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25. CHAPTER XXV.

Worse And Worse.

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There was but little time for reflection, or for the quiet luxury of giving way to the overpowering feelings which had well nigh choked her; yet Isabel rapidly went over the principal points of her late conversation and its wonderful revelations, as, according to the house custom, she changed her dress for tea.

Her wish for an explanation had been granted. She understood now what had before seemed utterly incomprehensible. But the question was, how did they stand with regard to one another? ‘I am to pardon him, and he, I suppose, is to pardon me. Then, are we to be as before? Hardly. My mother will not forgive or forget so easily. Besides, he is a rich man, a grand personage now, as Mr. Scott explained to me—‘Squires’ they call them at home, he says; and as a country gentleman, he takes his place with the highest. And I am a—governess—a drudge of a governess. We are come down as he has climbed up. Impossible, therefore, to fall back into our old places. And I wont stand being condescended to! I hope he will soon take himself off, or I must. I can't be acting a part any longer. Dignified distance doesn't suit me. I can be hot and angry, or I can be amiable and agreeable in an intimate way. If I could but escape the tea this evening—the ever meeting him again!’

Tears trickled over her face, warning her, that if she wished to escape observation, she must eschew the subject at once, and prepare for proper behaviour. With a desperate effort she stopped the inclination to cry, smoothed her hair, and arranged her dress, even adding a ribbon by way


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of looking ‘cared for.’ But that description of the Bath belle—his first love—rang in her ears, and as she looked into her glass she found herself making comparisons between the figure and face reflected there and his account of another. Then with a wish, hovering between a desire to lie down and sleep, never to wake again, or to be transported back to the days when she had been the child he had described—with a vague sound in her ears of those happy hours gone for ever, giddy with weakness, and feeling very tired, she went down stairs, took up her knitting mechanically, and answered Mrs. Scott's calm questions till the gentlemen entered.

At table she sat just opposite to Mr. Herbert, and she made sundry mistakes in passing the wrong things, and helping Fanny to sugar instead of salt.

‘You are tired, Miss Lang. You were out too long,’ Mr. Scott said.

‘I was getting a little uneasy,’ put in Mrs. Scott. ‘Were all the lessons ended?’

‘Yes, we began so early,’ Isabel said, quickly.

Then the children began to tell their mamma what Mr. Herbert had told them to do, and of his promised reward. Isabel's cheeks burnt, as childlike, they spoke out rather inconveniently, dwelling on details. Then her head began to throb, and glad was she at the first move to rise and leave the room, feeling, come what would, she must give way now. She looked so shivered and sick when, some time after, they sought her, that Mrs. Scott told her to go to bed at once. For hours she tossed about feverish and suffering. Not till near dawn did she fall asleep.

Heavy, plashing rain, long foretold and expected, had set in, greeting Isabel when she woke—puzzled and conscious that something had happened, but not sure what. Gradually it all returned.

‘Here we are, he and I. Neither of us can go in this rain,’ was her first idea. Then followed—'And why should we go? There is room for both.’

Before she was dressed a great dread came over her. She longed for some good excuse to remain in her room, to escape the meals. She almost wished she was really ill, instead of only this stupid ailing. At last the maid's coming took her by surprise. She brought her breakfast, by Mrs. Scott's order. It was kind of Mrs. Scott; and she was glad of the reprieve. Then she began to form a plan for her conduct; to be at her ease, yet plainly showing that she was aware of the distinction between ‘Mr. Herbert and a governess.’ She studied sundry free and easy, yet distantly polite speeches. But she found no opportunity for making use of them.

When she hurried down to do what lessons there was still time for, Isabel found, that the rain having a little ceased, her pupils were gone to


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spend the day with their aunt. This she did not know was owing to a hint from Mr. Herbert, quickly received and adopted by Mr. Scott, that she herself needed quiet and rest.

The gentlemen went out in spite of rain and the thick clay soil. Isabel was left to herself the greater part of the day. She was standing by the window looking out when they returned. Greetings were exchanged, and Mr. Scott inquired how she felt. Presently a chair was placed for her, and looking round, she met Mr. Herbert's eye, at which all her studied ease vanished, and a foolish fit of shy distress came on, so that she was hardly aware that Mrs. Scott came into the room, talked, and went out again followed by her husband, leaving Mr. Herbert and Isabel alone together. She still gazed out at the shrubs and the distant country. He was sitting behind her, and his eyes were bent on her as if measuring something.

‘I see, now, that you are changed, Isabel,’ he said.

She blushed and started a little as she found no one else was in the room; but, throwing herself into a would-be careless attitude, she answered, half in joke, half in anger—

‘No doubt. How long has it taken to arrive at so important and interesting a fact? That you are not changed is proved by that remark, which is scarcely complimentary.’

He smiled and brightened up. There was a sweet and familiar charm in this return to her old provoking and saucy retorts.

‘I meant no harm. Did I insinuate anything derogatory to you, by saying that you are changed?’

‘The interpretation being—‘You are changed, having grown older and uglier;’ it is not customary in polite society to say so, whatever we may think. But your discrimination is admirable! I am changed—I am altered—I am aged. Moreover, I am not so well as I used to be, and that adds no charms.’

In spite of the badinage, there was a fall in the voice which came from some inward heart-throb. He had moved from his previous seat and stood a little more in front, studying her aspect with grave, but tender scrutiny.

‘Yes, I can trace it. I see that you have suffered.’

‘I was a blooming, prosperous, thoughtless lassie,’ she said, quickly, yet with earnest emphasis, turning away her face from him. ‘I am now unprosperous, come down in life, in fact, and forced to be careful,—that is all. I know I am changed, very well I feel it. But I am not the only one; other things are changed too. We need not talk about it. You need not trouble yourself to measure or understand the exact line of change. Mr.


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and Mrs. Scott believe us to be little known to one another. You are not at all obliged to undeceive them, you know.’ She thought she had mastered herself completely, but her voice was thick and her manner irritable.

He sighed. ‘I deserve this! You greatly misunderstand my words, however. I fear,’ he added, presently, ‘I fear you find it hard to forgive?’

She tore the lace of her cuff frills, and her chest heaved under the enforced restraint she put on herself. But she said, as lightly as she could—'No. But I want you to see, to understand, that I have had some trouble, the struggle to live and to provide for others—my family I mean, of course. But though you see me not altogether well and strong, just now, you must not judge anything by that. The worst is over—past long ago, and I get on very well indeed now. So what I want to say is, that though of course I am glad of the explanation, and that such an absurd idea—about that picture, I mean—is put out of your head, as it so distressed you; yet, of course, I know we can't be—that I am not what I was at all. I can't explain myself; I am stupid and dull this morning, but surely you understand what I mean?’

‘It hardly needed so many words to say that it is your desire I should not presume on former friendship! You desire me to understand that my company is not agreeable to you, in homely phrase,’ he answered, deeply hurt, and showing he was so.

‘I didn't say so. I left it for you to choose how far Miss Isabel Lang, governess to Mrs. Scott's children, is an acquaintance for Mr. Herbert!’ she replied with spirit and displeasure.

He said nothing, but returned to his first seat, where he took up a book. In another moment Mrs. Scott returned and sat down at her work-table; Isabel swelling and panting, and wishing to jump out of window; but pride kept her there and still. She knitted industriously, only speaking when Mrs. Scott spoke to her, during the pauses between her attempts to draw Mr. Herbert into conversation. But he remained silent and gloomy. And so it was for the rest of the day and during the evening. Mr. Scott remarked it to his wife in Isabel's presence.

The next day Isabel took her place as usual in the school-room, and walked out with the children. Again they met the gentlemen, but this time they did not join parties. At dinner Isabel could not avoid seeing Mr. Herbert's face, and she was surprised and somewhat shocked to find him looking so ill. He was silent, and when forced to speak, there was a weariness and flatness in his manner quite sad to see. Once in the evening as he sat, in the old attitude, apart and unhappy, she remembered when she had understood that mood, and was privileged to tease


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or please him out of it. She was conscious that her own words had hurt him. She recalled looks and tones of that morning's explanations, and felt she had done her best to alienate him. He felt things very deeply. He was looking really ill now. Why should she not try to rouse him, even at the risk of compromising her dignity? Why should she not try to make some amends for the hurt she had caused? Yet it was difficult. There was a gulf between them now, partly of her own making. He had more than once called her ‘Miss Lang.’ How then could she come forward? Yet on self-reflection she felt she owed him some apology for that most blundering, confused, and unfortunate speech of hers. This then she would make. She would see at once, if a way opened for more, or not. It was difficult to find an opportunity, for he avoided her, or at least all tête-è-têtes. Some one was always present. Two days passed after she resolved on an apology, before she found herself for one moment alone with Mr. Herbert. But at last she did so, with only the little girl next to the baby in the room. Not a minute must be lost. So, hurried and flushed, she looked up at him as he sat in the shade, with a book on his lap, his hands in his pockets, and his eyes somewhere upwards. She plunged desperately into it, not daring to pause, lest her courage should ooze away.

‘I have been wishing,’ she began, feebly, and stopped by something in her throat. Then, on again, this time a little louder. He withdrew his upward gaze, and looked at her as she said—'Mr. Herbert—I feel—I owe you an apology.’

‘Do you? I was not aware of it!’

‘Yes, you are. I mean—I beg your pardon, but I was rude, don't you remember—and seemed to be ungrateful the other day?’ Here she stopped short, and tossed off a tear, smiling, however, though her eyes were dim. ‘But I did not mean or wish it. You misunderstood me!’

‘Did I?’ he said in a gentle tone, though his voice was sad. Then as she did not go on, he added, ‘How so?’

‘I think you did. Yet perhaps I am wrong and mistaken even now. Very likely nothing I said or did could have that effect, or has anything to do with it,’ she said, with sudden revulsion of feeling. ‘But I felt that I had spoken rudely and ungraciously, when perhaps—perhaps—you meant to be kind, and then seeing you so grave I determined to make an apology. That's all!’ she added, returning to the assumed ease of manner.

He was looking at her, still leaning on his elbow, and pushing aside his hair with his fingers, showing thereby a shaded brow, and a countenance betraying inward trouble. ‘You have a kind heart, I know,


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and do not mean to give pain, I believe,’ he said.

Then he slowly removed his eyes from her to the ground, slightly shaking his head, and moving his hands in a way familiar to her, as a sure sign of his being rather unhappy. Her quick eye had caught this gesture, and noted the weary, listless sadness brooding on his face. An impulse seized her. She suddenly rose, though what to do she didn't know. It ended in her catching up little Julia, the baby girl, and hugging her tightly, kissing the child's face and neck and hair.

Julia cried out ‘Don't!’

‘What, mayn't I love you? Let poor Issy love you, Ju,’ she half whispered, pleading earnestly with eye and voice.

‘No, no—not now—by and bye;’ and the child turned away, going back to her play. Presently she passed near Mr. Herbert, as she had done several times before. Now he stopped her.

‘Little Ju!’ he said, and kissed her, stroking her hair.

His notice was unusual, and struck the child. She stopped in her play and looked up at him, as if expecting more.

‘Don't you like to be loved, Julia?’ he said, again stroking her hair.

‘What?’

‘Will you kiss me—a pretty kiss?’

She held up her rosy little lips directly—drawing a deep sigh of surprise and content—and suffered him to draw her on to his knee, where she was soon quite at her ease, counting his buttons, while he played with her curls.

Isabel's needle flew in and out at a rapid rate the while.

‘I don't think I quite understand, even now,’ Mr. Herbert said, as if there had been no pause or break in the conversation. ‘You say I misunderstood. I thought you inferred a wish that our intercourse should be within the boundary of mere common acquaintance for the future—that you wished to check in me all idea of going back and taking up the threads where they fell.’

He paused almost at each word, as if each carried a separate meaning.

‘Perhaps I was too willing to forget all that wretched interim. The relief was so great, so exquisite, that I was going back again at once, as if it had been only an evil dream. Then—I understood that you wished to check this—to remind me I had sinned past forgiveness in your sight. The hours since then have been spent in realizing that it is no dream, but a terrible reality; that, though we sit at the same table, live under the same roof, there is a partition wall between us! I would have gone—I ought to have gone directly. Yet, I accepted Scott's invitation to prolong my stay, in order to make assurance sure—to take it all in, and look my


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fate in the face. I flattered myself I had gone on quietly. But from your thinking it necessary to apologize, I fear my manner has betrayed me and shown pain—pain which I had no right or intention to obtrude on you; though—I can't say I wish you had not seen it. That it was worth your while to observe me so far—that small consideration even—I am glad of. But it shall be ended! You shall not be annoyed.’

Could this be Mr. Herbert?—the former kind and partial friend, whose very notice of her had been once a source of pride! Was this the irate and easily-ruffled man she used to like to tease, even while she feared him—speaking so quietly and sadly—so almost humbly! Even little Julia looked up quickly, perceiving pain in his voice. He kissed her upturned face, and went on twisting and untwisting her curls.

Isabel had dropped her work. With her hands passionately clasped over her face, she murmured, low, yet loud enough for him partly to hear—though she did not mean he should do so—'This is dreadful!—too dreadful!’

He put the child off his knee quickly, and rose from his seat. One step he had taken as if going to her, when—the door opened, and Mrs. Scott came in, followed by the other children. Isabel gathered up her work, and without a glance at any one, she left the room.

She was sitting in the school-room unoccupied, as she had been for more than an hour, when the servant came in.

‘Is it late, Lucy?’

‘The bell will go in a moment, miss. But I came to bring you this'—laying down a tiny note. ‘Mr. Herbert said he was sorry not to bid you good-bye, miss.’

‘Good-bye?—What!—Is he gone?’

‘Yes, he has been gone about twenty minutes I should think.’

‘Yes,’ put in Fanny, coming into the room. ‘And papa is so vexed about it! He declares Mr. Herbert is very, very capricious; for he promised he would stay longer, and then all at once, he said it was fine, and he must go directly.’

Isabel opened her note and read as follows:—

‘Feeling I have no right to disturb your life by my unwelcome presence, I have told my kind host—what is truth, that I am not well, and want to be at home (meaning my chamber at Petty's Hotel,note of course). Let me say this once, that it grieves me to know of your toil and your trouble. But the peace attending the performance of duty, and the natural cheerfulness of your own temper, will, I hope, support you. I know you well enough to feel sure that you will rise above your trial. Forgive all the pain and annoyance I have ever caused you, and which I can't endure


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to witness. You do not need, nor would you accept, any help I could give. Isabel! no one will ever love you better than I would, and no one will ever more truly desire your happiness—than your old and once near friend, J. HERBERT.’

‘Are you sure he is gone for good?’ Isabel asked.

‘Yes,’ said Fanny, astonished. ‘Why, look! I dare say you may get a peep of him now going up the hill. Yes; see!—there he is!’

And Isabel, keenly scanning the little bit of road visible from the window as it wound round a severe hill, descried a black speck, which, on farther inspection, might be like a man on horseback. When it was out of sight she turned away and walked slowly to her own room, drank some water, and then, sitting down, she closed her eyes in spite of the warning bell for dinner.

She knew now that happiness had been very near her, and that it was gone—gone for ever! Was it not by her own blundering, too? All was over! A grey curtain had once more fallen on her life, giving all things a sombre hue. She tried to think that this was best. She had been tolerably happy and easy before this late return to old thoughts. This had brought both acute pain and great pleasure. Now all was over, and after a little time she should recover herself and return to former habits, and her hardly earned content and equanimity. It would be better, for now there was nothing more to know—no further waiting and looking for tidings—no treacherous whispers from Hope to beguile her into even a passing moment of gladness! She knew all now. She felt as if she had come to the end of an exciting story—THE END! All was over. And yet she must live on, dull and dreary, as she was now. No, that could not, should not be! She must rouse from this dull stupor, this utter hopelessness. She reminded herself of one source of comfort which would soon give her more pleasure. She might now look back on Mr. Herbert's character as the same, neither better nor worse than she had always known it. He was faulty, but with all his excess of sensitiveness he had attractive qualities she had never found in any one else. His present life had not apparently hurt him or tarnished his old generosity. His sense of responsibility, if anything, was increased, she thought; and he seemed more gentle—more humble.

But the second and last bell now clanged shrilly. The dinner loomed before her as some dreaded monster; but go down she must; and eat, or pretend to eat, she would; lest they should think she was fretting. So rallying all her courage and powers of endurance, and feeling very like a machine, she went into the room where the rest of the people were.

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