SNITCHEY AND CRAGGS had a snug little office on the old Battle Ground, wher_hey drove a snug little business, and fought a great many small pitche_attles for a great many contending parties. Though it could hardly be said o_hese conflicts that they were running fights—for in truth they generall_roceeded at a snail’s pace—the part the Firm had in them came so far withi_he general denomination, that now they took a shot at this Plaintiff, and no_imed a chop at that Defendant, now made a heavy charge at an estate i_hancery, and now had some light skirmishing among an irregular body of smal_ebtors, just as the occasion served, and the enemy happened to presen_imself. The Gazette was an important and profitable feature in some of thei_ields, as in fields of greater renown; and in most of the Actions wherei_hey showed their generalship, it was afterwards observed by the combatant_hat they had had great difficulty in making each other out, or in knowin_ith any degree of distinctness what they were about, in consequence of th_ast amount of smoke by which they were surrounded.
The offices of Messrs. Snitchey and Craggs stood convenient, with an open doo_own two smooth steps, in the market–place; so that any angry farmer inclinin_owards hot water, might tumble into it at once. Their special council–chambe_nd hall of conference was an old back–room up–stairs, with a low dar_eiling, which seemed to be knitting its brows gloomily in the consideratio_f tangled points of law. It was furnished with some high–backed leather_hairs, garnished with great goggle–eyed brass nails, of which, every here an_here, two or three had fallen out—or had been picked out, perhaps, by th_andering thumbs and forefingers of bewildered clients. There was a frame_rint of a great judge in it, every curl in whose dreadful wig had made _an’s hair stand on end. Bales of papers filled the dusty closets, shelves, and tables; and round the wainscot there were tiers of boxes, padlocked an_ireproof, with people’s names painted outside, which anxious visitors fel_hemselves, by a cruel enchantment, obliged to spell backwards and forwards, and to make anagrams of, while they sat, seeming to listen to Snitchey an_raggs, without comprehending one word of what they said.
Snitchey and Craggs had each, in private life as in professional existence, _artner of his own. Snitchey and Craggs were the best friends in the world, and had a real confidence in one another; but Mrs. Snitchey, by a dispensatio_ot uncommon in the affairs of life, was on principle suspicious of Mr.
Craggs; and Mrs. Craggs was on principle suspicious of Mr. Snitchey. ‘You_nitcheys indeed,’ the latter lady would observe, sometimes, to Mr. Craggs; using that imaginative plural as if in disparagement of an objectionable pai_f pantaloons, or other articles not possessed of a singular number; ‘I don’_ee what you want with your Snitcheys, for my part. You trust a great deal to_uch to your Snitcheys, I think, and I hope you may never find my words com_rue.’ While Mrs. Snitchey would observe to Mr. Snitchey, of Craggs, ‘that i_ver he was led away by man he was led away by that man, and that if ever sh_ead a double purpose in a mortal eye, she read that purpose in Craggs’s eye.’ Notwithstanding this, however, they were all very good friends in general: an_rs. Snitchey and Mrs. Craggs maintained a close bond of alliance against ‘th_ffice,’ which they both considered the Blue chamber, and common enemy, ful_f dangerous (because unknown) machinations.
In this office, nevertheless, Snitchey and Craggs made honey for their severa_ives. Here, sometimes, they would linger, of a fine evening, at the window o_heir council–chamber overlooking the old battle–ground, and wonder (but tha_as generally at assize time, when much business had made them sentimental) a_he folly of mankind, who couldn’t always be at peace with one another and g_o law comfortably. Here, days, and weeks, and months, and years, passed ove_hem: their calendar, the gradually diminishing number of brass nails in th_eathern chairs, and the increasing bulk of papers on the tables. Here, nearl_hree years’ flight had thinned the one and swelled the other, since th_reakfast in the orchard; when they sat together in consultation at night.
Not alone; but, with a man of about thirty, or that time of life, negligentl_ressed, and somewhat haggard in the face, but well–made, well–attired, an_ell–looking, who sat in the armchair of state, with one hand in his breast, and the other in his dishevelled hair, pondering moodily. Messrs. Snitchey an_raggs sat opposite each other at a neighbouring desk. One of the fireproo_oxes, unpadlocked and opened, was upon it; a part of its contents lay strew_pon the table, and the rest was then in course of passing through the hand_f Mr. Snitchey; who brought it to the candle, document by document; looked a_very paper singly, as he produced it; shook his head, and handed it to Mr.
Craggs; who looked it over also, shook his head, and laid it down. Sometimes, they would stop, and shaking their heads in concert, look towards th_bstracted client. And the name on the box being Michael Warden, Esquire, w_ay conclude from these premises that the name and the box were both his, an_hat the affairs of Michael Warden, Esquire, were in a bad way.
‘That’s all,’ said Mr. Snitchey, turning up the last paper. ‘Really there’s n_ther resource. No other resource.’
‘All lost, spent, wasted, pawned, borrowed, and sold, eh?’ said the client, looking up.
‘All,’ returned Mr. Snitchey.
‘Nothing else to be done, you say?’
‘Nothing at all.’
The client bit his nails, and pondered again.
‘And I am not even personally safe in England? You hold to that, do you?’
‘In no part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,’ replied Mr.
‘A mere prodigal son with no father to go back to, no swine to keep, and n_usks to share with them? Eh?’ pursued the client, rocking one leg over th_ther, and searching the ground with his eyes.
Mr. Snitchey coughed, as if to deprecate the being supposed to participate i_ny figurative illustration of a legal position. Mr. Craggs, as if to expres_hat it was a partnership view of the subject, also coughed.
‘Ruined at thirty!’ said the client. ‘Humph!’
‘Not ruined, Mr. Warden,’ returned Snitchey. ‘Not so bad as that. You hav_one a good deal towards it, I must say, but you are not ruined. A littl_ursing—’
‘A little Devil,’ said the client.
‘Mr. Craggs,’ said Snitchey, ‘will you oblige me with a pinch of snuff? Than_ou, sir.’
As the imperturbable lawyer applied it to his nose with great apparent relis_nd a perfect absorption of his attention in the proceeding, the clien_radually broke into a smile, and, looking up, said:
‘You talk of nursing. How long nursing?’
‘How long nursing?’ repeated Snitchey, dusting the snuff from his fingers, an_aking a slow calculation in his mind. ‘For your involved estate, sir? In goo_ands? S. and C.’s, say? Six or seven years.’
‘To starve for six or seven years!’ said the client with a fretful laugh, an_n impatient change of his position.
‘To starve for six or seven years, Mr. Warden,’ said Snitchey, ‘would be ver_ncommon indeed. You might get another estate by showing yourself, the while.
But, we don’t think you could do it—speaking for Self and Craggs—an_onsequently don’t advise it.’
‘What do you advise?’
‘Nursing, I say,’ repeated Snitchey. ‘Some few years of nursing by Self an_raggs would bring it round. But to enable us to make terms, and hold terms, and you to keep terms, you must go away; you must live abroad. As t_tarvation, we could ensure you some hundreds a–year to starve upon, even i_he beginning—I dare say, Mr. Warden.’
‘Hundreds,’ said the client. ‘And I have spent thousands!’
‘That,’ retorted Mr. Snitchey, putting the papers slowly back into th_ast–iron box, ‘there is no doubt about. No doubt about,’ he repeated t_imself, as he thoughtfully pursued his occupation.
The lawyer very likely knew his man; at any rate his dry, shrewd, whimsica_anner, had a favourable influence on the client’s moody state, and dispose_im to be more free and unreserved. Or, perhaps the client knew his man, an_ad elicited such encouragement as he had received, to render some purpose h_as about to disclose the more defensible in appearance. Gradually raising hi_ead, he sat looking at his immovable adviser with a smile, which presentl_roke into a laugh.
‘After all,’ he said, ‘my iron–headed friend—’
Mr. Snitchey pointed out his partner. ‘Self and—excuse me—Craggs.’
‘I beg Mr. Craggs’s pardon,’ said the client. ‘After all, my iron–heade_riends,’ he leaned forward in his chair, and dropped his voice a little, ‘yo_on’t know half my ruin yet.’
Mr. Snitchey stopped and stared at him. Mr. Craggs also stared.
‘I am not only deep in debt,’ said the client, ‘but I am deep in—’
‘Not in love!’ cried Snitchey.
‘Yes!’ said the client, falling back in his chair, and surveying the Firm wit_is hands in his pockets. ‘Deep in love.’
‘And not with an heiress, sir?’ said Snitchey.
‘Not with an heiress.’
‘Nor a rich lady?’
‘Nor a rich lady that I know of—except in beauty and merit.’
‘A single lady, I trust?’ said Mr. Snitchey, with great expression.
‘It’s not one of Dr. Jeddler’s daughters?’ said Snitchey, suddenly squarin_is elbows on his knees, and advancing his face at least a yard.
‘Yes!’ returned the client.
‘Not his younger daughter?’ said Snitchey.
‘Yes!’ returned the client.
‘Mr. Craggs,’ said Snitchey, much relieved, ‘will you oblige me with anothe_inch of snuff? Thank you! I am happy to say it don’t signify, Mr. Warden; she’s engaged, sir, she’s bespoke. My partner can corroborate me. We know th_act.’
‘We know the fact,’ repeated Craggs.
‘Why, so do I perhaps,’ returned the client quietly. ‘What of that! Are yo_en of the world, and did you never hear of a woman changing her mind?’
‘There certainly have been actions for breach,’ said Mr. Snitchey, ‘brough_gainst both spinsters and widows, but, in the majority of cases—’
‘Cases!’ interposed the client, impatiently. ‘Don’t talk to me of cases. Th_eneral precedent is in a much larger volume than any of your law books.
Besides, do you think I have lived six weeks in the Doctor’s house fo_othing?’
‘I think, sir,’ observed Mr. Snitchey, gravely addressing himself to hi_artner, ‘that of all the scrapes Mr. Warden’s horses have brought him into a_ne time and another—and they have been pretty numerous, and pretty expensive, as none know better than himself, and you, and I—the worst scrape may turn ou_o be, if he talks in this way, this having ever been left by one of them a_he Doctor’s garden wall, with three broken ribs, a snapped collar–bone, an_he Lord knows how many bruises. We didn’t think so much of it, at the tim_hen we knew he was going on well under the Doctor’s hands and roof; but i_ooks bad now, sir. Bad? It looks very bad. Doctor Jeddler too—our client, Mr.
‘Mr. Alfred Heathfield too—a sort of client, Mr. Snitchey,’ said Craggs.
‘Mr. Michael Warden too, a kind of client,’ said the careless visitor, ‘and n_ad one either: having played the fool for ten or twelve years. However, Mr.
Michael Warden has sown his wild oats now—there’s their crop, in that box; an_e means to repent and be wise. And in proof of it, Mr. Michael Warden means, if he can, to marry Marion, the Doctor’s lovely daughter, and to carry he_way with him.’
‘Really, Mr. Craggs,’ Snitchey began.
‘Really, Mr. Snitchey, and Mr. Craggs, partners both,’ said the client, interrupting him; ‘you know your duty to your clients, and you know wel_nough, I am sure, that it is no part of it to interfere in a mere lov_ffair, which I am obliged to confide to you. I am not going to carry th_oung lady off, without her own consent. There’s nothing illegal in it. _ever was Mr. Heathfield’s bosom friend. I violate no confidence of his. _ove where he loves, and I mean to win where he would win, if I can.’
‘He can’t, Mr. Craggs,’ said Snitchey, evidently anxious and discomfited. ‘H_an’t do it, sir. She dotes on Mr. Alfred.’
‘Does she?’ returned the client.
‘Mr. Craggs, she dotes on him, sir,’ persisted Snitchey.
‘I didn’t live six weeks, some few months ago, in the Doctor’s house fo_othing; and I doubted that soon,’ observed the client. ‘She would have dote_n him, if her sister could have brought it about; but I watched them. Mario_voided his name, avoided the subject: shrunk from the least allusion to it, with evident distress.’
‘Why should she, Mr. Craggs, you know? Why should she, sir?’ inquire_nitchey.
‘I don’t know why she should, though there are many likely reasons,’ said th_lient, smiling at the attention and perplexity expressed in Mr. Snitchey’_hining eye, and at his cautious way of carrying on the conversation, an_aking himself informed upon the subject; ‘but I know she does. She was ver_oung when she made the engagement—if it may be called one, I am not even sur_f that—and has repented of it, perhaps. Perhaps—it seems a foppish thing t_ay, but upon my soul I don’t mean it in that light—she may have fallen i_ove with me, as I have fallen in love with her.’
‘He, he! Mr. Alfred, her old playfellow too, you remember, Mr. Craggs,’ sai_nitchey, with a disconcerted laugh; ‘knew her almost from a baby!’
‘Which makes it the more probable that she may be tired of his idea,’ calml_ursued the client, ‘and not indisposed to exchange it for the newer one o_nother lover, who presents himself (or is presented by his horse) unde_omantic circumstances; has the not unfavourable reputation—with a countr_irl—of having lived thoughtlessly and gaily, without doing much harm t_nybody; and who, for his youth and figure, and so forth—this may seem foppis_gain, but upon my soul I don’t mean it in that light—might perhaps pas_uster in a crowd with Mr. Alfred himself.’
There was no gainsaying the last clause, certainly; and Mr. Snitchey, glancin_t him, thought so. There was something naturally graceful and pleasant in th_ery carelessness of his air. It seemed to suggest, of his comely face an_ell–knit figure, that they might be greatly better if he chose: and that, once roused and made earnest (but he never had been earnest yet), he could b_ull of fire and purpose. ‘A dangerous sort of libertine,’ thought the shrew_awyer, ‘to seem to catch the spark he wants, from a young lady’s eyes.’
‘Now, observe, Snitchey,’ he continued, rising and taking him by the button, ‘and Craggs,’ taking him by the button also, and placing one partner on eithe_ide of him, so that neither might evade him. ‘I don’t ask you for any advice.
You are right to keep quite aloof from all parties in such a matter, which i_ot one in which grave men like you could interfere, on any side. I am briefl_oing to review in half–a–dozen words, my position and intention, and then _hall leave it to you to do the best for me, in money matters, that you can: seeing, that, if I run away with the Doctor’s beautiful daughter (as I hope t_o, and to become another man under her bright influence), it will be, for th_oment, more chargeable than running away alone. But I shall soon make al_hat up in an altered life.’
‘I think it will be better not to hear this, Mr. Craggs?’ said Snitchey, looking at him across the client.
‘I think not,’ said Craggs. —Both listened attentively.
‘Well! You needn’t hear it,’ replied their client. ‘I’ll mention it, however.
I don’t mean to ask the Doctor’s consent, because he wouldn’t give it me. Bu_ mean to do the Doctor no wrong or harm, because (besides there being nothin_erious in such trifles, as he says) I hope to rescue his child, my Marion, from what I see—I know—she dreads, and contemplates with misery: that is, th_eturn of this old lover. If anything in the world is true, it is true tha_he dreads his return. Nobody is injured so far. I am so harried and worrie_ere just now, that I lead the life of a flying–fish. I skulk about in th_ark, I am shut out of my own house, and warned off my own grounds; but, tha_ouse, and those grounds, and many an acre besides, will come back to me on_ay, as you know and say; and Marion will probably be richer—on your showing, who are never sanguine—ten years hence as my wife, than as the wife of Alfre_eathfield, whose return she dreads (remember that), and in whom or in an_an, my passion is not surpassed. Who is injured yet? It is a fair cas_hroughout. My right is as good as his, if she decide in my favour; and I wil_ry my right by her alone. You will like to know no more after this, and _ill tell you no more. Now you know my purpose, and wants. When must I leav_ere?’
‘In a week,’ said Snitchey. ‘Mr. Craggs?’
‘In something less, I should say,’ responded Craggs.
‘In a month,’ said the client, after attentively watching the two faces. ‘Thi_ay month. To–day is Thursday. Succeed or fail, on this day month I go.’
‘It’s too long a delay,’ said Snitchey; ‘much too long. But let it be so. _hought he’d have stipulated for three,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Are yo_oing? Good night, sir!’
‘Good night!’ returned the client, shaking hands with the Firm.
‘You’ll live to see me making a good use of riches yet. Henceforth the star o_y destiny is, Marion!’
‘Take care of the stairs, sir,’ replied Snitchey; ‘for she don’t shine there.
So they both stood at the stair–head with a pair of office–candles, watchin_im down. When he had gone away, they stood looking at each other.
‘What do you think of all this, Mr. Craggs?’ said Snitchey.
Mr. Craggs shook his head.
‘It was our opinion, on the day when that release was executed, that there wa_omething curious in the parting of that pair; I recollect,’ said Snitchey.
‘It was,’ said Mr. Craggs.
‘Perhaps he deceives himself altogether,’ pursued Mr. Snitchey, locking up th_ireproof box, and putting it away; ‘or, if he don’t, a little bit o_ickleness and perfidy is not a miracle, Mr. Craggs. And yet I thought tha_retty face was very true. I thought,’ said Mr. Snitchey, putting on hi_reat–coat (for the weather was very cold), drawing on his gloves, an_nuffing out one candle, ‘that I had even seen her character becoming stronge_nd more resolved of late. More like her sister’s.’
‘Mrs. Craggs was of the same opinion,’ returned Craggs.
‘I’d really give a trifle to–night,’ observed Mr. Snitchey, who was _ood–natured man, ‘if I could believe that Mr. Warden was reckoning withou_is host; but, light–headed, capricious, and unballasted as he is, he know_omething of the world and its people (he ought to, for he has bought what h_oes know, dear enough); and I can’t quite think that. We had better no_nterfere: we can do nothing, Mr. Craggs, but keep quiet.’
‘Nothing,’ returned Craggs.
‘Our friend the Doctor makes light of such things,’ said Mr. Snitchey, shakin_is head. ‘I hope he mayn’t stand in need of his philosophy. Our friend Alfre_alks of the battle of life,’ he shook his head again, ‘I hope he mayn’t b_ut down early in the day. Have you got your hat, Mr. Craggs? I am going t_ut the other candle out.’ Mr. Craggs replying in the affirmative, Mr.
Snitchey suited the action to the word, and they groped their way out of th_ouncil–chamber, now dark as the subject, or the law in general.
My story passes to a quiet little study, where, on that same night, th_isters and the hale old Doctor sat by a cheerful fireside. Grace was workin_t her needle. Marion read aloud from a book before her. The Doctor, in hi_ressing–gown and slippers, with his feet spread out upon the warm rug, leane_ack in his easy–chair, and listened to the book, and looked upon hi_aughters.
They were very beautiful to look upon. Two better faces for a fireside, neve_ade a fireside bright and sacred. Something of the difference between the_ad been softened down in three years’ time; and enthroned upon the clear bro_f the younger sister, looking through her eyes, and thrilling in her voice, was the same earnest nature that her own motherless youth had ripened in th_lder sister long ago. But she still appeared at once the lovelier and weake_f the two; still seemed to rest her head upon her sister’s breast, and pu_er trust in her, and look into her eyes for counsel and reliance. Thos_oving eyes, so calm, serene, and cheerful, as of old.
‘“And being in her own home,”’ read Marion, from the book; ‘“her home mad_xquisitely dear by these remembrances, she now began to know that the grea_rial of her heart must soon come on, and could not be delayed. O Home, ou_omforter and friend when others fall away, to part with whom, at any ste_etween the cradle and the grave—”’
‘Marion, my love!’ said Grace.
‘Why, Puss!’ exclaimed her father, ‘what’s the matter?’
She put her hand upon the hand her sister stretched towards her, and read on; her voice still faltering and trembling, though she made an effort to comman_t when thus interrupted.
‘“To part with whom, at any step between the cradle and the grave, is alway_orrowful. O Home, so true to us, so often slighted in return, be lenient t_hem that turn away from thee, and do not haunt their erring footsteps to_eproachfully! Let no kind looks, no well–remembered smiles, be seen upon th_hantom face. Let no ray of affection, welcome, gentleness, forbearance, cordiality, shine from thy white head. Let no old loving word, or tone, ris_p in judgment against thy deserter; but if thou canst look harshly an_everely, do, in mercy to the Penitent!”’
‘Dear Marion, read no more to–night,’ said Grace for she was weeping.
‘I cannot,’ she replied, and closed the book. ‘The words seem all on fire!’
The Doctor was amused at this; and laughed as he patted her on the head.
‘What! overcome by a story–book!’ said Doctor Jeddler. ‘Print and paper! Well, well, it’s all one. It’s as rational to make a serious matter of print an_aper as of anything else. But, dry your eyes, love, dry your eyes. I dare sa_he heroine has got home again long ago, and made it up all round—and if sh_asn’t, a real home is only four walls; and a fictitious one, mere rags an_nk. What’s the matter now?’
‘It’s only me, Mister,’ said Clemency, putting in her head at the door.
‘And what’s the matter with you?’ said the Doctor.
‘Oh, bless you, nothing an’t the matter with me,’ returned Clemency—and trul_oo, to judge from her well–soaped face, in which there gleamed as usual th_ery soul of good–humour, which, ungainly as she was, made her quite engaging.
Abrasions on the elbows are not generally understood, it is true, to rang_ithin that class of personal charms called beauty–spots. But, it is better, going through the world, to have the arms chafed in that narrow passage, tha_he temper: and Clemency’s was sound and whole as any beauty’s in the land.
‘Nothing an’t the matter with me,’ said Clemency, entering, ‘but—come a littl_loser, Mister.’
The Doctor, in some astonishment, complied with this invitation.
‘You said I wasn’t to give you one before them, you know,’ said Clemency.
A novice in the family might have supposed, from her extraordinary ogling a_he said it, as well as from a singular rapture or ecstasy which pervaded he_lbows, as if she were embracing herself, that ‘one,’ in its most favourabl_nterpretation, meant a chaste salute. Indeed the Doctor himself seeme_larmed, for the moment; but quickly regained his composure, as Clemency, having had recourse to both her pockets—beginning with the right one, goin_way to the wrong one, and afterwards coming back to the right on_gain—produced a letter from the Post–office.
‘Britain was riding by on a errand,’ she chuckled, handing it to the Doctor, ‘and see the mail come in, and waited for it. There’s A. H. in the corner. Mr.
Alfred’s on his journey home, I bet. We shall have a wedding in th_ouse—there was two spoons in my saucer this morning. Oh Luck, how slow h_pens it!’
All this she delivered, by way of soliloquy, gradually rising higher an_igher on tiptoe, in her impatience to hear the news, and making a corkscre_f her apron, and a bottle of her mouth. At last, arriving at a climax o_uspense, and seeing the Doctor still engaged in the perusal of the letter, she came down flat upon the soles of her feet again, and cast her apron, as _eil, over her head, in a mute despair, and inability to bear it any longer.
‘Here! Girls!’ cried the Doctor. ‘I can’t help it: I never could keep a secre_n my life. There are not many secrets, indeed, worth being kept in suc_—well! never mind that. Alfred’s coming home, my dears, directly.’
‘Directly!’ exclaimed Marion.
‘What! The story–book is soon forgotten!’ said the Doctor, pinching her cheek.
‘I thought the news would dry those tears. Yes. “Let it be a surprise,” h_ays, here. But I can’t let it be a surprise. He must have a welcome.’
‘Directly!’ repeated Marion.
‘Why, perhaps not what your impatience calls “directly,”’ returned the doctor; ‘but pretty soon too. Let us see. Let us see. To–day is Thursday, is it not?
Then he promises to be here, this day month.’
‘This day month!’ repeated Marion, softly.
‘A gay day and a holiday for us,’ said the cheerful voice of her sister Grace, kissing her in congratulation. ‘Long looked forward to, dearest, and come a_ast.’
She answered with a smile; a mournful smile, but full of sisterly affection.
As she looked in her sister’s face, and listened to the quiet music of he_oice, picturing the happiness of this return, her own face glowed with hop_nd joy.
And with a something else; a something shining more and more through all th_est of its expression; for which I have no name. It was not exultation, triumph, proud enthusiasm. They are not so calmly shown. It was not love an_ratitude alone, though love and gratitude were part of it. It emanated fro_o sordid thought, for sordid thoughts do not light up the brow, and hover o_he lips, and move the spirit like a fluttered light, until the sympatheti_igure trembles.
Dr. Jeddler, in spite of his system of philosophy—which he was continuall_ontradicting and denying in practice, but more famous philosophers have don_hat—could not help having as much interest in the return of his old ward an_upil as if it had been a serious event. So he sat himself down in hi_asy–chair again, stretched out his slippered feet once more upon the rug, read the letter over and over a great many times, and talked it over mor_imes still.
‘Ah! The day was,’ said the Doctor, looking at the fire, ‘when you and he, Grace, used to trot about arm–in–arm, in his holiday time, like a couple o_alking dolls. You remember?’
‘I remember,’ she answered, with her pleasant laugh, and plying her needl_usily.
‘This day month, indeed!’ mused the Doctor. ‘That hardly seems a twelve mont_go. And where was my little Marion then!’
‘Never far from her sister,’ said Marion, cheerily, ‘however little. Grace wa_verything to me, even when she was a young child herself.’
‘True, Puss, true,’ returned the Doctor. ‘She was a staid little woman, wa_race, and a wise housekeeper, and a busy, quiet, pleasant body; bearing wit_ur humours and anticipating our wishes, and always ready to forget her own, even in those times. I never knew you positive or obstinate, Grace, m_arling, even then, on any subject but one.’
‘I am afraid I have changed sadly for the worse, since,’ laughed Grace, stil_usy at her work. ‘What was that one, father?’
‘Alfred, of course,’ said the Doctor. ‘Nothing would serve you but you must b_alled Alfred’s wife; so we called you Alfred’s wife; and you liked it better, I believe (odd as it seems now), than being called a Duchess, if we could hav_ade you one.’
‘Indeed?’ said Grace, placidly.
‘Why, don’t you remember?’ inquired the Doctor.
‘I think I remember something of it,’ she returned, ‘but not much. It’s s_ong ago.’ And as she sat at work, she hummed the burden of an old song, whic_he Doctor liked.
‘Alfred will find a real wife soon,’ she said, breaking off; ‘and that will b_ happy time indeed for all of us. My three years’ trust is nearly at an end, Marion. It has been a very easy one. I shall tell Alfred, when I give you bac_o him, that you have loved him dearly all the time, and that he has neve_nce needed my good services. May I tell him so, love?’
‘Tell him, dear Grace,’ replied Marion, ‘that there never was a trust s_enerously, nobly, steadfastly discharged; and that I have loved you, all th_ime, dearer and dearer every day; and O! how dearly now!’
‘Nay,’ said her cheerful sister, returning her embrace, ‘I can scarcely tel_im that; we will leave my deserts to Alfred’s imagination. It will be libera_nough, dear Marion; like your own.’
With that, she resumed the work she had for a moment laid down, when he_ister spoke so fervently: and with it the old song the Doctor liked to hear.
And the Doctor, still reposing in his easy–chair, with his slippered fee_tretched out before him on the rug, listened to the tune, and beat time o_is knee with Alfred’s letter, and looked at his two daughters, and though_hat among the many trifles of the trifling world, these trifles wer_greeable enough.
Clemency Newcome, in the meantime, having accomplished her mission an_ingered in the room until she had made herself a party to the news, descende_o the kitchen, where her coadjutor, Mr. Britain, was regaling after supper, surrounded by such a plentiful collection of bright pot–lids, well–scoure_aucepans, burnished dinner–covers, gleaming kettles, and other tokens of he_ndustrious habits, arranged upon the walls and shelves, that he sat as in th_entre of a hall of mirrors. The majority did not give forth very flatterin_ortraits of him, certainly; nor were they by any means unanimous in thei_eflections; as some made him very long–faced, others very broad–faced, som_olerably well–looking, others vastly ill–looking, according to their severa_anners of reflecting: which were as various, in respect of one fact, as thos_f so many kinds of men. But they all agreed that in the midst of them sat, quite at his ease, an individual with a pipe in his mouth, and a jug of bee_t his elbow, who nodded condescendingly to Clemency, when she statione_erself at the same table.
‘Well, Clemmy,’ said Britain, ‘how are you by this time, and what’s the news?’
Clemency told him the news, which he received very graciously. A graciou_hange had come over Benjamin from head to foot. He was much broader, muc_edder, much more cheerful, and much jollier in all respects. It seemed as i_is face had been tied up in a knot before, and was now untwisted and smoothe_ut.
‘There’ll be another job for Snitchey and Craggs, I suppose,’ he observed, puffing slowly at his pipe. ‘More witnessing for you and me, perhaps, Clemmy!’
‘Lor!’ replied his fair companion, with her favourite twist of her favourit_oints. ‘I wish it was me, Britain!’
‘Wish what was you?’
‘A–going to be married,’ said Clemency.
Benjamin took his pipe out of his mouth and laughed heartily. ‘Yes! you’re _ikely subject for that!’ he said. ‘Poor Clem!’ Clemency for her part laughe_s heartily as he, and seemed as much amused by the idea. ‘Yes,’ she assented, ‘I’m a likely subject for that; an’t I?’
‘You’ll never be married, you know,’ said Mr. Britain, resuming his pipe.
‘Don’t you think I ever shall though?’ said Clemency, in perfect good faith.
Mr. Britain shook his head. ‘Not a chance of it!’
‘Only think!’ said Clemency. ‘Well!—I suppose you mean to, Britain, one o_hese days; don’t you?’
A question so abrupt, upon a subject so momentous, required consideration.
After blowing out a great cloud of smoke, and looking at it with his head no_n this side and now on that, as if it were actually the question, and he wer_urveying it in various aspects, Mr. Britain replied that he wasn’t altogethe_lear about it, but—ye–es—he thought he might come to that at last.
‘I wish her joy, whoever she may be!’ cried Clemency.
‘Oh she’ll have that,’ said Benjamin, ‘safe enough.’
‘But she wouldn’t have led quite such a joyful life as she will lead, an_ouldn’t have had quite such a sociable sort of husband as she will have,’ said Clemency, spreading herself half over the table, and starin_etrospectively at the candle, ‘if it hadn’t been for—not that I went to d_t, for it was accidental, I am sure—if it hadn’t been for me; now would she, Britain?’
‘Certainly not,’ returned Mr. Britain, by this time in that high state o_ppreciation of his pipe, when a man can open his mouth but a very little wa_or speaking purposes; and sitting luxuriously immovable in his chair, ca_fford to turn only his eyes towards a companion, and that very passively an_ravely. ‘Oh! I’m greatly beholden to you, you know, Clem.’
‘Lor, how nice that is to think of!’ said Clemency.
At the same time, bringing her thoughts as well as her sight to bear upon th_andle–grease, and becoming abruptly reminiscent of its healing qualities as _alsam, she anointed her left elbow with a plentiful application of tha_emedy.
‘You see I’ve made a good many investigations of one sort and another in m_ime,’ pursued Mr. Britain, with the profundity of a sage, ‘having been alway_f an inquiring turn of mind; and I’ve read a good many books about th_eneral Rights of things and Wrongs of things, for I went into the literar_ine myself, when I began life.’
‘Did you though!’ cried the admiring Clemency.
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Britain: ‘I was hid for the best part of two years behind _ookstall, ready to fly out if anybody pocketed a volume; and after that, _as light porter to a stay and mantua maker, in which capacity I was employe_o carry about, in oilskin baskets, nothing but deceptions—which soured m_pirits and disturbed my confidence in human nature; and after that, I heard _orld of discussions in this house, which soured my spirits fresh; and m_pinion after all is, that, as a safe and comfortable sweetener of the same, and as a pleasant guide through life, there’s nothing like a nutmeg–grater.’
Clemency was about to offer a suggestion, but he stopped her by anticipatin_t.
‘Combined,’ he added gravely, ‘with a thimble.’
‘Do as you wold, you know, and cetrer, eh!’ observed Clemency, folding he_rms comfortably in her delight at this avowal, and patting her elbows. ‘Suc_ short cut, an’t it?’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Mr. Britain, ‘that it’s what would be considered goo_hilosophy. I’ve my doubts about that; but it wears well, and saves a quantit_f snarling, which the genuine article don’t always.’
‘See how you used to go on once, yourself, you know!’ said Clemency.
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Britain. ‘But the most extraordinary thing, Clemmy, is that _hould live to be brought round, through you. That’s the strange part of it.
Through you! Why, I suppose you haven’t so much as half an idea in your head.’
Clemency, without taking the least offence, shook it, and laughed and hugge_erself, and said, ‘No, she didn’t suppose she had.’
‘I’m pretty sure of it,’ said Mr. Britain.
‘Oh! I dare say you’re right,’ said Clemency. ‘I don’t pretend to none. _on’t want any.’
Benjamin took his pipe from his lips, and laughed till the tears ran down hi_ace. ‘What a natural you are, Clemmy!’ he said, shaking his head, with a_nfinite relish of the joke, and wiping his eyes. Clemency, without th_mallest inclination to dispute it, did the like, and laughed as heartily a_e.
‘I can’t help liking you,’ said Mr. Britain; ‘you’re a regular good creatur_n your way, so shake hands, Clem. Whatever happens, I’ll always take notic_f you, and be a friend to you.’
‘Will you?’ returned Clemency. ‘Well! that’s very good of you.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Mr. Britain, giving her his pipe to knock the ashes out o_t; ‘I’ll stand by you. Hark! That’s a curious noise!’
‘Noise!’ repeated Clemency.
‘A footstep outside. Somebody dropping from the wall, it sounded like,’ sai_ritain. ‘Are they all abed up–stairs?’
‘Yes, all abed by this time,’ she replied.
‘Didn’t you hear anything?’
They both listened, but heard nothing.
‘I tell you what,’ said Benjamin, taking down a lantern. ‘I’ll have a loo_ound, before I go to bed myself, for satisfaction’s sake. Undo the door whil_ light this, Clemmy.’
Clemency complied briskly; but observed as she did so, that he would only hav_is walk for his pains, that it was all his fancy, and so forth. Mr. Britai_aid ‘very likely;’ but sallied out, nevertheless, armed with the poker, an_asting the light of the lantern far and near in all directions.
‘It’s as quiet as a churchyard,’ said Clemency, looking after him; ‘and almos_s ghostly too!’
Glancing back into the kitchen, she cried fearfully, as a light figure stol_nto her view, ‘What’s that!’
‘Hush!’ said Marion in an agitated whisper. ‘You have always loved me, hav_ou not!’
‘Loved you, child! You may be sure I have.’
‘I am sure. And I may trust you, may I not? There is no one else just now, i_hom I can trust.’
‘Yes,’ said Clemency, with all her heart.
‘There is some one out there,’ pointing to the door, ‘whom I must see, an_peak with, to–night. Michael Warden, for God’s sake retire! Not now!’
Clemency started with surprise and trouble as, following the direction of th_peaker’s eyes, she saw a dark figure standing in the doorway.
‘In another moment you may be discovered,’ said Marion. ‘Not now! Wait, if yo_an, in some concealment. I will come presently.’
He waved his hand to her, and was gone. ‘Don’t go to bed. Wait here for me!’ said Marion, hurriedly. ‘I have been seeking to speak to you for an hour past.
Oh, be true to me!’
Eagerly seizing her bewildered hand, and pressing it with both her own to he_reast—an action more expressive, in its passion of entreaty, than the mos_loquent appeal in words,—Marion withdrew; as the light of the returnin_antern flashed into the room.
‘All still and peaceable. Nobody there. Fancy, I suppose,’ said Mr. Britain, as he locked and barred the door. ‘One of the effects of having a livel_magination. Halloa! Why, what’s the matter?’
Clemency, who could not conceal the effects of her surprise and concern, wa_itting in a chair: pale, and trembling from head to foot.
‘Matter!’ she repeated, chafing her hands and elbows, nervously, and lookin_nywhere but at him. ‘That’s good in you, Britain, that is! After going an_rightening one out of one’s life with noises and lanterns, and I don’t kno_hat all. Matter! Oh, yes!’
‘If you’re frightened out of your life by a lantern, Clemmy,’ said Mr.
Britain, composedly blowing it out and hanging it up again, ‘that apparition’_ery soon got rid of. But you’re as bold as brass in general,’ he said, stopping to observe her; ‘and were, after the noise and the lantern too. Wha_ave you taken into your head? Not an idea, eh?’
But, as Clemency bade him good night very much after her usual fashion, an_egan to bustle about with a show of going to bed herself immediately, Littl_ritain, after giving utterance to the original remark that it was impossibl_o account for a woman’s whims, bade her good night in return, and taking u_is candle strolled drowsily away to bed.
When all was quiet, Marion returned.
‘Open the door,’ she said; ‘and stand there close beside me, while I speak t_im, outside.’
Timid as her manner was, it still evinced a resolute and settled purpose, suc_s Clemency could not resist. She softly unbarred the door: but before turnin_he key, looked round on the young creature waiting to issue forth when sh_hould open it.
The face was not averted or cast down, but looking full upon her, in its prid_f youth and beauty. Some simple sense of the slightness of the barrier tha_nterposed itself between the happy home and honoured love of the fair girl, and what might be the desolation of that home, and shipwreck of its deares_reasure, smote so keenly on the tender heart of Clemency, and so filled it t_verflowing with sorrow and compassion, that, bursting into tears, she thre_er arms round Marion’s neck.
‘It’s little that I know, my dear,’ cried Clemency, ‘very little; but I kno_hat this should not be. Think of what you do!’
‘I have thought of it many times,’ said Marion, gently.
‘Once more,’ urged Clemency. ‘Till to–morrow.’ Marion shook her head.
‘For Mr. Alfred’s sake,’ said Clemency, with homely earnestness. ‘Him that yo_sed to love so dearly, once!’
She hid her face, upon the instant, in her hands, repeating ‘Once!’ as if i_ent her heart.
‘Let me go out,’ said Clemency, soothing her. ‘I’ll tell him what you like.
Don’t cross the door–step to–night. I’m sure no good will come of it. Oh, i_as an unhappy day when Mr. Warden was ever brought here! Think of your goo_ather, darling—of your sister.’
‘I have,’ said Marion, hastily raising her head. ‘You don’t know what I do. _ust speak to him. You are the best and truest friend in all the world fo_hat you have said to me, but I must take this step. Will you go with me, Clemency,’ she kissed her on her friendly face, ‘or shall I go alone?’
Sorrowing and wondering, Clemency turned the key, and opened the door. Int_he dark and doubtful night that lay beyond the threshold, Marion passe_uickly, holding by her hand.
In the dark night he joined her, and they spoke together earnestly and long; and the hand that held so fast by Clemeney’s, now trembled, now turned deadl_old, now clasped and closed on hers, in the strong feeling of the speech i_mphasised unconsciously. When they returned, he followed to the door, an_ausing there a moment, seized the other hand, and pressed it to his lips.
Then, stealthily withdrew.
The door was barred and locked again, and once again she stood beneath he_ather’s roof. Not bowed down by the secret that she brought there, though s_oung; but, with that same expression on her face for which I had no nam_efore, and shining through her tears.
Again she thanked and thanked her humble friend, and trusted to her, as sh_aid, with confidence, implicitly. Her chamber safely reached, she fell upo_er knees; and with her secret weighing on her heart, could pray!
Could rise up from her prayers, so tranquil and serene, and bending over he_ond sister in her slumber, look upon her face and smile—though sadly: murmuring as she kissed her forehead, how that Grace had been a mother to her, ever, and she loved her as a child!
Could draw the passive arm about her neck when lying down to rest—it seemed t_ling there, of its own will, protectingly and tenderly even in sleep—an_reathe upon the parted lips, God bless her!
Could sink into a peaceful sleep, herself; but for one dream, in which sh_ried out, in her innocent and touching voice, that she was quite alone, an_hey had all forgotten her.
A month soon passes, even at its tardiest pace. The month appointed to elaps_etween that night and the return, was quick of foot, and went by, like _apour.
The day arrived. A raging winter day, that shook the old house, sometimes, a_f it shivered in the blast. A day to make home doubly home. To give th_himney–corner new delights. To shed a ruddier glow upon the faces gathere_ound the hearth, and draw each fireside group into a closer and more socia_eague, against the roaring elements without. Such a wild winter day as bes_repares the way for shut–out night; for curtained rooms, and cheerful looks; for music, laughter, dancing, light, and jovial entertainment!
All these the Doctor had in store to welcome Alfred back. They knew that h_ould not arrive till night; and they would make the night air ring, he said, as he approached. All his old friends should congregate about him. He shoul_ot miss a face that he had known and liked. No! They should every one b_here!
So, guests were bidden, and musicians were engaged, and tables spread, an_loors prepared for active feet, and bountiful provision made, of ever_ospitable kind. Because it was the Christmas season, and his eyes were al_nused to English holly and its sturdy green, the dancing–room was garlande_nd hung with it; and the red berries gleamed an English welcome to him, peeping from among the leaves.
It was a busy day for all of them: a busier day for none of them than Grace, who noiselessly presided everywhere, and was the cheerful mind of all th_reparations. Many a time that day (as well as many a time within the fleetin_onth preceding it), did Clemency glance anxiously, and almost fearfully, a_arion. She saw her paler, perhaps, than usual; but there was a swee_omposure on her face that made it lovelier than ever.
At night when she was dressed, and wore upon her head a wreath that Grace ha_roudly twined about it—its mimic flowers were Alfred’s favourites, as Grac_emembered when she chose them—that old expression, pensive, almost sorrowful, and yet so spiritual, high, and stirring, sat again upon her brow, enhanced _undred–fold.
‘The next wreath I adjust on this fair head, will be a marriage wreath,’ sai_race; ‘or I am no true prophet, dear.’
Her sister smiled, and held her in her arms.
‘A moment, Grace. Don’t leave me yet. Are you sure that I want nothing more?’
Her care was not for that. It was her sister’s face she thought of, and he_yes were fixed upon it, tenderly.
‘My art,’ said Grace, ‘can go no farther, dear girl; nor your beauty. I neve_aw you look so beautiful as now.’
‘I never was so happy,’ she returned.
‘Ay, but there is a greater happiness in store. In such another home, a_heerful and as bright as this looks now,’ said Grace, ‘Alfred and his youn_ife will soon be living.’
She smiled again. ‘It is a happy home, Grace, in your fancy. I can see it i_our eyes. I know it will be happy, dear. How glad I am to know it.’
‘Well,’ cried the Doctor, bustling in. ‘Here we are, all ready for Alfred, eh?
He can’t be here until pretty late—an hour or so before midnight—so there’l_e plenty of time for making merry before he comes. He’ll not find us with th_ce unbroken. Pile up the fire here, Britain! Let it shine upon the holly til_t winks again. It’s a world of nonsense, Puss; true lovers and all the res_f it—all nonsense; but we’ll be nonsensical with the rest of ’em, and giv_ur true lover a mad welcome. Upon my word!’ said the old Doctor, looking a_is daughters proudly, ‘I’m not clear to–night, among other absurdities, bu_hat I’m the father of two handsome girls.’
‘All that one of them has ever done, or may do—may do, dearest father—to caus_ou pain or grief, forgive her,’ said Marion, ‘forgive her now, when her hear_s full. Say that you forgive her. That you will forgive her. That she shal_lways share your love, and—,’ and the rest was not said, for her face wa_idden on the old man’s shoulder.
‘Tut, tut, tut,’ said the Doctor gently. ‘Forgive! What have I to forgive?
Heyday, if our true lovers come back to flurry us like this, we must hold ’e_t a distance; we must send expresses out to stop ’em short upon the road, an_ring ’em on a mile or two a day, until we’re properly prepared to meet ’em.
Kiss me, Puss. Forgive! Why, what a silly child you are! If you had vexed an_rossed me fifty times a day, instead of not at all, I’d forgive yo_verything, but such a supplication. Kiss me again, Puss. There! Prospectiv_nd retrospective—a clear score between us. Pile up the fire here! Would yo_reeze the people on this bleak December night! Let us be light, and warm, an_erry, or I’ll not forgive some of you!’
So gaily the old Doctor carried it! And the fire was piled up, and the light_ere bright, and company arrived, and a murmuring of lively tongues began, an_lready there was a pleasant air of cheerful excitement stirring through al_he house.
More and more company came flocking in. Bright eyes sparkled upon Marion; smiling lips gave her joy of his return; sage mothers fanned themselves, an_oped she mightn’t be too youthful and inconstant for the quiet round of home; impetuous fathers fell into disgrace for too much exaltation of her beauty; daughters envied her; sons envied him; innumerable pairs of lovers profited b_he occasion; all were interested, animated, and expectant.
Mr. and Mrs. Craggs came arm in arm, but Mrs. Snitchey came alone. ‘Why, what’s become of him?’ inquired the Doctor.
The feather of a Bird of Paradise in Mrs. Snitchey’s turban, trembled as i_he Bird of Paradise were alive again, when she said that doubtless Mr. Cragg_new. She was never told.
‘That nasty office,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
‘I wish it was burnt down,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘He’s—he’s—there’s a little matter of business that keeps my partner rathe_ate,’ said Mr. Craggs, looking uneasily about him.
‘Oh–h! Business. Don’t tell me!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘We know what business means,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
But their not knowing what it meant, was perhaps the reason why Mrs.
Snitchey’s Bird of Paradise feather quivered so portentously, and why all th_endant bits on Mrs. Craggs’s ear–rings shook like little bells.
‘I wonder you could come away, Mr. Craggs,’ said his wife.
‘Mr. Craggs is fortunate, I’m sure!’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘That office so engrosses ’em,’ said Mrs. Craggs.
‘A person with an office has no business to be married at all,’ said Mrs.
Then, Mrs. Snitchey said, within herself, that that look of hers had pierce_o Craggs’s soul, and he knew it; and Mrs. Craggs observed to Craggs, that ‘his Snitcheys’ were deceiving him behind his back, and he would find it ou_hen it was too late.
Still, Mr. Craggs, without much heeding these remarks, looked uneasily abou_ntil his eye rested on Grace, to whom he immediately presented himself.
‘Good evening, ma’am,’ said Craggs. ‘You look charmingly. Your—Miss—you_ister, Miss Marion, is she—’
‘Oh, she’s quite well, Mr. Craggs.’
‘Yes—I—is she here?’ asked Craggs.
‘Here! Don’t you see her yonder? Going to dance?’ said Grace.
Mr. Craggs put on his spectacles to see the better; looked at her throug_hem, for some time; coughed; and put them, with an air of satisfaction, i_heir sheath again, and in his pocket.
Now the music struck up, and the dance commenced. The bright fire crackled an_parkled, rose and fell, as though it joined the dance itself, in right goo_ellowship. Sometimes, it roared as if it would make music too. Sometimes, i_lashed and beamed as if it were the eye of the old room: it winked too, sometimes, like a knowing patriarch, upon the youthful whisperers in corners.
Sometimes, it sported with the holly–boughs; and, shining on the leaves b_its and starts, made them look as if they were in the cold winter nigh_gain, and fluttering in the wind. Sometimes its genial humour gre_bstreperous, and passed all bounds; and then it cast into the room, among th_winkling feet, with a loud burst, a shower of harmless little sparks, and i_ts exultation leaped and bounded, like a mad thing, up the broad old chimney.
Another dance was near its close, when Mr. Snitchey touched his partner, wh_as looking on, upon the arm.
Mr. Craggs started, as if his familiar had been a spectre.
‘Is he gone?’ he asked.
‘Hush! He has been with me,’ said Snitchey, ‘for three hours and more. He wen_ver everything. He looked into all our arrangements for him, and was ver_articular indeed. He—Humph!’
The dance was finished. Marion passed close before him, as he spoke. She di_ot observe him, or his partner; but, looked over her shoulder towards he_ister in the distance, as she slowly made her way into the crowd, and passe_ut of their view.
‘You see! All safe and well,’ said Mr. Craggs. ‘He didn’t recur to tha_ubject, I suppose?’
‘Not a word.’
‘And is he really gone? Is he safe away?’
‘He keeps to his word. He drops down the river with the tide in that shell o_ boat of his, and so goes out to sea on this dark night!—a dare–devil h_s—before the wind. There’s no such lonely road anywhere else. That’s on_hing. The tide flows, he says, an hour before midnight—about this time. I’_lad it’s over.’ Mr. Snitchey wiped his forehead, which looked hot an_nxious.
‘What do you think,’ said Mr. Craggs, ‘about—’
‘Hush!’ replied his cautious partner, looking straight before him. ‘_nderstand you. Don’t mention names, and don’t let us, seem to be talkin_ecrets. I don’t know what to think; and to tell you the truth, I don’t car_ow. It’s a great relief. His self–love deceived him, I suppose. Perhaps th_oung lady coquetted a little. The evidence would seem to point that way.
Alfred not arrived?’
‘Not yet,’ said Mr. Craggs. ‘Expected every minute.’
‘Good.’ Mr. Snitchey wiped his forehead again. ‘It’s a great relief. I haven’_een so nervous since we’ve been in partnership. I intend to spend the evenin_ow, Mr. Craggs.’
Mrs. Craggs and Mrs. Snitchey joined them as he announced this intention. Th_ird of Paradise was in a state of extreme vibration, and the little bell_ere ringing quite audibly.
‘It has been the theme of general comment, Mr. Snitchey,’ said Mrs. Snitchey.
‘I hope the office is satisfied.’
‘Satisfied with what, my dear?’ asked Mr. Snitchey.
‘With the exposure of a defenceless woman to ridicule and remark,’ returne_is wife. ‘That is quite in the way of the office, that is.’
‘I really, myself,’ said Mrs. Craggs, ‘have been so long accustomed to connec_he office with everything opposed to domesticity, that I am glad to know i_s the avowed enemy of my peace. There is something honest in that, at al_vents.’
‘My dear,’ urged Mr. Craggs, ‘your good opinion is invaluable, but I neve_vowed that the office was the enemy of your peace.’
‘No,’ said Mrs. Craggs, ringing a perfect peal upon the little bells. ‘No_ou, indeed. You wouldn’t be worthy of the office, if you had the candour to.’
‘As to my having been away to–night, my dear,’ said Mr. Snitchey, giving he_is arm, ‘the deprivation has been mine, I’m sure; but, as Mr. Craggs knows—’
Mrs. Snitchey cut this reference very short by hitching her husband to _istance, and asking him to look at that man. To do her the favour to look a_im!
‘At which man, my dear?’ said Mr. Snitchey.
‘Your chosen companion; I’m no companion to you, Mr. Snitchey.’
‘Yes, yes, you are, my dear,’ he interposed.
‘No, no, I’m not,’ said Mrs. Snitchey with a majestic smile. ‘I know m_tation. Will you look at your chosen companion, Mr. Snitchey; at you_eferee, at the keeper of your secrets, at the man you trust; at your othe_elf, in short?’
The habitual association of Self with Craggs, occasioned Mr. Snitchey to loo_n that direction.
‘If you can look that man in the eye this night,’ said Mrs. Snitchey, ‘and no_now that you are deluded, practised upon, made the victim of his arts, an_ent down prostrate to his will by some unaccountable fascination which it i_mpossible to explain and against which no warning of mine is of the leas_vail, all I can say is—I pity you!’
At the very same moment Mrs. Craggs was oracular on the cross subject. Was i_ossible, she said, that Craggs could so blind himself to his Snitcheys, a_ot to feel his true position? Did he mean to say that he had seen hi_nitcheys come into that room, and didn’t plainly see that there wa_eservation, cunning, treachery, in the man? Would he tell her that his ver_ction, when he wiped his forehead and looked so stealthily about him, didn’_how that there was something weighing on the conscience of his preciou_nitcheys (if he had a conscience), that wouldn’t bear the light? Did anybod_ut his Snitcheys come to festive entertainments like a burglar?—which, by th_ay, was hardly a clear illustration of the case, as he had walked in ver_ildly at the door. And would he still assert to her at noon–day (it bein_early midnight), that his Snitcheys were to be justified through thick an_hin, against all facts, and reason, and experience?
Neither Snitchey nor Craggs openly attempted to stem the current which ha_hus set in, but, both were content to be carried gently along it, until it_orce abated. This happened at about the same time as a general movement for _ountry dance; when Mr. Snitchey proposed himself as a partner to Mrs. Craggs, and Mr. Craggs gallantly offered himself to Mrs. Snitchey; and after some suc_light evasions as ‘why don’t you ask somebody else?’ and ‘you’ll be glad, _now, if I decline,’ and ‘I wonder you can dance out of the office’ (but thi_ocosely now), each lady graciously accepted, and took her place.
It was an old custom among them, indeed, to do so, and to pair off, in lik_anner, at dinners and suppers; for they were excellent friends, and on _ooting of easy familiarity. Perhaps the false Craggs and the wicked Snitche_ere a recognised fiction with the two wives, as Doe and Roe, incessantl_unning up and down bailiwicks, were with the two husbands: or, perhaps th_adies had instituted, and taken upon themselves, these two shares in th_usiness, rather than be left out of it altogether. But, certain it is, tha_ach wife went as gravely and steadily to work in her vocation as her husban_id in his, and would have considered it almost impossible for the Firm t_aintain a successful and respectable existence, without her laudabl_xertions.
But, now, the Bird of Paradise was seen to flutter down the middle; and th_ittle bells began to bounce and jingle in poussette; and the Doctor’s ros_ace spun round and round, like an expressive pegtop highly varnished; an_reathless Mr. Craggs began to doubt already, whether country dancing had bee_ade ‘too easy,’ like the rest of life; and Mr. Snitchey, with his nimble cut_nd capers, footed it for Self and Craggs, and half–a–dozen more.
Now, too, the fire took fresh courage, favoured by the lively wind the danc_wakened, and burnt clear and high. It was the Genius of the room, and presen_verywhere. It shone in people’s eyes, it sparkled in the jewels on the snow_ecks of girls, it twinkled at their ears as if it whispered to them slyly, i_lashed about their waists, it flickered on the ground and made it rosy fo_heir feet, it bloomed upon the ceiling that its glow might set off thei_right faces, and it kindled up a general illumination in Mrs. Craggs’s littl_elfry.
Now, too, the lively air that fanned it, grew less gentle as the musi_uickened and the dance proceeded with new spirit; and a breeze arose tha_ade the leaves and berries dance upon the wall, as they had often done upo_he trees; and the breeze rustled in the room as if an invisible company o_airies, treading in the foot–steps of the good substantial revellers, wer_hirling after them. Now, too, no feature of the Doctor’s face could b_istinguished as he spun and spun; and now there seemed a dozen Birds o_aradise in fitful flight; and now there were a thousand little bells at work; and now a fleet of flying skirts was ruffled by a little tempest, when th_usic gave in, and the dance was over.
Hot and breathless as the Doctor was, it only made him the more impatient fo_lfred’s coming.
‘Anything been seen, Britain? Anything been heard?’
‘Too dark to see far, sir. Too much noise inside the house to hear.’
‘That’s right! The gayer welcome for him. How goes the time?’
‘Just twelve, sir. He can’t be long, sir.’
‘Stir up the fire, and throw another log upon it,’ said the Doctor. ‘Let hi_ee his welcome blazing out upon the night—good boy!—as he comes along!’
He saw it—Yes! From the chaise he caught the light, as he turned the corner b_he old church. He knew the room from which it shone. He saw the wintr_ranches of the old trees between the light and him. He knew that one of thos_rees rustled musically in the summer time at the window of Marion’s chamber.
The tears were in his eyes. His heart throbbed so violently that he coul_ardly bear his happiness. How often he had thought of this time—pictured i_nder all circumstances—feared that it might never come—yearned, and wearie_or it—far away!
Again the light! Distinct and ruddy; kindled, he knew, to give him welcome, and to speed him home. He beckoned with his hand, and waved his hat, an_heered out, loud, as if the light were they, and they could see and hear him, as he dashed towards them through the mud and mire, triumphantly.
Stop! He knew the Doctor, and understood what he had done. He would not let i_e a surprise to them. But he could make it one, yet, by going forward o_oot. If the orchard–gate were open, he could enter there; if not, the wal_as easily climbed, as he knew of old; and he would be among them in a_nstant.
He dismounted from the chaise, and telling the driver—even that was not eas_n his agitation—to remain behind for a few minutes, and then to follo_lowly, ran on with exceeding swiftness, tried the gate, scaled the wall, jumped down on the other side, and stood panting in the old orchard.
There was a frosty rime upon the trees, which, in the faint light of th_louded moon, hung upon the smaller branches like dead garlands. Withere_eaves crackled and snapped beneath his feet, as he crept softly on toward_he house. The desolation of a winter night sat brooding on the earth, and i_he sky. But, the red light came cheerily towards him from the windows; figures passed and repassed there; and the hum and murmur of voices greete_is ear sweetly.
Listening for hers: attempting, as he crept on, to detach it from the rest, and half believing that he heard it: he had nearly reached the door, when i_as abruptly opened, and a figure coming out encountered his. It instantl_ecoiled with a half–suppressed cry.
‘Clemency,’ he said, ‘don’t you know me?’
‘Don’t come in!’ she answered, pushing him back. ‘Go away. Don’t ask me why.
Don’t come in.’
‘What is the matter?’ he exclaimed.
‘I don’t know. I—I am afraid to think. Go back. Hark!’
There was a sudden tumult in the house. She put her hands upon her ears. _ild scream, such as no hands could shut out, was heard; and Grace—distractio_n her looks and manner—rushed out at the door.
‘Grace!’ He caught her in his arms. ‘What is it! Is she dead!’
She disengaged herself, as if to recognise his face, and fell down at hi_eet.
A crowd of figures came about them from the house. Among them was her father, with a paper in his hand.
‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking i_n agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensibl_irl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me?
Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
‘Gone!’ he echoed.
‘Fled, my dear Alfred!’ said the Doctor, in a broken voice, and with his hand_efore his face. ‘Gone from her home and us. To–night! She writes that she ha_ade her innocent and blameless choice—entreats that we will forgive her—pray_hat we will not forget her—and is gone.’
‘With whom? Where?’
He started up, as if to follow in pursuit; but, when they gave way to let hi_ass, looked wildly round upon them, staggered back, and sunk down in hi_ormer attitude, clasping one of Grace’s cold hands in his own.
There was a hurried running to and fro, confusion, noise, disorder, and n_urpose. Some proceeded to disperse themselves about the roads, and some too_orse, and some got lights, and some conversed together, urging that there wa_o trace or track to follow. Some approached him kindly, with the view o_ffering consolation; some admonished him that Grace must be removed into th_ouse, and that he prevented it. He never heard them, and he never moved.
The snow fell fast and thick. He looked up for a moment in the air, an_hought that those white ashes strewn upon his hopes and misery, were suite_o them well. He looked round on the whitening ground, and thought ho_arion’s foot–prints would be hushed and covered up, as soon as made, and eve_hat remembrance of her blotted out. But he never felt the weather and h_ever stirred.