- CHAPTER XVIII. RACHEL GETS THE WORST OF IT.
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RACHEL GETS THE WORST OF IT.
RACHEL NORREYS had been a month in England, and August had faded into September, as she stood one afternoon with an opened letter in her hand, watching apparently for some one's return from the dining-room window of Abbey Lodge. She had altered, since we saw her last, though it was difficult at first to determine where the difference lay. Certainly, she had grown stouter, and her cheeks were no longer pale; but change was not in these; it showed itself more in the expression of her face, which had lost its look of discontent and weariness, and gained, instead, one of restless anxiety, which appeared never to allow her to remain quiet. Even as she now stood, alone and unoccupied, the least noise made her cheeks change colour, her head turn, and a nervous action (which was a characteristic of the girl's temperament) observable in her hands. Her beautiful hazel eyes had regained much of their former vivacity, although they could look very soft at times still, and a smile was far oftener seen now upon her arched and dewy lips than a frown upon her brow; for, in a few words, Rachel was far happier at Abbey Lodge than she had ever anticipated being, and she was of too generous a nature to deny the fact, even in her looks. Her sister-in-law and herself were great friends; it was quite impossible to resist the frank, arch playfulness of Christine, nor to avoid catching the infection of her unvarying cheerfulness and good-humour. She would not allow Rachel to be depressed or melancholy; she charmed her out of all such moods by her affectionate persuasion and light-hearted view of trouble. And for all her sister-in-law's short-comings with regard to those inexorable, hard-hearted bells that would ring so precisely to time, and attention to the various rules laid down by Mrs. Norreys for the edification and distraction of her household, Christine ever had a valid excuse, and was found ready to stand as mediatrix between the offender and offended. In fact, she was nobly carrying out a certain promise extracted from her by her brother in the dusk of a | | 196 summer's evening. With the old lady Rachel did not get on quite so well, though the fact of her being "Raymond's" wife was sufficient to shield her from more than an occasional mild hint, or a starched and frozen greeting when the trespass had been very flagrant, and often repeated: but she could not help fancying that Mrs. Norreys knew more than she chose Raymond and herself to be aware of; that she guessed at the reserve between them, and that she attributed her son's frequent absence to its real cause—that he was not on the terms that he should be with his young wife. And this surmise, true or otherwise, made Rachel more shy with her mother-in-law than she would have been, and created a barrier between them. But she could not be reserved with Christine; the nature of the daughter of the house was too sunny to permit of it. She had no idea that anything was wrong between her brother and his wife (her mother was scarcely likely to canvass her own opinions on the subject with so young a woman), and they suited each other exactly. And under her influence, Rachel had parted with the resolution she had come to not to accept her sister-in-law's affection until she had claimed that of her husband. She had parted with several opinions which she had then considered bigoted, since the evening that she crouched against the door of her husband's room, although the phantoms that frequented her path that night had encountered no higher power to lay them, and frequented it still. She no longer feared to sleep in her haunted bed, and laughed within herself at the remembrance of the terror she had experienced, and yet she often laid herself down upon it with a sigh. For if she had acknowledged the folly of some of her determinations, Raymond had not followed her example. He still maintained the character he had assumed from the first day that he brought his wife home to Abbey Lodge. He rose daily from his uneasy rest upon the little sofa in his room, apparently in the most buoyant of spirits, met Rachel at the breakfast-table armed with laughter and mirth-provoking jests—went about all his business in the same light-hearted manner—spent his evenings, sometimes nearly all his days, abroad, and returning to the Lodge in the same mood that he went, would treat Rachel as if she was a young lady staying in the house, and nothing more. The | | 197 girl could not understand his present course of action. He never lowered his voice when speaking to her now; he never sighed or looked intensely grave; or if he did so, she neither heard nor saw him. Occasionally he would pay her a compliment on the improvement in her looks, just such a foolish, empty compliment as he might have paid to any chance partner at a ball, and this style of address aggravated his wife more than any other.
"Why, Rachel," he would exclaim, on first encountering her in the morning, "how blooming you look! I told you England would suit you far better than Gibraltar; or have you been expending my substance on rouge? No! really not? Then I must be a very lucky fellow to have a wife with a pair of cheeks like that, mustn't I?" And when she would say, perhaps in a tone of entreaty, "Don't, Raymond," he would, provokingly reply, "I had no intention of kissing you, my dear; don't be alarmed;" and send Rachel flying back to her bedroom to disperse the traces of her indignation (and occasionally of her tears) before she encountered the searching glances of her mother-in-law.
She would throw her thoughts back sometimes to the day when they first met at Gibraltar, and the conversation which had taken place between them at that time. Had her husband quite forgotten it, and the story of his faithful love that he had told her then? She could not believe so, and yet it seemed as if he had. A dozen times a day she caught herself wondering at his behaviour, and quite unable to account for it. She wondered where he went when he passed his evenings away from home; who he saw and associated with, and what he did. She wondered if he really admired and loved her still, or whether he had contrived already to bury all such feelings, and had even forgotten, in so short a time, that once they were.
She wondered if it had been her behaviour alone that had worked such a sudden and mighty change in Raymond, and conscience whispered that it was. She wondered sometimes if it would last for ever: if all her life was to be spent in company with such indifference; and when this last wonderment came into her heart, her face would redden with a woman's shame at being slighted, and her teeth would set | | 198 themselves upon the nervous lip beneath them. Raymond had certainly succeeded in awakening her curiosity, but what feeling respecting him would next sway her bosom seemed as yet a dead uncertainty.
She was watching for him on the afternoon on which she is re-introduced to the reader, although, perhaps, she would scarcely have acknowledged the fact. She had just received a visit from Cecil Craven, who was the bearer of a letter from his mother, inviting herself and her husband to stay at the Court, and the thought of the visit having unsettled her, she felt anxious to have the matter decided. Major Craven, during a long interview, spent with her alone, had so entreated, and coaxed, and persuaded her to induce her husband to accept his mother's invitation, that she had half promised him that she would do her best to comply with his request. And now she was not sure that she had been right in saying so, and she wanted Raymond to come back and put his veto against any such proceeding, and permit her to feel that she was following his wishes and her own at the same moment; for Rachel dreaded the idea of such a visit. For reasons best known to herself, she shrunk from its fulfilment, and had Cecil Craven been less regarded by her than he was, she would never have allowed him to talk her over as much as he had done. But anxious for her company himself, he had been traitor enough to hold out the fact of Mrs. Arundel's proximity to the Court, as a further inducement to allure Rachel under the shadow of his mother's roof. In the meanwhile she felt tolerably easy about the matter; Raymond appeared so little interested now in anything that concerned herself, he seemed to care so little for her society, or her wishes, that it was easy to conjecture that he would resist the idea of giving up his town amusements and companions to accompany his wife upon a visit in the country. She was so busy ruminating upon his past and present conduct, and the probabilities of the issue of his decision upon the project in question, that some one entered the room before she had been aware of a footstep in the hall. She turned quickly as she heard it, and encountered the (to her) uninteresting physiognomy of Mr. Alexander Macpherson. This young gentleman and Rachel had not taken kindly to one another. She | | 199 was very quick at reading character, and the selfishness, causeless jealousy, and ill temper of poor Christine's fiancé, combined with his obstinacy in any argument which related to his native land, had impressed her unfavourably from the first, and she had often secretly compared his conduct (and at a great disadvantage) with that of another gentleman of her acquaintance.
He, on his part, had also felt a want of attraction towards Rachel, but this feeling arose, not from any ill qualities he had observed in her, so much as from the jealousy he experienced at the interest that Christine appeared to take in her new sister, and Rachel's fascinations, both of mind and person, had formed the subject of many a drawn battle between the engaged pair, ever since the former had set foot in Abbey Lodge. If Christine ventured, in Rachel's absence, to admire the colour of her eyes or hair, or to make a remark upon her singing or conversation, Mr. Macpherson was ready to affirm that her eyes were not hazel, but brown—a common every-day brown—and Christine might call Mrs. Raymond's hair chestnut if she liked, but if his opinion had been asked upon the subject, he should have pronounced it plain red, and nothing else.
"But your opinion has not been asked," Christine would cry; "and if Rachel's hair is red, you ought to admire it all the more, since red is the favourite Scotch colour." Then her lover's face would inflame, and his eyes grow perfectly round, as he attempted to imbue the mind of his hearer with the fact that there was no more red hair in Scotland than in either of the sister countries, and that what Christine termed so, ho supposed, was something of the same colour as what he bore on his own head. And Christine would answer slily that Alick's hair was a little red, now she came to look at it; but, at all events, he would allow that there was not the slightest resemblance between his and that of her sister-in-law.
"Always your sister-in-law," Mr. Macpherson would exclaim. "I never can come in here now for a quiet talk with you, Christine, but you are close closeted with Mrs. Raymond Norreys, talking secrets; or she comes, or your brother does, and sits in. the room with us; and if by happy chance | | 200 they are both absent, you indulge me with a list of their various perfections; you seem to think of nothing else."
"I am sure that's not true," the girl would answer, as she drew nearer to her offended lover, and laid her frank, warm clasp in his. "There is one person, I think of a great deal more, Alick; but you cannot expect, dear, with Raymond and Rachel staying in the house, that we should be as often alone as when there was no one but mamma to interrupt us. You would not have them banished from the sitting-rooms, would you?"
"No; but you need not be appealing to Mrs. Norreys' opinion upon every subject, or running after your brother each time he leaves the room."
"That is not my custom, Alick," Christine would answer, proudly; "you are unfair."
"There you go, wanting to pick a quarrel with me again, Christine. I never hear you attack your new friends after that fashion. I believe you like them better than you do me. I suppose you are tired of me."
Christine was so used to give in in everything to the man before her, to consult his wishes, and to wait upon his will, that her mother, reared in a stricter school for propriety, was wont to say that she went too far sometimes, and that her assiduity to give him pleasure was unmaidenly. Christine did not mind such rebukes: she loved Alick Macpherson, and she liked to prove to him that she did so, by acquiescing in all he said or wished; but after that—knowing that as she did, it was hard to hear him speak as he had done, and bear it patiently; and patience was not one of Miss Norreys' virtues.
"That is not true," she would exclaim, "and you know it, Alick." And then one of the pitched battles I have alluded to would commence, and end by Mr. Macpherson jumping up and leaving the house, and Christine seeking the shelter of her own room in which to indulge her tears.
"And for such a little thing," she would repeat, despondently, after each fresh outbreak on her lover's part; "our quarrels always seem to spring from nothing at all. I suppose I must be the one in the wrong; but Alick appears to me to come now-a-days armed with contradiction for everything one says. I will be more patient next time; I will | | 201 listen to everything and not answer a word, and then it will be impossible for him to fall out with me." And she would make fierce resolutions on the subject, only to break them the next time Mr. Macpherson appeared and re-commenced his system of petty and uncalled-for reproach.
Rachel had found her weeping once or twice, and easily drew the reason from her; and—
"What shall I do, dear Rachel?" Christine would question through her tears.
"Do?" the other had exclaimed, indignantly. "Get up and leave the room next time he begins any of his nonsense; and if he chooses to leave the house, write and tell him he need not trouble himself to return. Fancy allowing a man to give himself such airs!"
But poor Christine would look so horrified at the bare idea of treating her promised lord and master in such a nonchalant fashion, that Rachel saw that it was not very likely her sister-in-law would put her seasonable advice into effect.
Therefore, on the afternoon in question, when Rachel turned at the sound of the opening of the door, and only saw Mr. Macpherson before her, she made a gesture of impatience, and said, rather curtly—
"I thought you were Raymond."
"Did you, Mrs. Norreys?" he replied. "Well, you can lay by your disappointment for another time, because he is just behind me. We arrived together."
But hearing that her husband was close at hand appeared to be sufficient for Rachel, for her manner changed instantaneously from anxiety to one of indifference, and she left the window and was seated, and affecting to make herself agreeable to Mr. Macpherson by the time that Raymond followed him into the room. Of the entrance of the latter she appeared not to take the slightest notice, though a close observer might have observed a certain nervous twitching of the lips which were addressing their conversation to Mr Macpherson.
"Such a lovely day, has it not been? Did you only arrive just now? Have you seen Christine yet?"
"No, I have not," he replied. "Here is your husband, Mrs. Norreys, if you want to speak to him."| | 202
"She is in her bedroom, working," said Rachel, continuing the subject of her sister-in-law, "or was, when I last saw her. Shall I call her for you, Mr. Macpherson?"
He was quite taken aback by her unusual politeness, and stammered out something about having come to dinner, and begging her not to disturb Miss Norreys on his account. But Rachel swept past him and Raymond, and left the room without vouchsafing a look to the latter, although he had been absent since the morning.
It was nearly time to dress for dinner, and she did not meet her husband again until the whole party had assembled in the dining-room. Then there appeared no difference between his behaviour to her and that of Alick Macpherson; he might have been a gallant, attentive friend, and nothing more.
The conversation at dessert turned upon the subject of honour. There had been a question about it relative to some act of an acquaintance of the Norreyses, and the topic was freely commented upon by the whole party.
"But, after all, what is honour?" exclaimed Raymond Norreys. "What one man calls by that name his neighbour denounces as dishonourable; and if we attend to the laws that society has framed for us in that respect, we shall never arrive at a satisfactory solution of the question."
Mr. Macpherson was about to prove, by some irrefragable argument of his own, that the only true and reliable code was the one that Scotchmen are guided by, when Rachel forestalled his intention of speaking.
"Surely," she said, and as if she appreciated her opportunity, for she admired her husband's powers of argument, and liked to draw him into a discussion, "that must be honour, Raymond, which each one of our consciences can assure ourselves in any case is the most straightforward, the wisest, and the best course to pursue."
"Not always," he replied. "An action may be perfectly open, very wise, and the best thing possible for ourselves, and yet very dishonourable towards another person."
"I don't understand you," she said, quickly.
The rest of the party, seemed as interested as herself in the discussion, and waited eagerly for Raymond's answer.| | 203
"We cannot measure honour by the estimate of the world," he replied. "A man who has engaged himself to marry a girl is called 'dishonourable' if he breaks his faith with her; whereas he may have ascertained, from sounding his own feelings on the subject, that to fulfil his promise by marriage would be not only foolish, and the worst thing he could do, but a deliberate act of deception, by misleading the woman as to the amount of regard he entertains for her. In such an instance, Rachel, your ideas on the subject would not hold good."
"I see they would not," she answered.
"If a woman leaves the protection of a husband she does not profess to love, she is esteemed ' dishonourable;' but if the same woman remained at home to plague his life out of him, her conduct would pass muster with the world, although she took refuge beneath the very bond which she knew he could not sever, and turned it into a scorpion to sting him."
But righteous Mrs. Norreys became horrified at the turn the conversation was taking.
"My dearest Raymond," she exclaimed, "you surely would not advocate, under any circumstances, a rupture of the nuptial tie?"
"The woman who has sworn before God to love, honour, and obey the man she marries," continued her son, taking no notice of her interruptive question, "may give him only half what she promises, or a quarter, or none; but as long as she stays beneath his roof the world dubs her an honourable wife. But she cheats him, nevertheless; and I have never heard that cheating comes under the head of an honourable action. Does it agree with your interpretation of the word, Rachel?"
He looked her full in the face as he put the question, and she could not return his glance or answer him; and she was most thankful when she heard the clear, untroubled voice of Christine, raised in a playful rebuke.
"What nonsense you talk, Raymond! As if any one ever thought cheating honourable!"
"Well, I don't know," he rejoined; "I daresay there are plenty of such cheats in the world, who think themselves true men and women."| | 204
"Now my idea is, that real honour is embodied in the precept to render to every one his due."
It was Mrs. Norreys who had spoken, and Raymond answered her.
"Bravo, mother! I believe you have hit the right nail on the head, after all. ' To every one his due.' But, then, people have such different ideas upon the subject."
The dinner was concluded, and as he spoke the ladies rose to leave the table, thereby greatly disappointing Mr, Macpherson, who had been silently preparing a most eloquent speech upon the matter in question, and had already been baulked more than once of putting his ideas into words. As Raymond held the door open for the ladies he tried hard to gain a peep at Rachel's face, to see what effect his words may have had upon her; but she passed him with downcast eyes, and there was no sign to be gathered from the long glories of her lowered lashes.
"What! going out again to-night, Raymond?" exclaimed Christine, reproachfully, half-an-hour later, as Mr. Macpherson, having returned to the drawing-room, she descried her brother in the hall, equipped evidently for an evening stroll. " If I were Rachel, I would not allow you so much liberty."
Raymond made no reply. He was busily employed lighting his cigar by the hall-lamp, and it was a work requiring skill. His wife was descending the staircase at the time: she did not make any remark upon his proposed absence, but, coming forward, said—
"Raymond, Major Craven was here this afternoon, and brought me a letter from his mother, asking us to go and stay at the Court as soon as we conveniently could. What answer shall I send?"
"Say we'll go," he replied, with his mouth full of cigar.
"I don't particularly wish to go," faltered Rachel.
"Oh, nonsense!—why not? Nice change for you. I should like to see Craven Court. Accept, by all means."
"Really—are you serious?" she asked, earnestly.
"Certainly. What is your objection to the plan?"
"Oh, I have none—that is, none in particular—I do not much care," she replied, with a degree of hesitation. He | | 205 saw she did not like the idea; but not to humour her was one of the rules he had laid down for himself, and so he said, with apparent indifference—
"Well, if you don't care, I do. I should like it above all things; so consider it settled. We will fix the time to-morrow. Au revoir"
And Raymond sauntered out of her presence and the house, as if in all the world he had not a care to trouble him, his cigar between his lips, his whole appearance one of unstudied content.
And she looked after his retreating figure as the hall-door slammed behind him, with her eyes fixed and her hands fast clasped together; and when he had vanished she gave one deep, long sigh, and then, half-frightened lest it had been overheard, fled back to the drawing-room and its company.
And Raymond, having slammed the door and skirted the covered pathway, turned before he passed through the iron gates, and paused a moment as he looked towards the lighted house. Where and to whom were his thoughts wandering as he cast that farewell upward glance? Did he long, as he did so, that his place also were there, inside that cheerful house, instead of in the stranger night, seeking false amusements to keep up the show of falser pride. Any way, if it existed, he did not follow up his wish, for another second saw him in the crowded thoroughfare, and of the crowd, as the woman he thought of tried to make herself agreeable in his mother's drawing-room. She had no heart when there to reply to her sister-in-law's playful banter on her husband's absence, and threats that he was already tired of her. She had no spirit to play or sing; and what she managed to accomplish in that way was fiat, tame, and unprofitable. Her thoughts were too much with the letter in her pocket, and the wonderful idea, which she could not yet bring home to herself, that she was really going to pay a visit to Craven Court. For though she had made a private resolution against any such proceeding, she did not clearly see her way to carry out what she knew to be best and most prudent. She had no reasonable excuse to give Raymond for her dislike to the projected plan; indeed, apparently there was every cause existent why she should welcome the renewing of her intercourse with | | 206 friends who had been formerly so kind to her. Therefore since she might not speak, and could not lie, Rachel felt that the proposed visit was a part of her fate, and that, as it was impossible to avoid it, she must meet it as best she could. But how to meet it occupied all her thoughts; and wrapt in imaginary scenes and conversations, she was so lost in reveries all the evening, that Mr. Macpherson must have been amply satisfied, this night at least, with the non-interference of his flirtations with Christine. And Rachel, for her part, was equally glad when the prayer-bell startled her from her half-waking trance, and announced the approach of the time when she might retire to the solitude of her own room. But once there, she did not seem inclined to seek her bed. Having exchanged her evening attire for a loose dressing-gown, she rather appeared settling herself for an interrupted perusal of one of the novels which young ladies are so fond of studying at unearthly hours—late at night and early in the morning; for with her loosened hair in shaken masses down her shoulders, and her pretty little feet, thrust into coquettish red slippers, hoisted on another chair, Rachel sat herself down, close by her dressing-table, and commenced to read;—not so attentively though, that the least sound in the now silent house could not fail to attract her notice; but none such came for nearly an hour more. Then a slight metallic noise was distinguishable below, as the pass-key that had opened the iron gates did the same office for the oaken door, and Raymond's footstep sounded in the hall.
Rachel laid down her book as it reached her ear, hastily blew out her candles, and coloured painfully, although but in the dark. She heard it mount the stairs, pause for one little moment next her door, and then pass onward to the dressing-room. She did not move or make the smallest stir, but sat there almost breathless, quite unoccupied, except in intently watching the ray of light which now found its way between the crevices of the partition which divided them. When that was gone—and Raymond Norreys, with a man's promptitude, did not take long to undress, she rose, first leaving her slippers on the floor, and commenced to grope her way towards—her bed?—No! towards the door which parted her room from Raymond's! She seemed to know her | | 207 way there well, too, as she placed one naked foot before the other noiselessly upon the steps which led to it. And when she reached it, Rachel did not pause, but placed her arched, red lips—those fresh lips which Raymond had never yet dared to claim—upon the door, and sighing, "God bless you, Raymond!" left a kiss upon the hard unyielding wood, to consecrate her blessing. Ah! if he could but have seen and heard that which was being acted so near him, how much unhappiness it might have spared them both! But Raymond was—if not already asleep—too unsuspecting and too drowsy to have caught so soft a whisper, and Rachel crept to her bed with an echo of her blessing on her lips, and slept beneath its influence till the morning.
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