If Mrs James had been almost affectionate, what was Mr Walcot? He had really gone through a great deal of anxiety and suffering lately, and his heart was very soft and tender just now. He turned about, and walked with Sophia--walked a mile out into the country by her side, and neither seemed to have any thought of turning back, till f.a.n.n.y reminded her sister how long mamma would have been kept waiting for her to go and call on the Levitts. The conversation had been in an under voice, all the way out and back; but, when the parting was to take place, when Mr Walcot was to leave them in the outskirts of the village, the little girls heard a few words, which threw some light on what had been pa.s.sing. They caught from Sophia, "I must consult my parents;" and as they hurried homewards with her, they ventured to cast up a glance of droll meaning into her face, which made her try to help smiling, and to speak sharply; and then they knew that they had guessed the truth.
Mr Grey made his call upon his cousins that evening. He requested some private conversation with Hope. His objects were, to learn Hope's opinion of Mr Walcot, as he had seen him of late under very trying circ.u.mstances; and, if this opinion should be sufficiently favourable to warrant the proposition, to open the subject of a partnership--a partnership in which, as was fair, Mr Walcot should have a small share at present of the income, and a large proportion of the labour--which was all that the young man, under the effect of his recent terrors, and of his veneration for Mr Hope, wished or desired. He had declared that if he could obtain his beloved Sophia, and be permitted to rely on Mr Hope as his partner and friend, he should be the happiest man alive; and he was confident that his parents would consider him a most fortunate youth, to be received, at his outset into life, into such a family as Mr Grey's, and under the professional guidance of such a pract.i.tioner and such a man as Mr Hope.
There seemed to be every probability of his becoming the happiest man alive for the Greys were clearly well disposed towards him, and Mr Hope had nothing to say of him which could hurt their feelings. He repeated what he had declared to Mr Rowland--that Mr Walcot's energies seemed to be concentrated in the practice of his profession, and that his professional knowledge appeared to be sufficient. There was no doubt of his kindness of heart; and, though it could not be expected of him that he would ever make a striking figure in the world, yet he might sustain a fair portion of respectability and usefulness in a country station.
As to the partnership, no difficulty arose. Mr Grey frankly explained that present income was far less of an object than to have his daughter settled beside her parents, and his son-in-law usefully and honourably occupied. Sophia would have enough money to make Walcot's income an affair of inferior consideration. If he should deserve an increase by and by, it would be all very well. If not, the young people must get on without. Anything was better than sending the young man away to establish himself in a new place, with no happier prospects to Sophia's family than that of parting with her to a distance at last.
It did not require many days to complete the arrangements. Hester was at first a little vexed, but on the whole much more amused, at the idea of her husband having Mr Walcot for a partner: and she soon saw the advantage of his being spared many a long country ride, and many a visit at inconvenient seasons, by his junior being at hand. She made no substantial objection, and invited Mr Walcot to the house with all due cordiality. The young man's grat.i.tude and devotion knew no bounds; and the only trouble Hope felt in the business was the awkwardness of checking his expressions of thankfulness.
When the announcement of the double arrangement was to be made, Mrs Grey could not resist going herself to Mrs Rowland; and Sophia was sorry that she could not be present too, to see how the lady would receive the news of a third gentleman marrying into the Greys'
connection so decidedly. But Mr Grey took care to enlighten his partner on the matter some hours before; so that Mrs Rowland was prepared. She persuaded herself that she was very apathetic--that she had no feelings left for the affairs of life--that her interests were all buried in the tomb of her own Matilda. Mrs Grey had therefore nothing in particular to tell Sophia when she returned from paying the visit.
In exchange for the news, Sir William and Lady Hunter sent back their congratulations, and a very gracious and extensive invitation to dinner.
Finding that Mrs Rowland's brother was really, with the approbation of his family, going to marry Mrs Hope's sister, and that Mrs Rowland's _protege_ was entering into partnership with Mr Hope himself, they thought it the right time to give their sanction to the reconciliations which were taking place, by being civil to all the parties round. So Lady Hunter came in state to Deerbrook, one fine day, made all due apologies, and invited to dinner the whole connection. Mrs Rowland could not go, of course; and Margaret declined: but all the rest went.
Margaret was on the eve of her marriage, and she preferred one more day with Maria, to a visit of ceremony. She begged Philip to go, as his sister could not; and he obeyed with a good grace, grudging the loss of a sweet spring evening over Sir William Hunter's dinner-table the less, that he knew Margaret and Maria were making the best use of it together.
Once more the friends sat in the summer-house, by the window, whence they loved to look abroad upon meadow, wood, and stream. Here they had studied together, and cherished each other: here they had eagerly imparted a mult.i.tude of thoughts, and carefully concealed a few. Here they were now conversing together for the last time before their approaching separation. Maria sighed often, as she well might: and when Margaret looked abroad upon the bean-setters in the distant field, and listened to the bleat of the lambs which came up from the pastures, and was aware of the scent of the hyacinths occasionally wafted in from poor Matilda's neighbouring flower-plot, she sighed too.
"You must take some of our hyacinths with you to London, and see whether they will not blossom there," said Maria, answering to her friend's thought.
"I hardly know whether there would be most pain or pleasure in seeing plants sprout, and then wither, in the little balcony of a back drawing-room, which overlooks gables or stables, instead of these delicious green meadows."
"How fond you were, two years ago, of imagining the bliss of living always in sight of this very landscape! Yet it has yielded already to the back drawing-room, with a prospect of stables and gables."
"We shall come and look upon your woods sometimes, you know. I am not bidding good-bye to this place, or to you. G.o.d forbid!"
"Now tell me, Margaret," said Maria, after a pause, "tell me when you are to be married."
"That is what I was just about to do. We go on Tuesday."
"Indeed! in three days! But why should it not be so? It is a weary time since you promised first."
"A year ago, there were reasons, as Philip admits now, why I could not leave Hester and Edward. There are no such reasons now. They are prosperous: their days of struggle, when they wanted me--my head, my hands, my little income--are past. Edward's practice has come back to him, with increase for Mr Walcot. There is nothing more to fear for them."
"You have done your duty by them: now--"
"_My_ duty! What has it been to theirs? Oh, Maria! what a spectacle has that been! When I think how they have 'overcome evil with good,'
how they have endured, how forgiven, how toiled and watched on their enemies' behalf, till they have ruled all the minds, and touched all the hearts, of friends and foes for miles round, I think theirs the most gracious piece of tribulation that ever befell. At home,--Oh, even you do not know what a home it is!"
Nor was Margaret herself aware what that home was now. She saw how Edward had there, too, 'overcome evil with good' how he had permanently established Hester in her highest moods of mind, strengthened her to overcome the one unhappy tendency from which she had suffered through the whole of her life, and dispersed all storms from the dwelling wherein his child was to grow up: but she did not know half the extent of his victory, or the delight of its rewards. She knew nothing of the secret shudder with which he looked back upon the entanglement, the peril, the suffering he had gone through; or of the deep peace which had settled down upon his soul, now that the struggle was well past. She little imagined how, when all the world regarded him as an old married man, his was now, in truth, the soul of the lover: how, from having at one time pitied, feared, recoiled from her with whom he had connected himself for life, he had risen, by dint of a religious discharge of duty towards her, from self-reproach and mere compa.s.sion, to patience, to hope, to interest, to admiration, to love--love at last worthy of hers-- love which satisfied even Hester's imperious affections, and set even her over-busy mind and heart at rest. Little did Margaret imagine all this. There was but one, beside Edward himself, who knew it; and that one was Morris, who daily thanked G.o.d that strength had been given according to the need.
"There is but one person in the world, Maria," said her friend, "on whose account I cannot help being anxious. I was faithless about Hester as long as it was possible to have an uneasy thought for her; and now I am afraid I shall sin in the same way about you."
"And why should you, Margaret? If I were without object, without hope, without experience, without the power of self-rule which such experience gives, you might well fear for me. But why now? It is not reasonable towards the Providence under which we live; it is not just to me."
"That is very true. But though it is not too much for your faith, that you are infirm and suffering in body, poor, solitary, living by toil, without love, without prospect--though all this may not be too much for your faith, Maria, I own it is at times for mine."
"Of all these evils, there is but one which is very hard to bear. I _am_ solitary; and the suffering from the sense of this is great. But what has been borne may be borne; and this evil is precisely that which has been the peculiar trial of the greatest and best of their race--or of those who have been recognised as such. You will not suppose that I try to flatter my pride with this thought; or that the most insane pride could be a support under this kind of suffering. I mean only that there can be nothing morally fatal in a trial which many of the wisest and best have sustained."
"But it is painful--very painful."
"For the mere pain, let it pa.s.s; and for the other _desagremens_ of my lot, let us not dare to speak evil of them, lest we should be slandering my best friends. If infirmity, toil, poverty, and the foibles of people about us, all go to fortify us in self-reliance, G.o.d forbid that we should quarrel with them!"
"But are you sure, quite sure, that you can stand the discipline? that your nerves, as well as your soul, can endure?"
"Far from sure: but my peril is less than it was; and I have, therefore, every hope of victory at last. In my wilderness, some tempter or another comes, at times when my heart is hungry, and my faith is fainting, and shows me such a lot as yours--all the sunny kingdoms of love and hope given into your hand--and then the desert of my lot looks dreary enough for the moment; but then arises the very reasonable question, why we should demand that one lot should, in this exceedingly small section of our immortality, be as happy as another: why we cannot each husband our own life and means without wanting to be all equal.
Let us bless Heaven for your lot, by all means; but why, in the name of Providence, should mine be like it? Nay, Margaret, why these tears?
For their sake I will tell you--and then we shall have talked quite enough about me--that you are no fair judge of my lot. You see me often, generally, in the midst of annoyance, and you do not (because no one can) look with the eye of my mind upon the future. If you could, for one day and night, feel with my feelings, and see through my eyes--."
"Oh, that I could! I should be the holier for ever after?"
"Nay, nay! but if you could do this, you would know, from henceforth, that there are glimpses of heaven for me in solitude, as for you in love; and that it is almost as good to look forward without fear of chance or change, as with such a flutter of hope as is stirring in you now. So much for the solitaries of the earth, and because Providence should be justified of his children. Now, when is this family meeting to take place in the corner-house?"
"Frank hopes to land in August; and Anne, Mrs Gilchrist, will meet him as soon as she can hear, in her by-corner of the world, of his arrival.
The other sister is still abroad, and cannot come. I hope Anne may be a friend to you--an intimate. Judging by her brothers, and her own letters, I think she must be worthy."
"Thank you; but you are, and ever will be, my intimate. There can be no other. We shall be often seeing you here."
"Sometimes; and we shall have you with us."
"No: I cannot come to London. I shall never leave this place again, I believe; but you will be often coming to it. When that crowd of new graves in the churchyard shall be waving with gra.s.s, and those old woods looking more ancient still, and the grown people of Deerbrook telling their little ones all about the pestilence that swept the place at the end of the great scarcity, when _they_ were children, you and yours, and perhaps I, may sit, a knot of grey-headed friends, and hear over again about those good old days of ours, as we shall then call them."
"And tell how there was an aged man, who told us of his seeing the deer come down through the forest to drink at the brook. I should like to behold those future days."
"And to remember whose face you saw in the torchlight, at the time and place of your hearing the old man's tale. Whose horse do I hear stopping at the stable?"
"It is Philip's. He has galloped home before the rest," said Margaret, drawing back from the window with the smile still upon her face. "Now, Maria, before any one comes, tell me--would you like to be with me on Tuesday morning or not? Do as you like."
"I will come, to be sure," said Maria, smiling. "And now, while there is any twilight left, go and give Mr Enderby the walk in the shrubbery that he galloped home for."
Margaret kept Philip waiting while she lighted her friend's lamp; and its gleam shone from the window of the summer-house for long, while, talking of Maria, the lovers paced the shrubbery, and let the twilight go.
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