Susan Warner.

The Old Helmet, Volume II online

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could not quiet it. After all it was only a heavy summer shower - not a
winter storm. Eleanor hushed her sobs at last to begin her prayers; and
there the rest of the night left her. The morning was dawning grey in
the east, when she threw herself upon her bed for an hour's sleep.
Sleep came then without waiting.

Perhaps Mrs. Caxton had not been much more reposeful than her niece;
for she was not the first one down stairs. Eleanor was there before
her; Mrs. Caxton watched her as she came in; she was ceremoniously
putting the fire in best burning condition, and brushing up the ashes
from the hearth. As Mrs. Caxton came near, Eleanor looked up and a
silent greeting passed between them; very affectionate, but silent
evidently of purpose. Neither of them was ready to speak. The bell was
rung, the servants were gathered; and immediately after prayers
breakfast was brought in. It was a silent meal for the first half of
it. Mrs. Caxton still watched Eleanor, whose eyes did not readily meet
hers. What about her? Her manner was as usual, one would have said, yet
it was not; nor was she. A little delicate undefined difference made
itself felt; and that Mrs. Caxton was studying. A little added grace; a
little added deftness and alacrity; Mrs. Caxton had seen it in that
order taken of the fire before breakfast; she saw it and read it then.
And in Eleanor's face correspondingly there was the same difference;
impossible to tell where it lay, it was equally impossible not to
perceive it. Though her face was grave enough, there was a beauty in
the lines of it that yesterday had not seen; a nameless witness in the
corners of her mouth, that told tales the tongue would not. Mrs. Caxton
looked on and saw it and read it, for half the breakfast time, before
she spoke. Maybe she had a secret sigh or two to cover; but at any rate
there was nothing like that in her look or her voice when she spoke.

"So you will go, Eleanor!"

Eleanor started, and coloured; then looked down at her plate, the blush
growing universal.

"Have you decided, my love?"

Eleanor leaned her head upon her hand, as if with the question came the
remembrance of last night's burden of thoughts; but her answer was a
quiet low "yes."

"May I know - for I feel myself responsible to a degree in this
matter, - may I know, on what ground?"

Eleanor's look was worth five hundred pounds. The little glance of
surprise and consciousness - the flash of hidden light, there was no
need to ask from what magazine, answered so completely, so
involuntarily. She cast down her eyes immediately and answered in words
sedate enough -

"Because I am unable to come to any other decision, ma'am."

"But Eleanor, my dear," said Mrs. Caxton, - "do you know, Mr. Rhys
himself would be unwilling you should come to him for his own sake
alone - in Fiji."

Eleanor turned away from the table at that and covered her face with
her hands; a perfect rush of confusion bringing over face and neck and
almost even over the little white fingers, a suffusing crimson glow.
She spoke presently.

"I cannot say anything to that, aunt Caxton. I have tried myself as
well as I can. I think I would go anywhere and do anything where I saw
clearly my work and my place were put for me. I do not know anything
more about it."

"My love, that is enough. I believe you. I entirely approve your
decision. I spoke, because I needed to ask the question _he_ would have
asked if he had been here. Mr. Rhys has written to me very stringently
on the subject."

"So he has to me, ma'am."

"If you have settled that question with your conscience, my dear, there
is no more necessary to be said about it. Conscience should be clear on
that point, and the question settled securely. If it is not, you had
better take time for thought and self-searching."

"I do not need it, aunt Caxton."

Mrs. Caxton left her place and came round to Eleanor, for the sole
purpose of taking her in her arms and kissing her. Grave, earnest
kisses, on brow and cheek, speaking a heart full of sympathy, full of
tenderness, full of appreciation of all that this decision of Eleanor's
involved, full of satisfaction with it too. A very unusual sort of
demonstration from Mrs. Caxton, as was the occasion that called for it.
Eleanor received it as the seal of the whole business between them. Her
aunt's arms detained her lovingly while she pressed her lips to every
part of Eleanor's face; then Mrs. Caxton went back to her place and
poured herself out another cup of coffee. Sentiment she had plenty; she
was not in the least bit sentimental. She creamed her coffee
thoughtfully and broke bread and eat it, before she came out with
another question.

"When will you go, Eleanor?"

Eleanor looked up doubtfully. "Where, aunt Caxton?"

"To Fiji."

There seemed to be some irresolution or uncertainty in the girl's mind;
for she hesitated.

"Aunt Caxton, I doubt much - my mother will oppose my going."

"I think she will. But I think also that her opposition can be
overcome. When will you write to her?"

"I will write to-day, ma'am."

"We must have an answer before we send any other letters. Supposing she
does not oppose, or that her opposition is set aside, I come back to my
question. When will you go?"

Eleanor looked up doubtfully again. "I don't know, ma'am - I suppose
opportunities of going only occur now and then."

"That is all - with long intervals sometimes. Opportunities for _your_
going would come only rarely. You must think about it, Eleanor; for we
must know what we are to tell Mr. Rhys."

Eleanor was silent; her colour went and came.

"You must think about it, my dear. If you write to Mr. Rhys to-day and
send it, we may get an answer from him possibly in twenty
months - possibly in twenty-four months. Then if you wait four or five
months for an opportunity to make the voyage, and have a reasonably
good passage, you may see your friend in three years from now. But it
might well happen that letters might be delayed, and that you might
wait much longer than four or five months for a ship and company in
which you could sail; so that the three years might be nearer four."

"I have thought of all that, aunt Caxton," Eleanor said, while the
colour which had been varying in her cheeks fixed itself in two deep
crimson spots.

Mrs. Caxton was now silent on her part, slowly finishing her coffee and
putting the cups together on the tray. She left it for her niece to
speak next.

"I have thought of all that, aunt Caxton," Eleanor repeated after a
little while, - "and - "

"Well my love?"

"Aunt Caxton," said the girl, looking up now while her cheeks and brow
were all one crimson flush - "is it unmaidenly in me - would it be - to go
so, without being asked?"

"Has he not asked you?"

"Yes ma'am. But - "


"Not since he got there."

"Have you reason to think his mind is altered on the subject?"

"No, ma'am," said Eleanor, drooping her head.

"What does your own feeling bid you do, my love?"

"I have thought it all over, aunt Caxton," said the girl slowly, - "I
did that last night; I have thought of everything about it; and my
feeling was - "

"Well, my love?"

"My feeling, as far as I am concerned - was to take the first good
opportunity that offered."

"My love, that is just what I thought you would do. And what I would
have you do, if you go at all. It is not unmaidenly. Simple honest
frankness, is the most maidenly thing in the world, when it is a
woman's time to speak. The fact that your speaking must be action does
not alter the matter. When it takes two years for people to hear from
each other, life would very soon be spent in the asking of a few
questions and getting the answers to them. I am a disinterested
witness, Eleanor; for when you are gone, all I care for in this world
is gone. You are my own child to me now."

Eleanor's head bent lower.

"But I am glad to have you go, nevertheless, my child. I think Mr. Rhys
wants you even more than I do; and I have known for some time that you
wanted something. And besides - I shall only be separated from you in

Eleanor made no response.

"What are you going to do now?" was Mrs. Caxton's question in her usual
calm tone.

"Write to mamma."

"Very well. Do not send your letter to her without letting mine go with

"But aunt Caxton," said Eleanor lifting up her head, - "my only fear
is - I am quite satisfied in my own mind, and I do not care for
people - my only fear is, lest Mr. Rhys himself should think I come too
easily. You know, he is fastidious in his notions." She spoke with
great difficulty and with her face a flame.

"Your fear will go away when you have heard my story," said Mrs. Caxton
tranquilly. "I will give you that to-night. He is fastidious; but he is
a sensible man."

Quieted with which suggestion, Eleanor went off to her desk.



"But never light and shade
Coursed one another more on open ground,
Beneath a troubled heaven, than red and pale
Across the face of Enid hearing her."

Various letters were written that day. In the evening the two ladies
came together again cheerfully. The time between had not all been spent
in letter-writing, for the world does not stand still for love matters.
Eleanor had been out the whole afternoon on visits of kindness and help
to sick and poor people. Mrs. Caxton had been obliged to attend to the
less interesting company of one or two cheese-factors. At the tea-table
the subject of the morning came back.

"You posted your letter and mine, Eleanor?"

"Yes, ma'am. But I cannot think mamma's answer will be favourable. I
cannot fancy it."

"Well, we shall see. The world is a curious world; and the wind does
not always blow from the quarter whence we expect it. We must wait and

"I am puzzled to imagine, aunt Caxton," Eleanor said after some pause,
"how you came to know all about this matter in the first place. How
came you to know what I never knew?"

"That is my story," said Mrs. Caxton. "We will let the table be cleared
first, my dear."

So it was done. But Eleanor left her work by her side to-night, and
looked into her aunt's face to listen.

"I never should have known about it, child, till you had, if you had
been here. You remember how you went away in a hurry. Who knows?
Perhaps, but for that, none of us would have been any wiser to-day on
the subject than we were then. It is very possible."

"How, ma'am?"

"You disappeared, you know, in one night, and were gone. When Mr. Rhys
came home, the next day or the same day, I saw that he was very much
disappointed. That roused my suspicions of him; they had been only
doubtful before. He is not a person to shew what he thinks, unless he

"So I knew; that made me surprised."

"I saw that he was very much disappointed, and looked very sober; but
he said hardly anything about it, and I was forced to be silent. Then
in a little while - a few weeks, I think - he received his appointment,
with the news that he must sail very soon. He had to leave Plassy then
in a very few days; for he wanted some time in London and elsewhere. I
saw there was something more than leaving Plassy, upon his mind; he was
graver than that could make him, I knew; and he was giving up something
more than England, I knew by is prayers.

"One night we were sitting here by the fire - it was a remarkably chill
evening and we had kindled a blaze in he chimney and shut the windows.
Mr. Rhys sat silent, watching the fire and keeping up the blaze; too
busy with his own thoughts to talk to me. I was taken with a spirit of
meddling which does not very often possess me; and asked him how much
longer he had to stay. He said how long, in so many words; they were
short, as pain makes words.

"'How comes it,' I asked, plunging into the matter, 'that you do not
take a wife with you? like everybody else.'

"He answered, in dry phrases, 'that it would be presumption in him to
suppose that anybody would go with him, if he were to ask.'

"I said quietly, I thought he was mistaken; that anybody who was worthy
of him would go; and it could not be _presumption_ to ask anybody else.

"'You do not realize, Mrs. Caxton, how much it would be asking of any
one,' he said; 'you do not know what sacrifices it would call for.'

"'Love does not care for sacrifices,' I reminded him.

"'I have no right to suppose that anybody has such a degree of regard
for me,' he said.

"I can't tell what in his manner and words told me there was more
behind. They were a little short and dry; and his ordinary way of
speaking is short sometimes, but never with a sort of edge like this - a
hard edge. You know it is as frank and simple when he speaks short as
when his words come out in the gentlest way. It hurt me, for I saw that
something hurt him.

"I asked if there was not anybody in England good enough for him? He
said there were a great many too good.

"'Mr. Rhys,' said I, - I don't know what possessed me to be so bold, - 'I
hope you are not going to leave your heart behind with somebody, when
you go to Fiji?'

"He got up and walked once or twice through the room, went out and
presently came back again. I was afraid I had offended him, and I was a
good deal troubled; but I did not know what to say. He sat down again
and spoke first.

"'Mrs. Caxton,' said he, 'since you have probed the truth, I may as
well confess it. I am going to do the unwise thing you have mentioned.'

"'Who are you going to leave your heart with, Mr. Rhys?' I asked.

"'With the lady who has just left you.'


"'Yes,' he said.

"'Have you told her, Mr. Rhys?' I asked.

"He said no.

"'You are not going to do her the injustice to go and _not_ speak to

"'Why should I tell her?' he said.

"'There might be several answers given to that,' I said; 'but the best
one at present seems to be, why should you _not?_'

"'For several reasons,' he said. 'In the first place I do not know at
all whether Miss Powle has that degree of love to Christ that she would
be willing to forsake all her earthly prospects - home and friends - for
hard work in his service. In the second place, even if she have that, I
have not the slightest reason to believe that she - that she cares
enough for me to go with me at my asking.'

"'And do you mean to go in ignorance?' I said.

"'Yes - I must.'

"I waited a little, and then I told him I thought he was wrong.

"'Why?' he asked quickly.

"'People cannot see each other's hearts,' I said. 'Suppose that she
have the same secret feeling towards you that you have towards her. She
cannot speak; you will not; and so both would be unhappy for nothing.

"'I never saw the least thing like it,' he said.

"'I suppose she might say the same of you - might she not?'

"'Yes and with truth; for knowing the uncertainties - or rather the
certainties - of my position, I have not given her the least cause.'

"'You could hardly expect demonstrations from her in that case,' I said.

"'There is no chance, Mrs. Caxton, even if it were according to your
supposition. Her friends would never permit her to marry a man with my
lot in life; - and I do not know that I ought to ask her, even if they
would. She has a very fair prospect for this world's happiness.'

"'What do you think of your own lot in life?' I asked him.

"'I would not exchange it, you know,' he said, 'for any other the world
could offer me. It is brighter and better.'

"'It strikes me you are selfish, - ' I told him.

"He laughed a little, for the first time; but he grew as grave as
possible immediately after.

"'I have not meant to be selfish,' he said; 'But I could not take a
woman to Fiji, who had not thoroughly considered the matter and counted
the cost. That could not be done in a little while. The world has a
fair chance now to see if it can weaken Miss Powle's principles or
overcome her faithfulness to them. It is better that she should try
herself perhaps, before having such a question asked of her.'

"'And suppose she comes clear out of the trial?' I said.

"'Then I shall be in Fiji.'

"We were both silent a while. He began then.

"'Mrs. Caxton, without invading any confidences or seeking to know
anything that should not be known, - may I ask you a question?'

"'Certainly,' I said. 'I reserve the discretion of answering.'

"'Of course. Your words look like a rebuke of the attitude I have taken
towards this subject. Is it proper for me to ask, whether you have any
foundation for them beyond your general knowledge of human nature and
your good will towards me? I mean - whether you, as a friend, see any
ground of hope for me?'

"'If you were going to stay in England,' I said, 'I would answer no
such question. Every man must make his own observations and run his own
risk. But these circumstances are different. And appealed to as a
friend - and answering on my own observations simply - I should say, that
I think your case not hopeless.'

"I could see the colour rise in his cheek; but he sat quite still and
did not speak, till it faded again.

"'I have never heard a word on the subject,' I told him. 'I do not say
I am certain of anything. I may mistake. Only, seeing you are going to
the other end of the world, without the chance of finding out anything
for yourself, I think it fair to tell you what, as a woman, I should
judge of the case.'

"'Why do you tell me?' he said quickly.

"'I am but answering your question. You must judge whether the answer
is worth anything.'

"He half laughed again, at himself; at least I could see the beginning
of a smile; but he was too terribly in earnest to be anything but
serious. He sat silent; got up and fidgetted round the room; then came
and stood by the chimney piece looking down at me.

"'Mrs. Caxton,' he said, 'I am going to venture to ask something from
you - to fulfil a contingent commission. When I am gone, if Miss Powle
returns to you, or when you have otherwise opportunity, - will you, if
you can, find out the truth of her feeling on these subjects, which I
have failed to find out? You tempt me beyond my power of

"'What shall I do with the truth, if I find it, Mr. Rhys?'

"'In that case,' he said, - 'if it is as you suppose it possible it may
be, though I dare not and do not hope it; - if it be so, then you may
tell her all I have confessed to you to-night.'


"'You are uncommonly practical to-night,' he said. 'I could have but
one motive in discovering it to her.'

"'To ask her to follow you to Fiji?'

"'I dare not put it in words. I do not believe the chance will ever
come. But I am unable to go and leave the chance changed into an

"'We are talking of what _may_ be,' I said. 'But you do not suppose
that she could follow you on my report of your words alone?'

"'I shall be too far off to speak them myself.'

"'You can write then,' I said.

"'Do you remember what the distances are, and the intervals of time
that must pass between letter and letter? When should I write?'

"'Now - this evening. I am not thinking of such courtship as took place
in the antediluvian days.'

"'I cannot write on such an utter uncertainty. I have not hope enough;
although I cannot bear to leave the country without enlisting you to
act for me.'

"'I shall reconsider the question of acting,' I said, 'if I have no
credentials to produce. I cannot undertake to tell anything to Eleanor
merely to give her pleasure - or merely to give her pain.'

"'Would you have me write to her here - now?' he asked.

"'Yes, I would,' I told him.

"He sat pondering the matter a little while, making up the fire as you
did this morning - only with a very different face; and then with a half
laugh he said I was making a fool of him, and he went off. I sat
still - and in a few minutes he came down and handed me that note for

Eleanor's cheeks would have rivalled the scarlet Lobelia or Indian
Mallow, or anything else that is brilliant. She kept profound silence.
It was plain enough what Mr. Rhys expected her to do - that is,
supposing he had any expectations. Now her question was, what would her
mother say? And Eleanor in her secret heart looked at the probability
of obstinate opposition in that quarter; and then of long, long waiting
and delay; perhaps never to be ended but with the time and the power of
doing what now her heart longed to do. The more she thought of it, the
less she could imagine that her mother would yield her consent; or that
her opposition would be anything but determined and unqualified. Then
what could she do? Eleanor sighed.

"No," said Mrs. Caxton. "Have patience, my dear, and believe that all
will go right - _however it goes_, Eleanor. We will do our part; but we
must be content with our part. There is another part, which is the
Lord's; let him do that, and let us say it is well, Eleanor. Till we
have learnt that, we have not learnt our lesson."

"I do say it, and will, aunt Caxton," said the girl. But she said
nothing more that night.

To tell the truth, they were rather silent days that followed. Mrs.
Powle's letters of answer did not come speedily; indeed no one knew at
Plassy just where she might be at this time, nor how far the Plassy
letters might have to travel in order to reach her; for communication
was not frequent between the two families. And till her answer came,
Eleanor could not forget that the question of her life was undecided;
nor Mrs. Caxton, that the decision might take away from her, probably
for ever, the only living thing that was very dear to her. That was
Eleanor now. They were very affectionate to each other those days, very
tender and thoughtful for each other; not given to much talking.
Eleanor was a good deal out of the house; partly busy with her errands
of kindness, partly stilling her troublesome and impatient thoughts
with long roamings on foot or on horseback over the mountains and moors.

"The spring has come, aunt Caxton," she said, coming in herself one
day, fresh enough to be spring's impersonation. "I heard a blackbird
and a wheat-ear; and I have found a violet for you."

"You must have heard blackbirds before. And you have got more than
violets there."

"Yes, ma'am - not much. I found the Nepeta and the ivy-leaved Veronica
under the hedge; and whitlow grass near the old tower. That's the
willow catkin you know of course - and sloe. That's all - but it's

A shade came over the faces of both. Where might another spring find

"I have got something more for you," said Mrs. Caxton.

"My letter, ma'am! - Had you one, aunt Caxton?"


Eleanor could not tell from her aunt's answer what the letter might be.
She went off with her own, having parted suddenly with all the colour
she had brought in with her. It returned again however soon.

Mrs. Powle declared that according to all _her_ experience and power of
judging of the world, her daughter and her sister Mrs. Caxton were both
entirely crazy. She had never, in her life, heard of anything so
utterly absurd and ridiculous as the proposition upon which they had
required her to give an opinion. Her opinion found no words in the
English language strong enough in which to give it. That Eleanor should
be willing to forego every earthly prospect of good or pleasure, was
like Eleanor; that is, it was like the present Eleanor; an entirely
infatuated, blind, fanatical, unreasonable thing. Mrs. Powle had given
up the expectation of anything wiser or better from her, until years
and the consequences of her folly should have taught her when it would
be too late. Why Eleanor, if she wished to throw herself away, should
pitch upon the South Seas for the place of her retirement, was a piece
of the same mysterious fatuity which marked the whole proceeding. Why
she could think of no pleasanter wedding journey than a voyage of
twelve thousand miles in search of a husband, was but another
incomprehensible point. Mrs. Powle had a curiosity to know what Eleanor
expected to live upon out there, where she presumed the natives
practised no agriculture and wheaten flour was a luxury unknown? And
what she expected to _do?_ However, having thus given her opinion, Mrs.
Powle went on to say, that she must quite decline to give it. She
regarded Eleanor as entirely the child of her aunt Caxton, as she
understood was also Mrs. Caxton's own view; most justly, in Mrs.
Powle's opinion, since conversion and adoption to Mrs. Caxton's own
family and mind must be amply sufficient to supersede the accident of
birth. At any rate, Mrs. Powle claimed no jurisdiction in the matter;
did not choose to exercise any. She felt herself incompetent. One

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Online LibrarySusan WarnerThe Old Helmet, Volume II → online text (page 13 of 25)