hear nothing to-day, which can give
me heart and hope for the future?" he thought, as he angrily swung back the lodge
gate. "Even the people Allan has let the cottage to are people whose lives are
imbittered by a household misery which it is my misfortune to have found out!"
He took the first road that lay before him, and walked on, noticing little,
immersed in his own thoughts.
More than an hour passed before the necessity of turning back entered his mind.
As soon as the idea occurred to him, he consulted his watch, and determined to
retrace his steps, so as to be at the house in good time to meet Allan on his return.