- CHAPTER XXI. MR. NORTHLAND BECOMES PARTICULAR.
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MR. NORTHLAND BECOMES PARTICULAR.
NO, she did not lie, although, until that moment when the question was asked her so abruptly, Rachel had had no knowledge of the truth. But she knew now why she felt Raymond's indifference to her so bitterly, and doubly bitter it became after the discovery; she knew why she trembled and shuddered at his approach, and had thought the agitation came from the same feelings of aversion which she had entertained for him upon their first acquaintance. She knew—she felt she loved him; and knowing that, how far more lovable did he appear in her enlightened eyes. Filled with the sunshine that had burst in upon her soul, she began to fear lest Raymond should read by it her heart as plainly as she did herself; and, fearing so, became more timid in his presence than she had ever been before. But Mrs. Craven knew nothing of all this. When Rachel's assurance to her that she loved her husband, breaking so honestly and fervently from her lips, sounded on the ears of Cecil's mother, she raised her eyes to Heaven, and returned thanks. Her fears were thenceforth at an end for both of them, and the widow must have been in the right when she said that the young married couple seemed happy enough together now. She asked no more confidences from her young guest; she had learnt all that concerned herself and hers. Rachel loved her husband, and Cecil loved Lady Frances, and the grief of the former was a daughter's filial grief for the loss of a father, and time would cure it as it did all things. The elder lady rose from that interview restored to her former cheerfulness, and ready to go through all the necessary preparations for the grand dinner and dance to be given during the ensuing week; the younger one flew to her own room, afraid lest she had said too much, or that what she had disclosed, however trivial, might find its way back to the ears of Raymond; and overpowered with the burthen of this new delicious secret, which, while it oppressed her with remorse and shame for her past conduct, opened such delicious glimpses of a happy | | 235 life in the future before her eyes, that she could not but love the lovely fancy, and hug it rapturously to her breast.
But then the thought would flash across her mind, that some day she would have to tell Raymond of the change in her own feelings (for with her happiness came the longing to make him happy also), and she would shrink from the idea, and blush crimson, even if by herself, at the bare fancy of having to do such a thing. Sometimes she argued that she must write it; but oh—not yet—not for a very long time to come! And then she would compose the words, in which to tell her husband that she would be his wife; and suddenly remembering that he had said he would have it from her mouth alone, and read the truth of the assertion in her eyes—would thrust away the notion of telling it at all, as if she had been called upon to disclose her secret in a public crowd.
At other moments she was still more deeply despondent than before, and would cry to herself in the night that Raymond loved her once—he used to love her; but by her coldness she had killed such feelings in his heart, and that till they died they must be friends, and nothing more. And as she recalled his looks, his words, his smiles upon that first day that they met, and several occasions subsequently, and compared them with the cool and caustic manner in which he now behaved to her, she would really believe that she had been the means of uprooting anything like affection for herself from his breast, and that thenceforth it would be barren. Or he might love another—such things had been; and at the thought, Rachel would turn upon her solitary pillow and moan; whilst she felt that in such an awful contingency she could have strength and courage to rush between them, and thrust her, that other hateful, hated, ideal woman away from Raymond's clasp, whilst she told him, with tears of contrition, that she loved him—him only—better than all the world beside. But would he hear her then, even if she knelt at his feet or grovelled in the earth before him? Would it not be too late And then poor Rachel would be even for hurrying into his presence in her nightdress, as she was, and confessing then and there her sin before him, until false shame and pride, and the very vigour itself of the new | | 236 love she had given birth to, would force her back into her bed, to pass the remainder of the night in tears and dreadful wonderment how this would end. But how much at this period of her life the girl needed the advice and counsel of a man like Raymond, and sometimes even his protection, the incident which follows will substantiate!
It was the afternoon on which the dance and dinner-party were to be given at Craven Court, and Rachel, acting up to the wish which she continued to exhibit for solitude, had wandered away from the house into the shady shrubberies. Grand old shrubberies they were that surrounded the Court, thick with verdure of many years' growth, and laid out with beautifully kept gravel-paths that were never permitted to become green from moss and damp, or strewn with a carpet of dead leaves. Here and there at intervals, were little winding paths leading away from the principal walk, and up to unexpected grassy knolls, crowned by benches, backed by trees, and looking over the deer-park and towards the Court itself. These secluded retreats were Rachel's delight; and although the glories of September were now over, and ruddy October had already commenced its life, she would often steal away, book in hand, to one or other of them, and sit reading by the hour, whilst parties from the house were constantly traversing the flower-gardens and wooded paths without discovering her whereabouts.
On the afternoon, in question my heroine left Mrs. Craven busily superintending the arrangement of certain flags and flowers with which workmen were decorating the dancing-room, her friend, Mrs. Arundel, who could not, consistently with the character she had assumed, allow that she took any interest in such doings (although, in reality, she would have given everything she possessed to be able to join in the proposed festivities), quietly working in the drawing-room, and Cecil and Lady Frances, as usual, lingering beside the uncleared luncheon-table, in order to enjoy their flirtation undisturbed. Raymond had disappeared, she knew not whither, and Mr. Northland's absence was too common an occurrence to excite the least surprise; and so Rachel strolled out with one of Thackeray's "Miscellanies" in her hand, free to wander where she would, and prepared to spend a quiet | | 237 afternoon on one of her favourite benches. It was strange that, notwithstanding she had tried to carry out the resolution she had made on first hearing that Cecil Craven took an interest in Lady Frances Morgan, to be a friend to that young lady, she had been totally unsuccessful in the attempt. And yet Rachel Norreys, when she stooped to conquer, was not generally beaten off the field; and she had really been anxious to accommodate her own ideas to Lady Frances's silly small-talk and girlish ways, and to appear interested in what she had to tell her of her own home and family pursuits; but it was all of no good, so far as drawing the girl towards her in friendship was concerned. Lady Frances would talk if Rachel opened the conversation, but she never sought the other's company nor volunteered her own confidence. Whether Cecil had spoken too much to his lady-love of his mother's young friend, praised too frequently her outward and inward good qualities (as indeed he was fond of doing), is unknown; or whether Mrs. Arundel, with her smooth double tongue, had managed to instil poisonous doubts into the fresh impressionable heart of peachy-faced Lady Frances, also remains a mystery to this day. Perhaps a little of both had worked the harm, which resulted in the young girl's avoidance of Rachel Norreys and tacit refusal of her offered friendship. Otherwise these two, so nearly of an age, should have been close companions in their pleasures, if not their pains. The loss, however, as it happened, was all on the side of Lady Frances, who was not fitted by nature to hold mental intercourse with Rachel's superior intellect; and so the latter felt, as she took her way alone into the shrubbery paths. "There is not much in her, I am afraid," washer silent thought. "I only hope Cecil may not wait to discover the fact until after marriage, for in that case he will be so much the more disappointed."
It was a beautiful day, although the summer had departed, and far more enjoyable than any of the fiery afternoons of July or August, when to sit upon a garden-bench without a back to it is too much to expect mortal nature to endure. Rachel passed the first mysterious little labyrinth, winding away amongst the taller shrubs, and the second, and turned into the third, close by the bed of rhododendrons. Why, | | 238 she knew not, until she had reached the grassy hillock and the bench, and finding Mr. Northland there, quietly enjoying his pipe in supposed security, knew that it had been the perversity of human nature (the most inconvenient thing about us) that had led her steps thitherwards. As soon as he saw her, Mr. Northland started from the iron bench and commenced to apologize. Rachel started backward, and was about to do the same, but laughed in the attempt instead, and then formality between them was at an end. Cousin Gus insisted upon vacating the sanctum, but Rachel would not hear of such a thing, nor would she stay herself unless he went on smoking, so at last they came to a compromise, and she sat herself down upon the other end of the seat and entered into conversation with him.
She was rather glad to have found him there, for although she shunned the society of her friends, it was not on account of her love for her own thoughts. Mr. Northland was totally unknown to her; he could say nothing to remind her of the past, or to wound her feelings in the present. Besides which, the interest she had felt in him the first day they met had not been diminished upon a further acquaintance. The Norreyses had now been more than three weeks at the Court, and during that time, although she had often tried to draw him into conversation, Rachel had never had a tête-à-tête with Mr. Northland. She often caught herself thinking about him when he was absent—mentally following his footsteps when he slipped away from the company upstairs to his lonely smoking-room or the sober-saddened shrubbery paths; caught herself wondering what he mused on whilst he slowly paced them; whether it was an ill-spent life or fortune, a dead love or a dead heart. His treatment at the Court, his melancholy, almost brow-beaten appearance, his strange solitary habits, all struck Rachel with so much wonder, that often she could not drive the fanciful pictures which she drew of Mr. Northland's past and present out of her head for hours together. Had she been disposed to be more intimate with her hostess, she might perhaps, have told her curiosity upon the subject and had it gratified, but Rachel was too shy of Mrs. Craven, and too modest to wish to appear to pry into the affairs of any one in her house.
She had, indeed, once ventured, when the name of Cousin | | 239 Gus was on the tapis, to remark that he appeared very fond of his own company; and her hostess had answered her very determinately—
"My dear Rachel, he is the very best creature in the world; so gentle, so kind, so unselfish, no one could help loving Cousin Gus. You would do so yourself, I am sure, if you only knew him better."
And if the testimony to Mr. Northland's worth could be credited by the tears standing in his cousin's eyes, they were certainly there as witnesses to the truth of her assertion.
But, in the meanwhile, the gentleman in question appeared constrained with Rachel, as, indeed, he was with everybody, and seldom accosted her, except she commenced the conversation. Therefore, to find him alone upon a garden-bench, without any means of escape, was quite a circumstance to be gloried in. Mr. Northland seemed anything but displeased either at the company thus unexpectedly thrust upon him. His soft eyes quite lighted up as Rachel disposed her light figure upon the seat beside him, and he laid his meerschaum down, and assured her that the pleasure of talking to her so far exceeded that of smoking, that if she had no objection he would choose the former. The pleasure of looking at her also, Mr. Northland might have added, if the direction of his large sleepy brown eyes was to be trusted. "I smoke more for company than anything else," he said; "a pipe is a friend to a solitary man."
"But why do you remain solitary, Mr. Northland?" asked Rachel, smiling. "It is a very bad compliment to us ladies, I think."
"My dear child," he replied, "what on earth should I do amongst a parcel of gay young people like yourselves? You have your husband, and Cecil is engrossed with Lady Frances, and the widow doesn't suit my taste."
Rachel was wicked enough to make merry at this sally on the part of Cousin Gus.
"Are you afraid she will marry you by force, sir?" she asked laughingly.
"Well, not exactly," he replied; "but I daresay she would try to do so, as I am an unprotected man. You don't remember me, Rachel, do you?"| | 240
She coloured at his calling her by her Christian name, and he observed her action.
"My dear child, you are not offended with me, are you? You need not be, for I knew you in long-clothes."
"Did you really?" said Rachel, interested in his remark. "I cannot remember you at all, Mr. Northland."
"I daresay not; it's the way with the young; but we old fellows don't forget so easily. And yet there was a time, Rachel, and not so very long ago either, when you used to call me 'Uncle Gus.'"
"Used I? All the memory of my childhood seems to have passed away from me," she answered. "My life, in looking backwards, appears to date only from the day I married Raymond Norreys."
"I daresay; I daresay," he replied. "I knew his father also, Rachel, and his grandfather; and the first time I saw him I gave him a rattle. He is a fine young fellow! You should be proud of your husband, my dear."
"I am," she said, softly.
"That's right; that's right," replied Cousin Gus, with an energy very unusual to him. "I am a shy man, my dear; very shy, and I'm not much of a hand at saying what I mean, but I do feel very much interested in both Raymond Norreys and yourself;" and Mr. Northland came nearer to Rachel as he spoke.
"You are very kind," she answered, warmly. She could not edge herself away from his close proximity, because the bench had arms, and she was at the further extremity of it.
"Very interested, indeed," continued Mr. Northland, and his eyes looked what he said. "I don't know any young people in whom I feel so much so. I wish you would let me be your friend, Rachel;" and with this he slipped his arm about her waist.
With all Rachel's own interest in Mr. Northland, in all her concern for his hermit-like qualities, and her compassion for his fancied grief or wrongs, she had never been quite able to disabuse her mind of the ideas that he was just a little queer about the head. Hitherto she had not thought him mad—only strange; but now, in her alarm at the very particular attentions which he displayed towards herself, she was ready | | 241 to vote him at once a fit candidate for the honours of Bedlam. She gave a twist to her body, to try and escape from the pressure of his encircling arm, and met the gaze of his usually pensive eyes, now roused into something like the expression of a man.
"Dear Rachel!" he exclaimed, as he felt her endeavours to free herself; "dear, dear child, don't be angry with me. I must, if it is for the first and last time;" and so saying, he pressed his lips upon her cheek and forehead.
Rachel was now thoroughly alarmed and insulted. With a look of indignation, she disengaged herself from the clasp of Cousin Gus, and without a word, ran panting down the little path which led into the shrubbery, and with heightened colour and fast-beating heart, almost threw herself into the arms of Raymond Norreys, who was quietly pacing up and down there with Mrs. Arundel. For coming in unwarily soon after his wife's departure from the house, the widow had fallen upon poor Raymond, and borne him off to be her walking-stick in her perambulations, and to indulge him with a little specimen of the innocuous chit-chat with which she was used to entertain Mrs. Craven or Lady Frances, or any one else who was sufficiently unfortunate as to fall into her clutches.
"I really don't know where dear Rachel is, Mr. Norreys, but come with me, and we will find her in no time. Let me think; where is she likely to be? With Major Craven? No, no; that would never do, because Lady Frances Morgan is in the dining-room, and we old soldiers know that three is no company. Depend upon it she is somewhere in the garden, and we'll go and find her out, and give her a good scolding."
It was in vain that poor Raymond insisted that he was in no immediate necessity of finding Mrs. Norreys. The widow had him by the throat, and he must do her bidding or perish. And so the ill-assorted couple paced the shrubbery paths together.
"How happy dear Rachel seems here," was Mrs. Arundel's first remark, intended to extract a denial from her companion.
"Do you think so?" he replied, falling into the snare. "I have thought she looked pale the last fortnight."| | 242
"Ah! well, of course you must know best, but I fancied otherwise. She and Major Craven have always been such good friends. I thought they would be so pleased to meet again."
"And yet I had difficulty in persuading Rachel to accept this invitation," remarked Raymond. "She said she didn't want to come."
"No! really? Now did dear Rachel say that?" exclaimed Eliza Arundel, her large blue eyes, opening wide with her astonishment, feigned or otherwise. "You don't say so? Well, we women are contradictions at our best; and at Gibraltar the two were inseparable. Major Craven is a handsome fellow, is he not?"
"He's well enough," said Raymond, gloomily.
"Well enough!" echoed the widow, mimicking him. "Is that all the praise you can find to bestow upon the Adonis of the 3rd Royal Bays? I am afraid poor Craven must depend on Rachel for his share of admiration from the Norreys' family: well enough, indeed! I wish your wife could hear you!"
"My wife always says she does not like fair men," said poor Raymond, looking very heated as he passed his hand through his own raven hair, and laid it back from his high and handsome forehead; "she maintains that they are insipid."
"The naughty little puss!" exclaimed Mrs. Arundel, laying great emphasis on her adjectives, as if to convey the idea that Rachel was a most abominable liar. "And so she tells you that, does she? I'll take my lady to task next time I see her, you may depend upon it. And so she really did not appear to like the notion of coming to Craven Court, the artful little minx."
Raymond Norreys did not admire hearing his wife spoken of in this style, and so he plainly intimated by the frown which gathered on his brow.
"I do not think that Rachel is artful," he replied, curtly; "and there could be no earthly reason for her being so in this case."
Mrs. Arundel changed her tactics immediately.
"Of course not," she said, decidedly; and then added, in | | 243 a more serious tone, as if they really would not joke any more upon the subject.—"The fact is, Mr. Norreys, I dare-say dear Rachel felt that the revival of old associations and the memory of old times would be rather more vivid here than at Brompton—as how should it not be? Here am I, you see, from whom she has been inseparable, so sadly altered in my circumstances; and, dear Craven, who was always with us, taken up by that pretty piece of pink and white china indoors—everything changed, in fact. I don't wonder Rachel feels it, poor dear child!"
"Not all changed for the worse for her, I hope," replied Raymond's voice, cheerily, though he felt anything but cheery. "Her father's death, naturally, was a severe blow to her, but——"
"Oh! I wasn't thinking of her father's death at all," said Mrs. Arundel. "He was a very good sort of man, of course; but still, you see, Mr. Norreys, a father——"
"What were you thinking of, then, Mrs. Arundel?"
The question was positively hovering upon the lips of her companion, whose dark cheek had flushed damask under her last insinuation, when Rachel came flying down the little labyrinth, as I have described, book in hand, and dashed against her husband's breast. Her face crimson—herself almost unable to speak from agitation, she looked far more angry than frightened, and the sudden rencontre added to it, upset her so completely, that at first she could say nothing; and when she managed to articulate, the words which rose to her lips only served to heighten the idea that her emotion had arisen from some cause of vexation instead of alarm.
"Oh, Raymond!" she exclaimed; "what are you two doing here?"
"Well, I never!" said Mrs. Arundel, in a tone that was intended to be very jaunty; "that's a pretty question to put to your friends, Miss Rachel. And pray what are you doing here, if I'm not impertinent in asking?"
Her husband had also been so taken aback by her sudden appearance, that he had not made up his mind what to say before the widow had concluded her badinage, and so they all three stood and stared at one another.
"I am very foolish," said Rachel, apologetically, and catch- | | 244 ing her breath as she spoke; "but I was running so fast that you frightened me dreadfully."
"Then why do you run so fast?" inquired her husband; but she was silent.
"I am going home now," she said, presently, as she left them without further parley, and commenced to walk back slowly to the house.
"Why! I declare!" exclaimed Mrs. Arundel, as Rachel disappeared, "if the little vixen is not jealous?"
The words shot like a thrill of hope through the breast of Raymond Norreys; and he quite trembled with pleasure as he attempted to laugh them off as a joke, though heartily believing them the while.
"Jealous—she must be so," he thought to himself. "That's not a bad card to play. I'll carry it out this evening, Rachel jealous—by Heavens! how glad I am!"
And he talked and laughed, and made himself so agreeable after he had come to this conclusion, that the widow thought him a more "charming young fellow" than ever. In the meanwhile, Mr. Northland kept close to his retreat, for fear of discovery, and did not even resume the delights of his meerschaum until the sounds of their voices had died away in the surrounding shrubbery, and Rachel retraced her steps to the house.
She was frightened and nervous at the upshot of the little episode which had just taken place in her existence, and felt conscious that her subsequent conduct had been mistaken both by her husband and Mrs. Arundel; but in either case what could she do about it? To whom was she to go with her tale of Mr. Northland's impertinence?—to Mrs. Craven?—to her husband?—to Elise? Oh, no! Rachel could not tell either of them that this man, almost a stranger, had put his arm about her waist and actually kissed her. To Mrs. Craven, it would be an offence against her guest; with her husband (notwithstanding his want of love for her), it might create a disturbance; and in Mrs. Arundel's possession, the secret would be public property in half an hour. And would she achieve any good by it?—that was the question. The man was certainly not right in his intellect—there could be no doubt of that. It was easy for her to keep out of his | | 245 way for the future; added to which, Raymond and she were going back to Brompton the day alter the morrow.
And so, taking all these matters into consideration—although her cheek burned when she thought of the affront which had been offered her, and she sorely wished she had some trustworthy friend to whom she might confide the secret—Rachel resolved, with regard to Mr. Northland, for the time being at least, to keep her own counsel.
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