- CHAPTER XXXV. CHRISTINE.
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THE time at Brighton that followed the death of poor Gus Northland was a very trying time for all concerned in it. Cecil Craven had gone to Egham Priory, as he had proposed, the day after the accident, leaving his mother's husband very ill, certainly, but not (as was then thought by all except the doctor) in any danger; but on the second day of his sojourn there, he had been recalled to Brighton by an urgent telegram from his mother, and had only returned to find Mr. Northland insensible, in which state he continued till he died.
The shock to his poor wife was extreme. Deeply as she had sympathised and felt with him from the first, in his acute sufferings, she had fully imagined that a few hours of pain and anxiety would see him easy again, and herself with nothing to do but to nurse him into perfected health. This weak, selfish man, with the handsome face, and the soft, foolish brown eyes, who had been her first love, and to the influence of her affection for whom she had obstinately made her stronger will succumb (as we sometimes see clever people in this life worshipping fools), how infinitely dearer he seemed to her, now that he lay on a bed of pain, and had acknowledged his wife | | 406 and his daughter before the world. That which, to less blinded eyes, appeared a very feeble act of justice, and not worthy to be called an atonement for a long course of egregious selfishness (unbefitting the name of man), served, in her distorted vision, to raise her weak husband to a god-like eminence, before the dignity of which she was ready to prostrate herself.
Whilst Margaret Northland, in the first excitement of knowing that she could once more walk amongst her fellow-creatures, and not feel afraid to lift up her head for fear her heavy secret should be read upon her face, was debasing herself (if pure love can ever be debased) by exalting the puerile conduct of Gustavus Northland into something worthy of more than mortal nature, and deriving her best comfort from the thought of how she would make amends to him for his generous relinquishment of luxuries to which he had never possessed the smallest right, by years of devotion and wifely servitude, the cruel inflammation, which had held him in such torture, was gradually subsiding, only to give way to a deadlier enemy, and one which no art can subdue. When she thought that his pain was over at last, and had already thanked heaven for the relief accorded to him, she had to bear the greater pain herself of hearing that hope for this life was over. Then, indeed, did she lament that the troubles of her daughter—the grief, which never could have come upon any of them, excepting as the consequence of her own guilty secret—had been the means of bringing a premature and violent death upon the creature she most loved in this world. Yes, if Margaret Northland ever experienced remorse for the past, and a wild wish to blot out life and remembrance together, it was during those first few hours in which she knew that she and her early lover were to be parted for ever.
What wonder that in such a moment even Rachel was forgotten. But the shock once over, the last few half-sensible words uttered, the last feeble breath drawn, and all that was earthly of her erring husband hidden out of her sight, Margaret Northland turned to Rachel for especial comfort. She was his child—his legacy, the daughter he had acknowledged with his dying breath; and even died to acknowledge, and she should be all the world henceforward to her heartbroken mother. In those days, Mrs. Northland neither | | 407 spoke of Raymond Norreys, nor urged his wife's return to him. She was too eager to keep Rachel by her own side, too occupied in dilating on the early history of her dead father to her; in dwelling tenderly on the story of her own love for him, of his youthful beauty, his goodness, his faith to herself. And although Rachel (not having shared her mother's love for Mr. Northland) could not quite agree with all she now heard in favour of his various admirable qualities, still this lingering on the virtues of the dead man, bore something very touching in its simplicity for her nature, and raising the narrator in her estimation, gave her daily a deeper claim upon her love. But although it seemed natural in the first days of her second widowhood that her daughter should be by her side, Mrs. Northland was not so selfish as to entirely forget that Rachel had also her troubles, and that the horizon of her young life, was not, at that moment, entirely unclouded. She had determined, as Cecil said, to stay for a few weeks longer at the seaside. It was impossible that her son could take legal possession of what should have been his from a child, and herself assume her rightful name, and publicly acknowledge her daughter, without a great many remarks being made, and comments passed upon her conduct, which, determined as she now was to face the consequences of her fault, Mrs. Northland could not yet quite contemplate enduring without a shudder. And therefore, until all lawyers' business was concluded, and the facts made thoroughly known, it was thought better the widow should continue in retirement. But the excitement attendant on her father's death and burial, and her mother's first grief, over, Rachel seemed to loathe Brighton, and all it contained. If they remained shut up at home, she was restless and unquiet, roaming from room to room, and from one occupation to another, as if she could find no rest for the sole of her foot, or employment to satisfy her eager mind. But if, anxious to vary the scene for her daughter, Mrs. Northland forced herself to go out driving, and to mix against her own will with the gay crowd of equipages that daily thronged the principal thoroughfares, Rachel seemed just as much to shun the gaze of strangers as she did her own company. The fact is, she was wretched: she loathed the sound of the sea, which never varied its monoto- | | 408 nous tones, but went on splashing and moaning—rolling in or rolling out, whether human hearts were breaking or rejoicing; she loathed the various antics of the crowd of performers that always appeared to settle just before their windows; she hated the music of the numerous German bands, whether discordant or otherwise; she fled from the importunities of hawkers, ballad-singers, and beggars, as if the world were combining against her alone, and with a degree of temper to which Rachel, however prone, seldom gave way for such trivial occasions. And when she was not cross, or appeared to be so, she was despondent. Hour after hour, she would sit with idly folded hands, gazing out upon the water (unless one of the offenders before mentioned, drove her from the situation), with apparently no object in her head, except so to sit and think. Her mother noticed her moods, and pointed them out to Cecil on his return, and both attempted to approach the subject of her grief with her; but Rachel, far from admitting a comforter or confidant into the secrets of her bosom, became so violently agitated whenever they appeared to wish to gain her confidence, that for the present they thought it better to let her have her own way. She had been told of her husband's sudden accession to wealth and honour, but the news had not seemed to materially affect her. Indeed, in her own mind, it appeared to raise a higher barrier between them than before, for if she retreated from her resolution after hearing that, would he not think that she did, for the sake of sharing his worldly aggrandisement, what she could not be moved to do for the promise of himself? And so the unnatural state of mind in which my heroine was at that period, actually led her to consider the good fortune which had befallen Raymond as an additional aggravation of her own trouble, and there was nothing she disliked more than hearing herself called by the name of "Lady Norreys." But of the movements and actions of her husband she was kept in full knowledge, for Cecil never spared an opportunity of sounding his name in her ears, generally accompanied by some praise of its owner. At such times Rachel would colour painfully, and look at her brother with reproach in her eyes; but Cecil, dearly as he loved her, never chose to take the least notice of such glances on her part, | | 409 but went on manfully in laudation of some sentiment or exploit of his absent friend. But the second week died out, and then Lady Frances Morgan was expected; and early as it was for her visit, both Mrs. Northland and Major Craven looked forward to it with pleasure, as they hoped her society might do Rachel good, and her presence amongst them, make things appear a little more as they used to do in bygone days. But one day before Lady Frances arrived, there came a letter for Rachel which made her pulses beat quicker, for it bore the Brompton postmark, and was from Christine Norreys. She escaped to her own room when she had received it, and, tearing open the envelope, ran her eyes rapidly over its contents, as she hoped to see the name of the man she had come to yearn for news of, transcribed upon the page. And she was not (so far) disappointed. Raymond's name appeared very often in his sister's letter, for she had written freely, and from the outspoken fulness of her heart. She did not disguise from Raymond's wife how unhappy the difference between them made her, their sister, nor how much she would give to see it healed again. But with this, with her own lamentations over the sad quarrel which divided them, and her own asseverations that she was certain that Raymond would be unhappy until it was settled, Christine's pen was fain to content itself. She dared not go further. She dared not make any promises, or give vent to any prophecies on her brother's account, and she had been charged with no messages from him. On the contrary, when she had told him her intention of writing to his wife, and timidly asked if he had anything he wished to have said from himself, Raymond had answered, in a tone forbidding all further parley, that if he desired to communicate with Rachel, he should do so of his own accord. And therefore poor Christine could only suggest what she thought likely to happen, in the event of her sister-in-law seeking a reconciliation—and such suggestions Rachel would take no heed of. Even the stereotyped formality of "Mamma sends her love," at the close of the letter, was a generous fiction of Christine's brain, because she did not like to send a letter from the Abbey Lodge which did not contain her mother's name. But although Rachel disregarded the entreaties of | | 410 Christine, and spurned her advice, and considered she was far more capable of deciding on the best management of her affairs than washer sister-in-law, the kind, affectionate letter did her good, and made her feel that all connection with the dear old Abbey Lodge was not yet entirely broken off. And there was one piece of news in it which, while it struck Rachel with surprise, might have made her feel still more kindly towards the writer of it, had she known what pain (notwithstanding that her desire not to aggravate her sister-in-law's troubles made her mention it more lightly than she felt) she had suffered before she had it to relate. For in the latter part of her epistle, and mentioned cursorily, as if she wished to draw as little attention as possible to the fact, Christine had said:—
"I do not know if you will be surprised or not, dear Rachel, to hear that my engagement with Mr. Macpherson is broken off. It seems strange to write of him so formally, after having been intimate with him for so long, but I am thankful now that it has been so, since it enabled me to discover that our tempers would have been certain to clash, had we persisted in the determination to pass our lives together. Therefore it is far better as it is."
"Our tempers," Christine had written, in her wish to the last to shield (as she had ever shielded) Alexander Macpherson's from the censure of the world; but sweet as her own was, she had been unable to shut her eyes completely to the misery which must eventually ensue, did she bring it in daily contact with that of the fiery-headed Scotchman. Her mental vision had been unfolding itself, for some time past, to the great disadvantages which it would entail upon her future position as his wife. She had watched Alick Macpherson for some years, under various circumstances, in which his temper had been tried; some of them the most trivial, and yet, she could not remember one in which it had stood the test; and there had been periods when she had seen him so utterly lose command over himself, that whilst they called for her contempt, she could not look back upon them without shuddering. And, added to this, Alexander Macpherson had never ceased to be jealous of his fiancée. Not the foolish, but pardonable jealousy of a man very much in love, who grudges a look, or | | 411 word, or smile, given to another, but yet is satisfied, on confession of his weakness, to receive meekly the playful, well deserved rebuke, backed up immediately with a double allowance of favours to make it palatable. Such folly is folly, but still allowable. One cannot always be in love, and the happy time for it passes only too soon. But Mr. Macpherson's jealousy was of another, and a meaner kind. It was jealousy that displayed itself with regard to Christine's affection for her mother, for her brother, for her sister-in-law; even for her politeness to mere acquaintances. It was jealousy that could be aroused if she differed from him in opinion; if she did not vaunt his preferences, his tastes, and his belongings, high above those of other people; and although Christine, at one time, dearly loved the man, and was quite ready to think more of him and his possessions than she did of any one else's, she was still of an independent spirit that chafed at being laid under continual restraint, and of an honest spirit that scorned to say what she did not really think, even at the risk of offending so important a person as her lover. But the risk was run so often, and the offence given so often, that it almost grew at last to the fact, that Christine must do, and think, and say, exactly as he did, and thought, and said, or a quarrel arose between them. And, therefore, as the girl's love of honesty was not to be coerced, the quarrels became very frequent, and a source of great grief to her. She tried every method to live at peace with him. She gave in in all things where, with truth, she could; she bent and twisted her own ideas, to try and make them keep pace with his. But it would have been as practicable to trap the God of Day himself, and, confining him within the glass shade of a gas-lamp, have expected him to remain there and shine, as to fetter the free spirit of Christine Norreys, until it had shrunk to the narrowed limits of Alexander Macpherson's opinions, and then expected it to live so and flourish. She came to the knowledge of this herself, at last, not suddenly, but by degrees, although the full conception of what her existence as his wife would be, burst on her like an inspiration.
She had been engaged to him so long, for nearly four yours, and had arrived so gradually at the knowledge of all his weaknesses, and the chance of her marrying him was still such a | | 412 remote one, that, although she had often wept over the constant disagreements that arose between them, and said that things could not go on like that for ever, the real truth, that her love for him was waning, did not appear to have been brought home to her until a few days after Rachel had the Abbey Lodge, and sought Mrs. Craven's protection. There had been some words between Christine and her lover on that occasion, resulting from his having expressed his opinion with regard to her sister-in-law's conduct rather freely, and she had not seen him for a couple of days. Then he appeared one afternoon, having apparently quite forgotten the coolness with which they had parted, to communicate some good news to Christine; which was, that having, by some good luck, or interest, or death (it is irrelevant to my story which), been raised to a considerably higher appointment in the War Office, he should be in future, in receipt of a salary which would enable him to fulfil his long engagement with her, and to make her his wife—as soon as ever she consented herself to become so.
"And now tell me when it shall be, Christine?" said Alexander Macpherson, as he finished his recital, and took the hand in his, which he imagined he should so soon call his own. She did not snatch it away, or start from his side, or do anything vehement—it was not in her nature; she even let her hand lie as he had placed it, and simply said, in her own familiar voice—"Alick, I have been thinking of the probabilities of our marriage for some time past (although I had no notion it would be within our power to marry so soon), and if you ask my opinion on the subject, I say that it had better be —never I"
Alexander Macpherson, although his mind was of a low and narrow order, still did love Christine Norreys in a measure, and fully imagined that she loved him. At any rate, the idea that she would draw back at the last from fulfilling her engagement had never struck him for a moment; therefore, it was with no small degree of excitement that he dropped the hand he was pressing between his own, and said hastily—
"Christine, you are joking—you cannot possibly be in earnest."
"Indeed I am," she answered quietly. "I would not think | | 413 of joking upon such a serious subject; and it is because the subject is such a serious one, Alick, that I dare not trifle any longer with your heart or my own. The constant disagreements which take place between us, and on the most trivial occasions, have taught me, little by little, what your unexpected proposal of to-day has made suddenly clear to my mind, that we should never be happy as husband and wife."
"And this after a four years' engagement," exclaimed Mr. Macpherson, starting from her side, and pacing the room rapidly. "I think you might have told me of your intentions before, Miss Norreys."
"If I had come to know them myself, I certainly should have done so, Alick" she replied; "but I have been fighting with my doubts and fears so long, that I had grown accustomed to the daily combat, and did not know that I was vanquished till this moment. I am sorry," she added, a few tears finding their way into her eyes as she thought of the distress would cause him; "it seems hard to say so after so long a time, but it would be worse in me to accept your offer, and let discover the trickery for yourself; for, when I content] immediate marriage with you, Alick, I shrink from the idea, with something more than fear—something that tells me that I do not love you any longer as I used to do."
"And to what do you attribute this sudden change?" he asked, sarcastically.
"It is not sudden," she answered, earnestly. "It has been the growth of years. I see it now, although my eyes were not fully opened to the truth until you spoke to me to-day; but now I feel that we have been labouring under a great mistake, and that if we wish to prevent ourselves being miserable for life, we must draw back before it is too late. Indeed, Alick, I must say it—once and for all—I cannot marry you"
"Thank you for the compliment," he returned, with far more anger than sorrow in his tone. "I know to whom I am indebted for your change of mind, Christine, if you do not. I have seen the influence which your brother's wife has had over you ever since she entered the Lodge. I have not misinterpreted her constant covert sneers at my country and countrymen, and her attempt to make things unpleasant for both of us, by drawing you away for secret conferences, and | | 414 depriving me of your company. I can see plainly enough that the influence and advice of Mrs. Raymond Norreys is at the bottom of this decision on your part, and I am only sorry you should have suffered yourself to be led away by such an evil counsellor. A woman who has disgraced her husband's family by a shameful flight——"
"You shall not speak of Rachel in that manner in my presence," retorted Christine, firing up in defence of her absent sister; "and you entirely mistake in imagining she has had anything to do with, or even is cognisant of the decrease of my affection for yourself. It has been your own temper, Alick, and that alone, which has parted us. If my determination not to link my fate with yours is a source of distress to you, you have to thank yourself for it—your suspicious jealousy of all my actions—your utter want of self-control. It has been this, and this alone, in you, which, little by little, has killed all my love, by first destroying my respect. How do you imagine that I could, with any degree of confidence, place myself under the guidance of a man who cannot guide himself; who, in his want of self-management, is a perfect child? What esteem could I have for such a husband? How could I look up to him? And without esteem, Alick, there can be no lasting affection. When a woman has once felt contempt, she may forgive, perhaps, but she can never again feel love."
"Then you mean to say you despise me?" said Alexander Macpherson, every Scotch hair on his head standing up, and every Scotch drop of blood in his body boiling over, at the insult thus offered through him to his sacred country, by a mere Englishwoman.
"I despise those phases in your character which I have alluded to," replied Christine, mournfully; "but not you—no, Alick, though I cannot be your wife, I shall never forget, however long I may live, that I once hoped to be so."
But Mr. Macpherson was too irate and insulted at her answering his question in the affirmative at all, to be able to take any notice of the qualification which the latter part of her sentence shed over the commencement. He seized his hat and stick, and prepared to leave her.
"Good-bye, Miss Norreys," he exclaimed, as he did so; | | 415 "I hope you may always feel as satisfied with your own conduct as you appear to do at present."
"But Alick," she said, "do not leave me like that; I wanted to speak with you, and to part with you as a friend. It is not right that people who have loved as we have should separate in anger. I have spoken for your good as well as my own. I have——" but the rest of her sentence remained unfinished, for Alexander Macpherson had refused to listen to it, and had left her, almost shutting the door in her face. Then Christine did shed a few natural tears. A woman cannot so easily part with an old and intimate association; and although she felt that she had done right, and would not have recalled her words if she could, she would have wished to separate from her lover in a more peaceable spirit; but the thought that if he had really loved her, and really felt their separation, he would have shown more of sorrowful surprise, and less of temper, struck Christine as she wept, and had the effect of drying her tears as she rose, imbued with the conviction that it was much the best as it had happened, and that she was very glad it was over.
But Mrs. Norreys appeared to take a different view of the case. Christine was rather a matter-of-fact girl, and when she had once made up her mind to do a thing, she did it; and therefore it was with plenty of determination and an air of perfect calmness, that she walked up to her mother's room, when her interview with Mr. Macpherson was concluded, and informed her, in a very few words, of the change in her prospects; but Mrs. Norreys' sense of propriety was horrified at the sudden rupture, and her lamentations over, and objections to the plan were without end.
"Well, Mamma," exclaimed Christine, at last, rather testily for her, "it's of no earthly use regretting it now, because the thing is done, and not to be undone. I have no regrets on the subject myself, excepting that 1 did not come to the same decision long ago, which would have saved me a good many tears, and all of us, trouble. But thank Heaven! that I have been enabled to see my danger before it was too late. I might have married from the force of long association, blindfold. I have had a great escape."
"But, the disgrace, Christine," her mother urged, "and | | 416 the publicity of such a thing! You do not seem to remember that. What will the Macphersons say? and your own friends who have known of your engagement all along? I am sure, I shall be ashamed to show my face out of doors soon. What with Lady Norreys' behaviour, and now yours; we shall be the laughing-stock of the neighbourhood;—we, who have been remarkable for never making ourselves conspicuous before." When her mother relapsed into one of these whining moods, Christine was apt to become a little impatient with her.
"What can it possibly signify, Mamma, what people say or think, in comparison with the happiness of my life? Would you have had me risk that, in order to prevent idle gossip, or put a stop to rumour. Do you think women, like Rachel and myself, in taking the most important steps of our lives, can stay to be actuated by the fear of what our neighbours will think of them? Do they so stop to consider us? And if they did, I should be the first to say they were fools for their pains. We may be mistaken in our ideas of what is the best thing for us to do. Rachel's last act may prove a wrong move, so may this one of mine (though I doubt it), but even if they do so, our lamentations will be for ourselves and our own ruined happiness, not for what our friends think upon the subject. Let them think—let them talk—let them kill themselves with talking," continued Christine, in the energy of her indignation, "I for one, will never stir a jot out of the path which my sense tells me is the safest to pursue, for all the tittle-tattle of London."
"But for your own sake, Christine," still whined Mrs. Norreys, "you should have been careful to consult your friends before so hastily breaking an engagement of such long standing. Just fancy—for four years you have been known to be engaged to Mr. Macpherson, during which time you have wasted the best part of your girlhood (you will be three-and-twenty next birthday, Christine), and spoilt perhaps a dozen chances of settling yourself, and who do you think will propose for you now? It goes greatly against a young woman's chances, Christine; men don't like a girl to have been engaged four years to another person previously. It turns them off, it's a great drawback. I should not wonder | | 417 now, if you never marry at all. It's a great pity that you could not have arranged matters better with Mr. Macpherson. Every one has their faults, and I dare say a little kind talking to might have led him to see the weakness he is guilty of."
Christine's lip had curled more and more palpably as her mother's speech lengthened upon her ears. When it was finished, she said contemptuously—
"Men don't like! Who wants them to like, mamma? Let them keep their likings to themselves! Am I, for so paltry a reason, to link myself for life to a man whom I don't like! And what is a great pity? That I did not patch up, or do not at this moment contemplate patching up, my quarrel with Alick! First, you mistake in thinking that I have had any quarrel with him. Secondly, that if any amount of time or consideration could shake my determination with respect to not being his wife, that I should have made it known to him at all! And further, mamma, you do me great injustice if you imagine that (although I feel a marriage with him would only make me miserable) I could calmly contemplate, in the first hour of my parting with a man to whom I have been engaged, as you say, for years, ever marrying another?"
"You do not mean to remain single for life, child!" exclaimed Mrs. Norreys, who seemed still more horrified at this prospect than the other.
"I do not know," replied Christine, quietly; "but I certainly think of nothing else at this present moment. I know I have acted for the best; but the very knowledge that separation between Alick Macpherson and myself is the best thing for both of us, cannot fail to be a source of pain to me. If I ever marry, of course lies in the future alone. I am not old, mamma; and the probabilities are that I shall do so; but just now, with my late experience fresh upon me, the alternative appears the most desirable lot. Anyway, whether I die wedded or unwedded, I can never regret that I refused to marry a man whom I have ceased to love. No single life, however lonely and unblest, can be so cursed, as that of a woman unhappily married. And I think, mamma, if more girls thought as I do on this subject, there would be fewer miserable wives in this world. Rest contented in the knowledge that (notwithstanding the painful scene I have gone | | 418 through to-day) I am at the present happy; and as long as I have no worse trouble than the want of more blessings than I possess (instead of the want of less curses), you may thank God for the peace of your daughter's life."
And Mrs. Norreys, with the experience of sixty years upon her, felt humbled as she listened to the words of wisdom which proceeded from the mouth of her single-hearted child.
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