HE found himself, in a little time, under the windows of the steward’s house. Old Rebecca Mervyn was seated on the bench beside the door, plying her knitting-needles; she raised her eyes on hearing his step.
“Ha, he’s come!” she said, lowering her hands to her knees, and fixing her dark wild gaze upon him, “I ought to have known it — so strange a dream must have had a meaning.”
“They sometimes have, ma’am, I believe. I hope you are pretty well, Mrs. Mervyn.”
“No, sir, I am not well.”
“Very sorry, very sorry indeed, ma’am,” said Tom Sedley. “I’ve often thought this must be a very damp, unhealthy place — too much crowded up with trees; they say nothing is more trying to health. You’d be much better, I’m sure, anywhere else.”
“Nowhere else; my next move shall be my last. I care not how soon, sir.”
“Pray, don’t give way to low spirits; you really mustn’t,” said Tom.
“Tell me what it is, sir; for I know you have come to tell me something.”
“No, I assure you; merely to ask you how you are, and whether I can be of any use.”
“Oh! sir; what use? —no.”
“Do you wish me to give any message to that fellow, Dingwell? Pray make use of me in any way that strikes you. I hear he is on the point of leaving England again.”
“I’m glad of it,” exclaimed the old lady. “Why do I say so? I’m glad of nothing; but I’m sure it’s better. What business could he and Mr. Larkin, and that Jew, have with my child, who, thank God, is in Heaven, and out of the reach of their hands, evil hands, I dare say.”
“So I rather think also, ma’am; and Mr. Larkin tried, did he?”
“Larkin; — yes, that was the name. He came here, sir, about the time I saw you; and he talked a great deal about my poor little child. It is dead, you know, but I did not tell him so. I promised Lady Verney I’d tell nothing to strangers — they all grow angry then. Mr. Larkin was angry, I think. But I do not speak — and you advised me to be silent — and though he said he was their lawyer, I would not answer a word.”
“I have no doubt you acted wisely, Mrs. Mervyn; you cannot be too cautious in holding any communication with such people.”
“I’d tell you, sir — if I dare; but I’ve promised, and I daren’t. Till old Lady Verney’s gone, I daren’t. I know nothing of law papers — my poor head! How should I? And she could not half understand them. So I promised. You would understand them. Time enough — time enough.”
“I should be only too happy, whenever you please,” said Tom, making ready tender of his legal erudition.
“And you, sir, have come to tell me something; what is it?”
“I assure you I have nothing particular to say; I merely called to inquire how you are.”
“Nothing more needless, sir; how can a poor lonely old woman be, whose last hope has perished and left her alone in the world? For twenty years — more, more than twenty — I have been watching, day and night; and now, sir, I look at the sea no more. I will never see those headlands again. I sit here, sir, from day to day, thinking; and, oh, dear, I wish it was all over.”
“Any time you should want me, I should be only too happy, and this is my address.”
“And you have nothing to tell me?”
“No, ma’am, nothing more than I said.”
“It was wonderful: I dreamed last night I was looking toward Pendillion, watching as I used; the moon was above the mountain, and I was standing by the water, so that the sea came up to my feet, and I saw a speck of white far away, and something told me it was his sail at last, and nearer and nearer, very fast it came; and I walked out in the shallow water, with my arms stretched out to meet it, and when it came very near, I saw it was Arthur himself coming upright in his shroud, his feet on the water, and with his feet, hands, and face, as white as snow, and his arms stretched to meet mine; and I felt I was going to die; and I covered my eyes with my hands, praying to God to receive me, expecting his touch; and I heard the rush of the water about his feet, and a voice — it was yours, not his — said, ‘Look at me,’ and I did look, and saw you, and you looked like a man that had been drowned — your face as white as his, and your clothes dripping, and sand in your hair; and I stepped back, saying, ‘My God! how have you come here?’ and you said, ‘Listen, I have great news to tell you;’ and I waked with a shock. I don’t believe in dreams more I believe than other people, but this troubles me still.”
“Well, thank God, I have had no accident by land or by water,” said Tom Sedley, smiling in spite of himself at the awful figure he cut in the old lady’s vision; “and I have no news to tell, and I think it will puzzle those Jews and lawyers to draw me into their business, whatever it is. I don’t like that sort of people; you need never be afraid of me, ma’am, I detest them.”
“Afraid of you, sir! Oh no. You have been very kind. See, this view here is under the branches; you can’t see the water from this, only those dark paths in the wood; and I walk round sometimes through that hollow and on the low road toward Cardyllian in the evening, when no one is stirring, just to the ash tree, from which you can see the old church and the churchyard; and oh! sir, I wish I were lying there.”
“You must not be talking in that melancholy way, ma’am,” said Tom, kindly; “I’ll come and see you again if you allow me; I think you are a great deal too lonely here; you ought to go out in a boat, ma’am, and take a drive now and then, and just rattle about a little, and you can’t think how much good it would do you; and — I must go — and I hope I shall find you a great deal better when I come back”— and with these words he took his leave, and as he walked along the low narrow road that leads by the inland track to Cardyllian, of which old Rebecca Mervyn spoke, whom should he encounter but Miss Charity coming down the hill at a brisk pace with Miss Flood in that lady’s pony-carriage. Smiling, hat in hand, he got himself well against the wall to let them pass; but the ladies drew up, and Miss Charity had a message to send home if he, Thomas Sedley, would be so good as to call at Jones’s they would find a messenger, merely to tell Agnes that she was going to dine with Miss Flood, and would not be home till seven o’clock.
So Tom Sedley undertook it; smiled and bowed his adieus, and then walked faster toward the town, and instead of walking direct to Mrs. Jones’s, sauntered for a while on the Green, and bethought him what mistakes such messengers as Mrs. Jones could provide sometimes make, and so resolved himself to be Miss Charity’s Mercury.
Sedley felt happier, with an odd kind of excited and unmeaning happiness, as he walked up the embowered steep toward Hazelden, than he had felt an hour or two before while walking down it. When he reached the little flowery platform of closely-mown grass, on which stands the pretty house of Hazelden, he closed the iron gate gently and looked toward the drawing-room windows that reach the grass, and felt a foolish flutter at his heart as he saw that the frame stood in Agnes’s window without its mistress.
“Reading now, I suppose,” whispered Tom, as if he feared to disturb her. “She has changed her place and she is reading;” and he began to speculate whether she sat on the ottoman, or on the sofa, or in the cushioned arm-chair, with her novel in her hands. But his sidelong glances could not penetrate the panes, which returned only reflections of the sky or black shadow, excepting of the one object, the deserted frame which stood close to their surface.
There was a time, not long ago either, when Tom Sedley would have run across the grass to the drawing-room windows, and had he seen Agnes within would have made a semi-burglarious entry through one of them. But there had come of late, on a sudden, a sort of formality in his relations with Agnes; and so he walked round by the hall-door, and found the drawing-rooms empty, and touching the bell, learned that Miss Agnes had gone out for a walk.
“I’ve a message to give her from Miss Charity; have you any idea which way she went?”
He found himself making excuses to the servant for his inquiry. A short time since he would have asked quite frankly where she was, without dreaming of a reason; but now had grown, as I say, a reserve, which has always the more harmless incidents of guilt. He was apprehensive of suspicion; he was shy even of this old servant, and was encountering this inquiry by an explanation of his motives.
“I saw her go by the beech-walk, sir,” said the man.
“Oh! thanks; very good.”
And he crossed the grass, and entered the beech-walk, which is broad and straight, with towering files of beech at each side, and a thick screen of underwood and evergreens, and turning the clump of rhododendrons at the entrance of the walk, he found himself, all on a sudden, quite close to Agnes, who was walking toward him.
She stopped. He fancied she changed colour: had she mistaken him for some one else?
“Well, Agnes, I see the sun and the flowers prevailed, though we couldn’t; and I’m glad, at all events, that you have had a little walk.”
“Oh! yes, after all, I couldn’t really resist; and is Charity coming?”
“No, you are not to expect her till tea-time. She’s gone with Miss Flood somewhere, and she sent me to tell you.”
“Oh! thanks;” and Agnes hesitated, looking towards home, as if she intended returning.
“You may as well walk once more up and down; it does look so jolly, doesn’t it?” said Tom; “pray do, Agnes.”
“Well, yes, once more I will; but that is all, for I really am a little tired.”
They set out in silence, and Tom, with a great effort, said —
“I wonder, Agnes, you seem so cold, I mean so unfriendly, with me; I think you do; and you must be quite aware of it; you must, indeed, Agnes. I think if you knew half the pain you are giving me — I really do — that you wouldn’t.”
The speech was very inartificial, but it had the merit of going direct to the point, and Miss Agnes began —
“I haven’t been at all unfriendly.”
“Oh! but you have—indeed you have — you are quite changed. And I don’t know what I have done — I wish you’d tell me — to deserve it; because — even if there was — another — anything — no matter what — I’m an old friend, and I think it’s very unkind; you don’t perceive it, perhaps, but you are awfully changed.”
Agnes laughed a very little, and she answered, looking down on the walk before her, as Sedley thought, with a very pretty blush; and I believe there was.
“It is a very serious accusation, and I don’t deserve it. No, indeed, and even if it were true, it rather surprises me that it should in the least interest you; because we down here have seen so little of you that we might very reasonably suspect that you had begun to forget us.”
“Well, I have been an awful fool, it is quite true, and you have punished me, not more than I deserve; but I think you might have remembered that you had not on earth a better friend — I mean a more earnest one — particularly you, Agnes, than I.”
“I really don’t know what I have done,” pleaded she, with another little laugh.
“I was here, you know, as intimate almost as a brother. I don’t say, of course, there are not many things I had no right to expect to hear anything about; but if I had, and been thought worthy of confidence, I would at all events have spoken honestly. But — may I speak quite frankly, Agnes? You won’t be offended, will you?”
“No; I shan’t — I’m quite sure.”
“Well, it was only this — you are changed, Agnes, you know you are. Just this moment, for instance, you were going home, only because I came here, and you fancied I might join you in your walk; and this change began when Cleve Verney was down here staying at Ware, and used to walk with you on the Green.”
Agnes stopped short at these words and drew back a step, looking at Sedley with an angry surprise.
“I don’t understand you — I’m certain I don’t. I can’t conceive what you mean,” she said.
Sedley paused in equal surprise.
“I— I beg pardon; I’m awfully sorry — you’ll never know how sorry — if I have said anything to vex you; but I did think it was some influence or something connected with that time.”
“I really don’t pretend to understand you,” said Agnes, coldly, with eyes, however, that gleamed resentfully. “I do recollect perfectly Mr. Cleve Verney’s walking half-a-dozen times with Charity and me upon the Green, but what that can possibly have to do with your fancied wrongs, I cannot imagine. I fancied you were a friend of Mr. Verney’s.”
“So I was — so I am; but no such friend as I am of yours —your friend, Agnes. There’s no use in saying it; but, Agnes, I’d die for you — I would indeed.”
“I thought it very strange, your coming so very seldom to inquire for papa, when he was so poorly last year, when you were at Cardyllian. He did not seem to mind it; but considering, as you say, how much you once used to be here, it did strike me as very unkind — I may as well say what I really thought — not only unkind, but rude. So that if there has been any change, you need not look to other people for the cause of it.”
“If you knew how I blame myself for that, I think, bad as it was, you’d forgive me.”
“I think it showed that you did not very much care what became of us.”
“Oh! Agnes, you did not think that — you never thought it. Unless you are happy, I can’t be happy, nor even then unless I think you have forgiven me; and I think if I could be sure you liked me ever so little, even in the old way, I should be one of the happiest fellows in the world. I don’t make any excuses — I was the stupidest fool on earth — I only throw myself on your mercy, and ask you to forgive me.”
“I’ve nothing to forgive,” said Agnes, with a cruel little laugh, but changing colour.
“Well — well, forget— oh, do! and shake hands like your old self. You’ve no idea how miserable I have been.”
Lowering her eyes, with a very beautiful blush and a smile — a little shy, and so gratified — and a little silvery laugh, Agnes relented, and did give her hand to Tom Sedley.
“Oh, Agnes! Oh, Agnes! I’m so happy and so grateful! Oh, Agnes, you won’t take it away — just for a moment.”
She drew her hand to remove it, for Tom was exceeding his privilege, and kissing it.
“Now we are friends,” said Agnes, laughing.
“Are we quite friends?”
“You must not take your hand away — one moment more. Oh, Agnes! I can never tell you — never, how I love you. You are my darling, Agnes, and I can’t live without you.”
Agnes said something — was it reproof or repulse? He only knew that the tones were very sad and gentle, and that she was drawing her hand away.
“Oh, darling, I adore you! You would not make me miserable for life. There is nothing I won’t do — nothing I won’t try — if you’ll only say you like me — ever so little. Do sit down here just for a moment”— there was a rustic seat beside them —“only for a moment.”
She did sit down, and he beside her. That “moment” of Tom Sedley’s grew as such moments will, like the bean that Jack sowed in his garden, till it reached — Titania knows whither! I know that Miss Charity on her return surprised it still growing.
“I made the tea, Agnes, fancying you were in your room. I’ve had such a search for you. I really think you might have told Edward where you were going. Will you drink tea with us, Thomas Sedley, this evening? though I am afraid you’ll find it perfectly cold.”
If Miss Charity had been either suspicious or romantic, she would have seen by a glance at the young people’s faces what had happened; but being neither, and quite preoccupied with her theory about Cleve Verney, and having never dreamed of Tom Sedley as possibly making his début at Hazelden in the character of a lover — she brought her prisoners home with only a vague sense now and then that there was either something a little odd in their manner or in her own perceptions, and she remarked, looking a little curiously at Tom, in reference to some query of hers —
“I’ve asked you that question twice without an answer, and now you say something totally unmeaning.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57