JANE HARDIE had found Albion Villa in the miserable state that precedes an auction: the house raw, its contents higgledy-piggledy. The stair carpets, and drawing-room carpets, were up, and in rolls in the dining-room; the bulk of the furniture was there too; the auction was to be in that room. The hall was clogged with great packages, and littered with small, all awaiting the railway carts; and Edward, dusty and deliquescent, was cording, strapping, and nailing them at the gallop, in his shirt sleeves.
Jane's heart sank at the visible signs of his departure. She sighed; and then, partly to divert his attention, told him hastily there was a letter from Alfred. On this he ran upstairs and told Mrs. Dodd; and she came downstairs, and after a conversation took Jane up softly to her friend's room.
They opened the door gently, and Jane saw the grief she was come to console — or to embitter.
Such a change! instead of the bright, elastic, impetuous young beauty, there sat a pale, languid girl, with "weary of the world" written on every part of her eloquent body; her right hand dangled by her side, and on the ground beneath it lay a piece of work she had been attempting; but it had escaped from those listless fingers: her left arm was stretched at full length on the table with an unspeakable abandon, and her brow laid wearily on it above the elbow. So lies the wounded bird, so droops the broken lily.
She did not move for Jane's light foot. She often sat thus, a drooping statue, and let the people come and go unheeded.
Jane's heart yearned for her. She came softly and laid a little hand lightly on her shoulder, and true to her creed that we must look upward for consolation, said in her ear, and in solemn silvery tones, "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
Julia turned at this and flung her arms round Jane's neck, and panted heavily.
Jane kissed her, and with tears in her eyes, proceeded to pour out, from a memory richly stored with Scripture, those blessed words it is full of, words that in our hours of ease or biblical criticism pass over the mind like some drowsy chime but in the bitter day of anguish and bereavement, when the body is racked, the soul darkened, shine out like stars to the mariner; seem then first to swell to their real size and meaning, and come to writhing mortals like pitying seraphim, divinity on their faces and healing on their wings.
Julia sighed heavily: "Ah," she said, "these are sweet words. But I am not ripe for them. You show me the true path of happiness: but I don't want to be happy; it's him I want to be happy. If the angels came for me and took me to heaven this moment, I should be miserable there, if I thought he was in eternal torment. Ay, I should be as miserable there as I am here. Oh, Jane, when God means to comfort me, He will show me he is alive; till then words are wasted on me, even Bible words."
"Tell her your news, my dear," said Mrs. Dodd quietly. She was one of those who take human nature as it is, and make the best of it.
"Julia dear," said Jane, "your fears are extravagant; indeed: Alfred is alive, we know."
Julia trembled, but said nothing.
"He has written to-day."
"Ah! To you?"
"No, to papa."
"I don't believe it. Why to him?"
"But I saw the letter, dear; I had it my hand."
"Did you read it?" asked Julia, trembling now like an aspen, and fluttering like a bird.
"No, but I read the address, and the date inside, and I saw the handwriting; and I was offered the letter, but papa told me it was full of abuse of him, so I declined* to read it; however, I will get it for you."
* This was one of those involuntary inaccuracies which creep into mortal statements.
Mrs. Dodd thanked her warmly; but asked her if she could not in the meantime give some idea of the contents.
"Oh yes, Mrs. Dodd: papa read me out a great deal of it. He was in Paris, but just starting for London: and he demanded his money and his accounts. You know papa is one of his trustees."
"Well, but," said Mrs. Dodd, "there was nothing — nothing about — — ?"
"Oh yes, there was," said Jane, "only I — well then, for dear Julia's sake — the letter said, 'What wonder the son of a sharper should prove a traitor? You have stolen her money and I her affections, and' — oh, I can't, I can't." And Jane Hardie began to cry.
Mrs. Dodd embraced her like a mother, and entered into her filial feelings: Mrs. Dodd had never seen her so weak, and, therefore, never thought her so amiable. Thus occupied they did not at first observe how these tidings were changing Julia.
But presently looking up, they saw her standing at her full height on fire with wrath and insulted pride.
"Ah, you have brought me comfort," she cried. " Mamma, I shall hate and scorn this man some day, as much as I hate and scorn myself now for every tear I have shed for him."
They tried to calm her, but in vain; a new gust of passion possessed the ardent young creature and would have vent. She reddened from bosom to brow, and the scalding tears ran down her flaming cheeks, and she repeated between her clenched teeth, "My veins are not filled with skim-milk, I can tell you: you have seen how I can love, you shall see how I can hate." And with this she went haughtily out of the room, not to expose the passion which overpowered her.
Mrs. Dodd took advantage of her absence to thank Jane for her kindness, and told her she had also received some letters by this morning's post, and thought it would be neither kind on her part nor just to conceal their purport from her. She then read her a letter from Mrs. Beresford, and another from Mr. Grey, in answer to queries about the L. 14,000.
Sharpe, I may as well observe, was at sea; Bayliss drowned.
Mrs. Beresford knew nothing about the matter.
Mr. Grey was positive Captain Dodd, when in command, had several thousand pounds in his cabin; Mrs. Beresford's Indian servant had been detected trying to steal it, and put in irons: believed the lady had not been told the cause — out of delicacy! and Captain Roberts had liberated him. As to whether the money had escaped the wreck — if on Captain Dodd's person, it might have been saved; but if not, it was certainly lost: for Captain Dodd to his knowledge had run on deck from the passenger's cabin the moment the ship struck, and had remained there till she went to pieces; and everything was washed out of her.
"Our own opinion," said Mrs. Dodd, "I mean Edward's and mine, is now, that the money was lost in the ship; and you can tell your papa so if you like."
Jane thanked her, and said she thought so too: and what a sad thing it was.
Soon after this Julia returned, pale and calm as a statue, and sat down humbly beside Jane. "Oh, pray with me," she said: "pray that I may not hate, for to hate is to be wicked; and pray that I may not love, for to love is to be miserable."
Mrs. Dodd retired, with her usual tact and self-denial.
Then Jane Hardie, being alone with her friend, and full of sorrow, sympathy, and faith, found words of eloquence almost divine to raise her.
With these pious consolations Julia's pride and self-respect now co-operated. Relieved of her great terror, she felt her insult to her fingers' ends: "I'll never degrade myself so far as to pine for another lady's lover," she said. "I'll resume my duties in another sphere, and try to face the world by degrees. I am not quite alone in it; I have my mother still — and my Redeemer."
Some tears forced their way at these brave, gentle words. Jane gave her time.
Then she said: "Begin by putting on your bonnet, and visiting with me. Come with one who is herself thwarted in the carnal affections; come with her and see how sick some are, and we two in health; how racked with pain some are, and we two at ease; how hungry some, and we have abundance; and, above all, in what spiritual deserts some lie, while we walk in the Gospel light."
"Oh that I had the strength," said Julia; "I'll try."
She put on her bonnet, and went down with her friend; but at the street door the strange feeling of shame overpowered her; she blushed and trembled, and begged to substitute the garden for the road. Jane consented, and said everything must have a beginning.
The fresh air, the bursting buds, and all the face of nature, did Julia good, and she felt it. "You little angel," said she, with something of her old impetuosity, " you have saved me. I was making myself worse by shutting myself up in that one miserable room."
They walked hand in hand for a good half hour, and then Jane said she must go; papa would miss her. Julia was sorry to part with her, and almost without thinking, accompanied her through the house to the front gate; and that was another point gained. "I never was so sorry to part with you, love," said she. "When will you come again? We leave to-morrow. I am selfish to detain you; but it seems as if my guardian angel was leaving me."
Jane smiled. "I must go," said she, "but I'll leave better angels than I am behind me. I leave you this: 'Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God!' When it seems most harsh, then it is most loving. Pray for faith to say with me, 'Lead us by a way that we know not.'"
They kissed one another, and Julia stood at the gate and looked lovingly after her, with the tears standing thick in her own violet eyes.
Now Maxley was coming down the road, all grizzly and bloodshot, baited by the boys, who had gradually swelled in number as he drew nearer the town.
Jane was shocked at their heathenish cruelty, and went off the path to remonstrate with them.
On this, Maxley fell upon her, and began beating her about the head and shoulders with his heavy stick.
The miserable boys uttered yells of dismay, but did nothing.
Julia uttered a violent scream, but flew to her friend's aid, and crying, "Oh you wretch! you wretch!" actually caught the man by the throat and shook him violently. He took his hand off Jane Hardie, who instantly sank moaning on the ground, and he cowered like a cur at the voice and the purple gleaming eyes of the excited girl.
The air filled with cries, and Edward ran out of the house to see what was the matter; but on the spot nobody was game enough to come between the furious man and the fiery girl. The consequence was, her impetuous courage began to flag and her eye to waver; the demented man found this out by some half animal instinct, and instantly caught her by the shoulder and whirled her down on her knees; then raised his staff high to destroy her.
She screamed, and was just putting up her hands, womanlike, not to see her death as well as feel it, when something dark came past her like a rushing wind — a blow, that sounded exactly like that of a paving ram, caught Maxley on the jaw: and there was Edward Dodd blowing like a grampus with rage, and Maxley on his back in the road. But men under cerebral excitement are not easily stunned, and know no pain: he bounded off the ground, and came at Edward like a Spanish bull. Edward slipped aside, and caught him another ponderous blow that sent him staggering, and his bludgeon flew out of his hand, and Edward caught it. Lo! the maniac flew at him again more fiercely than ever; but the young Hercules had seen Jane bleeding on the ground: he dealt her assailant in full career such a murderous stroke with the bludgeon, that the people, who were running from all quarters, shrieked with dismay — not for Jane, but for Maxley; and well they might; that awful stroke laid him senseless, motionless and mute, in a pool of his own blood.
"Don't kill him, sir; don't kill the man," was the cry.
"Why not?" said Edward sternly. He then kneeled over his sweetheart and lifted her in his arms like a child. Her bonnet was all broken, her eyes were turned upwards and set, and a little blood trickled down her cheek; and that cheek seemed streaked white and red.
He was terrified, agonised; yet he gasped out, "You are safe, dear; don't be frightened."
She knew the voice.
"Oh, Edward!" she said piteously and tenderly, and then moaned a little on his broad bosom. He carried her into the house out of the crowd.
Poor old doctor Phillips, coming in to end his days in the almshouse, had seen it all: he got out of his cart and hobbled up. He had been in the army, and had both experience and skill. He got her bonnet off, and at sight of her head looked very grave.
In a minute a bed was laid in the drawing-room, and all the windows and doors open: and Edward, trembling now in every limb, ran to Musgrove Cottage, while Mrs. Dodd and Julia loosened the poor girl's dress, and bathed her wounds with tepid water (the doctor would not allow cold), and put wine carefully to her lips with a teaspoon.
"Wanted at your house, pray what for?" said Mr. Hardie superciliously.
"Oh, sir," said Edward, "such a calamity. Pray come directly. A ruffian has struck her, has hurt her terribly, terribly."
"Her! Who?" asked Mr. Hardie, beginning to be uneasy.
"Who! why Jane, your daughter, man; and there you sit chattering, instead of coming at once."
Mr. Hardie rose hurriedly and put on his hat, and accompanied him, half confused.
Soon Edward's mute agitation communicated itself to him, and he went striding and trembling by his side.
The crowd had gone with insensible Maxley to the hospital, but the traces of the terrible combat were there. Where Maxley fell the last time, a bullock seemed to have been slaughtered at the least.
The miserable father came on this, and gave a great scream like a woman, and staggered back white as a sheet.
Edward laid his hand on him, for he seemed scarce able to stand.
"No, no, no," he cried, comprehending the mistake at last; that is not hers — Heaven forbid! That is the madman's who did it; I knocked him down with his own cudgel."
"God bless you! you've killed him, I hope."
"Oh, sir, be more merciful, and then perhaps He will be merciful to us, and not take this angel from us."
"No! no! you are right; good young man. I little thought I had such a friend in your house."
"Don't deceive yourself, sir," said Edward; "it's not you I care for:" then, with a great cry of anguish, "I love her."
At this blunt declaration, so new and so offensive to him, Mr. Hardie winced, and stopped bewildered.
But they were at the gate, and Edward hurried him on. At the house door he drew back once more; for he felt a shiver of repugnance at entering this hateful house, of whose happiness he was the destroyer.
But enter it he must; it was his fate.
The wife of the poor Captain he had driven mad met him in the passage, her motherly eyes full of tears for him, and both hands held out to him like a pitying angel. "Oh, Mr. Hardie," she said in a broken voice, and took him, and led him, wonder-struck, stupefied, shivering with dark fears, to the room where his crushed daughter lay.