Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

In Paradise.

We stood at the white gate talking to each other, my Charlotte and I. The old red-tiled roof which I had seen in the distance sheltered the girl I love. The solitary farm-house which it had been my whim to examine was the house in which my dear love made her home. It was here, to this untrodden hillside, that my darling had come from the prim modern villa at Bayswater. Ah, what happiness to find her here, far away from all those stockbroking surroundings — here, where our hearts expanded beneath the divine influence of Nature!

I fear that I was coxcomb enough to fancy myself beloved that day we parted in Kensington-gardens. A look, a tone — too subtle for definition — thrilled me with a sudden hope so bright, that I would not trust myself to believe it could be realised.

“She is a coquette,” I said to myself. “Coquetry is one of the graces which Nature bestows upon these bewitching creatures. That little conscious look, which stirred this weak heart so tumultuously, is no doubt common to her when she knows herself beloved and admired, and has no meaning that can flatter my foolish hopes.” This is how I had reasoned with myself again and again during the dreary interval in which Miss Halliday and I had been separated. But, O, what a hardy perennial blossom hope must be! The tender buds were not to be crushed by the pelting hailstones of hard common sense. They had survived all my philosophical reflections, and burst into sudden flower to-day at sight of Charlotte’s face. She loved me, and she was delighted to see me. That was what her radiant face told me; and could I do less than believe the sweet confession? For the first few moments we could scarcely speak to each other, and then we began to converse in the usual commonplace strain.

She told me of her astonishment on seeing me in that remote spot. I could hardly confess to having business at Huxter’s Cross, so I was fain to tell my dear love a falsehood, and declare that I was taking a holiday “up at the hills.”

“And how did you come to choose Huxter’s Cross for your holiday?” she asked naïvely.

I told her that I had heard the place spoken of by a person in the city — my simple-minded Sparsfield to wit.

“And you could not have come to a better place,” she cried, “though people do call it the very dullest spot in the world. This was my dear aunt Mary’s house — papa’s sister, you know. Grandpapa Halliday had two farms. This was one, and Hyley the other. Hyley was much larger and better than this, you know, and was left to poor papa, who sold it just before he died.”

Her face clouded as she spoke of her father’s death. “I can’t speak about that without pain even now,” she said softly, “though I was only nine years old when it happened. But one can suffer a great deal at nine years old.”

And then, after a little pause, she went on to speak of her Yorkshire home.

“My aunt and uncle Mercer are so kind to me; and yet they are neither of them really related to me. My aunt Mary died very young, when her first baby was born, and the poor little baby died too: and uncle Mercer inherited the property from his wife, you see. He married again after two years, and his second wife is the dearest, kindest creature in the world. I always call her aunt, for I don’t remember poor papa’s sister at all; and no aunt that ever lived could be kinder to me than aunt Dorothy. I am always so happy here,” she said; “and it seems such a treat to get away from the Lawn — of course I am sorry to leave mamma, you know,” she added, parenthetically —“and the stiff breakfasts, and Mr. Sheldon’s newspapers that crackle, crackle, crackle so shockingly all breakfast-time; and the stiff dinners, with a prim parlor-maid staring at one all the time, and bringing one vegetables that one doesn’t want if one only ventures to breathe a little louder than usual. Here it is Liberty Hall. Uncle Joe — he is aunt Dorothy’s husband — is the kindest creature in the world, just the very reverse of Mr. Sheldon in everything. I don’t mean that my stepfather is unkind, you know. O, no, he has always been very good to me — much kinder than I have deserved that he should be. But uncle Joe’s ways are so different. I am sure you will like him; and I am sure he will like you, for he likes everybody, dear thing. And you must come and see us very often, please, for Newhall farm is open house, you know, and the stranger within the gates is always welcome.”

Now my duty to my Sheldon demanded that I should scamper back to Huxter’s Cross as fast as my legs would carry me, in order to be in time for the hybrid vehicle that was to convey me to Hidling station; and here was this dear girl inviting me to linger, and promising me a welcome to the house which was made a paradise by her presence.

I looked at my watch. It would have been impossible for me to reach Huxter’s Cross in time for the vehicle. Conscience whispered that I could hire my landlord’s dog-cart, and a boy to drive me to Hidling; but the whispers of conscience are very faint; and love cried aloud, “Stay with Charlotte: supreme happiness is offered to you for the first time in your life. Fool that would reject so rare a gift!”

It was to this latter counsellor I gave my ear. My Sheldon’s interests went overboard; and I stayed by the white gate, talking to Charlotte, till it was quite too late to heed the reproachful grumblings of conscience about that dog-cart.

My Charlotte — yes, I boldly call her mine now — my dear is great in agriculture. She enlightened my cockney mind on the subject of upland farms, telling me how uncle and aunt Mercer’s land is poor and sandy, requiring very little in the way of draining, but producing by no means luxuriant crops. It is a very picturesque place, and has a certain gentlemanlike air with it pleasing to my snobbish taste. The house lies in a tract of open grass-land, dotted here and there by trees, and altogether of a park-like appearance. True that the mild and useful sheep rather than the stately stag browses on that greensward, and few carriages roll along the winding gravel road that leads to the house.

I felt a rapturous thirst for agricultural knowledge as I listened to my Charlotte. Was there a vacancy for hind or herdsman on Newhall farm, I wondered. What is the office so humble I would not fill for her dear sake? O, how I sighed for the days of Jacob, that first distinguished usurer, so that I might serve seven years and again seven years for my darling!

I stayed by the white gate, abandoning all thought of my employer’s behests, unconscious of time — unconscious of everything except that I was with Charlotte Halliday, and would not have resigned my position to be made Lord Chancellor of England.

Anon came uncle Joe, with a pleasant rubicund visage beaming under a felt hat, to tell Lotta that dinner was ready. To him I was immediately presented.

“Mr. Mercer, my dear uncle Joseph — Mr. Hawkehurst, a friend of my stepfather’s,” said Charlotte.

Two or three minutes afterwards we were all three walking across the park-like sward to the hospitable farm-house; for the idea of my departing before dinner seemed utterly preposterous to this friendly farmer.

Considered apart from the glamour that for my eyes must needs shine over any dwelling inhabited by Charlotte Halliday, I will venture to say that Newhall farm-house is the dearest old place in the world. Such delightful old rooms, with the deepest window-seats, the highest mantelpieces, the widest fireplaces possible in domestic architecture; such mysterious closets and uncanny passages; such pitfalls in the way of unexpected flights of stairs; such antiquated glazed corner-cupboards for the display of old china! — everything redolent of the past.

In one corner a spinning-wheel, so old that its spindle might be the identical weapon that pierced Princess Sleeping Beauty’s soft white hand; in another corner an arm-chair that must have been old-fashioned in the days of Queen Anne; and O, what ancient flowered chintzes, what capacious sofas, what darling mahogany secretaries and bureaus, with gleaming brazen adornments in the way of handles! — and about everything the odour of rose-leaves and lavender.

I have grown familiar with every corner of the dear old place within the last few days, but on this first day I had only a general impression of its antiquated aspect and homely comfort. I stayed to dine at the same unpretending board at which my Charlotte had sat years ago, elevated on a high chair, and as yet new to the use of knives and forks. Uncle Joe and aunt Dorothy told me this in their pleasant friendly way; while the young lady sat by, blushing and dimpling like a summer sea beneath the rosy flush of sunrise. No words can relate how delightful it was to me to hear them talk of my dear love’s childhood; they dwelt so tenderly upon her sweetness, they dilated with such enthusiasm upon her “pretty ways.” Her “pretty ways!” ah, how fatal a thing it is for mankind when Nature endows woman with those pretty ways! From the thrall of Grecian noses and Castilian eyes there may be hope of deliverance, but from the spell of that indescribable witchery there is none.

I whistled my Sheldon down the wind without remorse, and allowed myself to be as happy as if I had been the squire of valley and hillside, with ten thousand a year to offer my Charlotte with the heart that loves her so fondly. I have no idea what we had for dinner. I know only that the fare was plenteous, and the hospitality of my new friends unbounded. We were very much at ease with one another, and our laughter rang up to the stalwart beams that sustained the old ceiling. If I had possessed the smallest fragment of my heart, I should have delivered it over without hesitation to my aunt Dorothy — pardon! — my Charlotte’s aunt Dorothy, who is the cheeriest, brightest, kindest matron I ever met, with a sweet unworldly spirit that beams out of her candid blue eyes.

Charlotte seems to have been tenderly attached to her father the poor fellow who died in Philip Sheldon’s house — uncomfortable for Sheldon, I should think. The Mercers talk a good deal of Thomas Halliday, for whom they appear to have entertained a very warm affection. They also spoke with considerable kindness of the two Sheldons, whom they knew as young men in the town of Barlingford; but I should not imagine either uncle Joseph or aunt Dorothy very well able to fathom the still waters of the Sheldon intellect.

After dinner uncle Joe took us round the farm. The last stack of corn had been thatched, and there was a peaceful lull in the agricultural world. We went into a quadrangle lined with poultry sheds, where I saw more of the feathered race than I had ever in my life beheld congregated together; thence to the inspection of pigs — and it was agreeable to inspect even those vulgar querulous grunters, with Charlotte by my side. Her brightness shed a light on all those common objects; and O, how I longed to be a farmer, like uncle Mercer, and devote my life to Charlotte and agriculture!

When uncle Joe had done the honours of his farm-yards and threshing-machinery, he left us to attend to his afternoon duties; and we wandered together over the breezy upland at our own sweet wills, or at her sweet will rather, since what could I do but follow where she pleased to lead?

We talked of many things: of the father whom she had loved so dearly, whose memory was still so mournfully dear to her; of her old home at Hyley; of her visits to these dear Mercers; of her schooldays, and her new unloved home in the smart Bayswater villa. She confided in me as she had never done before; and when we turned in the chill autumn gloaming, I had told her of my love, and had won from her the sweet confession of its return.

I have never known happiness so perfect as that which I felt as we walked home together — home — yes; that old farm-house must be my home as well as hers henceforward; for any habitation which she loved must be a kind of home for me. Sober reflection tells me how reckless and imprudent my whole conduct has been in this business; but when did ever love and prudence go hand-in-hand? We were children, Charlotte and I, on that blessed afternoon; and we told each other our love as children might have told it, without thought of the future. We have both grown wiser since that time, and are quite agreed as to our imprudence and foolishness; but, though we endeavour to contemplate the future in the most serious manner, we are too happy in the present to be able to analyse the difficulties and dangers that lie in our pathway.

Surely there must be a providence for imprudent lovers.

The November dews fell thick, and the November air was chill, as we walked back to the homestead. I was sorry that there should be that creeping dampness in the atmosphere that night. It seemed out of harmony with the new warmth in my heart. I pressed my darling’s little hand closer to my breast, and had no more consciousness of any impediments to my future bliss than of the ground on which I walked — and that seemed air.

We found our chairs waiting for us at aunt Dorothy’s tea-table; and I enjoyed that aldermanic banquet, a Yorkshire tea, under circumstances that elevated it to an Olympian repast.

I thought of the Comic Latin Grammar:

“Musa, musae, the gods were at tea;

Musae musam, eating raspberry jam.”

I was Jove, and my love was Juno. I looked at her athwart the misty clouds that issued from the hissing urn, and saw her beautified by a heightened bloom, and with a sweet, shy conscious look in her eyes which made her indeed divine.

After tea we played whist; and I am bound to confess that my divinity played execrably, persistently disdaining to return her partner’s lead, and putting mean little trumps upon her adversary’s tricks, with a fatuous economy of resources which is always ruin.

I stayed till ten o’clock, reckless of the unknown country which separated me from the Magpie, and then walked home alone, under the faint starlight, though my friendly host would fain have lent me a dog-cart. The good people here lend one another dog-carts as freely as a cockney offers his umbrella. I went back to Huxter’s Cross alone, and the long solitary walk was very pleasant to me.

Looking up at the stars as I tramped homeward, I could but remember an old epigram:—

Were you the earth, dear love, and I the skies,

My love should shine on you like to the sun,

And look upon you with ten thousand eyes,

Till heaven wax’d blind, and till the world were done.

I had ample leisure for reflection during that long night-walk, and found myself becoming a perfect Young — Hervey — Sturm — what you will, in the way of meditation. I could not choose but wonder at myself when I looked back to this time last year, and remembered my idle evenings in third-rate cafés, on the rive gauche, playing dominoes, talking the foul slang of Parisian bohemia, and poisoning my system with adulterated absinthe. And now I feast upon sweet cakes and honey, and think it paradisiac enjoyment to play whist — for love — in a farm-house parlour. I am younger by ten years than I was twelve months ago.

Ah, let me thank God, who has sent me my redemption.

I lifted my hat, and pronounced the thanksgiving softly under that tranquil sky. I was almost ashamed to hear the sound of my own voice. I was like some shy child who for the first time speaks his father’s name.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31