Below are the last several chapters of Rhoda Broughton’s 1886 novel, Doctor Cupid. As this is an excellent denouement to a romance novel, I thought it would be a good example of how to tie up loose ends in a story in a satisfactory manner. Notice that the villainess is unrepentant and goes—largely—unpunished, though her child’s death has perhaps taught her a valuable lesson. Judging by her behavior in the story, I doubt she went on to profit by it.
As quick background, Peggy has lost her love, John Talbot, because she caught him presumably meeting a married woman with whom he had formerly been in love.
‘Weep with me, all you that read
This little story,
And know, for whom a tear you shed,
Death’s self is sorry.’
It is Sunday. The Lapwing is ploughing her way through a short chopping sea in the Bay of Biscay; and here at home, at Roupell, the people are issuing in a little quiet stream from afternoon church. They are coming out rather later, and with rather more alacrity than usual, both which phenomena are to be accounted for by the fact of Mr. Evans–never churlishly loth to yield his pulpit to a spiritual brother–having lent it to a very young deacon, who has taken a mean advantage of this concession to inflict fifty minutes of stammering extempore upon the congregation.
The Vicar has sat during this visitation in an attitude of hopeless depression, and has given out, with an intense feeling born of the excessive appositeness of the words to his own case, the hymn after the sermon–
‘Art thou weary, art thou languid?’
Peggy sits alone in her pew, and her mind straying away from the fledgling curate’s flounderings, she asks herself sadly for how many more Sundays will this be so?
Mrs. Evans overtakes her as she walks down the path after service, to tell her that she and her whole family are to set forth on the following Tuesday in pursuit of that change for which she has been so long sighing.
‘Mr. Evans is off on his own account!’ cries she in cheerful narration. ‘He does not like travelling with so large a party; it fidgets him, so he is off on his own account. The Archdeacon wanted him to go with him to the Diocesan Conference; but, as he justly says, what he needs to recruit him is an entire change of ideas as well as scene. So he is going to run over to Trouville or Deauville, or one of those French watering-places.’
‘It seems very unkind of us–I am so sorry that we are leaving you here alone,’ pursues Mrs. Evans, her elated eye and tone giving the lie to her regretful words. ‘And they tell me that you are to lose milady too; she talks of a month at Brighton. She does not much fancy being at the Manor at the fall of the leaf.’
‘Thank you,’ replies Peggy civilly; ‘but we never mind being by ourselves.’
‘Oh, I know that you do not in a general way,’ returns Mrs. Evans. ‘But of course just now it is different; Prue so far from well. I only thought–I was only afraid–in case—-’
‘In case what?’ asks Peggy curtly, while a cold hand seems crawling up towards her heart.
‘Oh, nothing! nothing! I was only going to say, in case–in case she–she had a relapse.’
‘And why should she have a relapse?’ inquires Margaret sharply, in an alarmed and angry voice, turning round upon her companion.
‘Why indeed!’ replies the other, looking aside, and laughing rather confusedly. ‘And at all events, you have Dr. Acton. He is so nice and attentive, and yet does not go on paying his visits long after there is any need for them, just to run up a bill as so many of them do.’
She is interrupted in her eulogium of the parish doctor by the appearance on the scene–both of them running at the top of their speed, as if they more than suspected pursuers behind them–of Lily and Franky Harborough. They, too, being on the wing home to-morrow, have come to bid their friend, Miss Lambton, good-bye; a ceremony which they entirely disdain to go through either in the churchyard or in the road, or indeed anywhere but under her own roof.
‘Well, then, if you come you must be very quiet; you must make no noise,’ she has said warningly.
She repeats the caution when they have reached the hall of the Red House, upon the settle of which there is no Prue lying; for though she is so much better–oh, so much–she has not yet been moved downstairs from the dressing-room.
‘You must be very quiet,’ Peggy repeats; ‘you must remember that Prue is ill!’
Franky has climbed upon her knee, and is playing with the clasp of her Norwegian belt. He pauses from his occupation to ask her gravely, and in a rather awed voice, ‘Is she _very_ ill? Is she going to die?’
‘God forbid!’ cries Peggy, starting as if she had been stabbed. What! are they all agreed to run their knives in their different ways into her? ‘My darling, do not say such dreadful things!’
‘People do not die because they are ill,’ remarks Lily, rather contemptuously; ‘you did not die!’
‘No, I did not die,’ echoes the little boy thoughtfully.
He sits very quietly on Margaret’s lap for a while, and when at length he climbs down, walks about the room on ostentatious tiptoe, speaking in stage-whispers.
It is only at the moment of parting, in the eagerness of pressing upon his friend once more for acceptance his five-bladed knife, and self-denyingly rebutting her counter offer of the largest ferret, that he forgets himself and Prue’s invalidhood so far as to raise his little voice above the subdued key which he has imposed upon himself.
Peggy stands leaning against the gate, watching, until it has turned the corner out of sight, the tiny sailor-dressed figure disappearing down the road, with its refused love-gift reluctantly restored to the custody of its white duck trousers-pocket, with its small shoulders shaken with its sobs, and with its hand dragging back in petulant protest against the relentless grasp of its nurse.
‘Poor little fellow! I almost wish that I had taken his knife,’ she says regretfully.
And now they are all gone, dispersed their different ways: milady in her brougham, the children and maids in the omnibus, and the Evans family squeezed into, packed all over, and bulging out of their own one-horse waggonette and the inn fly. They are all gone–gone a week, a fortnight, now a month ago.
At first Peggy is glad of their departure, even milady’s. What security has she but that, with all her hearty rough kindness, with her good sound human heart, and her plentiful kitchen physic, she may not at any moment stick another knife into her, with some well-intended word, as Mrs. Evans, as little Franky have already done? She would fain see no one–no one. The fox, swishing his brush in lazy welcome to her, and raising his russet head to be scratched through the wires of his house, poisons their intercourse with no insinuation that Prue is not really better. Minky does not ask her with the terrible point-blankness of childhood, ‘Is Prue going to die?’
She will confine herself, then, to their kind and painless company.
But as the days go by, each dwindling day with the mark of night’s little theft upon its shorn proportions; as the wind’s hand and the frost’s tooth make ravine among dear summer’s leaves; as the beautiful blue and green year swoons in November’s damp grasp–a change comes over her spirit, a famine for the touch of some compassionate hand, for the sound of some humane brave voice bidding her be of good cheer. It is a forlorn and rainy autumn. As in the days of St. Paul’s shipwreck, so in those of Peggy’s, ‘neither sun nor stars in many days appeared.’ When the rain-sheets are not soaking the saturated ground, the thick, dull blue mists reign everywhere. They have left their legitimate distant province, and have advanced even to the very walls of the Red House, swaddling the laurels and the naked lilacs, and the China roses that offer the delicate pertinacity of their blossoms to the autumn blast.
The garden has not yet been done up for the winter, as Jacob is waiting until ‘they dratted leaves’ are all down; and the rows of frost-blackened dahlias looming through the fog, the tattered garlands of canariensis, the scentless ragged mignonette, seem to Margaret’s fancy, inflamed and heightened by grief and sleeplessness–for she seldom now has an unbroken night–to be the grinning skeletons of her former harmless joys.
The park is a fog-swathed swamp, here and there quite under water. Once or twice when she has passed by the Manor, its shuttered windows have appeared to scowl sullenly at her. Even the silence of the Vicarage seems hostile, as does the shut gate, upon which no pea-shooting boys or long-legged down-at-heel girls are swinging and shouting.
To the village, usually so often haunted by her charitable feet, she scarcely ever now goes. She dares not enter the cottages, because she knows what their inmates will say to her. It is no longer only Jacob’s ‘missis’ to whom the rapidity with which Miss Prue is going downhill is matter of outspoken compassionate wonder. They mean no unkindness. They do as they would be done by. How many times has Peggy heard them calmly discussing in the very presence of their dying, the probability or improbability of their holding out until Christmas, or Candlemas, or Whitsun, as the case may be! But the first time that a kind-hearted cottage wife suggests to her, as in like case she would wish to have it suggested to herself, ‘What a sad thing it is to think that poor Miss Prue will never see the primroses again, she as was allers so fond of flowers!’ Peggy has stumbled away, half-stunned, as if some great and crushing weight had fallen on her head. And this Prue, about whom her village friends are making such sad prophecies, how is it with her? If you had asked her, she would have said, ‘Well, very well, excellently well!’
Every day for the last month she has been going to be moved down next day to her settle in the hall; but whenever the new morning has come, that move has been deferred to the next. ‘There is nothing the matter with her, really nothing; only she does not feel quite up to it; and, after all, there is plenty of time for her to get well in. Twenty-four hours will not make much difference, and she is so happy and comfortable up here.’
Up here, lying on the dressing-room sofa, with the fire flickering on the hearth beside her, talking to her cheerfully through her bad nights and her drowsy days; with every little present given her by Freddy ranged round her, within easy reach of her eye and hand, like a sick child’s toys, and with his letters–they are not very many, for he is but a poor correspondent, though he says such beautiful things when he does write–kept delicately blue-ribboned in a little packet under her pillow, or oftener still held in her hot dry hand.
Their number has lately been swelled by the addition of a bulky one from Southampton, over which she has rained torrents of blissful tears.
Hanging on the wall opposite to her, so that her look may rest continually upon it, is a large card, upon which she has had the number of the days of her lover’s intended absence marked in black strokes.
Every morning at her waking she has it brought to her, in order to put a pen-line through one more day. There are over thirty already thus scored out, as she shows to Peggy with a radiant smile.
At the beginning of the month, her sofa had been always covered with books. Freddy’s own poems–these indeed stay to the last; the ‘Browning’ he has retrieved for her from Miss Hartley; books of criticism, of history, of verse, over which she pores laboriously, in pursuance of her promise to him to be more able to enter into his thoughts and understand his ideas upon his return. But by and by she has to cease from the attempt.
‘I am afraid I cannot quite manage it,’ she says to her sister, with an apologetic intonation; ‘my head does not seem very clear. Sometimes I am afraid’–the wistful tears stealing into her blue eyes–’that it is not in me; that when he comes back he will find me just where he left me; that he will have to put up with me as I am.’
She does not suffer much actual pain, only her nights are increasingly broken, and her cough teases her sadly, which only makes her say that she is quite glad Freddy is not here, as a cough always fidgets him so.
One morning in early November, after a night of more than usually wakeful unrest on the part of her sister, Peggy, who has had a bed made for herself on a sofa at the foot of the sick girl’s, and has been up and down with her all night, is standing at the open hall door, trying to get a little freshness into eyes and brain. Her eyes are stiff with watching, and her brain feels thick and woolly, so thick and woolly that you would have thought it incapable of framing a definite idea. And yet across it there comes shooting now and again with steely clearness a torturing question–a question that is dressed sometimes in her own words, sometimes in Freddy’s childish lisp, sometimes in the villagers’ rough Doric; but that, however dressed, is yet always, always the same.
She has mechanically picked up the morning paper, and her languid eye is wandering carelessly over the daily prosaic list of the born, the wed, and the departed. As well that as anything else, though even as she makes the apathetic reflection, the question darts again in a new and hideous guise before her mind: ‘How long will it be before there is another entry among these?’
With a great dry sob, she is in the act of dashing down the journal, when her glance is arrested by the letters of a familiar name, Harborough. It seems that there is a Harborough dead. Can it be that Betty has gone to her account? or that her complaisant husband has carried his complaisance so far as to take himself out of the world, and leave the field clear for that other? She has time to taste the full bitterness of this new thought, in the half second before her eye has mastered the advertisement:
‘On the 3d inst., at Harborough Castle, —-shire, after a few days’ illness, Francis Hugh de Vere Deloraine, only son of Ralph Harborough, Esq., aged 6 years.’
Even now that she has read it, she does not at once understand who it is that is dead. The string of high-sounding unfamiliar names sets her at fault. ‘Francis Hugh de Vere Deloraine.’ Is it–can it be _Franky_ that is dead? Can it be that neither father nor mother have trodden the universal road, but that it is the little blooming child who has led the way? Why, it is impossible! There must be some mistake. It was only yesterday, as it were, that he was here; that she saw him passing through that very gate. In the confusion of her ideas, she has hurried out along the damp drive to the entrance-gate, and, standing there, gazes irrationally down the road, as if she expected once again to see the tiny sturdiness of the sailor figure, the tear-washed roses of the little face turned back over its shoulder in such fond and pouting protest at having to leave her; but the mist-bound road is empty–empty, save of its mire and of its rotting leaves. ‘Franky dead! Little Franky dead!’ She says it out loud, as if the idea could gain entrance into her brain more easily by her ears; and then she leans her forehead against the damp gate-post, and bursts out crying.
‘I wish that I had given him another kiss! I wish that I had gone to the turn of the road with him, as he asked me! I wish that I had taken his knife!’
Her tears seem to make her intelligence clearer, to render sharper her power of suffering.
‘Is there _no one_ to be left alive? Is Death to have it all his own way?’
Her dimmed eyes rest on a drift of leaves blown by the last blusterous wind against the hedge-bank outside; a discolored pile–the yellow poplar leaf, the black-brown pear and the bronzed beech, the ribbed hazel and the smooth lime–one fate has overtaken them all. Dead–dead!
At her foot is an elm-leaf half-dragged underground by the dark industry of some blind earthworm. Underground–underground! That is the bourne of us all; of the young green leaf, aloft two months ago on the tree-top, visited by the voyaging birds and the gamesome airs, as of the little bounding joyous child.
The searching vapor has penetrated her clothes, and made her shiver with cold; but she dares not yet go indoors again, dares not yet face her sick Prue, with those sudden tidings written on her face.
She retraces her steps along the drive, and turns into the garden—the empty garden; empty to-day of even Jacob’s presence, as he is kept at home by his rheumatism. It is profoundly silent. The fog has got even into the robin’s throat. It is profoundly silent; and yet to Peggy, the air is full of voices–the voices of her dead, her lost, and her dying.
Her mother, Talbot, Prue, and now little Franky. He was not much to her, perhaps you may say; and yet she can ill spare his little drop of love out of her empty cup. Along the walks they hurry to meet her, and yet, as they come up to her, they pass her by with averted faces.
‘I am certainly very lonely,’ she says to herself, with a sort of astonishment; ‘it is a very unusual case. There has happened to me what happens commonly to people only at eighty: I have outlived everything! I was given very few people to love, to begin with; but I did love them well. I gave them my very best. Oh, you cannot say, any of you, that I did not give you my very best, and yet not one of you will stay with me.
Not one of you. God–God! What have I done to be picked out of all the world for such a fate? Is it fair? Is it fair?’
Her voice goes wailing out into the mist; but the dying world around her has no answer to give to her riddle. It is awaiting that to its own. She has thrown herself down on the seat under her hawthorn bower, and from its dull berries and sharp thorns, and few still-clinging yellow leaves, the cold drops drip on her bare head, mix with the scalding drops on her cheeks; but she feels them not as she lies there, huddled up, collapsed, and despairing. Not for long, however. By and by her soul, as is the way with souls habitually brave, puts on its courage again. She raises herself, and lifts her drowned and weary eyes, as if through the fogs and exhalations they would pierce to Him who, as all the world once thought, as many still hold to be a truth far dearer than life, sits in judgment and mercy beyond them.
‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ she says solemnly. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’
‘I am not mad,–I would to heaven I were!
For then ‘tis like I should forget myself:
Oh, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For, being not mad, but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son;
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he.
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.’
In the days that follow, the death of Franky Harborough, which at an ordinary time would have been the sorrowful main occupation of Peggy’s thoughts, has to retire into the background of her mind. In the foreground there is room for but one absorbing topic. Prue is decidedly worse. In an illness such as hers–which is less a definite disease than a decline all round, a bowing to its final ruin of a building whose foundations have been sapped for more than a year–there is very often, for a considerable period, but little change to be noted from day to day; and then suddenly–no, not suddenly–in a progression rather, as natural as that from seedtime to harvest, on some morning, at some noon or night, there is a step down to a lower level of vitality; a travelling along that lower level, until the time for a new and farther descent. It would seem impossible that any breath of the chilly fog outside could have thrust its pestilent way into the atmosphere, regulated with so passionate a nicety, of Prue’s room; and, indeed, there is no sign of any return of that bronchitis which had been the ostensible beginning of her illness. Nor is there any very perceptible aggravation of any one of her symptoms.
The signs of her approaching dissolution are rather negative than positive. It is only that Miss Prue is going downhill rather quicker than before–that is all. There is now no longer any question of the oak settle in the hall. Even the sofa in the dressing-room has been abandoned. Prue no longer stirs from her bed; but she lies there quite happily, quite as happy as she was before; for Freddy’s gifts are within as easy reach of her hand, spread on the counterpane before her, as they were on the table in the adjoining room; and her card with its 365 black strokes hangs quite as full in her eye, on the wall opposite her bed.
However bad her night may have been, there is always something to look forward to at dawning, in having it brought to her to put her triumphant pen through another day.
‘I shall be glad when we have got up to forty,’ she says to Peggy, with a faint but cheerful laugh. ‘I shall feel quite differently when we have reached forty: there will be all but a ninth of the time gone then.’
It is a day on which the officious dusk of the winter afternoon—always in such haste to shoulder away its pale brother–has already settled down. For sixteen long hours there will be no more glint of light. This dreary thought is passing through Peggy’s mind, as she nods drowsily over the fire. She is roused from it and from her semi-sleep by hearing the room-door open cautiously and seeing Sarah making signs—evidently not intended to be seen by Prue–through the aperture.
In obedience to them, Margaret rises languidly, and goes out upon the landing.
‘What is it?’
‘If you please, ‘m, there’s a lady wishes to speak to you.’
‘Oh, Sarah, you know that I can’t see any one; why did not you tell her so?’
‘I did tell her so, ‘m, but she would not take “No”; she says if she stays all night she must see you.’
‘What does she mean?’ cries Peggy, in a voice of astonished indignation; ‘who can she be? Who is she?’
‘Well, ‘m, I really did not recognize her until she spoke–dressed in deep mourning and that; and she asked me not to mention her name. She said she was sure you would not see her if I did.’
_Dressed in deep mourning!_ Peggy’s legs have been somewhat shaky under her of late, through long standing upon them. Perhaps that is why she now catches at the banisters. It has flashed upon her who her visitor is. What has brought her hither? Why has she come? Has she gone mad?
‘Go and sit with Miss Prue, while I am away,’ she says to the servant; and so walks slowly downstairs. Outside the door of the hall she pauses a moment to pull herself together. She is trembling violently, and her teeth chatter.
What has brought her here? What can they have to say to each other? She enters. Beside the table is standing Lady Betty Harborough; for it is she who is Peggy’s visitor. The lamp is lit, and burns brightly, though nowadays there is never any one to read or work by its gentle glow. A flourishing fire sings on the hearth; but their joint cheerfulness serves only to throw up into higher relief the inky gloom of the figure they illuminate. She makes no movement to go to meet Peggy, but awaits her coming; and for a moment the two women look at each other in silence.
As they do so, a doubt–a real, serious doubt flashes across Peggy’s mind, as to whether this is Lady Betty. Coupled with the doubt comes a darted recollection of the two last occasions on which she has seen her; the very last of all, sitting under a date-palm in the Hartleys’ conservatory, in the full flush of her _décolleté_ beauty and impudent folly, out of sheer love of mischief, turning the head of a foolish parish priest; and the time before–oh! that time before–when her own heart had lain down and died, on that star-strewn night, when through the gate of the walled garden she had seen her with her arms laced about John Talbot’s neck.
There is no veil to disguise the ruin of Lady Betty’s face. Under her heavy crape bonnet, her hair, uncurled by the damp of the winter night, hangs in pitiful little tags upon her sunk forehead. There is no trace of rouge on her pinched cheeks; nor any vestige of black, save that painted there by agonized vigils, under her hopeless eyes. Her mouth–that mobile mouth so seldom seen at rest, always either curved into a smile, or formed into a red pout, or playing some pretty antic or other–is set like a flint, and around it are drawn lines deeper and more, many more, than those cut by old age’s chisel. Can it be this forlorn and God-struck creature that she, Peggy, has been hating so long and so well? Beneath this dual consciousness–the same consciousness under which Talbot had confusedly labored once before–beneath the waning influence of that old hostility, and this new and immeasurable compassion, Peggy finds it impossible to speak. But her visitor saves her the trouble.
‘I must apologize for intruding upon you at such a time. I know that I have no right to do so; I should not have taken such a liberty, only that–that I had a message to give you–a commission from a–a person who is dead.’
Her voice is perfectly clear and collected, without a quiver in it. It is only by the slight hesitation before a word here and there that it could be conjectured that it was not a matter of perfect indifference to her of which she is speaking. There is such a lump rising in Peggy’s throat, that she could not answer if she were to gain a kingdom by it.
‘Perhaps you are aware,’ continues the other, quite as collectedly as before, ‘that I have lost my son. He died, after a few days’ illness, on the 3d; and when he was dying, he was very anxious that you should have _this_,’ holding out to Margaret, in a hand that does not shake, the knife that had been so eagerly urged upon her acceptance by poor little Franky on his last visit to her. ‘He wished me to tell you that it has five blades; and that though there is a little notch out of one of them, it does not cut the worse for that.’
Peggy has taken the knife, and is covering it with sad and reverent kisses.
‘God bless him!’ she says brokenly. ‘God in heaven bless him!’
The tears are raining in a torrent down the face of Franky’s friend; but his mother’s eyes are dry.
‘Not long before he died,’ she resumes, in that awful collected voice, ‘he asked me to give it into your hands; that must be my excuse to-night. I believe you refused it once before. I told him that I thought you would not refuse it now. He begged you to keep it. He said he should not want it any more; it was quite true,’ her eye wandering round the room, and speaking as if to herself, as if having forgotten Peggy’s presence–’he will never want anything any more!’
Peggy has lifted her swimming eyes upwards.
‘They are in God’s hands, and no evil shall touch them!’ she says solemnly.
It is not only the little innocent who has already crossed the flood of whom she is thinking, but also of that other one in the room upstairs, whose feet are so fast nearing the ford.
‘He was very fond of you, very!’ says the mother, her parched eyes noting with an expression of surprise and envy the agitation of her companion. ‘And he was not one to take a fancy to everybody either; he had his likes and dislikes. Yes, he was very fond of you; but,’ with a sort of hurry in her tone, ‘you did not come before me; no one did that. Mammy was always first. Last time he was staying at the Manor he wrote me two little letters; how do you think he signed them?’ with a pale, wild smile: ‘“Your loving friend.” Was not that an odd signature? “Your loving friend!”‘
Peggy’s sobs have mastered her so completely, that she can make no answer beyond that of once again convulsively pressing her poor little legacy to her quivering lips.
‘He suffered a good deal,’ continues Betty, with that terrible composure of hers; ‘but he made no fuss about it. He asked me once or twice whether I could not take away the pain; but when I told him that I could not, he quite understood. Children are so patient; and he always was a plucky little chap.’
‘You _poor_ woman!’ cries Peggy, in a voice almost unintelligible through her tears. ‘Oh, I wish I could do anything for you! Oh, you poor woman!’
She has caught both Betty’s icy hands into her own warm compassionate clasp. She has clean forgotten that they are the hands of the woman who has slain her life. She knows only that there is a most miserable creature struggling in the deep waters beside her, to whom all her large pitying heart goes out. The other accepts indifferently that strong and sorrowful clasp, as what would not she so accept?
‘You seem to be very kind!’ she says, with a sort of stupid wonder.
‘And yet, if you come to think of it, we have no great cause to love each other; you have no great cause to be fond of me.’
‘You poor soul!’ returns Peggy, looking back, with all the perfect honesty of her sad eyes, into the other’s disfigured face. ‘I bear you no malice for any harm you may have done me; and I have never wittingly done you any.’
‘_Never wittingly done me any!_’ repeats Betty, with a dull and dragging intonation. ‘Have not you? There were only two things in the world that I cared about. You took one of them from me, and now God has taken the other.’
Peggy lets go her hands in a revulsion of feeling strong beyond the power of words to express, and steps back a horrified pace or two. Is it possible, is it conceivable that in this most sacred hour of holy mother-grief, she can think or speak of her own lawless passion?
‘You are shocked!’ says Betty, perceiving this movement on the part of her companion. ‘I do not know why you should be. If I were to pretend that I had always been a good woman, it would not give me back my boy; and what does anything else matter?’
Then there is silence for a minute or two. It is broken by Betty.
‘When you had taken him from me, why did you send him away again?’ she asks abruptly.
For a moment it seems as if all the blood in Peggy’s body had sprung to her brain, and was hammering at her temples, and dinning in her ears in a surge of passionate indignation. But at sight of the stricken face before her, her anger dies down again.
‘I could not say anything harsh to you to-night,’ she replies gently; ‘but you must know that you are the last person who has any right to ask that question.’
‘I know it,’ replies Betty, with a stony indifference; ‘any right, or any need either, since I know the answer. Do not I know that you were in the walled garden on that night last June? Did not I see you as I ran past? I knew what you would think, and I knew, too, that I could trust to him not to undeceive you.’
Peggy is trembling like a leaf. Must she bear it? Does Christian charity command her to endure this ruthless, purposeless tearing open of her scarcely cicatrized wound?
‘There was no question of undeceiving,’ she says brokenly, yet with dignity. ‘I did not trust to hearsay–I should not have been likely to do that; but I could not distrust the evidence of my own eyes.’
Betty’s sunken look is fixed on the girl’s quivering features.
‘It was a pity for your own peace of mind,’ she says slowly, ‘that you did not come a moment earlier, or stay a moment or two later! You would have seen then how much the evidence of your own eyes was worth. It would have saved you a good deal of pain; for I suppose you have taken it to heart–you look as if you had. I thought that you looked as if you had when I saw you at the Hartleys’ party the other night. _The other night_’–putting up her hand to her head with a confused look–’was it the other night! or a year ago? or when?’
Margaret’s heart has begun to beat so suffocatingly fast that she can hardly draw her breath. What is Betty saying? What is she implying? Is it–is it—-
‘I suppose,’ continues Lady Betty, in the same level, even, absolutely colorless voice as before, ‘that you thought we met by appointment? Poor man!’ with a catch that is almost like the echo of a ghost’s laugh in her voice; ‘if you had seen his face when he first caught sight of me, I think you would have exonerated him from that accusation. What do you suppose that he was doing when I came upon him? Why, kissing the spot of ground that he fancied your feet might have touched! I suppose that that was what sent me mad! There was a time, you know, when he used to kiss the print of _my_ feet. Yes, I suppose it was that, though it seems odd now. If I had known how differently things would look from the other side of my Franky’s grave, how little I should have cared!’
The oppression on Margaret’s breathing is heavier than ever—the thundering of her heart more deafening; but she _must_ master them—she _must_ speak.
‘But I _saw_!’ she cries, gasping; ‘I _saw_!’
‘You saw my arms round his neck,’ returns the other, in that terrible level voice of hers, out of which despair seems to have pressed all modulation, not a shade of color tinging her livid face as she makes the admission. ‘I know that you did. Do you wonder that I can own it? If you only knew of how infinitely little consequence it seems to me now, you would not wonder. Yes, you saw my arms round his neck; but do you suppose that it was by his will or consent that they were there? Poor man!’ with the same ghastly specter of a laugh as before; ‘if he is as innocent of all other crimes at the Day of Reckoning as he is of that, he will come off easily indeed.’
Is Peggy’s breath going to stop altogether? Is her heart resolved to break altogether out of its prison in the agony of its springing? She presses her clenched hand hard upon it. It _must_ let her listen. It _must not_–must not burst in two until she has heard–heard to the end.
‘I wish you to understand,’ goes on Betty, relentlessly pursuing her confession, ‘that it was I–I–who forced my last good-bye against his will–oh, most against his will–upon him! I knew that it was good-bye; he had not left me much doubt upon that head. I knew that his one wish was to be rid of me–to hear no more of me–to have done with me for this and all other worlds; and so, as I tell you, I thrust my last good-bye upon him, and you saw it, and misunderstood, as how should not you? I do not know whether you will believe me–it matters little to me whether you do or not.’
Her hopeless voice dies away on the air, and her sunk look wanders aimlessly round the room. Peggy is reeling as she stands. Is it the fog from outside which has come in and is misting her eyes? She puts up her hand stupidly to them, as if to wipe it away.
‘I–I–I–am sure you are speaking truth,’ she says, in an almost unintelligible broken whisper; ‘but as yet–as yet–I–I–cannot take it in.’
‘I would be quick about it if I were you,’ answers the other stonily. ‘I would not waste any more time. You have wasted five months already; and we are none of us allowed much time to enjoy ourselves in. We none of us keep our good things long. Any one would have thought that I might have kept my Franky a little, would not they? He was only six. Did you know that he was only six? Many people took him for seven; he was so big for his age. What, crying again? Well, I do not much wonder; he was a very loving little fellow, was not he? and had a great fancy for you. He prized that knife almost more than anything he possessed, and yet he was determined that you should have it. You will take care of it, will not you? Good-bye!’
‘Part of the host have crossed the flood,
And part are crossing now.’
She is gone–passed out into the blackness of the winter evening—gone before Peggy, paralyzed, half-stunned as she is, can arrest her. Was she ever here? The doubt flashes into the girl’s mind. Of late, in her long vigils, she has seemed to be parted from the spirit-world by but the consistency of a spider’s web. Has that fine partition been broken down? Has she been seeing visions, and dreaming dreams? Did that crape-gowned figure ever stand really in the body beside the table? Did she herself ever look across the lamplight into the still and bottomless despair of its eyes? Did it really give her Franky’s knife, and tell her–oh no, it is incredible! God can never have granted to her–to her of all people, sunk so low as she is, far beyond the reach of any joy to touch–to hear such things as her ears seem to have heard. She looks wildly round the room.
‘It was not true!’ she says out loud; ‘it was hallucination. It comes of sleeping so little.’
And yet it must be true, too; for here, clasped in her hand, is the poor knife, the object of the mother’s journey. If that be real, then must all the rest be real too. As the splendor of this inference breaks in dazzling overpowering light upon her soul, she sinks on her knees beside the table, lays down her head upon it at the same spot where Talbot had laid his head in his heart-break five months ago, while she had stood over him pronouncing her unjust and inexorable sentence.
‘Oh, love, love!’ she sighs out; ‘dear love! poor love! forgive me! Come back to me! how could I tell?’
And then she lifts her face up to him, as if he were there; her face irradiated with a joy like that of morning. Yes, though Prue is dying upstairs, though Franky’s pathetic bequest is still held between her fingers, her heart is leaping. Has not one of her dead been given back to her? Why, then, shall they not all? In that moment of supreme elation, it seems to her as if all things were possible; it seems to her as if Prue must get well, as if all her other dead joys must come crowding back to welcome that exceeding great one, that has flown to her with widespread arms out of the night of winter and despair. Prue will get well. God will make her well. With God all things are possible.
There is a smile of wet radiance on her pale lips, and in her tired eyes; and she is repeating over and over again to herself, as if by repetition she would ensure their fulfilment, these lovely promises, when the door opens and Sarah looks in.
‘If you please, ‘m, could you come back to Miss Prue?’
‘Oh yes, this minute–this minute! How has she been? how is she? Better? a little better?’
There must be something strange about her own appearance, for her servant is looking at her in undisguised amazement.
‘Better, ‘m?’ she repeats in a wondering key; ‘whatever should make you think she was better? She has had a bad bout of coughing since you left, and it has tired her out, so that it quite frightened me. That was partly why I came for you.’
Before her sentence is ended Peggy is upstairs again and at her sister’s bedside; the transfiguration all dead out of her face.
‘You have been a long time away,’ says the sick girl feebly, and with a little of her old querulousness; ‘why did you go?’
‘I will not go again, darling.’
‘But why did you go?’ repeats the other with the pertinacity of sickness; ‘where have you been?’
Margaret hesitates a moment; then:
‘I have been with Franky Harborough’s mother,’ she answers gently, the tears rushing afresh to her eyes, as she holds out the legacy of the dead child before the faint eyes of the dying one; ‘he sent me his knife; his mother brought it me.’
‘Poor Franky!’ says Prue softly, but she does not manifest any curiosity. She only turns her wan face upon the pillow, and closes her eyes. In the watches of the night, however, she recurs more than once to the subject, waking up to cry, ‘Poor Franky!’ and to say, ‘How sad it is when young people die!’
And Peggy acquiesces.
The tired servants have gone to bed. They, too, have had their share of watching on former nights. Peggy keeps her vigil alone. In the intense silence of the dark, in the intense silence of the little lonely country house standing fog-muffled through the enormous November night, beside its unfrequented country road, she keeps her vigil alone. Not even an owl calls from the tree-tops, nor does a star look through the murk. In her night-watching of late she has been tormented with a cruel over-mastering drowsiness, which has filled her with a remorse such as those must have felt to whom it was said, ‘What, could ye not watch with Me one hour?’ but against which offended nature, being yet stronger than she, she has once and again contended in vain.
To-night, however, through all the hours of her vigil, she is broadly, acutely awake. Awake! Yes; but is she sane? That is the question that over and over again she puts to herself. If she be, what are these voices that keep calling to her out of the noisy silence? What are these faces that are becking and mowing at her? What are these flashes of light, dreader than any darkness–flashes that have the blasphemy to look like joy–that dart now and again across the sorrow-struck confusion of her soul? How dare they come? God-sent, or devil-sent; messengers from heaven, or fiends from hell, how dare they come? They shall not, shall not thrust themselves between her and her Prue.
When the tarrying dawn comes, it finds her almost as exhausted as it does her whose stock of mornings and evenings has so nigh run out. It has come, that tarrying dawn; and Prue, waking up with a start, as by some infallible instinct she always does as soon as the east has sent her first weak arrows against the great target of the dark, feebly calls to her sister to bring her her card that she may erase the one more parted day from the calendar. But when Peggy’s strong and tender arms have propped her up, when Peggy’s fond hand has put the pen into hers it escapes from her disobedient fingers.
‘I do not know what has come to me,’ she says with her little smile; ‘but you must do it for me–that will be just as well, will not it? You do not think,’ with an anxious catch in her voice, ‘that it is ill-luck your doing it this once, instead of me? If you think so, I will try again.’
As morning advances there comes a slight renewal of strength–a slight revival to the dying girl. The servants and the doctor–the kind doctor who still makes a feint of prescribing–urge upon Margaret to take advantage of this slight amendment to snatch an hour or two of sleep; but she pushes away their advice almost rudely. Is not the text still ringing in her ears, ‘What, could ye not watch with Me one hour?’ And Prue, as it turns out, needs her more to-day than most days. For she is less drowsy and lethargic than she has been of late, able even to plan a new arrangement of all Freddy’s presents, a new grouping round her of his photographs.
‘Had ever any one so many portraits of the same person?’ she says with a tiny white smile, looking contentedly at them, when the new arrangement has been effected. ‘I am very silly about him; but he is silly about me too, is not he?’ with a look of intensely wistful asking in her blue eyes.
When evening draws on, she begins to grow heavy again.
_When evening draws on!_ Can it be again approaching? already again approaching–the grisly nightmare night? Why, it seems as if not more than half an hour had elapsed since day had begun to deal out her avaricious dole of light! and now she is again withdrawing it. The night is approaching. The night has approached. The night is here, in dominant black supremacy. And again Peggy watches. It is not the fault of the servants that she does so. At any crisis–a sickness, a catastrophe, a death–servants are almost always kind; and Margaret’s are more than willing to shorten or forego their rest in order to share with her, or replace her in her vigil. But she dismisses their offers promptly, yet with a resolution that shows that it would be vain to press them. She will call them if there is any need. They go reluctantly, and once again night settles down upon the sad little Red House.
The drowsiness that used to frighten Margaret with its threatened mastery she has no longer any need to keep at bay. On the contrary, the preternatural wakefulness which had been with her all last night is with her still. With her, too, is the thundering silence, beating in her ear like a loud drum. All her last night’s enemies are here again–all but one, the worst. She has no longer to contend with those flashes of dreadful incongruous joy. They at least are gone–extinct, dead! He that had called them forth is massed in her despair with her other dead. They are all gone irrevocably. The only difference is that God took the others, and she herself has thrown him away. But they are all equally gone–gone! If it were not so, if she had any one left, would she be kneeling here, in this overpowering loneliness, watching Prue go, and asking God over and over again, in the same stupid agonized words, to let her go easily?
Yes, it has come to this. We begin by asking such great things for our beloved–honor, and wisdom, and long life, and riches; and we end in this, ‘Give them a short agony, an easy passing!’ Is it a sign that God has heard her prayer, that as the hours go by Prue begins to talk out loud, with little laughs between? to talk–not of her cough, and her physic, and her short breath–but of gay and lovely things. She is talking to one who is not here, of fair sights that are not before her dying eyes.
Peggy holds her breath to listen. She is sitting in the garden with Freddy. She is riding with him through the woods. From what she says, it must be springtime. What a sheet of harebells! Never any May that she remembers have they been so many before! And the birds! how loudly they are singing! She would like to know the note of each, but she is so stupid, he must teach her!
A great dry sob breaks from the listener’s breast.
‘Oh, Prue, Prue!’ she moans; ‘take me with you! Let me, too, see the flowers and hear the birds!’
But Prue does not heed. She babbles happily on. By and by her wanderings die down into a sort of semi-stupor, that is neither sleep nor waking. The silence that her voice had broken is not again wholly restored. It is exchanged for those indefinite noises of the night which, to timid souls, seem to share the dominion of terror with its stillness. There are definite noises too. A mouse gnaws behind the wainscot; the wind has risen, not into a loud and roaring storm, but into a plaintive piping and muttering and whistling. A loose rose-branch that in summer sends its petals flying in through Prue’s casement to her feet, is now tapping pertinaciously on the pane. It seems as if it would not take ‘No’ for answer, as if it were crying to her with summoning fingers, ‘Come, come! it is time!’
The night has reached the dreariest of her little hours, that one that seems equally remote from the comfortable shores of the gone day and the coming one. The clocks have just struck two, and Peggy kneels on, still reiterating that monotonous prayer that God will take her Prue gently.
To her ears, though not to her senses, come the noises of the night; come also noises that do not rightly belong to the province of the night, that are rather akin to the noises of the day: the sound, for instance, of wheels outside upon the lonely road, a sound that does not die away, gradually muffled and fading into the distance, but that ceases suddenly on the air–ceases, only to be succeeded by the noise of a vague, subdued stir in the house itself. But Peggy kneels on. The only noise that she heeds is that of the beckoning rose-branch that calls continually, ‘Come, come!’
She has buried her face in the bed-clothes, praying always; and as she lifts it again she becomes aware that in the doorway, left ajar to give Prue more air and ease in breathing, some one is standing, some one standing at the dead of the night, looking in upon her. But still she kneels on. She is quite past fear. Is she wandering, like Prue? Is it some heavenly messenger that has come out of pure pity to her help? If it be so, it wears the homely human form, the form of one with whom she once sat under a hawthorn bower, with her happy head upon his breast.
As her solemn, haggard eyes meet his, he advances into the room, and kneels down beside her. They exchange no word. Their hands meet in no greeting; only they kneel side by side, until the morning. And at morning, when the first dawn-streak makes gray the chinks of the window-shutters, Prue, true to her infallible instinct, wakes up out of her trance; and, opening her eyes, cries with a loud, clear voice:
‘Is it morning? Then there is another day gone. Forty days gone—forty days!’ and so, lifting her face to Peggy to be kissed, as she has done all her life, before addressing herself to sleep, she closes her eyes, and turns her face on the pillow with a satisfied sigh; and on that satisfied sigh her soul slips away.
Speak softly, for Prue is asleep–asleep as Franky Harborough sleeps, as all they sleep, the time of whose waking is the secret of the Lord God Omnipotent.
* * * * *
Her little world have long prophesied that Prue would die, and now she is dead–dead, and, restless as she was, laid to rest in her moss-lined grave. With the live green moss environing her, with the bride-white flowers enwrapping her from dreamless head to foot, she has gone—gone from sofa and settle and garden–gone soon from everywhere, save from Peggy’s heart. And he who is the alone lord and owner of that great heart does not grudge its place to the poor little figure seated for ever by that warm fireside; and if, as time goes on, he knows that the Prue so perennially enthroned there–the Prue of whom in after-days Peggy’s children are taught to talk with lowered voices, as of some thing too sweet and sacred for common speech–is not the real Prue who fretted and repined, and loved to madness here on earth, he does not own it even to himself.
* * * * *
_Postscript._–About six months after the death of Prue Lambton, the attention of the readers of one of the graver monthlies was arrested by the appearance in its pages of a short ode, the melody of whose versification, the delicate aroma of its fancy, the quaint beauty of its imagery, and the truth and freshness of its feeling, called to their minds the best of the Elizabethan lyrics. It was anonymous, and was addressed ‘To Prue in Heaven.’