Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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CHARLES RAYBORNE was one of those who give their time and abilities to the poor, seeking them in their homes, helping to make their surroundings brighter, and their lives happier.
One evening he is startled by a volunteer in the service of humanity, in the shape of a young and beautiful lady, Ethel Verney. She is immediately taken to a case of destitution and temptation, two actors in which are a brother and sister, known to Rayborne. Arrived at the miserable home they are face to face with what appears to be a case of murder.
The victim, Maggie Moore, a young girl, is restored to consciousness, and the brother returns and relates his story. Maggie recovers, and her brother, who, previous to this, had been trapped into committing a crime, sails for Australia.
Maggie is taken down to Ethel's home in the country, while Rayborne receives an invitation to visit his uncle, Sir Henry. At this juncture Lady Maud, his cousin, calls upon him in London. She is in love with Rayborne and urges him to accept his uncle's invitation. He does accept and meets Ethel there, whom he is fast learning to love, which Lady Maud observes with jealous eyes.
Ethel is the adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Verney and after the latter's death, Mr. Verney, tries to force her into a marriage with Sir Edgar Archdale, an unprincipled man, in whose power he is, the result being that Ethel is driven from her home. She then joins Maggie in London and tries to earn a living. Her health breaks down and she is in the last stage of weakness.
Meantime Rayborne has been compelled to go abroad and Lady Maud is induced to visit the two girls in their miserable lodgings.
Lady Maud knows that this is the girl who has won from her the love of Charles Rayborne, and feels that to aid Ethel is to kill her own hope of future happiness.
A supreme struggle takes place in the mind of the imperious society beauty, and many touching scenes follow, leading to a great and pleasing dénouement.
Charles Rayborne: Imbued with noble ideas; sympathetic, sincere, and greatly beloved by those among whom he lived. In love with Ethel.
George Rayborne: His cousin. In feeble health. Secretly in loye with Lady Maud.
Sir Henry Rayborne: His uncle, proud and imperious.
Ethel Verney, whose physical beauty is equalled only by the beauty of her character. In love with. Charles Rayborne.
Maggie Moore, who turns out to be Ethel's sister.
Willie Moore: Brother of the two girls living under the blight of having been in prison, though innocent.
Lady Maud Darlington: Clever, and a Society beauty. In love with Rayborne.
Mrs. Dalton: A true- hearted woman who shows Lady Maud her duty.
Mike Denning: The arch-villain of the story.
ON a gloomy December day, towards evening, Charles Rayborne was sitting alone in his lodgings in a little street off the Gray's Inn-road—a part of London that is both dirty and uninviting. He had just come in from a round of visits, during which he had walked many miles, called at many strange places, and, above all, seen many sights amongst the poor people he sought out; sights that made his heart ache and caused him more than one bitter sigh. Outside it was getting foggy, but in his modest, almost humble abode, he had a small fire and a bright lamp that helped somewhat to make the dingy apartment more comfortable, if they could not make it cheerful.
Charles Rayborne was one of those who give up their lives to missionary work amongst the poor of London; and his present surroundings were a strange contrast to those he had been used to before he came to town to take up his duties. Well educated as he had been, brought up in the county by parents who at one time had been in a good position—though at their death he found himself practically penniless—the life he now led was a hard one, and had told upon his health. He missed the country air, the long walks that made one feel invigorated instead of "fagged"; and, if the truth were known, it is probable that he ate scarcely sufficient to keep up the healthy vitality he owed to his previous life. For he gave many a shilling here and there to help those he visited; and his income was but a slender one at the best.
This afternoon he sat waiting for his simple meal of tea and toast, pondering over a letter spread out before him on the table. His clear-cut face, though careworn, was always pleasant in expression; a trifle more thoughtful than is usually seen in men of his age—he was but twenty-seven—his dark hair falling over his forehead, as he leaned his head on his hand and studied the missive that evidently, both interested and puzzled him.
"This is a strange communication," he said to himself, "and stranger still that it should happen just now, when—. However, I suppose this is the lady. Lucky I came in when I did."
A knock at the door announced a visitor, and a young lady was ushered in, accompanied by a much older woman—evidently a servant. The younger women was well-dressed in furs, but her attire was quiet and in good taste. She appeared to be about nineteen or twenty, was fair, and her face had a peculiarly refined, sweet look that won the confidence of those who saw her, as inevitably as her undoubted beauty commanded admiration. Her voice was soft and pleasing, her large grey eyes were honest and fearless, yet very kindly, and on occasion tender, in expression. She was one of whom one might safely say at a glance, "She is a good, true, and sincere woman."
Rayborne gazed at her for a moment or two in unaffected admiration; she seemed such a contrast to most of those with whom he was thrown into daily contact. Then, suddenly remembering himself, he said:
"I suppose I have the pleasure of speaking to Miss Verney?"
"Yes," she replied. "Can you do what I ask?"
She had seated herself, and motioned to her companion to do the same; Raymond sat down also, and took up again the letter he had been studying.
"Let me understand," he began, "The letter of introduction you enclosed is from my old college friend, Henry Dalton, now, as I know, a curate in your town—or village, as I suppose it really is. He says you are seeking some means of joining directly in our rescue work. Well, that is easy enough, of course; unfortunately, there is too much opportunity. But you wish to select some particular subject or person, and she must be a young girl, and a girl without parents or anyone to care for her, you say. I—"
"It's this way, Mr. Rayborne," his visitor interrupted. "My name is not really Verney. I am only the adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Verney, though they have been truly as kind and fond of me as any parents could possibly be of their own child. They had no children, and adopted me when I was a baby. I do not know who my parents were, or what is my real name," she continued, with a transient flush; "but I am not ashamed that anyone should know the truth. And what I think to myself is this. Suppose, Mr. Verney—my dear father, as I call him—had not taken me and brought me up as he has, what might not my position be to- day? I might be struggling in a state of poverty and distress to lead an honest life under fearful difficulties, might even be in a state of privation or suffering—oh, perhaps worse—for the want of a little—perhaps a very little—money from a friendly hand. I have not much at my disposal; but every year at this time Mr. Verney gives me a certain sum to do what I like with. I have never been in London before, but, coming up now to stay with some friends, I thought to myself—can I not, might I not try to do one little bit of good to some poor girl who may now be struggling, as I might have been struggling, but for the kindness of my adopted parents? I have only a few pounds to spend now, but shall have more in a few months' time. Now, can you advise me how I can make them go as far as possible in doing what I have set my mind upon?"
Charles Rayborne gazed at her in no little surprise. Such ideas and talk were altogether new to him, coming from the lips of a young, well-dressed girl; for he knew that, as a rule, young ladies find it only too easy to dispose of spare cash in a dozen frivolous ways without concerning themselves with the possible necessities of their poorer sisters struggling in the great sea of London poverty. But his visitor was so earnest, her face lighted up with such vivacity and intensity, that he could not but perceive that this was a settled resolve with her, and no mere passing whim. To the admiration he had felt at first sight was added now a feeling of deep respect, and he sighed when the thought came to him—"Would that there were more in the world like this one amongst those who have the means, then would our task in life be easier!"
And, while listening to her, and watching the play of feeling on her face, as she gradually became more and more animated, the idea came to him that he had met her somewhere before, or, at least, had seen a very similar expression upon some face that he could not recall.
When she paused at her last question, he smiled, and said:
"It is curious that I happen to know of such a case, and only one. The name of the girl is Maggie and she has no relative but a brother younger than herself. She is, I believe, nearly twenty, and the brother—William—is, I fancy, some two years younger. The mother and father were at one time respectable tradespeople; but the father took to drink, lost his home, then got into prison, and shortly after he came out he died. The mother and the daughter struggled along with the boy somehow till lately, when William got into trouble, and it seemed to break the poor woman's heart, for she sank and died two or three weeks ago; and Maggie, in a fit of filial devotion, sold her sewing machine to pay for the funeral. It was all she had to sell; but it was a foolish thing to do, because she is now actually starving, being unable to undertake work other than sewing, and that she cannot do now for want of the machine. The mother had been fairly well educated, and she brought these two children up wonderfully well, considering her means. I believe Maggie is very deserving of help; as to her brother—well, I scarcely know what to say. I came across them about two years ago in the course of my work on the Prison Gate Mission, and since then have seen them frequently; and during the last four days I have been thinking and grieving much about the poor girl, and wondering what I could do to help her."
Miss Verney started to her feet.
"Let us go to her—at once!" she exclaimed.
"What!—to-night?" Rayborne asked, amazed.
"Yes, sir. Why not?"
"But on such a night, and in this fog! Besides, would you trust yourself with me?"
"Why not, sir?" the young lady asked. "I know Mr. Dalton well, and he told me you were a gentleman, and that I might depend on you. Oh, do not waste time, sir! Think, she may be cold, hungry! How do we know what even one hour may mean to her. Mrs. White here, my dear old nurse, will go with me. Let us do what we can as quickly as we can."
"You are right, Miss Verney," Rayborne said; "I will come with you at once. It is not far away."
And with that he put on his overcoat, forgetting all about his tea, and they started out into the fog.
IN a miserable garret, in a street leading out of the Pentonville-road, a young girl sat weeping bitterly, alternately expostulating and pleading between fits of sobbing, with a tall, well-made young fellow, who was pacing up and down the room in angry and rebellious mood.
Of furniture the place had practically none. She was sitting sideways upon a rickety chair, the only one there was, with her face buried in her hands, which were resting upon its back.
Though the night was bitterly cold, and the fog outside so thick that—it seemed to invade the room, there was no fire in the grate, nor scuttle for coal, if even there had been any. For coal-scuttle, fender, fire-irons, table, chairs, and almost everything else had keen seized and carried away that day for rent.
All that had been left were the one broken chair, a low bedstead, a palliasse in the adjoining room, and an old-fashioned wood box or trunk, with iron-bound corners and sides, that stood near the door.
This box had been left by the broker's man as worthless in itself, and containing only a few papers and odds and ends of no value from a broker's point of view.
A candle stuck in a bottle on the mantelpiece gave a dim light, which scarcely seemed able to pierce the fog that poured more and more into the room.
Few who looked upon the pinched, haggard face of Maggie Moore, as every now and then she raised it to glance at her brother, would have believed that she was in reality less than twenty years of age. And fewer still, perhaps, would have thought her beautiful; for there seemed little of beauty in the drawn features, the cheekbones that showed so plainly, and the dull, yellow-white complexion. Her hair, too, was unkempt and loosely tied up in dark, frizzled mass; not that she was naturally untidy or uncleanly—but even the tiny looking-glass had been taken away.
Her brother William was also dark and sallow of complexion; but one could see that he had in him the making of a strong, handsome man, were circumstances more favourable. As it was, his lean face and stooping gait gave him a sort of hangdog air that was far from favourably impressing those who saw him for the first time.
For William Moore had been in prison, and the fact had left its inevitable mark upon him. A friend, a former boon companion of his father's, known as Mike Denning, had procured for him a situation with an acquaintance who kept a small rag-and-bone shop, and the boy had been accused of stealing some money belonging to his employer, and sentenced to three months' hard labour.
He had strongly protested his innocence, but no one believed him, not even his mother. The shock had been too much for her, and she had died overcome by her sense of the disgrace and disappointment of the hopes she had fostered in her son. His father had been in prison more than once; but that had been only for drunkenness and brawling, and the thought that her son had now turned thief had been more than the sorely tried mother could bear.
"I tell you it's useless talking, useless hoping, Maggie," said the young fellow, gloomily. "I have made up my mind. I shall go and see Mike Denning. I have stood out as long as I could—you know that. But I've had nothing to eat to-day, nor you either, and scarcely anything yesterday; and we can't stay here in the cold and die like rats in a hole, when there's a chance offered to make a bit. Even if it is a bit risky—"
"Willie, be quiet, I say!" said the young girl, starting up. "Do not mention me in the matter. Do you think I could touch a mouthful of food gained in such a way? Never! If I am to starve—if it be God's will—let it be so. If you brought me anything that came in such a way, you might force it into my mouth, but eat it I would not!"
"'God's will'!" said the other, mockingly, with bitter emphasis, "what's the use of talking about that? Was it by 'God's will' that I was sent to prison wrongfully—that I am branded a gaolbird, watched by the police, distrusted by everybody? I—I, who never took the money? I've told you again and again—and everybody. But where's the use? No one believes me. I—"
"O, Willie—Willie! Yes, I believe you. I feel sure—always felt sure—there was some mistake, or—"
"Mistake— mistake! or—or what?"
"Ah," rejoined Maggie, wearily, "I don't know, but I sometimes feel what I hardly know how to say in words. I was going to say a 'mistake' or 'a trap'—a trap you fell into. And if so, I believe of Mike Denning's setting."
"Mike Denning's?" exclaimed William, angrily. "Why, what are you talking about? Has he not been a friend to me? Was he not our father's friend? Was he not?"
"Father's friend? Oh, never! never! I feel sure of it," Maggie answered. "I can't explain. I have nothing to prove what I think; but I always suspected and distrusted him. O, Willie!—Willie! For our poor mother's sake, say—promise me—you will not go to that man and take his money. Have patience yet a little while. Mr. Rayborne—"
William made a movement of impatience.
"Well, you know Mr. Rayborne is kind," she went on, entreatingly. "I know he is trying to get you something, and he is very kind."
"Oh, yes; I admit that," William broke in, impatiently. "He's the best of the lot. He does mean what he says, I believe; and he's not a stuck-up prig, like some of them who profess to wish to help poor beggars who can't help themselves. But he can do nothing. He's got no money, and no one behind him who has—nor who will give it. He requires all he can get for himself; looks half-starved as it is. No, Maggie, my girl, I'd rather be independent. I'm going my own way, and now I'm off. I will send you some money tomorrow, or bring it, if I can. So, good-bye, for the present."
He stood for a moment looking at the weeping girl, who had sunk into the chair again, and then seeing that she made no reply, turned and made a movement towards the door.
But Maggie sprang up suddenly, and got there first.
"You shall not go, Willie! You shall not go unless you promise me you will not go to that man Denning!"
"I tell you my mind is made up, and I'm going where I please," was the brother's answer, almost fiercely given.
And he tried to push her aside to pass her. But she held on to the handle of the door so desperately that he had to use all his strength to get her away from it; then, completely losing his patience, he pulled her away with so sudden a jerk that she fell over on to the old box that stood hard by.
Without stopping to help his sister up, and stumbling blindly down the stairs and out into the street, William Moore nearly knocked over someone he ran against in the fog; then, in trying to recover himself, he missed his own footing on the kerb, and fell into the roadway. He muttered a savage curse under his breath, and was about to get up and turn upon the person he had collided with, when he heard a voice he knew say, kindly:
"Let me help you up. I fear it was partly my fault."
Then, when William stood up under a lamp-post; the other exclaimed:
"Why, it is the very one I want—William Moore!"
"Yes," was the reply, given rather gruffly; "it's me, Mr. Rayborne. But I'm in a hurry and can't stay."
"One moment," said Rayborne. "We want your sister. Is she in, do you know? And will you guide us to her? In this fog I am not sure that I can find the place, or my way up the stairs, if I get so far."
"You are opposite the stairway now, and there's no door," William answered.
He did not relish going back with Mr. Rayborne after what had happened; and he was turning to go, when a gentle hand was laid on his arm, and a face gazed into his with a look of mingled kindness and entreaty that strangely moved him.
"Stay, and come with us," said Ethel Verney, for she it was who had stopped him. "If you are William Moore, we want to see you too. We bring you good news; at least, I hope what we have to say will be welcome to you. So comeback with us, if only for a minute or two."
But the demon of obstinacy within him tempted him to resist even this appeal, and he turned away and disappeared in the heavy fog.
Charles Rayborne heaved a heavy sigh, and led his two companions to the entrance to the stairway that William had just descended; but, before going up, he took out and lighted a small pocket candle lamp he had brought with him.
"I have a good deal of going up and down dark stairs," he explained to Miss Verney, "and have found this little contrivance very useful, so I now always keep it in my pocket."
Carefully and cautiously they made their way up the stairs till they came to the door of the room in which Maggie was, and Rayborne opened it. But he had scarcely got beyond the door when he started back and put up his hand to stay his companions from coming in.
For there upon the ground lay the girl they had come to see, with white, death-like, face upturned, while a dark crimson stream of blood ran slowly over the floor from an ugly wound in the head.
"Murder! or attempted murder!" exclaimed Rayborne with horror in his tones. "And it must have been done by the brother—the one who just now passed us!"
WHEN William Moore left Rayborne and his companions in such ungracious fashion, he walked rapidly through the fog—the neighbourhood being well-known to him—till he got into the Pentonville-road, where he stopped and hesitated. Next, he turned in an undecided manner, walked on again, then stopped once more. A conflict was going on in his breast, a conflict between evil passions and obstinate temper on the one hand, and the memory of a gentle pair of pleading eyes, and of a soft voice that thrilled him with its appealing accents, on the other. Something about the expression in those eyes seemed to haunt him—to follow him, look which way he would. Where had he seen eyes like them? Where had he seen a face that this one brought to his mind? He felt mean to have rejected this young lady's appeal at the very moment that she had come—on such a night, too—to seek his sister. Still, the demon of bad temper had been aroused in his heart, and would not give in, till suddenly another thought came to him. He knew the locality to be a very rough one; Mr. Rayborne had two ladies with him. They would offer a tempting and easy prey if they should encounter one of the gangs of prowling vagabonds who were always out on nights like this, ready to attack and rob anyone respectably dressed; and Mr. Rayborne's single escort would be of little use in such a case.
"Hang it all!" he said to himself, "I ought not to have let the kind-hearted young lady run any risk, when she came round to see Maggie. The least I can do is to go back and see them safe home; I can go to Denning's afterwards."
And, with that thought, he finally started towards the street in which he lived, as anxious now to get back there, lest they should leave before he arrived, as he had before been to get away from it.
Thus it came about that he arrived upon the scene at the moment when Ethel was supporting Maggie's head in her arms; and Rayborne was at his wits' end how to summon assistance, for he was naturally reluctant to leave the others there alone, nor did he know his way about the neighbourhood, well enough, in fog, to find the nearest doctor. William threw himself upon his knees beside his sister, with a great cry, and his evident distress relieved Rayborne's mind of the terrible suspicion that had forced itself upon him.
He, therefore, despatched young Moore hurriedly for assistance, while he and Mrs. White did their best to stanch the blood which flowed from the wound.
When a doctor arrived, a brief examination showed that the poor girl was just alive, and that was about all, and, from William's hurried explanation, it seemed that when she fell, the back of her head must have struck upon the jagged metal corner of the old box.
"She might have died from the loss of blood if she had not been found," the doctor said, and he ordered her immediate removal to the nearest hospital.
When a cab had been found—no easy matter in the fog—she was carried gently and tenderly into it, a policeman lighting the way with his lantern, and deposited at the hospital, after what seem to all a terribly slow and tedious journey. A further and more careful examination there resulted in the opinion that the case was a critical one, for not only was the wound serious in itself, but the sufferer appeared to be in such a state of emaciation and weakness from want of proper food and nourishment, that the loss of blood alone might prove eventually fatal.
Such was the house-surgeon's view, and he counselled Mr. Rayborne to take Miss Verney and her companion away, and see them home, promising to send news should any change occur.
"There is no use in waiting," he said; "she is likely to remain unconscious all night; and, if she gets better at all, it must be by such slow degrees that it may be days before she is able to speak or be spoken to. It would be quite useless, therefore, to wait about here for news, and the fog may get worse."
Rayborne saw the wisdom of this, and, after some argument, persuaded Ethel to comply with it. She was in a state of the utmost distress, and kept repeating:
"Five minutes! Think of it! Only five minutes! If we had only been five minutes sooner!"
"Nay," said Rayborne, gently, "do not dwell upon that; rather think how thankful we should be that we arrived when we did; and that would not have been the case, Miss Verney, but for your insisting upon going at once. I should never have dreamed of suggesting it upon such a night, and it was your yielding to your own heart's kindly promptings that took us there to-night at all; otherwise I should have arranged to go to-morrow."
But if the gentle Ethel's grief was great, William's was something dreadful to behold. He refused to leave, and said he would stay until he heard better news, even if he had to remain outside all night. Ethel pressed a little money upon him, which at first he indignantly declined; but eventually Rayborne talked him into a calmer state of mind, and induced him to take it and get himself food and lodging, pointing out that not to do so would only be causing additional distress to Miss Verney.
"For your sister's sake, poor girl, too," he said, "it is your duty to do now what is asked of you. Do so, then, and come to me and bring me news the first thing in the morning."
As Ethel was staying with some friends in Guildford-street, Rayborne was able to see her to their house in the cab in which they had brought Maggie without going far out of his way home.
Next morning William called early with the news that the doctors thought that there was a slight improvement in his sister's condition. He brought with him some papers, which, he said, had belonged to his father, who had always seemed to get a good deal of value upon them.
"I have smashed up that old box," he informed Rayborne. "I felt I could not endure the sight of it, and have taken away the two or three things we had there and left the place; I couldn't go back there to live. And would you be kind enough, sir, to take charge of these papers for me for a time? I don't know what they are, but I do not like to destroy them, in case they might some day turn out to be important."
"We will make them into a parcel," Rayborne replied, "and seal it up, then I will take charge of it for you until you want it again. And now sit down and tell me exactly all about this deplorable affair."
This William did, asserting in the most positive terms his innocence of the theft of which he had been accused and convicted, and finally mentioning Maggie's suspicions of Mike Denning.
Rayborne heard him through and remained for some time in deep thought when he had finished. The young fellow's earnest manner impressed him favourably, and he reflected that if, indeed, he was innocent, he must have been through cruel suffering—quite sufficient to explain, if it did not justify, the explosion of ill-temper that had had such disastrous results.
"Well," he observed at last, "if what you say is true, you are certainly much to be pitied, and I am very sorry for you. But, in that case, it seems to me highly probable your sister may have hit, by intuition, upon the right explanation. If so, this man can have no friendly intentions towards you, and I should advise you to keep away from him."
"I begin to have the same idea, sir," William replied, "and I'll keep out of his sight for the future, never fear. I wish—that is, if poor Maggie gets better—to get away altogether and go to sea."
"We will see what can be done," said Rayborne. "And now go round to Miss Verney and tell her about your sister's state this morning; here is the address, she will be anxious to know."
THAT evening, in a parlour in a low public house near the docks in Poplar, a man sat watching for his "pal," Mike Donning, when that worthy suddenly burst in upon him with an awful oath on his lips and dismay and rage in his face.
"Done!" he exclaimed—"clean done all round! That drunken fool, Barney—the broker's man, you know—never brought the paper, but left 'em there, in an old box, 'e says. And William Moore never came down to me last night, as 'e said 'e would; and now both 'e an' 'is sister 'ave gone!— flown, clean flown—an' I can't find out where to. But I'll 'ave 'em yet; yes, an' I'll make it unpleasant for you, too, Miss Verney, see if I don't!"
The public-house at which Mike Denning was wont to meet his "pal," Tim Coney, was known as "The Sailor's Friend;" but it is to be feared that, if the truth were told, it scarcely bore out its title. It stood near one of the entrances to a large dock, and its windows overlooked the river, suggesting that it had once been a pleasant riverside resort; but now the genuine sailors who patronised it were and far between.
When Denning burst into the room where his "pal" sat alone, waiting for him, Tim could evidently scarcely take in what he said, and half-thought he must be mad drunk; though, be it said Denning was seldom known to give way to drink. He was too cunning and crafty for that, and understood too well the advantages it gave others in the give-and-take game he had always in hand here or there. He was a thick-set man, of medium height, with a clean- shaven face, on which anyone who looked carefully could see written the records of vice and cruelty; but yet he had a bland, deceptive smile when he chose, that might well take in—and often did take in—young men—and older men also—who lacked experience in the wiles of characters of this class. After his first outburst, he sat down before the fire, lighted a pipe, and smoked on for some time in silence.
"Ain't yer goin' to order nothin' ter drink, Mike?" asked Tim, after a while, with a suggestion of injury in his tone. "I've bin waitin' 'ere for more than an hour for yer; an' now yer's come, yer don't offer ter treat a feller!"
"Treat yerself," was Mike's surly answer, and after that silence again ensued.
Presently, however, Denning got up, rang the bell, and ordered a pot of beer and two glasses; and, by degrees, the two launched out into conversation.
"Yes!" said Mike, "I bin roun' there to-day. Thought I might soft-sawder 'em, you know an get at them papers. Would yer believe, the old box was smashed up into smithereens, an' the papers was gone, an' they was gone. D'ye wonder I feels mad like?"
"No," said Tim, shortly. "In course, it's bad that—regular sell. Only, I don't see as yer need drop down on a pal for it, all the same."
"I 'ad it so nicely worked out, too" Mike went on, without heeding the other. "If 'e'd only come down last night, I'd a caught 'im—an' 'er, too—'cos I'd planned it beautiful. When she 'eard 'e was in a mess, she'd sure to 'a' come, an' I should have trapped 'er, too, near as a drum-stick. But now I dunno what I'll do. It's all put off indefinite, as they says."
They both smoked on gloomily for some minutes, and then Tim said:
"All the same, I think I should 'ave a try at the old 'un if I was you."
Mike shook his head.
"No use, my boy, no use," he declared. "I ain't bin waiting these years, foolin' about with old Moore, an' keepin' me patience up ter go and make a mess of it now. No if the peach must hang longer ter got ripe, why it must 'ang, that's all. Can't yet see, 'twouldn't be likely ter succeed, unless we got 'em both inter disgrace. I got the boy inter a hole—that's all right—but 'tain't enough. But, if I could get the gal inter a mess o' some sort, it'd tell ten times better. No; you leave me alone for knowin' what I'm a-doin of."
"You don't think the gal—t'other gal, I means—worth tryin' again?"
"Lor, not I!—at least, not till I've got somethin' better ter shut 'er up with," said Denning, drawing a long breath.
"But yer didn't even explain it to 'er, did yer? Yer knows who I means—that—what's her name?"
"Verney you mean. No, she never let me get so far. She's as sharp as a needle, for all she looks so quiet. 'Ah!' says she, 'I see—I understand. It's blackmail you're thinkin' of. Now leave this 'ouse, sir, at once, or I'll 'ave you turned out and given in charge.' An' you wouldn't believe 'ow she looked; 'er eyes seemed to stab yer; they reg'lar flashed. I never would 'a' believe it of such a quiet, soft-lookin' slip of a gal."
"Seems to me you was frightened, by a gal, an' let 'er bully yer, Mike," he said.
"Never mind," Denning returned, moodily. "But I'll 'ave 'er next time. That's why I won't go agen till I'm quite sure. Then—ah! we'll see then wot yer'll say, Miss—Miss Ethel—Verney!"
And the ruffian gave a coarse, vicious, suggestive laugh.
"Well, it's all U P for the present, if yer can't find either o' these two, nor yet the papers!" remarked Coney. "An' I don't see what more there is to be done; so let's be off and see about that other affair we've got to look after!"
And, after a little further talk, the two rascals got up and went out.
MEANTIME, Maggie was slowly coming back to life; but days passed, as the doctor had predicted, before she could talk. Twice every day Ethel Verney called at the hospital, and she would remain an hour or more each time by the patient's bedside. And as she sat gazing upon the drawn haggard face that told so plainly its tale of misery, suffering and privation, she felt irresistibly attracted more and more towards the poor girl. In the glance she bent upon her there was the expression of an infinite tenderness and compassion that the sufferer, gazing back at her, seemed to recognise and understand; for, after looking gratefully for a while, she would give a quiet, satisfied sigh, and go off into a peaceful sleep, though before Ethel's arrival she might have been restless and disturbed.
The nurse, looking on with sympathetic interest, noticed this, and observed more than once:
"Ah, miss, you seem to do her more good than do the doctors or the sleeping draughts."
And Ethel felt glad to think it was so.
Then, one day, Maggie's look had a question in it, an anxious, yearning inquiry that Ethel quickly interpreted.
Leaning down, she whispered:
"Be at peace, my friend, your brother is safe in our care. We have kept him away from that man Denning, whom you feared."
And at this there came a smile of gratitude and relief upon the troubled face ere, as before, she sank again into sleep.
From that time the sufferer began to mend more rapidly, and in another day or two was able to speak and sit up for a short time. Soon both her brother and Rayborne were allowed to see her for a few minutes, and the first meeting of the brother and sister was a sight that seemed to the tender-hearted Ethel more than enough to repay her a thousandfold for what she had done for them.
But what interested and surprised her more than all, perhaps, was to observe the change in Maggie's face as she grew stronger, for, as her convalescence progressed, and the lines and hollows softened, it assumed a beauty that she had been wholly unprepared for, and never suspected.
Each day this became more and more manifest. Until Ethel used to wonder to herself almost whether this could indeed be the same young girl whose pinched face, with its prominent cheekbones and old-young look, had so aroused her sympathy.
When, at last, Maggie was able to leave the hospital, Ethel insisted on taking her for a while into the country, near her own home. She had arranged this with Mrs. White, her old nurse, whose people lived in a cottage not far from Mr. Verney's residence; and thither Maggie was conveyed so soon as she could safely make the journey.
Ethel went away with her charge, full of innocent happiness at the results of her visit to London and of thankfulness, that it had been permitted to her to give this timely help to an orphan girl whose trouble was so sore.
But she left a shadow behind her, a shadow that was a joy and a trouble joined in one, for Charles Rayborne felt as though the sunshine had gone out of his life with her departure. Fight against it as he would, strive his utmost, he knew that his life could never be the same as before that well-remembered night when Ethel Verney has asked him to assist her in her errand of charity and mercy. But he bravely and resolutely put the feeling from him, so far as he could, and took up his burden again, endeavouring to find solace by interesting himself in his work amid the sordid and painful surroundings in which it had, perforce, to be carried on.
Before Maggie returned to London, her brother had sailed for Australia in the sailing-ship "Silver Cloud." Aided by a letter of introduction from Mr. Verney, which Ethel had sent on, Rayborne obtained for him the opportunity the young fellow had long earnestly desired. By the kind invitation of Ethel he went down to Fairminster before his departure to say good-bye to his sister, now quite convalescent, and then set out to try his fortune as a sailor.
IT was nearly two months before Maggie Moore returned to London to enter once more upon the weary struggle for bare existence that is the unhappy lot of millions of toilers in our great Metropolis. A thoughtful writer (Dr. Allon) has said that "it may be easier to do the work of a General Gordon than to live the life of a London seamstress. True heroism is oftenest found in the struggle, endeavour, and self-sacrifice of common life."
And truly Maggie's life was an example, a case in point. The life of a young girl without relatives or friends, living alone in London, and striving to earn her own livelihood, is hard almost beyond belief. It is a cruel existence—sordid, monotonous, chockfull of dangers to health and character. It is devoid of all that may go to make life tolerable, trying alike to heart and mind and to the body. In Maggie's case it was, for some time, rendered harder and more difficult than otherwise would have been the case by reason of a strange ill-fortune that seemed persistently to follow her in all her efforts. True, she had Miss Verney's proffered help; but this she gratefully but firmly refused after she had once made another start to keep herself. She had formed a high resolve that she would justify the kindness she had received, in the past, by proving that she could be worthy of it in the future.
"I wish, Miss Verney to have the satisfaction of knowing," she said to Rayborne, "that she has saved me to become an honest, self-supporting worker; not to turn out a semi-pauper, willing to be partly kept by the goodness of another, even though the other may be—as she is to me—the kindest and most lovable friend a poor girl could possibly possess."
And Rayborne could only acquiesce, and speak a few words of assent and encouragement.
So, putting resolutely aside the monetary help that her newly- found friend offered so sympathetically, Maggie started upon the task of "keeping herself," accepting only from her benefactress a present of a sowing machine as a sort of "stock-in-trade."
And she managed to keep up a show of success; but it was only achieved at the cost of hard self-denial and constant heart- breaking work and worry. In truth, she only succeeded by half- starving herself, and by struggling bravely on through disappointments and trials that would have broken the heart and spirit of many a girl of outwardly sterner mould.
Indeed, after a while she was obliged to admit that the plan she had started upon was too precarious; and she was forced to seek a situation. The repeated disappointments rendered this, as she at last sadly admitted, a necessity. It would be wiser, she felt, to accept a regular situation, however low the wage, than to trust to the chances of intermittent outside employment.
But when, after many failures, she obtained a situation, poor Maggie found that she had only exchanged troubles of one kind for those of another. The room in which she had to work all day, and oftentimes to late at night, was at one time oppressive for want of proper ventilation; at another terribly, cruelly cold, being absolutely unwarmed during the severest weather. Then she found herself, of necessity, forced to associate with other girls of a character and disposition very different from her own; and with some of them it was difficult to avoid constant quarrelling and unpleasantness, try as she would.
These crowded, workrooms of London sow seeds that result in deadly harvests of consumption, bronchitis, and many a fell disease amongst the class of helpless workers who, as matters stand, have no chance but to submit to the conditions; and Maggie suffered cruelly at times, especially through the winter months.
Yet of all this she thought but little; what troubled her was that she did not keep her situations, poor as they were. She soon had taken and lost three—between each there had been a heart-breaking time, during which she had almost broken down—and it began to look as though she would never be able to keep a place.
This caused deep distress, not only upon her own account, but also, and even more so, because of the disappointment, perhaps even wrong impressions, she felt it must create in the minds of her two friends, Miss Verney and Mr. Rayborne. The former wrote to her at intervals—kind, comforting, thoughtful letters they were—and Rayborne she saw at least once a weak, for she now lent her aid at a Sunday-school in which he took an interest. About this time, too, the Carley Mission, with which he was connected, carried out a scheme which had been long in contemplation, but had been postponed from time to time for want of funds. This was a club for poor workers—there were two clubs in fact, one for boys and one for girls—where they could pass their evenings—those of them who ever had a spare evening—in harmless amusements or intercourse with others of their own class. Sometimes Maggie was able to spend an evening at this club, and Rayborne might come in while she was there; but such opportunities were few and usually meant, for her, the mortifying fact that she was again out of a situation.
At last the growing anxiety that Rayborne could read in her face when they thus met led him to inquire the cause; and he drew from her that she was being followed about by the man Mike Denning, whom she so cordially detested and distrusted, though he had, she was obliged to confess never spoken to her or directly molested her in any way.
This was a sufficient hint to Rayborne, and he very quickly acted upon it. He shrewdly suspected that some of her troubles might be due to this man's machinations, and he went round to some of the firms who had acted with such harshness towards her, and, after some trouble, got at the truth. It turned out that in every case Denning had dogged her footsteps, had called on the manager of the business in which, for the time being, she was employed, and, under the seal of confidence, told tales about her brother and parents. So artfully had these stories been concocted of mingled truth and falsehood, that the recipients of his shameful "confidences," being in doubt, had decided the matter by quietly declining further to employ the girl.
Rayborne's explanations put a very different complexion on affairs; and from that time the manager of the place at which she was employed—and who had been on the point of discharging her— became her friend.
Thus encouraged, Maggie's natural capacities soon displayed themselves, and her cleverness in designing small pieces of work, and her persevering industry, did not escape the sharp-eyed manager. Ere long she was promoted to be forewoman in her room, and was henceforward more employed in designing work for others than in doing it herself.
She was now able, even, to put a shilling or two by every week against a "rainy day;" and she passed an evening a week at a school of art, where she worked hard still further to cultivate her natural talent, for designing; and another evening she devoted to an evening class in connection with the club to improve herself in general education.
And when the early summer came, and she obtained the promise of two or three days' holiday at Whitsuntide, she gladly accepted an invitation from Miss Verney to visit her again. It was brought to her by Rayborne, who had, indeed, thoughtfully informed Ethel that Maggie would have a few days free, guessing what was likely to ensue.
"I shall be down there myself for a few hours, on Whit Monday," he told Maggie, "so shall probably see you there. I am going to see my old schoolfellow, James Dalton, and his mother. But you are to go down on Saturday evening."
And on the Saturday, Maggie found herself once more on the road to Fairminster, joyous at the prospect of seeing again the one who had shown her such kindness, and innocently proud in the consciousness that Miss Verney would be able to feel that kindness had not been ill-bestowed, but was bearing fruit.
RAVENSCOURT, the residence of Mr. Langley Verney, J.P., was a fine old English mansion, standing in a small park about a mile from the village of Fairminster, and twenty miles from town. The house stood on an elevation commanding picturesque views of the surrounding country. The front faced a wide stretch of valley, through which wound small river that, in places, broadened out into sheets of water resembling small lakes, surrounded by meadows and woods, with here and there a water-mill with its mill-race and miniature waterfall.
Nearer at hand, well-kept lawns, broad gravelled paths, and dainty flower-beds, richly colored and tastefully laid out, gave an air of luxurious beauty to the scene such as, perhaps, only an English country house can furnish.
In the library, with the French windows that looked out upon the lawn thrown open, Mr. Verney sat talking to his wife.
It was a lovely June morning—and Whit Monday, Whitsuntide falling late that year. Through the open windows came in the scent of lilac and of hawthorn blossom; and the sun was strong enough to make the shade of the sun-blind that was extended out beyond the window very welcome.
Mr. Verney was a man of some sixty years, good-looking, and of commanding presence; but austere and proud in bearing; Mrs. Verney, on the other hand—perhaps ten years his junior—was a kindly, motherly woman, with a countenance expressive chiefly of amiable content. Mr. Verney was speaking somewhat testily, and showed displeasure in his face, as well as by his words.
"I really cannot think," he said, "what pleasure Ethel can find in having the girl down here again. It's surely enough that she should fool away her money up in town upon people she picks out of the gutter, without bringing them down here and thrusting them upon our attention. It's only pauperising the girl, too."
"Nay, Langley," Mrs. Verney returned, mildly, "the poor girl is harmless enough. Indeed, I like her very much. When she was down here in the winter I got quite attached to her; she was so gentle, and showed such grateful appreciation of every little act of kindness. I do not wonder Ethel got to like her. And as to what you call fooling her money away upon her, I know that is not the case. For one thing, Maggie won't allow it. You've no idea how she sticks up for her independence. She has kept herself entirely, I know, since she went away from here; and, if Ethel has paid her fare down, now that she has a holiday at Whitsuntide, it's about as much as the other would let her do."
"Humph! Well, of course, it's no particular concern of mine if Ethel chooses to amuse herself in such company; only, I do wish she showed a little more pride. Another thing that displeases me about it is that I feel pretty sure Sir Edgar doesn't approve it. You know what his pride is, and I fear Ethel is not going the way to bring about what we so much desire."
Mrs. Verney sighed.
"Say rather what you desire, Langley. For my part, I only wish it if it will be for the child's real good; that is if she should come to care for him. I would never have any young girl I took an interest in—let alone one I love as I do Ethel—marry a man she did not truly love. Of course, it is too early yet to speak with certainty, and therefore—"
"Pshaw!" exclaimed Mr. Verney, interrupting her. "Girls don't know their own minds in those matters. It's no use listening to their likes and dislikes—humph! They seem to be enjoying themselves out there."
A peal of silvery laughter had come floating in on the breeze, and he got up and looked out to see what had caused it.
On the terrace outside, Ethel and Maggie Moore had been walking about, when the former had caught sight of Mr. James Dalton coming up the carriage drive and had run away and hidden herself in the conservatory, leaving Maggie alone to meet him, much to the young woman's confusion. But Dalton had caught a glimpse of a vanishing dress, and, after giving Maggie a pleasant greeting, had speedily followed and discovered the runaway; and now they were all three laughing together on the lawn.
"You have came down to see us again, Miss Maggie," Dalton observed. "I heard you were expected, and saw you at church yesterday. What do you think of the place now. You saw it only in the winter before."
Maggie drew a long breath full of rapture, as she turned her gaze over the landscape that lay spread out before them.
"I think it's too lovely for words," she answered; "I did not know there was anything so beautiful in the whole world! I have been in London all my life, and have scarcely ever seen the country—certainly nothing like this. It makes one think of heaven—of what it must be like, if it is better than this!"
James Dalton looked with interest at the fair young face lighted up with such intense appreciation of nature's beauties, and sympathised with her evident delight.
"Ah! Yes," he said. "You are right to say it should make us think of Heaven, and to think of Heaven is to think of God, the great Creator of all. Would that men and women showed more love for nature's wonders, then would they be less selfishly wrapped up in worldly thoughts and strivings."
"It seems to me," returned Maggie, simply, "that people living in the country ought all to be very good. There is plenty of room for everybody; they are not crowded together so, as in London, where everyone seems to be trying to push everyone else out of their way."
Then she blushed and look confused at having been tempted to express herself so freely.
"You are quite a young philosopher." he said. "But, anyway, I'm sorry to see London does not seem to agree well with you. You do not look so rosy and well as you did when you went away from us in the winter."
"That is just what I say, Mr. Dalton," Ethel declared. "I'm sure she has been worked to death, and it makes me the more glad to think I made her come down for a day or two's change. By the way, did you not say you expected Mr. Rayborne down to-day to see you?"
"He has arrived, Miss Verney, and will be here shortly. He wished to run in, and shake hands with the vicar, and said he would come on after me."
"That's capital. We can all have a game of tennis, or croquet, or something. We'll coach Maggie. What fun it will be!"
Maggie protested quietly, but was told by Ethel she must make up her mind to try and learn; and they were about to go over to the tennis lawn when they caught sight of a horseman riding slowly up the drive.
"Oh, it's Sir Edgar!" exclaimed Ethel, in rather a disappointed tone. "And there is someone walking by his side."
"It is Rayborne," observed Dalton. "I suppose they met at the gates on the road."
"What a lovely horse!" Maggie could not help saying, when they drew near.
"Yes, a new one Sir Edgar has lately bought," Ethel told her. "He gave three hundred guineas for it. Isn't it a lot of money to give for a horse?"
She sighed and look half-pained; and, seeing the look, Maggie, who was quick to observe the changes in the face of her young protectress, asked softly:
"Why do you look troubled, Miss Ethel?"
"I was thinking," Ethel replied, "what a lot of good could be done with three hundred guineas."
"You are always thinking for others, Miss Verney," Dalton said. "Do you never think about yourself at all?"
She laughed—a gay, light-hearted laugh.
"I should think so. Ask my dressmaker; she'll, tell you how much trouble I give her, choosing my dresses and hats and things."
Dalton shook his head in mild disbelief, and by this they had come up to the two new arrivals.
Ethel shook hands warmly with Rayborne, and he in turn shook hands with Maggie; but when Ethel introduced her to Sir Edgar the baronet only smiled sourly, and gave the stiffest bow. He did not seem best pleased to find Ethel in such company.
Sir Edgar Archdale, of Englefield Hall, passed for one of the wealthiest men in the county. He was about 38 years of age, florid of complexion, and somewhat swaggering in gait, but not bad looking. He was known to be a dashing rider, and one of the most devoted fox-hunters in the district. He was a great favorite with Mr. Verney, and it was an open secret that he was paying his attentions to Ethel, with Mr. Verney's tacit approval.
"Now come and play croquet, all of you; we are too many for tennis," Ethel cried. "And then you must all stay to lunch."
And soon the croquet ground was occupied by the little party, and their laughter came now and again to the ears of Mr. Verney, who sat writing in his study.
"I wish Dalton would keep his friends to himself," he said, to his wife, a little later. "He's brought that Rayborne here to- day, and I see Archdale is quite upset about it."
Mrs. Verney sighed quietly, and replied:
"I don't see why, Mr. Rayborne may be poor, but he comes of as good a family as Sir Edgar's. He is nephew to Sir Harry Rayborne, of Rayborne Count, in Yorkshire. Mr. Dalton told me so a little while ago."
PRESENTLY the young people came in to luncheon; but when they had taken their places at the table it quickly became apparent that the harmless gaiety of the earlier hours had in some way vanished. Mr. Verney found his friend Sir Edgar gloomy and disinclined to talk, while his kindly disposed wife in vain endeavored to infuse cheerfulness into the conversation between the others. An evident feeling of constraint depressed them all, and Mrs. Verney sat through the meal with a feeling of discomfort, mildly wondering what could be the reason. The truth was that Sir Edgar had been showing not only bad temper, but bad taste, and had brought upon himself a severe reproof from Ethel. He had ridden over that morning specially in the hope of having Ethel's society to himself, and when he found her engaged with other visitors, he took no pains to conceal his disappointment and vexation. Towards Maggie Moore he was haughtily contemptuous, and to Rayborne supercilious almost to the point of insult. Ethel had not seen either of those friends for some time, and during pauses in the game she had stood for the most part talking with one or other of them. This had seemed to rouse Archdale's ire, and at last he said, roughly:
"If I had known you would be so taken up with these—er—people, Miss Verney, I would not have come over to-day."
She had turned and looked at him quietly, but there had been a flash in her eye when she replied:
"If I had known that, Sir Edgar, I would have sent word that I had friends coming to-day, whom I had not seen lately, and to whom my first attentions would be due."
Then Sir Edgar had colored up and bitten his lips to keep back the angry retort that had risen to them. But he had known Ethel long enough to be aware that he would only be likely to get into further trouble if he spoke what was in his mind. So he had taken refuge in what he thought the dignity of silence, but was in reality an obvious fit of the sulks.
At luncheon he had consoled himself by drinking more wine than usual. He generally did take a good deal, and after lunch or after dinner was frequently apt to show signs of having done so, though later, probably, the effects would pass away. Mr. Verney, too, was in the habit of so far indulging in old port that he usually rose from the table with a noticeably heightened color.
At the end of the luncheon Ethel said:
"I am going over this afternoon to see your mother, Mr. Dalton, and Maggie will go with me; so, if you have no objection, we may as well all go together."
"Certainly; and I know my mother will be only too pleased to see you," said Dalton, cheerfully.
"Do you care to accompany us, or do you prefer to stay and keep father company over his cigar?" Ethel asked of Sir Edgar.
"Yes; I shall stay with Mr. Verney," was the reply, given in anything but gracious tone.
"Then, that being arranged, I will ask you kindly to excuse us," Ethel continued, coldly. "We must go to put our hats on."
Mrs. Verney also rose, and went away with the two girls; and shortly afterwards Rayborne and Dalton took leave of the other two, and went out to wait for the ladies on the terrace.
Sir Edgar followed them angrily with his eyes.
"Did you invite those fellows here, Verney?" he asked, almost savagely; "or that gutter-girl?"
"Not I," returned Mr. Verney, "and I wish Ethel wouldn't; it's her doing. However, it's only once in a way, and I don't like to seem harsh with her."
"Humph!—harsh! Why, it seems to me the place is not your own. It's very different here from what it used to be. I get the cold shoulder altogether—and for whom? For a gutter-girl, and a mealy-mouthed, preaching, penniless prig like that Rayborne; what business has he here at all, if you don't invite him?"
"Well, well, he's only come in for an hour or two, and is going now, so there's an end to it," observed Mr. Verney, desirous of smoothing matters over. "As to inviting him, you may be sure I did not do that. I hardly know him, and do not know who he is, though my wife told me this morning that Mr. Dalton had informed her he is a nephew of Sir Henry Rayborne, of Rayborne Court, in Yorkshire. Do you know whether that is true?"
"Yes," asserted Archdale, in a grudging sort of way, "that is true; for I know old Rayborne, his uncle, well. Visit there often, when I am in Yorkshire. But Sir Henry has cast him off—won't acknowledge him."
"Why? Anything wrong about him?"
"Oh, no. Not that." Sir Edgar admitted, though not without evident reluctance. "Sir Henry had a quarrel with his brother—this one's father—and wouldn't speak to him. And when he died, he died without a farthing; so his son got nothing, and hasn't a penny to bless himself with. Never will have, for his uncle, Sir Henry, is a close-fisted old stick, and is still bitter about the quarrel he had with his father."
"H'm. I'm glad to hear there's nothing against him, anyway," observed Mr. Verney, thoughtfully. "It's just as well to know something about him. And, since he's a gentleman by birth, why, I can't very well refuse to be civil to him, you know."
"No; but what I don't like is that he and your daughter are so thick together," returned Archdale, discontentedly. "When he is here he and Ethel hold such long confidential confabs that one feels altogether out of it—a bit snubbed, don't you know."
Mr. Verney smiled.
"You are jealous, Archdale," he replied. "They only talk about Ethel's protegée, and her brother, who has gone to sea. I got him his berth, by the way, at Ethel's request."
Sir Edgar shook his head discontentedly, and muttered something about "putting a stop to all that foolery one day." And so the two talked on.
Meantime, Ethel and her companions were on their way across the fields to the village in which Dalton lived in modest apartments with his widowed mother. His slender stipend was almost all they had to depend upon, and she had recently come to take up her abode with him because they could live more cheaply together than apart. He explained something of this confidentially to Maggie as he walked beside her, and was rather amused at the unsophisticated way in which she plainly showed she thought such a confidence a great honor. She felt herself, indeed, in a sort of enchanted world, where all was new to her and everything was delightful. All around her was strange to her after the life she led in London. To see the richly-laid-out table; to sit at luncheon with "great people," as they seemed to her; to be treated with such thoughtful, unostentatious kindness by those who seemed so much above her; to walk with them in friendly talk in what was, to her, a veritable earthly paradise—all these things filled her simple nature with wonder and gratitude and delight, and she felt she could never do enough to show her thankfulness. And when her memory went back to that awful time in the wretched garret, after her mother's death, she glanced towards Ethel, walking in front of her, with tears that would not be repressed. James Dalton noticed them.
"What is the matter?" he asked. "Are you unwell—troubled?"
She shook her head, and, turning, looked at him with such a smile, such an almost enraptured expression showing through her tears, that the memory of it lingered with him for many a day after she had left them and returned to London.
"Hush!" she said, softly. "Don't let Miss Ethel hear, or she might be displeased or pained. I cry only because I can't help it; because I feel so very, very grateful, and—because I love her so. Oh, what would I not do for such a—a—such an angel."
This last word came out in a little burst, poor Maggie failing to find any other that would do justice, in her opinion to her young patroness.
Dalton, respecting her feelings, walked on in silence, but now and then glancing up for another look at the sweet face, so touching, and withal so lovely, under the influence of the emotions that had been aroused in the young girl's bosom.
And Rayborne, as it happened, walking beside Ethel, some little distance in front, was equally interested in watching the face of his companion. He had seen her only twice, and then only for a few brief moments, since her visit to town in that far-off time—as it now seemed—when she had come into his dingy lodgings on her errand of mercy; and into his thoughts, his life, his very being, never, as he felt, to go out of them again for a single hour. Sometimes he wished he never had seen her; at others he would resolve to put out of his mind all thought of her. But ever and again the remembrance of her, of her looks, of what she had said, or done, of her bright, open smiles, even of the sterner light of firmness and resolution that sometimes flashed out from her clear, fearless eyes—all these things would come back upon his memory with a rush, like a stream that refused to be pent up, and he would "wake up" from a reverie to everyday life, and to the knowledge that he had been once more entranced in a day-dream of Ethel Verney.
And now, while he walked beside her, he was busily, even greedily, engaged, half-unconsciously, perhaps, in drinking in every changing expression in her face, making of them mental photographs, pictures, to be stored up for day-dreams of the future. But she was only conscious of a feeling of pleasure in meeting again one with whom she could talk freely and unrestrainedly about the two in whom she felt so deeply interested—Maggie and her brother.
"How much I should like," she said, presently, "to go with you one day on one of your rounds, to see what the East End of London really is. Could I not do so now?"
"Perhaps," Rayborne answered. "But it would be very painful to you. And could it do any good?"
"Who can tell?" she answered. "Perhaps 'No;' perhaps 'Yes.' One never knows. It seems to me that in the sad lives of these poor creatures a very little goes a long way. Even a kind word or a kind look may help. They are not too common in that land, are they?"
"Unhappily, no. At least, not such looks as—"
He stopped and colored up. He was about to say, "As yours."
"As what?" she asked.
"As—as—such as I should like to see," he replied at last.
"No," she said, thoughtfully, "I thought it must be so. Mrs. Dalton is going up to London for a week or two soon, and I am going to stay a few days with her. Could you not take us out with you then, one day?"
"Gladly; if you really wish it."
"Then I shall consider that settled," Ethel returned, in the decided way that was hers at times. "And here we are at Mr. Dalton's."
JAMES DALTON and his mother lived in a charmingly situated cottage that looked out, through a pretty stretch of country garden, on to the village green. Near the centre was the village pond, with the usual ducks and geese swimming on its surface, or waddling on its banks, pointing their beaks and quacking noisily at nothing in particular. Opposite was the church, with the rectory near, the whole surrounded by a dense mass of grand old elm trees, in which the busy rooks kept up an incessant cawing. From the village smithy, on one side of the green, came the occasional clear, metallic, bell-like ring of the hammer on the anvil—a noise being shod, perhaps, by the smith, ever-busy, even on Whit Monday; while from the other side came the many sounds that enliven a farm yard in the springtime.
Maggie, who had dried her tears, stopped and gazed and listened, her face wearing a look of wonder and admiring appreciation. She had been to the place before; but that was in the winter time; and how different now it all appeared! The very noises seemed to fill the air with a pleasing sense of drowsy peacefulness; there was just enough of the stir of life to suggest restfulness, without a tinge of loneliness. The afternoon sun, behind the great towering trees, threw out, in strong relief, the graceful, fan-like forms of their upper branches and the delicate tracery of the foliage, and, lighting up one side of the church tower, buried admidst the trees, threw the other and all beside and beneath it into strange and mysterious-looking shadow.
Maggie stood riveted in a dream of happy rapture. For her this typical picture of quiet, ordinary country life had a meaning and fascination that few, of those who know it so well that it had become commonplace could understand. Her companions, seeing and comprehending what she felt, stopped also, and stood outside the little garden waiting for her.
Ethel and Rayborne talked together in low tones; Dalton watched Maggie with an approving smile. From a tree in the garden came the soft warble of a blackbird, answered by the cheery notes of a chaffinch a little further away; and now and then, above all other sounds, could be heard in the distance the full, soft note of the cuckoo.
Soon, however, as if by common impulse, they all turned towards the cottage and walked up the garden path, Maggie's face eloquently expressive of the deep impression the place had made upon her. Naturally, to one brought up amidst bricks and mortar year in and year out, such a scene must come as a sort of revelation—a glimpse of a wonderland never even dreamed of. Maggie's was just the sympathetic, responsive nature upon which it would be likely to produce the most effect.
Dalton said quietly:
"You seem to admire our little village green. But you have seen it before."
"Ah, yes!" Maggie replied, drawing a long, deep breath, "in winter time; but never like this! In London everything seems so much alike, winter and summer. In the summer it is warmer, and we have no fires; in the winter, it is colder, there is less daylight and more fog. That is about all the difference we know! But, oh! what a wonderful change here from winter to summer."
Then through a porch clustered round with roses and honeysuckle, not yet in bloom, but showing a wealth of buds of coming flowers, they entered the house, and were greeted in the passage by Dalton's mother.
Mrs. Dalton had only quite lately come to reside with her son, so recently, indeed, that Ethel had not seen her more than once, and then only for a few minutes. But she received the two girls so kindly that they both felt at home with her at once. She was a rather stout, cheerful-looking matron of perhaps fifty years, her hair iron-grey; by nature good-hearted and sympathetic, and somewhat given to be talkative.
She saluted Charles Rayborne with a kiss, and them, laughed heartily at the look of surprise on Ethel's face.
"I have known him ever since he was a child," she said, laughingly, by way of explanation. "Indeed, he has been almost as much a son in my eyes—ever since his poor mother's death—as my own boy. Is that not so, Charles?"
"I should think so, dear Mrs. Dalton," Rayborne answered, with a look and a smile that bespoke affection; "You have always been like a mother to me."
"Ah, but you don't look well, Charles," Mrs. Dalton went on, regarding him with tender interest. "You look thin and pale. London life, it is clear, does not agree with you. You want a few months back at Westerton."
There was a sadness in her voice when she spoke of her former home—Westerton Vicarage, near Rayborne Court, where she had lived so many years with her late husband.
"By the way," she rattled on, more cheerfully, "I have a message for you—an important one— and from a lady, too. She sends her love, hopes you are well, and says she intends to come and see you when she is up in town this season."
"Who can that be?" asked Rayborne.
"Who? Now, don't come that with me, Master Charley. Who should it be but the Lady Maud?"
"Why, of course. I had a letter from her the other day, and half of it, at least, was about you. Wanted to know if I had seen you, asked what were you doing, how you were, and—oh, a hundred other questions about you."
Rayborne made no reply; and Mrs. Dalton then turned to talk with Ethel and Maggie.
Soon, however, Rayborne got up, saying he had promised to return by the next train.
Mrs. Dalton tried to prevail upon him to wait for tea, but he declared it was impossible.
At parting, he said to Ethel:
"I, shall hope, then, to see you in London before very long?"
"Y-e-s—a—perhaps," Ethel answered somewhat absently. She seemed preoccupied.
"Well, I shall hope so, at any rate," he repeated, a slight shade of surprise and disappointment in his tone; and he took his leave, followed by Dalton, who went to see his friend off by the train.
"I will be back soon—in time for tea," he said. "And then I will escort you young ladies back to Ravenscourt; if you will allow me?"
Mrs. Dalton stood at the window, watching them walk down the garden, and waved her hand in a final farewell; then turned, with a sigh, to Ethel.
"Poor boy!" she said, sympathetically. "It makes my heart ache to see him, to think of his lonely, thankless life in town. It is so sad to think of the difference between his position now and what it was a few years ago. Then he did not know what it was to want money. He had his horses, his grooms, his smart dog-cart and phaeton."
Ethel looked surprised.
"Oh, dear, yes, my dear! That is quite true. And he might have it all again, between you and me. I feel pretty sure, if he liked Lady Maud—"
"Ah! Who is Lady Maud?" asked Ethel.
"Don't you know? Why, his cousin, Lady Maud Dallington. She is the only child of the rich Lord Dallington, of Dallington Castle, in Yorkshire, and will have all his money, besides a pretty fair fortune of her own she has already. She was always very much éprise of her cousin Charles; they were fond of each other as children, and are now, I should say. I feel convinced that she would have him to-morrow if he were but to ask her; and why he doesn't is more than I can make out—unless it is that he is too proud to do so, now that he is so poor."
"How came it about that his position changed so?" Ethel asked.
"Well, you see it's a strange story, rather. His father, the late Charles Allan Rayborne, was a younger brother of the present Sir Henry Rayborne. Their father, the former baronet Sir Gower Rayborne, died without making any proper provision for his younger son, Charles' father, who, consequently, became entirely dependent on Sir Henry, who treated him in a very irritating manner. He was a high-spirited, rather hasty-tempered man, and resented bitterly his dependent position, and the sometimes almost insulting treatment of his brother. The two were always bickering, and at last things culminated in a final quarrel. Mr. Charles struck Sir Henry—thrashed him, in fact, and then left the house. He died two or three years later, in extreme poverty; and Sir Henry never spoke to, or communicated with him again, or with the son Charles, his nephew. He refuses to recognise him in any way."
"Poor Mr. Rayborne," said Maggie, feelingly. "How sorry I am for him! What a terrible change it must be! It is bad enough to be poor in the case of those who have never been anything else! But it must be far worse with one who has been in such a position as you speak of!"
"Yes, even we find it so," replied Mrs. Dalton. "And, strangely, we are sufferers from the same cause. Mr. Charles Rayborne and my husband had always been staunch friends; they were at college together. And when Mr. Charles left Rayborne Court he came and stayed with us for a while. Sir Henry never forgave us for that; and when my husband died, he gave the living to a stranger instead of to my son, James, as he would otherwise have undoubtedly done—as indeed, he had over and over again promised to do."
Ethel got up and went over to the old lady, and, taking her hand, gently kissed her.
"I am very, very sorry for you, dear Mrs. Dalton," she said, almost tearfully. "How hard the world seems to be to some—to most! I can feel for you, and for your son, and—for Mr. Rayborne."
The last words were said with some hesitation and almost coldly, compared with the evident feeling that had accompanied the first part of the sentence. Maggie regarded her with some surprise, but said nothing.
Then, James coming in, they all sat down to tea.
Later in the evening the three returned to Ethel's home, walking slowly, lingeringly, in the light of the rising moon, and stopping often to listen to a nightingale, whose notes, liquid and full, swelled out at intervals in short, but delicious, bursts of song.
Maggie, who heard the bird now for the first time, was more surprised and enchanted than words can describe.
Then she thought of the sordid, miserable, homely life she led in London, and that she must soon go back to, forced itself upon her, and she could not repress the tears at the contrast it presented. Ethel glided softly to her side.
"What is it, dear?" she asked.
"I hardly know, Miss Ethel; but," looking at her, "you have tears in your eyes, too. Why is that?"
But Ethel only turned away, and walked on quietly.
CHARLES RAYBORNE sat one evenings in his dingy lodgings, pondering over a letter while waiting for his tea, much as he had on that gloomy December night, now some eighteen months ago, when this story opened. But now it was summer time, and the letter he was reading was of a very different character from that which had preceded his introduction to Ethel Verney. It was from his cousin, George Rayborne, only son of Sir Henry Rayborne, and it invited him to leave his work and all his sordid surroundings to go back for a while to the gayer, more brilliant life of the fashionable world he had known in his early manhood.
"My dear Charles," so the letter ran, "I have at last won over my father to my asking you to come and pass your yearly holiday with us this time. Now do not hastily refuse, but listen, my dear cousin, to what I have to say. I know and understand, your feelings, and sympathise with them deeply. I know that you have only too much cause for indignation against my father for the way in which he treated yours, poor Uncle Charles. Yes, I know all this only too well, and I do not forget it for one moment—never can. But, my dear old boy, do not let your indignation sway you now and rise up to disappoint me of that upon which I have set my mind—the seeing you back once more in our home as one of the family as in bygone happy days. Of what use to continue an estrangement that can do the dead no good and only cause the living pain; for it has been a source of constant pain and regret to me, and to—I happen to know—at least one other—the Lady Maud. She is delighted at the prospect of seeing you back with us again, and even her father, old Dallington, has been pleased to intimate to me that he would be glad to welcome you. You know that I, at least, never sided with Sir Henry in this matter; but always spoke my mind freely in condemning what I considered his harsh and very unbrotherly behaviour. I have some claim, therefore, to be heard, and if I say I have set my heart upon this reconciliation, and that I shall be more pained than ever if you refuse, then surely you cannot find it in your heart to say 'No.' I will not suggest, as some might, that the Christian work in which you are engaged imposes upon you any special obligation to be ready to forget and forgive; it would be impertinence in me to do so; I only appeal to your own good heart which I feel assured is what it always was, and to your old regard for me. And do not delay it; do not postpone it to another time. Life is so uncertain; who knows but that, if you put it off, even for a few months, one of us may die meantime and the chance be for ever lost? This will remind you, perhaps, of the feeling I used to tell you of—the conviction almost, that I am not destined to make 'old bones.' I have that feeling in these days more strongly than ever, and it adds to my longing to see you back amongst us. There! I will say no more, but shall wait for your reply as patiently and hopefully as I can. Let me have it soon, and let it be 'Yes'—Your affectionate, cousin, George."
"Dear old George," said Charles Rayborne, softly, laying the letter down and leaning back in his chair to gaze thoughtfully through the window at the summer sunlight without. "Nothing can over spoil him; nothing ever change him. Not all the wealth and luxury with which he is surrounded, nor the flatteries and blandishments heaped upon him, nor the temptations inseparable from his position. No! And, for his dear sake, I suppose I must consent; though I did once say I could never forgive my uncle for his cruel treatment of my poor father. But he, I fully believe, if he were alive and could advise me, would wish me to forgive; and, if that is so, why, then, of course, I have really no alternative before me. And yet,"—this with a heavy sigh—"Heaven knows that I have no wish to go back to that frivolous world from which I have escaped, and which I have learned to do without. Lady Maud! Ah! When I compare her with Ethel Verney, I marvel that I could ever have admired her. Yet, in the old days, I suppose I was one of her admirers. But, my fair cousin, you will find, if we meet now, that the old spell has lost its power."
He paused for a few moments, and then continued dreamily:
"How strange it seems that there should be some natures that neither prosperity nor adversity can spoil! Like the true diamond, nothing seems to tarnish them; nothing can ever detract from the lustre that tolls of transparent, flawless purity. That is true equally of the delicately nurtured Ethel Verney and her protegée, the terribly-tried Maggie Moore. It is true, too, of many amongst the very poorest, as I have lived to learn; but, amongst the well-to-do, how many can I count of all whom I have known? Fewer even than I have fingers on one hand!"
Then he took up another letter lying beside him, a very different epistle both in contents and appearance. It was written on pink paper, delicately scented, stamped with a coronet in blue and gold. He read it through aloud, and it ran thus:
"Dear Cousin Charles,—I hear Sir Henry has so far changed in his feeling towards you as to send you an invitation to go down to stay at Rayborne Court, and he has even suggested that I should write you a line and back up the request. Why, I cannot say, of course; however, I have no sort of objection if by any chance my voice may sway you. I write accordingly, to say that I hope you will not be so obstinate or foolish as to miss this chance of coming back to your proper position in the world. You must have had enough of your present occupation, I should think, and will be glad of any excuse for getting out of it. So I shall hope to hear of your accepting your uncle's invitation, and look forward to seeing you again very shortly. With all good wishes. Your affectionate cousin, Maud."
"P.S.—I do not see why I should not come and look you up. Mrs. Dalton is up in town, and I will ask her to bring me to call on you to-morrow evening. So mind you stay in for us."
"Enough of my occupation!" Rayborne repeated to himself, with a sigh. "How little she understands me! If it had done nothing more than bring me into contact with one like Ethel—h'm! Here they are, I suppose:"
There was a great clatter in the street outside as a carriage and pair drove up to the door, the horses' hoofs ringing on the cob-stones with which the street was paved. Great was the astonishment created on all sides by this arrival; for never before in the memory of any living in that shabby street had such a thing been known.
The evening being warm, most of the windows were open, and now at nearly all of them appeared inquiring faces; men in shirt- sleeves, women with their hair in curl-papers, or otherwise untidy, leaned half-way out, and utmost overbalanced themselves in their eagerness to look upon the unwanted spectacle.
The carriage was a resplendent affair, lined inside with maroon leather, with painted and gilded panels, upon which on each side was the coat of arms of the Dallington family, surmounted by a coronet. The prancing horses bore the Dallington crest in every possible place upon the brass-mounted harness. The coachman and footman were costumed in the Dallington livery of blue and gold, with red plush, powdered hair, and all the etceteras that are considered de rigueur in the livery of the rich.
The footman got down, and after looking carefully at the number on the door to make sure he had stopped at the right house, went up the two stops and gave a startling double knock that resounded throughout the whole street, and speedily brought yet more heads to the neighboring windows, Then, looking gingerly and doubtfully at his immaculate white gloves, he awaited results with the air of one conscious of having bravely performed a most painful and disagreeable duty.
A minute or two later the Lady Maud Dallington and Mrs. Dalton were ushered into Rayborne's little parlor.
The Lady Maud was a rather tall and undeniably beautiful girl, with a striking figure and manner, and a lively, dashing style. It was easy to see, even at a first glance, that she was one of the spoiled children of fortune; a woman born to fascinate and—to dominate. If she was proud in carriage, and her face haughty in expression, it must be remembered that she was the belle of her season, the pet of society, the goddess at whose feet many of the richest and noblest in the land were only too willing and anxious to lay their offerings in the shape of praise, flattery, and admiring adulation. Few women could receive such constant tributes to their beauty and not be spoiled by them; few in Lady Maud's position could have avoided being influenced for the worse, so far as regards those softer, more womanly traits that count for so much in the eyes of those who look beneath the surface, and are not dazzled by outward beauty and attractiveness alone.
To-day she looked more than usually captivating in a rich lavender gown that showed her figure to advantage, her face lighted up with a genuine flush of pleasure that subdued somewhat the imperious manner habitual to her. She came into Rayborne's dingy little parlor, like a vision of light in a whirlpool of rustles, and he could not but be impressed with the dazzling picture of beauty as she stood looking at him with a smile that was half-pleased, half-mocking. He had not seen her for four or five years, and he could not but acknowledge to himself that she had wonderfully improved even upon what she had been. And to say that was to say a great deal—as he well knew.
RAYBORNE went forward to welcome his cousin.
"Ah, Lady Maud," he began, extending his hand.
Suddenly he stopped short and looked at her in surprise; for her smile vanished and she drew herself up.
"'Lady Maud!'" she repeated. "And pray what does this mean, Mr. Charles Rayborne? Since when did you learn to call me 'Lady Maud?'"
But Mrs. Dalton came forward, and not only shook hands, but kissed him—as she had always been accustomed to.
"If you are going to quarrel, I shall be sorry I came," she said, good humouredly.
Rayborne had turned very red, and for once looked confused. Then, taking the hand of the offended beauty, he proceeded with a muffled sigh:
"I did not mean to seem cold, Cousin Maud, and believe me I think it exceedingly kind of you to pay me a visit here in these poor lodgings; but I have been so long out of the world in which you live so long sundered from the old life and my own relatives that I feel quite a stranger—"
"I don't think you ought to talk like that to me," interrupted Lady Maud. "If you are a stranger to me, it is entirely your own fault; because you do not come to see me. Had you wished to see me you knew where to find me. I've never given you the cold shoulder, bear in mind."
"No," he returned; "but of course I did not know that you—"
"Humph! Well you ought to have known, then; that's all I can say," was the reply, given with a petulant toss of the head.
"Why, yes, that is quite true," put in Mrs. Dalton. "I told him so myself a little time ago, when he came to Fairminster to see us."
"Yes; I remember, my kind friend," Rayborne acknowledged with a smile. "Well, if I seemed cold, or have done aught that has given offence, I have apologised. Am I not to be forgiven?"
"That depends," Lady Maud replied, still with an injured air, "upon your future behavior. Are you going to make friends with your uncle again? That's what I've come here to know."
"Don't 'really' me, please. Out with it. 'Yes' or 'No?'"
"Very good. Now perhaps I may forgive you—if you promise not to do it again. And now I'm going to look round this funny little place and see how you people live in this part of the world—the— what do you call it? the East-end, isn't it?"
"Well, no," he said; "you would hardly call this the East- end."
"But I've always heard that the East-end was a dreadful sort of place; and surely you can't have anything worse than this—than the part we have driven through just now?"
"I am sorry to say you are very sadly mistaken," replied Rayborne gravely. "Well would it be, indeed for all if there were no worse neighborhoods in London."
At this avowal Lady Maud looked surprised, almost incredulously so. The revelation evidently gave her ground for thought, for she remained silent, apparently trying to grasp so unexpected a discovery. Meantime Rayborne went on talking to Mrs. Dalton, asking many questions about their friends at Fairminster.
Presently Lady Maud, who had been occupied with an album of photographs she had picked up, suddenly looked up at the name of Ethel Verney.
"Miss Ethel Verney!" she repeated. "Eccentric, isn't she?"
Both Mrs. Dalton's and Rayborne's look showed surprise.
"You know her?" Rayborne asked.
"Oh, dear no. I've heard something about her; that's all."
"You've heard that she's 'eccentric'?" Rayborne asked again with a puzzled air.
"Well—yes. Or, at least that she is given to behaving somewhat strangely. Goes about 'slumming' and picks low people up out of the street and takes them home and makes friend of them, doesn't she? So I was told."
Rayborne looked at Mrs. Dalton and smiled; then said slowly:
"If it is 'eccentric' to have generous impulses to wish to do a little good in the world to one or two of her poorer and less fortunate fellow creatures—"
"Oh, yes! I know that's how you people talk about it; but I do not believe in it myself. When people go in for that kind of thing, they do it purposely to be thought goody or eccentric; different from other people."
"You think so; is that the kind of feeling that influences you in any charitable work you may engage in?" Rayborne asked.
"No; because I am not a hypocrite I don't pretend I am impelled by 'generous' motives, and so on. I just say what I think. If it's a question of giving money I give it to get rid of the people who come begging. If it is taking part in a bazaar I do it for the fun of the thing as others do. We go to see and be seen, just as we go to see opera—or to church on Sunday. That's true; and I am not hypocrite enough to talk a lot of nonsense about it."
Rayborne sighed. What argument could he use against so cynical an avowal? How make her understand the motives that prompted one like Ethel Verney?
Mrs. Dalton saw the pain in his face, and guessed, what was in his mind.
"You seem to be taking her words too seriously, Charles," she said. "But she is only laughing at you, I feel sure. It is the fashion in some quarters, you know, to talk in that way; and Maud follows it, as she follows all the other fashions. In other respects, she's the same Maud you used to know and play with as a child; her heart's in the right place."
Rayborne made no reply to this, and there was a pause, during which Lady Maud looked at him with an expression that was partly defiant, partly mocking, and perhaps partly angry. She did not like the quickness with which he had defended Ethel Verney, and his evident conviction of the worthiness of her motives.
"I did not know," he observed, at last, "that you knew anything about Miss Verney. How did you come to hear of her?"
"From Sir Edgar Archdale," was the reply. "She's engaged to him, is she not?"
"Engaged? No. That is," Rayborne broke off, flushing at the suggestion, "I never heard of it."
"But it's generally known," Lady Maud rejoined, while she watched him keenly. "If they are not actually, openly engaged, it is understood that they are going to be."
"Pray, did Sir Edgar tell you so?"
"And did he tell you the other, then? Did he speak in that way of the lady he hopes to marry— call her 'eccentric,' 'strange,' and so on?"
"Well, not exactly that," Lady Maud admitted. "That is what we inferred, you see. He probably wished to impress us by making us understand what a very good young lady he is going to marry."
"I believe," observed Mrs. Dalton, quietly, "that at present there is no engagement. I have not heard it spoken of. All the same, everyone knows where we are living, that Sir Edgar is a suitor for Miss Verney's hand; and, also, I think, that he is very strongly favored by Mr. Verney."
"But does that give him a right to go talking and boasting about it in other parts of the country, saying this and that about the lady, as though she were already promised to him?" Rayborne asked with some asperity.
Lady Maud burst into a laugh.
"Really, Cousin Charles," she sneered, "you seem wonderfully interested in the young lady. I will tell Sir Edgar what you say; and it will be a rebuke to him."
"I hope you won't do anything so foolish," Rayborne answered, flushing again. "Of course, I have no right to express an opinion. I only know them all slightly."
He was vexed with himself for having made himself a sort of champion of Miss Verney. He bit his lip and relapsed into silence. Lady Maud eyed him mischievously.
"How did you come to know her?" she asked, presently. "I think it is my tum to cross-examine now."
"Through James Dalton. She wanted to—to—"
Then he hesitated.
"Oh, I see," she rejoined, curtly. "She wanted to go 'slumming,' and you acted as her guide and cavalier. I wonder now, whether you would do as much for me. That would be a new amusement—a new sensation. Will you escort us—Mrs Dalton and myself—if we make an appointment?"
Rayborne shook his head, and replied, gravely:
"Cousin Maud, I shall, of course, be ready to do anything that would really interest you, or that might benefit any of my humble friends; but I don't feel disposed to take you round merely for, as you yourself have put it, your amusement—for a new sensation."
But Lady Maud refused to be rebuked. She looked saucily at Mrs Dalton, and said, with a pretended sigh:
"Ah! see how he snubs me. Evidently I am not a Miss Verney. Wait till I get him down in Yorkshire again. I shall know how to pay him out for this."
The pout and the toss of the head with which this terrible threat was delivered made Rayborne smile.
"I hope you won't be too hard on me," he said, good- humouredly. "Remember, I shall be quite at your mercy—a fish out of water."
The reference to Yorkshire turned the conversation into another channel, one in which there was less room for difference of opinion.
When, presently, the ladies left and drove back together. Lady Maud was very thoughtful, and scarcely, spoke.
"Poor Charles!" she said once. "He looks thin and worn! Yet he seems very earnest about his work!"
"He must be, or he would not keep to it," rejoined Mrs. Dalton. "I should think he could earn far more money in other ways, and live in a more health place."
"Yes," said Lady Maud, dreamily, "he almost upsets one's usual notions—almost makes me believe there is, here and there a person really in earnest about doing good. In fact, he has come very near to making me think that perhaps the world is not, after all, simply a mass of cant, hypocrisy and selfishness!"
SOME ten days later, Mrs. Dalton called again on Rayborne, bringing with her this time Ethel Verney. This visit was in fulfilment of the wish the latter had expressed to see something of the district and the people amongst whom Rayborne's work was carried on. Ethel's face, usually so pleasing in its sweet expression and the clear, steady glance of the large grey eyes, was to-day overcast by a shadow. She was silent and preoccupied, and most of the talking during the tea with which Rayborne entertained them had been between himself and Mrs. Dalton. Presently he ventured a remark upon her silence.
"I fear that you have some trouble on your mind; or that you are not well, Miss Verney."
She looked up at this, and for the moment the old bright smile came back; but it quickly faded.
"It is true," she said. "I feel worried about two things—my mother and Maggie. Mrs. Verney's health has been failing, I fear, for some time, and I am very anxious about her. I am afraid Dr. Vernon, who attends her, is anxious, too, that he thinks more seriously of her state of health than he will acknowledge. I gather this from many little things I have noticed."
"I am truly sorry to hear you say so, Miss Verney," returned Rayborne, gravely. "Mrs. Verney is a lady for whom I have a very great respect and liking. I earnestly hope you may be mistaken."
Ethel shook her head and the tears came into her eyes.
"I wish I could think so; but to my eyes there seems only too much evidence that she is growing weaker every day. About Maggie I am troubled, on account of her brother, She has not heard from him now, you know, for months."
"That is true; and, of course, we know the ship is overdue. Still, sailing vessels are opt to be delayed by contrary winds. The owners are not anxious about her yet—or so they say. I went there the other day to inquire."
"Poor Maggie!" sighed Ethel. "What a cruel blow it would be to her to lose her brother—her only relative! And she is so warm-hearted and sympathetic, so hardworking and persevering, and so touchingly grateful for any little kindness that is shown to her."
While she spoke, her face lighted up with such tenderness that Rayborne gazed at her for a few moments without speaking. He always liked to watch the changing expression on her face; sometimes so rich in maidenly beauty—sometimes so gentle and sympathetic.
"We must hope—and pray—for the best," he said, presently. "I sincerely trust it may turn out that you have been over-anxious on both these matters. We shall see Maggie this evening, I expect. To-night there is one of our occasional entertainments at our girls' club, and she promised to be there, if she could get away from her work in time."
"I shall be glad to see her, too," added Mrs. Dalton. "She is a good girl, and she deserves to get on."
Later, the three set out on their expedition. It was Saturday night, and the streets were crowded. The two ladies were very quietly dressed, and attracted little notice as they walked beside their conductor. He took them into many strange places and showed them many strange sights—sights that few would think could possibly exist in great, proud, wealthy, world-renowned London.
In one court they were rudely pushed against by an old woman. She uttered a fierce exclamation, and was about to pour forth a torrent of abuse, when she caught sight of Rayborne. At once she became civil.
"Beg pardon, Mr. Rayborne," she whined. "I did not see it was you, and I'm sorry I pushed against the ladies. They be friends of yours, sir?"
"Yes, Granny," Rayborne answered, mildly. "We have been making a few calls, and might have made one on you, only I see now that you are not at home."
"No, sir," the woman answered, rather wearily. "I be goin' to buy a bit for to-morrow. I've earned a little this week, thanks to your sendin' me on where you did; else I shouldn't a 'ad no dinner tomorrow."
"That's right, Granny; I am glad to hear you talk like that. Better spend it in a Sunday dinner than in drink, you know."
"Ah, yes," she returned; "but I can't always. The drink devil will get 'old of me sometimes. But I bin right now for a fortnit," she added, proudly.
Ethel took some money out of her purse, and put it quietly into her hand.
"Try still," she said, softly, "try still, try hard; and pray to God to help you; then you must succeed. Try—to please me."
And while she spoke she looked almost appealingly at the old creature.
Granny eyed her strangely.
"To please you, lady," she began; then stopped and stared.
"Well," said Ethel, with a smile, "why not?"
"Oh, it ain't that. You be kind and pleasant, an' it 'ud do me good to please ye; but who are you?"
And she stared harder than ever.
"A friend of mine, and one who may be a good friend to you, too, Granny, if you do as she asks you and keep from the drink," Rayborne interjected, cheerfully. "Now, good-night, Granny."
And he drew his companions away, for already a small crowd was collecting round them. The old woman stood still, staring after them till they had turned a corner.
"That," said Rayborne, gravely, "is old Granny Davis, who was once nurse to Mrs. Moore, Maggie's mother."
"I see; but why did she stare so?" Ethel asked.
"I suppose in her surprise at the way you spoke to her. Ladies sometimes give these poor creatures money, but they do not speak as you did."
"It is all very sad, so sad," said Ethel. "If I were to look out upon all this misery day after day, I should never have a moment's happiness. As it is, I shall think over it and grieve over it for many a day to come. But that old woman—'Granny,' as you call her—is the most strange of them all. Did you see the expression of her face? I suppose she knows Maggie?"
"To tell you the truth, Miss Verney," Rayborne answered, with reluctance, "I am sorry to say you cannot trust that old woman. I am trying to gain her over; but at present she is very much under the influence of the man Denning, who seems, as you know, to have such a spite against Maggie and her mother. When 'Granny' is sober she is fairly amenable; then Denning comes on the scene again, and, for some purpose of his own that I cannot understand, plies her with drink, and she goes to the bad again."
"What a wretch that man must be! How strange that he should behave so! You would not think he would take the trouble, even!"
"No; there is some mystery at the bottom of it. Perhaps one of these days I shall rake it out."
"I hope so, if it is anything likely to do poor Maggie any good," Ethel answered, "or if only you can end the man's enmity against her. You did well to tell the old woman that I might befriend her; that is, you meant, I suppose, provided she shunned the man Denning in the future?"
"Exactly, Miss Verney. Denning must, as you say, have some object, so I want to keep them apart. But he knows her weakness, and plays upon it."
"It's very kind of you to do all this in the hope that it will benefit Maggie," said Ethel, thoughtfully. "I had no idea that you had been taking so much thought and care about it; nor, I think, has she."
"Oh, that's nothing; it all comes within the scope of my daily work," Rayborne returned cheerfully. "And it is a genuine pleasure to me, too, to—to—" he hesitated, and then concluded, "to help in any of your work, or to assist anyone you take an interest in."
Ethel seemed, for a moment, as though about to make some reply, but checked herself; and in the pause that ensued Mrs. Dalton asked him when he was going down into Yorkshire.
"Next Wednesday week, Mrs. Dalton," he told her. "Someone is coming to take my place while I am away."
"Your cousin Lady Maud came the other day to gain your promise to go, I hear," observed Ethel.
"Yes; but I had already made up my mind."
"Mrs. Dalton tells me she asked you to take her round with you, as you have us to-night, and that you wouldn't," Ethel went on. "Why was that?"
"I can scarcely tell you," he replied, and hesitated. "I didn't exactly refuse; but, somehow— well, I don't think she really meant it, you know. And she said some things about it that very much displeased me. I feel sure we should never be in real sympathy together in matters of this kind. However, here we are at our little club."
THE "club" was housed in what had once been school buildings of the kind formerly known as "National." Since the establishment of the School Board and the erection by them of larger Board schools for the district, these National school houses had been abandoned, and had from time to time been occupied in many different ways, having been by turns a Baptist Mission House, a printing works, a sort of assembly rooms for a teacher of dancing, a meeting house for the sect known as the "Plymouth Brethren," and now finally as a club-house of one of the Church of England missions, or "Settlements," as they are sometimes called.
Upon passing through the outer passage, the two visitors found themselves in a large room, wherein were a number of girls and young women, mostly of ages varying from fourteen to twenty-five, though one or two older might be seen here and there. At one end was a roomy platform, raised two feet or so from the ground, and upon this stood a piano and a few chairs. At the opposite end of the room was a small bar, very prettily curtained off, and enlivened with flags and other decorations; here light refreshments ware served out gratis during the evening. The walls of the room and gas brackets that hung from the ceiling also rejoiced in flags, wreaths, festoons of colored paper in various designs, and like ornamentation.
There were also a number of young men, respectably dressed, who stood for the most part in groups near the doorway or out in the passages; all the seats round the body of the room being occupied by the girls. Several ladies were seated on the platform; one, apparently about sixty years of age, was well- known for the interest she took in the work of the mission, and frequently, as to-night, attended the meetings of the club. Sometimes she was accompanied by her brother, the Bishop of—, when the latter happened to be up in town; but tonight she had with her only two younger ladies. Now and then, between the dances or other entertainments, she would get down from the platform and go round amongst the girls, to whom she was evidently well-known, shaking hands with one after the other, saying something pleasant or encouraging to each in turn.
To these ladies Rayborne introduced his visitors, and seated them beside them, while he left for a short conference with the M.C. of the evening. In a few moments he came back. "They want someone to play a waltz," he said to Ethel. "Do you feel equal to the task, or shall I?"
"Really, I think I would rather look on, Mr. Rayborne, if you won't think it—"
"All right." He laughed at her hesitation. "You feel a little strange here at first, no doubt; but you will not after you have been here a little while. One strong point here is that our meetings should be as free and easy as is compatible with good behaviour."
And with this he went to the piano and began a waltz. A minute later the floor was crowded with couples, blissfully revolving to the music.
Ethel sat watching the scene, not only with wonder, but with admiration, for on all sides were to be seen none but happy- looking faces. Cheerfulness and decorum, without undue constraint, seemed to be everywhere the rule, and the surprise depicted upon her face drew some smiling comments from the old lady at her side.
"You expected to see a very dull, uninteresting assemblage, I suppose?" she said.
"Well, yes, I suppose I did," returned Ethel, slowly.
"We believe in making them cheerful; that is the way to gain over such people as live in these crowded parts."
And, indeed, Ethel could but notice throughout the evening that cheerfulness was the conspicuous feature on all sides. When the dancing ceased Rayborne came over and sat down.
"I did not know you could play, Mr. Rayborne," she observed.
"Oh, well enough to amuse them; that's all we want here, you know," he returned. "Now we shall have a song, then a recitation, and after that another dance."
He went away to another conference with the M.C., but came back almost immediately.
"I am sorry to say our entertainers do not seem to be very punctual tonight. I shall have to do the song, too, unless you will play or sing something for them. Will you not?"
But Ethel being still disinclined, he resumed:
"Well, I suppose it is hardly fair to call on fresh visitors at such short notice. They want time to get used to the place. Only I wonder whom I can get to accompany me?"
But, after a dive down from the platform, he returned, leading a rather bashful looking young damsel, who had, it appeared, accompanied the song before.
It was a humorous song, with a good chorus, in which he insisted that all should join. Not a music hall song of the day, but that somewhat rare commodity, an amusing song that was free from vulgarity, and yet in no wise commonplace. At its close, Ethel found herself laughing heartily, in common, indeed, with all the rest of the audience.
"You surprise me more and more," she said, when Rayborne had returned to her side. "I did not know you were a singer."
"If you call that singing, I suppose I must confess to it. But I want to go in and have a look at the boys. They have no 'treat' on tonight, you see, and it is rather hard on them. They can hear the songs and music in the distance, but cannot join in. They have their 'treats' separately; they are too young for this. Let us pay them a visit and see whether we can do something to amuse them. They are going to have the Caledonians here, and I have found someone to play for them. I do not see your protegée Maggie here yet. But I dare say she will not be long."
And with that he led the way through the groups who were now taking their places for the "round dance."
Turning out of the passage and passing across a yard, they came to the boys' side, and entered a large outer room in which many boys were engaged in quiet games such as bagatelle, draughts, and similar amusements. Only the younger members were here to-night, youths over a certain age being allowed to join in the dancing on the other side. A few had crossed the yard and crowded round the door-way to listen to Rayborne's song, for they had recognised his voice at once. No sooner, therefore, had they emerged from the passage than they were surrounded by a ring of boys two or three deep reaching out their arms to shake hands.
"Good evening, sir." "Good evening, ma'am." "Good evening, miss," came on all sides as the boys pressed round eagerly, but with perfect good behaviour, holding out their hands. Evidently, they were used to shake hands even with strangers. It never occurred to them, indeed, that anyone would expect them to do otherwise. All were clean, with well-brushed hair, and neat, if shabby, clothes. And all showed themselves genuinely delighted to see their visitors. Rayborne himself was plainly a great favourite.
"They are a bit spoiled, you see," he said, with a kindly smile at their eagerness to welcome them. "We always shake hands with them, and they get to expect it—all round."
When the party crossed the yard, other groups came out, attracted by the voices, and others, inside, in turn, hurried to the doorway when they heard: "It is Mr. Rayborne! Mr. Rayborne is coming!" shouted by those at the door. The consequence was that when the three visitors arrived inside the first room they were surrounded by a crowd of 20 or 30 boys, three and four deep, each reaching out his hand.
To Ethel, it was all not only amusing, but, as she afterwards declared, "delightful."
"They all looked so bright, and pleased, and eager," she said. "It was wonderful—so clean-looking, too! And these are the common, mischievous, rude, dirty, unlovely boys of the streets and gutters!"
"Yes, that is so," Rayborne told her, with a sigh. "But they are so few amongst the thousands that loaf about of an evening and get into mischief in the London streets."
In a large inner room a young fellow was seated at a desk, with a group of boys around him from whom he was taking pence and entering the amounts in a book. So absorbed was he in his occupation that for a minute or two he did not notice the advent of the visitors.
Ethel, looking on with strong interest, noticed the kindly glances he gave the boys about him from time to time, and the bright, almost affectionate looks they gave in return. It was clear enough that they were all on the very best of terms with one another.
"That," observed Rayborne, in a low tone to Ethel, "is young Lord M—, son of the Earl of P—. He is our present secretary of the boys' club. He has taken to the work with zest, and is a great favourite. Yet he has not been in it long, for he only left Oxford a few months ago."
Then they went up to the desk, and were soon engaged in a talk that deeply interested the two ladies—Ethel especially. Lord M—, pleased to have attentive listeners, explained at length the working and management of the club.
But the talk was presently interrupted by Rayborne, who, after an apology to the three, had consented to yield to the vociferous requests of the youngsters for a song. And soon they were all shouting out the chorus of another amusing song, which had perforce to be rendered this time without accompaniment.
"I'm afraid you've been nearly deafened, ladies," he laughed, as he led them back to the girls' building. "But, you see, it's rather dull for these youngsters; they can hear what is going on on the other side, and yet cannot join in it. So I thought it would please them and cheer them up a little to have a song 'all to themselves.'"
When Rayborne conducted his guests back to the room where the elder members were, Maggie came forward to greet them, and, accompanying them on to the platform, sat down at Ethel's side while they listened to a well-delivered and very pathetic recitation, followed, by special request, by a comic one.
The ripples of laughter that followed had not yet subsided when there entered the rector of the parish and one of his curates. The former was, in fact, the principal of the "settlement" or mission; he had come in for a few minutes to look round. The two glanced about with a smile, and, passing up to the platform, engaged in a few moments' quiet conversation with Rayborne and one or two others, and then as quietly departed.
What struck Ethel particularly was that their entrance produced no visible effect upon the assemblage. The conversation went on as before, and little bursts of laughter were heard here and there from the younger girls; there was no sudden hush, or feeling of restraint, as is often noticeable on like occasions.
Presently she turned to Maggie, and spoke to her of her fears concerning Mrs. Verney's state of health.
"I want to know, Maggie," she said, "whether, if I could get Mr. and Mrs. Verney's consent, you would come down and help me in the nursing. My old nurse, Mrs. White, is herself now almost a confirmed invalid from chronic rheumatism, so can give but little help. Would you, therefore, come to assist me if Mrs. Verney does not get better, and if I send to ask you?"
"Would I come—why, how can you ask such a question, Miss Ethel? I would come gladly, indeed, and feel only too proud that you should think so well of me as to believe I should be of use."
"Ah, yes; your willingness I never doubted," said Ethel, kindly, "What I want you to consider is whether you could, or, rather, whether you ought to. Would it not be throwing away a position you have worked very hard to get, and one that it might he very difficult to win again if you once gave it up?"
"I might have some trouble at first, no doubt. But what is that, if you think I can really be of any help to you or to Mrs. Verney, in face of all your kindness to me? O, Miss Ethel, if you think I can, do please make use of me!"
Her face lighted up as she proceeded till at last it bore a look of pleading that showed her whole heart was in what she said.
"Well we shall see. God grant it may not be necessary, Maggie. But, should it be so, I will send for you."
"And be sure I shall be ready to come to you, Miss Ethel. Any time at a fortnight's notice."
Shortly afterwards they left, Rayborne accompanying them to see them safely into a cab. Before, however, they could find one, they had to traverse several of the streets, dark, squalid, and evil-smelling, and a part of a broad thoroughfare near by. This was crowded by people on the pavements and costermongers in the roadway, the stalls of the latter, at which almost everything under the sun appeared to be on sale, lighted up with flaring, odorous naphtha lamps. Here they were jostled by all sorts and conditions of people, all poor and shabby, many more or less the worse for drink. They passed several garish ginshops and public- houses, which were crammed almost to suffocation with young and old of both sexes, as could be seen through the doors, tonight wide open. A drunken woman reeled against them and then fell prone into the gutter, and immediately after a bevy of young girls, arm-in-arm, and without hats or shawls, came along singing uproariously the chorus of some music-hall song of the day. Behind them came two more, and with them two young fellows wearing the girls' hats, while the girls, in turn, wore the youths' "wideawakes." These stopped now and then to accompany the song they were shouting out with a dance on the pavement. The dance or jig roused two women, one of whom had a baby in her arms, to imitation; and Rayborne and those with him had much ado to struggle along so as to avoid collisions with the singers and dancers who monopolised the pavement. All the time the sellers at the barrows and stalls were shouting out their wares and the prices in hoarse, rasping voices with all the strength of their lungs. Near at hand a strident piano-organ was grinding out its jerky music, a man in coal-waggon was ringing an enormous bell, and a street musician at the door of tavern was playing on a cornet. Amongst them all were many ragged children of all ages, and babies in arms.
"Great heavens!" Ethel exclaimed, her eyes wide open with horror. "What a terrible place! What a contrast to what we have just left. What an oasis that seems in this awful desert of poverty and ruffianism."
"Yes," Rayborne answered, with a sigh. "I often think it is like coming out of a little earthly paradise into pandemonium. We want, not one such institution as our little club, but thousands of them, to contend with the misery and wretchedness of the London poor."
CHARLES RAYBORNE set out on his visit to his uncle in anything but cheerful spirits. The meeting would be, he knew, a trying one; and he almost dreaded it. It could not do otherwise than bring back old memories of a kind far from pleasant, and might re-open old wounds and cause them to bleed afresh with all the pain and suffering that had accompanied their first infliction. Again and again he asked himself the questions—was it wise to risk all this? Was it really acting for the best? So far as he himself was concerned, he thought scarcely; for he and his uncle were of such different natures that they were never likely to agree. But then there was his Cousin George. He wished it—seemed to have set his heart upon it—so how could he refuse?
Then there were at least two other circumstances that went to sadden him. Mrs. Verney had become so much worse that Ethel had sent for Maggie, and the latter was going down to Ravenscourt as soon as her week's notice to her employers had expired. Finally, the owners of the Silver Cloud were giving up hope, and it was feared that the ship had been lost, and all on board had perished. To poor Maggie this was heartbreaking news, and she all but broke down under it. It was, perhaps, as well for her that her services were just at the time required to assist and comfort her one great friend in her distress. It gave Maggie something with which to occupy her mind, for she bravely resolved that Miss Ethel should not find her selfish in her grief, however great might be the effort to keep up.
While he sat in the train on his way down into Yorkshire, Rayborne revolved these several matters in his mind; and in and out amongst them all ran the haunting thought, "Was Ethel Verney really going to be married to Sir Edgar Archdale?"
The thought was a continual torment to him. It intruded itself at all times; had interfered, in spite of his resolution, with his work; it thrust itself forward now upon his so-called holiday—for he could scarcely regard it as a holiday to go down to his uncle's in his present state of mind.
Altogether, by the time he arrived at his journey's end, he found himself heartily wishing he had never started.
Why not, he asked himself, have gone down to Fairminster to stay for a week or two with James Dalton and his mother? Then he would have been near Ethel, and might even have been of some use to her and Mrs. Verney.
However, it was too late to turn back, and he must go through with what he had begun.
When the train moved into the station at Winterton, he looked out and saw, with no small surprise, both his cousins on the platform—Lady Maud and his cousin George. The carriage he was in stopped almost opposite to them, and they came forward to greet him.
George Rayborne, only son of Sir Henry Rayborne, and heir to the title and to some £20,000 a year, was a tall, rather slim- built young follow of about the same ago as Charles. He had a fine figure, and intellectual expression. In manner he was refined and polished almost to effeminacy, and, indeed, he was inclined more to the life of a student than to what are termed manly sports. It was easy to see, in fact, that his frame, though well-shaped, was far from strong, that he was of delicate organisation. In character he was good-tempered and generous, but too much inclined to be poetic and dreamy to please his father. People said he ought to have "gone in" for the church, and that indeed would have best accorded with his own bent and wishes; but there Sir Henry had "put his foot down," and peremptorily forbidden it. And George had quietly acquiesced out of filial affection; he did not wish to go against his father's wishes, especially now that his mother was dead. Had she lived, she might have assisted to overcome Sir Henry's prejudices.
He welcomed Charles with a smile and manner that had in them a peculiar, quiet grace; then Maud, who had already shaken hands, exclaimed:
"Welcome back, O prodigal son—I mean cousin—to the home of your uncles and cousins and aunts. See! I have come myself to meet you, and have brought my new ponies—latest, very latest present—to drive you home, that we may do honor to the occasion."
"Nay, there's nothing of the prodigal about Charles," said George, "so your oration loses half its force. But we can welcome him back to his old home just as heartily."
When, after a short chat, they moved out of the little station, Charles found awaiting them outside two vehicles. One was a very smart phaeton with a pair of handsome, powerful, dark chestnut horses; the other a dogcart, with a quiet-looking bay cob.
"Now, these are my new ponies," Lady Maud exclaimed; "they're rascals to go; and that's George's slow-going old dogcart. Will you get up with me, or with him? I can't offer to take you both with me, because George is afraid; he says my ponies aren't safe. Which do you choose?"
In this dilemma, Charles glanced at George for counsel. It seemed difficult to choose without, perhaps, seeming to slight one or the other.
"Oh, go with her if you're not afraid of risking your neck," George advised him, laughing. "Since she has come over on purpose, it would be ungracious to refuse. We will bring your traps. There'll be more room now in the dogcart."
"You can drive if you like," said Lady Maud, graciously. "It'll be a little treat for you; that is, of course, if you think you can manage them."
Charles smiled, and, having helped her up, followed, the groom let the heads of the two prancing animals go, and the next moment they dashed away.
They gave some trouble at first, but presently settled down into a rattling trot. Swiftly they tore down the station approach, along the high road, and over the moor. In but a few minutes more they were dashing past the vicarage, so well known to Charles in former days, then through the village street, where people raised their hats and stopped and stared after them, a few recognising him with a glad smile. Every house, every landmark was known to him and brought up strange memories, as they came rapidly one after the other into view, and as quickly disappeared behind them. Past the village and its green, out on to the moor again, and then, after two miles more, through the park gates, which were standing open to receive them. On still, up the long drive, till the mansion came in sight; and finally the pair came round with a sweep and stopped at the front door; and Charles, looking down, said, with a smile:
It had been a favorite habit of his father's—as he knew she would be sure to recollect—in drawing up at a given place, or passing another vehicle on the road, to allow himself but "one inch," and to draw attention to the fact by that curt expression.
Lady Maud laughed and clapped her hands.
"I remember," she exclaimed. "It was just splendid! I wish George had been here to see. I wonder where he and that old tortoise of his have got to?"
During the drive, very little had been said, for the wind in their faces, and the pace at which they had travelled, had rendered conversation almost impossible.
Old Banks, the butler, was at the door when they drove up. He had known Charles in his younger days, and now welcomed him respectfully, but cordially.
"I hope you aren't going to leave us again now, sir," he said, and then added: "I was to say as Sir Henry would be glad to see you in the library."
"I'd better go in, I suppose," Charles said to Lady Maud. "Are you going to remain?"
"Yes, I am staying to dinner, by special invitation. Jones will take the ponies home, and come to fetch me in the evening with the carriage."
"I think George is right about those 'ponies,' as you call them. They are not fitted for a lady's driving. Who gave them to you?"
"The Marquis, of Grandmoor. He is one of my admirers, you know," Lady Maud, replied, with a demure air.
"I think you had better send them back—or exchange them," Charles finally decided. "Now I must go in to get my first interview with Sir Henry over."
"She gave a gay little laugh.
"Poor fellow," she said, "how I feel for you—having to go and face the ogre in his den! However, you know, it's only the first plunge," and it had to be taken. So he walked off to the library with as resolute an air as he could call up.
The interview was not a pleasant one for him; but that he had expected. The curious part was that it was not at all what he had anticipated, and was unpleasant in quite a different way.
Sir Henry, an elderly man, still of good figure and physique, but with red face, and pompous, dictatorial manner, received him with an air that was strangely reserved and self-contained. There was no self-important bluster, no disagreeable allusions to the past. There was nothing Charles could "take hold of" or resent in any way; yet the interview left, on the whole, a disagreeable imprint on him. Summed up, it amounted to something like this:
"Glad to see you; hope we shall be good friends in the future. Whether you are or not will rest with yourself. Make yourself at home while you are here. There are the horses and carriages at your disposal, and the guns and keepers. There is a little grouse to be had—not much. In a fortnight there will be plenty of partridges.
"By the way, I saw you driving up with Maud. She hopes to see a good deal of you, and the more you drive out with her or take her out in any way the better I shall be pleased. Lord Dallington is coming over to-morrow specially to meet you and invite you over there. You have your chance now. See that you do not lose it."
These last observations gave Charles a good deal of thought, while he walked away in search of George; and the more he pondered over them the less he relished them. For, though he liked his Cousin Maud well enough as a cousin, or as a sister, he felt he had no feeling of any more tender description towards her, and never could have.
Besides, he knew, or used to know, that his Cousin George was fond of her, and it had been understood that Sir Henry had set his heart upon their being married. What meant, then, this curious change?
"Perhaps there is a coolness between the two—Maud and George; and Sir Henry proposes I shall—No; I can't see how that could be. I confess I cannot understand it!"
So ran his thoughts. He could not escape the feeling that he had been invited down by Sir George to be made use of in some way; and the idea left a disagreeable impression on his mind.
But when he met George and saw the frank, honest expression in his eyes, he decided that, whatever Sir Henry's idea or plan might be, his cousin did not share in it.
"Got it over?" George whispered, kindly. "Did it go all right? No little 'tiff' or nasty references, eh? That's all right. The gov'nor promised me he wouldn't; but I felt a bit anxious. He's so very peppery at times. Now come with me, and I will show you your room!"
At dinner that evening Charles noticed that he was placed between Lady Maud and Sir Henry. The former was in particularly high spirits, while Sir Henry was unusually gracious and good- humored.
THE next morning Charles was invited by George Rayborne to go for a stroll with him into the village—a proposal he willingly accepted. On their way there they met many servants, laborers, keepers, and others about the estate, and several farmers and country people, to whom Charles was known; and all expressed unfeigned pleasure at seeing him back "in his rightful place," as not a few chose to phrase it.
Everywhere, too, George Rayborne was received with demonstrations, not of respect merely, but of something that approached affection. Yet he spoke but little to those they met, never deviating from his habitual reserve. But, presently, he began to talk confidentially to Charles.
"I want to show you," he said, "what I've been doing here. It is not very much, I am sorry to say; the scope is limited. Or perhaps I am not working on the proper lines. I dare say you will be able to give me a few hints. You are in the midst of poverty in town, and on a much larger scale. And I am handicapped; I have to keep what I am doing as much as possible from the guv'nor. He fires up so when he hears anything about it; calls me a nincompoop and an imitation parson; talks about his regret at having a son with no manly spirit, and no ideas above a school teacher's. So I have to manage in rather a curious way; I get other people to work for me, and pretend to raise necessary funds amongst the residents around. Between ourselves, I am sorry to say they have given precious little, all told; but I make up whatever is wanted."
Presently it turned out, on explanation, that George was doing or attempting to do, almost single-handed, what the mission Charles was connected with was doing amongst the poor of London.
He had established evening schools, clubs, and even almshouses, and was contemplating a still more ambitious step in the shape of something resembling a polytechnic institution on a small scale.
"Only," he said, a little ruefully, "the population is so small, there does not seem much show for it all. However, we shall have a new line of railway here soon. There will be a junction, and two or three large factories are to be erected that will employ, it is said, two or three thousand hands. Then all these places will not only be well filled, but will be too small. We shall have to extend them; and it is upon that point, as well as others, that I want your advice."
Great was Charles' astonishment when he came to see the works that his cousin had so modestly referred to. He found them the most complete he had ever seen or even heard of; and he saw in the planning and the carrying out of the conceptions of the originator evidence of a skill, a thoughtfulness, a foresight for which he was utterly unprepared. They met the vicar, Mr. Selwood—the one who had succeeded Mr. Dalton—and he accompanied them over some of the buildings. He was a kindly, honest-hearted old gentleman, Charles found, and showed great interest in the work. It was curious, however, in face of the part he now knew his cousin had played in it, to hear the latter always refer to it, in speaking to the vicar as "your" school, "your" club, and so on. Never did he say "mine," or even "ours," and the vicar, on his side, followed suit.
George left them together for a while, and then, when Mr. Selwood discovered who Charles was, and the nature of his work in London, he said, with a little sigh:
"It's all his doings, sir, your cousin's. He plans everything, and finds nine-tenths of the money; but on the quiet. We are pledged to pretend it's all done by the subscriptions of the gentry round. But it would be a very different affair if those subscriptions were all we had to work with. And Sir Henry is so against it all, and would make Mr. George's life so unpleasant if he knew. There are only two or three of us in the secret; but I may tell you the facts in confidence—I can see I am doing no harm in that."
"He told me as much himself," Charles said. "And to think that he has been quietly doing so much all this time! Even I had no idea of it."
"And wouldn't have had now, I fancy, only that he wishes for your advice, without asking for it before Sir Henry. Ah! You cannot guess at the good that young man has done in this neighborhood; and scarcely anyone knows it is his work. But somehow the poor people themselves guess at it. They don't say anything, because they see he does not wish it. But they know. Their instincts tell them. They know enough of the gentry round here to be sure that the money can't possibly come from them. Yet," he continued, raising his hands with a deprecatory air, "when the other 'subscribers' bring visitors here to show the results, they quietly accept all the praise. The assurance with which they assume the credit of it all when at times we have had any kind of public function! Whether they really believe that the poor little mites they give effect it all, heaven only knows, Mr. Rayborne!"
Very thoughtful and silent was Charles Rayborne while he walked back with his cousin, turning over in his mind this unexpected revelation. He had liked him—nay, loved him—before; but now his feeling was strengthened by frank admiration. And he could not but see that by thwarting his son's desire to take Holy Orders Sir Henry had deprived the Church of the services of a man who would have been one of the most zealous, honest, sympathetic workers. Instead, he was, in effect an idle man, disinclined for the ordinary pursuits and amusements of country life, and, therefore, without any occupation to call forth the talents and ability with which he was undoubtedly endowed.
When they got back to the court they found Lady Maud waiting for them, and the "ponies" standing at the door. It was clear at a glance that the lady was out of temper.
"I have come here expressly at papa's request," she said, "to invite you both to luncheon, since, he is sorry to say, he cannot come to dinner this evening. And I've been waiting about all the morning for you. No one knew where you had gone to."
"I am very sorry—" Charles began.
"Will you come?—that is the question," she interrupted, with impatience. "Because, if not, I must return at once alone. There is only just time to do it; and then the 'ponies' must do their best."
"Certainly I will come," said Rayborne, good-temperedly; "and—George?"
"You go, Charley," he urged. "I have some letters to write. I'll explain to the guv'nor."
So Charles handed Lady Maud up, and on her indicating by a gesture, that she wished him to drive, he took the reins.
"Where have you two been?" the young lady inquired, snappishly, when they were out in the open road.
"Only for a stroll round the village."
"Oh, yes; I know. You've been poking about the village club, and amongst the old women in the almshouses," she answered, fretfully. "George has no eyes nor ears; no thought in life hardly but for his 'model club,' and 'model school,' and the rest of it. Meantime I'm kept waiting about by the hour together!"
"Cousin Maud, that is not fair of you. We had no idea that you were coming."
"So far as George is concerned, it would have been all the same if you had," was the ungracious answer. "And you were not much better up in town. You refused to take me out with you when I asked you; yet a few days later you were quite ready to escort Miss Verney—Mrs. Dalton told me so in a letter I had from her this morning. Really, it's time you two—you and Cousin George—showed a little less attention to a lot of worthless people—who, if they are poor are probably so only because they are idle or dissolute or thriftless—and a little more courtesy and consideration to those whose only fault is that they are sufficiently well off not to require your help—or are your own relations."
To this speech Charles made no reply. But he bit his lip, and looked away up the road in front of them, his thoughts went back to Ethel Verney and her sweet sympathetic speech and manner, and he could not help comparing them with this outburst of bad temper.
As they swept round a curve in the drive in Dallington Park they almost ran over a pedestrian who was walking in the roadway. When they dashed past he looked up, and Rayborne recognised, with a start, Sir Edgar Archdale. But if he himself was surprised, Sir Edgar's look of astonishment was almost ludicrous to see. He seemed for the moment as if he could only stare; he forgot even to raise his hat until the carriage had nearly turned the corner and was out of sight.
"Oh, there's Sir Edgar," Lady Maud had said, in a low tone to Charles. "Don't stop. What a bore! Who would have thought of his coming here to-day! Now, of course, he'll stay to lunch. If we'd been here sooner, we should have nearly finished by now."
Evidently she was in an ill humor, and Charles heartily wished he had stayed to spend the day with George, especially since he was now to have Archdale's company. He had always felt an instinctive aversion to the baronet, apart even from the fact that the latter had treated him somewhat superciliously—the fact being that Sir Edgar's loud-voiced talk and rough speech, blunt often to the point of rudeness, jarred unpleasantly against Rayborne's more delicate notions of behaviour.
He was welcomed kindly by Lord Dallington; but the luncheon was a very dull affair. Lady Maud's ill humor was increased, and Sir Edgar's openly expressed surprise at meeting Rayborne was embarrassing and almost rude. Not, however, that the baronet meant this, to do him justice. Instead; he had concluded that it would be as well in future to treat Rayborne with more politeness, and this he was conscientiously endeavoring to do—according to his lights.
After the meal, Lady Maud went to her room, complaining that she had a headache, and Rayborne returned to the Court on foot, declining his host's offer to send him in a dogcart.
In this manner, more or less, nearly three weeks were passed. Sometimes Charles accompanied George in a long ride and calls on some of their neighbors, and occasionally Lady Maud went with them. Charles declined to go out shooting; and he and George spent much time together discussing the latter's plans for a "model village." Once or twice Sir Edgar came and stayed to lunch or dinner; but they saw little of him. He informed Rayborne that Mrs. Verney was seriously ill, and daily growing weaker; whereupon Rayborne wrote to Miss Verney to express his sympathy and regret. Much of the time he spent rambling about alone amongst the scenes and places familiar to him in his boyhood, lost in a daydream of the old time.
Lady Maud's behaviour constantly perplexed and often pained him. She was good-humored and cordial at one time; at another ill-tempered and quarrel-some to a degree that tried his usual placid temperament.
One day, at breakfast, Sir Henry invited him to come to his study for a short talk, and Charles felt rather than observed that George shot a meaning glance at him when he heard the invitation. That and some instinct warned him that a sort of crisis was at hand; and he wondered what it would turn out to be. But, though he had in his mind hazy ideas of his uncle's views, he was entirely unprepared for what was actually to come; and was utterly astounded when it did.
It amounted to this: It had long been a cherished wish, both of his and Lord Dallington's, that George should marry Lady Maud. The properties joined, and would then form one immense estate. They were both only children, had been brought up almost together, and to both parents the scheme presented itself us a consummation much to be desired. Unfortunately, it was thwarted by the persons most concerned. For some reason or other, they had resisted alike entreaties, coaxings, and threats, until at last the two parents had been compelled to admit the unpleasant fact, as year after year went by, that there was no probability that the two would alter their minds. During this time George had never ceased to urge his father to 'do something' for Charles, and, as a preliminary, to take him back into favor and to invite him down to his old home. Then the idea arose in Sir Henry's mind—why should not Charles marry Lady Maud, since George would not? He talked it over with Lord Dallington, and they both agreed that it would be the next best arrangement to that originally proposed.
"Moreover," said his Lordship, "I believe Maud likes him—always has. I think no opposition is to be feared from her."
"Well, then," Sir Henry rejoined, "the thing is as good as settled, for there can't be any objection from Charles. He has not a penny in the world, and must by this time have had enough of starving in London. I'll give him £5000 a year."
"And I'll give Maud the same; and she has £2000 a year of her own," Lord Dallington put in.
"That will be £12,000 a year for the young couple to start with, and no penniless young fellow will ever refuse that!" Sir Henry wound up.
But when it was laid before Charles he did refuse, and that absolutely. It took him some moments to recover from his astonishment when Sir Henry explained it fully to him; but his surprise was nothing to the baronet's bewilderment at his point- blank refusal.
When he recovered from the first shock, he tried argument and persuasion, but all alike in vain, and finally he flew into a towering rage.
"If," he blustered, "you will not do what I ask to please me, I will do nothing for you. You can go back to the life you have been leading—and the devil go with you! Not a penny of my money shall you ever have; either now or when I am dead."
"I never came here, uncle," Charles replied, sadly and quietly, "with any intention of abandoning my present occupation, and I do not, therefore, 'go back' to it. I simply continue it; I have never left it. I came here without expectations, and leave without disappointment—I cannot say without regret, for it has been a great pleasure to me to wander amidst the old scenes once more, and I am sorry I cannot look forward to another visit in the future. That is all. I thank you for your hospitality; and I return, carrying with me my own self-respect. I certainly should not have it if I sold myself for £12,000 a year, whatever Maud might think about it. And we haven't asked her opinion yet."
"I tell you I know, I am sure of her, you young fool."
"My mind is made up," Charles answered coldly. "Please let the matter end. For her sake I shall never speak of it."
"Then there is no longer any necessity for your presence here."
"I will relieve you of it tomorrow, sir."
And, with that and a slight bow, Charles left the room, fearful if he stayed on, that something still more painful might occur.
Naturally he sought out George, and told him a part of what had taken place. But the latter evidently knew or surmised the rest; so in the end he told him all. George listened to it quietly, and then said, sadly:
"I am sorry, Charles. It separates us once more, and leaves things just where they were. You are in the same unhappy position—"
"Not unhappy, at all, dear boy. Because one is poor one is not necessarily unhappy. I keep my self-respect. That is better than the feeling that one has sold oneself for a mess of pottage."
"True; but still, it leaves things where they were, and I have failed. Do you really think you have acted for the best—actually made up your mind? Might not further consideration—"
"No; it's no use talking."
"But," urged George, "consider! If you are fond of Maud, and she is fond of you—and you always were fond of one another as children—is it selling yourself, as you term it, to marry her, merely because she has a fortune? Would you refuse if there were no money in the case?"
"Why, of course, my dear George. You don't understand. I do not care for Maud in that way. I like her—even love her, if you will—as a sister. That's all."
"I see. Poor Maud!"
George said this absently, as though to himself, and unaware that he was uttering it aloud. The other looked at him in surprise.
"Charles," he continued, impressively, "I will tell you in strict confidence the whole truth. I have loved Maud passionately all my life, and I shall never love another, and—"
"And yet you want to marry her to me!" Charles burst out, in astonishment.
"Wait! Yes; I would marry her to you—or to anyone that I thought would really make her happy. She does not love me—except in the way, it appears, that you love her. That is why we never married; why I never shall. And I thought—I did think—that you two would be happy together. Therefore, I fell in, in a measure, with what I knew to be my father's latest plan about her. I am half-sorry now that I did so; it has brought us further pain, and done no good—except," he added, with a bright smile, "that I enjoyed having you here with me."
"And I have enjoyed it, too, George; more than I can tell," Charles responded, with emotion.
"I will come up to town sometimes to see you."
"That is good news indeed!"
"When do you go?"
George nodded his head slowly.
"Yes," he said, "it is best so."
"And now," Charles finished, "I suppose I had better go across to Dallington to say 'Good-bye.'"
But when he got there he found that both Lord Dallington and his daughter were out and not expected back till late at night. So he left a brief note, saying he was going away unexpectedly, and expressing a hope that they would meet again ere long in London. The next morning he set out by an early train, and so ended his visit to Rayborne Court.
When Lady Maud received his note, she shut herself up and sulked for a week. Then she had the "ponies" out and went driving with Sir Edgar, the latter handling the reins. But he found his companion so unsociable and so caustic in some of her replies that he lost his temper and visited his ill-humor upon the "ponies," with the result that they bolted and eventually threw them both out and then smashed up the phaeton. Sir Edgar had an arm broken, and his head cut open, and Lady Maud was confined to her room—in good faith this time—with a sprained ankle. When she recovered she acted upon Charles Rayborne's advice and returned the "ponies" to their donor.
MRS. VERNEY grew gradually weaker and weaker, and it became daily more evident to the watchers that her days on earth were numbered. Ethel's bitter grief grew almost more than she could bear when she saw the day slowly but surely approaching on which she knew she would look for the last time upon the face she so much loved.
It was the first great sorrow of her young life, and it came as a bewildering and terrible shock. It was like the reversing and upsetting of all her previous experience of life—like the sudden yawning of a deep abyss beneath her feet, when all had appeared solid ground.
Nor was Maggie less deeply moved; but her love for those who had been so kind to her led her to think of aiding and consoling them before yielding to her own emotions. Her own grief, too, disposed her to even greater sympathy, for the griefs and sorrows of others.
Mrs. Dalton was a frequent visitor in Mrs. Verney's room, and her presence was always welcome and comforting to Ethel. The sympathetic vicar, too, Mr. Meadows, who had known Ethel all her life, was constantly by the bedside, administering gently and pityingly that spiritual comfort that is the surest and sweetest support to the afflicted in their hour of trial.
Mr. Verney had reason in this sore trouble to feel grateful for the chance that had sent him so devoted a daughter in the child his wife had taken to heart; for Ethel even found means, cruelly grief-stricken as she was herself, to do much towards mitigating his distress.
One day, Mrs. Verney, after desiring to be left alone with Ethel, spoke thus to her:
"It is useless hiding from ourselves, my darling child, the certainty that I shall not be much longer with you; and I wish to speak to you upon a matter that is near my heart, because it concerns your whole future life—whether it shall be as happy as we may look for in this troubled world, on a long-drawn- out agony of sorrow and suffering, of bitter, unavailing regret. I allude, Ethel, to the question of your marriage. You have been a dutiful, affectionate daughter to Mr. Verney and myself, and I have ever had reason to bless the hour in which I first took you in my arms. I am sure, therefore, you will make a dutiful and affectionate wife. But no obedience, no devotion to duty, no self-sacrifice, can atone for want of love as a wife. Never, my child, marry unless you are quite sure you truly love your husband. Love and respect, remember; for there can be no true love without respect. You know Mr. Verney's wishes regarding Sir Edgar Archdale. I have not felt satisfied that your affection is truly roused, and I have begged for and obtained a promise that you shall have a certain time to make sure of your own feelings. That is why Sir Edgar has not yet said anything direct to you on the subject, and will not for a while. But, when the time comes, remember my words, my child—that no blessing can rest upon, no happiness follow, a loveless marriage. It is, in my view, a desecration of God's holy ordinance, a mockery of religion, to join for life in God's temple two persons who are not sincerely attached to one another. If the day comes when you have to choose between committing this sin—for I believe it to be no less—and renouncing wealth, and ease, and luxury, do not hesitate to follow the dictates of your own heart. Better go forth into the world and eat of the bread of poverty, than live in luxury in the house of a man you do not love. Should, I say, such a question ever be put before you, do as your heart shall teach you, and God's blessing and mine go with you. I would that I had money of my own that I could will to you to provide for you in such a case; but I have none. All I have—have ever had—has been and is my husband's. In a drawer in my desk you will find an envelope addressed to you. It contains a few bank notes—very little, but that is all that I have of my own. Do not spend them, even on others; but keep them in case you should ever be in need of them yourself.
"So much as regards yourself, my child. And now a word about your little friend Maggie, who has come so strangely into our lives, and who has shown herself, in her faithful devotion, fully worthy of the confidence you had in her. Truly, here, God's blessing has followed upon the workings of your heart! I need not say to you, 'Be kind to her because she deserves it,' for I know you could not be otherwise; but I do say, 'Keep her with you if you can, and Mr. Verney will allow you to; she will be a comfort and a blessing to you in your sorrow when I am gone.'"
These words were spoken amid many interruptions, many exclamations, many tears upon Ethel's part; but she remembered them in after days, for they sank deep into her heart.
And while the hush that ever accompanies the shadow of impending death hung over the house, Charles Rayborne came down to break gently unexpected news to Maggie.
The owners of the Silver Cloud had received tidings that most of the passengers and crew of the vessel had been saved from the wreck of the ship, and that amongst them was William Moore. Not only so, but they had heard that he had rendered important and valuable services in the face of great danger; in consequence of which their agent had recommended him, at the captain's suggestion, for the post of mate in another of their ships, the 'Ocean Queen,' shortly about to leave Sydney for a South American port.
Poor Maggie, in her loving sympathy for others at this time, felt almost ashamed of the joy these tidings caused her; but Mrs. Verney, when they were told to her, called her and Ethel to her side together.
"Truly did I say to you, Ethel," she said, "that where your heart has led you God's blessing has followed! Not only have you done good to Maggie and her brother, but have indirectly benefited many more by sending him where he was destined to be a help to others in the hour of danger. For," she continued, dreamily, "I feel he must have proved himself worthy ere so much could have been said and done concerning him. Maggie, my child, for all you have done for me since you came to help Ethel in this hour of sickness, I can only say I bless you! Continue, in the future, to follow the promptings of your own heart, as you have done in the past, and God's blessing will, as I truly believe, follow you, too."
These were almost the last words she spoke; for a few hours afterwards she died peacefully in Ethel's arms.
After Mrs. Verney's death, Maggie remained on at Ravenscourt as a companion to Ethel. Mr. Verney had, at first, wished to send for a maiden sister; but upon learning what his wife had said, and at Ethel's urgent entreaty to be allowed the solace of her young protegée at least for a time, he consented, and deferred the question of asking his sister to come and take charge of his home.
A time of quiet and peaceful sadness followed, during which Ethel and Maggie were nearly always together, and saw little of the outside world. The Daltons, and the vicar's family were almost the only friends of Ethel whom they saw often. Charles Rayborne came down occasionally; and his visits, though very brief, were always welcome to both Ethel and Maggie. He was just the kind of man to be acceptable at a time of mourning, for it was easy to see that his sympathy was deep and genuine.
Sir Edgar—to Ethel's great relief, it must be said—had gone abroad; and thus she was saved any visit of condolence from him. She felt that his loud manner, and his lack of anything like true delicacy of feeling, would have grated disagreeably upon her susceptibilities.
Maggie received occasional letters from her brother; they were written in terms of great cheerfulness, for he had now good prospects to report. And he never failed to send messages of gratitude and devotion to "that dear, good, kind young lady who saved us both, as I solemnly believe, body and soul!" So ran his words; and Maggie, in reading them, said "Amen!"
But after a while, this restful time—sorrowful, yet full of a quiet, sweet repose, and of happy companionship between the two girls—was brought to an end by Sir Edgar's return. Not only that, but at his visits he assumed a different manner. He evidently now considered himself near the time when an engagement with Ethel would be openly declared, and began to treat her as though she already belonged to him. This behaviour caused her acute distress, and almost every day it seemed, from her point of view, to become more offensive, more repugnant. So far from attempting to conciliate her, he appeared to find a pleasure in seeing her shrink from his advances. It was plain he felt so very sure of her that he no longer thought it worth while to be at any pains to repress his natural manner; and therefore he exhibited himself in effect, in his true colors. To Maggie, too, his manner was offensively familiar; and she had more than one secret cry over it, though she managed not to let Ethel see or know about it.
One evening, when Archdale was dining with them, he took umbrage on hearing that Charles Rayborne had called during the afternoon. He turned to Mr. Verney and said, as he had said once before (only then it had been to Mr. Verney alone):
"I wonder you have that fellow here!"
Ethel looked at him with wide-open eyes in which indignation and disgust were plainly to be read.
She waited a moment, and then, seeing that Mr. Verney did not, as she had hoped, rebuke him, asked pointedly:
"To whom do you refer, Sir Edgar? If you mean the gentleman you spoke of just now, please remember not only that he is my friend, but also a relative of your friend—as I have heard you call him—Sir Henry Rayborne, and your equal in position!"
"Your friend!" returned Sir Edgar, with an obvious sneer. "Don't you know that he is intended for Lady Maud Dallington?"
At this Ethel flushed; but her indignation again getting the better of her, she answered:
"I know nothing about that; nor is it relevant to the present matter. What I wish to point out to you is that you would not dare to speak of Mr. Charles Rayborne as 'that fellow' if he were present."
"What do you mean by that about Lady Maud Dallington?" Mr. Verney asked, by way of turning the conversation.
Ethel and Sir Edgar frequently had little passages of this character about various matters; and the present discussion had not seemed to him, therefore, anything unusual.
As for Archdale, he had been bitter against Rayborne over since he had become acquainted with Ethel, for he had seen that she thought highly of him. But this feeling had been intensified since the mishap with the "ponies." He knew that Lady Maud's ill- temper on that occasion had been caused by Rayborne's departure; and that ill-temper led to his losing his own, and so had brought about the disaster. Ergo, Rayborne was the real cause of the accident, and therefore clearly responsible for his (Archdale's) broken arm. Moreover Lady Maud had thrown it in his teeth that he could not drive.
"Charles told me I ought to be careful as to whom I allowed to drive those horses," she had declared; "and I might certainly have known better than to trust you with them!"
Which, of course, had not been a very pretty speech for a lady to make to her charioteer; and to Sir Edgar, with the added grievance of a broken arm, it had been particularly galling.
The remembrance of this coming back upon him with a rush at Mr. Verney's question, he did a foolish thing. He was, in fact, so full of rancour against Rayborne, that he did not stop to consider the consequences of his words:
"Hump!" he growled, "she was saved up for him, and was actually offered to him—flung at his head as they say—with twelve thousand a year to take the bargain—five thousand pounds offered by Sir Henry, five thousand pounds by old Dallington, and two thousand a year that she has of her own. And would you believe it? The idiot refused it! Yes, he rejected the whole thing, and preferred to go back to his Gospel-grinding and his garret! Fancy it! What a chance for a poor, starving devil in his position! Now he's lost it all! His uncle is furious with him, and he's more of an outcast even than he was before!"
"For shame, Sir Edgar!" exclaimed Ethel, rising from the table. "I will not stay here to listen to such things against one who has always shown himself to be a true gentleman. Besides, how could you know it? What right have you to say all this?"
"Sit down Ethel, and keep quiet," said Mr. Verney, holding up his hand. Then he observed, quietly:
"I really don't see, Archdale, how you could be certain of what you have just told us. It sounds like a bit of idle gossip, very much exaggerated in the telling from mouth to mouth."
"Nothing of the sort. I had it straight from Lord Dallington himself. I was laid up there for a few days with a broken arm and a cut in the head, just at the time that Charles Rayborne upset him and Sir Henry by contemptuously flouting both. The old man was mad about it, and in his rage told me matters worse by insulting them all the whole story. Rayborne made and declared he had no love for Lady Maud, and was not going to sell himself for a mess of pottage—and—oh, a lot more of that sort of thing!"
Archdale had to pause for breath. In his eagerness to damage Rayborne he had said a great deal more than he had intended; and he began to be dimly conscious of his error when he saw a peculiar look come into Ethel's face. It was an expression of pleasure and relief, and she bent her head and looked down in order to conceal it.
"It seems to me," she said, taking up a fork to trace afresh a pattern she had seen every day for years, and forgetting her anger of a minute ago. "It seems to me—if it be as you say, you are still doing a mean thing in repeating it. It must have been told to you in confidence and in the heat of the moment, and in the conviction that any gentleman would keep it to himself."
But though the words were a rebuke, they were spoken mildly, and Archdale grasped the reason, and raged inwardly at the blunder he had made. He had started by asserting or implying that Lady Maud and Charles were being "saved up" for one another, with the intention, of course, of making Ethel feel it to be hopeless for her to think seriously of Rayborne herself, supposing she had any leaning in that direction.
But now he had made it only too clear that there was no ground whatever for such a notion.
But it was too late. He could not recall the words, and this mistake—the effect of his own ill-temper—was destined to bring momentous consequences.
For when Ethel went to bed that night, there was in her heart a gladness to which she had long been a stranger. She smiled contentedly to herself, and nodded her head from time to time; and as she lay on the pillow and her eyes closed, she softly murmured:
"He refused her because he said he did not love her! Refused her—and—twelve—thousand—a year!"
THE following morning Ethel woke with a now sense of comfort and satisfaction, though at first she could not account for it. But returning memory quickly aided her; it was what Sir Edgar had said about Charles Rayborne; and then there returned to her face that look of gladness that had flashed on it the previous evening. And with it came the dawning of a great resolve. She began to see that it was impossible for her to marry Sir Edgar Archdale. The very thought of such a thing grew more and more repulsive to her. She would appeal to Mr. Verney to support her in her decision, and to relieve her from attentions that were becoming hateful. He would be vexed no doubt; be even, perhaps a little angry; certainly he would be disappointed. For that she felt sorry; but, still, why should it matter to him? She did not see why he should be in any hurry to lose her; and, surely, in such a matter, he would consider her before all else! Had not Mrs. Verney done so, and advised her never to marry unless she truly loved? And would not Mr. Verney, who had always been the kindest of fathers, coincide with her?
But, alas! these forecasts were destined to be dispelled, and that quickly. For that very morning Sir Edgar had a longer talk than usual when alone with Mr. Verney after lunch. He had smarted a good deal of late under the sting of Ethel's frequent rebukes, and her evident aversion. But he was now genuinely alarmed by his indiscretion of the night before, and its possible result.
He lay awake and thought about it; and in the morning, after breakfast, he paced up and down the room, turning it over and over in his mind. That Ethel had a leaning, if nothing more, towards Rayborne he had long suspected; but when he had met him restored to favor with Sir Henry, and driving and riding about with Lady Maud, with the consent and approval of both Sir Henry and Lord Dallington, his lurking fear that Rayborne was a potential rival in his pursuit of Ethel vanished. Rayborne would never, he thought—judging, of course, by himself—be "such a fool" as to reject the prize that Fortune seemed bent on placing within his reach.
But when Rayborne, notwithstanding, did actually refuse fortune's proffered gift, Sir Edgar felt there must be some very solid and substantial reason for it; and all his former jealous suspicions returned in force. And now he himself had been foolish enough to convey to Ethel the very intelligence of which, till then, she evidently had been ignorant; intelligence which she was relieved to hear! The matter must be seen to at once. He must clinch the engagement before those two met again, otherwise it might be too late. Hence his sudden decision to bring matters to a crisis.
Thus it came about that Ethel, sitting in her room absorbed in what was to her—judging by the expression on her face—a very pleasant day dream, was suddenly aroused by a summons to repair to her father in the library. Immediately, instinctively, she guessed why she was wanted, and she summoned up all her courage to face the ordeal. Maggie had gone to spend the afternoon at Mrs. Dalton's with some children; but Ethel had been unable to accompany her, because Sir Edgar was expected. Whenever that was so, Mr. Verney required her to stay at home; and this of itself was becoming to her a disagreeable tie, and a source of some annoyance.
In the library she found Mr. Verney and Sir Edgar. Their faces were flushed, and gave her at once the impression that they had been indulging "not wisely, but too well."
"Ethel, my dear," began Mr. Verney, "Sir Edgar has come here to-day to ask of me my daughter's hand in marriage. She knows it is no sudden or new idea. What is the answer my daughter returns to this proposal?"
But at this abrupt commencement all Ethel's previous courage—or what she fancied might deserve the name—deserted her. She turned pale and trembled, and felt ready to sink into the ground. For all that, she made an effort to face the situation, bravely, and, with an inward prayer for; guidance, answered quietly, but firmly:
"The reply is, that I cannot marry him, father."
If a bombshell had suddenly come crashing into the room Mr. Verney could have scarcely been more astounded. He turned almost purple, choked, and for a moment looked as though he might be seized with a fit.
Sir Edgar was less taken by surprise. He had been fearing something of the kind; but he trusted to Mr. Verney's anger and firmness to prevail. Yet, when he looked at Ethel, and saw the expression of determination that shone clearly in his eyes, he felt much less confident about the outcome than he had a little while before.
Seeing that Mr. Verney appeared too bewildered to utter a word, Sir Edgar thought it as well to try a little bluster on his own account. He had taken a good deal of wine, and was not so clear-headed as he might have been; else he would have probably remembered that with Ethel Verney braggart insolence and bullying were the very last things likely to prevail.
"This is quite unexpected," he broke out, with one of his covert sneers. "You see the pain you are causing Mr. Verney—and no wonder! I thought you had some notions of what you owe to him. You owe him the most implicit obedience; you should remember that you are not even his own child. But for his generosity, his charity—"
She turned on him with flashing eyes and a look of such scorn that he fairly flinched beneath it. But the contempt in her glance, in her very attitude, stung him into further ill-mannered anger.
"Take care what you are doing, Miss Verney. Remember your position. I have chosen to forget that the lady I am proposing to make Lady Archdale is not Miss Verney, but some unknown—"
This insult roused her, and gave her just the stimulant that she had seemed to lack. She walked up to him and pointed to the door.
"Since, sir, you do not know how to behave yourself before me, you will please rid us of your hateful presence. There is the door, sir. Go!"
He made one half-hearted attempt to stay and face her; then like a beaten hound before its master, he turned and left the room.
Then all Ethel's strength deserted her. She tottered to a chair, and, sinking into it, covered her hot face, red with shame and indignation, with her hands.
"O, father, father!" she moaned. "To think that you should have caused me to suffer this! That you should stand by and hear me insulted, and speak no word against that man!"
But Mr. Verney evinced no sympathy. This sudden break-up, of his long-cherished design seemed to gall him beyond endurance. A painful scene ensued; and finally he angrily declared that she must either submit or leave his house for ever.
Poor Ethel; distracted between her love for her adopted parent and her sense of filial duty on one hand, and her shuddering detestation of Sir Edgar on the other, knew not on which side her duty really lay. At last she said, pitifully:
"I must have time to think. Oh, give me time, to think!"
"Be it so," returned Mr. Verney. "Go to your room now, and see me to-morrow. If you consent to obey me, all may yet be well between us. Things may be smoothed over and I may forgive and forget; but if not," he concluded, sternly, "you leave my house to-morrow, never to enter it again."
And Ethel, almost more dead than alive, found her way to her room, and there throw herself upon her bed in a passion of weeping and bitter sorrow.
When Maggie returned, she was by Mr. Verney's orders, refused admittance, and was wonderingly forced to return to Mrs. Dalton's, and beg her to let her stay with her for the night.
All that night Ethel passed in prayer, asking for guidance and light us to the side on which lay the right. And gradually she recalled Mrs. Verney's words to her; they seemed now almost like a prophecy.
"She foresaw this, and forewarned me," she thought. "There can be no doubt as to the road she would have me take. She was older and more experienced than I am, and I cannot surely be wrong in doing what she clearly meant to advise."
Sorrowfully, in the morning, she put on her oldest, commonest attire, made up all her jewellery into a parcel, which she addressed to Mr. Verney and left on her table, packed a trunk with a few things, taking only such as were absolutely necessary and the sum of money Mrs. Verney had expressly left to her as her own, and went downstairs, fearful, and with dark rings round her eyes, to say "good-bye" to Mr. Verney.
But he had gone out, and left only a brief note, which ran:
"If you have decided to obey me, all shall be well. If not, go before I return. I want no theatrical leave—takings."
And thus, accompanied only by her old nurse, Mrs. White, and bidding farewell to the servants, who one and all crowded round to kiss her hand—many of them in tears—others muttering smothered exclamations of anger and indignation—Ethel left the home of her childhood, and wended her way to Mrs. Dalton's, before taking up the cruel burden of trying to earn her own livelihood in the hard, bitter world.
THE surprise, or rather amazement, with which Mrs. Dalton listened to Ethel's account of what had happened may be more easily imagined than described. It was some time before she could be persuaded that it was in fact and indeed irrevocably true. It seemed to her impossible that Ethel and her adopted father could be permanently parted; it must be merely a passing quarrel, a temporary breach that would be repaired in time.
"We shall have Mr. Verney coming round here before the day is out; or at least within a day or two," she said, "wishing to make it up, and only too anxious to know what has become of you."
Ethel sadly shook her head, and made her read again Mr. Verney's cruel note.
"But," urged Mrs. Dalton, "how can a man—how can any father turn his only daughter penniless into the street, with not a thought of what becomes of her? Why, it would be infamous!"
"You forget, dear Mrs. Dalton, that I am not his only child. That's how it is. I am, after all, but a pauper, who has been reared on charity. I have no claim whatever on him. I have no right or reason even to continue to use his name; and yet I have no other! Oh, see how cruel it all is!"
And poor Ethel, red with shame and pain, hid her face in her handkerchief, and sobbed as if her heart would break.
"Yes, dear, I see all that; but then he has brought you up to consider yourself his child. If you have borne his name, it has been his doing, and— really— altogether, I—"
And the good lady broke off abruptly; utterly unable, in her perplexity, to find words to convey the many thoughts that came crowding, in a confused jumble, into her mind.
Presently she went quietly up to the sobbing girl, and, putting her arm round her neck, she stooped and kissed her.
"I cannot yet think this matter out properly," she said, "but there is one thing you must not forget, my poor child. You have a Father above who will not desert you or disown you. That must be your comfort under this great and unlooked-for trial. Keep up your trust in Him, dear, and all shall yet be well. How strange it is," she went on, musingly, "that this is almost like a repetition, in a way, of what happened when Charles and his father left Rayborne Court; they came to us as a temporary refuge, just as you have come to-day. But here, in lodgings, of course, we are so differently situated."
The reference to Charles Rayborne provoked Ethel to a fresh burst of weeping at the recollection of the pleasurable thoughts of the day before.
"We managed to put Maggie up last night," continued Mrs. Dalton, "but at some inconvenience to our landlady, I fear. However, she is a kind good soul, and gave up her own bedroom and went herself to sleep with the servant. Maggie does not know that, else she would have refused the room."
"Poor Maggie! What will she do now, I wonder?" Ethel sighed. "I made her give up a good situation to come and help me in the nursing; and now she will have great trouble in getting a place again, and I can no longer befriend her. Oh, it is all so very cruel!"
Maggie had been in the room with Mrs. Dalton when Ethel came in, and had silently gone out to leave them alone. Ethel had sent Mrs. White away for the time on arrival, asking her to come back later in the day. The first look at Ethel's face had conveyed to Maggie's quick, affectionate apprehension that something very serious had happened, and she felt that Ethel would prefer to speak to Mrs. Dalton by herself. And now she was sitting in the bedroom, with anxious thoughts and a beating heart, wondering what the bad news could be.
When, in a little while, she was called down, and the truth made known to her, her distress was so extreme that it acted as a tonic to the stricken Ethel; it roused her to strive to put a better face on matters, if only to comfort somewhat her tender- hearted little friend.
The shock to the poor girl was, indeed, severe. She felt scared and frightened; and when Ethel began to talk about "earning her own living somehow," Maggie nearly fainted with the pain it gave her. She had found it so hard herself to earn a living, though her wants and tastes were simple and she had been accustomed all her life to "roughing it" and to live on very little. What would it be for one like Ethel, reared in the midst of wealth and luxury? How could one so delicately nurtured face the realities of life as she had known them?
"But you mustn't, dear Miss Ethel," she sobbed out, imploringly. "Oh, you mustn't even talk of trying to. Oh! you can't think how it hurts me!"
And poor Maggie put her hand to her side; there was a tight feeling at her heart that was a veritable dragging, aching pain.
Ethel went up to her, put her arms round her, and kissed the tearful, imploring face.
"We will work together, Maggie," she suggested, with one of her old bright smiles. "You shall teach me what to do; for, indeed, I know nothing. I have a few pounds, and they will keep us both for a time, while you get back the position I so thoughtlessly induced you to relinquish, and while I am learning."
"Work together!—live together!" exclaimed Maggie, gladly. "Oh, yes, Miss Ethel, if you will only let me. Oh, yes! Do you really mean it?" she added; and she looked up doubtingly.
She had quickly seen in this proposal a way of accomplishing what she had offered just before. If they lived together, she, Maggie, could work for the two, and see that Ethel did not do too much.
"I do mean it, Maggie," Ethel answered. "I have been thinking things over—as well as I could—and it is the only way I can think of likely to suit both of us."
"Poor children! You are both only children, you know," Mrs. Dalton put in, kindly. "I fear you have a cruel time before you. But it may be the best plan thus to live and work together. It will be company for each, and you will help and comfort one another. And may God bless you both, my dears."
And the kind-hearted old lady turned away with tears in her eyes, fearful lest she should herself break down and upset the two afresh.
"Yes; but I shall come only on one condition, Maggie," Ethel declared, brightly, "and that is that you call me 'Ethel.' There must be no more 'Miss Ethels,' mind that. Do you agree?"
Maggie hesitated. "Of course, I shall do whatever you wish, Miss Ethel, only—"
Ethel laughed and clapped her hands.
"There, Mrs. Dalton, listen to that? Shure, Maggie must be Oirish. She says she is quite willing to obey me, and she begins by calling me 'Miss Ethel' in the very same sentence."
Ethel was resolved to put the best face she could on matters, and so cheer up her two friends.
"But, in all seriousness, you know, Maggie," she went on, taking her hand, "we must be sisters now. You must look upon me actually as your sister; and it would be absurd to call a sister 'Miss Ethel,' you know."
Maggie nodded her head wisely, and thought for a moment; then, looking up with an affectionate smile, she said:
"In that case how will it be if I call you 'Sister' Ethel?"
Ethel laughed and kissed her.
"Yes, if that pleases you, 'Sister' Maggie!"
And through all the misery of that sorrowful time and her apprehension of what the future had in store for them, Maggie's heart swelled with pleasure and pride at hearing Ethel call her "sister."
When, later, James Dalton came in, and what had happened was explained to him, he was much distressed. Long they sat discussing matters, but, turn them over as they would, always to arrive at the same conclusion.
"And since it has to be done." Ethel finished up, "the sooner we make a start the better.. There is nothing to be gained by our remaining here, even for a day. So I propose to go up to town early to- morrow morning with Maggie to find some suitable lodgings; then we can begin to look for work at once."
Mrs. Dalton sighed.
"Won't you wait a day or two, dear?" she urged. "Perhaps Mr. Verney—"
Ethel laid her hand on the old lady's arm.
"I am quite sure, dear Mrs. Dalton, it is useless. I know Mr. Verney too well; he can be wonderfully hard at times. I am convinced it would be but wasting time. And, besides, we want something to occupy our minds, as you can well understand. Finally, if Mr. Verney should change his mind, you can easily communicate with us. We shall send you our address the moment we know it ourselves. And that leads to another matter," continued Ethel, meditatively. "When we have settled on a place, you cannot address me until we fix on some name."
"What do you mean?" James broke in. "Name? Why—of course—"
"Oh, dear no! It is not 'of course,'" Ethel answered, very gravely, and with obvious reluctance. "Mr. Dalton, it is of no use blinking the fact that I have no right to the name of Verney."
"Really, my child, what nonsense are you talking?" exclaimed Mrs. Dalton. "Mr. Verney gave it to you, and therefore it belongs to you!"
"And," Ethel went on, argumentatively, disregarding Mrs. Dalton's remark, "what my own, true, proper name is I do not know. And if we two are to be sisters, we must clearly take the same name. We must be either both Verney, or both Moore."
"Miss Ethel!" Maggie burst out. In her surprise, she forgot what she had shortly, before promised. Then she colored up.
Ethel looked at her in mild reproof, but with a kindly smile, and, waving her hand to impose silence, continued:
"If one of us has to change our name, it is better that I should do it, than that you, Sister Maggie, should change that which is legally your own. Therefore, I decide to change mine to Moore. Henceforth, I am Ethel Verney no longer; but—Ethel Moore."
And to this she adhered, and carried it out thereafter.
"THERE! It has broken again, I declare! Oh dear, what a dunce I am! I shall never be of any good to you, Maggie."
And Ethel turned away from the sewing machine at which she was seated with a look that was half-comic perplexity, half-serious trouble.
"What is the matter, dear?" Maggie asked, without looking up.
She was busily engaged on some embroidery.
"The cotton has broken again; that's the fifth time in the last hour; and now it's all got into a tangle round the wheel. I fear I shall never be of any use, Maggie, dear."
Maggie sedately put her own work down and went to see what was the difficulty. After some trouble she put matters straight and started the work once more for Ethel. Then she went back to her seat by the window, took up her embroidery, and plied her needle busily to make up for the time thus lost.
Presently, there was another tangle and another stoppage. This time Ethel at first said nothing, only put her elbow on the little table and rested her face upon her hand.
"I feel so tired. And it's broken again. And I don't feel as if I could do any more now."
Maggie gave a quick and anxious glance at her face. Then getting up, she went to her, and put her arm affectionately round Ethel's neck.
"Come and sit down in the easy-chair by me, and have a rest and talk while I work, dear," she said, and kissed her. "I begged you not to try to work to-day; I could see you were not well when you got up this morning. Now, come along, and do as Sister Maggie tells you, there's a darling."
And she led her to the chair, and in a moment later was again busily sowing, as if for dear life. And, if the truth be told, she was indeed working "for dear life"—for their two lives; doing her very utmost to earn enough to keep them both from actual starvation.
They were living in a by-street in Camden Town; they rented two tiny rooms, and had been established there for a month; The sewing machine was the one Ethel had given to Maggie; and now it was in use almost day and night by one or the other. Maggie had found that her old situation had been filled, nor could she obtain elsewhere one like it. Her only prospect in this direction seemed to be to take a place at a small wage, with the hope of working her way up; but this she decided would be useless. She could not possibly earn enough to keep them both; Ethel was not strong enough or experienced enough to take a similar place, and at the same time could do little at home without Maggie's constant help and supervision. Hence the latter had elected to essay once more what she had before tried and failed in—to obtain sufficient outside work from some of the larger firms to keep them busy at home.
For in these days it was Maggie who thought out and directed everything. It was her brain that planned and contrived and designed. Hers was more robust, the more courageous temperament, and she put forth all her powers to shield her adopted sister from the world's rough usage. It was she who went about everywhere to interview the managers and foremen or forewomen of the houses for which they worked, lest their vulgar ways and coarse jests, or their thoughtless fault-finding should hurt Ethel's feelings. And this, notwithstanding that it occupied much time would, she knew, be more profitably employed in staying at home to do the work.
Thus their positions were reversed. In former days Ethel had been the friend and protectress, always ready to help, to advise, to encourage. Maggie had deferred to her in all things, diffident and shrinking in regard to all she came in contact with, and everywhere humbly grateful for every little kindness and courtesy that was shown to her.
Now, her character seemed to have entirely changed. She developed, in her dealings with business people, a courage and tenacity, a resourcefulness and a resolution, that came as a surprise to those who had known her only in her previous character, and that, indeed, excited not only their wonder, but often even their admiration.
Poor Maggie! she was battling not on her own behalf, but for her dearly-loved "sister," whom she knew to be too weak and inexperienced to battle for herself. She tried to do the work of two or three, and to receive herself every snub, or slight, or disappointment, or insult that might befall them, caring little so long as they did not get past her guard to reach her beloved Ethel.
But, work and try as she would, she knew that things were not going well. They had been obliged to draw upon Ethel's slender capital from time to time for bare subsistence. Even with that, Ethel was visibly growing ill and weak. The close confinement and the strain of constant work, after the life she had been accustomed to in the country, told upon her; and poor Maggie, ready to weep her eyes out, while outwardly cheerful and courageous, grew daily more and more anxious and alarmed. "How was it all to end? Oh! how would it end?" she often asked herself, while sitting up, hard at work, hours after Ethel, utterly exhausted, had fallen asleep.
To Ethel, the constant noise of the London streets, after the quiet repose of her country life, was cruelly trying. The hard strumming of the piano-organs; the clanging of the coal-waggon bell; the demoniacal yells of the milkmen! The latter, in particular, went on all day. Truly, one would have thought the whole street must live on milk. Even so, there seemed enough purveyors to supply half London; from six in the morning till late in the evening the short street was never without two or three of these noise-fiends within hearing. But there were plenty of other piercing sounds to mingle with them. Street musicians and singers; bands of men who had "got no work to do;" German bands; muffin bells; hoarse, loud-braying costermongers; newspaper boys—these and every other known London nuisance seemed, to Ethel, to have made a special descent upon that particular street, and to be doing their level best to drive the helpless inhabitants into the lunatic asylum.
Some new and altogether unexpected noise caused Maggie to turn her head to the window, and, doing so, she caught sight of Charles Rayborne coming towards the house.
"Why," she said, with a smile, while she glanced back at Ethel, "here is Mr. Rayborne!"
She knew that would be good news to Ethel, and would rouse her. Ethel at once flushed up, and the pained, weary look left her face.
"Is he coming here?" she asked.
"I imagine so," she said. "He is scarcely likely to pass without calling or leaving a message!"
And, in fact, a few moments later Rayborne knocked at their door, and on hearing their "Come in," entered.
"They just opened the front door and told me to come up," he said, by way of apology for appealing unannounced.
He looked keenly and somewhat anxiously at Ethel's pale face, and, after a kindly greeting to both, and some mutual inquiries, entered upon what was the specific object of his visit.
"I have two items of news for you," he observed, quietly. "The first is of a very sad significance. My Cousin George is very ill, and I am going away."
Both his hearers looked very blank at this.
"Going away!" Ethel repeated; as if hardly grasping the meaning of the words, "Your cousin ill? Oh, I am so sorry. I've heard you speak so kindly of him!"
"Yes," Rayborne answered, gravely. "It is a very sad business. He is one of the kindest-hearted men I know. Wealth and prosperity have never spoiled him, never changed one whit his naturally lovable disposition. Now he is very ill; has pneumonia. He caught a chill, a short time ago, and had inflammation of the lungs. The doctors fear he will not live through the winter, if he stays in England, so have ordered him to Maderia. And he begs me to accompany him."
"How sad," sighed Ethel. "Poor fellow! I am so sorry for him. Are you going to remain there with him?"
"No; I could not do that, without throwing up my appointment altogether. I can, in the circumstances, get three months' leave, and find someone temporarily to take my place. When I have seen George settled for the remainder of the winter, I shall return."
Ethel looked sadly out of the window and made no reply. This was a fresh trial, for she always felt deeply for anyone that was ill, and there was the separation, for at least three months, from him who was their only friend in London.
"I cannot well refuse, you see, Miss Verney," he explained.
But Ethel interrupted him. "Moore," she corrected.
Rayborne smiled ever so slightly, and went on: "Well, let us compromise and say 'Miss Ethel.' I cannot well refuse, I was about to say; for poor George has set his heart upon it, and has written me the kindest yet the most pathetic letter you can well conceive."
He hesitated, and his voice grew husky with emotion. "He says that he has never before opposed his father; but now he thinks he has a right, in his illness, to choose his own companion, and so Sir Henry has consented to my going with him."
"Poor Mr. George! Do you think his illness is serious—dangerous?" Ethel asked.
Rayborne shook his head gravely.
"God alone can tell, Miss Ethel. I know nothing. The physicians think he will get better out there. The other piece of news is quite another affair. You remember that man Denning?"
Maggie shivered. Ethel's eyes seemed to give one of their old flashes. Both nodded.
"Well, he is in prison for a few months. So he cannot possibly molest you in my absence."
"There's some comfort in that; not much though," Ethel remarked sagely. "It will scarcely recompense us for not seeing you, Mr. Rayborne."
Then she suddenly turned very red. It was scarcely like her to make such a speech; but it had escaped her innocently enough. Rayborne saw her confusion, but, affecting not to notice it, replied, smilingly:
"Thank you, Miss Ethel. That's a prettier speech than Maggie ever makes."
"Ah, you don't want pretty speeches from me, Mr. Rayborne," she answered frankly. "But, really, we shall miss you very much. We have no other friend in London," she added with a sigh.
Presently Rayborne left them, promising to call, again to say goodbye, before leaving England. Maggie went down the stairs with him, closing the door of the little sitting-room behind her.
"I am so anxious about her, Mr. Rayborne," murmured Maggie, with a glance back at the door. "She cannot stand this life; she is not so strong as I am. I am sure she is getting weaker. Oh, what can I do? Suppose—suppose she falls ill?"
Rayborne looked kindly at the pitiful, entreating face, alight with its loving anxiety, and sighed too. How gladly at this time would he have asked Ethel to become his wife, had he only been able to support her suitably! But, situated as he was, it would, he knew, be not only madness, but, in fact, a wrongful thing to do.
"If you have great need of a friend while I am away, Maggie," he said, when on the point of leaving, "write to Mrs. Dalton. Say it was my wish that you should do so, and my pressing request that she should come to her aid. She loves me too fondly to refuse. For the rest, maintain your trust in God, dear friend; never cease your prayers, however long the answer is in coming. God bless you, Maggie, for your love and loyalty for that poor cruelly-treated young lady. And He will bless you for it, I feel sure. And I know I may trust her with you."
LADY MAUD DALLINGTON was seated at breakfast one morning, with her father, in his London mansion in Carlton House- terrace. The large windows of the room looked out up on the Mall in St. James' Park, and commanded what was, for London, an extensive view—comprising, in fact, the whole Park from the Horse Guards and the Clock and Victoria Towers at Westminster on the one side, to Buckingham Palace on the other. There was snow upon the ground, and people were skating on the ornamental water; for, though it was but the middle of December, a sharp frost had set in.
The morning-room of the mansion, though one of the smallest and least-used in the house, was a large, lofty, apartment, and, with its three handsome windows, would have seemed cold and cheerless at such a time, but for the large fire burning cheerily in an enormous old-fashioned grate, and the richness of the furniture and upholstery. The fire, indeed, burned so fiercely that the two seated at the table had been glad to place in front of it screens which, being of ornamental glass, allowed the cheerful blaze to be still visible, while diminishing the heat.
Hot-house flowers upon the table—sent up daily from the glass-houses at Dallington Castle— perfumed the air, and added the brilliancy of their coloring to the shining silver upon the snowy cloth. The whole room, though the most quietly furnished of any in the mansion, conveyed an air of luxury and wealth, combined with refined taste, such as can be seldom found associated, save in the homes of our old nobility.
But, though surrounded with all that riches could command to minister, to ease, to comfort, and to the satisfaction of the senses, Lady Maud nevertheless looked discontented. One of her feet, peeping out, in its slipper of red velvet lined with fur and with jewelled buckle, from beneath a morning-gown that had cost more than many women can spend in a whole year on dress, betrayed by its soft tap, tap on the carpet a restless, petulant state of mind. She played absently with one of the silver spoons, seeming to regard the crest and coronet engraved upon it with as much interest as though they had never met her eyes before. Then she picked up in succession a tuber rose, a perfumed orchid, and a spray of orange blossom, only to throw them carelessly and impatiently on the table after inhaling a whiff or two of their sweet scents. She glanced out of the window and then at her father, who was reading the "Times," and at last made up her mind to speak to him.
"Well, I suppose I had better send wire to say I cannot go to the Gardens this morning?" she said, almost snappishly. "It's too provoking, after making appointments all round, and the frost may not last another day. It may break up at any moment; and I have not been on the ice at all. I was prevented yesterday, you know; and they tell me it was lovely skating, and everybody that is in town was there!"
His lordship looked over his gold-rimmed eyeglasses; but his thoughts were, on a speech of the Prime Minister's he had been reading, and for a moment he made no reply. Then he answered, shortly:
"I can't help it, my dear. You are free to do as you please. It's nothing to do with me. You best know whether you ought to stay in to see Mrs. Dalton."
And with that he returned to his paper.
"I don't know what on earth she can have to say to me," Lady Maud went on; "it is so silly of people to write in such a mysterious fashion." She took up a letter lying on the table.
"Most urgent and serious. I rely on you, Maud, to wait in to see me, and to put off every engagement that you can."
"Now, why couldn't she say what it was all about? It is so tantalising!"
"Well, perhaps she will not keep you long. Cannot you go to the Botanic Gardens later?" asked Lord Dallington, this time without looking up.
"Yes, but it gets dark so soon in the afternoon. It gives one no time at all," Lady Maud grumbled.
"Besides, how can I tell how long she may detain me? She may want me to go shopping with her, or something, and keep me about all day. Of course, I am very fond of Mrs. Dalton, and I know she is very fond of me; but still—"
Finding it difficult to frame in a speech all that was in her mind, and seeing, moreover, that her father was not listening, her ladyship left her sentence uncompleted.
Later when Mrs. Dalton came, she found Lady Maud dressed ready to go out, and waiting for her in somewhat better temper. She had passed the time in arraying herself in certain garments that had come from her dressmaker's but the previous evening. These included a rich seal-skin and sable cloak of the value of two hundred guineas or thereabouts; and when she had seen in the glass how well, it become her tall, graceful figure, she had felt a little less out of humor with the world in general. At the same time, this made her the more wishful to go to the Botanic Gardens to exhibit it to an admiring world, and the more resolved not to allow Mrs. Dalton to prevent her. When, therefore, that good lady entered, she found her young friend bustling about and talking to her maid in a manner that conveyed something more than a hint of her wishes and intentions.
At this stage Mrs. Dalton's heart sank somewhat. She had come to appeal to Lady Maud to help her in a dilemma, and she knew no one else she could turn to. She was, indeed, in great distress. James, her son, was lying at their lodgings very ill, so ill that she feared to leave him for more than a few hours. He had gone out one night to visit a sick parishioner, and in a sudden heavy storm had got wet through. Then, finding the man he went to visit dying, in a poor cottage alone and without a fire, he had sat by him all the night in the cold and in his wet clothes, with the result that he was himself now laid up and in a very critical condition. Just in the midst of this great trouble she had received a piteous letter of entreaty from Maggie Moore begging her to come to her assistance. Ethel, Maggie stated, had grown weaker and weaker, and was now confined to her bed.
"I have struggled on as well as I could, dear Mrs. Dalton," ran the letter, "determined not to write to you as long as there seemed any chance for us. Indeed, Ethel would not allow me. But now she is too ill to prevent me, and I feel it would be wicked in me to delay. Mr. Rayborne made me promise to send to you if things should come to the worst—as they have now. I cannot leave her to go out for work, and so we have scarcely anything to live upon and no fire in this cold weather. How, then, can I refrain from appealing to you to help her?"
And then Maggie went on to express her hope that Mrs. Dalton would forgive her for writing, declaring again and again that it was not for herself, but only for her "dear Miss Ethel," that she had "dared" to do it.
"Oh, if you could only take her away and save her! I will send you almost all the money I can earn, and work day and night to obtain it, and I am sure the great God would help me and would bless you for it."
Thus concluded Maggie's piteous appeal. It was easy to see it had been written hastily and under the impulse of strong emotion; it was tear-stained and blotted; and Mrs. Dalton, shocked and alarmed, and terribly anxious even in the midst of her own great trouble, had cried over it while rending it and pondering what she could do to help. She could not go herself; that was, unhappily, too certain. She could not even send money—not enough to be of any use—for already her son's illness had almost exhausted the little she had by her.
Thus it came about that the kind-hearted old lady had resolved in her perplexity to run up to town and appeal to Lady Maud, knowing that the latter was in London at the moment. It was not what she would have wished, and she had an uneasy feeling that both Charles Rayborne and Ethel, had they been consulted, would have objected strenuously against such a course. But Lady Maud was rich; she spent hundreds of pounds a year upon dress; could not she (Mrs. Dalton) prevail upon her to give these two struggling young girls an order for dressmaking of some kind, paying them a small sum on account? That would not be mere charity, and surely could not be reasonably objected to. So reasoned the good lady in her distress, and she could think of no other plan.
But, when she came to explain the case to Lady Maud, she was met by precisely the difficulty she had foreseen, or, at least, feared. The latter, impatient to get away, took out her purse and merely asked "how much she should give."
"Let me see. I have two five-pound notes here, and—yes—some gold. Now, dear, you know best what I ought to give. Is this enough?—or too much?—or not enough? There is my cheque-book over there; I—"
Mrs. Dalton shook her head and I sighed sadly.
"O, Maud!—Maud!" she said, almost tearfully, "cannot you see this is no case for more charity? Do you suppose, if it had been, I, with James lying ill at home, should have come up specially to see you? Could I not have written? I know you are good-natured and generous, child, where anyone you can trust makes an appeal to your liberality. I know, in such a case, I have never had to ask twice. Why, then, do you suppose I came all this way, in this bitter weather, leaving James ill in bed, to see you myself? Cannot you understand that this is a case in which the mere putting down of money will not suffice? This young lady, though to-day she is poor, has been brought up in the midst of wealth and luxury, even as you yourself have been. Not, it is true, amid so much wealth; but she had been as delicately nurtured, and is just as sensitive as you could possibly be in similar circumstances. How would you feel in like case if—?"
"But—really—I don't see—"
"Wait a moment, my dear. This young lady is, in a sense a sister."
"Sister! What do you, mean?" Lady Maud exclaimed.
"My dear, all women in the world are sisters. I mean it only in that way. At the same time, she is, in another way, more your sister than some other might be. She, like you, has known what it is to have a mansion to live in, to have servants, horses, carriages at her disposal. Her feelings are what yours or your sister's, if you had one, would be, if misfortune and poverty were to befall. Therefore, I say, I ask, I appeal to you, Maud, for once in your life, if you never have before (I do not say you have not, dear), I appeal to you to do something more than charity dictates; to help this poor young lady in some manner that will not hurt her feelings."
Lady Maud was silent for a while, and bit her lip. Then she said, slowly:
"Well tell me, then, what it is you wish me to do? Anything reasonable."
"Nay, Maud, you must not do it thus—under protest, almost under compulsion. Suppose, now, you had a sister who had fallen into distress, what would you wish others to do? Merely to send her money?"
Lady Maud looked down at the carpet, and with the toe of her boot followed its pattern.
"No, of course not," she said, presently. "But then, that's 'supposing' you know. As a matter of fact, I have no sister; so it cannot possibly happen."
Mrs. Dalton sighed and was silent. She had said all she could, or nearly all; and without effecting what she had hoped for.
Lady Maud began to get impatient to be gone.
"What is it you wish me to do, dear Mrs. Dalton?" she asked.
"I want you to go there yourself, and to give these two an order for a dress, or something, and to pay them some money on the pretext that they will have to buy the materials. Could you not do that?"
Lady Maud reflected. Her gowns came from Worth's; she could not possibly wear any others. But there might be many other things she could order; or even, if she had to order a gown, she could give it away to one of the servants if she did not like it. It seemed a costly, wasteful way of giving charity; still, if Mrs. Dalton insisted, and it pleased her, well, it should be done.
"Very well, then, I will go tomorrow."
"There's a dear! Only you must go to-day."
But this the young lady would not do. She had given way in every other particular, but to spoil her intended day on the ice she positively refused. So once more Mrs. Dalton was in despair. She could not bear the thought of the delay. Who could tell what might happen in the circumstances? She tried further argument and persuasion, but without effect.
"I will go to-morrow morning," repeated Lady Maud. "There is my purse; send them on some money meantime if you think proper."
Mrs. Dalton hesitated; and she felt she was in a difficult position. How would Charles Rayborne view the matter? If she told him she had asked Lady Maud to call and give an order for some work, that was one thing; but to take money from her to send on an off-hand act of "charity" was quite a different matter. Involuntarily she spoke her thoughts aloud.
"I wish I knew what to do—what Charles will say?" she sighed at last.
"Charles! What Charles?" exclaimed Lady Maud, quickly. ."You can't surely mean my cousin Charles?"
"Why, yes, my dear; of course I do. He expressly commended these two girls to my care; enjoined them, if they fell into trouble, to appeal to me. And now, in my trouble, what can I do? And he begged you to do it for my sake. Yet you refuse, or say you cannot act in the matter till to-morrow. If things go very badly, what will Charles think? That is what is in my mind!"
Lady Maud flushed up and then turned pale. She walked restlessly a few times up and down the room. A sudden desire came upon her to see these two young women in whom her cousin Charles took so much interest.
She would like to find out all about it, and to ascertain, if she could, his object.
"What is the address?" she asked.
She had already said she was going to the Botanic Gardens. So Mrs. Dalton answered.
"Not far from where you are going, my dear. It is up at Camden Town—not far from Regent's Park. Could you not go there first? It would not be half-an-hour out of your way."
"Yes, I will." Lady Maud returned, with decision. "I will go there at once."
Mrs. Dalton rose and kissed her.
"Maud, dear," she said, tearfully, "Be your own good self in this matter. Remember you are acting, in a manner, for Charles. Do act as you feel he would have you act, and you cannot well be wrong. But do nothing, I pray of you, that would hurt his feelings, or lead him to blame me for having sent you."
"I will do my best, my dear," Lady Maud answered, "for your sake—and—for Charles'."
And Mrs. Dalton, refusing all offers to stay for luncheon, or even for a little refreshment, hastened away in an omnibus, to the station on her road home through the cold, glad that her mind was now much more at ease. Lady Maud, meanwhile, set out in her carriage, with its foot-warmer and fur wraps, to "play the Lady Bountiful," as she phrased it, in the little shabby by-street up at Camden Town.
LADY MAUD left the carriage at the corner of the by-street, and proceed on foot to the number that had been given her. The door was opened by the landlady, a stout, rather dirty- looking, but withal good-natured, elderly woman, who stared in great surprise at the richly-attired visitor.
The latter asked for Miss Moore, having been so instructed by Mrs. Dalton.
"Which might you want, miss?" asked Mrs. Simmons. "One of 'm be gone out, an' the other— well, she be very ill. I doubts if she be well enough to see anybody; at least, I just now she be asleep. I 'eard her sister say so as she was agoin' out."
Lady Maud considered. This was annoying; it meant delay, if she waited—yet she could not insist on waking the invalid.
"Perhaps you can tell me something about them?" she said. "Can I come in and speak to you?"
"Certainly, miss. Come into the parlor. These rooms be vacant just now, which is all the worse for me, on account of the two young ladies being unable to pay their rent the last two weeks. Was you come to 'elp 'em at all, miss?" Mrs. Simmons looked a little wistfully and anxiously at her visitor while she asked this last. "Not, 'owever," she added, kindly, "as I bothers about that. They've always paid quite reg'lar all the time they've bin 'ere; an' I ain't one to be 'ard on people as is 'onest an' works 'ard an' does their best. An' I must say that for these two, miss, they 'ave worked very 'ard. Only now, you see, one's ill, an' the other 'as to look arter her, an' so can't work like she used. An' I must say, to see the lovin', devoted way she do work for 'er sister, an' waits on 'er day an' night, an' to think with it all she can't make enough to keep theirselves, let alone pay the rent. But I says, says I, to my old man, 'I thinks it'll come all right, John, because she deserves it, she do.'"
"Which do you mean," Lady Maud asked.
She had let the woman, run on without interrupting her, but had scarcely followed her.
"Why, Miss Maggie," she returned. "It's Miss Ethel as is ill; an' Maggie waits on 'er, works for 'er, starves 'erself for 'er. Ah, never 'ave I seen anything like it in all my born days. That poor girl is starvin' 'erself a tryin' to save enough to give to 'er sister as is ill. But, miss, you must excuse me, I've got my old man's dinner on the fire. Will you please to walk upstairs an' wait? Miss Maggie's sure to be in very soon; trust her for not leavin' 'er sister longer'n she can 'elp. She's sure to be in directly. Up the stairs, miss, and the door straight in front of you at the end of the landin'. But go as quiet as you can, miss, because she's asleep."
So Lady Maud walked very quietly upstairs, and, finding her way as directed, entered a small, shabbily-furnished, but very neat, clean-looking room, where she sat down to wait awhile with all the patience she could muster.
There was no fire, and, indeed, no sign of any having been there for some time, the grate being quite clean, as though it were summer-time. Lady Maud shivered, and, looking round at the miserable furniture and threadbare carpet, she thought that surely this must be the very poorest, the post miserable lodging in all London. At least, she had never before seen or imagined anything half so bad.
While she was considering what to do, whether to knock at the other door, which led presumably to the bedroom, and which she saw was slightly ajar, she heard the front door open and someone softly mount the stairs and go into the adjoining bedroom by a door that opened on to the landing.
"Is that you, Maggie dear?" asked a gentle, voice. "I thought I heard you come upstairs a short time ago."
"No; I have just come in, dear, and I came straight up."
"I heard someone talking downstairs and afterwards come up and go into the other room," returned the first speaker.
Lady Maud listened. Something in the sound of the voices touched her; both were wonderfully sweet and tender, only one was weaker than the other. Then she heard a sound of weeping.
Maggie had, in fact, thrown herself upon her knees beside the bed, and, after kissing Ethel tenderly and taking her hand, had buried her face in the bedclothes. She had long kept up a show of cheerfulness, but this morning she had broken down under two or three disappointments. One concerned some work in hand or expected; another was the fact that she had secretly written to Mrs. Dalton and had expected a reply that morning, and none had come. In addition she was herself weak for want of food, for it was quite true what the landlady had said—that she starved herself and spent almost every penny she could get on Ethel.
Ethel heard her sobbing, and put her other hand affectionately on her head, and gently stroked, her hair.
"Maggie, dear, what is the matter this morning? Are you grieving for me? Do not do that. I know things are getting bad with me, and I begin to think that, perhaps, it is God's will that I should die. But you must not grieve, dear. It will be better so, for I am not fitted for this life. You could always keep yourself, if you had not me to be a burden; and your brother is doing well and will come back to you, and you will be proud of him. God has been good to you; the brother you feared was dead is alive and well, and has won the respect and approval of his employers. How different it might have been. Think, dear, saved from possible disgrace!"
"Yes!" Maggie interrupted, passionately; "through you—Miss Ethel."
There was an indescribable mixture of pain and tenderness in the tone in which the word was uttered.
"Well—Ethel, then. But it was all your doing. Where should we have been, except for you?"
"You must not talk so, Maggie." she said, gently. "You do not know how you hurt me. Come, dear, let us pray together for help and comfort. Let us—"
But Maggie shook her head and burst out sobbing afresh.
"I can't—O, Ethel, my darling, I can't! It seems as though God has forsaken us, and it seems so cruel—oh, so cruel! When I think of what you did for us, of all your thoughtful, generous help and trust, of the kindly advice and loving encouragement you used to give me in your letters; when I think of this and of all the rest that I know and shall never, never forget—no, not if I lived for a hundred years—and then see how cruelly you have been treated, see you dying, as I truly believe, of sheer starvation; when I think of all this and you ask me to pray to God—I can't."
And the weeping girl swayed and shivered in the intensity of her anguish.
"Maggie, dear, this is not like you," said Ethel, her voice full of sadness. "Shall we, then, acknowledge God, and pray to Him and thank Him only as long as he gives us all we want? Shall we deny Him, refuse to pray to Him in the hour of our adversity? Fie, oh fie! my sister. Come, dear, do as I ask, and join in prayer with me."
Just then there came a soft tap at the door, and Maggie, in surprise, rose hastily, and, after a questioning look at Ethel, went and pulled it open.
Now Lady Maud had had no intention of playing the eavesdropper, and had listened thus far rather because she hesitated about making her presence known, than from any other reason. She had waited, expecting Maggie would come in and find her without suspecting that she, Lady Maud, had overheard them. But, since the talk between the two had seemed likely to continue, she I had felt, constrained to interrupt it and let them know there was a third person within hearing.
Maggie, in hat and cloak, as she had just come in, now stood regarding her in astonishment; but Lady Maud, by a gesture, bade her be silent and close the door. Then she asked, almost in a whisper:
"Can we go downstairs for a few minutes? I have been sent here by Mrs. Dalton, and I should like to have some talk with you."
Maggie, wonderingly, led her downstairs into the parlor, and closed the door.
"We can talk here, miss," she said. "Mrs. Simmons won't mind."
"Is your name Maggie Moore?" Lady Maud began, "and is your friend Miss Ethel Verney?"
"Yes, miss," said Maggie, her red, tearful eyes looking searchingly, almost jealously, at her visitor; she was trying to read whether she was likely to be a friend or otherwise to Ethel.
But Lady Maud, sat down with her back to the light, so that, in the little dark parlor, her face could be but indistinctly seen.
"I have come; here to-day," she began, gravely, "at Mrs. Dalton's request to see what we can do, to help you and your friend. Mrs. Dalton would have come herself, but could not. Her son is lying seriously ill."
Maggie gave a start.
"Mr. Dalton ill!" she exclaimed. "Oh, dear! More bad news!"
Lady Maud paused and watched her for a moment; then went on:
"Yes; so Mrs. Dalton could only run up to town and urge me to come at once on her behalf. Now I want you to tell me everything—everything—mind. At present I know but very little. Tell me how all this came about; how Miss Verney left her home; how and why it is that she seems so fond of you and that you are so devoted to her. You see," continued Lady Maud, hesitating a little, "while waiting upstairs I could not help hearing something of your talk; though I did not mean to. Tell me all; and if I see good reason, you will find a friend in me. You may trust me. But, of course, I need not tell you that; you must know that Mrs. Dalton would not otherwise have sent me to you."
Thus reassured, Maggie told, in impassioned words, the whole history. She had that morning been worked up into a condition almost hysterical and despairing; and the thought that here, unexpectedly, help might come to her "dear Miss Ethel," if only she could enlist the sympathy of her visitor, lent such force and earnestness to her manner as to carry conviction to the heart of the listener and even to win her admiration.
"But, miss," concluded Maggie, "we don't want charity; I only want work—or else—"
"But you want help first, it seems to me," Lady Maud interrupted, kindly. "Then, if you get work, you can repay afterwards whatever is advanced—if you insist."
"I was going to say, miss," Maggie went on, "or else for someone to lend me a few pounds until my brother returns. There's over thirty pounds due to him now. They told me so at the owners' only yesterday; but I cannot draw it without his authority. Now, he has no idea how we are situated, or I know he would give me every penny of it to do what I liked with—to devote to the greatest, kindest friend we ever had in our lives. Oh, if someone would but lend it to me—or half of it. I know William would pay it back, every penny, and interest, too. And O, miss, you can't think how very, very grateful we should both be—William and myself."
And Maggie broke down again, and, burying her face in her hands, sobbed piteously.
Lady Maud crossed to her and laid her hand lightly on her shoulder.
"See here, Maggie," she said, "here is the money. I will lend it to you. And when Miss Verney is better, and you can be away from her, I can give you and get you more work than you and two or three assistants could do all the year round."
Maggie looked up through her tears, at first, doubtingly.
"I—I—do not understand," she said, hesitatingly. "Who, then, are you, who would be so kind?"
Lady Maud smiled.
"My name is Maud Dallington," she answered, quietly. "Perhaps you have heard of me from Mrs. Dalton?"
"Maud—M—Lady Maud Dallington!" Maggie exclaimed, in wonderment.
"That is right. That is how I am called," said Lady Maud. "Now I hope you know that you can trust me.
"Oh, yes, miss—that is ma'am—I mean your ladyship," Maggie burst out, confusedly. "Oh, thank you— thank you a thousand times, for my dear Miss Ethel's sake. But she will know how to thank you better than I can miss—I mean your ladyship. Oh! you have saved her—saved us both. She could never have lived this life; and I could not have lived if she had died!" And seizing Lady Maud's hand, she pressed it to her lips. "Now, I will run and tell her."
But Lady Maud restrained her.
"I will speak to her myself, Maggie," she interposed; "and I want to see about some other matters. First, have you any doctor attending her?"
"Yes; one who comes twice a week. He is very kind, but says he can do little for her. She does not want medicine, he says; only nourishing food and country air."
Lady Maud moved her head assentingly.
"Very well. Now, will you go and see whether you can find him, and get him to come round and see me while I am here. Here is my card; take it to him perhaps, then, he will come the sooner. At the end of the street, going towards the Camden-road, you will see my carriage. Tell the footman to come to me here, and to bring with him some telegraph forms. Tell him to knock very quietly at the front door. He is to leave the carriage where it is, and only come himself. Do you understand?"
Maggie nodded, and declared she did; albeit her eyes expressed increasing wonderment.
Maggie had not taken off her hat and cloak, so there was nothing to prevent her setting off at once, and this she did, only running downstairs first to prepare Mrs. Simmons for the footman's arrival, and to give her instructions to let him wait in the passage until his mistress called him.
A few minutes later the worthy landlady was astounded, on answering a modest knock at the front door, to see the gorgeous apparition that met her gaze.
"Is Lady Maud Dallington here?" asked the new comer, majestically.
"Lady Maud—what did you say?" asked Mrs. Simmons. "There is a lady upstairs. I dunno her name."
"Ah, yes! Her ladyship sent word I was to come in and wait for her!"
"Oh—well—come in, sir; come in," said Mrs. Simmons, civilly. "And not knowing who he was"—as she said afterwards, "e' might a bin a hofficer or a hadmiral, so far as she could tell"—she politely asked him into the parlor, where she left him, shutting the door upon him, and going downstairs on tiptoe, so great were her perplexity and awe.
ETHEL, lying with her eyes closed, heard someone enter with a soft step; then her hand was gently taken. Thinking it was Maggie, she said nothing. She had on a thick woollen jacket that Maggie had worked for her; and this allowed her either to sit up in bed, or lie with her arms free outside the bedclothes, as she was now doing.
Lady Maud sat down silently, and looked at the sweet but pallid features, and the sight filled her with compassion. Before she knew it, a tear had fallen on Ethel's hand, which she had taken in her own.
"Maggie, darling! You are crying again!" said Ethel. Then, opening her eyes, she saw, not Maggie's face, but that of a beautiful woman; an absolute stranger, whose large brown eyes were regarding her with a soft, pitying expression of which few who knew Lady Maud would have thought her capable.
"Why! Who are—"
"Hush, my dear, do not excite yourself. Your friend Maggie has gone out, and I have come to take her place for a little while. I am a great friend of Mrs Dalton's; she sent me to you to see what we could do to help you!"
Ethel flushed and looked up with doubt and wonder in her eyes; but the look she met was so obviously kindly and sympathetic that she was reassured at once.
"A friend of Mrs. Dalton's!" she repeated, in surprise.
"Yes; a friend of yours, too, if you will let me call myself so, Miss Verney."
"I have dropped that name," she replied, simply; "but all the same I shall be pleased to have you for a friend, for you look kind and nice. And, of course, I know Mrs. Dalton would not have sent you, if she did not mean me to understand that I could trust you. Thank you, very much for coming."
"And I hope I may come again," Lady Maud, went on? "I hope I shall see you soon get better. Miss—may I not call you Ethel?"
Ethel opened her eyes and smiled happily.
"If we are going to be friends, of course you must call me Ethel. But what shall I call you? What is your name?"
"Call me Maud, dear My name is Maud Dallington."
At this Ethel raised herself on one arm and gazed steadily into the other's face, and, for the moment there came into her eyes a flash of that old clear; fearless, searching look that had been one of her characteristics in former days; but that was now, in her weakness, seldom, if ever seen.
"You—Maud—Lady Maud Dallington?" she exclaimed, astonished. "And you have come here—to me—to be my friend, you say?"
"Why not, dear?" Lady Maud returned, with the faintest possible smile at the other's surprise. "Won't you let me?"
But Ethel had been satisfied with what she had read in the face of her visitor. The sunny smile returned, and she fell back upon the pillow.
"Yes," she sighed, softly, "I am sure I should like to have you for my friend."
And Lady Maud bent over and kissed her.
"And now," she went on, "I want you, if you think it will not fatigue you too much, to tell me more about how you came to leave Mr. Verney, about Sir Edgar Archdale, and the rest of it. Maggie could not make it all quite clear to me."
And then ensued a long talk between the two, that was scarcely finished when Maggie returned. When she came in and found the terms on which they now were, her happiness was unbounded. The pinched, haggard look forsook her face as if by magic, and she became a different being.
"First, we want some fire—in both these rooms," said Lady Maud. "See to that, Maggie, to begin with; then bring me some paper and envelopes, and pen and ink."
And while fires were being lighted, she wrote three or four notes and several telegrams, then went downstairs to her footman.
"You will first send off these telegrams, and then take the carriage," she instructed him, "and drive, to Covent Garden and get some flowers as set out here; next go to Gunter's and bring the articles I have written on this list; then call at our wine merchant's in St. James'-street and get this wine. Bring back here everything I have put down, and be as quick as you can."
Then, she went back to talk to Ethel, to wait the arrival of the doctor, who had promised, Maggie said, to come round very soon.
When he arrived Lady Maud had a long conference with him, after which she felt more at ease concerning Ethel. He assured her there was no organic disease. What she required was merely nourishing food and change of air and scene.
"Well," said Lady Maud, "change of air we will see about so soon as the weather turns a little milder. In the meantime, I wish you to do all you can for her. Order whatever you think she needs; do not consider expense, and let it all be charged to me."
When, later, the carriage returned, the footman came upstairs laden with all kinds of good things likely to tempt the appetite of an invalid. There were jellies and turtle soup, choice grapes and other fruits, ferns and rare flowers, two or three bottles of the finest old port, a brace of partridges, young, tender birds specially selected, and quite a number of minor edibles. Evidently Lady Maud had made out a very complete list; nothing seemed to have been forgotten that could possibly minister to the comfort and nutrition of one in Ethel's state of health.
As for Ethel and Maggie they were ready to cry when they looked upon it all, and gratefully realised the thoughtfulness that had provided it. But Lady Maud bustled about, arranging the flowers, helping Maggie to wipe the dishes, plates, and glasses, and giving instructions for the cooking, laughing and joking all the time, and so evidently enjoying herself that the contagion of her good spirits soon spread to the other two. And when, presently, a dainty meal was spread out on a table beside the bed in Ethel's room, and the three began to eat, you could scarcely, in all London, have found a happier or merrier little party. Even Ethel laughed, and ate with appetite, and, at the end, looked wonderfully better.
"Now, I shall not see you to-morrow, but will come the day after. Keep up your spirits and forget all your troubles; and that will please me more than I can tell you."
And she went away with many affectionate leave-takings, leaving behind her sunshine and gladness where she had found gloom and sorrow.
When she arrived home she found a telegram awaiting her from Mrs. Dalton. It was in reply to one she had despatched to her from Camden Town. It said merely that Mr. Verney was at home, and would probably be in on the following day.
At dinner Lord Dallington was rather surprised to hear that Lady Maud had not been to the Botanical Gardens after all, and did not appear to regret it in the least. And he was still more surprised to learn that she did not intend to go the following day, but instead was to spend a few hours in the country. But, being used to sudden changes of mind on his daughter's part, he merely raised his eyebrows, and asked no questions.
The following day Sir. Verney was sitting alone in his study, when a card, with a message brought in by the servant, apprised him that Lady Maud Dallington asked the favor of an interview.
"Dallington, Dallington? Lady Maud Dallington? Bless me! where have I heard that name?" he said to himself. "Oh, yes, of course; that story Archdale was telling about Rayborne. But what in the world can she want with me, I wonder. However,"—this to the servant—"ask the lady to be good enough to walk in."
A minute afterwards Lady Maud entered, and, after a preliminary remark or two, plunged at once into the business that had brought her.
"Mr. Verney," she said, "you have a daughter—Ethel—"
Mr. Verney's brows contracted, and he fired up angrily at once.
"I have no daughter," he burst out. "I disowned—"
Lady Maud held up her hand and interrupted him.
"I know," she answered, coolly; I know all about it, Mr. Verney. You disowned her, turned her out of your house, sent her away to starve or die, as it might happen, after, bringing her up in luxury all her life; and you did this merely because she refused to marry Sir Edgar Archdale. Is it not so?"
"Really, madam, I fail to see what right you have to—"
"No right at all, in one sense, no doubt, Mr. Verney," Lady Maud again interrupted. "As a rule, I should be the last to interfere in other people's family affairs. But, in this case, I think I have a plain duty to perform, and I mean to do what I consider right, whether it seems to you like uncalled-for interference or not. I say at once—I tell you plainly—your daughter did quite right to refuse. Sir Edgar Archdale is not a proper person for you to marry her to."
"Madam! Pray explain the meaning of this most—"
"Oh! I will explain it to you quickly enough," Lady Maud retorted, in the same cold, almost contemptuous manner. "I say Sir Edgar Archdale is not a proper man for you to marry your daughter to. Sir Edgar Archdale is a blackguard and a scoundrel!"
Mr. Verney sprang up from his chair; but Lady Maud again waved her hand, and he sat down and stared at her.
"I say," she continued, "he is a scoundrel! In the first place, he induced my father to advance him a large sum—forty thousand pounds. I think it was—on mortgage on his estates."
Mr. Verney jumped up again.
"Great Heaven!" he gasped. "This cannot be true! You don't know what you are talking about! I myself have a mortgage for sixty thousand pounds!"
"Ah, yes! I expected to hear something of that kind," Lady Maud replied, quietly. "Well, then, what will you say when I tell you that he further induced Sir Henry Rayborne to advance him fifty thousand pounds on the same property?"
Mr. Verney nearly choked.
"It can't be true; oh, surely, it can't be true!" he wailed, almost beseechingly. "If it is, than I am half-ruined! He owes me a lot besides."
Lady Maud regarded him inquiringly; then continued with a sigh:
"I am sorry to hear you say so, sir—more sorry than surprised; but what I have stated, is the truth. What he has done with all the money no one knows; gambled it away in horse racing or cards most likely. But it is certain he has lost it all; for he is now in very low water and has even been found out in cheating at cards. He is a bad egg, Mr. Verney; and your daughter has had a lucky escape. I came here to-day to open your eyes; and to tell you, moreover, that she, poor thing—the tender- hearted young girl you turned adrift for the sake of this scamp—is starving—starving!—do you understand, sir?—or was till I, by chance, was led to go to her assistance yesterday; and, what is worse, she is ill, very ill, and perhaps dying!"
Lady Maud, in her impulsive way, had risen while she had been speaking, and brought all this out with a burst that almost overwhelmed the pale and now trembling old man before her. He sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands.
"May God help and forgive me!" he groaned. "Nearly ruined, and Ethel starving—ill—perhaps dying!"
Lady Maud regarded him for a space in silence. Then she said:
"If you are only half-ruined, Mr. Verney, you may, in the circumstances, deem yourself almost fortunate. As to the other, well heaven alone can tell whether there is time to undo the past."
Mr. Verney rose and put his hand entreatingly on her arm.
"Ah! Is there time, do you think! What can I do? Where is she? Will you take me to her, and— will she forgive, do you think?"
He looked anxiously at her while he waited for her reply. But Lady Maud made none at first. His question, "Where is she?" carried her mind back to the picture she had seen the previous day—the pale, weak girl lying in bed amid her shabby surroundings. She contrasted it with the luxury to which —as she could now see by looking around her—Ethel had always been accustomed; and her eyes filled with tears.
"Will she forgive," she repeated in a low tone. "I cannot tell whether I would in such a case, Mr. Verney; but she is different from me. You, who know her so much better than I do, should be able to answer that question for yourself. But, at least, you can come with me to see her and learn in person."
And so it was arranged, after some further talk, that Mr. Verney should go up to town the following morning and accompany Lady Maud to the shabby lodgings at Camden Town. Then she left him, and returned to town, after a few minutes' interview with Mrs. Dalton on her way. She had already called there on the road to Mr. Verney's, and had learned that James Dalton was much better.
When Mrs. Dalton heard the outcome of the visit, she threw her arms round Lady Maud and kissed her.
"My dear, you have done splendidly! You have achieved great, almost incalculable, good! Now, did I not say I knew you would, if only you trusted to the good instincts that I always knew were yours? Under God's providence you have been perhaps the means of saving that poor, cruelly-treated girl— saved her for Mr. Verney—for us all!"
And Lady Maud, sitting alone in her compartment in the train on her journey back to town, pondered long upon Mrs. Dalton's words. There was a look in her face that was half-pleasure, half- wistful sadness; perhaps, rather, these expressions by turns pursued each other.
"Saved her!" she murmured. "Ah! yes, perhaps so! And if it proves so, then, Maud, for once in your life you have been of some use in the world. For once, almost for the first time, you have lived two days that were not wholly frivolous, selfish. So far, good; I shake hands with you, my dear." And she solemnly took one hand and shook it with the other. "Yet," she went on, with a sigh, "some would say you have been very quixotic. Ah! yes; for if you have saved her, you have saved her for him—for Charles, I feel. And so good-bye for ever to—" She stopped abruptly, then went on again. "Yet what else could I do, being there? Could I let perish a noble girl like that, that I might gain. She has been self-sacrificing enough—both have. Could I do less, with their example before me? No! Yet, oh! it is all very hard!"
And Lady Maud covered her face with her handkerchief, and cried softly to herself for the remainder of the journey.
WHEN, the next day, Maggie opened the door to Lady Maud, her astonishment was great to see that she was accompanied by Mr. Verney. He greeted her kindly, but in silence; and Maggie, looking into the careworn face, read there both his remorse for the past and his present anxiety for Ethel. She thought he looked ten years older, at least, than when she had last seen him. Lady Maud put her finger to her lips to enjoin silence, and the three mounted quickly to the little sitting-room on the first floor. There Lady Maud disappeared softly into the bedroom, leaving Mr. Verney gazing around, him in a shocked, bewildered way at the dingy room, and the evidences on all sides of sordid poverty. Yet today the place looked very different from what it had been when Lady Maud had first entered it two days ago. A cheerful fire blazed in the grate, flowers of various gay colors were arranged here and there, and on the little rickety sideboard were collected many little luxuries—the remains of what Lady Maud had brought in at her former visit.
Ethel was lying looking wistfully at the door, and when Lady Maud entered she gave her one of her sweet smiles of welcome.
"You have come again, dear friend," she said. "I have been looking forward to seeing you; and it is so kind of you to come." And her eyes were full of tears. "I have done my best," she went on, "to eat all I could of the good things you sent in; I've made Maggie eat, too, and we're both ever so much the better for them."
"That's right, my dear," said Lady Maud, good-humouredly, and she bent down and kissed her. "And I declare you have a little color coming into your cheeks. First let me give you Mrs. Dalton's love. She sent all sorts of cheering messages; and James is very much better."
"Ah! That is good news," from Ethel.
"And now, my dear," Lady Maud went on, a little anxiously, "I have brought you a visitor— one who desires very much to see you, if you think that you are strong enough. He is one, I hope and believe, you will be pleased to see—especially since you have not met for a long time."
Ethel's face lighted up, and she half sat up.
"Who? Not—not, Mr. Rayborne? He cannot have returned?"
Lady Maud pressed her hand to her side. She had not expected this. It was hard to be thus unexpectedly reminded; to see the pleasure and expectation that Ethel's face expressed. But she managed to repress her feelings, and only shook her head. Then Ethel sank back listlessly on the pillow, and said, with little interest:
"Then I cannot guess who it can be."
"Try," said Lady Maud.
She hardly knew best how to introduce Mr. Verney's name, and said this chiefly with the object of gaining time to think.
"My dear," she went on, and holding Ethel's hand in hers, "there is one who feels he has acted harshly towards you in the past and who now bitterly regrets it. He has come here with me to-day, anxiously wishful to have an answer to his question. It is, 'Will you forgive?' Will you be again to him what you were in the past, and go back when you are well enough and cheer and comfort him in his lonely home?"
While the speaker had proceeded, Ethel's eyes had opened in astonishment; and when the truth burst on her, she flushed deeply, then turned deadly pale; she looked inquiringly, almost distrustfully, for a moment, into the other's face.
"My father! Mr. Verney, you mean?" she exclaimed. "But—oh—not—not—You have not come here—you—to ask me to—"
Lady Maud understood her incoherent exclamations and the questions they implied.
"My dear Ethel," she said, bending over to her and speaking in a low tone, "Sir Edgar Archdale has behaved shamefully to your father; has swindled him! Poor Mr. Verney is terribly upset; he declares he is half-ruined; he is to-day a comparatively poor man, and all through that scoundrel he would have married you to. You have had a providential escape, my poor child but he sees his error only too plainly now. He is terribly distressed: will you not forgive, and try to comfort him?"
"Poor father! Ask him to come in," Ethel whispered softly.
And, when a minute later, Mr. Verney entered, she held out her arms, to him.
"Ethel—my poor Ethel!" the old man cried, and sank on his knees beside the bed.
And Lady Maud crept noiselessly away and closed the door upon them.
It was nearly an hour later when Mr. Verney came into the sitting-room. He went up to the two who were sitting together by the fire and took a hand of each in his and shook them.
"May God bless and reward you both!" he said, earnestly; "you, Lady Maud, for what you have done in the last two days; and you, Maggie, for all your unselfish devotion and loyal affection for my beloved daughter. May the sunshine you have brought into an old man's miserable life be given back to both of you a hundredfold as the years roll on; and may God grant that my Ethel may recover, and that we may have many years in the future in which to show you our gratitude!"
He seemed almost choking with emotion. He turned away and went to the window, where he remained some minutes gazing vacantly at the grey sky and snow-clad roofs.
And thus it was that Mr. Verney and his adopted daughter were reunited, and that she went back to Ravenscourt. Before Christmas came, the weather had broken and turned very mild, and she was feeling so much better that the doctor said she could take the journey. Once at home, she mended rapidly; and by the time Charles Rayborne had returned, she and Maggie were established at Ravenscourt on their former footing, and had almost forgotten those terrible months of struggle, and suffering, and privation in the dingy lodgings at Camden Town.
How all this had been brought about, was told to Rayborne over and over again—first by Mrs. Dalton and James, now quite restored to health; then by Ethel and Maggie; and lastly by Mr. Verney himself, by whom he was now received on the footing of a valued friend.
"It is to your cousin, Lady Maud, sir," Mr. Verney said, "that we owe it all; she is a noble woman, full of human sympathy and tact. Today I am a poor man compared to what I was when you left England; but not only am I a happier man, but I feel I have been saved from a great sin, and from bitter, never-ending remorse. To her—we, all of us—will ever be grateful. She did the right thing at the critical moment, in a tactful way. May God bless her! And I need scarcely say to you, we shall always be pleased to see her—or yourself—as often as you can come to see us."
"I need not tell you how glad I am to hear you speak thus, Mr. Verney," was Rayborne's answer. "Our thanks are due to God, who so disposed her; beyond that, I am pleased, indeed, that my dear cousin, for whom I have a strong affection, should have been the instrument."
"Yes, as you say, our thanks are due to God. I do not forget it. I used—well almost—to disbelieve in all religion. But this has opened my eyes, and, I am thankful to say, made a different being of me."
And so it was. Mr. Verney had become an altered man. He now, out of his reduced income, gave away more than he had given in his wealthier days; and he joined cordially with Ethel and Maggie in lightening the burdens and brightening the lives of those in poverty and distress.
Rayborne returned to London with these praises of his cousin and grateful appreciation of her kindness ringing in his ears; and while he bowed his head and reverently returned thanks to heaven for the comfort and happiness that had thus been brought about, he marvelled greatly. It was all so different from what he, and all who knew her, would have expected of Lady Maud. And the more he tried to explain it to himself, the more mystified he became. One thing, too, perplexed him. He would like to write to her a few words of commendation; yet how could he? How take upon himself to thank her for her action towards those who, to all appearance, were scarcely more than his acquaintances? He could not call on her, for she was now down at Dallington. In the end he wrote announcing his return to England, and giving an account of his voyage and of their Cousin George's health when he had left him in Maderia; and finished by telling her how kindly Mr. Verney and all the others had spoken to her.
To this he received only a brief reply. Lady Maud merely said that she was glad to hear he was safely back, and to have news of George; the other subject she did not refer to, and so, for the time, the matter ended. He learned subsequently, however, that she corresponded frequently with Ethel.
The winter passed, and the spring arrived. Charles Rayborne had settled down again to his duties; but managed to pay occasional visits to his friends at Fairminster. Then George Rayborne returned to England, staying a day or two in London with Charles en route. He was still weak—an invalid indeed—and, Charles thought sadly, he had returned too soon. But George said he was tired of living abroad alone, and that he was anxious to get home to see how it fared with his "Model Village."
Then Maggie had a letter from her brother, announcing that he was on his way to London. He wrote also to Rayborne, saying that his vessel, the Ocean Queen, would shortly arrive at the London docks, and that then he would call upon him.
In due time the vessel was sighted and reported, and soon afterwards arrived safely in the docks, and Maggie was looking forward eagerly to seeing her brother after his long absence, and to hearing the account of his adventures from his own lips, when another and most unlooked-for trouble came— he disappeared!
He had come in the dock with the ship, had called on Mr. Rayborne one evening while the latter was away, and had left a short note to say that he would call again the following day, and had left late in the afternoon about the usual time; since then nothing had been heard of him.
As the days passed, and no tidings came of him, Maggie's distress became alarming, and Ethel, in her loving sympathy, was in a state of grief not much less painful than her friend's.
One day, when Maggie was returning from Mrs. Dalton's, where she had been sent with a note from Ethel, a rough-looking man came up to her just as she was nearing the park gates, and, asking whether she was Miss Verney, said he had a very urgent message for her.
Now, there was a marked likeness between Ethel and Maggie. Many had remarked it. It was not so much in the face—the one being fair and the other dark—as in voice, manner, height, figure, and movement. The voices, certainly, were so exactly alike that even Mr. Verney had often been deceived, and had mistaken one girl for the other. So, when Maggie was thus addressed, she was not surprised.
But what did surprise her was this man's message, for he went on to give it without waiting for her to speak; and some instinct she could not define prompted her to listen to him.
The man's manner was suspicious, and she scented danger, danger to her beloved "Miss Ethel." That thought was sufficient to rouse all her spirit, all her caution, and to make her summon to her aid all her woman's tact and wit.
THE man's message was indeed a strange one. It was that if Miss Verney would meet him, the messenger, and a friend of his, in an old deserted mill some little distance out, she would hear news of the missing William Moore, and also some other news that was of great importance; and that, if she brought some money with her, or would undertake to find some, they were in a position to treat for the said William Moore's release. This was backed up by a few words on a sheet of paper from William himself, and Maggie read them with a beating heart. They ran thus:
I am in great trouble, and in urgent need of help. Pray, see what you can do with those who show you this. I believe it is money they want. If so, I have some due to me, and could repay any reasonable amount, if you can arrange with them.
It was undoubtedly her brother's writing, and, as the blood rushed up to her face in the joy of knowing he was, at any rate, alive, the idea came into her mind to herself go and see what could be done, and what the people he referred to wanted. It was not fair or right, she thought, that Ethel should thus be troubled with messages and asked to make mysterious appointments and find money—perhaps run into danger—on behalf of her (Maggie's) brother. No! If there was trouble to be taken or risk to be run, it was his sister's place to face them—and face them she would. The man's mistake had suggested to her how to do it, and furnished her with the opportunity. She would take advantage of the chance offered to gain news of her brother, and learn, as she hoped, how he could be set free, and try to manage it without causing trouble or annoyance to "Miss Ethel."
She knew the old mill, too. It was a ruined building about two miles away. She had been there once with Ethel and two or three friends. Why she should be required to go there she did not stop to think; she only thought of Ethel and of her brother, and feared, if the request were not complied with, she might lose the chance of hearing about William and being able to help him. Perhaps they might murder him! And this thought, that sent the blood to her heart with a feeling of sickly horror made her at once resolve to see what she could do.
She knew Ethel was going out and would not be back till after six o'clock. She would be gone by then, and leave a note for her, telling her whither she had gone and why. Then, if anything should happen, they would know where to look for her.
"I cannot be there before dusk," she said, "but you may expect me then—say about half-past six or seven."
And the man went off.
Looking after him, she felt another rush of blood course to her heart and then forsake it at the sudden thought:
"What if Denning is mixed up in this, and I should meet him?"
It was just getting dark when Maggie neared the old mill on her self-imposed mission. That she might be running into serious danger she knew well enough; but no thought of turning back entered her head. The fact that she was incurring whatever risk there was alone, and saving her dear "Miss Ethel" from it, made her brave and comparatively fearless. All she was really afraid of was that the man or men she was going to meet might have a lantern and so detect the part she was playing; but this chance she must face, she felt, as best she could.
When quite near, she saw someone standing in the ruined doorway, and her heart gave a leap for an instant at the thought that it might be Denning; but she forced down her emotion and walked resolutely on.
"Are you waiting for me?" she asked, when she was near enough to speak. She could, scarcely make out the figure; but now, somehow or other, she felt sure it was Mike Denning.
"Yes, Miss Verney," Denning, for he it was, replied, his voice, too well known to her, sending a cold shiver through her whole body.
Assuming, as well as she could, the cold and haughty tone and manner she knew Ethel, gentle as she was by nature, could take when occasion called for it, Maggie said:
"Well, you see I have come. Now please tell me your business as shortly as you can."
"Well, you see, Miss," Denning answered, evidently a little taken aback by her firm tones, and completely deceived as to whom he was addressing, "me and my mate 'ere knows somethin' as is very important to you an' Mr. Verney, and we thought as 'ow you would like to know it. An', bein' as one might say only workin' men, an' very poor, we thought as p'raps you might gie us somethin' 'andsome to reward us for our good natur' and the trouble we 'as took to let you know about it."
"What has that to do with my—with the person you sent me a note from?" Maggie demanded, checking herself just in time.
She had been on the point of saying "my brother," and the fact that she had so nearly made a slip made her turn cold.
"Well, 'e's anxious you should know, too, an' 'e's in trouble 'isself, and, if there's any money to be 'ad, it'll 'elp 'im too."
"What is the trouble he is in?" Maggie asked, as calmly as she could.
"Never mind now," was the disappointing reply. "We'll come to that presently. The first thing is, 'ave yer brought any money with yer?"
"I have not. Even if I should see reason to give you any, I could not lay my hands on it at short notice. I should require time to get it."
At this Denning broke out with a savage oath of disappointment. He waited a minute as if pondering what to say next. Then, looking uneasily around, he said:
"I don't like a-talking 'ere. Somebody might be a-listening. Come inside. 'Ere, Tim, come out an' keep a look-out."
A man came out with a surly growl, and Mike went inside, followed, after a moment of hesitation, by the intrepid Maggie.
Arrived inside, she saw, to her dismay, that there was a lighted lantern on the ground; but it was placed in one corner and gave out but a feeble glimmer, the light inside being turned against the wall.
It just served to make objects dimly visible, and she noted the old rickety stairway—half-ladder, half- staircase—that led up to the loft. When she had come there with Ethel and the others one day, Ethel and she had gone up to see the view from the window, and finding a rusty old bolt on the door, had laughingly fastened themselves in, and kept Mr. Dalton and the rest of the party out for a while. The memory of this, of the harmless amusement it had given them that pleasant summer's day, came sadly back to her mind now, as she looked around. Little had she dreamed of the different circumstances in which she would come to pay her next visit to the place!
Denning now took up his story.
"When I see you once afore, Miss Verney," he began, in an insinuating tone, "you was rather rough-like on me, and wouldn't listen ter wot I 'ad ter say; an' I didn't know 'nough ter be able ter talk like I can now. I knows more now. 'Owsomever, it comes to this—yer knows yer ain't Mr. Verney's darter at all."
"I know that," said Maggie, wondering what in the world he was driving at.
"Jes' so. An' yer doesn't know whose darter yer reely are; an' mebbe yer'd like to know. An' Mr. Verney, 'e don't know no more'n you do. An' mebbe, if 'e did know, and knowed all I could tell 'im, it'd upset him like, and he'd give a tidy little sum ter make sure as it shouldn't leak out. Well, now you can tell 'im 'ow the land lays, an' get 'im ter stump up, 'cos you won't like it ter get about, no more'n 'e would. Very well. That's plain speakin', that is."
"How do you know that I shouldn't like it?" Maggie asked, stifling her disgust and indignation.
"Ah! Little birds whispers funny tales sometimes, they does. An' a little bird whispered to me as 'ow there he a certain party in the case—a noble bar'net they calls 'im—an' if 'e was to 'ear all I could tell 'im, there'd be a poor chance of yer ever being Lady Somebody; and that wouldn't suit Mr. Verney's book, I take it."
It was clear that Denning, owing to his late enforced retirement, did not know all that had taken place. Still, Maggie was astonished at the extent of the villain's information, and, beginning now to get a glimpse of his meaning, thought herself lucky in having come there as she had. She reflected that, if she could somehow temporise with him, and keep him quiet for a few days while she consulted with Mr. Rayborne, something might be managed to keep from Ethel the knowledge of what, if this man's dark hints were well-founded, might cause her pain, and, perhaps, humiliation. So she answered:
"If what you say is true, perhaps something might be done, in the direction you desire; but I should have to see you again. I could not settle anything to-night. Will you give me an address I can write to?"
"Ah; now we's talking bizness like," the scoundrel replied, more amiably.
He thought he had succeeded as well as he could have hoped so far, and, being more at his ease, felt about in his pocket for a matchbox to light his pipe, which, all the time, he had had by turns in his mouth or in his hand.
"Seein' as yer must know, sooner or later," he went on, "an', as this knowin' 'll be likely to quicken yer up like, I may as well tell 'ee now all about it."
"I don't want to know now," Maggie hastily interrupted. "I'll take your word for the present, and the next time we meet—"
"Naw. Yer may as well know now. It'll quicken yer up like, as I said. Yer knows they two young pussons, Maggie Moore an' 'er brother William?"
Maggie, spite of herself, uttered a smothered exclamation.
"Well, they is yer brother an' sister!"
As he said this he struck a match to light his pipe, and, on Maggie giving a startled cry, he looked up to enjoy by its light, the surprise he had created.
In that moment he recognised Maggie, and understood the trick that had been played on him.
Instantly he darted to the door, to bar her way, if she should attempt to run out; then called, with a fearful oath, to his confederate.
Then Maggie realised the fearful peril she was in; for she knew the man too well not to be assured that he would be mad with rage, and, in such a mood, would be capable of anything, even murder.
WHEN Maggie, seized with her terror, saw the way out by the door barred, the recollection of the loft flashed across her mind, and, without giving herself time to think, she instinctively turned and ran up the creaking stairway, flung the door-to when she got inside, and shot the bolt. Alas! she knew the respite could be but temporary; the rusty nails that held the fastening would not long resist the strength of two men; but it gave her a short breathing time, and from the window she could cry for help, if, haply, there were anyone abroad at the time in that lonely part.
Denning had seen her movement and rushed after her, but had not expected the bolting of the door; the push he gave against it just after the bolt shot into the socket rebounded on himself. He staggered back, lost his balance, and fell off the top of the stairs—the handrail that had once been fixed to the stairs having long before broken down—coming with a crash to the ground.
He was badly hurt by the fall, and during the pause that followed while his companion went to his assistance, Maggie, at the window, screamed and called for help with the whole power of her voice.
Tim Coney took up the lantern and turned its light on his "pal"; but when he tried to help him to get up, Denning cried out with pain, and asked to be left alone.
Maggie continued to call at the top of her voice, till she was compelled to pause for breath; and in the silence that ensued, her heart sank, as the conviction forced itself upon her that her cries were little likely to be heard by anyone, save the two down below. Then she heard a step slowly ascending the stairs, and the sound so frightened her afresh that she cried out again.
Was it fancy, or did a faint "Halloa!" come floating back from the distance? With beating heart, she called again and listened. Yes, there was an answering cry, more distinct this time. Once more she shouted, and once more came the welcome response, now nearer still; and now, straining her eyes through the darkness, she could see a light moving quickly up and down, and every moment growing clearer, as though someone were carrying a lantern and running quickly.
Just then there came a crash on the door, and she, fearing it had yielded, gave an involuntary shriek. She turned to look, but could make out that the door was still standing firm. Another crash came against it, and she shrieked again, aroused by a grating, creaking sound as though the fastenings were being forced away; but the door still held, and now her cry was answered by a shout close at hand.
Looking out of the window, she saw someone with a lantern almost under it, and a voice cried out, in anxious tones:
"Maggie! Maggie! Where are you? Oh, are you safe still?"
Then she heard hasty steps descending the stairs, and knew that her enemy had also heard the voice and that she was safe. She leaned exhausted on the window sill, and said:
"Yes! O God be praised; you are in time, whoever you are."
And, almost immediately, she heard steps once more coming up the stairs—but welcome steps now; someone knocked on the door, and called to her to open it. She staggered rather than walked across, and pulled back the bolt, and, when the door was pushed open, she saw against the light that now came up from below a tall form approaching her.
The next moment she felt herself held in two strong arms and pressed closely to a man's breast!
In her astonishment at this, and, for the moment, half- alarmed, again she gasped out:
"Who are you?"
"Don't you know me, Maggie, I'm Willie, your brother!"
Then she gave a happy sigh, and fainted.
When she recovered, she found herself surrounded by a group of three or four men—under gardeners and stablemen from Ravenscourt, whom William Moore had brought with him; and soon afterwards Ethel herself arrived.
"I couldn't stay at home and wait," she said, "I was in such suspense. I've run nearly all the way. O, Maggie, Maggie, my poor child, what should I have done if any harm had happened to you?"
Maggie was lying on the floor, half held up by William; but Ethel knelt beside her and took her head against her bosom, just as she had that night long ago in the garret near, the Pentonville road.
And the remembrance of that terrible time came back to the brother when he looked down upon the two, lighted as they were now, by the feeble light of a lantern.
Denning, being unable to move, had been captured; but his accomplice had heard the shouts of William and his companions in time to make good his escape; which he unhesitatingly did, without troubling himself about his "pal."
When they got back to Ethel's home, they found that Mr. Verney had gone out for the evening, so the three young people were free to have a long talk without interruption.
Maggie told her story—or part of it, for she said nothing of the amazing assertion that Denning had made—and then William told his.
It appeared that, on the arrival of his ship, he went to seek Maggie at the last address he knew of but found, of course, that she had left; the people she had lodged with had moved, too, therefore he could get no information of her whereabouts. Then he called on Mr. Rayborne, only to find that he was out of town. He left a brief note, intending to call again next evening, and returned to the docks to look after his duties on board the ship.
On leaving there the following evening, he was accosted by Denning.
Now, William knew nothing more about the man than when he went away; still, he did not care to have anything to do with him. Denning told him an artfully concocted, plausible tale, the sort of thing, as he knew, to work upon the feelings of a good-natured sailor just home from a long separation from friends and country. Denning avowed that he was "a changed man," and hypocritically declared he was, though himself in great poverty, supporting his (William's) old nurse, one "Granny" Davis; that she was very ill in bed, dying, as he believed, and in great distress. And he went on to say how "the poor old creature had often talked and mumbled about 'Master Willie,' and hoped she would not die without seeing him again."
Deceived by this cunningly-concocted story, William accompanied Denning to a house near the docks, where he found Granny in bed sure enough, and he sat down by her side and talked to her. Suddenly, he was clutched round the throat by an arm from behind, and the chair was tilted back, and three men, of whom Denning was one, threw ropes around him, and bound and gagged him, almost before he had recovered from the first murderous clutch upon his throat. Then he was carried into a cellar and locked in. The cellar door had a grating to it, through which Denning would come and talk to him and pass him in bread and water, for they had so managed the tying that he was able to free himself after a while; but the door resisted all his efforts, and though he shouted himself hoarse, no one seemed to hear him save the scoundrels who had trapped him. Denning coolly told him that he had seen and recognised him the day before, and asserted that he had laid this plan in order to get a "ransom," and urged him to write a note to "his friend, Mr. Rayborne," which he, Denning, would undertake to deliver.
After refusing for several days, William, seeing no other chance open to him, finally consented, and they passed him in pen, ink, and paper for the purpose. This was the note that had been made use of to try to induce Ethel to meet Denning at the old mill.
The day after he had written the note, to his surprise, Mr. Rayborne himself appeared and set him free, and urged him to go with all speed to Fairminster and save Miss Verney and Maggie from being deceived by the note he had written with a different object. The wording of this note had been artfully suggested by Denning himself, so as to serve its double purpose. He arrived at Ravenscourt just when Ethel had returned home, thinking to find Maggie waiting for her but had found, instead, her note. Then, with two men and a lantern, arranging for others to follow, he started off at a run for the old mill.
It was good to see Maggie's face, her eyes resting proudly on her stalwart brother, now a fine, handsome young man, while he told them all this.
"But," said Ethel, "how did Mr. Rayborne come to help you, and how did he know what Denning would be likely to do, if this note were not taken to him?"
"He had been in the habit of visiting Granny, it seems," William replied, "and came in to see her by accident—if you so call it. And she, in a fit of repentance, told him the whole plot, and gave him the key of the cellar."
MIKE DENNING, was conveyed to the county gaol, but was found to be so much hurt that he was transferred to the prison infirmary.
From there he sent a piteous appeal for Ethel to come and see him, alleging that he believed that he was going to die that he had something on his mind that was of great moment to her, and that he wished to communicate to her before his death.
Ethel decided to see him, and started the next morning, accompanied by her old nurse, Mrs. White. She did not mention her purpose even to Maggie, who was still weak and ill from the terrible trial she had undergone; but she called on her way to the station at James Dalton's to see his mother; and there, to her surprise, found Charles Rayborne. He had come to see whether he could be of any service.
Ethel gladly accepted his proffered escort on her mission, and the three left together.
It was a matter of some doubt whether the man Denning was in reality as ill as he wished to make out. His object was to tell Ethel the same story he had told to Maggie in the old mill, and craftily to suggest that he would keep silent about it without any money payment, on condition that her friends would refrain from prosecuting him. He was charged with his offence against William Moore.
"It's only an assault," he whined; "and, if yer doesn't choose to 'pear, no one'll do anythin'; whereas," he artfully went on, "if I is proceeded against, why, o' course, I shall have to blurt it all out in open court, and Mr. Verney wouldn't like that, yer know."
Naturally, the sudden revelation which Denning now made of her true parentage came with a great shock to Ethel, for Maggie had told her nothing; but it cannot be said that it affected her so much as might have been expected. She had, all her life, had a great longing to know who her parents had really been; she knew they must have been humble, and in poverty; and it was a relief to her, rather than otherwise, perhaps, to know at last that matters were no worse. And with respect to whatever was regrettable, had she not the fact to set against it that she had found a sister so worthy of her love and esteem as Maggie had proved herself to be? And a brother who was also showing a manly character, that was gaining for him the respect of all who knew him, that could not fail to enable him worthily to live down those past incidents in which, probably, he had been the victim rather than the criminal?
The disgust she could not but feel, too, at Denning's unblushing effrontery and cynical wickedness helped her to keep her motion under control. She felt it would be worse than folly to give any evidence of her real feelings before this hypocritical old villain.
She therefore listened coldly and calmly and almost in silence to his story, merely saying that she must consult with her friends, and would send him word what was decided. Then she left him.
On the return journey she said to Rayborne:
"Of course his tale must be tested; but, somehow, I seem to feel that it is true. My heart tells me so, and it explains the strange influence that has so drawn me to Maggie. It makes me feel more than ever thankful to God, who, in His mysterious way, guided me to her side to aid and save her just at so critical a time. Yes! It must be so; I believe this story. And you believe it, do you not, Rayborne?"
"I do," replied Rayborne, quietly. "I know that it is true—have known it for a long time."
Ethel stared at him in astonishment.
"How can that be?" she exclaimed.
"In this way, Miss Verney. Before William Moore went away, he left in my charge a lot of papers, which we sealed up together. He had not troubled to examine them; but afterwards, thinking the matter over while at sea, he saw he had been wrong in this, and he therefore wrote to me, begging me to look through them for him. There I found a statement by your father, Mr. Moore, clearly setting forth how, having twins born to him, both girls, and being at the time in urgent want of money to save his furniture from being seized, he had accepted an offer of a considerable sum from a doctor for one of the babies, the condition being that he should never claim or interfere with the child in the future. He had great difficulty, he states, in winning over Mrs. Moore's assent; indeed, nothing but the certainty that it was the only means to save their home and prevent the very bed she was lying on from being taken from under her made her consent. But he had no sooner concluded the bargain that he was seized with remorse; so he secretly followed the doctor, and ascertained where the child was taken to. Other papers, giving dates, names, and addresses, and all the necessary corroboration, were there also, left, as he stated, in case they should ever be called for in a court of law. From these I gathered that your parents were of decent family, and had come down in the world, chiefly, as I have no doubt, through your father's unfortunate weakness for strong drink. I learned from old Granny Davis that, in his cups, when drinking with this man Denning, he had let out most of these particulars; but, through it all, he kept the papers carefully hidden away.
"It was those that Denning, who know of their existence, was so anxious to get hold of; he wanted them to enable him to blackmail Mr. Verney, and he laid a cold-blooded, cunning, diabolical plot. It was to get both William and Maggie into disgrace, hoping that Mr. Verney would thereby, be induced to pay a higher price for his silence. There is no doubt that the man who accused William of theft was in league with Denning. They got William into prison, and upon a trumped-up charge; the blow killed your poor mother; and then they were planning some almost unimaginable villainy against the poor motherless girl, when you came upon the scene and saved her. Truly, you are right to say we cannot be too thankful to God, who, in His mercy guided you to the rescue of your own sister from the tender mercies of such wretches. I may add that I do not believe your father would have fallen so far if he had not been urged on by Denning. The scoundrel planned and built upon all this for years; it was to have been the one clever stroke that should get him a good income from Mr. Verney for the remainder of his days."
At this narrative of atrocious villainy, Ethel felt overwhelmed. As Rayborne had proceeded, her ardent young imagination had conjured up in her mind, scene by scene, pictures of the suffering, the misery, the long years of hopeless agony, that had here been caused by the pitiless, selfish wickedness of one man and the weakness of another. While her eyes were full of tears, and her heart seemed ready to burst with its load of sympathy and grief for what her innocent mother, sister, and brother had endured, she gasped for breath almost at the revelation of so much wickedness in the world. She had no conception that wickedness so terrible could be planned and wrought in cold blood by those calling themselves human beings.
"I can scarcely believe it!" she sobbed. "My very reason seems as though it must totter over in the effort to grasp it all."
Rayborne smiled sadly, and regarded her with deep compassion.
"Ah, my dear young lady," he said, mournfully, "once I was like you. But my experience has taught me many bitter truths. Yet, if it is true that we see, and are compelled to believe in the reality of almost inconceivable wickedness, it is also true that we come across instances of great goodness, at times, to set against it, of noble self-sacrifice, and the most unselfish devotion. And I think that, of all examples in our existence in this complex and wonderful world, no human being appears to come so near to our ideal of godlike goodness as does the mother who makes sacrifices for her children. Of such was your own mother, Mrs. Moore."
"Ah, you knew her!" Ethel exclaimed, "and I—alas—never did! Yet she was induced to believe evil of her own innocent son! O cruel! Cruel! Cruel!"
"Let us hope she knows the truth now, and is comforted," Rayborne said, reverently lifting his hat. "If so, think of the joy with which she must contemplate the re-union of her children after all their perils!"
"I have seen this Denning several times of late, and have endeavored to keep an eye upon him. One day at the prison gate I chanced, as you already know, to be able to render a service to the old woman known as Granny Davis, who was your mother's nurse when you were born. Denning, as you may remember, had got hold of her; he was, in fact, endeavoring to turn to account her knowledge of the circumstances relating to you. She was given to drink, and he encouraged her, and she got in prison through it, for being drunk and assaulting another woman in a quarrel. By visiting her I have gradually gained some influence over her, and that enabled me to liberate your brother. When she saw me, she could not keep it from me, but confessed the whole plot, and told me where to find the key of the cellar in which he was confined."
"Ah! How shall I ever thank you enough for it!"
"And now," Rayborne went on, "I must tell you something else about your brother. He is a noble fellow! What he told us in his letters was but a small part of the truth. I have now seen the captain and the owners, and they say they can't speak too highly of him. By his bravery and unselfish devotion he saved many lives, the captain's amongst them. From the time he left England he worked hard to improve himself—the good-natured captain helping him—and thus it was that he was able to get an acting mate's certificate out in Sydney. Otherwise he could not have taken the post when it was offered to him. Ah! you should hear all they said! You have no reason to be ashamed of your brother, Miss Verney, I assure you."
"I should think not," said Ethel, with sparkling eyes. "I never should have been. But you, too; you go about amongst these dreadful people, venturing into tigers' dens, risking your life, helping and rescuing other people. And you speak of it all as quietly as though it were the same thing as visiting well-behaved folk in their West-end mansions."
To this Rayborne made no reply, and, to change the subject, referred again to Denning, advising Ethel to tell Mr. Verney all she had learned, and then to let Denning go his way.
"He knows the game is up," he observed, "and will never attempt to interfere with any of you again; he knows it would be too dangerous. It will be better to do this—for Mr. Verney's sake."
When Ethel was alone with Maggie that evening, in the privacy of her own room, she told her she knew all. Then, held tenderly in her arms Maggie wept tears of gladness, and evinced in a thousand ways her delight at having Ethel at last for a real sister, and being able to show all her long-repressed love and affection without restraint.
Long that night they sat at the open window. The air was mild, and the valley, with its shining river, lay sleeping tranquilly in the light of the silver moon; and when at last they went to bed, they slept locked in each other's arms.
The next morning Mr. Verney went out early, and so Ethel's intended communication had to be deferred. William Moore had gone back to London to report himself to the captain and owners and explain his absence.
During the morning there came a letter from Charles Rayborne.
"After leaving you yesterday," it ran, "it occurred to me to go back to see Denning to try the effect of an offer to stay proceedings, on condition that he told the truth about William Moore's unfortunate experience. As a result, I obtained from him a full and complete confession, which I have now the pleasure to enclose. It is duly signed and attested, and, as you will perceive, admits that your brother William was falsely accused by this scoundrel and his confederate, and was absolutely innocent of the theft for which he was convicted. This will be a great comfort to you, and I send it on at once, that you may communicate it to him and to your sister. As for myself, I am called away hastily to my cousin George, who, I regret to tell you, is very ill, and has sent begging me to go to him; otherwise I would have brought Denning's confession to you myself."
Ethel remained for some time musing over this letter and the document it contained, and she thought sadly how that piece of paper would have comforted her mother's anguished heart had she been seen it. Then her thoughts wandered to George Rayborne's illness, and the pain she knew it would cause to Charles. It seemed hard this should come just then, at the moment when, at Fairminster, they all had reason for heartfelt satisfaction, for gratitude to Heaven, for all that had come about. Ethel knew now that Maggie was her sister, and was happy in that knowledge; William had been restored to them, and his character was cleared. Truly she saw great cause for thankfulness, and did not forget to breathe a grateful prayer, while hastening to seek out Maggie and tell her the fresh news.
When Mr. Verney returned, she went to him and made known all that she had learned. He listened to it almost in silence, and then dismissed her with an affectionate kiss, saying he would like to be alone to think it over. But later in the day he sent for her to his study, and there announced the conclusion he had come to.
"I cannot fail to recognise in all this, my dear Ethel," he began, "that the hand of God has guided you in a wonderful and mysterious way to the discovery and rescue of your brother and sister. His blessing has followed upon your desire to share with others a portion of the better fortune that was yours. The question now is, how to render more complete a reunion so strangely brought about and so clearly the work of a higher Power and Will than ours. The first consideration is, of course, the question of your names. Either, then, you must change yours back to Moore, or—"
"Or what?" Ethel asked, a little anxiously, when the other hesitated.
"Or," the old gentleman went on, kindly, "she must change her name to Verney, and become my adopted daughter like yourself."
Ethel's face lighted up with a radiant smile.
"O, father!" she exclaimed, and she clasped her hands. "How kind of you! How lovely that would be! But," a shade of anxiety came over her, "there is William. He—"
"I have thought of that, too," interjected Mr. Verney. "If the sister is worthy—and I know she is—so too, should the brother be. I have no children. I have adopted one, and"—looking affectionately at her—"she has been a blessing and a comfort to me in my loneliness. That experience encourages me to charge myself with the future of an adopted son. I am not so well off as I was; but it happens I can still do a good deal here. Much of my money is invested in the firm of shipowners with whom you your brother is employed. He has already done well, unassisted; but, with my influence to back him up, he ought to do still better, and to become a man of whom we shall all be proud. Don't you think so, Ethel?"
But Ethel ran out of the room, called Maggie, and breathlessly explained to her the "glorious news." Then she led her in to Mr. Verney, and the two knelt down and asked for and received the old man's blessing.
GEORGE RAYBORNE'S illness proved to be his last; and, when Charles reached his bedside, he found his cousin sinking rapidly. He remained with him and watched him carefully day and night, but felt from the first that there was no hope of his recovery.
But George was cheerful and resigned. He greeted his cousin with the old smile of welcome, thanking him again and again for coming to comfort him in his last hours.
"And you will be a comfort to the poor old dad, too, Charles?" he asked, wistfully. "I know that he was rough on you, and you did not part quite good friends when you came down here that time."
"I did not part bad friends with him, George," Charles answered, in a low tone. "So there is nothing for me to make up. He was vexed at the time merely because I could not promise to do something he pressed upon me. If he has now ceased to desire it, the trouble is at an end."
"Yes, yes," George assented. "And you must try to forget it all. He will have no one else when I am gone."
And Charles, the tears in his eyes, pressed the other's hand and told him he might be easy upon the matter he had so much at heart.
By his uncle Charles was received quietly, and without any show of feeling. The baronet, in his grief at the illness of his only son, seemed too stunned to trouble himself greatly about anyone or anything.
And here, beside the death-bed of their dying cousin, Charles and Lady Maud met once more; but their common grief overshadowed all else, and little was said on either side.
In what seemed to the anxious watchers a cruelly short time, George Rayborne passed away, dying, as he had lived, unspoiled by the worldly good fortune that had fallen to his lot, and full of simple faith and trust in the God he had tried to serve.
He left many grieving hearts behind him, especially the poor whom he had thought for, planned for, and cheerfully spent his money on. And it was found that in dying he had not forgotten them; nor did he forget his cousin Charles, or his peculiar position in relation to Sir Henry.
He left a will and a letter; the will left a thousand pounds a year to carry on the good work he had begun; Charles was appointed executor and trustee for carrying out his wishes, with a legacy of a thousand pounds a year to enable him to give up other duties and devote himself to this special work. In the letter the testator expressed the hope that Charles would not refuse his last request, but would come to Winterton to live, "if not actually with Sir Henry." But Charles, reading between the lines, quite understood. There was little doubt that George, with his accustomed thoughtfulness, had in his mind first the bringing together of the uncle and nephew, and, secondly, the making of the latter independent of the former, that he might not be absolutely dependent upon Sir Henry's bounty. George had had only a comparatively small fortune absolutely his own; and he thus divided it between his cousin and those poorer friends whose welfare he had at heart. And Charles recognised this, and deeply appreciated the love and kindliness that had dictated the disposition.
It was some three months after the death of George Rayborne that Charles Rayborne one day visited Ravenscourt and sought an interview with Mr. Verney. His face and manner were unusually grave and thoughtful, and Mr. Verney at once saw that he had something of more than ordinary interest to communicate. He opened the conversation thus:
"I have come here to-day Mr. Verney, to put to the test a question that has long been in my mind, and has caused much anxious thought. Ever since I first knew your daughter I have had but one conviction; that she was the only one in the world that I could ask to be my wife. For long, however, I tried to repress this feeling, because I did not think I should ever be in a position to make it probable I might ask for your consent with any hope of success. Latterly, things have changed with me through the death of my dear cousin, George. His thoughtful kindness has placed me in a different position; and I am now Sir Henry Rayborne's heir, too, for he recognises that I have done what I could to supply the place of George. We are, indeed, now upon such terms that I need fear no opposition from him; and he wishes to see me married. I think, sir, therefore, I may fairly ask for your consent—always supposing your daughter—"
"Ah!" said Mr. Verney, with it smile and a twinkle in his eye, "and what does Ethel say?"
"I do not know; I have said nothing to her yet. I wanted to be assured of your approval first, and then—"
Then Mr. Verney rose and left the room, and for some minutes Rayborne was alone and in a state of consideration, doubt and perturbation. But Mr. Verney soon returned, leading Ethel by the hand.
"Rayborne," he said, "I have seen for some time how it is between you and Ethel. I have asked her the question you would put to her. Once before I asked such another; on that occasion she said 'No.' But to-day she answers 'Yes.' Take her, my lad, and may God bless you both."
And with that he went away, and left them.
But though the old gentleman had been so well-prepared in Ethel's case, he was altogether taken aback, when, some days afterwards, Dalton came to prefer a similar request with regard to Maggie.
Thanks to the intercession of Charles Rayborne with Sir Henry, Dalton had been appointed to the living at Winterton where his father had formerly been vicar, and which was now vacant, through the retirement on promotion of the Reverend Mr. Selwood.
"I and my mother are thus back at our old home," said Dalton, "and we shall be close to Charles; so Maggie would be near to her sister."
"I see," said Mr. Verney, good-humouredly, "A very nice little family arrangement, so far as you young people are concerned. Just as well I adopted a son, I think, since I am not to be allowed to keep my daughters."
Then he sent for Maggie, kissed her, and gave her into James's charge; and went out on to the terrace to reflect on this new development.
A short time afterwards Charles met Lady Maud at Rayborne Court; she cordially congratulated him. She had heard the news by a letter from Ethel herself.
"I wish you every happiness," she said. "You could not have chosen better. She is a brave, noble girl."
"But I do not forget," he answered, earnestly, "that you saved her life."
Lady Maud looked away in the distance.
"I don't know as to that," she said, "but, if I did, remember also, Charles, that I know I was saving her for you. Think of me more kindly in the future. I am not all selfishness and frivolity."
And, before he could reply, she turned and left him.
Charles and Ethel are now Sir Charles and Lady Rayborne, and have been living at Rayborne Court for several years, for Sir Henry did not long survive his son. James Dalton and Maggie are living at the old vicarage with his mother. Happy children are running about both homes. Mr. Verney comes so often to see them that Ravenscourt is almost deserted save when the young people pay him a visit in turn. Lady Maud is still unmarried, but is always cheerful, and appears contented, and she joins more and more, as time goes on, with Ethel and Maggie in their work amongst the surrounding poor, and, in particular, among the dwellers in George Rayborne's model village—now, however, a busy, thriving "model town."
William is now Captain Verney, and commands one of the great liner steamships. He is still unmarried, but he is a great favorite with his young nephews and nieces when he comes to spend his leave amongst them. He travels far and sees much of the world, but always declares that two such godly, peaceful, happy homes are not to be found in the wide world as those of his two sisters; and every day he tenders grateful thanks for the happiness that has come to them.
But they do far more than give thanks with the lips; for they strive to follow the path that Ethel, in another smaller way, had marked out for herself, and to help those of their fellow creatures who are struggling in adversity. Every week, every day, sees some kindly act performed, some forlorn one comforted, some heartache solaced, until the number of those who owe them gratitude, and who daily call down blessings on their heads, has become past counting. Their hearts are ever tender for the griefs of others, and they have had that experience that fits them to sympathise with all, both rich and poor, for verily they have partaken of both estates—have worn both sack-cloth and fine linen.
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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