The expected storm came next day, and Milly and I were caught in it. We had gone for a ramble across the moor, and were luckily within a short distance of Rebecca Thatcher’s cottage when the first vivid flash broke through the leaden clouds, and the first long peal of thunder came crashing over the open landscape. We set off for Mrs. Thatcher’s habitation at a run, and arrived there breathless.
The herbalist was not alone. A tall dark figure stood between us and the little window as we went in, blotting out all the light.
Milly gave a faint cry of surprise; and as the figure turned towards us I recognised Mr. Egerton.
In all our visits among the poor we had never met him before.
‘Caught again, young ladies!’ he cried, laughing; ‘you’ve neither of you grown weatherwise yet, I see. Luckily you’re under cover before the rain has begun. I think we shall have it pretty heavy presently. How surprised you look to see me here, Miss Darrell! Becky is a very old friend of mine. I remember her ever since I can remember anything. She was in my grandfather’s service once upon a time.’
‘That I was, Mr. Egerton, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you and yours — for you at least, for there’s none but you left now. But I suppose you’ll be getting married one of these days; you’re not going to let the old name of Egerton die out?’
Angus Egerton shook his head with a slow sad gesture.
‘I am too poor to marry, Mrs. Thatcher,’ he said. ‘What could I offer a wife but a gloomy old house, and a perpetual struggle to make hundreds do the work of thousands? I am too proud to ask the woman I love to sacrifice her future to me.’
‘Cumber Priory is good enough for any woman that ever lived,’ answered Rebecca Thatcher. ‘You don’t mean what you say, Mr. Egerton. You know that the name you bear is counted better than money in these parts.’
He laughed, and changed the conversation.
‘I heard you young ladies talking a great deal of the Pensildon fÃªte last night,’ he said.
‘Did you really?’ asked Milly; ‘you did not appear to be much interested in our conversation.’
‘Did I seem distrait? It is a way I have sometimes, Miss Darrell; but I can assure you I can hear two or three conversations at once. I think I heard all that you and the Miss Collingwoods were saying.’
‘You are going to Lady Pensildon’s on the 31st, I suppose?’ Milly said.
‘I think not. I think of going abroad for the autumn. I have been rather a long time at Cumber, you know, and I’m afraid the roving mood is coming upon me again. I shall be sorry to go, too, for I had intended to torment you continually about your art studies. You have really a genius for landscape, you know, Miss Darrell; you only want to be goaded into industry now and then by some severe critic like myself. Is your cousin, Mr. Stormont, an artist, by the way?’
‘Not at all.’
‘That’s a pity. He seems a clever young man. I suppose he will be a good deal with you, now that Mr. and Mrs. Darrell have returned?’
‘He cannot stay very long at a time. He has the chief position in papa’s counting-house.’
‘Indeed! He looked a little as if the cares of business weighed upon his spirit.’
He glanced rather curiously at Milly while he was speaking of Mr. Stormont. Was he really going away, I wondered, or was that threat of departure only a lover-like ruse?
The rain came presently with all the violence usual to a thunder-shower. We were prisoners in Mrs. Thatcher’s cottage for more than an hour; a happy hour, I think, to Milly, in spite of the closeness of the atmosphere and the medical odour of the herbs. Angus Egerton stood beside her chair all the time, looking down at her bright face and talking to her; while Mrs. Thatcher mumbled a long catalogue of her ailments and troubles into my somewhat inattentive ear.
Once while those two were talking about his intended departure I heard Mr. Egerton say,
‘If I thought any one cared about my staying — if I could believe that any one would miss me ever so little — I should be in no hurry to leave Yorkshire.’
Of course Milly told him that there were many people who would miss him — Mr. Collingwood for instance, and all the family at the Rectory. He bent over her, and said something in a very low voice — something that brought vivid blushes to her face; and a few minutes afterwards they went to the door to look at the weather, and stood there talking till I have heard the last of Mrs. Thatcher’s woes, and was free to join them. I had never seen Milly look so lovely as she did just then, with her downcast eyes, and a little tremulous smile upon her perfect mouth.
Mr. Egerton walked all the way home with us. The storm was quite over, the sun shining, and the air full of that cool freshness which comes after rain. We talked of all kinds of things. Mr. Egerton had almost made up his mind to spend the autumn at Cumber, he told us; and he would go to the Pensildon fÃªte, and take Milly’s side in the croquet-match. He seemed in almost boyish spirits during that homeward walk.
When we went up-stairs to our rooms that night, Milly followed me into mine. There was nothing new in this; we often wasted half an hour in happy idle talk before going to bed; but I was sure from my darling’s manner she had something to tell me. She went over to an open window, and stood there with her face turned away from me, looking out across the distant moonlit sea.
‘Mary,’ she said, after a very long pause, ‘do you think people are intended to be quite happy in this world?’
‘My dear love, how can I answer such a question as that? I think that many people have their lives in their own hands, and that it rests with themselves to find happiness. And there are many natures that are elevated and purified by sorrow. I cannot tell what is best for us, dear. I cannot pretend to guess what this life was meant to be.’
‘There is something in perfect happiness that frightens one, Mary. It seems as if it could not last. If it could, if I dared believe in it, I should think that my life was going to be quite happy.’
‘Why should it be otherwise, my dear Milly? I don’t think you have ever known much sorrow.’
‘Not since my mother died — and I was only a child then — but that old pain has never quite gone out of my heart; and papa’s marriage has been a greater grief to me than you would believe, Mary. This house has never seemed to be really my home since then. No, dear, it is a new life that is dawning for me — and O, such a bright one!’
She put her arms round my neck, and hid her face upon my shoulder.
‘Can you guess what Angus Egerton said to me to-day?’ she asked, in a low tremulous voice.
‘Was it something very wonderful, dear — or something as old as the world we live in?’
‘Not old to me, Mary — new and wonderful beyond all measure. I did not think he cared for me — I had never dared to hope; for I have liked him a little for a long time, dear, though I don’t suppose you ever thought so.’
‘My dear girl, I have known it from the very beginning. There is nothing in the world more transparent than your thoughts about Angus Egerton have been to me.’
‘O Mary, how could you! And I have been so careful to say nothing!’ she cried reproachfully. ‘But he loves me, dear. He has loved me for a long time, he says; and he has asked me to be his wife.’
‘What, after all those protestations about never asking a woman to share his poverty?’
‘Yes, Mary; and he meant what he said. He told me that if I had been a penniless girl, he should have proposed to me ever so long ago. And he is to see papa to-morrow.’
‘Do you think Mr. Darrell will ever consent to such a marriage, Milly?’ I asked gravely.
‘Why should he not? He cannot go on thinking badly of Angus when every one else thinks so well of him. You must have seen how he has softened towards him since they met. Mr. Egerton’s old family and position are quite an equivalent for my money, whatever that may be. O Mary, I don’t think papa can refuse his consent.’
‘I am rather doubtful about that, Milly. It’s one thing to like Mr. Egerton very well as a visitor — quite another to accept him as a son-in-law. Frankly, my dearest, I fear your father will be against the match.’
‘Mary,’ cried Milly reproachfully, ‘I can see what it is — you are prejudiced against Mr. Egerton.’
‘I am only anxious for your welfare, darling. I like Mr. Egerton very much. It is difficult for any one to avoid liking him. But I confess that I cannot bring myself to put entire trust in him.’
I did not like to tell her the chief reason for my distrust — that mysterious relation between Angus Egerton and Mrs. Darrell. The subject was a serious — almost a dangerous — one; and I had no positive evidence to bring forward in proof of my fancy. It was a question of looks and words that had been full of significance to me, but which might seem to Milly to mean very little.
‘We cannot help our instinctive doubts, dear. But if you can trust Mr. Egerton, and if your father can trust him, my fancies can matter very little. I cannot stand between you and your love, dear — I know that.’
‘But you can make me very unhappy by your doubts, Mary,’ she answered.
I kissed her, and did my best to console her; but she was not easily to be comforted, and left me in a half-sorrowful, half-angry mood. I had disappointed her, she told me — she had felt so sure of my sympathy; and instead of sharing her happiness, I had made her miserable by my fanciful doubts and gloomy forebodings. After she had gone, I sat by the window for a long time, thinking of her disconsolately, and feeling myself very guilty. But I had a fixed conviction that Mr. Darrell would refuse to receive Angus Egerton as his daughter’s suitor, and that the course of this love-affair was not destined to be a smooth one.
The result proved that I had been right. Mr. Egerton had a long interview with Mr. Darrell in the library next morning, during which his proposal was most firmly rejected. Milly and I knew that he was in the house, and my poor girl walked up and down our sitting-room with nervously clasped hands and an ashy pale face all the time those two were together down-stairs.
She turned to me with a little piteous look when she heard Angus Egerton ride away from the front of the house.
‘O Mary, what is my fate to be?’ she asked. ‘I think he has been rejected. I do not think he would have gone away without seeing me if the interview had ended happily.’
A servant came to summon us both to the library. We went down together, Milly’s cold hand clasped in mine.
Mr. Darrell was not alone. His wife was sitting with her back to the window, very pale, and with an angry brightness in her eyes.
‘Sit down, Miss Crofton,’ Mr. Darrell said very coldly; ‘and you, Milly, come here.’
She went towards him with a slow faltering step, and sank down into the chair to which he pointed, looking at him all the time in an eager beseeching way that I think must have gone to his heart. He was standing with his back to the empty fireplace, and remained standing throughout the interview.
‘I think you know that I love you, Milly,’ he began, ‘and that your happiness is the chief desire of my mind.’
‘I’m sure of that, papa.’
‘And yet you have deceived me.’
‘Deceived you? O papa, in what way?’
‘By encouraging the hopes of a man whom you must have known I would never receive as your husband; by suffering your feelings to become engaged, without one word of warning to me, and in a manner that you must have known could not fail to be most obnoxious to me.’
‘O papa, I did not know; it was only yesterday that Mr. Egerton spoke for the first time. There has been nothing hidden from you.’
‘Nothing? Do you call your intimate acquaintance with this man nothing? He may have delayed any actual declaration until my return — with an artful appearance of consideration for me; but some kind of love-affair must have been going on between you all the time.’
‘No, indeed, papa; until yesterday there was never anything but the most ordinary acquaintance. Mary knows —’
‘Pray don’t appeal to Miss Crofton,’ her father interrupted sternly. ‘Miss Crofton has done very wrong in encouraging this affair. Miss Crofton heard my opinion of Angus Egerton a long time ago.’
‘Mary has done nothing to encourage our acquaintance. It has been altogether a matter of accident from first to last. What have you said to Mr. Egerton, papa? Tell me at once, please.’
She said this with a quiet firmness, looking bravely up at him all the while.
‘I have told him that nothing would induce me to consent to such a marriage. I have forbidden him ever to see you again.’
‘That seems very hard, papa.’
‘I thought you knew my opinion of Mr. Egerton.’
‘It would change if you knew more of him.’
‘Never. I might like him very well as a member of society; I could never approve of him as a son-in-law. Besides, I have other views for you — long-cherished views — which I hope you will not disappoint.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by that, papa; but I know that I can never marry any one except Mr. Egerton. I may never marry at all, if you refuse to change your decision upon this subject; but I am quite sure I shall never be the wife of any one else.’
Her father looked at her angrily. That hard expression about the lower part of the face, which I had noticed in his portrait and in himself from the very first, was intensified to-day. He looked a stern resolute man, whose will was not to be moved by a daughter’s pleading.
‘We shall see about that by and by,’ he said. ‘I am not going to have my plans defeated by a girl’s folly. I have been a very indulgent father, but I am not a weak or yielding one. You will have to obey me, Milly, or you will find yourself a substantial sufferer by and by.’
‘If you mean that you will disinherit me, papa, I am quite willing that you should do that,’ Milly answered resolutely. ‘Perhaps you think Mr. Egerton cares for my fortune. Put him to the test, papa. Tell him that you will give me nothing, and that be may take me on that condition.’
Augusta Darrell turned upon her stepdaughter with a sudden look in her face that was almost like a flame.
‘Do you think him so disinterested?’ she asked. ‘Have you such supreme confidence in his affection?’
‘And you do not believe that mercenary considerations have any weight with him? You do not think that he is eager to repair his shattered fortunes? You think him all truth and devotion? He, a blasÃ© man of the world, of three-and-thirty; a man who has outlived the possibility of anything like a real attachment; a man who lavished his whole stock of feeling upon the one attachment of his youth.’
She said all this very quietly, but with a suppressed bitterness. I think it needed all her powers of restraint to keep her from some passionate outburst that would have betrayed the secret of her life. I was now more than ever convinced that she had known Angus Egerton in the past, and that she had loved him.
‘You see, I am not afraid of his being put to the test,’ Milly said proudly. ‘I know he loved some one very dearly, a long time ago. He spoke of that yesterday. He told me that his old love had died out of his heart years ago.’
‘He told you a lie,’ cried Mrs. Darrell. ‘Such things never die. They sleep, perhaps — like the creatures that hide themselves in the ground and lie torpid all the winter — but with one breath of the past they flame into life again.’
‘I am not going to make any such foolish trial of your lover’s faith, Milly,’ said Mr. Darrell. ‘Whether your fortune is or is not a paramount consideration with him can make no possible difference in my decision. Nothing will ever induce me to consent to your marrying him. Of course, if you choose to defy me, you are of age and your own mistress; but on the day that makes you Angus Egerton’s wife you will cease to be my daughter.’
‘Papa,’ cried Milly, ‘you will break my heart.’
‘Nonsense, child; hearts are not easily broken. Let me hear no more of this unfortunate business. I have spoken to you very plainly, in order that there might be no chance of misunderstanding between us; and I rely upon your honour that there shall be no clandestine meeting between you and Angus Egerton in the future. I look to you, Miss Crofton, also, and shall hold you answerable for any accidental encounters out walking.’
‘You need not be afraid, papa,’ Milly answered disconsolately. ‘I daresay Mr. Egerton will leave Yorkshire, as he spoke of doing yesterday.’
‘I hope he may,’ said Mr. Darrell.
Milly rose to leave the room. Half-way towards the door she stopped, and turned her white despairing face towards her father with a hopeless look.
‘I shall obey you, papa,’ she said. ‘I could not bear to forfeit your love, even for his sake. But I think you will break my heart.’
Mr. Darrell went over to her and kissed her.
‘I am acting best for your ultimate happiness, Milly, be sure of that,’ he said in a kinder tone than he had used before. ‘There, my love, go and be happy with Miss Crofton, and let us all agree to forget this business as quickly as possible.’
This was our dismissal. We went back to Milly’s pretty sitting-room, where the sun was shining and the warm summer air blowing on birds and flowers, and books and drawing materials, and all the airy trifles that had made our lives pleasant to us until that hour. Milly sat on a low stool at my feet, and buried her face in my lap, refusing all comfort. She sat like this for about an hour, weeping silently, and then rose suddenly and wiped the tears from her pale face.
‘I am not going to lead you a miserable life about this, Mary,’ she said. ‘We will never speak of it after to-day. And I will try to do my duty to papa, and bear my life without that new happiness, which made it seem so bright. Do you think Mr. Egerton will feel the disappointment very much, Mary?’
‘He cannot help feeling it, dear, if he loves you — as I believe he does.’
‘And we might have been so happy together! I was dreaming of Cumber Priory all last night. I thought it had been restored with some of my money, and that the old house was full of life and brightness. Will he go away, do you think, Mary?’
‘I should think it very likely.’
‘And I shall never see him any more. I could not forfeit papa’s love, Mary.’
‘It would be a hard thing if you were to do that for the sake of a stranger, dear.’
‘No, no, Mary; he is not a stranger to me; Angus Egerton is not a stranger. I know that he is noble and good. But my father was all the world to me a year ago. I could not do without his love. I must obey him.’
‘Believe me, dear, it will be wisest and best to do so. You cannot tell what changes may come to pass in the future. Obedience will make you very dear to your father; and the time may come in which he will think better of Mr. Egerton.’
‘O Mary, if I could hope that!’
‘Hope for everything, dear, if you do your duty.’
She grew a little more cheerful after this, and met her father at diner with quite a placid face, though it was still very pale. Mrs. Darrell looked at her wonderingly, and with a half-contemptuous expression, I thought, as if this passion of her step-daughter’s seemed to her a very poor thing, after all.
Before the week was out, we heard that Mr. Egerton had left Yorkshire. We did not go to the Pensildon fÃªte. Milly had a cold and kept her room, much to the regret of the Miss Collingwoods, who called every day to inquire about her. She made this cold — which was really a very slight affair — an excuse for a week’s solitude, and at the end of that time reappeared among us with no trace of her secret sorrow. It was only I, who was always with her, and knew her to the core of her heart, who could have told how hard a blow that disappointment had been, and how much it cost her to bear it so quietly.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05