THE sun sank lower; the western breeze floated cool and fresh into the house. As the evening advanced, the cheerful ring of the village clock came nearer and nearer. Field and flower-garden felt the influence of the hour, and shed their sweetest fragrance. The birds in Norah's aviary sunned themselves in the evening stillness, and sang their farewell gratitude to the dying day.
Staggered in its progress for a time only, the pitiless routine of the house went horribly on its daily way. The panic-stricken servants took their blind refuge in the duties proper to the hour. The footman softly laid the table for dinner. The maid sat waiting in senseless doubt, with the hot-water jugs for the bedrooms ranged near her in their customary row. The gardener, who had been ordered to come to his master, with vouchers for money that he had paid in excess of his instructions, said his character was dear to him, and left the vouchers at his appointed time. Custom that never yields, and Death that never spares, met on the wreck of human happiness -- and Death gave way.
Heavily the thunder-clouds of Affliction had gathered over the house -- heavily, but not at their darkest yet. At five, that evening, the shock of the calamity had struck its blow. Before another hour had passed, the disclosure of the husband's sudden death was followed by the suspense of the wife's mortal peril. She lay helpless on her widowed bed; her own life, and the life of her unborn child, trembling in the balance.
But one mind still held possession of its resources -- but one guiding spirit now moved helpfully in the house of mourning.
If Miss Garth's early days had been passed as calmly and as happily as her later life at Combe-Raven, she might have sunk under the cruel necessities of the time. But the governess's youth had been tried in the ordeal of family affliction; and she met her terrible duties with the steady courage of a woman who had learned to suffer. Alone, she had faced the trial of telling the daughters that they were fatherless. Alone, she now struggled to sustain them, when the dreadful certainty of their bereavement was at last impressed on their minds.
Her least anxiety was for the elder sister. The agony of Norah's grief had forced its way outward to the natural relief of tears. It was not so with Magdalen. Tearless and speechless, she sat in the room where the revelation of her father's death had first reached her; her face, unnaturally petrified by the sterile sorrow of old age -- a white, changeless blank, fearful to look at. Nothing roused, nothing melted her. She only said, "Don't speak to me; don't touch me. Let me bear it by myself" -- and fell silent again. The first great grief which had darkened the sisters' lives had, as it seemed, changed their everyday characters already.
The twilight fell, and faded; and the summer night came brightly. As the first carefully shaded light was kindled in the sick-room, the physician, who had been summoned from Bristol, arrived to consult with the medical attendant of the family. He could give no comfort: he could only say, "We must try, and hope. The shock which struck her, when she overheard the news of her husband's death, has prostrated her strength at the time when she needed it most. No effort to preserve her shall be neglected. I will stay here for the night."
He opened one of the windows to admit more air as he spoke. The view overlooked the drive in front of the house and the road outside. Little groups of people were standing before the lodge-gates, looking in. "If those persons make any noise," said the doctor, "they must be warned away." There was no need to warn them: they were only the laborers who had worked on the dead man's property, and here and there some women and children from the village. They were all thinking of him -- some talking of him -- and it quickened their sluggish minds to look at his house. The gentlefolks thereabouts were mostly kind to them (the men said), but none like him. The women whispered to each other of his comforting ways when he came into their cottages. "He was a cheerful man, poor soul; and thoughtful of us, too: he never came in and stared at meal-times; the rest of 'em help us, and scold us -- all he ever said was, better luck next time." So they stood and talked of him, and looked at his house and grounds and moved off clumsily by twos and threes, with the dim sense that the sight of his pleasant face would never comfort them again. The dullest head among them knew, that night, that the hard ways of poverty would be all the harder to walk on, now he was gone.
A little later, news was brought to the bed-chamber door that old Mr. Clare had come alone to the house, and was waiting in the hall below, to hear what the physician said. Miss Garth was not able to go down to him herself: she sent a message. He said to the servant, "I'll come and ask again, in two hours' time" -- and went out slowly. Unlike other men in all things else, the sudden death of his old friend had produced no discernible change in him. The feeling implied in the errand of inquiry that had brought him to the house was the one betrayal of human sympathy which escaped the rugged, impenetrable old man.
He came again, when the two hours had expired; and this time Miss Garth saw him.
They shook hands in silence. She waited; she nerved herself to hear him speak of his lost friend. No: he never mentioned the dreadful accident, he never alluded to the dreadful death. He said these words, "Is she better, or worse?" and said no more. Was the tribute of his grief for the husband sternly suppressed under the expression of his anxiety for the wife? The nature of the man, unpliably antagonistic to the world and the world's customs, might justify some such interpretation of his conduct as this. He repeated his question, "Is she better, or worse?"
Miss Garth answered him:
"No better; if there is any change, it is a change for the worse."
They spoke those words at the window of the morning-room which opened on the garden. Mr. Clare paused, after hearing the reply to his inquiry, stepped out on to the walk, then turned on a sudden, and spoke again:
"Has the doctor given her up?" he asked.
"He has not concealed from us that she is in danger. We can only pray for her."
The old man laid his hand on Miss Garth's arm as she answered him, and looked her attentively in the face.
"You believe in prayer?" he said.
Miss Garth drew sorrowfully back from him.
"You might have spared me that question sir, at such a time as this."
He took no notice of her answer; his eyes were still fastened on her face.
"Pray!" he said. "Pray as you never prayed before, for the preservation of Mrs. Vanstone's life."
He left her. His voice and manner implied some unutterable dread of the future, which his words had not confessed. Miss Garth followed him into the garden, and called to him. He heard her, but he never turned back: he quickened his pace, as if he desired to avoid her. She watched him across the lawn in the warm summer moonlight. She saw his white, withered hands, saw them suddenly against the black background of the shrubbery, raised and wrung above his head. They dropped -- the trees shrouded him in darkness -- he was gone.
Miss Garth went back to the suffering woman, with the burden on her mind of one anxiety more.
It was then past eleven o'clock. Some little time had elapsed since she had seen the sisters and spoken to them. The inquiries she addressed to one of the female servants only elicited the information that they were both in their rooms. She delayed her return to the mother's bedside to say her parting words of comfort to the daughters, before she left them for the night. Norah's room was the nearest. She softly opened the door and looked in. The kneeling figure by the bedside told her that God's help had found the fatherless daughter in her affliction. Grateful tears gathered in her eyes as she looked: she softly closed the door, and went on to Magdalen's room. There doubt stayed her feet at the threshold, and she waited for a moment before going in.
A sound in the room caught her ear -- the monotonous rustling of a woman's dress, now distant, now near; passing without cessation from end to end over the floor -- a sound which told her that Magdalen was pacing to and fro in the secrecy of her own chamber. Miss Garth knocked. The rustling ceased; the door was opened, and the sad young face confronted her, locked in its cold despair; the large light eyes looked mechanically into hers, as vacant and as tearless as ever.
That look wrung the heart of the faithful woman, who had trained her and loved her from a child. She took Magdalen tenderly in her arms.
"Oh, my love " she said, "no tears yet! Oh, if I could see you as I have seen Norah! Speak to me, Magdalen -- try if you can speak to me."
She tried, and spoke:
"Norah," she said, "feels no remorse. He was not serving Norah's interests when he went to his death: he was serving mine."
With that terrible answer, she put her cold lips to Miss Garth's cheek.
"Let me bear it by myself," she said, and gently closed the door.
Again Miss Garth waited at the threshold, and again the sound of the rustling dress passed to and fro -- now far, now near -- to and fro with a cruel, mechanical regularity, that chilled the warmest sympathy, and daunted the boldest hope.
The night passed. It had been agreed, if no change for the better showed itself by the morning, that the London physician whom Mrs. Vanstone had consulted some months since should be summoned to the house on the next day. No change for the better appeared, and the physician was sent for.
As the morning advanced, Frank came to make inquiries from the cottage. Had Mr. Clare intrusted to his son the duty which he had personally performed on the previous day through reluctance to meet Miss Garth again after what he had said to her? It might be so. Frank could throw no light on the subject; he was not in his father's confidence. He looked pale and bewildered. His first inquiries after Magdalen showed how his weak nature had been shaken by the catastrophe. He was not capable of framing his own questions: the words faltered on his lips, and the ready tears came into his eyes. Miss Garth's heart warmed to him for the first time. Grief has this that is noble in it -- it accepts all sympathy, come whence it may. She encouraged the lad by a few kind words, and took his hand at parting.
Before noon Frank returned with a second message. His father desired to know whether Mr. Pendril was not expected at Combe-Raven on that day. If the lawyer's arrival was looked for, Frank was directed to be in attendance at the station, and to take him to the cottage, where a bed would be placed at his disposal. This message took Miss Garth by surprise. It showed that Mr. Clare had been made acquainted with his dead friend's purpose of sending for Mr. Pendril. Was the old man's thoughtful offer of hospitality another indirect expression of the natural human distress which he perversely concealed? or was he aware of some secret necessity for Mr. Pendril's presence, of which the bereaved family had been kept in total ignorance? Miss Garth was too heart-sick and hopeless to dwell on either question. She told Frank that Mr. Pendril had been expected at three o'clock, and sent him back with her thanks.
Shortly after his departure, such anxieties on Magdalen's account as her mind was now able to feel were relieved by better news than her last night's experience had inclined her to hope for. Norah's influence had been exerted to rouse her sister; and Norah's patient sympathy had set the prisoned grief free. Magdalen had suffered severely -- suffered inevitably, with such a nature as hers -- in the effort that relieved her. The healing tears had not come gently; they had burst from her with a torturing, passionate vehemence -- but Norah had never left her till the struggle was over, and the calm had come. These better tidings encouraged Miss Garth to withdraw to her own room, and to take the rest which she needed sorely. Worn out in body and mind, she slept from sheer exhaustion -- slept heavily and dreamless for some hours. It was between three and four in the afternoon when she was roused by one of the female servants. The woman had a note in her hand -- a note left by Mr. Clare the younger, with a message desiring that it might be delivered to Miss Garth immediately. The name written in the lower corner of the envelope was "William Pendril." The lawyer had arrived.
Miss Garth opened the note. After a few first sentences of sympathy and condolence, the writer announced his arrival at Mr. Clare's; and then proceeded, apparently in his professional capacity, to make a very startling request.
"If," he wrote, "any change for the better in Mrs. Vanstone should take place -whether it is only an improvement for the time, or whether it is the permanent improvement for which we all hope -- in either case I entreat you to let me know of it immediately. It is of the last importance that I should see her, in the event of her gaining strength enough to give me her attention for five minutes, and of her being able at the expiration of that time to sign her name. May I beg that you will communicate my request, in the strictest confidence, to the medical men in attendance? They will understand, and you will understand, the vital importance I attach to this interview when I tell you that I have arranged to defer to it all other business claims on me; and that I hold myself in readiness to obey your summons at any hour of the day or night."
In those terms the letter ended. Miss Garth read it twice over. At the second reading the request which the lawyer now addressed to her, and the farewell words which had escaped Mr. Clare's lips the day before, connected themselves vaguely in her mind. There was some other serious interest in suspense, known to Mr. Pendril and known to Mr. Clare, besides the first and foremost interest of Mrs. Vanstone's recovery. Whom did it affect? The children? Were they threatened by some new calamity which their mother's signature might avert? What did it mean? Did it mean that Mr. Vanstone had died without leaving a will?
In her distress and confusion of mind Miss Garth was incapable of reasoning with herself, as she might have reasoned at a happier time. She hastened to the antechamber of Mrs. Vanstone's room; and, after explaining Mr. Pendril's position toward the family, placed his letter in the hands of the medical men. They both answered, without hesitation, to the same purpose. Mrs. Vanstone's condition rendered any such interview as the lawyer desired a total impossibility. If she rallied from her present prostration, Miss Garth should be at once informed of the improvement. In the meantime, the answer to Mr. Pendril might be conveyed in one word -- Impossible.
"You see what importance Mr. Pendril attaches to the interview?" said Miss Garth.
Yes: both the doctors saw it.
"My mind is lost and co nfused, gentlemen, in this dreadful suspense. Can you either of you guess why the signature is wanted? or what the object of the interview may be? I have only seen Mr. Pendril when he has come here on former visits: I have no claim to justify me in questioning him. Will you look at the letter again? Do you think it implies that Mr. Vanstone has never made a will?"
"I think it can hardly imply that," said one of the doctors. "But, even supposing Mr. Vanstone to have died intestate, the law takes due care of the interests of his widow and his children -- "
"Would it do so," interposed the other medical man, "if the property happened to be in land?"
"I am not sure in that case. Do you happen to know, Miss Garth, whether Mr. Vanstone's property was in money or in land?"
"In money," replied Miss Garth. "I have heard him say so on more than one occasion."
"Then I can relieve your mind by speaking from my own experience. The law, if he has died intestate, gives a third of his property to his widow, and divides the rest equally among his children."
"But if Mrs. Vanstone -- "
"If Mrs. Vanstone should die," pursued the doctor, completing the question which Miss Garth had not the heart to conclude for herself, "I believe I am right in telling you that the property would, as a matter of legal course, go to the children. Whatever necessity there may be for the interview which Mr. Pendril requests, I can see no reason for connecting it with the question of Mr. Vanstone's presumed intestacy. But, by all means, put the question, for the satisfaction of your own mind, to Mr. Pendril himself."
Miss Garth withdrew to take the course which the doctor advised. After communicating to Mr. Pendril the medical decision which, thus far, refused him the interview that he sought, she added a brief statement of the legal question she had put to the doctors; and hinted delicately at her natural anxiety to be informed of the motives which had led the lawyer to make his request. The answer she received was guarded in the extreme: it did not impress her with a favorable opinion of Mr. Pendril. He confirmed the doctors' interpretation of the law in general terms only; expressed his intention of waiting at the cottage in the hope that a change for the better might yet enable Mrs. Vanstone to see him; and closed his letter without the slightest explanation of his motives, and without a word of reference to the question of the existence, or the non-existence, of Mr. Vanstone's will.
The marked caution of the lawyer's reply dwelt uneasily on Miss Garth's mind, until the long-expected event of the day recalled all her thoughts to her one absorbing anxiety on Mrs. Vanstone's account.
Early in the evening the physician from London arrived. He watched long by the bedside of the suffering woman; he remained longer still in consultation with his medical brethren; he went back again to the sick-room, before Miss Garth could prevail on him to communicate to her the opinion at which he had arrived.
When he called out into the antechamber for the second time, he silently took a chair by her side. She looked in his face; and the last faint hope died in her before he opened his lips.
"I must speak the hard truth," he said, gently. "All that can be done has been done. The next four-and-twenty hours, at most, will end your suspense. If Nature makes no effort in that time -- I grieve to say it -- you must prepare yourself for the worst."
Those words said all: they were prophetic of the end.
The night passed; and she lived through it. The next day came; and she lingered on till the clock pointed to five. At that hour the tidings of her husband's death had dealt the mortal blow. When the hour came round again, the mercy of God let her go to him in the better world. Her daughters were kneeling at the bedside as her spirit passed away. She left them unconscious of their presence; mercifully and happily insensible to the pang of the last farewell.
Her child survived her till the evening was on the wane and the sunset was dim in the quiet western heaven. As the darkness came, the light of the frail little life -- faint and feeble from the first -- flickered and went out. All that was earthly of mother and child lay, that night, on the same bed. The Angel of Death had done his awful bidding; and the two Sisters were left alone in the world.Next