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19. CHAPTER XIX.

‘Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder.’

note

Adversity had not sweetened Mrs. Lang's temper; nor was it to be expected that the habit of fretfulness, indulged in for years, should give way suddenly. Yet she was not really selfish, and mourned far more for her children's sake than her own, at their change of fortune.

Weak minds are often unjust, from sheer inability to take in the whole of any subject. Thus, Mrs. Lang threw all her natural affectionateness into Kate's portion, and made her, as it were, the scapegoat—or representative of the Langville ruin. For Kate's sorrows, small and great, the mother sympathised and felt; for her she would gladly have pinched and denied herself, even necessaries; while the boys, and in fact all besides, would have sunk in comparison to the most trifling want of Kate's. But fortunately Isabel was there, to care for her mother, and to insist on justice being done to the others. Through her undaunted energy and determination, the boys were not neglected, but were likely to be helped and launched, each in the way best suited to his character. The elder, Jem, was already, thanks to Dr. Mornay, promised a very good situation, and the fortunate wood selling speculation enable them to give him an outfit without applying to friends for help—a fact most acceptable to Isabel, though she was grieved to find her mother preferring to retain the money for Kate's expenses in Sydney, and leaving Jem to chance, saying ‘Boys always could shift, and get on!’ Mrs. Lang's pride had vanished, or taken another form. The second boy was destined to enter a highly respectable solicitor's office in Sydney. In the meantime he was


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being polished off by Mr. Farrant. Kate, since the first few weeks, had found a home with a distant cousin—a widow lady residing in Sydney—well off now—though in early life Mr. Lang had generously maintained her. Her husband being wealthy, she had every comfort, and saw a great deal of society. Though what is called a little ‘particular’ in temper, she did not forget, nor was she ashamed of owning Mr. Lang's former kindness. Her invitation to Kate was couched in friendly terms, and delighted Mrs. Lang, who saw in it a reprieve for her darling, and a life much more suited to her pretty Kate, than working like a servant, buried in the bush. Kate, however, was not long in discovering that it was a different thing to be ‘Mrs. Offley's cousin, poor Miss Lang, you know’ . . . from the well-portioned and well-dressed daughter of the rich Mr. Lang. This, and a continual depression which she could not shake off—even in a round of parties—gave her letters home a tone of disappointment which grieved her mother, who directly put it down to ‘Mrs. Offley's queer temper,’ and from a little quiet boasting of dear Kate's invitation to Sydney, she fell into speaking of it ‘as a cruel separation from home, and grievous trial to poor darling Kate!’ By degrees Kate became the injured one, the martyr and victim, the self-denying child, who sacrificed herself for others; and her being in Sydney was an act of heroic self-devotion, often contrasted with Isabel's happy home life. For some time Isabel bore these remarks without caring. She knew that Kate could not do her work or take her place, at least for some time, till things were put into train. Mrs. Lang did not even know what Isabel did daily; for, she spared her mother in every possible way, and always, at whatever cost, provided for her wants. Thus from being a busy and active housekeeper, and in her younger days especially, as her husband so often said with joking pride, an energetic and managing woman, Mrs. Lang, knocked down with the sudden grief and change of prospects, sank into imagining herself unequal to any work, and passively gave up the reins to Isabel. At first, her whole occupation was in writing to Mrs. Farrant or to her cousins in Sydney, and afterwards to Kate. One subject alone formed the theme, and round it her thoughts paced also, in a dreary circle, which seemed to grow narrower daily. When the first alarm of poverty had gone off, and through Isabel's sensible arrangements and friends' kindness, she enjoyed, without care or thought, all her small daily comforts, Mrs. Lang began to accept it all as a matter of course, and even forgot previous facts. Without going into the business, she settled in her own mind that it had been a false alarm, and that though no longer at Langville or keeping her carriage, she was still far from being poor. She sometimes urged this as a reason why it was so hard on Kate to be


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forced to live with Mrs. Offley, and when Isabel tried to explain, she often ended with hinting that some people liked to rule; but after all, Kate was the eldest, and should therefore be considered first, etc. Tears sprang to Isabel's eyes at these speeches; but while it was necessary, she did not allow it to influence her; well knowing that Kate could not carry on her plans about the farm, she worked on as well as she could, being ably and faithfully supported by Charlie Brand. In his rough way, he could not do enough to show his gratitude, though very seldom did the subject pass his lips. Once, when Isabel was urging him to rest, for that he had already done more than a day's work, and might trust the chopping wood to the boy, he answered, looking up at her, with his tomahawk sticking into the block,

‘When I were down there in the cage, thinking all was up, I thought to myself, ‘If I dies with murder branded on me, it wont keep me out of the kingdom of Heaven, seeing 'tis not a true bill; and when I gets there, it will be my first endeavour to keep a sharp look-out for her who had the kindness to believe I didn't do it. I shall know the road by that time, and if a helping hand can do aught, she'll have one that's all! And as far as I could (being no scholar), I put up a prayer for her. Now I think, Miss Isabel, you know who I mean, and that's all about it. So when you see Charlie Brand a working pretty considerable hard, you'll know the why and the wherefore.’

Yet, it must be confessed, much as it pleased and gratified her, Charlie Brand's devotion would not make up for everything. Isabel sorely missed her father. She was always his particular darling, as Kate was her mother's. And during his life she had no room for missing her mother's caressing affection. Now she felt the difference—felt it acutely, too! And the allusions and hints about Kate's absence began to be more than she could well bear. Circumstances were changed now. Everything had been put into order and good training. Perhaps Kate, with her mother's help, could and would contrive to keep the wheels a-going. Isabel could rely on Charlie Brand to carry on the wood-cutting, which used up all the otherwise useless timber on several acres of bush land, and fetched a good price as firing sold to retail dealers, who fetched it from a place near Sydney, to which Isabel had to convey it.

The time was come for some change to be desirable, Isabel felt. Kate could return home; but at present their resources would not allow of more than one besides the little ones, so that Isabel would have to go elsewhere. Fortunately, she could work and gain money, being able-bodied, as well as having an energetic and active mind. So the thought gradually assumed shape, each speech of her mother's bringing it out in


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stronger colours. She must be a governess! Yes! after all her toil and labour to make this home, she must leave it, and live and work among strangers. Nor would her absence cause any grief; on the contrary, as it brought Kate home, it would be actually a time of rejoicing. She was not dear or necessary to any one in the world now. No one felt any great interest in her, no one regarded her efforts, except in as far as they ministered to her mother's or Kate's benefit. No one thought of begging her not to go too far or do too much. No! if she worked all day and every day—real hard work—it was deemed by her mother, and by Tom Jolly, their constant visitor, as an honour and privilege to be allowed such an opportunity of doing anything for Kate. Dearly as she did love Kate, it must be owned that there were moments when this feeling brought pain. These thoughts came strongly before her on this evening, after hearing several more pointed speeches than usual from her mother. Even causing her to recal with a sigh the vain though generous devotion of Captain Smith, formerly in charge of the corps of mounted police in their old district, who, on the death of Mr. Lang and report of his family's ruin, gallantly swore that he had always liked and admired Isabel Lang, and if she was now poor, he should be proud to have her for a wife. Nor did it end in words, for very soon after the family had come to Westbrooke, a clattering was heard one day, and a soldier rode up to the back yard bearing a letter from his chief to Miss I. Lang. A curious letter it was, and oddly enough expressed. But the meaning was clear and honourable. He told her he had long admired and loved her, but held back from feelings of humility. He offered all he had, wishing it was more. Mrs. Lang urged her to consider it, and not act from impulse and hurry. ‘Under present circumstances,’ she began; but Isabel interrupted by saying her answer would be the same under all circumstances, and all her consideration was to write as kind and gentle a ‘No’ as she could. This little episode was not disagreeable. It sometimes helped to warm her heart when it shivered or felt lonely as now. After all, there was much kindness in the world, so often found, too, where unexpected. And then all the words Dr. Mornay had used, more especially on this evening, returned. They were full of a strong and affectionate interest. What had she done to excite it? It seemed like a friend in need rising up. Certainly she wished he was not a Catholic priest exactly. And yet this was beginning to be less a drawback. She was interested and curious about his early history. She pitied and admired him. He was not by any means an ordinary man. So agreeable and entertaining at times! But again there were moments when she drew back afraid of she knew not what. And with all this crept in a complacent consciousness that he was interested


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in and drawn towards herself particularly, either through some likeness to one of his early friends, or from affinity of taste. When all else is arid and barren, and one has a feeling of being overlooked, there is scarcely a heart insensible to the pleasure of finding itself to be genial in any way to some one. It is natural and human to turn to the light, wherever it may shine.

It comforted Isabel a little to feel herself an object of interest and importance to Dr. Mornay. He alone now ever read her countenance, and saw fatigue or sorrow written there when she did not deign to speak of either. He alone appreciated her efforts and her self-denying love for her family. He alone thought her equal (or superior) to Kate, and not the merely useful working drudge—one of those who, undertaking all the disagreeable tasks which some one must do and no one likes, constantly hears it affirmed by those who sit quietly and benefit by their labours, ‘O, she likes it! She is in her element!’

Mrs. Lang was fond of Isabel, and proud of her, too. She descanted on her useful qualities now, complacently asserting that Issy was in her glory. It was what she had always wished for. Dr. Mornay judged more truly. He saw where the yoke pressed, and that only a high sense of duty sustained her. Busied as she was with domestic occupations, he deemed her worthy for his friend; her opinion was sought, sometimes her advice asked, and yet the world spoke of him as a star. To her he had sometimes thrown off his trappings and shown a human heart—weaker, yet infinitely more interesting, than the one he was supposed to possess by people in general.

Yet with all the gratification and soothing power of this reflection, Isabel knew that it would not do to rest too much on this singular friendship. In one way her faith had been much weakened, and she cautioned herself often, never to build upon another man's friendly regard, it was like building a house on the sands. Also, an instinctive feeling of reserve and caution came to warn her that although, to her, Dr. Mornay was a kind and helping friend, apparently seeking her good only, he was really separated by his religion and calling as a priest. It was all very well to receive it as passing interest and amusement, but she must be careful. Now this caution and reserve was especially distasteful to her nature, and it set her wishing he was a Protestant. That alone was wanting to make him perfectly delightful. His faults, as far as she could see, were incidental to his calling and position, and would fall away in the clear, broad daylight of the English Church. Then his hurried troubled words seemed again to sound in her ears. Was it possible that he really began to find the defects of his own creed, and to recognise the


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value of the Reformed Church?note It was a pleasant idea, full of charm and excitement, to be the means of bringing this great and clever man, this star of Rome, to her own faith. Was it impossible? Surely such things had happened! The thought had glanced before her once or twice, but had been dismissed as foolish. Now, however, it would not vanish, but grew into shape. Forgetting her own troubles she eagerly threw herself once again into the unprofitable employment of castle-building. Dr. Mornay's conversion would even be a greater triumph than making a match between Miss Terry and Mr. Herbert. This was something worth living for. Nor did her previous failure discourage or warn her, and yet Isabel was not otherwise than humble. She had learnt a lesson, and now, instead of putting herself forward presumptuously, she felt that her share in the work must be passive and silent. Not for one moment did she reckon on any argument on her part weighing with him. Rather he would be insensibly led to it through her. That he had doubts, she felt sure, and that he was uneasy and unhappy. How doubly careful must she be of her duty, lest her faults should hinder the work! There was something very fascinating to one of her temperament in this. It elevated her; she lost herself in pursuing this idea, and really tired by a busy day, she fell asleep while thinking, leaning back on a couch with all her clothes still on, and the cold, clear moon rays falling full upon her. Isabel slept soundly as if in bed.

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