- CHAPTER X. THE NIGHT WATCH.
|<< chapter 9||< chapter 1||chapter 11 >||chapter 31 >>|
THE NIGHT WATCH.
THE afternoon post brought Eleanor letters from home. Elizabeth was no better; and though there was not any real ground of alarm, it seemed certain that some weeks must elapse before there could be a chance of decided convalescence; and, in the meantime, little Susan was quite inadequate to the onerous duties devolving upon her.
There was no mistaking the appeal. The child wrote at Elizabeth's instance, setting forth, in her own simple language, the urgency of Eleanor's return, and, at the same time, regretting the need which called her so suddenly from her scenes of enjoyment.
There was not an alternative. Lilian, though she dreaded losing Eleanor's companionship, decided that she could not do otherwise than prepare for an immediate departure; and even Eleanor, though feeling | | 109 herself a very unfortunate and injured person could not but acquiesce in the arrangement.
"I never was so mortified in my life," said Eleanor as she irritably rose from the table where she had been sitting and in her excitement and vexation began to pace up and down the room. "It is enough to provoke a saint! Just as we have settled everything so admirably—just as everything seems turning in my favor—Elizabeth who never had an ache or pain in her life, that, I remember, falls ill, and requires my services as nurse!"
Any one who saw the young lady at that moment would have pitied the unfortunate elder sister, who was to be dependent on her tender mercies for comfort and sympathy. Eleanor seemed about as fit to preside in a sick-room as to ascend the throne of Queen Victoria.
And the generous-hearted, but spirited boys—the elder now almost a young man—and the gentle, docile Susan—one would not have given much for their chance of domestic peace under the rule of their disappointed, pleasure-seeking sister.
"And all my dresses, and my new pink crape bonnet!" continued Eleanor, growing more exasperated as she thought of the glories of her ward-robe.
For Kirby-Brough now was to Eleanor Grey no bet- | | 110 ter than a howling wilderness, and the respectable in habitants, with whom she had associated all her life, had become such utter nonentities, that her roses and hawthorn, and her matchless lilies might well be said to waste their perfection, unseen and unappreciated.
In a very, very ill-humor Eleanor sat clown to answer her little sister's letter; and Lilian withdrew to her dressing-room to make arrangements for her evening toilet.
While she was trying on wreath after wreath, quite absorbed in her occupation, her husband entered the room.
How changed was the beautiful "Lily of Kirby-Brough!" A year ago, and her sweet face would have brightened like a sylvan landscape suddenly illuminated by the sun, at the unexpected presence of him she loved so well. The frivolous cares of the toilet would have been forgotten, while he was speaking and sitting near her.
Now, as she saw his reflection in the mirror, she neither turned round nor manifested any recognition of his presence; but she proceeded to lay one garland apart from the rest, and arrange the others carefully in a box. Her face was still, and calm, and cold; every feature was tranquil and composed, but there was a resolution in the glance, and a fixedness of pur- | | 111 pose in the delicate lines round the mouth, that did not escape Basil's regard.
Her mien, too, wore a dignity that, a few months before, would have been sought for in vain.
"Lilian!" said Basil in a grace tone, when he saw his wife still intent on the arrangement of her flowers, "Lilian, I wish to speak to you."
She turned round immediately, and sat down opposite to him, not a muscle of her proud, still face moving—not a motion betraying the most incipient | | 112 of residence is so self-evident, that I am certain you must have observed it."
"The child is not so rosy and merry as he was some few days since, I grant," returned Lilian; "but there is no cause for anxiety on his account; his teeth are troublesome, and that is sufficient explanation of his fretfulness and change of looks. Are there no other reasons for my leaving town?"
"MANY! since you will have them!" replied Basil in a voice that startled Lilian from her unnatural composure. "You shall bear. We are well-nigh ruined; your expenses are tremendous; we are living far beyond our income; your extravagances for the last twelve months may well account for premature retirement from the gaieties of the season, and the child's health will be a sufficient reason to give to our friends.—Friends, indeed!" and he spoke in a tone of intensest bitterness. I wonder how many of those who flatter us, and throng our rooms, and invite us to theirs in return, would stretch out a hand to save us, if we were sinking in the restless tide of misfortune. Not one! I know them—the hollow, false, deceitful men and women, who call themselves and whom we publicly call, our friends. Yes; your extravagance calls for timely withdrawal; there is no alternative!"
"My extravagance?" said Lilian, pointedly "I | | 113 may have been somewhat too profuse in my expenditure; what then? It is no uncommon case. I know much more has been spent than was intended when we began housekeeping, but not sufficient to warrant an apprehension of ruin. Mr. Hope, I will try to be wiser. I am, in fact, growing wiser already. Only to-day, I learned the nature of debts of honor!"
Basil looked keenly at his wife as she spoke. For one moment he imagined she might be speaking at random; but a glance at her pale defiant face convinced him that she was really in possession of that which he had so solicitously withheld from her cognizance. He made no answer, and Lilian poured forth a flood of bitter reproach. She accused him of every possible misdemeanor, in the excitement of her anger, charging him with errors she knew in her inmost heart he had not even dreamed of committing. The words had scarcely died on her lips when she repented having uttered them. But there was no time for softening the acerbity of her language, for Basil, exasperated to the utmost, left her presence without another word; and, in five minutes, Lilian heard the house-door bang with a violence that shook the windows to the roof.
Exhausted with her late agitation, she was in no state to join a brilliant party; nevertheless, she kept her appointment. But her presence among the bril- | | 114 liant throng who surrounded her yielded no satisfaction. Her heart was weary as her limbs, and ached even more painfully than her head. She longed to be alone, to be free from the observation of others, to be able to cast off the mask of gaiety which regard for appearances compelled her to wear.
She went home very early, leaving Eleanor (as it was her last evening) under the chaperonage of an elderly friend.
When she returned, Basil was still absent, and she told the servants to go to bed, saying that she would sit up for Miss Grey, and by that time their master would also probably come home.
And so she was left to solitude. She attempted no occupation, neither could she compose herself sufficiently to lie down; but she paced and re-paced the dreary drawing-room with the step of one whose heart is gnawed by consuming thoughts. Eleanor came in earlier than she expected, for her chaperone had suddenly grown weary, and ordered her carriage. She scarcely spoke, and went straight to her room, leaving Lilian once more to her lonely night-watch.
Her memory was busy retracing the past; she went back to the Sunday night before her marriage; word by word she recalled Alice Rayner's gentle admonition, "that it was not good, not safe to rest one's peace, one's inmost self on any mortal creature." She re- | | 115 membered her own confidence, how she pitied that pale, pain-worn Alice, and believed that her hours of solitude and suffering lead caused leer to look on life with a somewhat prejudiced eye. Was it so, indeed? Lilian knew now the world needs more faith and patience, than the Christian's chamber of sickness and seclusion. There are worse pains than those which. torture the body, more subduing weakness than that of the perishable frame.
In the stillness of the night, Lilian wept and communed with herself. A great darkness was upon her soul; she felt that every spring of earthly happiness was dried up. Love! had she not given her purest, her deepest, and it had failed her! Pleasure! had she not sought it under every shape and guise—and the phantom only mocked her, and allured her to her confusion and disappointment! All was hollow, empty, vain!
"Oh! for peace, for content!" murmured Lilian, as she sat down at last, worn out with her weary pacing to and fro. "All my life I have so longed to be happy. I thought when I married Basil I should be so. Soon the illusion faded; I found thorns on every rose; and now, oh! God help me, now he cares for me no longer, all his love is gone, gone quite away! The world, my books, my home, my child fail to satisfy me. I understand now why miserable people call | | 116 for death. I cannot bear this craving, this thirst, this yearning after joy that is never, never to be attained! Oh! for the quiet of the grave; there at least I shall be at rest; this poor heart will throb no longer, this weary bosom feel no more its pain, its void!"
Would it indeed be so? Would she lie down, "life's fitful fever" over, and rest well? Was this miserable existence all, and the dark, silent grave its close? A voice, that would be heard, seemed to ask these solemn questions, and conscience answered, "No! it is not all; death is but the portal to another life. The boundary once passed, it is bliss unspeakable or anguish unknown!"
And so she mused, and in her blind agony fiercely questioned of the great Disposer of all things, why she was selected to pluck the bitter fruit of utter vanity and vexation of spirit? "Why was she so tried, why could not happiness be hers?"
And the brief summer night passed; the candles expired in their sockets, and the first rosy flush of dawn gleamed into the silent room. Lilian rose, and opened one of the windows; a light breeze fanned her aching temples, and she looked up to the clear, serene sky, and there shone the morning star, calm and beautiful, in its pure but fading lustre, as a spirit of the "Better Land." The cool air, the quiet shining star, stilled Lilian's great agony; but there was no hope in | | 117 her heart, and she lay down on the couch, with a sort of passive, almost sullen, resignation to her fate.
The glorious sun arose; already the red beams were on the window-pane, and still no Basil.
Another hour, and Lilian was falling into a troubled doze, when the door-bell rang loudly and long, as if pulled by an impatient hand. She slipped out on the balcony, and looked down into the street—it was Basil and he was leaning heavily against the area-railings; he was ill then; and Lilian flew down, in her nervousness forgetting the secret of a certain patent-bolt, and so detaining him a somewhat unreasonable time. She opened the door at last. He stared, but expressed no surprise at seeing her instead of a servant, and slowly, and with uncertain steps, he came into the hall. There he sank into a chair, and sat looking at her with a strange vacant smile on his heavy face—a kind of idiotic leer that terrified her exceedingly.
"Basil!" she said, at length, "come to bed, the servants will be stirring directly. Are you ill?" He rose then, and tried to gain the staircase, and she saw it all!
The fumes of wine were strong as she approached him, and how she guided hint up those weary stairs, step after step, she never knew. She saw him laid on his bed at last—their bed. She saw him lie there a senseless, degraded, defaced being. She covered him | | 118 tenderly, parted the damp hair from his hot forehead, and then turned away to her own dressing-room, and wept such tears of anguish unspeakable, as, thank God, we shed not often in this life of chequered sunshine and darkness.
|<< chapter 9||< chapter 1||chapter 11 >||chapter 31 >>|