Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter LII. An Old Friend Looks into the Garden at Redman's Farm.
Lady Chelford, with one of those sudden changes of front which occur in female strategy, on hearing that Stanley Lake was actually accepted by Dorcas, had assailed both him and his sister, whom heretofore she had a good deal petted and distinguished, with a fury that was startling. As respects Rachel, we know how unjust was the attack.
And when the dowager opened her fire on Rachel, the young lady replied with a spirit and dignity to which she was not at all accustomed.
So soon as Dorcas obtained a hearing, which was not for sometime--for she, 'as a miserable and ridiculous victim and idiot,' was nearly as deep in disgrace as those 'shameless harpies the Lakes'--she told the whole truth as respected all parties with her superb and tranquil frankness.
Lady Chelford ordered her horses, and was about to leave Brandon next morning. But rheumatism arrested her indignant flight; and during her week's confinement to her room, her son contrived so that she consented to stay for 'the odious ceremony,' and was even sourly civil to Miss Lake, who received her advances quite as coldly as they were made.
To Miss Lake, Lord Chelford, though not in set terms, yet in many pleasant ways, apologised for his mother's impertinence. Dorcas had told him also the story of Rachel's decided opposition to the marriage.
He was so particularly respectful to her--he showed her by the very form into which he shaped his good wishes that he knew how frankly she had opposed the marriage--how true she had been to her friend Dorcas--and she understood him and was grateful.
In fact, Lord Chelford, whatever might be his opinion of the motives of Captain Lake and the prudence of Dorcas, was clearly disposed to make the best of the inevitable, and to stamp the new Brandon alliance with what ever respectability his frank recognition could give it.
Old Lady Chelford's bitter and ominous acquiescence also came, and the presence of mother and son at the solemnity averted the family scandal which the old lady's first access of frenzy threatened.
This duty discharged, she insisted, in the interest of her rheumatism, upon change of air; and on arriving at Duxley, was quite surprised to find Lady Dulhampton and her daughters there upon a similar quest.
About the matrimonial likelihoods of gentlemen with titles and estates Fame, that most tuft-hunting of divinities, is always distending her cheeks, and blowing the very finest flourishes her old trumpet affords.
Lord Chelford was not long away when the story of Lady Constance was again alive and vocal. It reached old Jackson through his sister, who was married to the brother of the Marquis of Dulhampton's solicitor. It reached Lake from Tom Twitters, of his club, who kept the Brandon Captain au courant of the town-talk; and it came to Dorcas in a more authentic fashion, though mysteriously, and rather in the guise of a conundrum than of a distinct bit of family intelligence, from no less a person than the old Dowager Lady Chelford herself.
Stanley Lake, who had begun to entertain hopes for Rachel in that direction, went down to Redman's Farm, and, after his bleak and bitter fashion, rated the young lady for having perversely neglected her opportunities and repulsed that most desirable parti. In this he was intensely in earnest, for the connection would have done wonders for Captain Lake in the county.
Rachel met this coarse attack with quiet contempt; told him that Lord Chelford had, she supposed, no idea of marrying out of his own rank; and further, that he, Captain Lake, must perfectly comprehend, if he could not appreciate, the reasons which would for ever bar any such relation.
But Rachel, though she treated the subject serenely in this interview, was sadder and more forlorn than ever, and lay awake at night, and, perhaps, if we knew all, shed some secret tears; and then with time came healing of these sorrows.
It was a fallacy, a mere chimera, that was gone; an impracticability too. She had smiled at it as such when Dorcas used to hint at it; but are there no castles in the clouds which we like to inhabit, although we know them altogether air-built, and whose evaporation desolates us?
Rachel's talks with the vicar were frequent; and poor little Mrs. William Wylder, who knew not the reason of his visits, fell slowly, and to the good man's entire bewilderment, into a chronic jealousy. It expressed itself enigmatically; it was circumlocutory, sad, and mysterious.
'Little Fairy was so pleased with his visit to Redman's Farm to-day. He told me all about it; did not you, little man? But still you love poor old mamma best of all; you would not like to have a new mamma. Ah, no; you'd rather have your poor old, ugly Mussie. I wish I was handsome, my little man, and clever; but wishing is vain.'
'Ah! Willie, there was a time when you could not see how ugly and dull your poor foolish little wife was; but it could not last for ever. How did it happen--oh, how?--you such a scholar, so clever, so handsome, my beautiful Willie--how did you ever look down on poor wretched me?'
'I think it will be fine, Willie, and Miss Lake will expect you at Redman's Farm; and little Fairy will go too; yes, you'd like to go, and mamma will stay at home, and try to be useful in her poor miserable way,' and so on.
The vicar, thinking of other things, never seeing the reproachful irony in all this, would take it quite literally, assent sadly, and with little Fairy by the hand, set forth for Redman's Farm; and the good little body, to the amazement of her two maids, would be heard passionately weeping in the parlour in her forsaken state.
At last there came a great upbraiding, a great eclaircissement, and laughter, and crying, and hugging; and the poor little woman, quite relieved, went off immediately, in her gratitude, to Rachel, and paid her quite an affectionate little visit.
Jealousy is very unreasonable. But have we no compensation in this, that the love which begets it is often as unreasonable? Look in the glass, and then into your own heart, and ask your conscience, next, 'Am I really quite a hero, or altogether so lovely, as I am beloved?' Keep the answer to yourself, but be tender with the vehement follies of your jealous wife. Poor mortals! It is but a short time we have to love, and be jealous, and love again.
One night, after a long talk in the morning with good William Wylder, and great dejection following, all on a sudden, Rachel sat up in her bed, and in a pleasant voice, and looking more like herself than she had for many months, she said--
'I think I have found the true way out of my troubles, Tamar. At every sacrifice to be quite honest; and to that, Tamar, I have made up my mind at last, thank God. Come, Tamar, and kiss me, for I am free once more.'
So that night passed peacefully.
Rachel--a changed Rachel still--though more like her early self, was now in the tiny garden of Redman's Farm. The early spring was already showing its bright green through the brown of winter, and sun and shower alternating, and the gay gossiping of sweet birds among the branches, were calling the young creation from its slumbers. The air was so sharp, so clear, so sunny, the mysterious sense of coming life so invigorating, and the sounds and aspect of nature so rejoicing, that Rachel with her gauntlets on, her white basket of flower seeds, her trowel, and all her garden implements beside her, felt her own spring of life return, and rejoiced in the glad hour that shone round her.
Lifting up her eyes, she saw Lord Chelford looking over the little gate.
'What a charming day,' said he, with his pleasant smile, raising his hat, 'and how very pleasant to see you at your pretty industry again.'
As Rachel came forward in her faded gardening costume, an old silk shawl about her shoulders, and hoodwise over her head, somehow very becoming, there was a blush--he could not help seeing it--on her young face, and for a moment her fine eyes dropped, and she looked up, smiling a more thoughtful and a sadder smile than in old days. The picture of that smile so gay and fearless, and yet so feminine, rose up beside the sadder smile that greeted him now, and he thought of Ondine without and Ondine with a soul.
'I am afraid I am a very impertinent--at least a very inquisitive--wayfarer; but I could not pass by without a word, even at the risk of interrupting you. And the truth is, I believe, if it had not been for that chance of seeing and interrupting you, I should not have passed through Redman's Dell to-day.'
He laughed a little as he said this; and held her hands some seconds longer than is strictly usual in such a greeting.
'You are staying at Brandon?' said Rachel, not knowing exactly what to say.
'Yes; Dorcas, who is always very good to me, made me promise to come whenever I was at Drackley. I arrived yesterday, and they tell me you stay so much at home, that possibly you might not appear in the upper world for two or three days; so I had not patience, you see.'
It was now Rachel's turn to laugh a musical little roulade; but somehow her talk was neither so gay, nor so voluble, as it used to be. She liked to listen; she would not for the world their little conversation ended before its time; but there was an unwonted difficulty in finding anything to say.
'It is quite true; I am more a stay-at-home than I used to be. I believe we learn to prize home more the longer we live.'
'What a wise old lady! I did not think of that; I have only learned that whatever is most prized is hardest to find.'
'And spring is come again,' continued Rachel, passing by this little speech, 'and my labours recommence. And though the day is longer, there is more to do in it, you see.'
'I don't wonder at your being a stay-at-home, for, to my eyes, it is the prettiest spot of earth in all the world; and if you find it half as hard to leave it as I do, your staying here is quite accounted for.'
This little speech, also, Rachel understood quite well, though she went on as if she did not.
'And this little garden costs, I assure you, a great deal of wise thought. In sowing my annuals I have so much to forecast and arrange; suitability of climate, for we have sun and shade here, succession of bloom and contrast of colour, and ever so many other important things.'
'I can quite imagine it, though it did not strike me before,' he said, looking on her with a smile of pleasant and peculiar interest, which somehow gave a reality to this playful talk. 'It is quite true; and I should not have thought of it--it is very pretty,' and he laughed a gentle little laugh, glancing over the tiny garden.
'But, after all, there is no picture of flowers, or still life, or even of landscape, that will interest long. You must be very solitary here at times--that is, you must have a great deal more resource than I, or, indeed, almost anyone I know, or this solitude must at times be oppressive. I hope so, at least, for that would force you to appear among us sometimes.'
'No, I am not lonely--that is, not lonelier than is good for me. I have such a treasure of an old nurse--poor old Tamar--who tells me stories, and reads to me, and listens to my follies and temper, and sometimes says very wise things, too; and the good vicar comes often--this is one of his days--with his beautiful little boy, and talks so well, and answers my follies and explains all my perplexities, and is really a great help and comfort.'
'Yes,' said Lord Chelford, with the same pleasant smile, 'he told me so; and seems so pleased to have met with so clever a pupil. Are you coming to Brandon this evening? Lake asked William Wylder, perhaps he will be with us. I do hope you will come. Dorcas says there is no use in writing; but that you know you are always welcome. May I say you'll come?'
Rachel smiled sadly on the snow-drops at her feet, and shook her head a little.
'No, I must stay at home this evening--I mean I have not spirits to go to Brandon. Thank Dorcas very much from me--that is, if you really mean that she asked me.'
'I am so sorry--I am so disappointed,' said Lord Chelford, looking gravely and enquiringly at her. He began, I think, to fancy some estrangement there. 'But perhaps to-morrow--perhaps even to-day--you may relent, you know. Don't say it is impossible.'
Rachel smiled on the ground, as before; and then, with a little sigh and a shake of her head, said--
'Well, I must tell Dorcas she was right--you are very inexorable and cruel.'
'I am very cruel to keep you here so long--and I, too, am forgetting the vicar, who will be here immediately, and I must meet him in a costume less like the Woman of Endor.'
Lord Chelford, leaning on the little wicket, put his arm over, and she gave him her hand again.
'Good-bye,' said Rachel.
'Well, I suppose I, too, must say good-bye; and I'll say a great deal more,' said he, in a peculiar, odd tone, that was very firm, and yet indescribably tender. And he held her slender hand, from which she had drawn the gauntlet, in his. 'Yes, Rachel, I will--I'll say everything. We are old friends now--you'll forgive me calling you Rachel--it may be perhaps the last time.'
Rachel was standing there with such a beautiful blush, and downcast eyes, and her hand in his.
'I liked you always, Rachel, from the first moment I saw you--I liked you better and better--indescribably--indeed, I do; and I've grown to like you so, that if I lose you, I think I shall never be the same again.'
There was a very little pause, the blush was deeper, her eyes lower still.
'I admire you, Rachel--I like your character--I have grown to love you with all my heart and mind--quite desperately, I think. I know there are things against me--there are better-looking fellows than I--and--and a great many things--and I know very well that you will judge for yourself--quite differently from other girls; and I can't say with what fear and hope I await what you may say; but this you may be sure of, you will never find anyone to love you better, Rachel--I think so well--and--and now--that is all. Do you think you could ever like me?'
But Rachel's hand, on a sudden, with a slight quiver, was drawn from his.
'Lord Chelford, I can't describe how grateful I am, and how astonished, but it could never be--no--never.'
'Rachel, perhaps you mean my mother--I have told her everything--she will receive you with all the respect you so well deserve; and with all her faults, she loves me, and will love you still more.'
'No, Lord Chelford, no.' She was pale now, and looking very sadly in his eyes. 'It is not that, but only that you must never, never speak of it again.'
'Oh! Rachel, darling, you must not say that--I love you so--so desperately, you don't know.'
'I can say nothing else, Lord Chelford. My mind is quite made up--I am inexpressibly grateful--you will never know how grateful--but except as a friend--and won't you still be my friend?--I never can regard you.'
Rachel was so pale that her very lips were white as she spoke this in a melancholy but very firm way.
'Oh, Rachel, it is a great blow--maybe if you thought it over!--I'll wait any time.'
'No, Lord Chelford, I'm quite unworthy of your preference; but time cannot change me--and I am speaking, not from impulse, but conviction. This is our secret--yours and mine--and we'll forget it; and I could not bear to lose your friendship--you'll be my friend still--won't you? Good-bye.'
'God bless you, Rachel!' And he hurriedly kissed the hand she had placed in his, and without a word more, or looking back, he walked swiftly down the wooded road towards Gylingden.
So, then, it had come and gone--gone for ever.
'Margery, bring the basket in; I think a shower is coming.'
And she picked up her trowel and other implements, and placed them in the porch, and glanced up towards the clouds, as if she saw them, and had nothing to think of but her gardening and the weather, and as if her heart was not breaking.