Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy - HTML preview
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Lady Constantine, if narrowly observed at this time, would have seemed to be deeply troubled in conscience, and particularly after the interview above described. Ash Wednesday occurred in the calendar a few days later, and she went to morning service with a look of genuine contrition on her emotional and yearning countenance.
Besides herself the congregation consisted only of the parson, clerk, schoolchildren, and three old people living on alms, who sat under the reading-desk; and thus, when Mr. Torkingham blazed forth the denunciatory sentences of the Commination, nearly the whole force of them seemed to descend upon her own shoulders. Looking across the empty pews she saw through the one or two clear panes of the window opposite a youthful figure in the churchyard, and the very feeling against which she had tried to pray returned again irresistibly. When she came out and had crossed into the private walk, Swithin came forward to speak to her. This was a most unusual circumstance, and argued a matter of importance.
'I have made an amazing discovery in connexion with the variable stars,' he exclaimed. 'It will excite the whole astronomical world, and the world outside but little less. I had long suspected the true secret of their variability; but it was by the merest chance on earth that I hit upon a proof of my guess. Your equatorial has done it, my good, kind Lady Constantine, and our fame is established for ever!' He sprang into the air, and waved his hat in his triumph.
'Oh, I am so glad--so rejoiced!' she cried. 'What is it? But don't stop to tell me. Publish it at once in some paper; nail your name to it, or somebody will seize the idea and appropriate it,-- forestall you in some way. It will be Adams and Leverrier over again.'
'If I may walk with you I will explain the nature of the discovery. It accounts for the occasional green tint of Castor, and every difficulty. I said I would be the Copernicus of the stellar system, and I have begun to be. Yet who knows?' 'Now don't be so up and down! I shall not understand your explanation, and I would rather not know it. I shall reveal it if it is very grand. Women, you know, are not safe depositaries of such valuable secrets. You may walk with me a little way, with great pleasure. Then go and write your account, so as to insure your ownership of the discovery. . . . But how you have watched!' she cried, in a sudden accession of anxiety, as she turned to look more closely at him. 'The orbits of your eyes are leaden, and your eyelids are red and heavy. Don't do it-pray don't. You will be ill, and break down.'
'I have, it is true, been up a little late this last week,' he said cheerfully. 'In fact, I couldn't tear myself away from the equatorial; it is such a wonderful possession that it keeps me there till daylight. But what does that matter, now I have made the discovery?'
'Ah, it DOES matter! Now, promise me--I insist--that you will not commit such imprudences again; for what should I do if my Astronomer Royal were to die?' She laughed, but far too apprehensively to be effective as a display of levity. They parted, and he went home to write out his paper. He promised to call as soon as his discovery was in print. Then they waited for the result. It is impossible to describe the tremulous state of Lady Constantine during the interval. The warm interest she took in Swithin St. Cleeve--many would have said dangerously warm interest--made his hopes her hopes; and though she sometimes admitted to herself that great allowance was requisite for the overweening confidence of youth in the future, she permitted herself to be blinded to probabilities for the pleasure of sharing his dreams. It seemed not unreasonable to suppose the present hour to be the beginning of realization to her darling wish that this young man should become famous. He had worked hard, and why should he not be famous early? His very simplicity in mundane affairs afforded a strong presumption that in things celestial he might be wise. To obtain support for this hypothesis she had only to think over the lives of many eminent astronomers.
She waited feverishly for the flourish of trumpets from afar, by which she expected the announcement of his discovery to be greeted. Knowing that immediate intelligence of the outburst would be brought to her by himself, she watched from the windows of the Great House each morning for a sight of his figure hastening down the glade.
But he did not come.
A long array of wet days passed their dreary shapes before her, and made the waiting still more tedious. On one of these occasions she ran across to the tower, at the risk of a severe cold. The door was locked.
Two days after she went again. The door was locked still. But this was only to be expected in such weather. Yet she would have gone on to his house, had there not been one reason too many against such precipitancy. As astronomer and astronomer there was no harm in their meetings; but as woman and man she feared them.
Ten days passed without a sight of him; ten blurred and dreary days, during which the whole landscape dripped like a mop; the park trees swabbed the gravel from the drive, while the sky was a zinc-coloured archi-vault of immovable cloud. It seemed as if the whole science of astronomy had never been real, and that the heavenly bodies, with their motions, were as theoretical as the lines and circles of a bygone mathematical problem.
She could content herself no longer with fruitless visits to the column, and when the rain had a little abated she walked to the nearest hamlet, and in a conversation with the first old woman she met contrived to lead up to the subject of Swithin St. Cleeve by talking about his grandmother.
'Ah, poor old heart; 'tis a bad time for her, my lady!' exclaimed the dame. 'What?'
'Her grandson is dying; and such a gentleman through and through!' 'What!. . . Oh, it has something to do with that dreadful discovery!' 'Discovery, my lady?'
She left the old woman with an evasive answer, and with a breaking heart crept along the road. Tears brimmed into her eyes as she walked, and by the time that she was out of sight sobs burst forth tumultuously.
'I am too fond of him!' she moaned; 'but I can't help it; and I don't care if it's wrong,--I don't care!'
Without further considerations as to who beheld her doings she instinctively went straight towards Mrs. Martin's. Seeing a man coming she calmed herself sufficiently to ask him through her dropped veil how poor Mr. St. Cleeve was that day. But she only got the same reply: 'They say he is dying, my lady.' When Swithin had parted from Lady Constantine, on the previous Ash- Wednesday, he had gone straight to the homestead and prepared his account of 'A New Astronomical Discovery.' It was written perhaps in too glowing a rhetoric for the true scientific tone of mind; but there was no doubt that his assertion met with a most startling aptness all the difficulties which had accompanied the received theories on the phenomena attending those changeable suns of marvellous systems so far away. It accounted for the nebulous mist that surrounds some of them at their weakest time; in short, took up a position of probability which has never yet been successfully assailed.
The papers were written in triplicate, and carefully sealed up with blue wax. One copy was directed to Greenwich, another to the Royal Society, another to a prominent astronomer. A brief statement of the essence of the discovery was also prepared for the leading daily paper.
He considered these documents, embodying as they did two years of his constant thought, reading, and observation, too important to be entrusted for posting to the hands of a messenger; too important to be sent to the sub-postoffice at hand. Though the day was wet, dripping wet, he went on foot with them to a chief office, five miles off, and registered them. Quite exhausted by the walk, after his long night-work, wet through, yet sustained by the sense of a great achievement, he called at a bookseller's for the astronomical periodicals to which he subscribed; then, resting for a short time at an inn, he plodded his way homewards, reading his papers as he went, and planning how to enjoy a repose on his laurels of a week or more.
On he strolled through the rain, holding the umbrella vertically over the exposed page to keep it dry while he read. Suddenly his eye was struck by an article. It was the review of a pamphlet by an American astronomer, in which the author announced a conclusive discovery with regard to variable stars.
The discovery was precisely the discovery of Swithin St. Cleeve. Another man had forestalled his fame by a period of about six weeks.
Then the youth found that the goddess Philosophy, to whom he had vowed to dedicate his whole life, would not in return support him through a single hour of despair. In truth, the impishness of circumstance was newer to him than it would have been to a philosopher of threescore-and-ten. In a wild wish for annihilation he flung himself down on a patch of heather that lay a little removed from the road, and in this humid bed remained motionless, while time passed by unheeded.
At last, from sheer misery and weariness, he fell asleep.
The March rain pelted him mercilessly, the beaded moisture from the heavily charged locks of heath penetrated him through back and sides, and clotted his hair to unsightly tags and tufts. When he awoke it was dark. He thought of his grandmother, and of her possible alarm at missing him. On attempting to rise, he found that he could hardly bend his joints, and that his clothes were as heavy as lead from saturation. His teeth chattering and his knees trembling he pursued his way home, where his appearance excited great concern. He was obliged at once to retire to bed, and the next day he was delirious from the chill.
It was about ten days after this unhappy occurrence that Lady Constantine learnt the news, as above described, and hastened along to the homestead in that state of anguish in which the heart is no longer under the control of the judgment, and self-abandonment even to error, verges on heroism.
On reaching the house in Welland Bottom the door was opened to her by old Hannah, who wore an assiduously sorrowful look; and Lady Constantine was shown into the large room,--so wide that the beams bent in the middle,--where she took her seat in one of a methodic range of chairs, beneath a portrait of the Reverend Mr. St. Cleeve, her astronomer's erratic father.
The eight unwatered dying plants, in the row of eight flower-pots, denoted that there was something wrong in the house. Mrs. Martin came downstairs fretting, her wonder at beholding Lady Constantine not altogether displacing the previous mood of grief.
'Here's a pretty kettle of fish, my lady!' she exclaimed.
Lady Constantine said, 'Hush!' and pointed inquiringly upward.
'He is not overhead, my lady,' replied Swithin's grandmother. 'His bedroom is at the back of the house.'
'How is he now?'
'He is better, just at this moment; and we are more hopeful. But he changes so.' 'May I go up? I know he would like to see me.'
Her presence having been made known to the sufferer, she was conducted upstairs to Swithin's room. The way thither was through the large chamber he had used as a study and for the manufacture of optical instruments. There lay the large pasteboard telescope, that had been just such a failure as Crusoe's large boat; there were his diagrams, maps, globes, and celestial apparatus of various sorts. The absence of the worker, through illness or death is sufficient to touch the prosiest workshop and tools with the hues of pathos, and it was with a swelling bosom that Lady Constantine passed through this arena of his youthful activities to the little chamber where he lay.
Old Mrs. Martin sat down by the window, and Lady Constantine bent over Swithin.
'Don't speak to me!' she whispered. 'It will weaken you; it will excite you. If you do speak, it must be very softly.'
She took his hand, and one irrepressible tear fell upon it.
'Nothing will excite me now, Lady Constantine,' he said; 'not even your goodness in coming. My last excitement was when I lost the battle. . . . Do you know that my discovery has been forestalled? It is that that's killing me.'
'But you are going to recover; you are better, they say. Is it so?'
'I think I am, to-day. But who can be sure?'
'The poor boy was so upset at finding that his labour had been thrown away,' said his grandmother, 'that he lay down in the rain, and chilled his life out.' 'How could you do it?' Lady Constantine whispered. 'O, how could you think so much of renown, and so little of me? Why, for every discovery made there are ten behind that await making. To commit suicide like this, as if there were nobody in the world to care for you!'
'It was done in my haste, and I am very, very sorry for it! I beg both you and all my few friends never, never to forgive me! It would kill me with self-reproach if you were to pardon my rashness!'
At this moment the doctor was announced, and Mrs. Martin went downstairs to receive him. Lady Constantine thought she would remain to hear his report, and for this purpose withdrew, and sat down in a nook of the adjoining work-room of Swithin, the doctor meeting her as he passed through it into the sick chamber. He was there a torturingly long time; but at length he came out to the room she waited in, and crossed it on his way downstairs. She rose and followed him to the stairhead.
'How is he?' she anxiously asked. 'Will he get over it?'
The doctor, not knowing the depth of her interest in the patient, spoke with the blunt candour natural towards a comparatively indifferent inquirer. 'No, Lady Constantine,' he replied; 'there's a change for the worse.' And he retired down the stairs.
Scarcely knowing what she did Lady Constantine ran back to Swithin's side, flung herself upon the bed and in a paroxysm of sorrow kissed him.
The placid inhabitants of the parish of Welland, including warbling waggoners, lone shepherds, ploughmen, the blacksmith, the carpenter, the gardener at the Great House, the steward and agent, the parson, clerk, and so on, were hourly expecting the announcement of St. Cleeve's death. The sexton had been going to see his brother-in- law, nine miles distant, but promptly postponed the visit for a few days, that there might be the regular professional hand present to toll the bell in a note of due fulness and solemnity; an attempt by a deputy, on a previous occasion of his absence, having degenerated into a miserable stammering clang that was a disgrace to the parish.
But Swithin St. Cleeve did not decease, a fact of which, indeed, the habituated reader will have been well aware ever since the rain came down upon the young man in the ninth chapter, and led to his alarming illness. Though, for that matter, so many maimed histories are hourly enacting themselves in this dun-coloured world as to lend almost a priority of interest to narratives concerning those 'Who lay great bases for eternity Which prove more short than waste or ruining.' How it arose that he did not die was in this wise; and his example affords another instance of that reflex rule of the vassal soul over the sovereign body, which, operating so wonderfully in elastic natures, and more or less in all, originally gave rise to the legend that supremacy lay on the other side.
The evening of the day after the tender, despairing, farewell kiss of Lady Constantine, when he was a little less weak than during her visit, he lay with his face to the window. He lay alone, quiet and resigned. He had been thinking, sometimes of her and other friends, but chiefly of his lost discovery. Although nearly unconscious at the time, he had yet been aware of that kiss, as the delicate flush which followed it upon his cheek would have told; but he had attached little importance to it as between woman and man. Had he been dying of love instead of wet weather, perhaps the impulsive act of that handsome lady would have been seized on as a proof that his love was returned. As it was her kiss seemed but the evidence of a naturally demonstrative kindliness, felt towards him chiefly because he was believed to be leaving her for ever. The reds of sunset passed, and dusk drew on. Old Hannah came upstairs to pull down the blinds and as she advanced to the window he said to her, in a faint voice, 'Well, Hannah, what news to-day?'
'Oh, nothing, sir,' Hannah replied, looking out of the window with sad apathy, 'only that there's a comet, they say.'
'A WHAT?' said the dying astronomer, starting up on his elbow.
'A comet--that's all, Master Swithin,' repeated Hannah, in a lower voice, fearing she had done harm in some way.
'Well, tell me, tell me!' cried Swithin. 'Is it Gambart's? Is it Charles the Fifth's, or Halley's, or Faye's, or whose?'
'Hush!' said she, thinking St. Cleeve slightly delirious again. ''Tis God A'mighty's, of course. I haven't seed en myself, but they say he's getting bigger every night, and that he'll be the biggest one known for fifty years when he's full growed. There, you must not talk any more now, or I'll go away.'
Here was an amazing event, little noise as it had made in the happening. Of all phenomena that he had longed to witness during his short astronomical career, those appertaining to comets had excited him most. That the magnificent comet of 1811 would not return again for thirty centuries had been quite a permanent regret with him. And now, when the bottomless abyss of death seemed yawning beneath his feet, one of these much-desired apparitions, as large, apparently, as any of its tribe, had chosen to show itself.
'O, if I could but live to see that comet through my equatorial!' he cried. Compared with comets, variable stars, which he had hitherto made his study, were, from their remoteness, uninteresting. They were to the former as the celebrities of Ujiji or Unyamwesi to the celebrities of his own country. Members of the solar system, these dazzling and perplexing rangers, the fascination of all astronomers, rendered themselves still more fascinating by the sinister suspicion attaching to them of being possibly the ultimate destroyers of the human race. In his physical prostration St. Cleeve wept bitterly at not being hale and strong enough to welcome with proper honour the present specimen of these desirable visitors.
The strenuous wish to live and behold the new phenomenon, supplanting the utter weariness of existence that he had heretofore experienced, gave him a new vitality. The crisis passed; there was a turn for the better; and after that he rapidly mended. The comet had in all probability saved his life. The limitless and complex wonders of the sky resumed their old power over his imagination; the possibilities of that unfathomable blue ocean were endless. Finer feats than ever he would perform were to be achieved in its investigation. What Lady Constantine had said, that for one discovery made ten awaited making, was strikingly verified by the sudden appearance of this splendid marvel. The windows of St. Cleeve's bedroom faced the west, and nothing would satisfy him but that his bed should be so pulled round as to give him a view of the low sky, in which the as yet minute tadpole of fire was recognizable. The mere sight of it seemed to lend him sufficient resolution to complete his own cure forthwith. His only fear now was lest, from some unexpected cause or other, the comet would vanish before he could get to the observatory on Rings-Hill Speer. In his fervour to begin observing he directed that an old telescope, which he had used in his first celestial attempts, should be tied at one end to the bed-post, and at the other fixed near his eye as he reclined. Equipped only with this rough improvisation he began to take notes. Lady Constantine was forgotten, till one day, suddenly, wondering if she knew of the important phenomenon, he revolved in his mind whether as a fellow-student and sincere friend of his she ought not to be sent for, and instructed in the use of the equatorial.
But though the image of Lady Constantine, in spite of her kindness and unmistakably warm heart, had been obscured in his mind by the heavenly body, she had not so readily forgotten him. Too shy to repeat her visit after so nearly betraying her secret, she yet, every day, by the most ingenious and subtle means that could be devised by a woman who feared for herself, but could not refrain from tampering with danger, ascertained the state of her young friend's health. On hearing of the turn in his condition she rejoiced on his account, and became yet more despondent on her own. If he had died she might have mused on him as her dear departed saint without much sin: but his return to life was a delight that bewildered and dismayed.
One evening a little later on he was sitting at his bedroom window as usual, waiting for a sufficient decline of light to reveal the comet's form, when he beheld, crossing the field contiguous to the house, a figure which he knew to be hers. He thought she must be coming to see him on the great comet question, to discuss which with so delightful and kind a comrade was an expectation full of pleasure. Hence he keenly observed her approach, till something happened that surprised him.
When, at the descent of the hill, she had reached the stile that admitted to Mrs. Martin's garden, Lady Constantine stood quite still for a minute or more, her gaze bent on the ground. Instead of coming on to the house she went heavily and slowly back, almost as if in pain; and then at length, quickening her pace, she was soon out of sight. She appeared in the path no more that day.
Why had Lady Constantine stopped and turned?
A misgiving had taken sudden possession of her. Her true sentiment towards St. Cleeve was too recognizable by herself to be tolerated.
That she had a legitimate interest in him as a young astronomer was true; that her sympathy on account of his severe illness had been natural and commendable was also true. But the superfluous feeling was what filled her with trepidation.
Superfluities have been defined as things you cannot do without, and this particular emotion, that came not within her rightful measure, was in danger of becoming just such a superfluity with her. In short, she felt there and then that to see St. Cleeve again would be an impropriety; and by a violent effort she retreated from his precincts, as he had observed.
She resolved to ennoble her conduct from that moment of her life onwards. She would exercise kind patronage towards Swithin without once indulging herself with his company. Inexpressibly dear to her deserted heart he was becoming, but for the future he should at least be hidden from her eyes. To speak plainly, it was growing a serious question whether, if he were not hidden from her eyes, she would not soon be plunging across the ragged boundary which divides the permissible from the forbidden.
By the time that she had drawn near home the sun was going down. The heavy, many-chevroned church, now subdued by violet shadow except where its upper courses caught the western stroke of flame- colour, stood close to her grounds, as in many other parishes, though the village of which it formerly was the nucleus had become quite depopulated: its cottages had been demolished to enlarge the park, leaving the old building to stand there alone, like a standard without an army.
It was Friday night, and she heard the organist practising voluntaries within. The hour, the notes, the even-song of the birds, and her own previous emotions, combined to influence her devotionally. She entered, turning to the right and passing under the chancel arch, where she sat down and viewed the whole empty length, east and west. The semi-Norman arches of the nave, with their multitudinous notchings, were still visible by the light from the tower window, but the lower portion of the building was in obscurity, except where the feeble glimmer from the candle of the organist spread a glow-worm radiance around. The player, who was Miss Tabitha Lark, continued without intermission to produce her wandering sounds, unconscious of any one's presence except that of the youthful blower at her side.
The rays from the organist's candle illuminated but one small fragment of the chancel outside the precincts of the instrument, and that was the portion of the eastern wall whereon the ten commandments were inscribed. The gilt letters shone sternly into Lady Constantine's eyes; and she, being as impressionable as a turtle-dove, watched a certain one of those commandments on the second table, till its thunder broke her spirit with blank contrition.
She knelt down, and did her utmost to eradicate those impulses towards St. Cleeve which were inconsistent with her position as the wife of an absent man, though not unnatural in her as his victim.
She knelt till she seemed scarcely to belong to the time she lived in, which lost the magnitude that the nearness of its perspective lent it on ordinary occasions, and took its actual rank in the long line of other centuries. Having once got out of herself, seen herself from afar off, she was calmer, and went on to register a magnanimous vow. She would look about for some maiden fit and likely to make St. Cleeve happy; and this girl she would endow with what money she could afford, that the natural result of their apposition should do him no worldly harm. The interest of her, Lady Constantine's, life should be in watching the development of love between Swithin and the ideal maiden. The very painfulness of the scheme to her susceptible heart made it pleasing to her conscience; and she wondered that she had not before this time thought of a stratagem which united the possibility of benefiting the astronomer with the advantage of guarding against peril to both Swithin and herself. By providing for him a suitable helpmate she would preclude the dangerous awakening in him of sentiments reciprocating her own.
Arrived at a point of exquisite misery through this heroic intention, Lady Constantine's tears moistened the books upon which her forehead was bowed. And as she heard her feverish heart throb against the desk, she firmly believed the wearing impulses of that heart would put an end to her sad life, and momentarily recalled the banished image of St. Cleeve to apostrophise him in thoughts that paraphrased the quaint lines of Heine's Lieb' Liebchen:-- 'Dear my love, press thy hand to my breast, and tell If thou tracest the knocks in that narrow cell; A carpenter dwells there; cunning is he, And slyly he's shaping a coffin for me!'
Lady Constantine was disturbed by a break in the organist's meandering practice, and raising her head she saw a person standing by the player. It was Mr. Torkingham, and what he said was distinctly audible. He was inquiring for herself.
'I thought I saw Lady Constantine walk this way,' he rejoined to Tabitha's negative. 'I am very anxious indeed to meet with her.'
She went forward. 'I am here,' she said. 'Don't stop playing, Miss Lark. What is it, Mr. Torkingham?'
Tabitha thereupon resumed her playing, and Mr. Torkingham joined Lady Constantine.
'I have some very serious intelligence to break to your ladyship,' he said. 'But--I will not interrupt you here.' (He had seen her rise from her knees to come to him.) 'I will call at the House the first moment you can receive me after reaching home.' 'No, tell me here,' she said, seating herself.
He came close, and placed his hand on the poppy-head of the seat. 'I have received a communication,' he resumed haltingly, 'in which I am requested to prepare you for the contents of a letter that you will receive tomorrow morning.'
'I am quite ready.'
'The subject is briefly this, Lady Constantine: that you have been a widow for more than eighteen months.'
'Yes. Sir Blount was attacked by dysentery and malarious fever, on the banks of the Zouga in South Africa, so long ago as last October twelvemonths, and it carried him off. Of the three men who were with him, two succumbed to the same illness, a hundred miles further on; while the third, retracing his steps into a healthier district, remained there with a native tribe, and took no pains to make the circumstances known. It seems to be only by the mere accident of his having told some third party that we know of the matter now. This is all I can tell you at present.'
She was greatly agitated for a few moments; and the Table of the Law opposite, which now seemed to appertain to another dispensation, glistened indistinctly upon a vision still obscured by the old tears.
'Shall I conduct you home?' asked the parson.
'No thank you,' said Lady Constantine. 'I would rather go alone.'
On the afternoon of the next day Mr. Torkingham, who occasionally dropped in to see St. Cleeve, called again as usual; after duly remarking on the state of the weather, congratulating him on his sure though slow improvement, and answering his inquiries about the comet, he said, 'You have heard, I suppose, of what has happened to Lady Constantine?'
'No! Nothing serious?'
'Yes, it is serious.' The parson informed him of the death of Sir Blount, and of the accidents which had hindered all knowledge of the same,--accidents favoured by the estrangement of the pair and the cessation of correspondence between them for some time.
His listener received the news with the concern of a friend, Lady Constantine's aspect in his eyes depending but little on her condition matrimonially. 'There was no attempt to bring him home when he died?'
'O no. The climate necessitates instant burial. We shall have more particulars in a day or two, doubtless.'
'Poor Lady Constantine,--so good and so sensitive as she is! I suppose she is quite prostrated by the bad news.'
'Well, she is rather serious,--not prostrated. The household is going into mourning.'
'Ah, no, she would not be quite prostrated,' murmured Swithin, recollecting himself. 'He was unkind to her in many ways. Do you think she will go away from Welland?'
That the vicar could not tell. But he feared that Sir Blount's affairs had been in a seriously involved condition, which might necessitate many and unexpected changes.
Time showed that Mr. Torkingham's surmises were correct.
During the long weeks of early summer, through which the young man still lay imprisoned, if not within his own chamber, within the limits of the house and garden, news reached him that Sir Blount's mismanagement and eccentric behaviour were resulting in serious consequences to Lady Constantine; nothing less, indeed, than her almost complete impoverishment. His personalty was swallowed up in paying his debts, and the Welland estate was so heavily charged with annuities to his distant relatives that only a mere pittance was left for her. She was reducing the establishment to the narrowest compass compatible with decent gentility. The horses were sold one by one; the carriages also; the greater part of the house was shut up, and she resided in the smallest rooms. All that was allowed to remain of her former contingent of male servants were an odd man and a boy. Instead of using a carriage she now drove about in a donkey- chair, the said boy walking in front to clear the way and keep the animal in motion; while she wore, so his informants reported, not an ordinary widow's cap or bonnet, but something even plainer, the black material being drawn tightly round her face, giving her features a small, demure, devout cast, very pleasing to the eye.
'Now, what's the most curious thing in this, Mr. San Cleeve,' said Sammy Blore, who, in calling to inquire after Swithin's health, had imparted some of the above particulars, 'is that my lady seems not to mind being a pore woman half so much as we do at seeing her so. 'Tis a wonderful gift, Mr. San Cleeve, wonderful, to be able to guide yerself, and not let loose yer soul in blasting at such a misfortune. I should go and drink neat regular, as soon as I had swallered my breakfast, till my innerds was burnt out like a' old copper, if it had happened to me; but my lady's plan is best. Though I only guess how one feels in such losses, to be sure, for I never had nothing to lose.'
Meanwhile the observatory was not forgotten; nor that visitant of singular shape and habits which had appeared in the sky from no one knew whence, trailing its luminous streamer, and proceeding on its way in the face of a wondering world, till it should choose to vanish as suddenly as it had come.
When, about a month after the above dialogue took place, Swithin was allowed to go about as usual, his first pilgrimage was to the Rings- Hill Speer. Here he studied at leisure what he had come to see.
On his return to the homestead, just after sunset, he found his grandmother and Hannah in a state of great concern. The former was looking out for him against the evening light, her face showing itself worn and rutted, like an old highway, by the passing of many days. Her information was that in his absence Lady Constantine had called in her driving-chair, to inquire for him. Her ladyship had wished to observe the comet through the great telescope, but had found the door locked when she applied at the tower. Would he kindly leave the door unfastened to-morrow, she had asked, that she might be able to go to the column on the following evening for the same purpose? She did not require him to attend. During the next day he sent Hannah with the key to Welland House, not caring to leave the tower open. As evening advanced and the comet grew distinct, he doubted if Lady Constantine could handle the telescope alone with any pleasure or profit to herself. Unable, as a devotee to science, to rest under this misgiving, he crossed the field in the furrow that he had used ever since the corn was sown, and entered the plantation. His unpractised mind never once guessed that her stipulations against his coming might have existed along with a perverse hope that he would come.
On ascending he found her already there. She sat in the observing- chair: the warm light from the west, which flowed in through the opening of the dome, brightened her face, and her face only, her robes of sable lawn rendering the remainder of her figure almost invisible.
'You have come!' she said with shy pleasure. 'I did not require you. But never mind.' She extended her hand cordially to him.
Before speaking he looked at her with a great new interest in his eye. It was the first time that he had seen her thus, and she was altered in more than dress. A soberly-sweet expression sat on her face. It was of a rare and peculiar shade-something that he had never seen before in woman.
'Have you nothing to say?' she continued. 'Your footsteps were audible to me from the very bottom, and I knew they were yours. You look almost restored.' 'I am almost restored,' he replied, respectfully pressing her hand. 'A reason for living arose, and I lived.'
'What reason?' she inquired, with a rapid blush.
He pointed to the rocket-like object in the western sky.
'Oh, you mean the comet. Well, you will never make a courtier! You know, of course, what has happened to me; that I have no longer a husband--have had none for a year and a half. Have you also heard that I am now quite a poor woman? Tell me what you think of it.'
'I have thought very little of it since I heard that you seemed to mind poverty but little. There is even this good in it, that I may now be able to show you some little kindness for all those you have done me, my dear lady.'
'Unless for economy's sake, I go and live abroad, at Dinan, Versailles, or Boulogne.'
Swithin, who had never thought of such a contingency, was earnest in his regrets; without, however, showing more than a sincere friend's disappointment. 'I did not say it was absolutely necessary,' she continued. 'I have, in fact, grown so homely and home-loving, I am so interested in the place and the people here, that, in spite of advice, I have almost determined not to let the house; but to continue the less business-like but pleasanter alternative of living humbly in a part of it, and shutting up the rest.'
'Your love of astronomy is getting as strong as mine!' he said ardently. 'You could not tear yourself away from the observatory!'
'You might have supposed me capable of a little human feeling as well as scientific, in connection with the observatory.'
'Dear Lady Constantine, by admitting that your astronomer has also a part of your interest--'
'Ah, you did not find it out without my telling!' she said, with a playfulness which was scarcely playful, a new accession of pinkness being visible in her face. 'I diminish myself in your esteem by reminding you.'
'You might do anything in this world without diminishing yourself in my esteem, after the goodness you have shown. And more than that, no misrepresentation, no rumour, no damning appearance whatever would ever shake my loyalty to you.'
'But you put a very matter-of-fact construction on my motives sometimes. You see me in such a hard light that I have to drop hints in quite a manoeuvring manner to let you know I am as sympathetic as other people. I sometimes think you would rather have me die than have your equatorial stolen. Confess that your admiration for me was based on my house and position in the county! Now I am shorn of all that glory, such as it was, and am a widow, and am poorer than my tenants, and can no longer buy telescopes, and am unable, from the narrowness of my circumstances, to mix in circles that people formerly said I adorned, I fear I have lost the little hold I once had over you.'
'You are as unjust now as you have been generous hitherto,' said St. Cleeve, with tears in his eyes at the gentle banter of the lady, which he, poor innocent, read as her real opinions. Seizing her hand he continued, in tones between reproach and anger, 'I swear to you that I have but two devotions, two thoughts, two hopes, and two blessings in this world, and that one of them is yourself!' 'And the other?'
'The pursuit of astronomy.'
'And astronomy stands first.'
'I have never ordinated two such dissimilar ideas. And why should you deplore your altered circumstances, my dear lady? Your widowhood, if I may take the liberty to speak on such a subject, is, though I suppose a sadness, not perhaps an unmixed evil. For though your pecuniary troubles have been discovered to the world and yourself by it, your happiness in marriage was, as you have confided to me, not great; and you are now left free as a bird to follow your own hobbies.' 'I wonder you recognize that.'
'But perhaps,' he added, with a sigh of regret, 'you will again fall a prey to some man, some uninteresting country squire or other, and be lost to the scientific world after all.'
'If I fall a prey to any man, it will not be to a country squire. But don't go on with this, for heaven's sake! You may think what you like in silence.'
'We are forgetting the comet,' said St. Cleeve. He turned, and set the instrument in order for observation, and wheeled round the dome.
While she was looking at the nucleus of the fiery plume, that now filled so large a space of the sky as completely to dominate it, Swithin dropped his gaze upon the field, and beheld in the dying light a number of labourers crossing directly towards the column.
'What do you see?' Lady Constantine asked, without ceasing to observe the comet.
'Some of the work-folk are coming this way. I know what they are coming for,--I promised to let them look at the comet through the glass.'
'They must not come up here,' she said decisively.
'They shall await your time.'
'I have a special reason for wishing them not to see me here. If you ask why, I can tell you. They mistakenly suspect my interest to be less in astronomy than in the astronomer, and they must have no showing for such a wild notion. What can you do to keep them out?'
'I'll lock the door,' said Swithin. 'They will then think I am away.' He ran down the staircase, and she could hear him hastily turning the key. Lady Constantine sighed.
'What weakness, what weakness!' she said to herself. 'That envied power of selfcontrol, where is it? That power of concealment which a woman should have-where? To run such risks, to come here alone,- -oh, if it were known! But I was always so,--always!'
She jumped up, and followed him downstairs.
He was standing immediately inside the door at the bottom, though it was so dark she could hardly see him. The villagers were audibly talking just without. 'He's sure to come, rathe or late,' resounded up the spiral in the vocal note of Hezzy Biles. 'He wouldn't let such a fine show as the comet makes to-night go by without peeping at it,--not Master Cleeve! Did ye bring along the flagon, Haymoss? Then we'll sit down inside his little board-house here, and wait. He'll come afore bed-time. Why, his spy-glass will stretch out that there comet as long as Welland Lane!'
'I'd as soon miss the great peep-show that comes every year to Greenhill Fair as a sight of such a immortal spectacle as this!' said Amos Fry.
'"Immortal spectacle,"--where did ye get that choice mossel, Haymoss?' inquired Sammy Blore. 'Well, well, the Lord save good scholars--and take just a bit o' care of them that bain't! As 'tis so dark in the hut, suppose we draw out the bench into the front here, souls?'
The bench was accordingly brought forth, and in order to have a back to lean against, they placed it exactly across the door into the spiral staircase. 'Now, have ye got any backy? If ye haven't, I have,' continued Sammy Blore. A striking of matches followed, and the speaker concluded comfortably, 'Now we shall do very well.'
'And what do this comet mean?' asked Haymoss. 'That some great tumult is going to happen, or that we shall die of a famine?'
'Famine--no!' said Nat Chapman. 'That only touches such as we, and the Lord only consarns himself with born gentlemen. It isn't to be supposed that a strange fiery lantern like that would be lighted up for folks with ten or a dozen shillings a week and their gristing, and a load o' thorn faggots when we can get 'em. If 'tis a token that he's getting hot about the ways of anybody in this parish, 'tis about my Lady Constantine's, since she is the only one of a figure worth such a hint.' 'As for her income,--that she's now lost.'
'Ah, well; I don't take in all I hear.'
Lady Constantine drew close to St. Cleeve's side, and whispered, trembling, 'Do you think they will wait long? Or can we get out?'
Swithin felt the awkwardness of the situation. The men had placed the bench close to the door, which, owing to the stairs within, opened outwards; so that at the first push by the pair inside to release themselves the bench must have gone over, and sent the smokers sprawling on their faces. He whispered to her to ascend the column and wait till he came.
'And have the dead man left her nothing? Hey? And have he carried his inheritance into's grave? And will his skeleton lie warm on account o't? Hee-hee!' said Haymoss.
''Tis all swallered up,' observed Hezzy Biles. 'His goings-on made her miserable till 'a died, and if I were the woman I'd have my randys now. He ought to have bequeathed to her our young gent, Mr. St. Cleeve, as some sort of amends. I'd up and marry en, if I were she; since her downfall has brought 'em quite near together, and made him as good as she in rank, as he was afore in bone and breeding.'
'D'ye think she will?' asked Sammy Blore. 'Or is she meaning to enter upon a virgin life for the rest of her days?'
'I don't want to be unreverent to her ladyship; but I really don't think she is meaning any such waste of a Christian carcase. I say she's rather meaning to commit flat matrimony wi' somebody or other, and one young gentleman in particular.'
'But the young man himself?'
'Planned, cut out, and finished for the delight of 'ooman!'
'Yet he must be willing.'
'That would soon come. If they get up this tower ruling plannards together much longer, their plannards will soon rule them together, in my way o' thinking. If she've a disposition towards the knot, she can soon teach him.'
'True, true, and lawfully. What before mid ha' been a wrong desire is now a holy wish!'
The scales fell from Swithin St. Cleeve's eyes as he heard the words of his neighbours. How suddenly the truth dawned upon him; how it bewildered him, till he scarcely knew where he was; how he recalled the full force of what he had only half apprehended at earlier times, particularly of that sweet kiss she had impressed on his lips when she supposed him dying,--these vivid realizations are difficult to tell in slow verbiage. He could remain there no longer, and with an electrified heart he retreated up the spiral.
He found Lady Constantine half way to the top, standing by a loop- hole; and when she spoke he discovered that she was almost in tears. 'Are they gone?' she asked.
'I fear they will not go yet,' he replied, with a nervous fluctuation of manner that had never before appeared in his bearing towards her.
'What shall I do?' she asked. 'I ought not to be here; nobody knows that I am out of the house. Oh, this is a mistake! I must go home somehow.'
'Did you hear what they were saying?'
'No,' said she. 'What is the matter? Surely you are disturbed? What did they say?'
'It would be the exaggeration of frankness in me to tell you.'
'Is it what a woman ought not to be made acquainted with?'
'It is, in this case. It is so new and so indescribable an idea to me--that'--he leant against the concave wall, quite tremulous with strange incipient sentiments. 'What sort of an idea?' she asked gently.
'It is--an awakening. In thinking of the heaven above, I did not perceive--the--' 'Earth beneath?'
'The better heaven beneath. Pray, dear Lady Constantine, give me your hand for a moment.'
She seemed startled, and the hand was not given.
'I am so anxious to get home,' she repeated. 'I did not mean to stay here more than five minutes!'
'I fear I am much to blame for this accident,' he said. 'I ought not to have intruded here. But don't grieve! I will arrange for your escape, somehow. Be good enough to follow me down.'
They redescended, and, whispering to Lady Constantine to remain a few stairs behind, he began to rattle and unlock the door.
The men precipitately removed their bench, and Swithin stepped out, the light of the summer night being still enough to enable them to distinguish him. 'Well, Hezekiah, and Samuel, and Nat, how are you?' he said boldly. 'Well, sir, 'tis much as before wi' me,' replied Nat. 'One hour a week wi' God A'mighty and the rest with the devil, as a chap may say. And really, now yer poor father's gone, I'd as lief that that Sunday hour should pass like the rest; for Pa'son Tarkenham do tease a feller's conscience that much, that church is no hollerday at all to the limbs, as it was in yer reverent father's time! But we've been waiting here, Mr. San Cleeve, supposing ye had not come.' 'I have been staying at the top, and fastened the door not to be disturbed. Now I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have another engagement this evening, so that it would be inconvenient to admit you. To-morrow evening, or any evening but this, I will show you the comet and any stars you like.'
They readily agreed to come the next night, and prepared to depart. But what with the flagon, and the pipes, and the final observations, getting away was a matter of time. Meanwhile a cloud, which nobody had noticed, arose from the north overhead, and large drops of rain began to fall so rapidly that the conclave entered the hut till it should be over. St. Cleeve strolled off under the firs. The next moment there was a rustling through the trees at another point, and a man and woman appeared. The woman took shelter under a tree, and the man, bearing wraps and umbrellas, came forward.
'My lady's man and maid,' said Sammy.
'Is her ladyship here?' asked the man.
'No. I reckon her ladyship keeps more kissable company,' replied Nat Chapman. 'Pack o' stuff!' said Blore.
'Not here? Well, to be sure! We can't find her anywhere in the wide house! I've been sent to look for her with these overclothes and umbrella. I've suffered horse-flesh traipsing up and down, and can't find her nowhere. Lord, Lord, where can she be, and two months' wages owing to me!'
'Why so anxious, Anthony Green, as I think yer name is shaped? You be not a married man?' said Hezzy.
''Tis what they call me, neighbours, whether or no.'
'But surely you was a bachelor chap by late, afore her ladyship got rid of the regular servants and took ye?'
'I were; but that's past!'
'And how came ye to bow yer head to 't, Anthony? 'Tis what you never was inclined to. You was by no means a doting man in my time.'
'Well, had I been left to my own free choice, 'tis as like as not I should ha' shunned forming such kindred, being at that time a poor day man, or weekly, at my highest luck in hiring. But 'tis wearing work to hold out against the custom of the country, and the woman wanting ye to stand by her and save her from unborn shame; so, since common usage would have it, I let myself be carried away by opinion, and took her. Though she's never once thanked me for covering her confusion, that's true! But, 'tis the way of the lost when safe, and I don't complain. Here she is, just behind, under the tree, if you'd like to see her?-a very nice homespun woman to look at, too, for all her few weather-stains. . . . Well, well, where can my lady be? And I the trusty jineral man--'tis more than my place is worth to lose her! Come forward, Christiana, and talk nicely to the work- folk.'
While the woman was talking the rain increased so much that they all retreated further into the hut. St. Cleeve, who had impatiently stood a little way off, now saw his opportunity, and, putting in his head, said, 'The rain beats in; you had better shut the door. I must ascend and close up the dome.'
Slamming the door upon them without ceremony he quickly went to Lady Constantine in the column, and telling her they could now pass the villagers unseen he gave her his arm. Thus he conducted her across the front of the hut into the shadows of the firs.
'I will run to the house and harness your little carriage myself,' he said tenderly. 'I will then take you home in it.'
'No; please don't leave me alone under these dismal trees!' Neither would she hear of his getting her any wraps; and, opening her little sunshade to keep the rain out of her face, she walked with him across the insulating field, after which the trees of the park afforded her a sufficient shelter to reach home without much damage.
Swithin was too greatly affected by what he had overheard to speak much to her on the way, and protected her as if she had been a shorn lamb. After a farewell which had more meaning than sound in it, he hastened back to Rings-Hill Speer. The work-folk were still in the hut, and, by dint of friendly converse and a sip at the flagon, had so cheered Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Green that they neither thought nor cared what had become of Lady Constantine.
St. Cleeve's sudden sense of new relations with that sweet patroness had taken away in one half-hour his natural ingenuousness. Henceforth he could act a part. 'I have made all secure at the top,' he said, putting his head into the hut. 'I am now going home. When the rain stops, lock this door and bring the key to my house.'
The laboured resistance which Lady Constantine's judgment had offered to her rebellious affection ere she learnt that she was a widow, now passed into a bashfulness that rendered her almost as unstable of mood as before. But she was one of that mettle--fervid, cordial, and spontaneous--who had not the heart to spoil a passion; and her affairs having gone to rack and ruin by no fault of her own she was left to a painfully narrowed existence which lent even something of rationality to her attachment. Thus it was that her tender and unambitious soul found comfort in her reverses.
As for St. Cleeve, the tardiness of his awakening was the natural result of inexperience combined with devotion to a hobby. But, like a spring bud hard in bursting, the delay was compensated by after speed. At once breathlessly recognizing in this fellow-watcher of the skies a woman who loved him, in addition to the patroness and friend, he truly translated the nearly forgotten kiss she had given him in her moment of despair.
Lady Constantine, in being eight or nine years his senior, was an object even better calculated to nourish a youth's first passion than a girl of his own age, superiority of experience and ripeness of emotion exercising the same peculiar fascination over him as over other young men in their first ventures in this kind. The alchemy which thus transmuted an abstracted astronomer into an eager lover--and, must it be said, spoilt a promising young physicist to produce a common-place inamorato--may be almost described as working its change in one short night. Next morning he was so fascinated with the novel sensation that he wanted to rush off at once to Lady Constantine, and say, 'I love you true!' in the intensest tones of his mental condition, to register his assertion in her heart before any of those accidents which 'creep in 'twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,' should occur to hinder him. But his embarrassment at standing in a new position towards her would not allow him to present himself at her door in any such hurry. He waited on, as helplessly as a girl, for a chance of encountering her.
But though she had tacitly agreed to see him on any reasonable occasion, Lady Constantine did not put herself in his way. She even kept herself out of his way. Now that for the first time he had learnt to feel a strong impatience for their meeting, her shyness for the first time led her to delay it. But given two people living in one parish, who long from the depths of their hearts to be in each other's company, what resolves of modesty, policy, pride, or apprehension will keep them for any length of time apart?
One afternoon he was watching the sun from his tower, half echoing the Greek astronomer's wish that he might be set close to that luminary for the wonder of beholding it in all its glory, under the slight penalty of being consumed the next instant. He glanced over the high-road between the field and the park (which sublunary features now too often distracted his attention from his telescope), and saw her passing along that way.
She was seated in the donkey-carriage that had now taken the place of her landau, the white animal looking no larger than a cat at that distance. The buttoned boy, who represented both coachman and footman, walked alongside the animal's head at a solemn pace; the dog stalked at the distance of a yard behind the vehicle, without indulging in a single gambol; and the whole turn-out resembled in dignity a dwarfed state procession.
Here was an opportunity but for two obstructions: the boy, who might be curious; and the dog, who might bark and attract the attention of any labourers or servants near. Yet the risk was to be run, and, knowing that she would soon turn up a certain shady lane at right angles to the road she had followed, he ran hastily down the staircase, crossed the barley (which now covered the field) by the path not more than a foot wide that he had trodden for himself, and got into the lane at the other end. By slowly walking along in the direction of the turnpikeroad he soon had the satisfaction of seeing her coming. To his surprise he also had the satisfaction of perceiving that neither boy nor dog was in her company. They both blushed as they approached, she from sex, he from inexperience. One thing she seemed to see in a moment, that in the interval of her absence St. Cleeve had become a man; and as he greeted her with this new and maturer light in his eyes she could not hide her embarrassment, or meet their fire. 'I have just sent my page across to the column with your book on Cometary Nuclei,' she said softly; 'that you might not have to come to the house for it. I did not know I should meet you here.'
'Didn't you wish me to come to the house for it?'
'I did not, frankly. You know why, do you not?'
'Yes, I know. Well, my longing is at rest. I have met you again. But are you unwell, that you drive out in this chair?'
'No; I walked out this morning, and am a little tired.'
'I have been looking for you night and day. Why do you turn your face aside? You used not to be so.' Her hand rested on the side of the chair, and he took it. 'Do you know that since we last met, I have been thinking of you--daring to think of you--as I never thought of you before?'
'Yes, I know it.'
'How did you know?'
'I saw it in your face when you came up.'
'Well, I suppose I ought not to think of you so. And yet, had I not learned to, I should never fully have felt how gentle and sweet you are. Only think of my loss if I had lived and died without seeing more in you than in astronomy! But I shall never leave off doing so now. When you talk I shall love your understanding; when you are silent I shall love your face. But how shall I know that you care to be so much to me?'
Her manner was disturbed as she recognized the impending self- surrender, which she knew not how to resist, and was not altogether at ease in welcoming. 'O, Lady Constantine,' he continued, bending over her, 'give me some proof more than mere seeming and inference, which are all I have at present, that you don't think this I tell you of presumption in me! I have been unable to do anything since I last saw you for pondering uncertainly on this. Some proof, or little sign, that we are one in heart!'
A blush settled again on her face; and half in effort, half in spontaneity, she put her finger on her cheek. He almost devotionally kissed the spot.
'Does that suffice?' she asked, scarcely giving her words voice.
'Yes; I am convinced.'
'Then that must be the end. Let me drive on; the boy will be back again soon.' She spoke hastily, and looked askance to hide the heat of her cheek. 'No; the tower door is open, and he will go to the top, and waste his time in looking through the telescope.'
'Then you should rush back, for he will do some damage.'
'No; he may do what he likes, tinker and spoil the instrument, destroy my papers,--anything, so that he will stay there and leave us alone.'
She glanced up with a species of pained pleasure.
'You never used to feel like that!' she said, and there was keen self-reproach in her voice. 'You were once so devoted to your science that the thought of an intruder into your temple would have driven you wild. Now you don't care; and who is to blame? Ah, not you, not you!'
The animal ambled on with her, and he, leaning on the side of the little vehicle, kept her company.
'Well, don't let us think of that,' he said. 'I offer myself and all my energies, frankly and entirely, to you, my dear, dear lady, whose I shall be always! But my words in telling you this will only injure my meaning instead of emphasize it. In expressing, even to myself, my thoughts of you, I find that I fall into phrases which, as a critic, I should hitherto have heartily despised for their commonness. What's the use of saying, for instance, as I have just said, that I give myself entirely to you, and shall be yours always,--that you have my devotion, my highest homage? Those words have been used so frequently in a flippant manner that honest use of them is not distinguishable from the unreal.' He turned to her, and added, smiling, 'Your eyes are to be my stars for the future.' 'Yes, I know it,--I know it, and all you would say! I dreaded even while I hoped for this, my dear young friend,' she replied, her eyes being full of tears. 'I am injuring you; who knows that I am not ruining your future,--I who ought to know better? Nothing can come of this, nothing must,--and I am only wasting your time. Why have I drawn you off from a grand celestial study to study poor lonely me? Say you will never despise me, when you get older, for this episode in our lives. But you will,--I know you will! All men do, when they have been attracted in their unsuspecting youth, as I have attracted you. I ought to have kept my resolve.' 'What was that?'
'To bear anything rather than draw you from your high purpose; to be like the noble citizen of old Greece, who, attending a sacrifice, let himself be burnt to the bone by a coal that jumped into his sleeve rather than disturb the sacred ceremony.'
'But can I not study and love both?'
'I hope so,--I earnestly hope so. But you'll be the first if you do, and I am the responsible one if you do not.'
'You speak as if I were quite a child, and you immensely older. Why, how old do you think I am? I am twenty.'
'You seem younger. Well, that's so much the better. Twenty sounds strong and firm. How old do you think I am?'
'I have never thought of considering.' He innocently turned to scrutinize her face. She winced a little. But the instinct was premature. Time had taken no liberties with her features as yet; nor had trouble very roughly handled her. 'I will tell you,' she replied, speaking almost with physical pain, yet as if determination should carry her through. 'I am eight-and- twenty--nearly--I mean a little more, a few months more. Am I not a fearful deal older than you?' 'At first it seems a great deal,' he answered, musing. 'But it doesn't seem much when one gets used to it.'
'Nonsense!' she exclaimed. 'It IS a good deal.'
'Very well, then, sweetest Lady Constantine, let it be,' he said gently. 'You should not let it be! A polite man would have flatly contradicted me. . . . O I am ashamed of this!' she added a moment after, with a subdued, sad look upon the ground. 'I am speaking by the card of the outer world, which I have left behind utterly; no such lip service is known in your sphere. I care nothing for those things, really; but that which is called the Eve in us will out sometimes. Well, we will forget that now, as we must, at no very distant date, forget all the rest of this.' He walked beside her thoughtfully awhile, with his eyes also bent on the road. 'Why must we forget it all?' he inquired.
'It is only an interlude.'
'An interlude! It is no interlude to me. O how can you talk so lightly of this, Lady Constantine? And yet, if I were to go away from here, I might, perhaps, soon reduce it to an interlude! Yes,' he resumed impulsively, 'I will go away. Love dies, and it is just as well to strangle it in its birth; it can only die once! I'll go.' 'No, no!' she said, looking up apprehensively. 'I misled you. It is no interlude to me,--it is tragical. I only meant that from a worldly point of view it is an interlude, which we should try to forget. But the world is not all. You will not go away?' But he continued drearily, 'Yes, yes, I see it all; you have enlightened me. It will be hurting your prospects even more than mine, if I stay. Now Sir Blount is dead, you are free again,--may marry where you will, but for this fancy of ours. I'll leave Welland before harm comes of my staying.'
'Don't decide to do a thing so rash!' she begged, seizing his hand, and looking miserable at the effect of her words. 'I shall have nobody left in the world to care for! And now I have given you the great telescope, and lent you the column, it would be ungrateful to go away! I was wrong; believe me that I did not mean that it was a mere interlude to ME. O if you only knew how very, very far it is from that! It is my doubt of the result to you that makes me speak so slightingly.' They were now approaching cross-roads, and casually looking up they beheld, thirty or forty yards beyond the crossing, Mr. Torkingham, who was leaning over a gate, his back being towards them. As yet he had not recognized their approach.
The master-passion had already supplanted St. Cleeve's natural ingenuousness by subtlety.
'Would it be well for us to meet Mr. Torkingham just now?' he began. 'Certainly not,' she said hastily, and pulling the rein she instantly drove down the right-hand road. 'I cannot meet anybody!' she murmured. 'Would it not be better that you leave me now?--not for my pleasure, but that there may arise no distressing tales about us before we know--how to act in this--this'--(she smiled faintly at him) 'heartaching extremity!'
They were passing under a huge oak-tree, whose limbs, irregular with shoulders, knuckles, and elbows, stretched horizontally over the lane in a manner recalling Absalom's death. A slight rustling was perceptible amid the leafage as they drew out from beneath it, and turning up his eyes Swithin saw that very buttoned page whose advent they had dreaded, looking down with interest at them from a perch not much higher than a yard above their heads. He had a bunch of oak-apples in one hand, plainly the object of his climb, and was furtively watching Lady Constantine with the hope that she might not see him. But that she had already done, though she did not reveal it, and, fearing that the latter words of their conversation had been overheard, they spoke not till they had passed the next turning.
She stretched out her hand to his. 'This must not go on,' she said imploringly. 'My anxiety as to what may be said of such methods of meeting makes me too unhappy. See what has happened!' She could not help smiling. 'Out of the fryingpan into the fire! After meanly turning to avoid the parson we have rushed into a worse publicity. It is too humiliating to have to avoid people, and lowers both you and me. The only remedy is not to meet.'
'Very well,' said Swithin, with a sigh. 'So it shall be.'
And with smiles that might more truly have been tears they parted there and then.
The summer passed away, and autumn, with its infinite suite of tints, came creeping on. Darker grew the evenings, tearfuller the moonlights, and heavier the dews. Meanwhile the comet had waxed to its largest dimensions,--so large that not only the nucleus but a portion of the tail had been visible in broad day. It was now on the wane, though every night the equatorial still afforded an opportunity of observing the singular object which would soon disappear altogether from the heavens for perhaps thousands of years.
But the astronomer of the Rings-Hill Speer was no longer a match for his celestial materials. Scientifically he had become but a dim vapour of himself; the lover had come into him like an armed man, and cast out the student, and his intellectual situation was growing a life-and-death matter.
The resolve of the pair had been so far kept: they had not seen each other in private for three months. But on one day in October he ventured to write a note to her:--
'I can do nothing! I have ceased to study, ceased to observe. The equatorial is useless to me. This affection I have for you absorbs my life, and outweighs my intentions. The power to labour in this grandest of fields has left me. I struggle against the weakness till I think of the cause, and then I bless her. But the very desperation of my circumstances has suggested a remedy; and this I would inform you of at once.
'Can you come to me, since I must not come to you? I will wait to- morrow night at the edge of the plantation by which you would enter to the column. I will not detain you; my plan can be told in ten words.'
The night after posting this missive to her he waited at the spot mentioned. It was a melancholy evening for coming abroad. A blusterous wind had risen during the day, and still continued to increase. Yet he stood watchful in the darkness, and was ultimately rewarded by discerning a shady muffled shape that embodied itself from the field, accompanied by the scratching of silk over stubble. There was no longer any disguise as to the nature of their meeting. It was a lover's assignation, pure and simple; and boldly realizing it as such he clasped her in his arms.
'I cannot bear this any longer!' he exclaimed. 'Three months since I saw you alone! Only a glimpse of you in church, or a bow from the distance, in all that time! What a fearful struggle this keeping apart has been!'
'Yet I would have had strength to persist, since it seemed best,' she murmured when she could speak, 'had not your words on your condition so alarmed and saddened me. This inability of yours to work, or study, or observe,--it is terrible! So terrible a sting is it to my conscience that your hint about a remedy has brought me instantly.'
'Yet I don't altogether mind it, since it is you, my dear, who have displaced the work; and yet the loss of time nearly distracts me, when I have neither the power to work nor the delight of your company.'
'But your remedy! O, I cannot help guessing it! Yes; you are going away!' 'Let us ascend the column; we can speak more at ease there. Then I will explain all. I would not ask you to climb so high but the hut is not yet furnished.' He entered the cabin at the foot, and having lighted a small lantern, conducted her up the hollow staircase to the top, where he closed the slides of the dome to keep out the wind, and placed the observing-chair for her.
'I can stay only five minutes,' she said, without sitting down. 'You said it was important that you should see me, and I have come. I assure you it is at a great risk. If I am seen here at this time I am ruined for ever. But what would I not do for you? O Swithin, your remedy--is it to go away? There is no other; and yet I dread that like death!'
'I can tell you in a moment, but I must begin at the beginning. All this ruinous idleness and distraction is caused by the misery of our not being able to meet with freedom. The fear that something may snatch you from me keeps me in a state of perpetual apprehension.'
'It is too true also of me! I dread that some accident may happen, and waste my days in meeting the trouble half-way.'
'So our lives go on, and our labours stand still. Now for the remedy. Dear Lady Constantine, allow me to marry you.'
She started, and the wind without shook the building, sending up a yet intenser moan from the firs.
'I mean, marry you quite privately. Let it make no difference whatever to our outward lives for years, for I know that in my present position you could not possibly acknowledge me as husband publicly. But by marrying at once we secure the certainty that we cannot be divided by accident, coaxing, or artifice; and, at ease on that point, I shall embrace my studies with the old vigour, and you yours.'
Lady Constantine was so agitated at the unexpected boldness of such a proposal from one hitherto so boyish and deferential that she sank into the observingchair, her intention to remain for only a few minutes being quite forgotten. She covered her face with her hands. 'No, no, I dare not!' she whispered. 'But is there a single thing else left to do?' he pleaded, kneeling down beside her, less in supplication than in abandonment. 'What else can we do?' 'Wait till you are famous.'
'But I cannot be famous unless I strive, and this distracting condition prevents all striving!'
'Could you not strive on if I--gave you a promise, a solemn promise, to be yours when your name is fairly well known?'
St. Cleeve breathed heavily. 'It will be a long, weary time,' he said. 'And even with your promise I shall work but half-heartedly. Every hour of study will be interrupted with "Suppose this or this happens;" "Suppose somebody persuades her to break her promise;" worse still, "Suppose some rival maligns me, and so seduces her away." No, Lady Constantine, dearest, best as you are, that element of distraction would still remain, and where that is, no sustained energy is possible. Many erroneous things have been written and said by the sages, but never did they float a greater fallacy than that love serves as a stimulus to win the loved one by patient toil.'
'I cannot argue with you,' she said weakly.
'My only possible other chance would lie in going away,' he resumed after a moment's reflection, with his eyes on the lantern flame, which waved and smoked in the currents of air that leaked into the dome from the fierce windstream without. 'If I might take away the equatorial, supposing it possible that I could find some suitable place for observing in the southern hemisphere,--say, at the Cape,-- I MIGHT be able to apply myself to serious work again, after the lapse of a little time. The southern constellations offer a less exhausted field for investigation. I wonder if I might!'
'You mean,' she answered uneasily, 'that you might apply yourself to work when your recollection of me began to fade, and my life to become a matter of indifference to you?. . Yes, go! No,--I cannot bear it! The remedy is worse than the disease. I cannot let you go away!'
'Then how can you refuse the only condition on which I can stay, without ruin to my purpose and scandal to your name? Dearest, agree to my proposal, as you love both me and yourself!'
He waited, while the fir-trees rubbed and prodded the base of the tower, and the wind roared around and shook it; but she could not find words to reply. 'Would to God,' he burst out, 'that I might perish here, like Winstanley in his lighthouse! Then the difficulty would be solved for you.'
'You are so wrong, so very wrong, in saying so!' she exclaimed passionately. 'You may doubt my wisdom, pity my short-sightedness; but there is one thing you do know,--that I love you dearly!'
'You do,--I know it!' he said, softened in a moment. 'But it seems such a simple remedy for the difficulty that I cannot see how you can mind adopting it, if you care so much for me as I do for you.'
'Should we live. . . just as we are, exactly, . . . supposing I agreed?' she faintly inquired.
'Yes, that is my idea.'
'Quite privately, you say. How could--the marriage be quite private?' 'I would go away to London and get a license. Then you could come to me, and return again immediately after the ceremony. I could return at leisure and not a soul in the world would know what had taken place. Think, dearest, with what a free conscience you could then assist me in my efforts to plumb these deeps above us! Any feeling that you may now have against clandestine meetings as such would then be removed, and our hearts would be at rest.'
There was a certain scientific practicability even in his love- making, and it here came out excellently. But she sat on with suspended breath, her heart wildly beating, while he waited in open- mouthed expectation. Each was swayed by the emotion within them, much as the candle-flame was swayed by the tempest without. It was the most critical evening of their lives.
The pale rays of the little lantern fell upon her beautiful face, snugly and neatly bound in by her black bonnet; but not a beam of the lantern leaked out into the night to suggest to any watchful eye that human life at its highest excitement was beating within the dark and isolated tower; for the dome had no windows, and every shutter that afforded an opening for the telescope was hermetically closed. Predilections and misgivings so equally strove within her still youthful breast that she could not utter a word; her intention wheeled this way and that like the balance of a watch. His unexpected proposition had brought about the smartest encounter of inclination with prudence, of impulse with reserve, that she had ever known.
Of all the reasons that she had expected him to give for his urgent request to see her this evening, an offer of marriage was probably the last. Whether or not she had ever amused herself with hypothetical fancies on such a subject,--and it was only natural that she should vaguely have done so,--the courage in her protege coolly to advance it, without a hint from herself that such a proposal would be tolerated, showed her that there was more in his character than she had reckoned on: and the discovery almost frightened her. The humour, attitude, and tenor of her attachment had been of quite an unpremeditated quality, unsuggestive of any such audacious solution to their distresses as this. 'I repeat my question, dearest,' he said, after her long pause. 'Shall it be done? Or shall I exile myself, and study as best I can, in some distant country, out of sight and sound?'
'Are those the only alternatives? Yes, yes; I suppose they are!' She waited yet another moment, bent over his kneeling figure, and kissed his forehead. 'Yes; it shall be done,' she whispered. 'I will marry you.'
'My angel, I am content!'
He drew her yielding form to his heart, and her head sank upon his shoulder, as he pressed his two lips continuously upon hers. To such had the study of celestial physics brought them in the space of eight months, one week, and a few odd days.
'I am weaker than you,--far the weaker,' she went on, her tears falling. 'Rather than lose you out of my sight I will marry without stipulation or condition. But--I put it to your kindness--grant me one little request.'
He instantly assented.
'It is that, in consideration of my peculiar position in this county,--O, you can't understand it!--you will not put an end to the absolute secrecy of our relationship without my full assent. Also, that you will never come to Welland House without first discussing with me the advisability of the visit, accepting my opinion on the point. There, see how a timid woman tries to fence herself in!'
'My dear lady-love, neither of those two high-handed courses should I have taken, even had you not stipulated against them. The very essence of our marriage plan is that those two conditions are kept. I see as well as you do, even more than you do, how important it is that for the present,--ay, for a long time hence--I should still be but the curate's lonely son, unattached to anybody or anything, with no object of interest but his science; and you the recluse lady of the manor, to whom he is only an acquaintance.'
'See what deceits love sows in honest minds!'
'It would be a humiliation to you at present that I could not bear if a marriage between us were made public; an inconvenience without any compensating advantage.'
'I am so glad you assume it without my setting it before you! Now I know you are not only good and true, but politic and trustworthy.'
'Well, then, here is our covenant. My lady swears to marry me; I, in return for such great courtesy, swear never to compromise her by intruding at Welland House, and to keep the marriage concealed till I have won a position worthy of her.'
'Or till I request it to be made known,' she added, possibly foreseeing a contingency which had not occurred to him.
'Or till you request it,' he repeated.
'It is agreed,' murmured Lady Constantine,
After this there only remained to be settled between them the practical details of the project.
These were that he should leave home in a couple of days, and take lodgings either in the distant city of Bath or in a convenient suburb of London, till a sufficient time should have elapsed to satisfy legal requirements; that on a fine morning at the end of this time she should hie away to the same place, and be met at the station by St. Cleeve, armed with the marriage license; whence they should at once proceed to the church fixed upon for the ceremony; returning home independently in the course of the next two or three days.
While these tactics were under discussion the two-and-thirty winds of heaven continued, as before, to beat about the tower, though their onsets appeared to be somewhat lessening in force. Himself now calmed and satisfied, Swithin, as is the wont of humanity, took serener views of Nature's crushing mechanics without, and said, 'The wind doesn't seem disposed to put the tragic period to our hopes and fears that I spoke of in my momentary despair.'
'The disposition of the wind is as vicious as ever,' she answered, looking into his face with pausing thoughts on, perhaps, other subjects than that discussed. 'It is your mood of viewing it that has changed. "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."'
And, as if flatly to stultify Swithin's assumption, a circular hurricane, exceeding in violence any that had preceded it, seized hold upon Rings-Hill Speer at that moment with the determination of a conscious agent. The first sensation of a resulting catastrophe was conveyed to their intelligence by the flapping of the candle- flame against the lantern-glass; then the wind, which hitherto they had heard rather than felt, rubbed past them like a fugitive. Swithin beheld around and above him, in place of the concavity of the dome, the open heaven, with its racing clouds, remote horizon, and intermittent gleam of stars. The dome that had covered the tower had been whirled off bodily; and they heard it descend crashing upon the trees.
Finding himself untouched Swithin stretched out his arms towards Lady Constantine, whose apparel had been seized by the spinning air, nearly lifting her off her legs. She, too, was as yet unharmed. Each held the other for a moment, when, fearing that something further would happen, they took shelter in the staircase.
'Dearest, what an escape!' he said, still holding her.
'What is the accident?' she asked. 'Has the whole top really gone?' 'The dome has been blown off the roof.'
As soon as it was practicable he relit the extinguished lantern, and they emerged again upon the leads, where the extent of the disaster became at once apparent. Saving the absence of the enclosing hemisphere all remained the same. The dome, being constructed of wood, was light by comparison with the rest of the structure, and the wheels which allowed it horizontal, or, as Swithin expressed it, azimuth motion, denied it a firm hold upon the walls; so that it had been lifted off them like a cover from a pot. The equatorial stood in the midst as it had stood before.
Having executed its grotesque purpose the wind sank to comparative mildness. Swithin took advantage of this lull by covering up the instruments with cloths, after which the betrothed couple prepared to go downstairs.
But the events of the night had not yet fully disclosed themselves. At this moment there was a sound of footsteps and a knocking at the door below. 'It can't be for me!' said Lady Constantine. 'I retired to my room before leaving the house, and told them on no account to disturb me.'
She remained at the top while Swithin went down the spiral. In the gloom he beheld Hannah.
'O Master Swithin, can ye come home! The wind have blowed down the chimley that don't smoke, and the pinning-end with it; and the old ancient house, that have been in your family so long as the memory of man, is naked to the world! It is a mercy that your grammer were not killed, sitting by the hearth, poor old soul, and soon to walk wi' God,--for 'a 's getting wambling on her pins, Mr. Swithin, as aged folks do. As I say, 'a was all but murdered by the elements, and doing no more harm than the babes in the wood, nor speaking one harmful word. And the fire and smoke were blowed all across house like a chapter in Revelation; and your poor reverent father's features scorched to flakes, looking like the vilest ruffian, and the gilt frame spoiled! Every flitch, every eye-piece, and every chine is buried under the walling; and I fed them pigs with my own hands, Master Swithin, little thinking they would come to this end. Do ye collect yourself, Mr. Swithin, and come at once!'
'I will,--I will. I'll follow you in a moment. Do you hasten back again and assist.' When Hannah had departed the young man ran up to Lady Constantine, to whom he explained the accident. After sympathizing with old Mrs. Martin Lady Constantine added, 'I thought something would occur to mar our scheme!' 'I am not quite sure of that yet.'
On a short consideration with him, she agreed to wait at the top of the tower till he could come back and inform her if the accident were really so serious as to interfere with his plan for departure. He then left her, and there she sat in the dark, alone, looking over the parapet, and straining her eyes in the direction of the homestead.
At first all was obscurity; but when he had been gone about ten minutes lights began to move to and fro in the hollow where the house stood, and shouts occasionally mingled with the wind, which retained some violence yet, playing over the trees beneath her as on the strings of a lyre. But not a bough of them was visible, a cloak of blackness covering everything netherward; while overhead the windy sky looked down with a strange and disguised face, the three or four stars that alone were visible being so dissociated by clouds that she knew not which they were. Under any other circumstances Lady Constantine might have felt a nameless fear in thus sitting aloft on a lonely column, with a forest groaning under her feet, and palaeolithic dead men feeding its roots; but the recent passionate decision stirred her pulses to an intensity beside which the ordinary tremors of feminine existence asserted themselves in vain. The apocalyptic effect of the scene surrounding her was, indeed, not inharmonious, and afforded an appropriate background to her intentions.
After what seemed to her an interminable space of time, quick steps in the staircase became audible above the roar of the firs, and in a few instants St. Cleeve again stood beside her.
The case of the homestead was serious. Hannah's account had not been exaggerated in substance: the gable end of the house was open to the garden; the joists, left without support, had dropped, and with them the upper floor. By the help of some labourers, who lived near, and Lady Constantine's man Anthony, who was passing at the time, the homestead had been propped up, and protected for the night by some rickcloths; but Swithin felt that it would be selfish in the highest degree to leave two lonely old women to themselves at this juncture. 'In short,' he concluded despondently, 'I cannot go to stay in Bath or London just now; perhaps not for another fortnight!'
'Never mind,' she said. 'A fortnight hence will do as well.'
'And I have these for you,' he continued. 'Your man Green was passing my grandmother's on his way back from Warborne, where he had been, he says, for any letters that had come for you by the evening post. As he stayed to assist the other men I told him I would go on to your house with the letters he had brought. Of course I did not tell him I should see you here.'
'Thank you. Of course not. Now I'll return at once.'
In descending the column her eye fell upon the superscription of one of the letters, and she opened and glanced over it by the lantern light. She seemed startled, and, musing, said, 'The postponement of our--intention must be, I fear, for a long time. I find that after the end of this month I cannot leave home safely, even for a day.' Perceiving that he was about to ask why, she added, 'I will not trouble you with the reason now; it would only harass you. It is only a family business, and cannot be helped.'
'Then we cannot be married till--God knows when!' said Swithin blankly. 'I cannot leave home till after the next week or two; you cannot leave home unless within that time. So what are we to do?'
'I do not know.'
'My dear, dear one, don't let us be beaten like this! Don't let a well-considered plan be overthrown by a mere accident! Here's a remedy. Do YOU go and stay the requisite time in the parish we are to be married in, instead of me. When my grandmother is again well housed I can come to you, instead of you to me, as we first said. Then it can be done within the time.'
Reluctantly, shyly, and yet with a certain gladness of heart, she gave way to his proposal that they should change places in the programme. There was much that she did not like in it, she said. It seemed to her as if she were taking the initiative by going and attending to the preliminaries. It was the man's part to do that, in her opinion, and was usually undertaken by him.
'But,' argued Swithin, 'there are cases in which the woman does give the notices, and so on; that is to say, when the man is absolutely hindered from doing so; and ours is such a case. The seeming is nothing; I know the truth, and what does it matter? You do not refuse--retract your word to be my wife, because, to avoid a sickening delay, the formalities require you to attend to them in place of me?' She did not refuse, she said. In short she agreed to his entreaty. They had, in truth, gone so far in their dream of union that there was no drawing back now. Whichever of them was forced by circumstances to be the protagonist in the enterprise, the thing must be done. Their intention to become husband and wife, at first halting and timorous, had accumulated momentum with the lapse of hours, till it now bore down every obstacle in its course.
'Since you beg me to,--since there is no alternative between my going and a long postponement,' she said, as they stood in the dark porch of Welland House before parting,--'since I am to go first, and seem to be the pioneer in this adventure, promise me, Swithin, promise your Viviette, that in years to come, when perhaps you may not love me so warmly as you do now--'
'That will never be.'
'Well, hoping it will not, but supposing it should, promise me that you will never reproach me as the one who took the initiative when it should have been yourself, forgetting that it was at your request; promise that you will never say I showed immodest readiness to do so, or anything which may imply your obliviousness of the fact that I act in obedience to necessity and your earnest prayer.'
Need it be said that he promised never to reproach her with that or any other thing as long as they should live? The few details of the reversed arrangement were soon settled, Bath being the place finally decided on. Then, with a warm audacity which events had encouraged, he pressed her to his breast, and she silently entered the house. He returned to the homestead, there to attend to the unexpected duties of repairing the havoc wrought by the gale.
That night, in the solitude of her chamber, Lady Constantine reopened and read the subjoined letter--one of those handed to her by St. Cleeve:--
"----- STREET, PICCADILLY, October 15, 18--.
'DEAR VIVIETTE,--You will be surprised to learn that I am in England, and that I am again out of harness--unless you should have seen the latter in the papers. Rio Janeiro may do for monkeys, but it won't do for me. Having resigned the appointment I have returned here, as a preliminary step to finding another vent for my energies; in other words, another milch cow for my sustenance. I knew nothing whatever of your husband's death till two days ago; so that any letter from you on the subject, at the time it became known, must have miscarried. Hypocrisy at such a moment is worse than useless, and I therefore do not condole with you, particularly as the event, though new to a banished man like me, occurred so long since. You are better without him, Viviette, and are now just the limb for doing something for yourself, notwithstanding the threadbare state in which you seem to have been cast upon the world. You are still young, and, as I imagine (unless you have vastly altered since I beheld you), good-looking: therefore make up your mind to retrieve your position by a match with one of the local celebrities; and you would do well to begin drawing neighbouring covers at once. A genial squire, with more weight than wit, more realty than weight, and more personalty than realty (considering the circumstances), would be best for you. You might make a position for us both by some such alliance; for, to tell the truth, I have had but in-and- out luck so far. I shall be with you in little more than a fortnight, when we will talk over the matter seriously, if you don't object.--Your affectionate brother, LOUIS.'
It was this allusion to her brother's coming visit which had caught her eye in the tower staircase, and led to a modification in the wedding arrangement. Having read the letter through once Lady Constantine flung it aside with an impatient little stamp that shook the decaying old floor and casement. Its contents produced perturbation, misgiving, but not retreat. The deep glow of enchantment shed by the idea of a private union with her beautiful young lover killed the pale light of cold reasoning from an indifferently good relative. 'Oh, no,' she murmured, as she sat, covering her face with her hand. 'Not for wealth untold could I give him up now!'
No argument, short of Apollo in person from the clouds, would have influenced her. She made her preparations for departure as if nothing had intervened.
In her days of prosperity Lady Constantine had often gone to the city of Bath, either frivolously, for shopping purposes, or musico- religiously, to attend choir festivals in the abbey; so there was nothing surprising in her reverting to an old practice. That the journey might appear to be of a somewhat similar nature she took with her the servant who had been accustomed to accompany her on former occasions, though the woman, having now left her service, and settled in the village as the wife of Anthony Green, with a young child on her hands, could with some difficulty leave home. Lady Constantine overcame the anxious mother's scruples by providing that young Green should be well cared for; and knowing that she could count upon this woman's fidelity, if upon anybody's, in case of an accident (for it was chiefly Lady Constantine's exertions that had made an honest wife of Mrs. Green), she departed for a fortnight's absence.
The next day found mistress and maid settled in lodgings in an old plum-coloured brick street, which a hundred years ago could boast of rank and fashion among its residents, though now the broad fan-light over each broad door admitted the sun to the halls of a lodging- house keeper only. The lamp-posts were still those that had done duty with oil lights; and rheumatic old coachmen and postilions, that once had driven and ridden gloriously from London to Land's End, ornamented with their bent persons and bow legs the pavement in front of the chief inn, in the sorry hope of earning sixpence to keep body and soul together. 'We are kept well informed on the time o' day, my lady,' said Mrs. Green, as she pulled down the blinds in Lady Constantine's room on the evening of their arrival. 'There's a church exactly at the back of us, and I hear every hour strike.' Lady Constantine said she had noticed that there was a church quite near. 'Well, it is better to have that at the back than other folks' winders. And if your ladyship wants to go there it won't be far to walk.'
'That's what occurred to me,' said Lady Constantine, 'IF I should want to go.' During the ensuing days she felt to the utmost the tediousness of waiting merely that time might pass. Not a soul knew her there, and she knew not a soul, a circumstance which, while it added to her sense of secrecy, intensified her solitude. Occasionally she went to a shop, with Green as her companion. Though there were purchases to be made, they were by no means of a pressing nature, and but poorly filled up the vacancies of those strange, speculative days,-- days surrounded by a shade of fear, yet poetized by sweet expectation. On the thirteenth day she told Green that she was going to take a walk, and leaving the house she passed by the obscurest streets to the Abbey. After wandering about beneath the aisles till her courage was screwed to its highest, she went out at the other side, and, looking timidly round to see if anybody followed, walked on till she came to a certain door, which she reached just at the moment when her heart began to sink to its very lowest, rendering all the screwing up in vain.
Whether it was because the month was October, or from any other reason, the deserted aspect of the quarter in general sat especially on this building. Moreover the pavement was up, and heaps of stone and gravel obstructed the footway. Nobody was coming, nobody was going, in that thoroughfare; she appeared to be the single one of the human race bent upon marriage business, which seemed to have been unanimously abandoned by all the rest of the world as proven folly. But she thought of Swithin, his blonde hair, ardent eyes, and eloquent lips, and was carried onward by the very reflection.
Entering the surrogate's room Lady Constantine managed, at the last juncture, to state her errand in tones so collected as to startle even herself to which her listener replied also as if the whole thing were the most natural in the world. When it came to the affirmation that she had lived fifteen days in the parish, she said with dismay--
'O no! I thought the fifteen days meant the interval of residence before the marriage takes place. I have lived here only thirteen days and a half. Now I must come again!'
'Ah--well--I think you need not be so particular,' said the surrogate. 'As a matter of fact, though the letter of the law requires fifteen days' residence, many people make five sufficient. The provision is inserted, as you doubtless are aware, to hinder runaway marriages as much as possible, and secret unions, and other such objectionable practices. You need not come again.'
That evening Lady Constantine wrote to Swithin St. Cleeve the last letter of the fortnight:--
'MY DEAREST,--Do come to me as soon as you can. By a sort of favouring blunder I have been able to shorten the time of waiting by a day. Come at once, for I am almost broken down with apprehension. It seems rather rash at moments, all this, and I wish you were here to reassure me. I did not know I should feel so alarmed. I am frightened at every footstep, and dread lest anybody who knows me should accost me, and find out why I am here. I sometimes wonder how I could have agreed to come and enact your part, but I did not realize how trying it would be. You ought not to have asked me, Swithin; upon my word, it was too cruel of you, and I will punish you for it when you come! But I won't upbraid. I hope the homestead is repaired that has cost me all this sacrifice of modesty. If it were anybody in the world but YOU in question I would rush home, without waiting here for the end of it,--I really think I would! But, dearest, no. I must show my strength now, or let it be for ever hid. The barriers of ceremony are broken down between us, and it is for the best that I am here.' And yet, at no point of this trying prelude need Lady Constantine have feared for her strength. Deeds in this connexion demand the particular kind of courage that such perfervid women are endowed with, the courage of their emotions, in which young men are often lamentably deficient. Her fear was, in truth, the fear of being discovered in an unwonted position; not of the act itself. And though her letter was in its way a true exposition of her feeling, had it been necessary to go through the whole legal process over again she would have been found equal to the emergency.
It had been for some days a point of anxiety with her what to do with Green during the morning of the wedding. Chance unexpectedly helped her in this difficulty. The day before the purchase of the license Green came to Lady Constantine with a letter in her hand from her husband Anthony, her face as long as a fiddle.
'I hope there's nothing the matter?' said Lady Constantine.
'The child's took bad, my lady!' said Mrs. Green, with suspended floods of water in her eyes. 'I love the child better than I shall love all them that's coming put together; for he's been a good boy to his mother ever since twelve weeks afore he was born! 'Twas he, a tender deary, that made Anthony marry me, and thereby turned hisself from a little calamity to a little blessing! For, as you know, the man were a backward man in the church part o' matrimony, my lady; though he'll do anything when he's forced a bit by his manly feelings. And now to lose the child--hoo-hoo-hoo! What shall I doo!'
'Well, you want to go home at once, I suppose?'
Mrs. Green explained, between her sobs, that such was her desire; and though this was a day or two sooner than her mistress had wished to be left alone she consented to Green's departure. So during the afternoon her woman went off, with directions to prepare for Lady Constantine's return in two or three days. But as the exact day of her return was uncertain no carriage was to be sent to the station to meet her, her intention being to hire one from the hotel. Lady Constantine was now left in utter solitude to await her lover's arrival.
A more beautiful October morning than that of the next day never beamed into the Welland valleys. The yearly dissolution of leafage was setting in apace. The foliage of the park trees rapidly resolved itself into the multitude of complexions which mark the subtle grades of decay, reflecting wet lights of such innumerable hues that it was a wonder to think their beauties only a repetition of scenes that had been exhibited there on scores of previous Octobers, and had been allowed to pass away without a single dirge from the imperturbable beings who walked among them. Far in the shadows semi-opaque screens of blue haze made mysteries of the commonest gravel-pit, dingle, or recess.
The wooden cabin at the foot of Rings-Hill Speer had been furnished by Swithin as a sitting and sleeping apartment, some little while before this time; for he had found it highly convenient, during night observations at the top of the column, to remain on the spot all night, not to disturb his grandmother by passing in and out of the house, and to save himself the labour of incessantly crossing the field. He would much have liked to tell her the secret, and, had it been his own to tell, would probably have done so; but sharing it with an objector who knew not his grandmother's affection so well as he did himself, there was no alternative to holding his tongue. The more effectually to guard it he decided to sleep at the cabin during the two or three nights previous to his departure, leaving word at the homestead that in a day or two he was going on an excursion.
It was very necessary to start early. Long before the great eye of the sun was lifted high enough to glance into the Welland valley, St. Cleeve arose from his bed in the cabin and prepared to depart, cooking his breakfast upon a little stove in the corner. The young rabbits, littered during the foregoing summer, watched his preparations through the open door from the grey dawn without, as he bustled, half dressed, in and out under the boughs, and among the blackberries and brambles that grew around.
It was a strange place for a bridegroom to perform his toilet in, but, considering the unconventional nature of the marriage, a not inappropriate one. What events had been enacted in that earthen camp since it was first thrown up, nobody could say; but the primitive simplicity of the young man's preparations accorded well with the prehistoric spot on which they were made. Embedded under his feet were possibly even now rude trinkets that had been worn at bridal ceremonies of the early inhabitants. Little signified those ceremonies to-day, or the happiness or otherwise of the contracting parties. That his own rite, nevertheless, signified much, was the inconsequent reasoning of Swithin, as it is of many another bridegroom besides; and he, like the rest, went on with his preparations in that mood which sees in his stale repetition the wondrous possibilities of an untried move.
Then through the wet cobwebs, that hung like movable diaphragms on each blade and bough, he pushed his way down to the furrow which led from the secluded fir-tree island to the wide world beyond the field.
He was not a stranger to enterprise, and still less to the contemplation of enterprise; but an enterprise such as this he had never even outlined. That his dear lady was troubled at the situation he had placed her in by not going himself on that errand, he could see from her letter; but, believing an immediate marriage with her to be the true way of restoring to both that equanimity necessary to serene philosophy, he held it of little account how the marriage was brought about, and happily began his journey towards her place of sojourn. He passed through a little copse before leaving the parish, the smoke from newly lit fires rising like the stems of blue trees out of the few cottage chimneys. Here he heard a quick, familiar footstep in the path ahead of him, and, turning the corner of the bushes, confronted the foot-post on his way to Welland. In answer to St. Cleeve's inquiry if there was anything for himself the postman handed out one letter, and proceeded on his route.
Swithin opened and read the letter as he walked, till it brought him to a standstill by the importance of its contents.
They were enough to agitate a more phlegmatic youth than he. He leant over the wicket which came in his path, and endeavoured to comprehend the sense of the whole.
The large long envelope contained, first, a letter from a solicitor in a northern town, informing him that his paternal great-uncle, who had recently returned from the Cape (whither he had gone in an attempt to repair a broken constitution), was now dead and buried. This great-uncle's name was like a new creation to Swithin. He had held no communication with the young man's branch of the family for innumerable years,--never, in fact, since the marriage of Swithin's father with the simple daughter of Welland Farm. He had been a bachelor to the end of his life, and had amassed a fairly good professional fortune by a long and extensive medical practice in the smoky, dreary, manufacturing town in which he had lived and died. Swithin had always been taught to think of him as the embodiment of all that was unpleasant in man. He was narrow, sarcastic, and shrewd to unseemliness. That very shrewdness had enabled him, without much professional profundity, to establish his large and lucrative connexion, which lay almost entirely among a class who neither looked nor cared for drawing-room courtesies.
However, what Dr. St. Cleeve had been as a practitioner matters little. He was now dead, and the bulk of his property had been left to persons with whom this story has nothing to do. But Swithin was informed that out of it there was a bequest of 600 pounds a year to himself,--payment of which was to begin with his twenty-first year, and continue for his life, unless he should marry before reaching the age of twenty-five. In the latter precocious and objectionable event his annuity would be forfeited. The accompanying letter, said the solicitor, would explain all.
This, the second letter, was from his uncle to himself, written about a month before the former's death, and deposited with his will, to be forwarded to his nephew when that event should have taken place. Swithin read, with the solemnity that such posthumous epistles inspire, the following words from one who, during life, had never once addressed him:-
'DEAR NEPHEW,--You will doubtless experience some astonishment at receiving a communication from one whom you have never personally known, and who, when this comes into your hands, will be beyond the reach of your knowledge. Perhaps I am the loser by this life-long mutual ignorance. Perhaps I am much to blame for it; perhaps not. But such reflections are profitless at this date: I have written with quite other views than to work up a sentimental regret on such an amazingly remote hypothesis as that the fact of a particular pair of people not meeting, among the millions of other pairs of people who have never met, is a great calamity either to the world in general or to themselves. 'The occasion of my addressing you is briefly this: Nine months ago a report casually reached me that your scientific studies were pursued by you with great ability, and that you were a young man of some promise as an astronomer. My own scientific proclivities rendered the report more interesting than it might otherwise have been to me; and it came upon me quite as a surprise that any issue of your father's marriage should have so much in him, or you might have seen more of me in former years than you are ever likely to do now. My health had then begun to fail, and I was starting for the Cape, or I should have come myself to inquire into your condition and prospects. I did not return till six months later, and as my health had not improved I sent a trusty friend to examine into your life, pursuits, and circumstances, without your own knowledge, and to report his observations to me. This he did. Through him I learnt, of favourable news:-- '(1) That you worked assiduously at the science of astronomy. '(2) That everything was auspicious in the career you had chosen.
'Of unfavourable news:--
'(1) That the small income at your command, even when eked out by the sum to which you would be entitled on your grandmother's death and the freehold of the homestead, would be inadequate to support you becomingly as a scientific man, whose lines of work were of a nature not calculated to produce emoluments for many years, if ever. '(2) That there was something in your path worse than narrow means, and that that something was a WOMAN.
'To save you, if possible, from ruin on these heads, I take the preventive measures detailed below.
'The chief step is, as my solicitor will have informed you, that, at the age of twenty-five, the sum of 600 pounds a year be settled on you for life, provided you have not married before reaching that age;--a yearly gift of an equal sum to be also provisionally made to you in the interim--and, vice versa, that if you do marry before reaching the age of twenty-five you will receive nothing from the date of the marriage.
'One object of my bequest is that you may have resources sufficient to enable you to travel and study the Southern constellations. When at the Cape, after hearing of your pursuits, I was much struck with the importance of those constellations to an astronomer just pushing into notice. There is more to be made of the Southern hemisphere than ever has been made of it yet; the mine is not so thoroughly worked as the Northern, and thither your studies should tend. 'The only other preventive step in my power is that of exhortation, at which I am not an adept. Nevertheless, I say to you, Swithin St. Cleeve, don't make a fool of yourself, as your father did. If your studies are to be worth anything, believe me, they must be carried on without the help of a woman. Avoid her, and every one of the sex, if you mean to achieve any worthy thing. Eschew all of that sort for many a year yet. Moreover, I say, the lady of your acquaintance avoid in particular. I have heard nothing against her moral character hitherto; I have no doubt it has been excellent. She may have many good qualities, both of heart and of mind. But she has, in addition to her original disqualification as a companion for you (that is, that of sex), these two serious drawbacks: she is much older than yourself--'
'MUCH older!' said Swithin resentfully.
'--and she is so impoverished that the title she derives from her late husband is a positive objection. Beyond this, frankly, I don't think well of her. I don't think well of any woman who dotes upon a man younger than herself. To care to be the first fancy of a young fellow like you shows no great common sense in her. If she were worth her salt she would have too much pride to be intimate with a youth in your unassured position, to say no worse. She is old enough to know that a liaison with her may, and almost certainly would, be your ruin; and, on the other hand, that a marriage would be preposterous,--unless she is a complete goose, and in that case there is even more reason for avoiding her than if she were in her few senses.
'A woman of honourable feeling, nephew, would be careful to do nothing to hinder you in your career, as this putting of herself in your way most certainly will. Yet I hear that she professes a great anxiety on this same future of yours as a physicist. The best way in which she can show the reality of her anxiety is by leaving you to yourself. Perhaps she persuades herself that she is doing you no harm. Well, let her have the benefit of the possible belief; but depend upon it that in truth she gives the lie to her conscience by maintaining such a transparent fallacy. Women's brains are not formed for assisting at any profound science: they lack the power to see things except in the concrete. She'll blab your most secret plans and theories to every one of her acquaintance--'
'She's got none!' said Swithin, beginning to get warm.
'--and make them appear ridiculous by announcing them before they are matured. If you attempt to study with a woman, you'll be ruled by her to entertain fancies instead of theories, air-castles instead of intentions, qualms instead of opinions, sickly prepossessions instead of reasoned conclusions. Your wide heaven of study, young man, will soon reduce itself to the miserable narrow expanse of her face, and your myriad of stars to her two trumpery eyes. 'A woman waking a young man's passions just at a moment when he is endeavouring to shine intellectually, is doing little less than committing a crime. 'Like a certain philosopher I would, upon my soul, have all young men from eighteen to twenty-five kept under barrels; seeing how often, in the lack of some such sequestering process, the woman sits down before each as his destiny, and too frequently enervates his purpose, till he abandons the most promising course ever conceived!
'But no more. I now leave your fate in your own hands. Your well- wishing relative, 'JOCELYN ST. CLEEVE, Doctor in Medicine.'
As coming from a bachelor and hardened misogynist of seventy-two, the opinions herein contained were nothing remarkable: but their practical result in restricting the sudden endowment of Swithin's researches by conditions which turned the favour into a harassment was, at this unique moment, discomfiting and distracting in the highest degree.
Sensational, however, as the letter was, the passionate intention of the day was not hazarded for more than a few minutes thereby. The truth was, the caution and bribe came too late, too unexpectedly, to be of influence. They were the sort of thing which required fermentation to render them effective. Had St. Cleeve received the exhortation a month earlier; had he been able to run over in his mind, at every wakeful hour of thirty consecutive nights, a private catechism on the possibilities opened up by this annuity, there is no telling what might have been the stress of such a web of perplexity upon him, a young man whose love for celestial physics was second to none. But to have held before him, at the last moment, the picture of a future advantage that he had never once thought of, or discounted for present staying power, it affected him about as much as the view of horizons shown by sheet-lightning. He saw an immense prospect; it went, and the world was as before.
He caught the train at Warborne, and moved rapidly towards Bath; not precisely in the same key as when he had dressed in the hut at dawn, but, as regarded the mechanical part of the journey, as unhesitatingly as before.
And with the change of scene even his gloom left him; his bosom's lord sat lightly in his throne. St. Cleeve was not sufficiently in mind of poetical literature to remember that wise poets are accustomed to read that lightness of bosom inversely. Swithin thought it an omen of good fortune; and as thinking is causing in not a few such cases, he was perhaps, in spite of poets, right.
At the station Lady Constantine appeared, standing expectant; he saw her face from the window of the carriage long before she saw him. He no sooner saw her than he was satisfied to his heart's content with his prize. If his great-uncle had offered him from the grave a kingdom instead of her, he would not have accepted it.
Swithin jumped out, and nature never painted in a woman's face more devotion than appeared in my lady's at that moment. To both the situation seemed like a beautiful allegory, not to be examined too closely, lest its defects of correspondence with real life should be apparent.
They almost feared to shake hands in public, so much depended upon their passing that morning without molestation. A fly was called and they drove away. 'Take this,' she said, handing him a folded paper. 'It belongs to you rather than to me.'
At crossings, and other occasional pauses, pedestrians turned their faces and looked at the pair (for no reason but that, among so many, there were naturally a few of the sort who have eyes to note what incidents come in their way as they plod on); but the two in the vehicle could not but fear that these innocent beholders had special detective designs on them.
'You look so dreadfully young!' she said with humorous fretfulness, as they drove along (Swithin's cheeks being amazingly fresh from the morning air). 'Do try to appear a little haggard, that the parson mayn't ask us awkward questions!' Nothing further happened, and they were set down opposite a shop about fifty yards from the church door, at five minutes to eleven.
'We will dismiss the fly,' she said. 'It will only attract idlers.'
On turning the corner and reaching the church they found the door ajar; but the building contained only two persons, a man and a woman,--the clerk and his wife, as they learnt. Swithin asked when the clergyman would arrive. The clerk looked at his watch, and said, 'At just on eleven o'clock.'
'He ought to be here,' said Swithin.
'Yes,' replied the clerk, as the hour struck. 'The fact is, sir, he is a deppity, and apt to be rather wandering in his wits as regards time and such like, which hev stood in the way of the man's getting a benefit. But no doubt he'll come.' 'The regular incumbent is away, then?'
'He's gone for his bare pa'son's fortnight,--that's all; and we was forced to put up with a weak-talented man or none. The best men goes into the brewing, or into the shipping now-a-days, you see, sir; doctrines being rather shaddery at present, and your money's worth not sure in our line. So we church officers be left poorly provided with men for odd jobs. I'll tell ye what, sir; I think I'd better run round to the gentleman's lodgings, and try to find him?'
'Pray do,' said Lady Constantine.
The clerk left the church; his wife busied herself with dusting at the further end, and Swithin and Viviette were left to themselves. The imagination travels so rapidly, and a woman's forethought is so assumptive, that the clerk's departure had no sooner doomed them to inaction than it was borne in upon Lady Constantine's mind that she would not become the wife of Swithin St. Cleeve, either to-day or on any other day. Her divinations were continually misleading her, she knew: but a hitch at the moment of marriage surely had a meaning in it. 'Ah,--the marriage is not to be!' she said to herself. 'This is a fatality.' It was twenty minutes past, and no parson had arrived. Swithin took her hand. 'If it cannot be to-day, it can be to-morrow,' he whispered.
'I cannot say,' she answered. 'Something tells me no.'
It was almost impossible that she could know anything of the deterrent force exercised on Swithin by his dead uncle that morning. Yet her manner tallied so curiously well with such knowledge that he was struck by it, and remained silent. 'You have a black tie,' she continued, looking at him.
'Yes,' replied Swithin. 'I bought it on my way here.'
'Why could it not have been less sombre in colour?'
'My great-uncle is dead.'
'You had a great-uncle? You never told me.'
'I never saw him in my life. I have only heard about him since his death.' He spoke in as quiet and measured a way as he could, but his heart was sinking. She would go on questioning; he could not tell her an untruth. She would discover particulars of that great-uncle's provision for him, which he, Swithin, was throwing away for her sake, and she would refuse to be his for his own sake. His conclusion at this moment was precisely what hers had been five minutes sooner: they were never to be husband and wife.
But she did not continue her questions, for the simplest of all reasons: hasty footsteps were audible in the entrance, and the parson was seen coming up the aisle, the clerk behind him wiping the beads of perspiration from his face. The somewhat sorry clerical specimen shook hands with them, and entered the vestry; and the clerk came up and opened the book.
'The poor gentleman's memory is a bit topsy-turvy,' whispered the latter. 'He had got it in his mind that 'twere a funeral, and I found him wandering about the cemetery a-looking for us. However, all's well as ends well.' And the clerk wiped his forehead again.
'How ill-omened!' murmured Viviette.
But the parson came out robed at this moment, and the clerk put on his ecclesiastical countenance and looked in his book. Lady Constantine's momentary languor passed; her blood resumed its courses with a new spring. The grave utterances of the church then rolled out upon the palpitating pair, and no couple ever joined their whispers thereto with more fervency than they. Lady Constantine (as she continued to be called by the outside world, though she liked to think herself the Mrs. St. Cleeve that she legally was) had told Green that she might be expected at Welland in a day, or two, or three, as circumstances should dictate. Though the time of return was thus left open it was deemed advisable, by both Swithin and herself, that her journey back should not be deferred after the next day, in case any suspicions might be aroused. As for St. Cleeve, his comings and goings were of no consequence. It was seldom known whether he was at home or abroad, by reason of his frequent seclusion at the column.
Late in the afternoon of the next day he accompanied her to the Bath station, intending himself to remain in that city till the following morning. But when a man or youth has such a tender article on his hands as a thirty-hour bride it is hardly in the power of his strongest reason to set her down at a railway, and send her off like a superfluous portmanteau. Hence the experiment of parting so soon after their union proved excruciatingly severe to these. The evening was dull; the breeze of autumn crept fitfully through every slit and aperture in the town; not a soul in the world seemed to notice or care about anything they did. Lady Constantine sighed; and there was no resisting it,--he could not leave her thus. He decided to get into the train with her, and keep her company for at least a few stations on her way.
It drew on to be a dark night, and, seeing that there was no serious risk after all, he prolonged his journey with her so far as to the junction at which the branch line to Warborne forked off. Here it was necessary to wait a few minutes, before either he could go back or she could go on. They wandered outside the station doorway into the gloom of the road, and there agreed to part.
While she yet stood holding his arm a phaeton sped towards the stationentrance, where, in ascending the slope to the door, the horse suddenly jibbed. The gentleman who was driving, being either impatient, or possessed with a theory that all jibbers may be started by severe whipping, applied the lash; as a result of it, the horse thrust round the carriage to where they stood, and the end of the driver's sweeping whip cut across Lady Constantine's face with such severity as to cause her an involuntary cry. Swithin turned her round to the lamplight, and discerned a streak of blood on her cheek.
By this time the gentleman who had done the mischief, with many words of regret, had given the reins to his man and dismounted.
'I will go to the waiting-room for a moment,' whispered Viviette hurriedly; and, loosing her hand from his arm, she pulled down her veil and vanished inside the building.
The stranger came forward and raised his hat. He was a slightly built and apparently town-bred man of twenty-eight or thirty; his manner of address was at once careless and conciliatory.
'I am greatly concerned at what I have done,' he said. 'I sincerely trust that your wife'--but observing the youthfulness of Swithin, he withdrew the word suggested by the manner of Swithin towards Lady Constantine--'I trust the young lady was not seriously cut?'
'I trust not,' said Swithin, with some vexation.
'Where did the lash touch her?'
'Straight down her cheek.'
'Do let me go to her, and learn how she is, and humbly apologize.' 'I'll inquire.'
He went to the ladies' room, in which Viviette had taken refuge. She met him at the door, her handkerchief to her cheek, and Swithin explained that the driver of the phaeton had sent to make inquiries.
'I cannot see him!' she whispered. 'He is my brother Louis! He is, no doubt, going on by the train to my house. Don't let him recognize me! We must wait till he is gone.'
Swithin thereupon went out again, and told the young man that the cut on her face was not serious, but that she could not see him; after which they parted. St. Cleeve then heard him ask for a ticket for Warborne, which confirmed Lady Constantine's view that he was going on to her house. When the branch train had moved off Swithin returned to his bride, who waited in a trembling state within. On being informed that he had departed she showed herself much relieved. 'Where does your brother come from?' said Swithin.
'From London, immediately. Rio before that. He has a friend or two in this neighbourhood, and visits here occasionally. I have seldom or never spoken to you of him, because of his long absence.'
'Is he going to settle near you?'
'No, nor anywhere, I fear. He is, or rather was, in the diplomatic service. He was first a clerk in the Foreign Office, and was afterwards appointed attache at Rio Janeiro. But he has resigned the appointment. I wish he had not.' Swithin asked why he resigned.
'He complained of the banishment, and the climate, and everything that people complain of who are determined to be dissatisfied,-- though, poor fellow, there is some ground for his complaints. Perhaps some people would say that he is idle. But he is scarcely that; he is rather restless than idle, so that he never persists in anything. Yet if a subject takes his fancy he will follow it up with exemplary patience till something diverts him.'
'He is not kind to you, is he, dearest?'
'Why do you think that?'
'Your manner seems to say so.'
'Well, he may not always be kind. But look at my face; does the mark show?' A streak, straight as a meridian, was visible down her cheek. The blood had been brought almost to the surface, but was not quite through, that which had originally appeared thereon having possibly come from the horse. It signified that tomorrow the red line would be a black one.
Swithin informed her that her brother had taken a ticket for Warborne, and she at once perceived that he was going on to visit her at Welland, though from his letter she had not expected him so soon by a few days. 'Meanwhile,' continued Swithin, 'you can now get home only by the late train, having missed that one.' 'But, Swithin, don't you see my new trouble? If I go to Welland House to-night, and find my brother just arrived there, and he sees this cut on my face, which I suppose you described to him--'
'He will know I was the lady with you!'
'Whom he called my wife. I wonder why we look husband and wife already!' 'Then what am I to do? For the ensuing three or four days I bear in my face a clue to his discovery of our secret.'
'Then you must not be seen. We must stay at an inn here.'
'O no!' she said timidly. 'It is too near home to be quite safe. We might not be known; but IF we were!'
'We can't go back to Bath now. I'll tell you, dear Viviette, what we must do. We'll go on to Warborne in separate carriages; we'll meet outside the station; thence we'll walk to the column in the dark, and I'll keep you a captive in the cabin till the scar has disappeared.'
As there was nothing which better recommended itself this course was decided on; and after taking from her trunk the articles that might be required for an incarceration of two or three days they left the said trunk at the cloak-room, and went on by the last train, which reached Warborne about ten o'clock. It was only necessary for Lady Constantine to cover her face with the thick veil that she had provided for this escapade, to walk out of the station without fear of recognition. St. Cleeve came forth from another compartment, and they did not rejoin each other till they had reached a shadowy bend in the old turnpike road, beyond the irradiation of the Warborne lamplight.
The walk to Welland was long. It was the walk which Swithin had taken in the rain when he had learnt the fatal forestalment of his stellar discovery; but now he was moved by a less desperate mood, and blamed neither God nor man. They were not pressed for time, and passed along the silent, lonely way with that sense rather of predestination than of choice in their proceedings which the presence of night sometimes imparts. Reaching the park gate, they found it open, and from this they inferred that her brother Louis had arrived. Leaving the house and park on their right they traced the highway yet a little further, and, plunging through the stubble of the opposite field, drew near the isolated earthwork bearing the plantation and tower, which together rose like a flattened dome and lantern from the lighter-hued plain of stubble. It was far too dark to distinguish firs from other trees by the eye alone, but the peculiar dialect of sylvan language which the piny multitude used would have been enough to proclaim their class at any time. In the lovers' stealthy progress up the slopes a dry stick here and there snapped beneath their feet, seeming like a shot of alarm. On being unlocked the hut was found precisely as Swithin had left it two days before. Lady Constantine was thoroughly wearied, and sat down, while he gathered a handful of twigs and spikelets from the masses strewn without and lit a small fire, first taking the precaution to blind the little window and relock the door.
Lady Constantine looked curiously around by the light of the blaze. The hut was small as the prophet's chamber provided by the Shunammite: in one corner stood the stove, with a little table and chair, a small cupboard hard by, a pitcher of water, a rack overhead, with various articles, including a kettle and a gridiron; while the remaining three or four feet at the other end of the room was fitted out as a dormitory, for Swithin's use during late observations in the tower overhead. 'It is not much of a palace to offer you,' he remarked, smiling. 'But at any rate, it is a refuge.'
The cheerful firelight dispersed in some measure Lady Constantine's anxieties. 'If we only had something to eat!' she said.
'Dear me,' cried St. Cleeve, blankly. 'That's a thing I never thought of.' 'Nor I, till now,' she replied.
He reflected with misgiving.
'Beyond a small loaf of bread in the cupboard I have nothing. However, just outside the door there are lots of those little rabbits, about the size of rats, that the keepers call runners. And they are as tame as possible. But I fear I could not catch one now. Yet, dear Viviette, wait a minute; I'll try. You must not be starved.' He softly let himself out, and was gone some time. When he reappeared, he produced, not a rabbit, but four sparrows and a thrush.
'I could do nothing in the way of a rabbit without setting a wire,' he said. 'But I have managed to get these by knowing where they roost.'
He showed her how to prepare the birds, and, having set her to roast them by the fire, departed with the pitcher, to replenish it at the brook which flowed near the homestead in the neighbouring Bottom.
'They are all asleep at my grandmother's,' he informed her when he re-entered, panting, with the dripping pitcher. 'They imagine me to be a hundred miles off.' The birds were now ready, and the table was spread. With this fare, eked out by dry toast from the loaf, and moistened with cups of water from the pitcher, to which Swithin added a little wine from the flask he had carried on his journey, they were forced to be content for their supper.