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Chapter IX 

THREE months passed. During that time Frank remained in London; pursuing his new duties, and writing occasionally to report himself to Mr. Vanstone, as he had promised.

His letters were not enthusiastic on the subject of mercantile occupations. He described himself as being still painfully loose in his figures. He was also more firmly persuaded than ever -- now when it was unfortunately too late -that he preferred engineering to trade. In spite of this conviction; in spite of headaches caused by sitting on a high stool and stooping over ledgers in unwholesome air; in spite of want of society, and hasty breakfasts, and bad dinners at chop-houses, his attendance at the office was regular, and his diligence at the desk unremitting. The head of the department in which he was working might be referred to if any corroboration of this statement was desired. Such was the general tenor of the letters; and Frank's correspondent and Frank's father differed over them as widely as usual. Mr. Vanstone accepted them as proofs of the steady development of industrious principles in the writer. Mr. Clare took his own characteristically opposite view. "These London men," said the philosopher, "are not to be tri fled with by louts. They ha ve got Frank by the scruff of the neck -- he can't wriggle himself free -- and he makes a merit of yielding to sheer necessity."

The three months' interval of Frank's probation in London passed less cheerfully than usual in the household at Combe-Raven.

As the summer came nearer and nearer, Mrs. Vanstone's spirits, in spite of her resolute efforts to control them, became more and more depressed.

"I do my best," she said to Miss Garth; "I set an example of cheerfulness to my husband and my children -- but I dread July." Norah's secret misgivings on her sister's account rendered her more than usually serious and uncommunicative, as the year advanced. Even Mr. Vanstone, when July drew nearer, lost something of his elasticity of spirit. He kept up appearances in his wife's presence -- but on all other occasions there was now a perceptible shade of sadness in his look and manner. Magdalen was so changed since Frank's departure that she helped the general depression, instead of relieving it. All her movements had grown languid; all her usual occupations were pursued with the same weary indifference; she spent hours alone in her own room; she lost her interest in being brightly and prettily dressed; her eyes were heavy, her nerves were irritable, her complexion was altered visibly for the worse -- in one word, she had become an oppression and a weariness to herself and to all about her. Stoutly as Miss Garth contended with these growing domestic difficulties, her own spirits suffered in the effort. Her memory reverted, oftener and oftener, to the March morning when the master and mistress of the house had departed for London, and then the first serious change, for many a year past, had stolen over the family atmosphere. When was that atmosphere to be clear again? When were the clouds of change to pass off before the returning sunshine of past and happier times?

The spring and the early summer wore away. The dreaded month of July came, with its airless nights, its cloudless mornings, and its sultry days.

On the fifteenth of the month, an event happened which took every one but Norah by surprise. For the second time, without the slightest apparent reason -- for the second time, without a word of warning beforehand -- Frank suddenly re-appeared at his father's cottage.

Mr. Clare's lips opened to hail his son's return, in the old character of the "bad shilling"; and closed again without uttering a word. There was a portentous composure in Frank's manner which showed that he had other news to communicate than the news of his dismissal. He answered his father's sardonic look of inquiry by at once explaining that a very important proposal for his future benefit had been made to him, that morning, at the office. His first idea had been to communicate the details in writing; but the partners had, on reflection, thought that the necessary decision might be more readily obtained by a personal interview with his father and his friends. He had laid aside the pen accordingly, and had resigned himself to the railway on the spot.

After this preliminary statement, Frank proceeded to describe the proposal which his employers had addressed to him, with every external appearance of viewing it in the light of an intolerable hardship.

The great firm in the City had obviously made a discovery in relation to their clerk, exactly similar to the discovery which had formerly forced itself on the engineer in relation to his pupil. The young man, as they politely phrased it, stood in need of some special stimulant to stir him up. His employers (acting under a sense of their obligation to the gentleman by whom Frank had been recommended) had considered the question carefully, and had decided that the one promising use to which they could put Mr. Francis Clare was to send him forthwith into another quarter of the globe.

As a consequence of this decision, it was now. therefore, proposed that he should enter the house of their correspondents in China; that he should remain there, familiarizing himself thoroughly on the spot with the tea trade and the silk trade for five years; and that he should return, at the expiration of this period, to the central establishment in London. If he made a fair use of his opportunities in China, he would come back, while still a young man, fit for a position of trust and emolument, and justified in looking forward, at no distant date, to a time when the House would assist him to start in business for himself. Such were the new prospects which -- to adopt Mr. Clare's theory -- now forced themselves on the ever-reluctant, ever-helpless and ever-ungrateful Frank. There was no time to be lost. The final answer was to be at the office on "Monday, the twentieth": the correspondents in China were to be written to by the mail on that day; and Frank was to follow the letter by the next opportunity, or to resign his chance in favor of some more enterprising young man.

Mr. Clare's reception of this extraordinary news was startling in the extreme. The glorious prospect of his son's banishment to China appeared to turn his brain. The firm pedestal of his philosophy sank under him; the prejudices of society recovered their hold on his mind. He seized Frank by the arm, and actually accompanied him to Combe-Raven, in the amazing character of visitor to the house!

"Here I am with my lout," said Mr. Clare, before a word could be uttered by the astonished family. "Hear his story, all of you. It has reconciled me, for the first time in my life, to the anomaly of his existence." Frank ruefully narrated the Chinese proposal for the second time, and attempted to attach to it his own supplementary statement of objections and difficulties. His father stopped him at the first word, pointed peremptorily southeastward (from Somersetshire to China); and said, without an instant's hesitation: "Go!" Mr. Vanstone, basking in golden visions of his young friend's future, echoed that monosyllabic decision with all his heart. Mrs. Vanstone, Miss Garth, even Norah herself, spoke to the same purpose. Frank was petrified by an absolute unanimity of opinion which he had not anticipated; and Magdalen was caught, for once in her life, at the end of all her resources.

So far as practical results were concerned, the sitting of the family council began and ended with the general opinion that Frank must go. Mr. Vanstone's faculties were so bewildered by the son's sudden arrival, the father's unexpected visit, and the news they both brought with them, that he petitioned for an adjournment before the necessary arrangements connected with his young friend's departure were considered in detail. "Suppose we all sleep upon it?" he said. "Tomorrow our heads will feel a little steadier; and to-morrow will be time enough to decide all uncertainties." This suggestion was readily adopted; and all further proceedings stood adjourned until the next day.

That next day was destined to decide more uncertainties than Mr. Vanstone dreamed of.

Early in the morning, after making tea by herself as usual, Miss Garth took her parasol and strolled into the garden. She had slept ill; and ten minutes in the open air before the family assembled at breakfast might help to compensate her, as she thought, for the loss of her night's rest.

She wandered to the outermost boundary of the flower-garden, and then returned by another path, which led back, past the side of an ornamental summer-house commanding a view over the fields from a corner of the lawn. A slight noise -like, and yet not like, the chirruping of a bird -- caught her ear as she approached the summer-house. She stepped round to the entrance; looked in; and discovered Magdalen and Frank seated close together. To Miss Garth's horror, Magdalen's arm was unmistakably round Frank's neck; and, worse still, the position of her face, at the moment of discovery, showed beyond all doubt that she had just been offering to the victim of Chinese commerce the first and foremost of all the consolations which a woman can bestow on a man. In plainer words, she had just given Frank a kiss.

In the presence of such an emergency as now confronted her, Miss Gart h felt instinctively that all ordinary phrases of reproof would be phrases thrown away.

"I presume," she remarked, addressing Magdalen with the merciless self-possession of a middle-aged lady, unprovided for the occasion with any kissing remembrances of her own -- "I presume

(whatever excuses your effrontery may suggest) you will not deny that my duty compels me to mention what I have just seen to your father?"

"I will save you the trouble," replied Magdalen, composedly. "I will mention it to him myself."

With those words, she looked round at Frank, standing trebly helpless in a corner of the summer-house. "You shall hear what happens," she said, with her bright smile. "And so shall you," she added for Miss Garth's especial benefit, as she sauntered past the governess on her way back to the breakfast-table. The eyes of Miss Garth followed her indignantly; and Frank slipped out on his side at that favorable opportunity.

Under these circumstances, there was but one course that any respectable woman could take -- she could only shudder. Miss Garth registered her protest in that form, and returned to the house.

When breakfast was over, and when Mr. Vanstone's hand descended to his pocket in search of his cigar-case, Magdalen rose; looked significantly at Miss Garth; and followed her father into the hall.

"Papa," she said, "I want to speak to you this morning -- in private."

"Ay! ay!" returned Mr. Vanstone. "What about, my dear!"

"About -- " Magdalen hesitated, searching for a satisfactory form of expression, and found it. "About business, papa," she said.

Mr. Vanstone took his garden hat from the hall table -- opened his eyes in mute perplexity -- attempted to associate in his mind the two extravagantly dissimilar ideas of Magdalen and "business" -- failed -- and led the way resignedly into the garden.

His daughter took his arm, and walked with him to a shady seat at a convenient distance from the house. She dusted the seat with her smart silk apron before her father occupied it. Mr. Vanstone was not accustomed to such an extraordinary act of attention as this. He sat down, looking more puzzled than ever. Magdalen immediately placed herself on his knee, and rested her head comfortably on his shoulder.

"Am I heavy, papa?" she asked.

"Yes, my dear, you are," said Mr. Vanstone -- "but not too heavy for me. Stop on your perch, if you like it. Well? And what may this business happen to be?"

"It begins with a question."

"Ah, indeed? That doesn't surprise me. Business with your sex, my dear, always begins with questions. Go on."

"Papa! do you ever intend allowing me to be married?"

Mr. Vanstone's eyes opened wider and wider. The question, to use his own phrase, completely staggered him.

"This is business with a vengeance!" he said. "Why, Magdalen! what have you got in that harum-scarum head of yours now?"

"I don't exactly know, papa. Will you answer my question?"

"I will if I can, my dear; you rather stagger me. Well, I don't know. Yes; I suppose I must let you be married one of these days -- if we can find a good husband for you. How hot your face is! Lift it up, and let the air blow over it. You won't? Well -- have your own way. If talking of business means tickling your cheek against my whisker I've nothing to say against it. Go on, my dear. What's the next question? Come to the point."

She was far too genuine a woman to do anything of the sort. She skirted round the point and calculated her distance to the nicety of a hair-breadth.

"We were all very much surprised yesterday -- were we not, papa? Frank is wonderfully lucky, isn't he?"

"He's the luckiest dog I ever came across," said Mr. Vanstone "But what has that got to do with this business of yours? I dare say you see your way, Magdalen. Hang me if I can see mine!"

She skirted a little nearer.

"I suppose he will make his fortune in China?" she said. "It's a long way off, isn't it? Did you observe, papa, that Frank looked sadly out of spirits yesterday?"

"I was so surprised by the news," said Mr. Vanstone, "and so staggered by the sight of old Clare's sharp nose in my house, that I didn't much notice. Now you remind me of it -- yes. I don't think Frank took kindly to his own good luck; not kindly at all."

"Do you wonder at that, papa?"

"Yes, my dear; I do, rather."

"Don't you think it's hard to be sent away for five years, to make your fortune among hateful savages, and lose sight of your friends at home for all that long time? Don't you think Frank will miss us sadly? Don't you, papa? -- don't you?"

"Gently, Magdalen! I'm a little too old for those long arms of yours to throttle me in fun. -- You're right, my love. Nothing in this world without a drawback. Frank will miss his friends in England: there's no denying that."

"You always liked Frank. And Frank always liked you."

"Yes, yes -- a good fellow; a quiet, good fellow. Frank and I have always got on smoothly together."

"You have got on like father and son, haven't you?"

"Certainly, my dear."

"Perhaps you will think it harder on him when he has gone than you think it now?"

"Likely enough, Magdalen; I don't say no."

"Perhaps you will wish he had stopped in England? Why shouldn't he stop in England, and do as well as if he went to China?"

"My dear! he has no prospects in England. I wish he had, for his own sake. I wish the lad well, with all my heart."

"May I wish him well too, papa -- with all my heart?"

"Certainly, my love -- your old playfellow -- why not? What's the matter? God bless my soul, what is the girl crying about? One would think Frank was transported for life. You goose! You know, as well as I do, he is going to China to make his fortune."

"He doesn't want to make his fortune -- he might do much better."

"The deuce he might! How, I should like to know?"

"I'm afraid to tell you. I'm afraid you'll laugh at me. Will you promise not to laugh at me?"

"Anything to please you, my dear. Yes: I promise. Now, then, out with it! How might Frank do better?"

"He might marry Me."

If the summer scene which then spread before Mr. Vanstone's eyes had suddenly changed to a dreary winter view -- if the trees had lost all their leaves, and the green fields had turned white with snow in an instant -- his face could hardly have expressed greater amazement than it displayed when his daughter's faltering voice spoke those four last words. He tried to look at her -- but she steadily refused him the opportunity: she kept her face hidden over his shoulder. Was she in earnest? His cheek, still wet with her tears, answered for her. There was a long pause of silence; she waited -- with unaccustomed patience, she waited for him to speak. He roused himself, and spoke these words only: "You surprise me, Magdalen; you surprise me more than I can say."

At the altered tone of his voice -- altered to a quiet, fatherly seriousness -Magdalen's arms clung round him closer than before.

"Have I disappointed you, papa?" she asked, faintly. "Don't say I have disappointed you! Who am I to tell my secret to, if not to you? Don't let him go -- don't! don't! You will break his heart. He is afraid to tell his father; he is even afraid you might be angry with him. There is nobody to speak for us, except -- except me. Oh, don't let him go! Don't for his sake -- " she whispered the next words in a kiss -- "Don't for Mine!"

Her father's kind face saddened; he sighed, and patted her fair head tenderly. "Hush, my love," he said, almost in a whisper; "hush!" She little knew what a revelation every word, every action that escaped her, now opened before him. She had made him her grown-up playfellow, from her childhood to that day. She had romped with him in her frocks, she had gone on romping with him in her gowns. He had never been long enough separated from her to have the external changes in his daughter forced on his attention. His artless, fatherly experience of her had taught him that she was a taller child in later years -- and had taught him little more. And now, in one breathless instant, the conviction that she was a woman rushed over his mind. He felt it in the trouble of her bosom pre ssed against his; in the nervo us thrill of her arms clasped around his neck. The Magdalen of his innocent experience, a woman -- with the master-passion of her sex in possession of her heart already!

"Have you thought long of this, my dear?" he asked, as soon as he could speak composedly. "Are you sure -- ?"

She answered the question before he could finish it.

"Sure I love him?" she said. "Oh, what words can say Yes for me, as I want to say it? I love him -- !" Her voice faltered softly; and her answer ended in a sigh.

"You are very young. You and Frank, my love, are both very young."

She raised her head from his shoulder for the first time. The thought and its expression flashed from her at the same moment.

"Are we much younger than you and mamma were?" she asked, smiling through her tears.

She tried to lay her head back in its old position; but as she spoke those words, her father caught her round the waist, forced her, before she was aware of it, to look him in the face -- and kissed her, with a sudden outburst of tenderness which brought the tears thronging back thickly into her eyes. "Not much younger, my child," he said, in low, broken tones -- "not much younger than your mother and I were." He put her away from him, and rose from the seat, and turned his head aside quickly. "Wait here, and compose yourself; I will go indoors and speak to your mother." His voice trembled over those parting words; and he left her without once looking round again.

She waited -- waited a weary time; and he never came back. At last her growing anxiety urged her to follow him into the house. A new timidity throbbed in her heart as she doubtingly approached the door. Never had she seen the depths of her father's simple nature stirred as they had been stirred by her confession. She almost dreaded her next meeting with him. She wandered softly to and fro in the hall, with a shyness unaccountable to herself; with a terror of being discovered and spoken to by her sister or Miss Garth, which made her nervously susceptible to the slightest noises in the house. The door of the morning-room opened while her back was turned toward it. She started violently, as she looked round and saw her father in the hall: her heart beat faster and faster, and she felt herself turning pale. A second look at him, as he came nearer, re-assured her. He was composed again, though not so cheerful as usual. She noticed that he advanced and spoke to her with a forbearing gentleness, which was more like his manner to her mother than his ordinary manner to herself.

"Go in, my love," he said, opening the door for her which he had just closed. "Tell your mother all you have told me -- and more, if you have more to say. She is better prepared for you than I was. We will take to-day to think of it, Magdalen; and to-morrow you shall know, and Frank shall know, what we decide."

Her eyes brightened, as they looked into his face and saw the decision there already, with the double penetration of her womanhood and her love. Happy, and beautiful in her happiness, she put his hand to her lips, and went, without hesitation, into the morning-room. There, her father's words had smoothed the way for her; there, the first shock of the surprise was past and over, and only the pleasure of it remained. Her mother had been her age once; her mother would know how fond she was of Frank. So the coming interview was anticipated in her thoughts; and -- except that there was an unaccountable appearance of restraint in Mrs. Vanstone's first reception of her -- was anticipated aright. After a little, the mother's questions came more and more unreservedly from the sweet, unforgotten experience of the mother's heart. She lived again through her own young days of hope and love in Magdalen's replies.

The next morning the all-important decision was announced in words. Mr. Vanstone took his daughter upstairs into her mother's room, and there placed before her the result of the yesterday's consultation, and of the night's reflection which had followed it. He spoke with perfect kindness and self-possession of manner -but in fewer and more serious words than usual; and he held his wife's hand tenderly in his own all through the interview.

He informed Magdalen that neither he nor her mother felt themselves justified in blaming her attachment to Frank. It had been in part, perhaps, the natural consequence of her childish familiarity with him; in part, also, the result of the closer intimacy between them which the theatrical entertainment had necessarily produced. At the same time, it was now the duty of her parents to put that attachment, on both sides, to a proper test -- for her sake, because her happy future was their dearest care; for Frank's sake, because they were bound to give him the opportunity of showing himself worthy of the trust confided in him. They were both conscious of being strongly prejudiced in Frank's favor. His father's eccentric conduct had made the lad the object of their compassion and their care from his earliest years. He (and his younger brothers) had almost filled the places to them of those other children of their own whom they had lost. Although they firmly believed their good opinion of Frank to be well founded -- still, in the interest of their daughter's happiness, it was necessary to put that opinion firmly to the proof, by fixing certain conditions, and by interposing a year of delay between the contemplated marriage and the present time.

During that year, Frank was to remain at the office in London; his employers being informed beforehand that family circumstances prevented his accepting their offer of employment in China. He was to consider this concession as a recognition of the attachment between Magdalen and himself, on certain terms only. If, during the year of probation, he failed to justify the confidence placed in him -- a confidence which had led Mr. Vanstone to take unreservedly upon himself the whole responsibility of Frank's future prospects -- the marriage scheme was to be considered, from that moment, as at an end. If, on the other hand, the result to which Mr. Vanstone confidently looked forward really occurred -- if Frank's probationary year proved his claim to the most precious trust that could be placed in his hands -- then Magdalen herself should reward him with all that a woman can bestow; and the future, which his present employers had placed before him as the result of a five years' residence in China, should be realized in one year's time, by the dowry of his young wife.

As her father drew that picture of the future, the outburst of Magdalen's gratitude could no longer be restrained. She was deeply touched -- she spoke from her inmost heart. Mr. Vanstone waited until his daughter and his wife were composed again; and then added the last words of explanation which were now left for him to speak.

"You understand, my love," he said, "that I am not anticipating Frank's living in idleness on his wife's means? My plan for him is that he should still profit by the interest which his present employers take in him. Their knowledge of affairs in the City will soon place a good partnership at his disposal, and you will give him the money to buy it out of hand. I shall limit the sum, my dear, to half your fortune; and the other half I shall have settled upon yourself. We shall all be alive and hearty, I hope" -- he looked tenderly at his wife as he said those words -- "all alive and hearty at the year's end. But if I am gone, Magdalen, it will make no difference. My will -- made long before I ever thought of having a son-in-law divides my fortune into two equal parts. One part goes to your mother; and the other part is fairly divided between my children. You will have your share on your wedding-day (and Norah will have hers when she marries) from my own hand, if I live; and under my will if I die. There! there! no gloomy faces," he said, with a momentary return of his every-day good spirits. "Your mother and I mean to live and see Frank a great merchant. I shall leave you, my dear, to enlighten the son on our new projects, while I walk over to the cottage - "

He stopped; his eyebrows contra cted a little; and he looked aside hesitatingly at Mrs. Vanstone.

"What must you do at the cottage, papa?" asked Magdalen, after having vainly waited for him to finish the sentence of his own accord.

"I must consult Frank's father," he replied. "We must not forget that Mr. Clare's consent is still wanting to settle this matter. And as time presses, and we don't know what difficulties he may not raise, the sooner I see him the better."

He gave that answer in low, altered tones; and rose from his chair in a half-reluctant, half-resigned manner, which Magdalen observed with secret alarm.

She glanced inquiringly at her mother. To all appearance, Mrs. Vanstone had been alarmed by the change in him also. She looked anxious and uneasy; she turned her face away on the sofa pillow -- turned it suddenly, as if she was in pain.

"Are you not well, mamma?" asked Magdalen.

"Quite well, my love," said Mrs. Vanstone, shortly and sharply, without turning round. "Leave me a little -- I only want rest."

Magdalen went out with her father.

"Papa!" she whispered anxiously, as they descended the stairs; "you don't think Mr. Clare will say No?"

"I can't tell beforehand," answered Mr. Vanstone. "I hope he will say Yes."

"There is no reason why he should say anything else -- is there?"

She put the question faintly, while he was getting his hat and stick; and he did not appear to hear her. Doubting whether she should repeat it or not, she accompanied him as far as the garden, on his way to Mr. Clare's cottage. He stopped her on the lawn, and sent her back to the house

"You have nothing on your head, my dear," he said. "If you want to be in the garden, don't forget how hot the sun is -- don't come out without your hat."

He walked on toward the cottage.

She waited a moment, and looked after him. She missed the customary flourish of his stick; she saw his little Scotch terrier, who had run out at his heels, barking and capering about him unnoticed. He was out of spirits: he was strangely out of spirits. What did it mean?

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