- CHAPTER II. DR. BROWNE AND MRS. NORREYS.
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DR. BROWNE AND MRS. NORREYS.
A SUCCESSION of forced coughs drew off their attention from themselves, and caused their eyes to be simultaneously turned in the direction of the house. Then they perceived the same servant who had brought the note to Rachel again approaching them with downcast eyes and measured steps, coughing at intervals on her road. Rachel blazed up again immediately.
"What does she mean, by coughing?" she said, appealing to Cecil Craven; "does she intend to be insolent?"
Captain Craven thought it looked very much like it, but he only answered for the sake of peace, "Oh, dear no; the evening air——"
"If you please, Mrs. Norreys," said the woman as she came up to them, "the doctor has been inquiring for you several times, and he wishes you to go in to him now. It was the doctor sent me to call you."
"Oh, dear papa is awake! I must go then, Captain Craven; I shall see you again this evening."
This much, as long as the servant was within hearing; but when she had disappeared into the house, Rachel exclaimed in quite a different tone of voice,—
"Now, what does that creature mean by calling me 'Mrs. Norreys' in that pointed manner? She has never been | | 12 used to say anything more than 'ma'am;' and papa so often calls me 'Miss Rachel' still, that the servants mostly call me so also. What does she mean Captain Craven?"
She half suspected what she meant by the heightened colour in her face and the agitation in her voice; but she wanted him to refute her suspicion for her, which he felt unable to do, for he was too angry himself at what had passed.
"I cannot venture to say," was his guarded reply; "I think I should dismiss her if I were you. There are better women in the regiment. What made you take her?"
"Her husband, Wilson, is one of papa's pets, and so I suppose he thought that Mrs. Wilson must be a pet as well. However, she is none of mine. But I must not stay a moment longer. I never keep my father——"
Here she fancied that the young man's eyes, which were simply turned in the direction of her face, meant more than he ever intended that they should, and stopped short.
"Well," said Captain Craven, in anticipation of the conclusion of her sentence which never came, for tears had rushed at the call of memory into the honest hazel eyes, and the voice had thickened under the influence of the emotion.
"Don't think me foolish," she commenced, presently, in a broken tone, "but it seems the worst part of the business to me that I have no longer any right——. I love him so, Captain Craven."
"I love you for it," was all his reply; and then the light figure flitted away from him with no other farewell than a look of gratitude, until it was lost in the shade of the broad creeper-covered verandah which surrounded the villa, and he was left alone by the garden-wall, gazing after her with a feeling of wonder rising in his heart that he never should have discovered how much character Rachel Norreys possessed until the last few days, and a word nearly akin to an oath upon his lips, as he thought upon the circumstances that had drawn the depths of that character out.
As for her, another minute found her by her father's side. Not by his beside, but by his sofa, where he lay all the day, although he was scarcely strong enough even to bear the slight fatigue of the constant removals. Dr. Browne had been a fine handsome man before the wasting fever came | | 13 upon him, which had sapped his strength, whitened his hair, drawn his features, and was daily bringing him lower. A man of not more than fifty years, handsomer far than Rachel would ever be as a woman, but with only half her cleverness, though twice her common sense—common sense which he had exercised in everything, except the bringing up of this motherless girl, whom he had most untiringly and indefatigably spoilt from the first day that she had been committed to his charge.
As Rachel came lightly up to his side on the present occasion, and clasped her arms about his neck, Dr. Browne's face gleamed as if the sunshine had looked into the window, and passed over it.
"Well, dear old father," she said, "have you been awake long?"
"No, my dear, only a few minutes, but the orderly has brought round some English letters. Caroline tells me they came at noon."
"So they did, darling; but you were just getting drowsy, and so I told her to put them on one side."
"There is one for you, Rachel, or I should not have disturbed you, my dear. Who has been in the garden with you, this afternoon?"
"Only Captain Craven," she answered, but she coloured slightly as she did so, and a faint sigh escaped her unawares.
Dr. Browne's ear caught the sound and echoed it; then, as if to divert the girl's thoughts or his own, he said, quickly, "There is news for you, Rachel, good news from Raymond. I have also heard from him. The 'Agincourt' has left the Cape."
"What?" exclaimed his listener, every particle of colour deserting her face, and leaving her eyes suddenly dulled and blank. "What?"
"Don't agitate yourself, my dear," said the doctor, observing her emotion, "perhaps I should not have mentioned it without a little preparation; but I have told you for months that it was likely to happen. The 'Agincourt' was under sailing orders when your husband wrote, and by this time he must be in England. Raymond fancied we should be at | | 14 home ourselves when his letters reached, and addressed them to the care of his mother, who forwarded them, with a line from herself to say that she expects her son very shortly. I am afraid he will be disappointed, poor lad, to find we have not left Gibraltar, but we shall not be long after him. Read your own letter, Rachel, it will tell you more than I can."
But Rachel did not make an attempt to read it. She remained as she had become on receiving it,—immovable, silent.
Dr. Browne looked at her for some minutes without speaking, and then he said, "Rachel!"
She started almost as if he had fired a pistol in her ear, and the recollection of where she was, and what she was doing, returning to her mind, brought the colour back in redoubled measure to her cheeks, and the brilliance to her eyes.
"Oh, papa, darling!" she exclaimed, suddenly; and seizing upon a jug which stood amongst a group of heterogeneous articles on a table by his side, "you have not any lemonade left. What is that woman about? Let me fetch it for you," and she prepared to leave him as she spoke.
"Rachel, my dear!" he called after her, in his enfeebled voice, "I do not wish for any. Caroline is gone to make me some coffee, Rachel, my child."
But Rachel was deaf, or rather Rachel chose to be deaf, and was already gone. She did not run away to think, or to cry, or to read her letter in private; she escaped for one minute's respite—one minute only to remind herself that she had borne a greater trouble, heard worse news than this, and without flinching, for his sake; to tell herself that it was inevitable and of her own seeking, that he must not, should not see the pain it cost her; to remember, with a frightened feeling at her heart that it might not be for long, that it could not be for ever, that she should have the option even of dissembling before him and then the respite was over, and the brave heart (ready to bleed if need be, so long as what it loved was unconscious of its suffering) went back to stand the ordeal of a calm, searching gaze from fatherly eyes. Only a minute—she was not absent longer—an order for more lemonade given, and Rachel was back again, the same girl who rushed | | 15 in all anxiety for her father's comfort from her broken interview at the garden wall. Back again to throw herself upon the ground by the sick man's couch, and lean her wearied young head against the side of it.
"You take too much trouble for me, dear Rachel," said Dr. Browne, as he lovingly stroked the ruddy chestnut hair, which lay against his knees.
"I couldn't," she answered, earnestly; "you're better to-day, father, are you not?"
Dr. Browne shook his head.
"Not much stronger, I am afraid, my little girl. Harris doesn't agree with me: but I fancy I know better than he does. If the 'Agincourt' left the Cape on the 1st of April, she ought to be in the Downs by the beginning of June and this is the 10th. Depend upon it, she is already there. Why don't you read your letter, Rachel?"
"Oh, it will keep," she said, "until you are asleep, darling, or I want something to do."
"I hoped you would have been more interested in your husband's return than that, my dear," answered the doctor, gravely. "I'd lay anything poor Raymond doesn't keep your letters long unopened. The one he has written to me is full of joyous anticipation. The boy loves you, Rachel, and dearly, if I mistake not."
She made no reply to this; she only gave the same impatient jerk to her shoulders that we have seen her do before, backed up with a heavy sigh. Dr. Browne heard it, although she had not intended him to do so, and it entered into his soul. The act for which he had blamed himself for so many years!—was the punishment to come upon him only now—now, when he felt life to be slipping away from beneath him? He had loved the girl before him very dearly—loved her from a little infant, for herself alone, with all a parent's doting, blind affection—loved her doubly for the sake of her who had borne her, the mother of this wayward and impulsive Rachel, who, almost as wayward, certainly as impulsive, had yet been the idol of the fresh, warm youth of the man who now lay dying, and reproaching himself, lest the shadow of his early fancy should interpose between him and death, and haunt him out of this world with its reproachful eyes, for the | | 16 trouble in which he left the daughter she had left him. He indulged Rachel as he had never had the power nor opportunity to indulge her mother. He had denied her nothing within his reach; he had allowed her fertile mind to run wild, until the weeds had gained such pre-eminence that they threatened to choke all that was so naturally sweet and fruitful there; indulged her until the foolish, imprudent act had taken place which made her "Mrs. Norreys," but which had, at the same time, made her, as he hoped, the wife of a man who, though too young for such a responsibility, loved her, and was loved honourably in return. Of late he had commenced to doubt the latter clause—to-day, her strange manner had almost made him disbelieve it. But he felt that he must know the truth now—now, before he died, and the silence of the grave rendered all his desires useless; for if his conjectures were right, something—anything—must be done, rather than his Rachel—his long-loved and cherished child—should be left in the world without him, and unhappy.
"Rachel," he said, very gravely, and the girl could hear his voice tremble as he spoke, "how long is it since you have ceased to care about Raymond's letters and Raymond's return? At one time your head was full of nothing else; now you appear to me always to avoid the subject. It is not possible that you have left off caring for your husband, is it?" and then the sick man added, with increased agitation, "tell me it is not possible, my dear child—tell me it is not true. It was a source of great trouble to me at the time; but I have gradually come to look upon it in a happier light, and latterly have almost rejoiced that it was so, and that I should not leave my girl (for I shall leave you soon, darling) unprotected in a cruel world. Oh, Rachel! you, above all other women, have need of a husband's protection, and you know it. You will not take away my last and best hope from me! You will tell me that, with myself, you are anticipating with pleasure the return of Raymond Norreys?"
Rachel awoke. She had been mentally walking in her sleep for the last few days, her mind almost torpid under the influence of a great shock from which it had not yet recovered; but she had run her head against a brick wall in her dreamy wanderings, and the concussion roused her. Here was her | | 17 father, in whose weak state any agitation must prove hurtful, alarmed and anxious for her sake; her secret, which she had held within her own breast for years, permitting it to corrode her heart, and turn all the brightest colours of her life to ashen gray, rather than it should trouble him (to save whose feelings she would have sacrificed herself, far more her own), nearly divulged at such a moment; and all for her own want of tact, her own selfish forgetfulness of everything but her trouble. The shock alarmed her, too; for the moment she started, reddened at the direct charge, and then paled as she prepared to answer it; but that over, all was over. From that moment she armed herself to meet the difficulty, and was never, whilst the necessity for concealment lasted, found sleeping on her post again.
"Dearest father," she exclaimed, "what are you thinking of? I will read Raymond's letter at once if that will set your mind at rest about me. I dare say I do not talk so much about him as I used to do; but think what a long time it is since I have seen him—five years, darling; why, it's an eternity at my age! I dare say I shan't know him again when we meet, but it wont take long to do that, will it? Only, father, you must get well again, like a dear old boy. I cannot enjoy anything when you are ill; you forget that it throws a gloom over the pleasantest prospect for me. You will get well papa, wont you? and then we will all go to England together and be jolly." And she raised herself as she spoke, until she could throw her arms again about her father's neck, and lay her head down on his bosom. If a lie is ever righteous, it must be when we tell it to save the beloved and dying, pain. And yet this girl's heart sickened, as she lay in her father's embrace, to think of the one she had just uttered, and her mental ejaculation was, "God forgive me!"
Dr. Browne held her there, and was very silent. He could not deceive her as she had deceived him, and buoy her up with false hopes of his recovery; he believed himself too near eternity to do it. But he caressed her head with his hand, and moved his lips across her forehead, and sent up many an unspoken prayer for his child's happiness wherever he might be.| | 18
"Papa, dear," next said Rachel from his breast. "I want to dismiss Caroline Wilson."
"Dismiss Caroline, my darling—for what?" demanded Dr. Browne, with surprise.
Rachel hesitated a moment before she could say for what; than she answered, "I don't like the woman, papa; I never did; I think she is very sly."
"Have you any particular complaint to lodge against her, Rachel?"
"No, nothing particular; but I am sure she is deceitful; she is always listening at the doors, and trying to pry into everything. It is odious in a person whom you are obliged to have so much about you."
"I am sorry to hear that," said Dr. Browne, "and I am sure Wilson would be sorry to hear it also. I thought she was such a quiet, respectable sort of woman."
"Too quiet for me," remarked Rachel.
"Well, my dear," said the doctor, "you shall do as you like about it, only I should think it a pity to give her warning just yet. The relief-transport may arrive at any moment, and it would be very awkward for you to go on board ship without an attendant; besides, she is very useful to me, Rachel; she understands all my little ways now, and I think I should feel her going whilst I am so ill."
"That's quite enough, father," exclaimed Rachel; "if she is any comfort to you, I would keep her if she had horns and a tail, which I believe she has, if any one would take the trouble to look for them."
Dr. Browne took all her jests in earnest.
"I don't think poor Caroline can be quite so bad as that, dear child," he said, quietly; "but if she is not a favourite of yours, you will have a good excuse for dismissing her when you get back to England."
England and Raymond! How the prospect sent the blood back from the woman's heart—a girl in ordinary things, a woman when she thought of this!
"Here is Caroline with your coffee, papa!" was her next exclamation, quickly given, lest any further remarks should be made upon the subject, and overheard. "Let me raise you, darling, whilst she pours it out;" and, suiting the action | | 19 to the word, she passed her young arms, slight and tender though they were, under the wasted frame of the sick man, and pulled him gently into a sitting posture.
"Are you going out this evening, Rachel!" he asked, as he received the sup of coffee from the hands of Caroline, and she stood by him, ready to take it back again when he should have finished.
"Yes, papa—after you are asleep—not before; and only then if you are sure not to want me. Elise asked me to run over for an hour's chat."
"Who is to be there, my dear?" asked her father.
"I don't know," replied Rachel, at first carelessly; but, raising her eyes, and encountering those of Mrs. Wilson fixed upon her, she corrected herself with an air of defiance which the occasion seemed scarcely to merit, "excepting Captain Craven, who was asked to go in the afternoon; but that is the extent of my knowledge. I do not suppose there will be any one else, except poor old Jack."
Poor old Jack being the legitimate appendage from whom Mrs. Arundel derived her name, may show, in some measure, the degree of intimacy to which Mrs. Norreys had advanced with that lady and her husband.
"Well, I hope you will enjoy yourself, my dear; and you had better tell Barnes to call for you and see you home."
Barnes being the doctor's regimental servant and general factotum. But Rachel had no need of Barnes; it was no distance; she could come alone; or "old Jack" would escort her. She would rather Barnes were not troubled in the matter.
"It would be no trouble for Barnes, sir," said Mrs. Wilson, appealing to Dr. Browne; "he is always up till eleven, or so; and Miss Rachel, of course, wouldn't be home late."
"Miss Rachel," turned a look upon the speaker that ought to have withered her; but it did not seem to have any effect, for the servant's eyes were still fixed in the direction of Dr. Browne's, as if awaiting his decision.
"You had better have Barnes, my dear," he said to his daughter.
"No! I will not have Barnes," she answered, angrily. | | 20 "I can see myself home. I have said before that I do not wish for him."
"I think you had better, ma'am,' commenced Caroline.
"Mind your own business!" was her mistress's decisive reply, "and take those coffee-cups away.
One look from her vindictive eyes, and the woman muttering under her breath, did as she was desired, and left the room.
"Are you not rather hard upon Caroline, my love?" said Dr. Browne, afterwards, as the bonnie head he loved so well nestled up closely to him again; "you speak so harshly to her."
"I hate her," rejoined Rachel: "however, do not let us talk of it, papa darling. I'll make her over to you in toto; and the more she keeps out of my way the better I shall be pleased. Let me read to you, father, or sing to you; or what shall it be?"
"Sing, dear Rachel; get your guitar, and sing to me." And for some time afterwards nothing was heard in the quiet sitting-room but the clear, sweet notes of her girlish voice as they sounded through the stillness of approaching night.
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