Chapter XVIII.

THE Defiance, that had rattled out of the archway of the Bull Inn, Aldgate, at two p.m., pulled up at the Helensburgh George at eight. The liberated horses stole limping and steaming into the stable-yard, looking sulky as school-boys who, after having been kept in and flogged for a whole afternoon, at length obtain their freedom when too depressed to enjoy it. Outside passengers, cramped and frozen, stumbled down the steps and ladders, and stumped up and down the slippery pavement, clapping their arms across their chests, and striving to recover a consciousness of legs. Inside passengers issued sleepy and ill-tempered from their covert. The coachman went round for his half-crowns and shillings, regulating the courtesy of his acknowledgment by the nature of the coin— jarvies never thought shillings worth touching hats for. Porters squabbled for luggage. A few idlers, whose curiosity was strong enough to stand the biting cold, regarded the dispersing travellers with the reluctant admiration—reluctant as implying a sense of inferiority on the part of the admirer—with which stay-at-home yokels in the old coaching times always regarded those who possessed the marvellous advantage of having been that very day in big, black, busy London.

My companions and I were soon seated by my mother's fireside.

She was startled to see me, but Mr. Maurice stood my friend, and made out a much better case for me than I could have made for myself; for now that the oppressions of school were overpast, they did not appear heavy enough to justify my truancy. I felt as if I had committed a great sin in running away.

Notwithstanding Mr. Maurice's advocacy, I received (naturally enough, perhaps) but a cold welcome from my mother. My sisters, too, looked shyly on me. Home reached was not the cosy place of unclouded smiles I had longed for when moping far away in Gloucestershire. Is any haven gained as fair as it seemed when we gazed upon it from the troubled sea? I sometimes doubt whether those who get there will find even Heaven as happy as they fancy it.

But Bella was with me, and was to stay with me; and by this time we had become quite friends. So long as she cared for me, I thought I should not mind about the iciest of other people's looks—though those of my mother and my sisters.

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As I sat nodding before the fire after tea, I heard Mr. Maurice and my mother talking—without actively heeding them, for I was almost asleep, but I remember nearly everything they said, and though I did not understand it all at the time, I may as well jot down the substance of it here— according to my present comprehension of it—to explain the connection between his family and ours.

Mr. Maurice had sent home his children, a son and daughter, from India to be educated.

The boy entered the army, married, had one child, the little Bella. His wife died; he became a reprobate, and was now lying sick at Marseilles, whither his father had been summoned.

The daughter, after leaving school, went to reside with a relative in Wales. My father at that time was the curate of the parish in which she lived. They met, became attached, and were about to be married, when a young nobleman came to the village, to read with a tutor during the Long Vacation. The sequel is a hackneyed story; one often told before, one often to be told again—for there will ever be vain women, and the breed of faithless men is destined never to die out so long as autumn breezes shake the sere leaves into the mire. The humble curate was discarded. She, too became a reprobate—sinned the sin for which, for her sex and on earth, there is no forgiveness.

When Mr. Maurice returned to his native land, a widowed, broken-down old man; his son had defiled his name with one black stain; his daughter, had steeped it in a still deeper disgrace. The only one left for his lonely heart to love was his little grandchild. I need not say that the daughter was Mrs. Fitzherbert, or that my mother, with the unerring instinct that enables women to detect everything connected with those they love, had recognised her husband's first choice in the faded beauty, who, discarded in her turn, had come to haunt—the very ghost of her young self—the secluded hamlet that contained his dust.

Mr. Maurice having to go back to town by the night mail, was soon compelled to take his leave. He said good-bye to his darling, again and again, with kisses and with tears. She clung to him, as if he were the sole prop in the wide world round which her heart could twine. How I grudged him the right to give and to receive such love!