Near King Ahab's palace in Jezreel there was a vineyard owned by a man named Naboth.
One day Ahab said to Naboth, "Let me have your vineyard; it is close to my palace, and I want to use the land for a vegetable garden. I will give you a better vineyard for it or, if you prefer, I will pay you a fair place."
"I inherited this vineyard from my ancestors," Naboth replied. "The Lord forbid that I should let you have it!"
— 1st Kings 21
'BUT it is such a pretty scheme, Heath. The place has been my envy for years; and now to let such an opportunity go by would be almost like flying in the face of Providence.'
Colonel Sandhurst spoke very warmly; in a way, indeed, which was quite a contrast to his usual calm judicious utterance. He had his long neatly clad limbs planted very widely apart before the fireplace of Mr Heath's private office; while the latter gentleman sat at a desk stabbing a blotting-pad with a penknife, as if he were slaughtering his client's arguments as they cropped up, hydra-headed, before this legal Hercules.
'It is a pretty scheme,' said he, with a certain dry irritation. 'I've seen plenty of them in my time—mostly failures. And I don't mind telling you in all candour that I hope this will be one. Why can't you leave Mrs Charlesworth alone? Here you have one of the most beautiful places in Sussex, a handsome almost princely income to keep it up, and yet nothing but the possession of Fernleigh will content you.'
'But don't you see there is no house on my property down here?—three
thousand acres in a ring-fence with Fernleigh and its five hundred
right in the centre. It seems very hard—'
'It is a great deal harder for my poor client, Mrs Charlesworth, to turn out of her old home.—Oh! of course as mortgagee you have a perfect right to foreclose, and I am a great fool to allow sentiment in business.'
'But if the woman can't afford to live there, what right has she to stay?'
'Cannot you understand that if this long-delayed Chancery business was concluded, she would have ample means? I wish you would abandon this plan, Sandhurst; I do indeed. If you only knew how attached the poor little woman is to her home; how happy she is there with her daughter, and her blind boy—there, hang it, you couldn't do it! Of course I am a weak-minded old man, but—'
The Colonel pulled his long moustaches in some perturbation of spirit. Usually speaking, he was a kind-hearted individual enough, and really felt very sorry for Mrs Charlesworth's unmerited misfortunes. But at the same time it is very annoying, as most landed proprietors know, to have a long stretch of some one else's property exactly in the centre of your own. And, moreover, the Bartonsham estate was celebrated for its preserves, while the unhappy owner of Fernleigh had no sympathy with the pursuit of either foxes or pheasants. Colonel Sandhurst had no personal antipathy to his neighbour; nevertheless, when an opportunity offered for a heavy mortgage, he jumped at the chance. And now that more than two years' interest was in arrear, and the Colonel in a position to foreclose at any moment, the temptation was too strong to be resisted.
'I do not see why I should drag a lot of sentiment into the matter,' he said reflectively. 'Of course I am very sorry, and all that kind of thing; but if I don't have it, some one else will, you see.'
'I am afraid so,' the lawyer groaned parenthetically. 'I see that plainly enough.'
'Very well, then. Again, if it comes to a sale, I shall probably be run up to a fancy sum by one or more of the lady's friends.—Come, I will make you a proposition. My mortgage is for seven thousand five hundred, and for this the property is legally mine. But I don't want to appear grasping. Suppose we call it a sale, and I give you another two thousand five hundred for your client I call that a fairly generous offer.'
Mr Heath dug his knife three times in rapid succession into the blotting-pad and dropped it with a sigh of defeat. Of course it was a generous offer, an extremely generous offer, and yet beyond the folded blue papers and red tape and tin boxes, there was before his mind's eye a picture framed by a long avenue of ancient fruit-trees: the vision of a gentle-faced little lady with a blind lad leaning on her arm, and the last words she had said to him were ringing in his ears now. They were such simple words, too: 'If I lose this,' she had said with a wistful glance, 'I lose all hope—not for myself, but for the children.'
'I should like to refuse it,' observed the lawyer. 'I should like, metaphorically speaking, to throw your mortgage in your face and snap my fingers at your legal rights. It all comes of this atrocious sentiment; and the worst of it is that your offer is so magnificent, that, speaking as a man of business, I dare not refuse it; only you must give us a week to think it over.'
Colonel Sandhurst smiled benignly, and expanded, as a man will who is conscious of having done a generous action. 'Fernleigh is a beautiful old house,' he observed complacently, 'and will be the very place for Frank and his bride. The old soldiers are pretty tough in a general way; but hard service begins to tell after fifty,' and I should like to see my boy settled before long. Ethel Morton is an extremely nice girl, and will make the lad a good wife,'
'Provided always, as we say, that the lad is willing. I wouldn't set my heart too firmly upon that match, if I were you, Colonel. Captain Frank is no longer a boy, to be commanded into matrimony.'
'He was always a very obedient son, though; and by Jove, sir, one to be
proud of. Of course you heard all about that Victoria Cross and the
fearful wound he received; but he will be here next week to answer for himself. In his last letter he says that the six months at Madeira have quite set him up again. If anything had happened to him—'
Here the speaker paused and hummed a fragment of operatic music with a great show of palpably assumed gaiety, while Mr Heath looked out across Castleford's principal street, deeply interested in the facetious conversation of two cabmen in the sunny sleepy square below.
'Would you like to go over Fernleigh?' he asked suddenly, his mind still dwelling uneasily on the old topic 'It would ease my client's mind to know that she is not in the hands of an investment-seeking ogre; and, as a matter of fact, I don't believe she knows the name of her principal creditor.—What do you say to running over one day this week?'
'Well, I don't know,' said the gallant warrior hesitatingly; 'it seems almost like an intrusion, and in anything but the best taste. You see I—'
'Yes, I see you haven't pluck enough to face Mrs Charlesworth. But, as you are bound to meet some time, the sooner the better. I am going out there this afternoon, and will mention it.'
The Colonel nodded slightly with a perplexed smile on his lips, but he did not answer, for the simple reason that Mr Heath was right. There was a momentary silence between them, in which the humorous conversation of the cabmen could be distinctly heard.
'I mean to remain in the neighbourhood till this matter is settled one way or another,' replied the ex-dragoon at length; 'and Frank will probably join me at the Green Dragon later on. And if it is a question of another thousand you will not find me obdurate.'
With this parting magnificence the colonel extended his neatly gloved hand, and took his way down the dark stairs, and thence into the High Town with the air of a man who has discharged a delicate commission in an eminently praiseworthy fashion.
But if he felt on such excellent terms with himself, not so Mr Heath. The worthy solicitor was fain to own himself beaten, and handsomely beaten at that, for it is really hard to quarrel with a man who insists upon making a total stranger a present of such a good round sum as three thousand and some odd hundreds of pounds.
Mr Heath felt genuinely sorry for his old friend and client, Mrs Charlesworth; a sympathy none the less keen because at one time, many years ago, there had been the dream of a home over which Margaret Hay was to have held the undisputed sway and sovereignty. As the practical business-man gazed out through the grimy windows, memory was very busy with him, jumbled up strangely with business instincts and vague shadowy plans for Margaret Charlesworth's welfare. The old bachelor's heart was still green enough to realise the poignant sorrow which the loss of her home would be to the only woman who had ever caused his pulses to beat the faster. And as he drove along the deep country lanes an hour later, he seemed more strongly to realise what a wrench it would be. In the valley lay Fernleigh, its twisted chimney stacks above the belt of immemorial elms, where the rooks were busy, and doves crooned in the peaceful silence of the afternoon. But a stone's-throw down the road between high hedges, where violet and foxglove and dog-roses were blooming, were the gates, moss-grown and rusted, but still beautiful, for they had come from the foundry of Quintin Matsys, carried hither more than two hundred years ago by some art-loving Hay, who had followed the profession of the sword, as gentlemen did in those days. Beyond the gates lay a short circular sweep leading to the house, a gray stone building with pointed gables richly carved with birds and flowers, as one sees them occasionally in districts where the soldiers of the Commonwealth failed to penetrate; while on either side of the smoothly shaven lawn, with its spreading copper beeches, was a sloping bank topped by a thick laurel hedge, beyond which lay the gardens, each enclosed by high stone walls.
And if Mrs Charlesworth loved one part of her fair demesne better than another, it was the garden. There appeared to be no serious attempt at order, as one sees in such places nowadays, for the mossy paths were overgrown with eglantine and tulip and York roses, shaded by espaliers and arched bowers of the filbert and golden pippin, with just enough neatness in its elegant disorder to show the hand of care. There was a fragrance in the air, a scent of sweet brier and lavender, mingled with mignonette half-hidden under the fallen petals of the apple blossom. The same now as it might have been a century since; the same as its sorrowing mistress first remembered it, when as a tiny child she rode on her father's shoulder and plucked the sunny peaches on the ripe south wall; the same as when her whitening hair was a tangled net of gold and her violet eyes stirred sleeping hearts in vain. For Fernleigh had been her own home before Vivian Charlesworth had distanced all rivals and won the heart of Margaret Hay; a place to see and love, but a place to leave with lingering and regret
Mr Heath walked his horse along the drive, under the shadow of an arching belt of chestnuts in the full glory of leaf and flower, past the open hall door with a cool dim vision of polished oak and blue china beyond. In the green court, wallflowers flourished on the stone buttresses, there were ferns on the stable roof amongst the stone-crop and celandine. There was no helper in the yard, so the visitor put up his own horse, and having done so, mounted a short flight of steps, and pushing back a little rustic gate under two cropped yew-trees, entered the garden. Walking there under the apple boughs was the mistress of Fernleigh, a book in her hand, the other resting on the shoulder of a boy some twelve years of age.
There were gray lines in the soft bright hair under the white lace cap, a subdued sadness in the fair face, otherwise untouched by the ruffling hand of time; and yet a pleasant beautiful face, for beauty at fifty is something we like to gaze upon again. As she looked up, her eyes fell upon Heath with a pleased smile of welcome.
'This is very good of you,' she said. 'You guessed where we should be found. I thought Vivian had had enough music, so we came out here, and brought Vanity Fair with us.'
'Which character do you like best, Mr Heath?' asked the boy eagerly. 'George Osborne or Major Dobbin? We prefer the Major.'
'Being unpractical people, naturally,' answered the lawyer.—'Perhaps I have a sneaking affection for him myself; though, professionally speaking, I dare not say so openly.—So that is the last hero, Vivian?'
Vivian turned his wide blue eyes in the speaker's direction—those sightless eyes, that seemed, none the less, to read the very soul of those they encountered—and a slightly puzzled expression crept into his face.
'Why cannot you say what you think?' he asked.
'Because we do not dwell in the palace of Truth, my child.—And now, run away to your music while I talk business with the mother, though it does seem a sin to bring red tape into this pure atmosphere.'
The boy walked slowly away down the path, touching a leafy spray here and there with outstretched fingers. For a moment they both stood watching him; the one tenderly, almost yearningly, the other with a shade of sadness and pity in his honest gray eyes.
'John,' exclaimed Mrs Charlesworth, suddenly turning to her companion, 'if it were not for him the parting would not be so keen.'
'Keen enough to break your heart,' returned the lawyer gruffly. 'You cannot yet realise it, Margaret. I know your feelings, perhaps better than you comprehend them yourself. When yon love every inch of the ground—'
'I do—that is true enough. And the thought of it all keeps me awake at nights, it haunts me as I walk here by day. Cannot you understand what it is to love every tree and leaf and flower—to have a tender association or wistful memory attached to each single foot of soil? There is everlasting youth for me here, but still—'
John Heath at this moment was seized with a sudden fit of coughing, a circumstance which perhaps accounted for the unusual dimness in his eyes. Conscious of some feeling of inherent weakness, he became more dry and business-like than usual; his habit when touched.
'If this wonderful memory of yours would enable you to remember where your grandfather hid that precious assignment, it would be the better for all parties concerned. Allowing that the deed cannot be found, Miss Morton takes the whole of the funded property. But if we can only discover it, the fifty thousand pounds at present invested in consols goes to you, and the Kingswell estates besides.'
'It never will be found; indeed, I almost doubt if it was ever executed,' said Mrs Charlesworth wearily. 'It is all so strange and puzzling.'
'Not at all. When you married your cousin, Vivian Charlesworth, who was a great scoundrel, if I am any judge—'
'John, he was my husband, and he is dead.'
'And a good thing too,' exclaimed the lawyer hotly.—'Well, you know how angry your grandfather, Martin Hay, was about that, though you were his favourite grandchild. By his will he left everything to your cousin Mary, who afterwards married Wilfred Morton. Of course you remember how the old gentleman used to boast that he never altered his mind; and when his feelings changed towards you, he refused to make a new will. But by deed he assigned to you the income arising from the London property, and the Kingswell estates. There is no doubt whatever about that. The assignment was given into the custody of your father, and held by him up to the time of his death. And it is my opinion that when Vivian Charlesworth got hold of the title-deeds to this place and tried to raise money on them (as he did), he must have found it somewhere, and laid it aside for future use.'
Mrs Charlesworth followed this story with a vague idea as to her legal adviser's meaning. Then, with some faint show of interest, she inquired if Heath knew anything of this unknown relative who seemed determined to take the full measure of her legal rights.
'All I know is that she is young, and is, moreover, being well advised—that is, from a purely business point of view. You see they have everything on their side, and plenty of money to prosecute the suit. If they refuse to accept my offer of a compromise, Fernleigh must go.'
The listener caught the full significance of these last words, and her breath came a little more quickly. She looked up at the blue sky above the apple blooms, and away down the dim green avenue to the house beyond. How bitterly hard it seemed, doubly hard standing there in the full fresh beauty of the summer afternoon, hallowed by the sweet recollection of a thousand such, a maze of pleasant memory, back to the dim remembrance of childhood.
John Heath waited to allow the whole force of the declaration to strike home before he resumed again. 'Believe me it is best to tell you this plainly, though it is painful enough to me. I have had a long talk with your mortgagee this afternoon, and he has made what I consider to be a handsome offer. Of course he can take the whole place as it stands at any moment; but he will do better than that: he will buy the place for three thousand five hundred over his claim.'
'That is very generous,' said Mrs Charlesworth with an unsteady smile. 'Would not that sum invested at five per cent bring us in a hundred and seventy-five pounds a year? Three people can live on that.'
'A great many people live on less. And besides, if I am any judge of Miss Gladys' character, she will be no weight on your hands.—Margaret, you are singularly blessed in your daughter.'
'I am blessed in both my children, John. Now I suppose you will want to bring my generous creditor over here soon? I wish I could feel sufficiently grateful, but I am rebellious as yet And if you can forget business for a time, perhaps a cup of tea—'
'Not this afternoon, thank you; I must be in Castleford by six. I will let you know when the colonel is coming.'
They walked down the garden path side by side; and as Heath brought his trap round, Vivian stole from the house to his mother's side. He seemed by some subtle instinct to feel her presence near him, as he could tell the footsteps of those he loved.
'Mother, are you unhappy? he asked.
'I, dear? Why should you think that?'
'I don't know; perhaps it was my fancy. Some way, it seems lately that you and Gladys are so much quieter after Mr Heath comes.'
Any reply was prevented by the sound of the lawyer's approaching carriage wheels. They walked by his side to the gates, and afterwards stood for a long while watching him as he drove away. Presently, Vivian lifted his hand, and laid it gently on his mother's cheek. 'You feel happier than you did, mother?' he said.
Mrs Charlesworth turned from the contemplation of the peaceful landscape, and bending over the boy, kissed his brow tenderly. 'Much happier, Vivian, almost quite,' she replied, and as she said these words, the tears lay on her cheek unseen.
BY dint of long morning lounges in the County Club, of which select institution he was a member, Colonel Sandhurst succeeded in killing the three heavy days which divided him from his son's company. Not that he was altogether a martyr to boredom, for there were many delicate plans to be finally settled; last, but not least, the masterstroke of inviting his ward, Miss Ethel Morton, and her aunt to be his guests for a few days, and thus bring the heiress in immediate and close contact with Captain Frank Sandhurst, his reputation and his Victoria Cross. This latter coveted trophy had been won some twelve months before in one of the recent South African wars.
The diplomatic old soldier stood in the elegant private sitting-room devoted to his use, consulting is watch impatiently, for it was approaching the hour of seven, and the expected travellers were due; it having been so arranged that they might travel down from London together, and thus cement the friendship. It was therefore a considerable disappointment to the Colonel when the ladies arrived by themselves, the recalcitrant swain having failed them at the last moment.
'He will be here by the mail,' Miss Morton explained, when the preliminary greetings were over. 'It was some tiresome business at the War Office, I believe he said. Perhaps the Commander-in-Chief required his opinion upon some important matter. But really I am so hungry that I can't sympathise with you over the terrible affliction.
Colonel Sandhurst pulled the bell with more than necessary violence, while his fair visitor looked out on the broad street below with languid interest She was a pleasant, merry-looking blonde, with fair hair, and kindly blue eyes full of mischief; but withal sympathetic and true as steel to her friends. Miss Cramer, the aunt in question, was a gentle placid nobody, who was only too glad of the opportunity to efface herself on every occasion, the sort of easy-going old lady who, if properly clad and regularly fed, asked nothing more from her fellow-creatures. If asked what she lived for, she would have shaken her head smilingly, and declined the solution of so solemn and unnecessary a problem.
Over his soup and glass of brown sherry, the colonel succeeded in recovering his lost equanimity. The dinner was well served, the Wye trout and ducklings delicately cooked, and the colonel was but mortal. By the time the peaches had arrived, his brown face beamed with hospitable smiles,
'Beautiful neighbourhood,' he observed patronisingly, 'and salmon-fishing excellent—Now, if there was only a house on the Bartonsham property, we might make a pleasant summer here.'
'I suppose the people are civilised?' Miss Ethel returned, helping herself to some grapes. Miss Cramer had long since dropped into one of her waking trances. 'Let us go and sit out on that pretty balcony among the flowers, and study the Castlefordian in his native lair, as we used to do at San Remo. Besides, I know you want a cigar.'
They took their chairs out on to the balcony in the fading light, looking north to an old church with tall gray spire; and immediately before them, beyond the elms where the noisy rooks were swinging, rose the square cathedral tower. The Colonel lay back and smoked his tobacco with a feeling of perfect tranquillity and contentment
'Yes,' he continued,' it is a great pity there is no house at Bartonsham. In that case we might stay here till the autumn, and learn something of the county. They say the Wye tour is as beautiful as the Rhine.'
'Why not build a house?' asked the listener, toying with a rosebud.
'Ah, but you see I have a better plan than that. It is so long since you were here before that you probably forget Fernleigh.'
'Indeed, I do not; that is, if you mean that beautiful place on the Lugwardine Road. I believe I coveted that house more than any one I ever saw. When I get old and careworn, I shall like to have just such another place to call my own.'
'Perhaps there are more unlikely things than that, because, you see, I am in negotiation for the purchase of that very house.'
'Indeed!—Do you mean to say the owner is actually selling it?'
In spite of his jubilation at this outburst on Miss Ethel's part, the gallant Colonel's conscience gave him a sharp twinge. It seemed very strange that he could not help being conscious of a certain guilty feeling of remorse for the part he was playing.
'Yes; but not from choice. It appears that there is some law business pending in which the owner is interested. I never had any head for that kind of thing, consequently I did not pay much attention to Heath's explanation.'
'It seems very hard,' said Miss Ethel sympathetically, as she watched the golden points of flame. 'Having a pet lawsuit of my own, I can feel for the luckless owner. But then men do not feel the same sentiment in these things as women do.'
'But you see the owner happens to be—a lady.'
'And you are actually going to turn her out?—Colonel Sandhurst, I am ashamed of you! Really, you should—'
But any further scolding for the Colonel was interrupted at this moment of the rattle of wheels below and the sound of a well-known voice giving orders to an hotel servant. In less time than it takes to tell, Colonel Sandhurst was grasping his soldier-son's left hand, the right being supported across his breast by a silk bandage. The Colonel's lip quivered slightly, his eyes glistened as he looked into his boy's face. Miss Ethel gave a rapid sign to Miss Cramer, fortunately awake, and together they left the room, closing the door behind them; and a full hour had elapsed before they were missed by the serenely happy father.
The next morning being perfectly fine and breakfast over, the Colonel proposed a walk, a proposition declined by Miss Morton on the ground that she had a vast amount of business in the way of shopping to do. So the Colonel, nothing loth, started off with Frank Sandhurst to explore the lions of the town. They passed through the Close, under the ancient elms shading a smooth shaven lawn, into the Castle Green, where erstwhile a border fortress stood, with the silver Wye at its feet and the smiling landscape beyond. A pleasant spot to pass an hour in the leafy shade with a glimpse of the old moat, and white swans floating on the water, and the air laden with the fragrance of the hawthorn. For a time they sat in silence, this old war-worn warrior and his gallant son, watching the flowing water as it hurried downwards to the sea.
'It is good to be in England again,' Frank observed at length. 'After that broiling climate out there, the sight of a green field and cool stream makes it seem like home.'
'No place like England, after all,' rejoined the Colonel. 'And, talking about home, I hope you have made up your mind to stay. If I let you have the place here with the house I am buying, don't you think you might cut the army, and settle down in the usual fashion?'
'By which you mean matrimony, of course.—To tell you the truth, I have never given the matter anything but the most vague consideration. Naturally, I shall marry some day; that is, if I can find some "fair impossible she" who is rash enough to care for me.'
The Colonel stole a side-glance at the speaker's manly figure and handsome bronzed features, and thought that such a contingency was by no means so remote as the modest youth would imply. 'You have not seen one up to now, then?'
'Well, n-no,' Frank returned doubtfully. 'I was never much of "a squire of dames." There was one girl I met out yonder; I very nearly forgot her. Yes, perhaps if I had had more opportunity, I might—Dad, she was the nicest girl I ever came across—one of the nurses, you know.'
'An hospital nurse!' said the Colonel coldly. 'Not precisely the wife a Sandhurst would generally choose.'
'More fool the Sandhurst, then,' Frank replied as coolly. 'And as a matter of fact I may mention that if it hadn't been for that same lady—as she was a lady, too—you and I would not be sitting here to-day.'
'That is always the way with you romantic boys—every little service rendered and paid for in the usual way is magnified into a great debt of gratitude.'
'If life is worth living, then I owe mine to her.'
'And probably would lay it at her feet, after the good old-fashioned lines laid down in ancient comedy,' returned the father, pulling his long moustache in some irritation. 'And regret it ever afterwards.'
'She had a beautiful face,' Frank continued, speaking as if to himself; 'a perfect face; fair, with glorious violet eyes. Fancy her coming all the way from England to nurse a brother who was wounded! He died, you see; and she stayed on to do all the good she might. Then she found me unconscious, and at death's door, and nursed me to life, God bless her! because I was something like her lost one. Under Providence, I owe my health and strength to her.'
'It was nobly done,' cried the Colonel, catching some of his son's enthusiasm. 'I should like to hear the name of this angel of mercy.'
'That is precisely what I can't tell you. I did ask her more than once when I was getting better; but she never would disclose her identity. "Call me Gladys," she would say; "it reminds me of my dear brother," and Gladys I always called her afterwards.'
'Um! You seem to have done considerably well for an invalid,' said the Colonel grimly; 'fortunately, that kind of romance soon wears itself out. And besides, I have formed other plans for you.'
'That's uncommonly kind of you,' returned the younger man as grimly. 'Let us be candid.—Who is the lady you have chosen?'
'What do you say to Ethel Morton?'
Frank burst into a laugh so spontaneous and full of merriment, that the Colonel was compelled to stroke his moustache to hide a half-smile, though his face preserved the same look of judicial gravity.
'My dear father, you can't be serious? Consider how long we nave known each other, and how well we understand the weaknesses of each other's disposition. Besides which, there is another Richmond in the field.'
'Oh, indeed,' cried the Colonel ruefully. 'That's the first I've heard of it—'
'It didn't take me long to find it out You don't suppose that a really nice girl like Ethel can go through the best part of two London seasons without admirers?—Cresswell told me.'
'Oh, it's Cresswell, is it? Now I come to remember, he has been uncommonly civil to me the last month or two.'
'That's the gay Lothario. We had a talk about Castleford a few days ago, more particularly touching the salmon-fishing. He seemed to be very much inclined to run down here for a week or two. I shouldn't be at all surprised if he turned up at any moment'
When a man has been nursing a pet scheme for some years, till it becomes almost a part and parcel of his existence, the sense of defeat is very humiliating. And so the Colonel found it at this moment. Not that he altogether despaired; but then Sir Edwin Cresswell was a gentleman of fortune and irreproachable social position, such as no guardian would have the right to dismiss on politic grounds.
'I might have anticipated something like this,' he replied in much perturbation. 'That is the worst of having girls to deal with.'
So saying, Colonel Sandhurst rose from his seat and strolled townwards. Not that this unexpected contretemps affected his opinion respecting the purchase of Fernleigh; though he felt somewhat sore, and not a little inclined to be quarrelsome even with his much-beloved, who walked alongside with a grave face, at the same time observing a discreet silence.
'So the Morton scheme is postponed sine die? he asked, as the Colonel made a pause at length on the club steps.—'No, thank you; I am not going into the club this morning. If you don't mind, I will look up Ethel, and give her my assistance in the proposed raid upon the local tradesmen.'
Frank Sandhurst stood for some moments before his hotel door, idly smoking, and contemplating the passers-by. In a small country the contemplation of human nature is apt to pall, even with the most enthusiastic student of his fellow-men and Sandhurst, after a few moments, felt his interest in Castleford affairs to be rapidly fading. A native of the sunny South grinding popular tunes upon an ear-piercing organ, and the gyrations of some merry children, were not calculated to rivet attention; but presently, when a slight elegant figure in deep mourning emerged from a chemist's shop opposite, and walked rapidly towards All Saints Church, the young gentleman's languid interest quickened into something like emotion. 'If that isn't Gladys, my eyes greatly deceive me.' Saying these words, to the extreme astonishment of a passing stranger he dropped his cigarette and started in pursuit of the rapidly vanishing figure. Turning along High Street, she proceeded in the direction of High Town, where Frank arrived just in time to see her disappear into a passage between two shops, on the lintel of one being a brass plate bearing the legend, 'Heath and Starling, Solicitors.'
'Well, I'm in luck so far,' murmured the discomfited youth, as he gazed blankly at the dim portals beyond which the peri had flown. 'Mem. To cultivate my old friend Heath's acquaintance without further delay. It wouldn't be a bad dodge to leave my card and ask him to call round at The Dragon after dinner.'
It was not until some time after the meal in question that the lawyer made his appearance. He found Sandhurst and Miss Ethel seated on the balcony, the Colonel being engaged to take a hand at whist with a trio of old military acquaintances, a class of gentlemen who abound in the majority of cathedral towns. At this apparently deep stroke of diplomacy to engender confidence and hasten the consummation of love's young dream, Mr Heath smiled to himself, but what he said was that it was a beautiful evening and delightful after the hot afternoon.
'Why haven't you been to see me before?' Ethel demanded. 'I can't come to you now, as I used to in the old days, and upset the ink-pot over your cleanly engrossed parchments.'
'Do you remember that?' the lawyer asked. 'What a memory, to be sure! The trouble we used to have with you two. It makes me feel quite old when I see the captain here, who was only a boy yesterday.'
'I was very nearly calling upon you this afternoon, only I did not like to disturb you,' Frank replied.—'Mind, I am not asking out of an impertinent curiosity, but I should like to know who the young lady in black is—the one who paid you a visit this morning?'
'This is a chapter out of an unwritten romance,' Ethel explained. 'The wounded hero present before you; the gently nurtured girl who braves a foreign clime to nurse the prostrate warrior, the brave soldier recovers, and seeks his nurse; but she has disappeared. In plain English, Frank thinks in the fair visitor of yours he has discovered the girl who, he maintains, saved his life.
'There is not a doubt of it,' said Frank, with a warm flush upon his cheek.—'Have you any objection to tell me her name?'
'Not in the least, my dear fellow. That was Miss Charlesworth, the only daughter of my very dear friend and client, Mrs Charlesworth, of Fernleigh.'
'And her name is Gladys?'
'Perfectly right. Gladys Violet, to be correct—'
'Then it is a romance,' Ethel cried enthusiastically.—'Is it a fact that she went to Africa to nurse a wounded brother?'
'Perfectly true, my dear,' Mr Heath replied more gravely. 'It was impossible for Mrs Charlesworth to go, so she went almost alone. Conventionally speaking, perhaps it was not quite—'
'Oh, bother conventionality!' was the abrupt reply. 'It was a noble thing to do. How many girls would have dared to do the same?—The name seems familiar to me. I fancy Colonel Sandhurst told me something—'
'That he had bought Fernleigh, perhaps?'
'Oh yes; I remember now.—Mrs Charlesworth has got into difficulties over some wretched law business, and is compelled to sell her house. What a pity it seems, and such nice people, I hear!'
'It is a very old story,' Mr Heath observed utterly. 'There is a large sum of money in dispute, which is claimed on a young lady's behalf by her friends. You see, Mrs Charlesworth's grandfather, Martin Hay—'
A sudden exclamation from Miss Morton cut short the conclusion. 'Why, you are talking about my very own case. If I am right, then Mrs Charlesworth and myself must be related.'
'You are the Miss Morton, plaintiff in this action?' asked Heath helplessly. 'Why did I not guess as much before? Of course, Martin Hay was your great-grandfather, and but for the missing assignment—'
'Oh, I am tired of hearing about that wretched document; in fact, reprehensible as it seems, I have not taken the slightest interest in the proceedings. Do yon think there was any such paper?'
'Certainly, because I once had it in my own hands.'
'If it can be found, I have no right to any of this money?'
'Not a penny of it. But as it can't be found, and there seems to be no prospect of its turning up, you are legally entitled to all.'
'Legally? But what about morally? And I have more than enough now.'
Frank, who had been listening in lost amazement to this, to him, inscrutable mystery, at this point asked for an explanation. In a few words Mr Heath told the whole story, touching briefly but clearly upon the strong attachment Mrs Charlesworth had for her old home. For a time there was a dead silence between them.
'Ethel, what do you think of it?' Sandhurst asked presently.
It was too dark by this time to see the girl's face. She did not reply for a moment, and when she spoke there was a strange catch in her voice, as if she enunciated her words with difficulty.
'I think,' she said slowly—' I think that, if I have a voice in the matter, Fernleigh will not change hands just yet.'
MR HEATH, examining his correspondence a morning or two later, was abruptly aroused from that fascinating study by the arrival of Colonel Sandhurst. The gallant officer appeared to be greatly disturbed, even so far as to nave forgotten his gloves, a sign with him of some intense mental eruption. The solicitor, who had already ventured a pretty shrewd guess as to the primary cause of this perturbation, suavely asked for an explanation.
'Now, what do you think of this?' the injured one replied. 'That girl—Ethel, you know—is going to prevent my purchasing Fernleigh.'
'Very pleased to hear it,' Heath answered unfeelingly; 'only, I should like to know how she is going to manage it?'
'Why, this way. You see she happens to be the plaintiff in this lawsuit you were talking about, and has got the idea into her head that the assignment you people set up is really in existence. She is actually going to abandon her claim to all this money, and allow Mrs Charlesworth to take possession. There is no need to ask if your client will accept such an offer.'
Mr Heath at this moment would have cheerfully forfeited a good round sum to say that Mrs Charlesworth would accept it; but he did not for the simple reason that he knew full well would induce her to accept the offer of her generous enemy.
'I don't think she will, though, even for the sake of Fernleigh. All the same, this is very noble on Miss Morton's part. If the offer is rejected, it will be no fault of mine. But so convinced am I that it will be refused, that I have already commenced drawing the conveyance.
'You really think so?' asked the Colonel, with a jubilation he was at some pains to conceal. 'You seem to have a quixotic lot of clients.'
'Perhaps so; but you will see I am right all the same. Even if Mrs Charlesworth is inclined to listen, her daughter Gladys will not'
The Colonel's face darkened at the mention of this young lady's name. He had heard the romance on the previous night, with a feeling that Frank's interest in the girl was likely to end in a way contrary to all his fondest hopes. 'That is the hospital nurse, I presume? I hope Frank isn't going to make a fool of himself in that quarter.'
'Frank might do a great deal worse,' the lawyer answered curtly. 'And I will thank you to speak with a little more respect of Miss Charlesworth, who is not an hospital nurse, as you know as well as I do.'
'I beg your pardon, Heath,' returned Sandhurst humbly; 'but everything seems to have gone wrong lately. First, there was my scheme about Ethel and Frank; well, that's all knocked on the head. Imagine my surprise this morning to find Cresswell—you know him—in my sitting-room, talking to my ward as if the place belonged to him! It appears he came down last night; and, on my word as an officer and a gentleman, they had met and settled the whole thing before breakfast'
Mr Heath gave a glance at the Colonel's doleful face and laughed aloud. It struck him as exquisitely absurd that an individual so singularly blessed both in body and estate should rail at fortune with the petulance of a child crying for the moon
'Nonsense, man. You can't have everything your own way; and, besides, the young people are not like a lot of soldiers, to be ordered about on parade. Anyway, you can set your mind at rest anent Fernleigh. I have a note from the lady this morning, saying she will be pleased to see you any afternoon. As I am going there after lunch, you had better call about three. I have some business in the neighbourhood, and will meet you there at that time.'
'I suppose it must be done,' Sandhurst replied reluctantly. 'I don't half like the idea, all the same.'
'Of course you don't. What man would, who has in him a spark of kindliness or gentlemanly feeling? All the same, it seems only right and proper towards the lady that you should go.'
'Very well. I will time myself to arrive there about three, and I only hope you will not keep me waiting. I am beginning to understand the feelings of a man in possession.'
'Better feel them than the emotion of those driven out of possession,' the lawyer returned grimly. 'I don't profess to have any sympathy with you in the matter.—And now, as my time is limited, I must turn you out Three o'clock sharp, remember.'
With military punctuality, Colonel Sandhurst walked through Fernleigh gates as the stable clock struck the hour. Hot and dusty as it was outside, the sudden change to the cool green lawn with its shady ash trees and dark-leafed copper beeches was grateful and refreshing. The house, partly in shadow, with climbing rose and starry jessamine growing round the open windows and up to the carved oaken gables, presented a pleasing picture to eyes wearied with the contemplation of glaring roads and sunny meadows. Over all there seemed to hang the spirit of silence, broken only by an occasional bird-note, and the low moan of doves resting in the branches of a yew-tree, sombre against a belt of living green.
Inside, there appeared to be the same graceful harmony, the same sweet sense of refinement, a humanising influence borrowed from the presence of womanly love and delicacy—a fragrance of flowers in dragon vases and china brackets, with long spiral sprays of foliage hanging far down the dark polished walls. An open piano filled a corner; in an alcove gay with summer flowers stood an organ piled up with music. And into this pleasing picture there came presently a more beautiful vision still, a slight fair figure in deep mourning, relieved by white lace ruffles at the wrists and throat; the sight of which caused the Colonel to rise from his seat and render homage at the shrine of beauty.
'You are Colonel Sandhurst, I presume?' she said in a clear sweet voice, looking at the same time into his face with her beautiful violet eyes. 'I am Gladys Charlesworth.'
The Colonel bowed again, and murmured some platitude in which the words 'honour and pleasure' were alone audible. Old soldier and man of the world as he was, he felt a strange sense of awkwardness and confusion in the presence of this simple English girl.
'My mother will see you in a few moments,' she continued; 'meanwhile, I trust you will find no inconvenience in waiting alone. You will excuse me when I mention that I am compelled to hurry away in consequence of the illness of one of our poor village people.'
'You find there is much suffering amongst the poor?' the Colonel asked, conscious of the inaneness of such a question.
'There would be less if the rich took a greater interest in those around them. If the Bartonsham estate belonged to me, the labourers' cottages would not be in the disgraceful condition they are at present—But I am afraid to say all I should like on that question. I hope you will not find any inconvenience in being kept waiting, Colonel Sandhurst'
'Well,' muttered the discomfited soldier, conscious of the becoming blush
adorning his bronzed cheek, and almost pleased to find himself alone, 'I
haven't had such a snub since I was a subaltern. I wonder if my cottages are
in such a state as she
says? She did it in such a cool lady-like way, too. Egad, I don't wonder at Frank feeling somewhat—'
But at this moment the whole current of these reflections was changed by the entrance of another pleasing object, and the Colonel immediately experienced that mingled feeling of awe and pity all kind-hearted people do in the presence of the blind. The boy advanced slowly into the room, touching a familiar object here and there with his long delicate fingers. To the interested spectator, but for that mute piteous groping of the hands, the blue eyes seemed to be filled with the divine gift of sight, though they were cast upwards, seeking for the light that never comes. To this bronzed service-worn soldier the sight of the child clad in his Van Dyck velvet suit and broad collar was more moving than all the panoply of war, as he watched him in a dazed fascination moving slowly to the alcove where the organ stood. Then he began to play.
Forgetful of everything but the deep interest aroused by this unaccustomed scene, the Colonel changed his place so as to obtain a closer view of the musician. As he did so, the movement entailed a slight noise; whereupon the music ceased, and the performer looked in the direction of the sound.
'Will you please come a little nearer?' said he. 'I did not know there was any one here. And tell me who you are.'
'My name is Colonel Sandhurst,' the interloper responded gravely.
'You are a soldier?'
'Well, yes; or I used to be, at least'
Vivian felt his way in the direction of the voice, and stood with his hand resting on the Colonel's knee quite fearlessly. The fine old soldier and the pretty graceful lad made a charming picture as they posed thus.
'I never met a soldier before, though my brother Maurice was one. I don't think my mother will care to see you here, because it will remind her of Maurice. If I were you, I wouldn't say I was a soldier.'
'I am afraid Mrs Charlesworth knows that already,' the Colonel replied with much humility; 'and I don't suppose we shall talk much about myself, you see.—Won't you play something more?'
'No, not now. I want you to tell me something about battles. Were you ever in a real fight, Colonel Sandhurst?'
'Many, my child. I was all through the Crimea, and after that in the Indian Mutiny. Since then, I have always been at home.'
'I don't see how that can be,' replied Vivian, shaking his head. 'I don't mean about the battles, but about home, because Gladys says you haven't one?'
'And where did Gladys derive that priceless information?'
'If you have a home of your own, then why do you want ours? That's what Gladys says, and she is always right'
'But some people like to have more than one home.'
'Then it can't be home,' said Vivian conclusively. 'I have never lived anywhere but here, and some day it will be my own. If I was not blind, I should like to go away and see the world; but that is not possible. I can see this house, and know where all the trees and flowers grow, and where to find the first violets. I'm not helpless, you know; I can do everything for myself, and find my way everywhere. But if we were to leave Fernleigh it would be very bad for me.'
The Colonel made no reply save a faint smile; he could not have answered the simple pathos of the last words for the supreme command of the British army and a field-marshal's baton to boot.
For the first time in his roving life he began to understand the full significance of the word 'home' and the deep meaning it held for some. Of his beautiful house in Sussex he was justly proud; but this platonic affection for bricks and mortar, the idealisation of stone walls, he had no conception. Sitting there, with that child-grasp upon his knee, a new feeling, the consciousness of a new and better world, was budding in his soul.
'Don't you find it cruelly hard at times?' he asked abruptly.
'Well, I never notice it,' said the lad with the same touching simplicity; 'only the winter is rather long and dreary. But then, there is the wind: I like to listen to that No one can see that; and when it blows, I know as much about it as other people. It is very nice for a blind boy to know where to find everything he wants. If you will come with me now, I can show you some dog-roses; the very first of the season, and I found them myself, too.'
Still the Colonel did not answer. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror opposite, and actually blushed at his own reflection. He had had, so he was telling himself, some pretty keen thrusts in his time, but never anything half so terrible as this innocent childish prattle. Every word seemed to find some joint in his armour of self-esteem, and to pierce selfishness like a knife.
'You would not care to leave Fernleigh altogether?' he asked.
'It would be very terrible,' said the lad solemnly. 'Not so bad, perhaps, if I was like other boys. But mother would feel it most'
'You think she would find it very trying?'
'I think it would break her heart. She has not had a very happy life—at least, so Gladys says. Only, I know how she loves Fernleigh.'
There was something more than pity in the Colonel's eyes as he looked down at the pale flushed face at his knee. Mrs Charlesworth, entering the room at this moment, paused to contemplate this picture as she overheard her child's words, with a mute hope that some simple sentence might have gone home to the heart of her enemy.
'I hope Vivian has not been troubling you?' she said with a fond smile. 'I must apologise, Colonel Sandhurst—'
The Colonel stood up with a very red face, though the lady's features had suddenly become white and agitated. For a few moments they regarded each other in astonished silence.
'Margaret,' said Sandhurst, 'if—if I had known it was you—'
'You would not have sought this painful interview,' Mrs Charlesworth concluded with chilling dignity. 'It is bad enough without this.'
Vivian, perceiving he was not wanted, had stolen away through the open windows. His mother followed him with her eyes till he was out of earshot.
'You will understand,' she continued, 'that in Colonel Sandhurst I had not expected to my old friend, Captain Markham.'
'Nor I in Mrs Charlesworth my old love, Margaret Hay. Probably, if my uncle, Curtis Sandhurst, had died three years sooner, the penniless Captain Markham would have proved a more formidable rival to his successor.'
'You blame me, you dare to blame me, when you—But all that is long since forgotten. Let me be as just and generous as I can. I have to thank you for your kind offer; but I cannot accept it. Legally speaking, Fernleigh is yours; therefore, I cannot accept from you a sum of money which I can only regard as a present.'
'You give me very little credit, it seems,' said the Colonel bitterly. 'I am only making up to you the value of the property. You refuse to take what you call a present from me. I absolutely refuse to rob you of what I know is your just due. I distinctly decline to avail myself of so iniquitous a law as this foreclosure.'
'It is hard for me to appreciate this sentiment,' Mrs Charlesworth replied as bitterly, 'when I am losing what is to me a part of my very being. I cannot blame you, for I know that in all probability Fernleigh must go. Mr Heath tells me—'
'Let him answer for himself in person,' cried the lawyer, coming forward.—'Ah, I see you are still discussing Fernleigh. I presume, you have thanked Colonel Sandhurst for his magnificent offer?'
'I have thanked him, and declined it—Of course, it is impossible for a stranger to comprehend the affection we have for the old place. Call it sentiment, if you like; but the idea of selling Fernleigh—'
'Madam, on my honour as a soldier and a gentleman,' the Colonel cried impulsively, 'if I can do anything in my power to retain your home to you, I will. Let things remain as they are for the present, and we shall see what time will do.'
Mrs Charlesworth bowed deeply. She was surprised and not a little touched at this outspoken generosity.
Mr Heath, the only one unmoved, looked from one to the other with a deep gleam of triumph in his eyes.
'You have done well, Colonel,' he said dryly, 'so well, that you will be pleased to hear my news. I have a great surprise in store for you.'
'I know!' cried Mrs Charlesworth with a glowing face. 'You have found the assignment?'
'I have heard worse guesses,' replied the lawyer with the same dry manner, taking a parchment from his pocket and handling it tenderly. 'That is precisely what I have done.'
COLONEL SANDHURST returned to his hotel in a very thoughtful frame of mind. He was wandering in spirit through long-forgotten scenes, and ghostly faces rose out of the past to trouble him. Thirty years, twenty-five years—a long time ago, and yet it seemed only yesterday that he and Margaret Hay were together, before she learnt that wealth and position were better than love and honour. And yet she had shown no sign of repentance, rather had assumed the position of an injured woman. Perhaps he had been too impatient, perhaps some treachery had been at work. Again, she had treated him with such marked scorn throughout the interview. Altogether, he felt strangely small and humiliated; nor did he expect any extraordinary amount of sympathy from Ethel Morton or Frank in his unexpected defeat.
Nor was this gloomy anticipation a mistaken one, for the lady in question openly expressed her opinion that nothing could have turned out better; indeed, the loss of so much wealth was hailed with a positive expression of relief. The Colonel, who inclined to be somewhat angry, grimly inquired what Cresswell thought of the change in his fiancée's fortune. But that individual appeared to be in nowise distressed. On the contrary, he took the matter with a coolness that fairly exasperated Colonel Sandhurst, who was at length driven to retort.
'My dear fellow,' said the baronet, in reply to certain scathing denunciations anent this fatuous disregard of common prudence, 'Ethel is quite right, as no one knows better than yourself. Besides, it is a great mistake for young married women to have command of a lot of money. It creates a feeling of independence. And if we had all that abundance, we should only spend it, you know.' To which foolish not to say flippant speech Colonel Sandhurst deigned no reply.
The arrival of Mr Heath soon after dinner was a positive relief to all, and infused a brighter spirit into the somewhat solemn proceedings. 'A most extraordinary thing,' said he, when at length alone with the Colonel. 'You remember my telling you this morning that I had already commenced to draw the conveyance of Fernleigh? There are a lot of old deeds in the box, and in idly turning them over I found the assignment—'
'What! Amongst my deeds?'
'Amongst your deeds. At the very time that Fernleigh was mortgaged to yon, the missing documents must have been hidden under those old parchments.—But,' continued the lawyer, lowering his voice, 'I found something quite as singular still—nothing less than a letter addressed to you, and evidently in Mrs Charlesworth's handwriting.'
'You are romancing,' returned the Colonel quietly, though he was conscious of a quicker throbbing of his pulses. 'There was a time when she might have written to me, but that is a quarter of a century ago.'
It was Heath's turn to look puzzled now, though he said nothing, merely drawing from his pocket the letter in question and handing it over to his companion. It was yellow with age, the ink faded to a pale red, though otherwise clean as it had been the day it was written. The Colonel perused it carefully twice through, then turned to his companion.
'Heath,' said he with the same quiet inflection, 'had that letter fallen into my hands when it was intended to, Margaret Hay would have been my wife.'
'Your wife? I did not know that you ever knew her.'
'Nor did I, till I met her to-day. Perhaps it is singular that we never came together in all these years. We first came together during a London season. Up to a certain point, you will be good enough to imagine the rest. Her father did not like the idea; but one thing he agreed to. "If," said he, "you will not see my daughter for three months, or correspond with her, and at the end of that time she is of the same mind, I will give my consent." Need I say that I consented in my turn. We were young and romantic then—too much so, as subsequent events proved. At the last day of the three months she was to write to me and tell me to come. But she never wrote. I am not going to tell you any more, except that this is the letter I ought to have had. Read it.'
Mr Heath put on his spectacles and read the simple note:
My dear George—The three months expired to-day. At five minutes past twelve midnight this letter is being written. Will you come to me and see if you think I have changed?—Ever yours, affectionately, Margaret Hay.
'How long, after this note was written, was it before Margaret Hay married her cousin?' asked Mr Heath.
'Two months to a day.—Rather a sudden change of opinion, you see.'
'Then, of course, Charlesworth got hold of it,' pursued the lawyer, ignoring the Colonel's implied sarcasm. 'The very thing he would delight in doing. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that sort of thing, but—When he got hold of the Fernleigh title-deeds, he must have laid the note there accidentally.'
'I wonder what she thinks of me?' said the Colonel suddenly.
'That you have behaved very well over this matter, my dear fellow. And now that my hands are no longer tied, I don't mind telling you the same thing. You will find her very grateful for our intended kindness, which reminds me that I have a commission to execute. Mrs Charlesworth is very anxious to see the young lady who would have behaved so generously if she had had the opportunity. I am charged to ask you, as an old friend, to waive ceremony and take your party to Fernleigh to-morrow.'
'If he will not, we must go without him,' cried Ethel, who had approached near enough to hear the conclusion of Heath's message. 'And I don't think we shall have much difficulty in persuading Frank to join.'
'I daresay you would like to go without me,' said the Colonel with a pleased chuckle; 'but you won't, all the same.—Never mind the ceremony, Heath. I will send my man over with a note to-morrow morning, saying we accept Mrs Charlesworth's invitation with all possible pleasure;' to which Miss Ethel replied sententiously that wonders would never cease.
If there was one thing more beautiful to contemplate than the perfect weather on the following afternoon, it was the immaculate splendour of Colonel Sandhurst's attire, a fact that Sir Edwin Cresswell, himself no mean connoisseur in the art sartorial, did not fail to comment upon in confidence to the lady of his choice.
'Bingo the Earl, Chivalry's pearl,
Went a-philandering after a girl.'
she quoted, sotto voce, as they took their seats in the wagonette. 'Isn't it just too splendid? If we could only marry the dear old colonel to Mrs Charlesworth, we should have our romance complete.'
But for the exuberant spirits of Miss Ethel, and the quiet sallies of the equally happy baronet, the drive to Fernleigh would have proved a quiet one. Once within the gates, however, tongues were loosened, for the serene quiet beauty of the house brought an honest tribute of admiration to every lip; its peaceful silence seemed to soothe every heart and bear all unhappiness away. Even Ethel, as she found herself tenderly embraced by the mistress of Fernleigh, fell under the influence of the charm.
'We must all be friends,' she said. 'I feel very grateful to you all.—Gladys, why do you not speak to Miss Morton? There is no call for the usual formality.—Sir Edwin Cresswell, I once knew your mother very well. If you are anything like her, Miss Morton is a fortunate girl.'
The Colonel had already caught Vivian up in his arms, delighted that the child had remembered his soldier, Ethel looking at the boy in a sudden ecstasy of child-worship; while Gladys Charlesworth stood face to face with Frank as one who has found a pleasant dream to be the sweetness of reality.
'You have not forgotten me?' he asked.
'Oh no, indeed. Only, it seems so strange to see you here. The last time we met was all sickness and suffering; here, it is so peacefully quiet'
'It is a beautiful place!' Frank replied, drawing a deep breath of
admiration, and feeling almost dazed with the wildness of his own happiness.
'There is no wonder that you love it But tell me how it was that you left me
so abruptly out yonder? Not even time to say good-bye, not even a moment to
thank you for your angelic
'Not now,' said Gladys hurriedly, with a quick frightened glance at the others' retreating figures.—'See; they are going into the gardens, my mother's favourite walk. Won't you come with them?'
But Frank stood perfectly still, looking down into the pleading face. 'Why did you leave me like that?' he repeated. 'Do you know that I have been searching all London to find your whereabouts?'
'Captain Sandhurst, I will tell you everything presently, only let us join the others now. Mother will be so disappointed if you do not see the garden with her.'
Captain Frank suddenly melted; he would have been something more than a man could he have withstood the wistfulness of those imploring violet eyes. So they went into the old-world garden; and under the avenue of ancient fruit-trees, Frank detailed to his hostess the story of his lingering illness away from home and friends—how an angel nursed him, and the manner in which that sweet divinity had been found.
'Your girl and my boy,' the colonel remarked musingly, as he watched the figures disappearing down the shady avenue. 'How strange it seems! It seems almost like the renewal of one's own youth.'
'It seems more strange that they should have met in such a way,' Mrs Charlesworth replied. 'They would make a handsome couple, George.'
The old name came so naturally that neither of them noticed it. The Colonel laughed lightly, wondering a little to find himself viewing such a contingency so complacently. Under the bending arch of the trees they sat, till the talk gradually veered round to old times long since forgotten, though none the less delightful of recall.
Meanwhile, Gladys and her companion had wandered on beneath the filbert boughs to a secluded spot, below which the sunny meadows sloped away into a far-stretching valley, beyond which rose range after range of wooded hills, crowned in the faint blue distance by the Malverns. In the quiet contemplation of this sylvan beauty they were silent for a time, with that innate sympathy that exists between spirits of a kindred nature. There was a soft flush on the girl's delicate cheeks, a subdued content gleaming in her eyes.
'You look like happiness materialised,' said Frank at length.
She turned her glowing face to his, trembling with a sweet emotion.
'Almost too happy,' she replied. 'Yesterday was all dark and troubled; to-day is all joy and sunshine. Then it seemed as if we were going to lose home and everything almost that makes life worth living. I do not think I am very sentimental, but I have a passionate love for this place. Perhaps you cannot understand the feeling.'
'Yes, I think so. When I was ill, dying almost, out yonder I learnt to appreciate the meaning of home. I used to dream of it, more perhaps when you were by. When you left, I knew it was a dream. And that brings me to the old question: Why did you go away so suddenly?'
'What more had I to detain me? I had lost my brother; you had grown well and strong enough to do without me.'
'You think so?' Frank asked, with a dangerous thrill in his voice. 'Perhaps I am the best judge of that I was not strong enough to do without you, and I never shall be now.'
'I am glad you thought of me. It is pleasant to know that'
'Thought of you! I have never forgotten yon for a moment. Sweet hypocrite, dare you look me in the face and say it is not so?'
She did not look up, though a rosy smile trembled on her cheeks and ruddy lips for a moment In spite of the tumultuous beating of her heart, there was in all the painful uncertainty an exquisite sense of pleasure which rendered it doubly pleasing.
'Gladys, if I may use the name again, tell me why you left without good-bye?'
For the first time she glanced up at him with her truthful eyes. 'I will tell you, then. In the first place, I thought you would despise me, and your regard was very dear to me.'
'Of course I should have despised you,' Sandhurst replied ironically—'the same as one would despise a heaven-directed angel sent to succour a despairing wretch. But, ah me, I quite forgot to do that because, you see—'
Gladys stretched out a trembling little hand imploringly. Immediately the bold soldier seized it and kept it imprisoned in his own warm grasp. At the touch of this strong masterful grip, all the reserve and coldness seemed to leave the girl yielding and helpless.
'But I thought you would,' she cried. 'I was only an hospital nurse; you are a soldier with a good name and fortune. I was always proud of being Miss Charlesworth of Fernleigh; but even then I did not know how long I could call myself so. And if you had met me some day, an obscure governess, or perhaps a shop assistant'
'I should nave lavished large sums on that blessed establishment in my excess of gratitude—No; I will not release your hand, Miss Charlesworth of Fernleigh. You proud young person—isn't that the expression I should have to have used if I had found you in a shop?'
Gladys laughed, and said no more about her prisoned fingers. There was a wild flush on her cheeks, and a lustrous gleam in her eyes like unshed tears. As Frank looked down into them, a sudden flood of tenderness rushed into his heart, overpowering all other feeling.
'Gladys,' he said quietly, 'you were very cruel to me then.'
'Perhaps; but it was not without pain to me. I did not know—'
'That I loved you. I did, the first time I saw you. I do now; I shall as long as life is spared to me. Hear all I have to say. This is no passing fancy—remember, it is more than a year since we parted—and instead of growing weaker, my love becomes stronger every day. If I can do anything to make you happy, if I can. Gladys, my darling, will you be my wife?'
Then there came a long silence more eloquent than words, as heart went out to heart in a perfect understanding. It seemed as if the parting of a year had been washed away with its months of doubt and uncertainty, as she lay upon her lover's breast with his arms around her. Womanlike, Gladys was the first to break the stillness, with a broken laugh and a strangely happy face tinged with a shame at her own beatitude.
'I wonder what they will say?' said she. 'Mr Heath told us yesterday that you and Miss Morton were expected to—'
'To fall in love with an obsolete family arrangement,' cried Frank gaily. 'My dear child, what chance could I possibly have with a full-blown baronet? Strange as it may seem, Ethel prefers Cresswell to me.'
'What shocking taste! And to console yourself, you came to me. I am afraid yours is only a secondary attachment.'
To which audacious speech Sandhurst replied by a rapturous embrace, in which Gladys' hat fell to the ground and her fair hair spread out in wild disorder. And, to add to the catastrophe, at this moment appeared the Colonel in company with the mistress of Fernleigh, eyeing the blushing culprits with an ill attempt at deep severity.
'I should like to know the meaning of this,' asked the Colonel, in his sternest parade voice. 'I should very much like an explanation.'
'It is simple enough,' said Frank coolly.—'Colonel Sandhurst, permit me to introduce you to my future wife.'
Mrs Charlesworth gave a little cry of astonishment, while the Colonel bowed with an exaggerated politeness, possibly to hide the pleased expression which somehow would manifest itself on his features.
'What shall we do with them?' he asked, turning to his companion.
'It is so sudden, so unexpected,' faltered the bewildered lady with a glance at the now collected lover.—'Gladys, what have you to say?'
'It is quite true,' said she, laughing and crying in a breath. 'He asked me to—to marry him, and I—'
'Well. And you?'
'—was obliged to say yes. He would take no other answer;' and Gladys kissed her mother once, and disappeared without another word, leaving Frank to bear the brunt of the paternal wrath, an impending punishment which he bore with enviable stoicism. Fortunately, the advent of Vivian at this moment served to distract attention from the culprit, who forthwith took the lad by the hand and set off in search of an imaginary wren's nest.
Mrs Charlesworth took a seat, the Colonel stood by her side.
'You are not displeased?' he asked with a shade of anxiety in his voice.
'Not exactly displeased; indeed, I think I am very glad. It seems so poetical that between our children there should be such a tender feeling. I think of this the more because there might have been—'
'A blissful a consummation for us. Margaret, do you remember the time when you and I looked forward to such happiness, when at the end of three months you were to write to me?'
'And I did, George; do not forget that'
'Yes, I know it now; but I did not receive the letter at the time. I waited for a month, but it never came. And then I thought you had forgotten me, so I troubled you no more.'
'And I thought you had forgotten me. How absurdly proud we must have both been not to—How did you find out afterwards?'
The Colonel took the letter from his pocket, and handed it to her. When she had read it, he told the story of its finding. But the history of the treachery practised by a vanished hand he did not tell her, nor did she ever know.
It was blissfully quiet there, save for the song of birds and the light sound of voices on the lawn below. For a long time neither spoke, for the mind of either was back in the far past.
'Margaret,' said the Colonel at length, 'there is still a little fragrance over our dead romance. Can't we treasure up the remaining years together?'
'Last year's leaves are dead,' Mrs Charlesworth replied, blushing like a girl; 'their fragrance has gone for ever.'
'But the beauty springs afresh. I have been a lonely man; I shall be more so in the near future. The sunshine has gone, but its warmth still remains. If you can bear with me for a time, I shall be the happier.'
'Very well. It shall be as you wish, George.'
The sound of voices came nearer, till presently all the happy group had gathered round the colonel and his companion. When they became a little graver and the conversation had taken a more serious turn, he told them. They listened in respectful silence, while Vivian climbed on to the Colonel's knee, looking up into his face the while intently.
'What do you think of it all?' asked the narrator in conclusion.
'I think it will be very nice,' said the boy confidentially.
'You are pleased, Vivian?' asked his mother.
He looked from one to the other as if he saw them, then away round the garden, peaceful in the fading afternoon, pleasant, fresh, and sweet as if the very guardian spirit of the place had blessed the garden and its denizens. A delicate light fell upon his face, filtered through the branches.
'I think it is the best thing that could happen,' he said in his quaint old-fashioned way; 'and I think,' he concluded, with a glance heavenward, 'that God has been very good to us all to-day.'