“SHE is coming, Mr. Verney,” said Miss Sheckleton, speaking low and quietly; but her voice sounded a little strangely, and I think the good-natured spinster was agitated.
Cleve, walking by her side, made no answer. He saw Margaret approach, and while she was yet a good way off, suddenly stop. She had not seen them there before. There seemed no indecision. It was simply that she was startled, and stood still.
“Pray, Miss Sheckleton, do you go on alone. Entreat her not to refuse me a few minutes,” said he.
“I will — she shall — I will, indeed, Mr. Verney,” said Miss Sheckleton, very much fidgetted. “But you had better remain where we were, just now; I will return to you, and — there are some French servants at the house — will you think me very strange — unkind, I am sure, you will not— if I say it is only common prudence that you should not be seen at the house? You understand why I say so.”
“Certainly. I shall do whatever you think best,” he answered. They had arrested their walk, as Margaret had done, during this little parley. Perhaps she was uncertain whether her approach had been observed. The sun had gone down by this time, and the twilight had begun to make distant objects a little indistinct.
But there was no time for manoeuvring here, for Miss Fanshawe resumed her walk, and her cousin, Anne Sheckleton, advanced alone to meet her.
“Margaret, dear, a friend has unexpectedly arrived,” began Miss Sheckleton.
“And gone, perhaps,” answered Margaret Fanshawe, in one of her moods. “Better gone — come, darling, let us turn, and go towards home — it is growing so dark.”
And with these words, taking Miss Sheckleton’s hand in hers, she turned towards the house, not choosing to see the friend whom that elderly lady had so eagerly indicated.
Strangely did Cleve Verney feel. That beautiful, cruel girl! — what could she mean? — how could she treat him so? Is there not, in strange countries, where people meet, a kindlier impulse than elsewhere? — and here — could anything be more stony and utterly cruel? The same wonderful Cenci— the same low, sweet voice — the same laugh, even — just for a moment heard — but now — how unspeakably cruel! He could see that Miss Sheckleton was talking earnestly to her, as they walked slowly away. It all seemed like a dream. The formal old wood — the grey château in the background, rising, with its round turrets, and conical tops, and steep roofs against the rose-tinted sky of evening; and in the foreground — not two score steps away — those figures — that girl to whom so lately he was so near being all the world — to whom, it now appeared, he was absolutely nothing — oh! that he had never heard, in Shakspeare’s phrase, that mermaid voice!
His pride was wounded. With a yearning that amounted to agony, he watched their receding steps. Follow them he would not. He leaned against the tree by which Miss Sheckleton had left him, and half resolved to quit that melancholy scene of his worst disaster without another look or word — with only the regrets of all a life.
When Miss Sheckleton had reached Margaret, before the young lady spoke, she saw, by her unusual paleness and by something at once of pain and anger in her face, that she had seen Cleve Verney.
“Well, Margaret, if you will go, you will; but, before you make it irreparable, you must, at least, think.”
“Think of what?” said Margaret, a little disdainfully.
“Think that he has come all this way for nothing but the chance of seeing you; of perhaps saying a few words to set himself right.”
“If he wished to speak to me, he might have said so,” she answered. “Not that I see any reason to change my mind on that point, or any good that can come, possibly, or for ever, if he could talk and I listen for so long.”
“Well, but you can’t doubt what he has come for,” said Miss Sheckleton.
“I don’t doubt, because I don’t mean to think about it,” said the young lady, looking fiercely up toward the gilded weather vanes that glimmered on the grey pinnacles of the château.
“Yes, but it is not a matter of doubt, or of thinking, but of fact, for he did say so,” pleaded Miss Sheckleton.
“I wish we were in Italy, or some out-of-the-way part of Spain,” said the handsome girl, in the same vein, and walking still onward; “I always said this was too near England, too much in the current.”
“No, dear, it is a quiet place,” said good Anne Sheckleton.
“No, cousin Anne, it is the most unquiet place in all the world,” answered the girl, in a wild, low tone, as she walked on.
“And he wants to speak to you; he entreats a few words, a very few.”
“You know I ought not,” said she.
“I know you ought, my dear; you’ll be sorry for it, all your days, Margaret, if you don’t,” replied Anne Sheckleton.
“Come home, dear, come home, darling,” said the girl, peremptorily, but sadly.
“I say, Margaret, if you let him go without speaking to him, you will regret it all your days.”
“You have no right to talk this way, cousin Anne; I am unhappy enough as it is. Let us go on,” she said.
“If you send him away, as I say, it is all over between you.”
“So it is, it is all over; let the dead rest.”
“The world is wide enough; there are many beautiful creatures there, and he is himself so beautiful, and so clever; be very sure you care nothing for him, before you send him away, for you will never see him again,” said Miss Anne Sheckleton.
“I know — I am sure — I have thought of everything. I have made up my account long ago, for now, and for all my days,” said she.
“So you have,” answered Miss Sheckleton. “But while you have a moment still allowed you, Margaret, review it, I implore of you.”
“Come, darling, come — come — you ought not to have spoken to me; why have you said all this?” said Margaret, sadly and hurriedly.
“Now, Margaret darling, you are going to stay for a moment, and I will call him.”
“No!” said the girl, passionately, “my mind’s made up; not in haste, cousin Anne, but long ago. I’ve looked my last on him.”
“Darling, listen: you know I’ve seen him, he’s looking ill, I think; and I’ve told him that you must speak to him, Margaret; and I tell you you must,” said Miss Sheckleton, blushing in her eagerness.
“No, cousin Anne, let there be an end of this between us; I thought it was over long ago. To him, I will never, never — while life remains — never speak more.”
As she thus spoke, walking more hurriedly toward the house, she heard a voice beside her say —
“Margaret! Margaret, darling— one word!”
And turning suddenly, she saw Cleve Verney before her. Under the thick folds of her chestnut hair, her features were pale as marble, and for a time it seemed to him he saw nothing but her wild, beautiful eyes fixed upon him.
Still as a statue, she stood confronting him. One little foot advanced, and her tiny hand closed, and pressed to her heart in the attitude in which an affrighted nun might hold her crucifix.
“Yes, Margaret,” he said at last, “I was as near going — as you were near leaving me — unheard; but, thank God! that is not to be. No, Margaret darling, you could not. Wild as my words may sound in your ears, you will listen to them, for they shall be few; you will listen to them, for you are too good to condemn any one that ever loved you, unheard.”
There was a little pause, during which all that passed was a silent pressure of Miss Sheckleton’s hand upon Margaret’s, as very pale, and with her brow knit in a painful anxiety, she drew hurriedly back, and left the two young people together, standing by the roots of the old tree, under the faint, rose-tinted sky of evening.
Lovers’ promises or lovers’ cruelties — which oaths are most enduring? Where now were Margaret’s vows? Oh! inexhaustible fountain of pity, and beautiful mutability of woman’s heart! In the passion avowed, so often something of simulation; in the feeling disowned, so often the true and beautiful life. Who shall read this wonderful riddle, running in romance, and in song, and in war, the world’s history through?
“Margaret, will you hear me?” he pleaded.
To her it was like a voice in a dream, and a form seen there, in that dream-land in which we meet the dead, without wonder, forgetting time and separation.
“I don’t know that I ought to change my purpose. I don’t know why I do; but we shall never meet again, I am sure, so speak on.”
“Yes, Margaret, I will speak on, and tell you how entirely you have mistaken and wronged me,” said Cleve Verney, in the same sad and passionate tones.
Good-natured Anne Sheckleton, watching at a little distance, saw that the talk — at first belonging altogether to Mr. Verney, at last began to divide itself a little; then side by side they walked a few steps, and then paused again: and so once more a short way, the lady looking down, and then on and on to the margin of that long straight pond, on which in their season are floating water-lilies, and, under its great oblong mirror, gliding those golden fishes which are, as we have seen, one of our spinster friend’s kindly resources in this quaint exile. And so the twilight deepened: and Miss Sheckleton saw these two figures like shadows gliding side by side, to and fro, along the margin, till the moonlight came and lighted the still pool over, and dappled the sward with the shadows of the trees, and made the old château in the background, with its white front, its turrets and pinnacles and gilded vanes, look filmy as a fairy castle.
Wrapping her cloak about her, she sat herself down upon the marble seat close by, unobserved and pleased, watching this picture of Lorenzo and Jessica, and of all such moonlighted colloquies, with a wonderful and excited interest — with, indeed, a mixture of melancholy and delight and fear.
Half-hour after half-hour glided by, as she looked on this picture, and read in fancy the romance that was weaving itself out of the silvery thread of their discourse in this sad old scene. And then she looked at her watch, and wondered how the time had sped, and sighed; and smiling and asking no question, came before them, and in a low, gentle warning, told them that the hour for parting had come.
As they stood side by side in the moonlight, did the beautiful girl, with the flush of that romantic hour, never, never to be forgotten, on her cheek, with its light in her wonderful eyes, ever look so beautiful before? Or did that young man, Cleve Verney, whom she thought she understood, but did not, ever look so handsome? — the enthusiasm and the glow of his victory in his strangely beautiful face.
There were a few silent moments: and she thought could fancy paint a more beautiful young couple than these!
There are scenes — only momentary — so near Paradise — sights, so nearly angelic, that they touch us with a mysterious ecstasy and sorrow. In the glory and translation of the moment, the feeling of its transitoriness, and the sense of our mortal lot, cross and thrill us with a strange pain, like the anguish that mingles in the rapture of sublime music. So, Miss Sheckleton, very pale, smiling very tenderly, sobbed and wept, one would have said bitterly, for a little while; and, drying her eyes quickly, saw before her the same beautiful young faces, looking upon hers; and the old lady took their hands and pressed them, and smiled a great deal through her tears, and said —“All, at last, as I wished it: God bless you both — God Almighty bless you, my darling:” and she put her arms about Margaret’s neck, and kissed her very tenderly.
And then came the reminder, that must not be slighted. The hour had come, indeed, and Cleve must positively go. Miss Sheckleton would hear of no further delay — no, not another minute. Her fear of Sir Booth was profound; so, with a “God bless you, darling,” and a very pale face, and — why should there not be? — one long, long kiss, Cleve Verney took his leave, and was gone; and the sailing moon lost herself among clouds, so darkness stole swiftly over the landscape.
Margaret Fanshawe drew her dear old cousin near to her, and in her turn, placing her arms round her neck, folded her close, and Anne Sheckleton could feel the wild throbbing of the young girl’s heart close to her own.
Margaret was not weeping, but she stood very pale, with her arms still laid on her cousin’s shoulders, and looked almost wildly down into her wistful eyes.
“Cousin Anne — oh, darling! you must pray for me,” said Margaret Fanshawe. “I thought it could never be; I thought I knew myself, but all that is vain: there is another will above us — Fate — Eternal Fate, and I am where I am, I know not how.”
“Why, Margaret, darling, it is what I have been longing for — the very best thing that could have happened; you ought to be the happiest girl in the world,” urged Miss Anne Sheckleton, cheerily.
“No, darling; I am not happy, except in this, that I know I love him, and would not give him up for all the world; but it seems to me to have been, from first to last, a fatality, and I can’t shake off the fear that lies at my heart.”
“Hush, dear — I hear wheels, I think,” said Miss Sheckleton, listening.
Margaret was preoccupied, and did not listen. I don’t think she cared much at that moment who came or went, except that one to whom her love was now irrevocably given.
“No; I can’t hear — no; but he will be here immediately. We must not be out, you know; he may ask for me, and he is so — so very — what shall I say?”
Margaret did not mind. She turned a wild and plaintive look upward towards the struggling moon — now emerging, now lost again.
“Come, darling — let us go,” said Margaret.
And she looked round her gently, as if awaking from a dream.
“Yes, darling, come,” she continued, placing her hand on Anne Sheckleton’s arm.
“And you are not to tease yourself, Margaret, dear, with fancies and follies. As I said before, you ought to be one of the happiest girls in existence.”
“So I am,” she answered, dreamily —“very happy — oh! wonderfully happy — but there is the feeling of something —fatal, as I said; and, be it what it may, let it come. I could not lose him now, for all the world.”
She was looking up, as she spoke, towards the broken moonlight, herself as pale, and a strange plaintive smile of rapture broke over her beautiful face, as if answering the smile of a spirit in the air.
“Come quickly, darling, come,” whispered Miss Sheckleton, and they walked side by side in silence to the house, and so to Margaret’s room, where she sat down by the window, looking out, and kind Anne Sheckleton sat by the table, with her thin old hand to her cheek, watching her fondly, and awaiting an opportunity to speak, for she was longing to hear a great deal more.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57