The spot which Claude had chosen for the pic-nic was on one of the lower spurs of that great mountain of The Maiden’s Peak, which bounds the vale of Gwynnant to the south. Above, a wilderness of gnarled volcanic dykes, and purple heather ledges; below, broken into glens, in which still linger pale green ashwoods, relics of that great primaeval forest in which, in Bess’s days, great Leicester used to rouse the hart with hound and horn.
Among these Claude had found a little lawn, guarded by great rocks, out of every cranny of which the ashes grew as freely as on flat ground. Their feet were bedded deep in sweet fern and wild raspberries, and golden-rod, and purple scabious, and tall blue campanulas. Above them, and before them, and below them, the ashes shook their green filigree in the bright sunshine; and through them glimpses were seen of the purple cliffs above, and, right in front, of the great cataract of Nant Gwynnant, a long snow-white line zigzagging down coal-black cliffs for many a hundred feet, and above it, depth beyond depth of purple shadow away into the very heart of Snowdon, up the long valley of Cwm-dyli, to the great amphitheatre of Clogwyn-y-Garnedd; while over all the cone of Snowdon rose, in perfect symmetry, between his attendant peaks of Lliwedd and Crib Coch.
There they sat, and laughed, and talked, the pleasant summer afternoon, in their pleasant summer bower; and never regretted the silence of the birds, so sweetly did Valencia’s song go up, in many a rich sad Irish melody; while the lowing of the milch kine, and the wild cooing of the herd-boys, came softly up from the vale below, “and all the air was filled with pleasant noise of waters.”
Then Claude must needs photograph them all, as they sat, and group them first according to his fancy; and among his fancies was one, that Valencia should sit as queen, with Headley and the Major at her feet. And Headley lounged there, and looked into the grass, and thought it well for him could he lie there for ever.
Then Claude must photograph the mountain itself; and all began to talk of it.
“See the breadth of light and shadow,” said Claude; “how the purple depth of the great lap of the mountain is thrown back by the sheet of green light on Lliwedd, and the red glory on the cliffs of Crib Coch, till you seem to look away into the bosom of the hill, mile after mile.”
“And so you do,” said Headley. “I have learnt to distinguish mountain distances since I have been here. That peak is four miles from us now; and yet the shadowed cliffs at its foot seem double that distance.”
“And look, look,” said Valencia, “at the long line of glory with which the western sun is gilding the edge of the left hand slope, bringing it nearer and nearer to us every moment, against the deep blue sky!”
“But what a form! Perfect lightness, perfect symmetry!” said Claude. “Curve sweeping over curve, peak towering over peak, to the highest point, and then sinking down again as gracefully as they rose. One can hardly help fancying that the mountain moves; that those dancing lines are not instinct with life.”
“At least,” said Headley, “that the mountain is a leaping wave, frozen just ere it fell.”
“Perfect,” said Valencia. “That is the very expression! So concise, and yet so complete.”
And Headley, poor fool, felt as happy as if he had found a gold mine.
“To me,” said Elsley, “the fancy rises of some great Eastern monarch sitting in royal state; with ample shoulders sloping right and left, he lays his purple-mantled arms upon the heads of two of those Titan guards who stand on either side his footstool.”
“While from beneath his throne,” said Headley, “as Eastern poets would say, flow everlasting streams, life-giving, to fertilise broad lands below.”
“I did not know that you, too, were a poet,” said Valencia. “Nor I, madam. But if such scenes as these, and in such company, cannot inspire the fancy of even a poor country curate to something of exaltation, he must be dull indeed.”
“Why not put some of these thoughts into poetry?”
“What use?” answered he in so low, sad, and meaning a tone, meant only for her ear, that Valencia looked down at him: but he was gazing intently upon the glorious scene. Was he hinting at the vanity and vexation of poor Elsley’s versifying? Or did he mean that he had now no purpose in life — no prize for which it was worth while to win honour?
She did not answer him: but he answered himself — perhaps to explain away his own speech —
“No, madam! God has written the poetry already; and there it is before me. My business is not to re-write it clumsily but to read it humbly, and give Him thanks for it.”
More and more had Valencia been attracted by Headley, during the last few weeks. Accustomed to men who tried to make the greatest possible show of what small wits they possessed, she was surprised to find one who seemed to think it a duty to keep his knowledge and taste in the background. She gave him credit for more talent than appeared; for more, perhaps, than he really had. She was piqued, too, at his very modesty and self-restraint. Why did not he, like the rest who dangled about her, spread out his peacock’s train for her eyes; and try to show his worship of her, by setting himself off in his brightest colours? And yet this modesty awed her into respect of him; for she could not forget that, whether he had sentiment much or little, sentiment was not the staple of his manhood: she could not forget his cholera work; and she knew that, under that delicate and bashful outside, lay virtue and heroism, enough and to spare.
“But, if you put these thoughts into words, you would teach others to read that poetry.”
“My business is to teach people to do right; and if I cannot, to pray God to find some one who can.”
“Right, Headley!” said Major Campbell, laying his hand on the Curate’s shoulder. “God dwells no more in books written with pens than in temples made with hands; and the sacrifice which pleases Him is not verse, but righteousness. Do you recollect, Queen Whims, what I wrote once in your album?
‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long,
So making life, death, and that vast for ever,
One grand, sweet song.’”
“But, you naughty, hypocritical Saint Père, you write poetry yourself, and beautifully.”
“Yes, as I smoke my cigar, to comfort my poor rheumatic old soul. But if I lived only to write poetry, I should think myself as wise as if I lived only to smoke tobacco.”
Valencia’s eyes could not help glancing at Elsley, who had wandered away to the neighbouring brook, and was gazing with all his eyes upon a ferny rock, having left Lucia to help Claude with his photographing.
Frank saw her look, and read its meaning; and answered her thoughts, perhaps too hastily.
“And what a really well-read and agreeable man he is, all the while! What a mine of quaint learning, and beautiful old legend! — If he would but bring it into the common stock for every one’s amusement, instead of hoarding it up for himself!” “Why, what else does he do but bring it into the common stock, when he publishes a book which every one can read!” said Valencia, half out of the spirit of contradiction.
“And few understand,” said Headley, quietly.
“You are very unjust; he is a very discerning and agreeable person, and I shall go and talk to him.” And away went Valencia to Elsley, somewhat cross. Woman-like, she allowed, for the sake of her sister’s honour, no one but herself to depreciate Vavasour, and chose to think it impertinent on Headley’s part.
Headley began quietly talking to Major Campbell about botany, while Valencia, a little ashamed of herself all the while, took her revenge on Elsley by scolding him for his unsocial ways, in the very terms which Headley had been using.
At last Claude, having finished his photographing, departed downward to get some new view from the road below, and Lucia returned to the rest of the party. Valencia joined them at once, bringing up Elsley, who was not in the best of humours after her diatribes; and the whole party wandered about the woodland, and scrambled down beside the torrent beds.
At last they came to a point where they could descend no further; for the stream, falling over a cliff, had worn itself a narrow chasm in the rock, and thundered down it into a deep narrow pool.
Lucia, who was basking in the sunshine and the flowers as simple as a child, would needs peep over the brink, and made Elsley hold her while she looked down. A quiet happiness, as of old recollections, came into her eyes, as she watched the sparkling and foaming water —
“And beauty, born of murmuring sound,
Did pass into her face.”
Campbell started. The Lucia of seven years ago seemed to bloom out again in that pale face and wrinkled forehead; and a smile came over his face, too, as he looked.
“Just like the dear old waterfall at Kilanbaggan. You recollect it, Major Campbell?”
Elsley always disliked recollections of Kilanbaggan; recollections of her life before he knew her; recollections of pleasures in which he had not shared: especially recollections of her old acquaintance with the Major.
“I do not, I am ashamed to say,” replied the Major.
“Why, you were there a whole summer. Ah! I suppose you thought about nothing but your salmon fishing. If Elsley had been there he would not have forgotten a rock or a pool. Would you, Elsley?”
“Really, in spite of all salmon, I have not forgotten a rock or a pool about the place which I ever saw: but at the waterfall I never was.”
“So he has not forgotten? What cause had he to remember so carefully?” thought Elsley.
“Oh, Elsley, look! What is that exquisite flower, like a ball of gold, hanging just over the water?”
If Elsley had not had the evil spirit haunting about him, he would have joined in Lucia’s admiration of the beautiful creature, as it dropped into the foam from its narrow ledge, with its fan of palmate leaves bright green against the black mosses of the rock, and its golden petals glowing like a tiny sun in the darkness of the chasm: as it was, he answered —
“Only a buttercup.”
“I am sure it’s not a buttercup! It is three times as large, and a so much paler yellow! Is it a buttercup, now, Major Campbell?”
Campbell looked down.
“Very nearly one, after all: but its real name is the globe flower. It is common enough here in spring; you may see the leaves in every pasture. But I suppose this plant, hidden from the light, has kept its flowers till the autumn.”
“And till I came to see it, darling that it is! I should like to reward it by wearing it home.”
“I daresay it would be very proud of the honour; especially if Mr. Vavasour would embalm it in verse, after it had done service to you.”
“It is doing good enough service where it is,” said Elsley. “Why pluck out the very eye of that perfect picture?”
“Strange,” said Lucia, “that such, a beautiful thing should be born there all alone upon these rocks, with no one to look at it.”
“It enjoys itself sufficiently without us, no doubt,” said Elsley.
“Yes; but I want to enjoy it. Oh, if you could but get it for me?”
Elsley looked down. There were fifteen feet of somewhat slippery rock; then a ragged ledge a foot broad, in a crack of which the flower grew; then the dark boiling pool. Elsley shrugged his shoulders, and said, smiling, as if it were a fine thing to say —“Really, my dear, all men are not knight errants enough to endanger their necks for a bit of weed; and I cannot say that such rough tours de force are at all to my fancy.”
Lucia turned away: but she was vexed. Campbell could see that a strange fancy for the plant had seized her. As she walked from the spot, he could hear her talking about its beauty to Valencia.
Campbell’s blood boiled. To be asked by that woman — by any woman — to get her that flower: and to be afraid! It was bad enough to be ill-tempered; but to be a coward, and to be proud thereof! He yielded to a temptation, which he had much better have left alone, seeing that Lucia had not asked him; swung himself easily enough down the ledge; got the flower, and put it, quietly bowing, into Mrs. Vavasour’s hand.
He was frightened when he had done it; for he saw, to his surprise, that she was frightened. She took the flower, smiling thanks, and expressing a little commonplace horror and astonishment at his having gone down such a dangerous cliff: but she took it to Elsley, drew his arm through hers, and seemed determined to make as much of him as possible for the rest of the afternoon. “The fellow was jealous, then, in addition to his other sins!” And Campbell, who felt that he had put himself unnecessarily forward between husband and wife, grew more and more angry; and somehow, unlike his usual wont, refused to confess himself in the wrong, because he was in the wrong. Certainly it was not pleasant for poor Elsley; and so Lucia felt, and bore with him when he refused to be comforted, and rendered blessing for railing when he said to her more than one angry word; but she had been accustomed to angry words by this time.
All might have passed off, but for that careless Valencia, who had not seen the details of what had passed; and so advised herself to ask where Lucia got that beautiful plant?
“Major Campbell picked it up for her from the cliff,” said Elsley, drily.
“Ah? at the risk of his neck, I don’t doubt. He is the most matchless cavalier servente.”
“I shall leave Mrs. Vavasour to his care, then — that is, for the present,” said Elsley, drawing his arm from Lucia’s.
“I assure you,” answered she, roused in her turn by his determined bad temper, “I am not the least afraid of being left in the charge of so old a friend.”
Elsley made no answer, but sprang down through the thickets, calling loudly to Claude Mellot.
It was very naughty of Lucia, no doubt: but even a worm will turn; and there are times when people who have not courage to hold their peace must say something or other; and do not always, in the hurry, get out what they ought, but only what they have time to think of. And she forgot what she had said the next minute, in Major Campbell’s question —
“Am I, then, so old a friend, Mrs. Vavasour?”
“Of course; who older?”
Campbell was silent a moment. If he was inclined to choke, at least Lucia did not see it.
“I trust I have not offended your — Mr. Vavasour?”
“Oh!” she said, with a forced gaiety, “only one of his poetic fancies. He wanted so much to see Mr. Mellot photograph the waterfall. I hope he will be in time to find him.”
“I am a plain soldier, Mrs. Vavasour, and I only ask because I do not understand. What are poetic fancies?”
Lucia looked up in his face puzzled, and saw there an expression so grave, pitying, tender, that her heart leaped up toward him, and then sank back again.
“Why do you ask? Why need you know? You are no poet.”
“And for that very cause I ask you.”
“Oh, but,” said she, guessing at what was in his mind, and trying, woman-like, to play purposely at cross purposes, and to defend her husband at all risks; “he has an extraordinary poetic faculty; all the world agrees to that, Major Campbell.”
“What matter?” said he. Lucia would have been very angry, and perhaps ought to have been so; for what business of Campbell’s was it whether her husband were kind to her or not? But there was a deep sadness, almost despair, in the tone, which disarmed her.
“Oh, Major Campbell, is it not a glorious thing to be a poet? And is it not a glorious thing to be a poet’s wife? Oh, for the sake of that — if I could but see him honoured, appreciated, famous, as he will be some day! Though I think” (and she spoke with all a woman’s pride) “he is somewhat famous now, is he not?”
“Famous? Yes,” answered Campbell, with an abstracted voice, and then rejoined quickly, “If you could but see that, what then?”
“Why then,” said she, with a half smile (for she had nearly entrapped herself into an admission of what she was determined to conceal)—“why then, I should be still more what I am now, his devoted little wife, who cares for nobody and nothing but putting his study to rights, and bringing up his children.”
“Happy children!” said he, after a pause, and half to himself, “who have such a mother to bring them up.”
“Do you really think so? But flattery used not to be one of your sins. Ah, I wish you could give me some advice about how I am to teach them.”
“So it is she who has the work of education, not he!” thought Campbell to himself; and then answered gaily —
“My dear madam, what can a confirmed old bachelor like me know about children?”
“Oh, don’t you know” (and she gave one of her pretty Irish laughs) “that it is the old maids who always write the children’s books, for the benefit of us poor ignorant married women? But” (and she spoke earnestly again) “we all know how wise and good you are. I did not know it in old times. I am afraid I used to torment you when I was young and foolish.”
“Where on earth can Mellot and Mr. Vavasour be?” asked Campbell.
“Oh, never mind! Mr. Mellot has gone wandering down the glen with his apparatus, and my Elsley has gone wandering after him, and will find him in due time, with his head in a black bag, and a great bull just going to charge him from behind, like that hapless man in ‘Punch.’ I always tell Mr. Mellot that will be his end.”
Campbell was deeply shocked to hear the light tone in which she talked of the passionate temper of a man whom she so surely loved. How many outbursts of it there must have been; how many paroxysms of astonishment, shame, and grief — perhaps, alas! counterbursts of anger — ere that heart could have become thus proof against the ever-lowering thunder-storm!
“Well,” he said, “all we can do is to walk down to the car, and let them follow; and, meanwhile, I will give you my wise opinion about this education question, whereof I know nothing.”
“It will be all oracular to me, for I know nothing either;” and she put her arm through his, and walked on.
“Did you hurt yourself then? I am sure you are in pain.”
“I? Never less free from it, with many thanks to you. What made you think so?”
“I heard you breathe so hard, and quite stamp your feet, I thought. I suppose it was fancy.”
It was not fancy, nevertheless. Major Campbell was stamping down something; and succeeded too in crushing it.
They walked on toward the car, Valencia and Headley following them: ere they arrived at the place where they were to meet it, it was quite dark: but what was more important, the car was not there.
“The stupid man must have mistaken his orders, and gone home.”
“Or let his horse go home of itself, while he was asleep inside. He was more than half tipsy when we started.”
So spoke the Major, divining the exact truth. There was nothing to be done but to walk the four miles home, and let the two truants follow as they could.
“We shall have plenty of time for our educational lecture,” said Lucia.
“Plenty of time to waste, then, my clear lady.”
“Oh, I never talk with you five minutes — I do not know why — without feeling wiser and happier. I envy Valencia for having seen so much of you of late.”
Little thought poor Lucia, as she spoke those innocent words, that within four yards of her, crouched behind the wall, his face and every limb writhing with mingled curiosity and rage, was none other but her husband.
He had given place to the devil: and the devil (for the “superstitious” and “old-world” notion which attributes such frenzies to the devil has not yet been superseded by a better one) had entered into him, and concentrated all the evil habits and passions which he had indulged for years into one flaming hell within him.
Miserable man! His torments were sevenfold: and if he had sinned, he was at least punished. Not merely by all which a husband has a right to feel in such a case, or fancies that he has a right; not merely by tortured vanity and self-conceit, by the agony of seeing any man preferred to him, which to a man of Elsley’s character was of itself unbearable; — not merely by the loss of trust in one whom he hail once trusted utterly:— but, over and above all, and worst of all, by the feeling of shame, self-reproach, self-hatred, which haunts a jealous man, and which ought to haunt him; for few men lose the love of women who have once loved them, save by their own folly or baseness:— by the recollection that he had traded on her trust; that he had drugged his own conscience with the fancy that she must love him always, let him do what he would; and had neglected and insulted her affection, because he fancied, in his conceit, that it was inalienable. And with the loss of self-respect, came recklessness of it, and drove him on, as it has jealous men in all ages, to meannesses unspeakable, which have made them for centuries, poor wretches, the butts of worthless playwrights, and the scorn of their fellow-men.
Elsley had wandered, he hardly knew how or whither, for his calling to Mellot was the merest blind — stumbling over rocks, bruising himself against tree-trunks, to this wall. He knew they must pass it. He waited for them, and had his reward. Blind with rage, he hardly waited for the sound of their footsteps to die away, before he had sprung into the road, and hurried up in the opposite direction — anywhere, everywhere — to escape from them, and from self. Whipt by the furies, he fled along the road and up the vale, he cared not whither.
And what were Headley and Valencia, who of necessity had paired off together, doing all the while? They walked on silently side by side for ten minutes; then Frank said —
“I have been impertinent, Miss St. Just, and I beg your pardon.”
“No, you have not,” said she, quite hastily. “You were right, too right — has it not been proved within the last five minutes? My poor sister! What can be done to mend Mr. Vavasour’s temper? I wish you could talk to him, Mr. Headley.”
“He is beyond my art. His age, and his talents, and his — his consciousness of them,” said Frank, using the mildest term he could find, “would prevent so insignificant a person as me having any influence. But what I cannot do, God’s grace may.”
“Can it change a man’s character, Mr. Headley? It may make good men better — but can it cure temper?”
“Major Campbell must have told you that it can do anything.”
“Ah, yes: with men as wise, and strong, and noble as he is; but with such a weak, vain man —”
“Miss St. Just, I know one who is neither wise, nor strong, nor noble: but as weak and vain as any man; in whom God has conquered — as He may conquer yet in Mr. Vavasour — all which makes man cling to life.”
“What all?” asked she, suspecting, and not wrongly, that he spoke of himself.
“All, I suppose, which it is good for them to have crushed. There are feelings which last on, in spite of all struggles to quench them — I suppose, because they ought to last; because, while they torture, they still ennoble. Death will quench them: or if not, satisfy them: or if not, set them at rest somehow.”
“Death?” answered she, in a startled tone.
“Yes. Our friend, Major Campbell’s friend, Death. We have been seeing a good deal of him together lately, and have come to the conclusion that he is the most useful, pleasant, and instructive of all friends.”
“Oh, Mr. Headley, do not speak so! Are you in earnest?”
“So much in earnest, that I have resolved to go out as an army chaplain, to see in the war somewhat more of my new friend.”
“Impossible! Mr. Headley; it will kill you! — All that horrible fever and cholera!”
“And what possible harm can it do me, if it does kill me, Miss St. Just!”
“Mr. Headley, this is madness! I— we cannot allow you to throw away your life thus — so young, and — and such prospects before you! And there is nothing that my brother would not do for you, were it only for your heroism at Aberalva. There is not one of the family who does not love and respect you, and long to see all the world appreciating you as we do; and your poor mother —”
“I have told my mother all, Miss St. Just. And she has said ‘Go; it is your only hope.’ She has other sons to comfort her. Let us say no more of it. Had I thought that you would have disapproved of it, I would never have mentioned the thing.”
“Disapprove of — your going to die? You shall not! And for me, too: for I guess all — all is my fault!”
“All is mine,” said he quietly: “who was fool enough to fancy that I could forget you — conquer my love for;” and at these words his whole voice and manner changed in an instant into wildest passion. “I must speak — now and never more — I love you still, fool that I am! Would God I had never seen you! No, not that. Thank God for that to the last: but would God I had died of that cholera! that I had never come here, conceited fool that I was, fancying that it was possible, after having once — No! Let me go, go anywhere, where I may burden you no more with my absurd dreams! — You, who have had the same thing said to you, and in finer words, a hundred times, by men who would not deign to speak to me!” and covering his face in his hands, he strode on, as if to escape.
“I never had the same thing said to me!”
“Never? How often have fine gentlemen, noblemen, sworn that they were dying for you?”
“They never have said to me what you have done.”
“No — I am clumsy, I suppose —”
“Mr. Headley, indeed you are unjust to yourself — unjust to me!”
“I— to you? Never! I know you better than you know yourself — see in you what no one else sees. Oh, what fools they are who say that love is blind! Blind? He sees souls in God’s own light; not as they have become: but as they ought to become — can become — are already in the sight of Him who made them!”
“And what might I become?” asked she, half-frightened by the new earnestness of his utterance.
“How can I tell! Something infinitely too high for me, at least, who even now am not worthy to kiss the dust off your feet.”
“Oh, do not speak so: little do you know —! No, Mr. Headley, it is you who are too good for me; too noble, single-eyed, self-sacrificing, to endure my vanity and meanness for a day.”
“Madam, do not speak thus! Give me no word which my folly can distort into a ray of hope, unless you wish to drive me mad. No! it is impossible; and, were it possible, what but ruin to my soul? I should live for you, and not for my work. I should become a schemer, ambitious, intriguing, in the vain hope of proving myself to the world worthy of you. No; let it be. ‘Let the dead bury their dead, and follow thou me.’”
She made no answer — what answer was there to make? And he strode on by her side in silence for full ten minutes. At last she was forced to speak.
“Mr. Headley, recollect that this conversation has gone too far for us to avoid coming to some definite understanding —”
“Then it shall, Miss St. Just. Then it shall, once and for all: formally and deliberately, it shall end now. Suppose — I only say suppose — that I could, without failing in my own honour, my duty to my calling, make myself such a name among good men that, poor parson though I be, your family need be ashamed of nothing about me, save my poverty? Tell me, now and for ever, could it be possible —”
He stopped. She walked on, silent, in her turn.
“Say no, as a matter of course, and end it!” said he, bitterly.
She drew a long breath, as if heaving off a weight.
“I cannot — dare not say it.”
“It? Which of the two? yes, or no?”
She was silent.
He stopped, and spoke calmly and slowly. “Say that again, and tell me that I am not dreaming. You? the admired! the worshipped! the luxurious! — and no blame to you that you are what you were born — could you endure a little parsonage, the teaching village school-children, tending dirty old women, and petty cares the whole year round?”
“Mr. Headley,” answered she, slowly and calmly, in her turn, “I could endure a cottage — a prison, I fancy, at moments — to escape from this world, of which I am tired, which will soon be tired of me: from women who envy me, impute to me ambitions as base as their own; from men who admire — not me, for they do not know me, and never will — but what in me — I hate them! — will give them pleasure. I hate it all, despise it all; despise myself for it all every morning when I wake! What does it do for me, but rouse in me the very parts of my own character which are most despicable, most tormenting? If it goes on, I feel I could become as frivolous, as mean, aye, as wicked as the worst. You do not know — you do not know —. I have envied the nuns their convents. I have envied Selkirk his desert island. I envy now the milkmaids there below: anything to escape and be in earnest, anything for some one to teach me to be of use! Yes, this cholera — and this war — though only, only its coming shadow has passed over me — and your words too —” cried she, and stopped and hesitated, as if afraid to tell too much —“they have wakened me — to a new life — at least to the dream of a new life!”
“Have you not Major Campbell?” said Headley, with a terrible effort of will.
“Yes — but has he taught me? He is dear, and good, and wise; but he is too wise, too great for me. He plays with me as a lion might with a mouse; he is like a grand angel far above in another planet, who can pity and advise, but who cannot — What am I saying?” and she covered her face with her hand.
She dropped her glove as she did so. Headley picked it up and gave it to her: as he did so their hands met; and their hands did not part again.
“You know that I love you, Valencia St. Just.”
“Too well! too well!”
“But you know, too, that you do not love me.”
“Who told you so? What do you know? What do I know? Only that I long for some one to make me — to make me as good as you are!” and she burst into tears.
“Valencia, will you trust me?”
“Yes!” cried she, looking up at him suddenly: “if you will not go to the war.”
“No — no — no! Would you have me turn traitor and coward to God; and now, of all moments in my life?”
“Noble creature!” said she; “you will make me love you whether I wish or not.”
What was it, after all, by which Frank Headley won Valencia’s love? I cannot tell. Can you tell, sir, how you won the love of your wife? As little as you can tell of that still greater miracle — how you have kept her love since she found out what manner of man you were.
So they paced homeward, hand in hand, beside the shining ripples, along the Dinas shore. The birches breathed fragrance on them; the night-hawk churred softly round their path; the stately mountains smiled above them in the moonlight, and seemed to keep watch and ward over their love, and to shut out the noisy world, and the harsh babble and vain fashions of the town. The summer lightning flickered to the westward; but round them the rich soft night seemed full of love — as full of love as their own hearts were, and, like them, brooding silently upon its joy. At last the walk was over; the kind moon sank low behind the hills; and the darkness hid their blushes as they paced into the sleeping village, and their hands parted unwillingly at last.
When they came into the hall, through the group of lounging gownsmen and tourists, they found Bowie arguing with Mrs. Lewis, in his dogmatic Scotch way —
“So ye see, madam, there’s no use defending the drunken loon any-more at all; and here will my leddies have just walked their bonny legs off, all through that carnal sin of drunkenness, which is the curse of your Welsh populaaation.”
“And not quite unknown north of Tweed either, Bowie,” said Valencia, laughing. “There now, say no more about it. We have had a delightful walk, and nobody is the least tired. Don’t say any more, Mrs. Lewis: but tell them to get us some supper. Bowie, so my lord has come in?”
“This half-hour good!”
“Has he had any sport?”
“Sport! aye, troth! Five fish in the day. That’s a river indeed at Bettws! Not a pawky wee burn, like this Aberglaslyn thing.”
“Only five fish?” said Valencia, in a frightened tone.
“Fish, my leddy, not trouts, I said. I thought ye knew better than that by this time.”
“Oh, salmon?” cried Valencia, relieved. “Delightful. I’ll go to him this moment.”
And upstairs to Scoutbush’s room she went.
He was sitting in dressing-gown and slippers, sipping his claret, and fondling his fly-book (the only one he ever studied con amore), with a most complacent face. She came in and stood demurely before him, holding her broad hat in both hands before her knees, like a school-girl, her face half-hidden in the black curls. Scoutbush looked up and smiled affectionately, as he caught the light of her eyes and the arch play of her lips.
“Ah! there you are, at a pretty time of night! How beautiful you look, Val! I wish my wife may be half as pretty!”
Valencia made him a prim curtsey.
“I am delighted to hear of my lord’s good sport. He will choose to be in a good humour, I suppose.”
“Good humour? ça va sans dire! Three stone of fish in three hours!”
“Then his little sister is going to do a very foolish thing, and wants his leave to do it; which if he will grant, she will let him do as many foolish things as he likes without scolding him, as long as they both shall live.”
“Do it then, I beg. What is it? Do you want to go up Snowdon with Headley to-morrow, to see the sun rise? You’ll kill yourself!”
“No,” said Valencia very quietly; “I only want to marry him.”
“Marry him?” cried Scoutbush, starting up.
“Don’t try to look majestic, my dear little brother, for you are really not tall enough; as it is, you have only hooked all your flies into your dressing-gown.”
Scoutbush dashed himself down into his chair again.
“I’ll be shot if you shall!”
“You may be shot just as surely, whether I do or not,” said she softly; and she knelt down before him, and put her arms round him, and laid her head upon his lap. “There, you can’t run away now; so you must hear me quietly. And you know it may not be often that we shall be together again thus; and oh, Scoutbush! brother! if anything was to happen to you — I only say if — in this horrid war, you would not like to think that you had refused the last thing your little Val asked for, and that she was miserable and lonely at home.”
“I’ll be shot if you shall!” was all the poor Viscount could get out.
“Yes, miserable and lonely; you gone away, and mon Saint Père too: and Lucia, she has her children — and I am so wild and weak — I must have some one to guide me and protect me — indeed I must!”
“Why, that was what I always said! That was why I wanted you so to marry this season! Why did not you take Chalkclere, or half-a-dozen good matches who were dying for you, and not this confounded black parson, of all birds in the air?”
“I did not take Lord Chalkclere for the very reason that I do take Mr. Headley. I want a husband who will guide me, not one whom I must guide.”
“Guide?” said Scoutbush bitterly, with one of those little sparks of practical shrewdness which sometimes fell from him. “Aye, I see how it is! These intriguing rascals of parsons — they begin as father confessors, like so many popish priests; and one fine morning they blossom out into lovers, and so they get all the pretty women, and all the good fortunes — the sneaking, ambitious, low-bred —”
“He is neither! You are unjust, Scoutbush!” cried Valencia, looking up. “He is the very soul of honour. He might be rich now, and have had a fine living, if he had not been too conscientious to let his uncle buy him one; and that offended his uncle, and he would allow him nothing. And as for being low-bred, he is a gentleman, as you know; and if his uncle be in business, his mother is a lady, and he will be well enough off one day.”
“You seem to know a great deal about his affairs.”
“He told me all, months ago — before there was any dream of this. And, my dear,” she went on, relapsing into her usual arch tone, “there is no fear but his uncle will be glad enough to patronise him again, when he finds that he has married a viscount’s sister.”
Scoutbush laughed. “You scheming little Irish rogue! But I won’t! I’ve said it, and I won’t. It’s enough to have one sister married to a poor poet, without having another married to a poor parson. Oh! what have I done that I should be bothered in this way? Isn’t it bad enough to be a landlord, and to have an estate, and be responsible for a lot of people that will die of the cholera, and have to vote in the house about a lot of things I don’t understand, or anybody else, I believe, but that, over and above, I must be the head of the family, and answerable to all the world for whom my mad sisters many? I won’t, I say!”
“Then I shall just go and marry without your leave! I’m of age, you know, and my fortune’s my own; and then we shall come in as the runaway couples do in a play, while you sit there in your dressing-gown as the stern father — Won’t you borrow a white wig for the occasion, my lord? — And we shall fall down on our knees so,”— and she put herself in the prettiest attitude in the world — “and beg your blessing — please forgive us this time, and we’ll never do so any more! And then you will turn your face away, like the baron in the ballad —
‘And brushed away the springing tear
He proudly strove to hide,’
Et cetera, et cetera — Finish the scene for yourself, with a ‘Bless ye, my children; bless ye!’”
“Go along, and marry the cat if you like! You are mad; and I am mad; and all the world’s mad, I think.”
“There,” she said, “I knew that he would be a good boy at last!” And she sprang up, threw her arms round his neck, and, to his great astonishment, burst into the most violent fit of crying.
“Good gracious, Valencia! do be reasonable! You’ll go into a fit, or somebody will hear you! You know how I hate a scene. Do be good, there’s a darling! Why didn’t you tell me at first how much you wished for it, and I would have said yes in a moment.”
“Because I didn’t know myself,” cried she passionately. “There, I will be good, and love you better than all the world, except one. And if you let those horrid Russians hurt you, I will hate you as long as I live, and be miserable all my life afterwards.”
“Why, Valencia, do you know, that sounds very like a bull?”
“Am I not a wild Irish girl?” said she, and hurried out, leaving Scoutbush to return to his flies.
She bounded into Lucia’s room, there to pour out a bursting heart — and stopped short.
Lucia was sitting on the bed, her shawl and bonnet tossed upon the floor, her head sunk on her bosom, her arms sunk by her side.
“Lucia, what is it? Speak to me, Lucia!”
She pointed faintly to a letter on the floor — Valencia caught it up — Lucia made a gesture as if to stop her.
“No, you must not read it. Too dreadful!”
But Valencia read it; while Lucia covered her face in her hands, and uttered a long, low, shuddering moan of bitter agony.
Valencia read, with flashing eyes and bursting brow. It was a hideous letter. The words of a man trying to supply the place of strength by virulence. A hideous letter, unfit to be written here.
“Valencia! Valencia! It is false — a mistake — he is dreaming. You know it is false! You will not leave me too!”
Valencia dashed it on the ground, clasped her sister in her arms, and covered her head with kisses.
“My Lucia! My own sweet good sister! Base, cowardly,” sobbed she, in her rage; while Lucia’s agony began to find a vent in words, and she moaned on —
“What have I done? All that flower, that horrid flower: but who would have dreamed — and Major Campbell, too, of all men upon earth! Valencia, it is some horrid delusion of the devil. Why, he was there all the while — and you too. Could he think that I should before his very face? What must he fancy me? Oh, it is a delusion of the devil, and nothing else!”
“He is a wretch! I will take the letter to my brother; he shall right you!”
“Ah no! no! never! Let me tear it to atoms — hide it! It is all a mistake! He did not mean it! He will recollect himself to-morrow and come back.”
“Let him come back if he dare!” cried Valencia, in a tone which said, “I could kill him with my own hands!”
“Oh, he will come back! He cannot have the heart to leave his poor little Lucia. Oh, cruel, cowardly, not to have said one word — not one word to explain all — but it was all my fault, my wicked, odious temper; and after I had seen how vexed he was, too! — Oh, Elsley, Elsley, come back, only come back, and I will beg your pardon on my knees! anything? Scold me, beat me, if you will! I deserve it all! Only come back, and let me see your face, and hear your voice, instead of leaving me here all alone, and the poor children too! Oh, what shall I say to them to-morrow, when they wake and find no father!”
Valencia’s indignation had no words. She could only sit on the bed, with Lucia in her arms, looking defiance at all the world above that fair head which one moment dropped on her bosom, and the next gazed up into her face in pitiful child-like pleading.
“Oh, if I but knew where he was gone! If I could but find him! One word — one word would set all right! It always did, Valencia, always! He was so kind, so dear in a moment, when I put away my naughty, naughty temper, and smiled in his face like a good wife. Wicked creature that I was! and this is my punishment. Oh, Elsley, one word, one word! I must find him if I went barefoot over the mountains — I must go, I must —”
And she tried to rise: but Valencia held her down, while she entreated piteously —
“I will go, and see about finding him!” she said at last as her only resource. “Promise me to be quiet here, and I will.”
“Quiet? Yes! quiet here!” and she threw herself upon her face on the floor.
She looked up eagerly. “You will not tell Scoutbush?”
“He is so — so hasty. He will kill him! Valencia, he will kill him! Promise me not to tell him, or I shall go mad!” And she sat up again, pressing her hands upon her head, and rocking from side to side.
“Oh, Valencia, if I dared only scream! but keeping it in kills me. It is like a sword through my brain now!”
“Let me call Clara.”
“No, no! not Clara. Do not tell her, I will be quiet; indeed I will; only come back soon, soon; for I am all alone, alone!” And she threw herself down again upon her face.
Valencia went out. Certain as she was of her sister’s innocence, there was one terrible question in her heart which must be answered, or her belief in all truth, goodness, religion, would reel and rock to its very foundations. And till she had an answer to that, she could not sit still by Lucia.
She walked hurriedly, with compressed lips, but quivering limbs, down stairs, and into the sitting-room. Scoutbush was gone to bed. Campbell and Mellot sat chatting still.
“Where is my brother?”
“Gone to bed, as some one else ought to be; for it is past twelve. Is Vavasour come in yet?”
“Very odd,” said Claude; “I never saw him after I left you.”
“He said certainly that he was going to find you,” said Campbell.
“There is no need for speculating,” said Valencia quietly; “my sister has a note from Mr. Vavasour at Pen-y-gwryd.”
“Pen-y-gwryd?” cried both men at once.
“Yes. Major Campbell, I wish to show it to you.”
Valencia’s tone and manner was significant enough to make Claude Mellot bid them both good-night.
When he had shut the door behind him, Valencia put the letter into the Major’s hand.
He was too much absorbed in it to look up at her; but if he had done so, he would have been startled by the fearful capacity of passion which changed, for the moment, that gay Queen Whims into a terrible Roxana, as she stood, leaning against the mantelpiece, but drawn up to her full height, her lips tight shut, eyes which gazed through and through him in awful scrutiny, holding her very breath, while a nervous clutching of the little hand said, “If you have tampered with my sister’s heart, better for you that you were dead!”
He read it through, once, twice, with livid face; then clashed it on the floor.
“Fool! — cur! — liar! — she is as pure as God’s sunlight.”
“You need not tell me that,” said Valencia, through her closed teeth.
“Fool! — fool!” And then, in a moment, his voice changed from indignation to the bitterest self-reproach.
“And fool I; thrice fool! Who am I, to rail on him? Oh God! what have I done?” And he covered his face with his hands.
“What have you done?” literally shrieked Valencia.
“Nothing that you or man can blame, Miss St. Just! Can you dream that, sinful as I am, I could ever harbour a thought toward her of which I should be ashamed before the angels of God?”
He looked up as he spoke, with an utter humility and an intense honesty, which unnerved her at once.
“Oh, my Saint Père!” and she held out both her hands. “Forgive me, if — only for a moment —”
“I am not your Saint Père, nor any one’s! I am a poor, weak, conceited, miserable man, who by his accursed impertinence has broken the heart of the being whom he loves best on earth.”
Valencia started: but ere she could ask for an explanation, he rejoined wildly —
“How is she? Tell me only that, this once! Has it killed her? Does she hate him?”
“Adores him more than ever. Oh, Major Campbell! it is too piteous, too piteous.”
He covered his face with his hands, shuddering. “Thank God! yes, thank God! So it should be. Let her love him to the last, and win her martyr’s crown! Now, Valencia St. Just, sit down, if but for five minutes; and listen, once for all, to the last words, perhaps, you will ever hear me speak; unless she wants you —?”
“No, no! Tell me all, Saint Père!” said Valencia, “for I am walking in a dream — a double dream!” as the new thought of Headley, and that walk, came over her. “Tell me all at once, while I have wits left to comprehend.”
“Miss St. Just,” said he, in a clear calm voice, “it is fit, for her honour and for mine, that you should know all. The first day that I ever saw your sister, I loved her; as a man loves who can never cease to love, or love a second time. I was a raw awkward Scotchman then, and she used to laugh at me. Why not? I kept my secret, and determined to become a man at whom no one would wish to laugh. I was in the Company’s service then. You recollect her jesting once about the Indian army, and my commanding black people, and saying that the Line only was fit for — some girl’s jest?”
“No; I recollect nothing of it.”
“I never forgot it. I threw up all my prospects, and went into the Line. Whether I won honour there or not I need not tell you. I came back to England years after, not unworthy, as I fancied, to look your sister in the face as an equal. I found her married.”
He paused a little, and then went on, in a quiet, business-like tone.
“Good. Her choice was sure to be a worthy one, and that was enough for me. You need not doubt that I kept my secret then more sacredly than ever. I returned to India, and tried to die. I dared not kill myself, for I was a soldier and a Christian, and belonged to God and my Queen. The Sikhs would not kill me, do what I would to help them. Then I threw myself into science, that I might stifle passion; and I stifled it. I fancied myself cured, and I was cured; and I returned to England again. I loved your brother for her sake; I loved you at first for her sake, then for your own. But I presumed upon my cure; I accepted your brother’s invitation; I caught at the opportunity of seeing her again — happy — as I fancied; and of proving to myself my own soundness. I considered myself a sort of Melchisedek, neither young nor old, without passions, without purpose on earth — a fakeer who had licence to do and to dare what others might not. But I kept my secret proudly inviolate. I do not believe at this moment she dreams that — Do you?”
“She does not.”
“Thank God! I was a most conceited fool, puffed up with spiritual pride, tempting God needlessly. I went, I saw her. Heaven is my witness, that as far as passion goes, my heart is as pure as yours: but I found that I still cared more for her than for any being on earth: and I found too the sort of man upon whom — God forgive me! I must not talk of that — I despised him, hated him, pretended to teach him his duty, by behaving better to her than he did — the spiritual coxcomb that I was! What business had I with it? Why not have left all to God and her good sense? The devil tempted me to-day, in the shape of an angel of courtesy and chivalry; and here the end is come. I must find that man, Miss St. Just, if I travel the world in search of him. I must ask his pardon frankly, humbly, for my impertinence. Perhaps so I may bring him back to her, and not die with a curse on my head for having parted those whom God has joined. And then to the old fighting-trade once more — the only one, I believe, I really understand; and see whether a Russian bullet will not fly straighter than a clumsy Sikh’s.”
Valencia listened, awe-stricken; and all the more so because this was spoken in a calm, half-abstracted voice, without a note of feeling, save where he alluded to his own mistakes. When it was over, she rose without a word, and took both his hands in her own, sobbing bitterly.
“You forgive me, then, all the misery which I have caused!”
“Do not talk so! Only forgive me having fancied for one moment that you were anything but what you are, an angel out of heaven.”
Campbell hung down his head.
“Angel, truly! Azraël, the angel of death, then. Go to her now — go, and leave a humbled penitent man alone with God.”
“Oh, my Saint Père!” cried she, bursting into tears. “This is too wretched — all a horrid dream — and when, too — when I had been counting on telling you something so different! — I cannot now, I have not the heart.”
“What, more misery?”
“Oh no! no! no! You will know all to-morrow. Ask Scoutbush.”
“I shall be gone in search of that man long before Scoutbush is awake.”
“Impossible! you do not know whither he is gone.”
“If I employ every detective in Bow Street, I will find him.”
“Wait, only wait, till the post comes in to-morrow. He will surely write, if not to her — wretch that he is! — at least to some of us.”
“If he be alive. No. I must go up to Pen-y-gwryd, where he was last seen, and find out what I can.”
“They will be all in bed at this hour of the night; and if — if anything has happened, it will be over by now,” added she with a shudder.
“God forgive me! It will indeed: but he may write — perhaps to me. He is no coward, I believe: and he may send me a challenge. Yes, I will wait for the post.”
“Shall you accept it if he does?”
Major Campbell smiled sadly.
“No, Miss St. Just; you may set your mind at rest upon that point. I have done quite enough harm already to your family. Now, good-bye! I will wait for the post to-morrow: do you go to your sister.”
Valencia went, utterly bewildered. She had forgotten Frank, but Frank had not forgotten her. He had hurried to his room; lay till morning, sleepless with delight, and pouring out his pure spirit in thanks for this great and unexpected blessing. A new life had begun for him, even in the jaws of death. He would still go to the East. It seemed easy to him to go there in search of a grave; how much more now, when he felt so full of magic life, that fever, cholera, the chances of war, could not harm him! After this proof of God’s love, how could he doubt, how fear?
Little he thought that three doors off from him, Valencia was sitting up the whole night through, vainly trying to quiet Lucia, who refused to undress, and paced up and down her room, hour after hour in wild misery, which I have no skill to detail.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52