- CHAPTER IX. ONE FLESH.
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SHE had been sitting with her back towards the verandah and the stranger's face, but as she heard his last words, Rachel rose tremblingly and confronted him. She had just assumed the mourning for her father, and as she stood before him, her slight figure looking slighter from her black apparel, her face, pale from the intelligence she had so suddenly heard, her waving chestnut hair all gathered behind her head in one large knot, Raymond Norreys could scarcely associate her appearance with the remembrance of the girl he had parted from, who had possessed the brightest of eyes and cheeks, and curling hair falling in tangled masses all about her shoulders.
But he had heard the news of Dr. Browne's death immediately upon his landing, and he knew this pale girl in mourning must he the wile he had thought of meeting so ardently and so long.
"Is this my wife?" he exclaimed, advancing towards her, "Rachel, dearest, don't you know me?"
She did not speak, or move one step to greet him. No! she had no recollection of this bright intelligent face which was looking so earnestly into hers—of those dark eyes beaming so affectionately upon her. She could only stare at him, struck with amazement, and feel that her husband was a stranger.
Cecil Craven had merely said, "This is Mrs. Norreys, sir. I will inform Mrs. Arundel of your arrival," before he had made his escape. He felt a scene was coming, and entertained, with most of his sex, a righteous horror for anything of the kind. He bore down upon Mrs. Arundel with the astounding news that Mrs. Norreys' husband had arrived, surprising that lady in a most unbecoming dressing-gown, which she had quickly to exchange again before she could appear to welcome the new comer.
"Go into the drawing-room as soon as you can," urged | | 93 Captain Craven, "or there'll be a row. Norreys looks a regular fire-eater, and Rachel is staring at him and saying nothing. Make haste, there's a good creature, and save her from it!"
"Save her from what?" demanded Mrs. Arundel in a sharp tone; for this solicitude for Rachel on Cecil Craven's part was anything but gratifying to her feelings. "You seem to forget, Craven, that the man is her husband. Rachel has made her bed, and she must lie on it. However, I will really go as soon as I have put on my dress again."
"Do," he rejoined; "for I dare not go back. I am off to the colonel's. Good-night!"
And in the meanwhile they—the husband and wife under discussion—had stood for some minutes and looked at one another. Raymond saw her tremor and distress, and attributed them at first chiefly to the adverse circumstances under which their re-union was taking place; but when she still remained silent, he repeated his question:—
"Don't you remember me, darling?—your own husband, whom you married in Littleton Church? Ah! Rachel, what a long, long time ago that seems!"
He drew nearer, and put his arms around her as he spoke, and she felt that she must say something, or tell him all by her silence. And so the faltering words dropped from her tongue:—
"Oh, I am so unhappy!"
"My dear One," he exclaimed, "I heard it all at the hotel just now. I am so sorry, dear Rachel! I wish to Heaven I could have been with you a week or two ago, that I might have comforted you through that sad time. My bird! it was hard you should be left alone to suffer; but, for my part, it could not have been otherwise. I only arrived in England a fortnight ago, and this was the first steamer that has left for the Rock since."
Still running on, thankful to have in his arms what he had so longed and hoped for, Raymond forgot to notice that no syllables of welcome or rejoicing fell from her tongue, and that she only shuddered in his embrance [sic] and was silent.
"How cold you are, dear," he said, kissing her as he spoke; "and why—how is this? You are trembling. Have | | 94 you been very unhappy without me all these weary years Rachel?—have you longed for me as I have longed for you? Well, never mind, they are over at last. You are not much altered, now I come to look at you, dear girl! You are pale and thin, but, please God, the change to England will set you up again, and I shall have my rose, a damask rose before the winter sets in."
But here he was interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Arundel. As her gracious "Mr. Norreys, I believe," was heard, Rachel turned with a cry from her husband's embrace, and rushed into the arms of her friend.
"Eh, bien chérie, qu'avez-vous?" demanded that lady, as she patted Rachel's bent head, with an air of reproach, and acknowledged Raymond Norreys' bow with another inclination of her own. "We are very pleased to see you, Mr. Norreys, though we scarcely expected you so soon. I think you have taken my little friend here rather too much by surprise. Now, Rachel, darling, show Mr. Norreys what a woman you can be, and go and pour out the coffee for me."
She had flown to the shelter of her friend's bosom, believing it to be a shelter. She did not like being spoken to as if she were a child, and driven thence as though she had no business there. She passed her hand proudly over her moistened eyes, and reared her stately young head and crossed the room to where the coffee equipage was laid out, her husband's eyes following her moving figure admiringly as she did so.
And then he commenced to thank Mrs. Arundel for her care of, and kindness to, his wife during his absence. Even in the midst of her hurry and distress, Rachel could not help pausing to admire the ease with which he chose his language, and the thorough-bred air which hung about him as he gracefully made this acknowledgment, impressing both his hearers as he did so, with the conviction that he considered himself the only one from whom such acknowledgment was due. Mrs. Arundel seemed wonderfully taken by Ms address. Her answers were most gracious. She was only too glad to have been of any use to dear Rachel, and she hoped that Mr. Norreys would consider himself their guest also until such | | 95 time as the regiment left Gibraltar, which, perhaps he had heard would be almost immediately.
Mr. Norreys was perfectly aware of it. "In fact," he continued, "we came along-side of the transport-steamer almost all the way, and only passed her this afternoon. She will anchor to-morrow morning."
"Then I shall consider you my guest until we start," said Mrs. Arundel, with her sweetest smile.
"You are very kind," returned Raymond Norreys, "but I could not think of putting you to such an inconvenience, and have already engaged rooms at the hotel. I dare say we shall be in England almost as soon as yourselves, for the mail-steamer is expected from Malta, I hear, in a few days."
Smash! Down came the coffee-cup from Rachel's unsteady hand, as the words left her husband's lips, and the next moment she sat down in the chair next to her, and began to cry bitterly.
"Oh! I must go in the transport," she said, vehemently; "I must go in the transport. I cannot go in the steamer. Oh, Elise! keep me with you."
They had both started from their seats as the noise of the falling china roused them, and were at her side together.
"Rachel, dearest, what is the matter?" exclaimed Raymond Norreys, his face all alight with love and anxiety to learn the reason of her sudden distress.
"Mr. Norreys, would you oblige me by calling the servant? he is probably only at the back of the house," said Mrs. Arundel, hastily; and then as Raymond rather unwillingly obeyed her behest, she added in a lower and angry tone to Rachel—"Rachel! what are you making such a fool of yourself for? Do you want to let the whole station know that you have a penchant for Cecil Craven? I gave you credit for greater sense. I feel quite ashamed of you. Come, rouse yourself."
The remedy was harsh, but effectual, and no second dose of it was needed. Rachel started at her friend's insinuation. The words "for shame" burst from her own indignant lips; and then she rose, shook off the touch of Mrs. Arundel's hand, and dried her eyes. When her husband returned, she was looking herself again, and he thought no more of the little outburst.| | 96
After all, it was but natural she should wish to go with her old friends—very natural and very proper; but he would soon make her forget the loss of them. But she seemed never to have realized until now what the coming back of this unknown husband would prove to her; it had certainly never struck her mind until that moment, when the coffee-cup cell, that all her hopes of returning to England with the dear old 3rd were like it—smashed. Of course she could with them now. She would have possessed no right to a passage before, though, left alone as she was, they would have accorded her one through courtesy. But now, with a husband to look after and provide for her, there would be no such excuse. The disappointment was bitter; but still more so was the thought that Elise, and at such a time, could use unkind words towards her. She might feel for her; she, who knew all. And she had said something, also, that Rachel found still more difficult to forget or forgive. She had coupled her name with Cecil Craven's in a manner which forbade her keeping silence on the subject any more. And as the young wife sat a little apart by herself, musing gloomily on these things, Mrs. Arundel was trying to make her defection pass unobserved by Raymond Norreys, or she appeared to be doing so. She attempted excuses for Rachel to Rachel's husband which galled the young man's spirit, and made him like his wife's bosom friendless than he had done at first. She hinted at her having several friends in the regiment to whom she was very much attached, and, consequently, it distressed her to leave them, even for such a happy occasion as the present. What friends? Mr. Norreys had imagined that Mrs. Arundel was herself his wife's most intimate lady friend.
Oh! lady friend! Yes, certainly, so she was, but there were others—. Now, Mr. Norreys mustn't look so shocked, for it was nothing out of the common way; they, ladies in foreign stations, did very dreadful things sometimes, there was no doubt, and went the length of making friends of gentlemen occasionally, but then just consider the lack of female society in such places; that must be their excuse.
Had Mrs. Arundel, then, any such very intimate gentlemen friends herself? Now, who said very? Ah! she saw | | 97 Mr. Norreys was a very dangerous man to toll secrets to, and she must be careful what she said. But would she answer his question? Well, then, no! perhaps she had not; but consider the difference in their positions. She had a husband to look after her, and children to engage her attention. (Here Mrs. Arundel's face assumed the pensive and tender maternal expression which it always wore when speaking of her children to strangers.)
Ah! Mr. Norreys little knew how a mother's time was taken up. Dear Rachel might know some day, and she would find she had very little to spare for anything else then. Now, Mr. Norreys must not go and make more out of what she had said than was really meant, or fancy her "chère petite" was light or frivolous. She was very fond of Rachel, devotedly so; that was, perhaps, why she scolded her oftener than she had need to do. Oh, she was a dear creature! A sweet girl! Such a general favourite! Quite the pet of the regiment! They should miss her terribly in the 3rd when she was gone. And such a spirit! Might Mrs. Arundel suggest to Mr. Norreys to be very gentle and lenient with her at first? Her poor father had indulged her very much, there was no doubt. If he had not——well, well, it was of no use talking now about what might have been, was it? and Mr. Norreys must think no more of anything she had said than he would of any other woman's chatter. They were privileged nuisances, were they not? with a deprecatory smile, which was intended as a challenge for her hearer to commence a fierce denial of the charge. But, privileged or not, Raymond felt Mrs. Arundel to be so thorough a nuisance at that particular moment that he had not the conscience to deny her affirmation. He had been very restless under the last half of her harangue. He had fidgeted on his chair, and turned his eyes a dozen times to where Rachel sat upon the sofa with drooping head, and wrapt in earnest thought. He did not admire being recommended by this fat, fair lady whom he had only known an hour, to be gentle and tender to his young wife. He, who had flown to Gibraltar, burning with love for her; only anxious to be allowed to make her life's happiness by his own devotion. He, who was now only restlessly awaiting the moment when he should get her by | | 98 herself, and see all the shy timidity she now displayed, charmingly provoking as it was, melt away beneath her wish to make him fully understand how much she loved him. So he replied rather curtly to Mrs. Arundel's hints and entreaties, and ended by summarily producing his watch, and remarking aloud that it was past ten, and he thought it was time that they should go. He had a hired carriage waiting for them at the gate, and perhaps Mrs. Arundel would kindly permit what luggage his wife could not take with her to remain until the evening, when he would send for it.
Mrs. Arundel was agreeable to everything, and Rachel, who had been roused from her reverie by the colloquy, stood up, and prepared to seek her room, closely followed by her friend. But as they found themselves alone, Mrs. Arundel was startled by Rachel turning round with sudden warmth, and asking her the direct question—
"Elise, what did you mean by saying I have a penchant for Cecil Craven?"
"Just what I said, darling," laughed Mrs. Arundel, merrily; "you have a penchant for dear Craven, have you not? you likehim?"
"Yes; but from the manner you said it, one would have thought——"
Rachel was silent.
"Come, dear girl," added Mrs. Arundel, coaxingly, "you are fighting with shadows to-night. I spoke harshly, I am aware, because I didn't know what you might be going to say next, and every one might not view your little fancies in the same light that I do; but I did it with the best intentions, Rachel, otherwise you might have made a scene, and Mr. Norreys angry. Whatever you may think of your husband, my dear, never let him know it—that's the only safe rule in married life. Those things in the bag will be quite enough for to-night, Rachel, and I will send on the boxes tomorrow. Adio, carissima! and don't be a goose."
And this was all the parting comfort her bosom friend had to give her; this was the sum total of the advice—the hope and the assurance that Rachel received in this the hour of, perhaps, her sorest need. As soon as she had re-entered the | | 99 drawing-room, her husband took the bag from her, and, shaking hands with Mrs. Arundel, drew Rachel's arm within his own, and led her down to the carriage which was waiting for them.
"I don't much like your friend, Rachel," he commenced to say, as they began their journey to the hotel, but the rattling of the wheels, and the jolting down the steep hill was so great, that it made conversation almost impossible. So Raymond tried another means of communication, and essayed to take her hand within his own, but Rachel drew it away nervously, and shrunk into the further corner of the vehicle, so he said and did no more until they had arrived at their destination.
But then, when they found themselves in a well-lighted and comfortable private room, and screened from all observation; he, first removing with the tenderest care her hat and cloak, took both her hands in his own, and bringing her before him in such a position that he could not fail to see her face, he said—
"Now, my little girl, we are alone at last; and you will no longer be too shy to tell me that you love me, and are glad to see me back again."
But she turned her head rather to one side, and looked away from him without a word.
"Rachel," said the young husband again, and rather hurriedly, "tell me that you love me, dearest, or only look it, if you will not speak. I have come a long way to procure the happiness of hearing those words a few days earlier."
But still there was no answer. A lie rose once to her trembling lips, but was choked back again, by the force of habitual truth in her heart, and she was silent. Then he grew alarmed, and half angry.
"For heaven's sake, speak!" he said, releasing her hands from his, and pacing the room hastily; "say something, if only to tell me I have deceived myself; Rachel, do you love me, or do you not?"
"How can you expect it?" she said in a low tone.
"My God!" exclaimed Raymond Norreys—and, for a moment, said no more. But then, he added passionately, "How can I expect it? I expect it by the love in my own heart, which has been faithful to your image through five | | 100 long years. I expect it by the oath you swore at the altar to keep to me—and me only."
"I have kept to you," she replied, slowly.
"Yes; in the letter, I conclude so: if you had not——he exclaimed, and a dark expression passed over his face as he said the words, that showed there was blood within him that could be dangerous if need be; "but it is idle to speak of such a contingency: I had hoped for more than that from you, Rachel! I have longed for this hour—I have prayed for it. I have even wept for it, and I hold my much-desired future in my grasp this day, only to hear you ask how I can expect that you should love me!"
"Raymond!" said Rachel, gaining courage to speak from the exhibition of his despair; "Raymond, you married me, a child, not knowing what I liked or did not like. You left me for five years to grow a woman, with tastes maturing every day, and fancies changing. You left me to forget even your features. Before heaven!" she said, as passionately as himself, "if you had not spoken your name this night, I should have received you as a stranger. How can you expect to have a woman's love from a woman you have never won?"
He groaned audibly as she said the words.
"I was a fool to expect it," he replied, "a fool to cherish a man's love for you. Is it possible you have quite forgotten what you once felt for me?"
"Forgotten it!" she exclaimed, her old excitement lighting up her face, and making her appear twice as charming in her husband's eyes as she had done yet; "I tell you I had forgotten even your features. You stand before me now as a newly-made acquaintance. Judge, if I can welcome you as a husband should be welcomed. "Forgotten!" she repeated, bitterly; "I have often wished that I could have forgotten that I lived. I have dreaded your return for months past. I have hoped and prayed against what you say you prayed for. I wonder why I tell you this! I had no intention of telling it until you pressed me! It has come—and I know there is no escape for me—I have left those I do love, and accompanied you here to be your wife. I shall try to do my duty to you, Raymond, but do not demand | | 101 more from me. You cannot force me to love you; don't make me do the other thing. You asked me for the truth, and you have it. I do not love youߞI do not believe i ever shall."
But the last words were added in a lower key, and almost inaudibly.
"Rather a bitter truth!" he replied, with a dash of sarcasm in his calmness which was very sad to listen to; "rather a bitter truth! but I thank you for it, Rachel, all the same. Perhaps it is better I should know the worst at once than that my wife should play the hypocrite to me. But you mistake if you imagine that I am a man to take the letter from you without the spirit of your duty. It is true that I could claim you for my wife if I chose to do it: that I came here so to claim you; but the casket would be worth little to me, Rachel, without the jewel of your love. I married you when you were far too young (God forgive me for the unintentional wrong I did you!), and I see now the mistake I made, and that if I had waited to woo you now, you would probably with your maturer taste have never been won by me. But the mistake was made, and it is irremediable. You have lived too long under the protection of my name for us to separate without bringing a great scandal upon it and you, which I am naturally anxious to avoid. (Besides which, what would you do, poor child! alone, as you now are in the world, without a protector of some sort?) Therefore, let me still protect you, Rachel, with the name of husband; let me still have the gratification of feeling that I am near you, to contribute to your comfort, I hope, and certainly to your convenience, and I will ask for nothing more——"
She started, blushed crimson, and looked towards him doubtingly.
"Do not fear to misapprehend my meaning," he said, gently; "we are at least so far one in interests, that I may speak plainly to you. When your poor father (he is fortunate not to have lived to see this day)——"
"Oh, I thank God that he didn't!" interrupted the girl, midst heavy tears.
"When your father sanctioned our marriage, Rachel, it was on this condition—that I went to sea for another cruise, | | 102 and did not claim my wife until I returned from it; it might have been only three years—it has proved to be five. Weary years they have been to me, and would have been still wearier, doubtless, could I have guessed what waited to greet me at their close; but we will not speak of that again. You did not wish to wound me, I am sure; and truth, however hard, is dearer to me, at any time, than a specious lie. But your father would never have permitted our imprudent marriage to remain disannulled had he imagined that when I returned to claim my wife she would have learned to hate me."
Here her hands went up, as if in feeble remonstrance or denial of the charge, but he took no notice of them.
"Therefore I will not claim you as my wife until you love me as he thought you would. I will never claim you, Rachel, until you come of your own free will, and put those dear hands in mine, and tell me with your eyes, which I feel are honest, and could not look a lie, that I am the one man in all the world whom you would choose to be your husband. And I will wait patiently, and believe, until death robs me of the hope, that that day may be shining for me, in the future, even now! If I could do more for you, poor girl!" he added, sorrowfully, "I would, but that is, I am afraid, impossible—only believe that I am willing to do as much as I can; and look upon me, Rachel, as a friend—as a brother, if you will; and do not be afraid lest I shall mistake your friendship (if you can give it me) for love, and take advantage of it. And be assured that in all things I shall only seek your comfort as their end, and especially in this—that what has passed between us this night be kept a secret for ourselves alone. It will be best so; will it not?"
"Much best," she answered through her sobs.
"And one thing more, Rachel," he said, as he drew nearer to her: "try to be, happy, my dear, as far as in you lies; and do not let mo think that I have been the means of destroying all that makes life bearable for us both."
And as she raised her eyes to try to thank him for his generous forbearance, they encountered his, and his were full of tears.
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