Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

Fuel of fire online

. (page 20 of 22)
Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerFuel of fire → online text (page 20 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


hopes and joys; and not being the kind of woman
who haunts burying-grounds, she wisely avoided
them.

There are some natures that cling to the last rest-
ing-places of what they have loved, and delight to
plant flowers there, watering these flowers with



342 FUEL OF FIRE

tears; and there are others who cannot bear the
agony which the mere sight of such sepulchres
arouses, and who would, therefore, fain hide their
dead away out of their sight, and let them be as
though they had never been. God pity those be-
reaved hearts whose sole happiness lies in remem-
brance; for their sorrow is indeed great! But God
help those more sorely afflicted ones whose sole hap-
piness lies in forgetfulness ; for their misery is in-
finitely greater !

Therefore, it never came to pass that Laurence
met Nancy walking in the lanes, as they used so
often to meet in the happy, far-off days ; but on the
Sunday he saw her face to face coming out of Tet-
leigh church, and the sight cut him to the heart.
Was that thin, pale, careworn woman his sunny little
Nancy? And was his the hand that had wiped the
sunshine out of that bleached face, and written sor-
row, in capital letters, all over it?

As his heart went out silently in an agony of pity
toward the girl whose life he had deliberately
spoiled, a wild hope took hold of Laurence that
Nancy was innocent after all, and his mother the real
culprit. He hated himself for wishing to prove his
mother guilty; he felt that such a wish was despic-
able in the extreme ; but he had never loved her as he
had loved Nancy, and therefore her possible wrong-
doing did not wound him to the quick as Nancy's
did. He loved Lady Alicia so little that forgive-
ness toward her came easy to him : he loved Nancy



LADY ALICIA 343

so much that he felt a sin of hers would be branded
into his very soul, and that nothing could wipe it
out forever. That his mother should be weighed in
the balances and be found wanting was an endurable
and by no means unexpected accident: but that
Nancy should fall short of the ideal which he had
formed of her was a calamity sufficient to make
angels weep — a punishment which he felt was
greater than he could bear. If, however, Lady
Alicia had set fire to the Hall, then Nancy was as
innocent as he himself; and there was no reason why
he should not fall on his knees before her, and beg
her pardon for even having distrusted her, and let
her comfort his sore heart as she alone knew how to
comfort it.

If Nancy was heartsick for Laurence, he was none
the less heartsick for Nancy. The agony of separa-
tion was not killing him as it was killing her, because
a man's physique is made of stronger elements than a
woman's; but he hungered and thirsted and prayed
and agonised not one whit less than she. She was
the one human being to whom he had shown all that
was in his heart — before whom he had poured out
the hidden treasures of his soul; and — having once
broken down the hedge of his reserve — the longing
to do it again was almost uncontrollable; yet there
was no one with whom he could do it save Nancy.

He still felt that his mother's crime would always
be his disgrace : but he knew Nancy well enough to
understand that she would be willing to share even



344



FUEL OF FIRE



dishonour with him — and, what was more, he did
not mind her sharing it. At last his love had shown
itself stronger than his pride, and he realised that
Nancy's pity would heal his sores rather than
wound him afresh. But even yet his love was not
strong enough to bear that his queen should do
wrong and still remain his queen. It could stand
anything but that Nancy herself should fall below
his ideal of her : for this he felt he could never for-
give her, because in that case her sin would be
against herself rather than against him. He could
forgive mere sins against himself; but for sins
against the woman whom he worshipped there was
no pardon to be found.

While Laurence's heart was daily softening
toward Nancy, and his soul was hourly crying out
for her, the Burtons and their daughter started for
Mentone: and he looked in vain in all the familiar
places for the pale little face which had become the
centre of his universe. Nancy was now out of his
reach.

But that did not put her out of his thoughts; in
fact, it had a precisely opposite effect. All that
early spring — when the roads were swept clean by
the east wind, and the fields smelt of the daisies that
were yet to be ( for there is always a smell of future
daisies in the air on the first spring days), Laurence's
heart went out to Nancy, and cried for her as thirsty
men cry for water in a barren and dry land where
no water is. The more he thought about it the more



LADY ALICIA 345

fully he became convinced that it was his mother
who had set fire to Baxendale Hall ; his poor, foolish
mother, who had never been able in all her life to dis-
cover the distinction between good and evil — much
less to choose the one and refuse the other. He
remembered how she had begged him to do the deed
himself, and how utterly futile had been his efforts
to convince her that such a suggestion was of the
nature of sin ; and he knew her well enough to under-
stand how she could succeed in convincing herself
that she was actually performing a righteous act in
fulfilling the old prophecy, as well as in making her
son (as she thought) a rich man for the rest of his
life.

The memory of Nancy's suggestion that he should
burn down the house of his fathers — a suggestion
which had been eating into his very soul for the last
six months, and making his existence a burden to
him — began gradually to fade from his memory.
After all, he had laid too much stress on the girFs
idle words, he told himself : was she not always talk-
ing nonsense which she did not in the least mean,
and making absurd statements which she never ex-
pected to be believed ? — and had he not shown him-
self an arrant fool in taking this one conversation of
hers au pied de la lettre, instead of accepting it as the
mere joke for which it was intended.

So during that spring Nancy once more regained
her place in Laurence's life; and he eagerly looked
forward to the time when he could take her into his



346 FUEL OF FIRE

arms again, and pour out all his story of shame and
sorrow and wounded sensibility into her sympathetic
ear. He would make her understand him this time,
he said to himself : he would never again be guilty
of the folly of setting up a barrier of reserve between
himself and the woman whom he adored. He would
tell her the whole truth : how he believed that Lady
Alicia was the culprit who had set Baxendale Hall
in flames, and that therefore he could not take the
insurance money: and he felt sure, when Nancy
heard this, she would see the utter impossibility of
his allowing himself to reap any pecuniary benefit
from his mother's crime.

He could not write all this to Nancy: his suspi-
cion against Lady Alicia must never be set down in
black and white, lest the very birds of the air should
carry it abroad : it must only be whispered into
Nancy's ear, and locked up in her loving breast for
the rest of their lives. So he decided to wait until
she came back to Wayside, and to put everything
straight between herself and him when they met.

The warmer climate of the sunny south did not
do as much for Nancy as her parents had hoped.
She lost her cough, and the doctors could find noth-
ing organically wrong with her; but neither climate
nor medicine can do much in the way of ministering
to a mind diseased. Had the last miserable six
months been blotted out, Nancy would speedily have
become as strong and well as she had ever been in
her life : but she could not forget things — she was



LADY ALICIA 347

not made after that pattern — and the memory of
what in one short year she had won and lost was
kilHng her as surely as, if more slowly than, any
disease defined by the faculty.

And yet she prayed to forget — she hated to re-
member: that was the hard part of it. There are
sweet-natured women who can cherish their sorrow
until it becomes to them a familiar friend on earth
and a guide to heaven; who order their harmonious
goings by the thought of what their loved ones
would have wished, until upon these gentle souls
those loved ones exercise a stronger influence than
they ever exercised in the days of their flesh; and
such women are tried by sorrow as by a refiner's fire,
and come out as burnished gold. But Nancy was
not after this kind. She was passionate rather than
tender, and so the "grace of a day that is dead had
no hold upon her." On the contrary, she chafed
against it, and hated it, and longed to blot it forever
out of the book of her remembrance. She wanted
no tender memories of Laurence to occupy the place
he had left vacant in her heart : she desired not that
grief should "fill the room up of her absent love, and
remember her of all his gracious parts;" gentler
women would have wished this, but not Nancy. She
wanted the man himself, just as he was, with all his
over-scrupulousness and impracticability and un-
reasonableness, to have and to hold, for better, for
worse, till death should them part. Failing this,
she prayed for forgetfulness — prayed that he might



348 FUEL OF FIRE

depart out of her existence altogether, and the mem-
ory of him might not trouble her again — that he
Avould leave her free to live her own life, unvexed by
the haunting shadows of what might have been.
And yet she was so fashioned that oblivion was im-
possible to her; the boon she craved was strictly
denied to her by the peculiarities of her own nature ;
the more she strove to hate and to forget, the more
passionately did she love and the more vividly did
she remember. For the which surely Heaven pitied
her.

Spring had fully dawned when Lady Alicia came
back to England and to Poplar Farm. Her son was
delighted to see the change which the journey had
wrought in her : she looked younger and happier
(and consequently handsomer) than she had looked
for years.

*'I am so glad to see you so well, mother," said
Laurence affectionately.

"Yes, dear Laurence, I know I look well; I
noticed it myself in the looking-glass, which so often
tells us anything but a flattering tale, as dear Some-
body — I forget his name — remarked."

"It was the warm weather suited you."

"Ah ! it was not only the climate, dear Laurence,
that renewed my youth, though I confess sunshine
is very sweet and soothing, even if somewhat trying
to the complexion: but it does no real damage if
one always wears a gauze veil. Your dear aunt's
maid would not permit me — positively would not



LADY ALICIA 349

permit me — to step out-of-doors without a white
gauze veil; and I felt most grateful to her for her
forethought. She is an excellent person — quite ex-
cellent ; I don't know what I should have done with-
out her."

Laurence sighed : *'I wish I could afford for you
to have a maid of your own, mother."

**Well, dear child, I cannot deny that a maid has
a very beneficial effect upon a woman's character.
You see, it is quite impossible to find leisure for
cultivating one's higher nature if one has to do one's
own hair and look after one's own wardrobe; and yet
it is so sweet to cultivate one's higher nature if one
can find time — almost a duty, in fact."

"I suppose it is." Laurence with difficulty re-
pressed a smile.

"I always think dear Saint Peter — or was it Saint
Paul's remark (I invariably mix the two up) — about
a woman not plaiting her hair or putting on gold
and apparel, but having a meek and quiet spirit in-
stead, is so very beautiful and appropriate. But it
is only those women who have a maid to see to the
plaiting of the hair and the putting on of the apparel
that get the time to attend to the development of the
meek and quiet spirit. One woman really cannot
imdertake both departments herself; and yet it is
so sad for either to be neglected."

*'I suppose if you had only time for one, you
would consider the former more important?" said
Laurence.



l/"



\\ 350 FUEL OF FIRE



"(



"Of course, dear child, of course: because one
loses caste if one's hair is badly done or one's clothes
are shabby, while nobody thinks any the worse of
one for not having a meek and quiet spirit. Not
that I don't think it is very sweet and Christian to be
both — I do indeed : but of course the things that
show are always of more importance than the things
that don't show. Anybody can see that."

'Of course." Laurence's tone was dry.

'And now I have a confession to make to you,
dear Laurence, a most serious confession. I am
afraid you will be very angry with me — you have a
somewhat unreasonable temper, as your poor dear
father had — but I feel sure you will pardon me in
the end."

Laurence's heart stood still for a moment, and
then went on at double-quick speed. So the confes-
sion he had prepared his mind to hear was coming
at last, and his darling was about to be cleared from
the slightest shadow of suspicion. *'Well, what is
it, mother?"

''You see, dear child, poverty is peculiarly repel-
lent to any one of my refined and sensitive nature :
and not only repellent — it is also positively injuri-
ous. It creates faults — or, rather, I should say,
weaknesses — which otherwise would not exist, and
which have never distinguished any of the Moates
before; and it prevents the full development of vir-
tues which properly belong to my character."



LADY ALICIA 351

*'Yes, yes; I hear." Laurence was impatient; but
his mother was not going to be hurried.

^'Therefore I feel it to be my duty to myself — and
to all around me — to escape from a state which is so
injurious to my higher nature. You see, it is the
duty of us all to cultivate our higher natures — dear
Saint Paul says something about working out our
own salvation, and I am sure he means by this that
we must avoid all things which are not profitable to
us — in fact, he uses those exact words, if I remember
rightly."

"And poverty is not profitable to your salvation.
Is that what vou mean, mother?"

*Y'es, dear child; how quickly you comprehend
things! If only your poor dear father had under-
stood me as well as you do, what a much better and
happier woman I might have been."

Laurence had his doubts as to the accuracy of the
deduction : but he wisely refrained from putting
them into words.

''Therefore I have felt for some time that it was
my duty at all costs to escape from poverty. I was
not doing myself or my higher instincts anything
like justice; and it is so beautiful to do justice to
one's highest and best self, whatever sacrifice it may
involve."

"Even if it be Baxendale Hall itself that happens
to be the burnt offering."

Lady Alicia sighed : "But that sacrifice was



352



FUEL OF FIRE



wasted,, you see, owing to your unfortunate wrong-
headedness and obstinacy."

"Then what is the second sacrifice involved in this
moral regeneration?"



''It is hardly a sacrifice, dear Laurence; though I
shall always believe that Baxendale Hall was burned
by a miracle in order to give my higher nature a
chance of fuller development. I remember once
coming upon a beautiful little poem about something
*for which I pant,' and fuller something else I want,
which exactly expresses all that I feel."

Laurence could hardly control his impatience:
"As I unfortunately spoiled sacrifice number one,
for goodness' sake, tell me what sacrifice number
two is : and be quick about it."

" It is not a sacrifice, as I have told you, dear Lau-
rence; it is only a sweet, beautiful change and devel-
opment. Dear Lord Watercress, with whom at
Cannes I renewed my former friendship, has again
asked me to be his wife, and I have accepted him."

Laurence was dumbfounded. He had never
dreamt of his mother's marrying again.

"I think it is so touching and beautiful," contin-
ued Lady Alicia, "that T should be given another
chance of happiness, after having been so foolish as
to refuse him for the sake of your father all those
years ago. As dear Shakespeare says, there is a
divinity which puts things straight again, however
much we may make a mull of them ourselves."

Then Laurence found words: "I hope Lord



LADY ALICIA 353

Watercress will make you very happy, mother," he
said gently.

"I am sure he will, dear child ; he has twenty thou-
sand a year and two most charming places. He
says we must each go our own way, and neither be
bothered with the other, as there is money enough
for both. So different from your poor dear father,
who was always wanting me to be with him, and
never could be happy without me! Ah, dear Lord
Watercress could have given him a lesson in un-
selfishness !"

"We'll leave my father out of the conversation
altogether, if you don't mind, mother, and devote
our attention to — his successor."

"You see, dear Laurence, I am sure it is my duty
to marry a rich man if I can; and it is very sweet of
you to take it so nicely. You don't seem a bit angry,
and I was so afraid you would be."

"No, I am not angry. I've no right to be."

"And I want to tell you something else just to
show you what a lot of harm poverty was doing to
my character; and how necessary it is for me to be
rich if I am to be as good as I should like to be — and
as I ought to be, for it is everybody's duty to be
good, don't you think?"

"I suppose so; but it's a pretty hard job some-
times !"

"Of course you will keep what I'm going to tell
you quite a secret, won't you?"

'Mother, is it necessary to ask me that?"



it^



354 FUEL OF FIRE

"Well, then," said Lady Alicia, in a nervous, de-
precating manner, totally unlike her usual calm
serenity — "would you believe it of me, dear Lau-
rence? — I so hated being poor that I made up my
mind to set fire to Baxendale Hall on purpose to get
the insurance monev ! I did indeed ! Isn't it awful
to think that poverty could bring a gentlewoman and
a Moate to such a strait as that ?" And her ladyship
began to cry.

"Don't cry, mother, dear, but tell me all about it."
Laurence was putting a tremendous restraint upon
himself.

"That is all : and it is bad enough, goodness
knows ! I see now how wicked of me it would have
been ; but at that time I wanted money so dreadfully
that I didn't care what sin I committed to get it."

"Then didn't you carry out your intention after
all?" asked Laurence, with a strange, tight feeling
round his heart.

"No, no," sobbed Lady Alicia; "but that was no
credit to me. It was when I was contemplating this
wicked step that somebody forestalled me — good-
ness knows who! — and actually did what I had in-
tended to do. And then — when I heard what people
said and thought about the crime — I realised what
a lucky woman I have been just to have escaped
committing it. You see, I never knew how wrong
it was till I heard other people say so."

Laurence fell on his knees at his mother's feet:
"Mother, swear to me that you are speaking the



LADY ALICIA



355



truth — that you did not carry out your intention.
Remember, even if you did, I would freely forgive
you, and keep the secret with my life."

''No, I didn't do it, Laurence: indeed I didn't.
Though I don't see that I am really much better than
if I had. It was not m.y fault that I didn't carry out
my sinful intention. Oh, it is dreadful to think that
I — a Moate — could have simk so low!"

Laurence stretched out a trembling hand and
seized a Bible that was lying on his mother's work
table : ''Will you kiss this and swear that it wasn't
you who set fire to the Hall ?"

Lady Alicia kissed the book : "I swear that it was
not I," she said solemnly; "though I feel my guilt is
the same as if it were."

Laurence rose from his knees with his face as
white as a sheet, for he knew that his mother was
speaking the truth.

She rose also : "I think I will go to bed now. Of
course you will never mention to dear Lord Water-
cress what I have just told you."

"I swear I will never mention it to anybody as
long as I live," replied Laurence, kissing her.
"Good night, mother; I hope you will be very
happy."

When Lady Alicia had left the room he sank into
a chair and buried his face in his hands. "So Nancy
is the culprit after all," he groaned; "and I love her
as I love my own soul."



CHAPTER XXII.

THE LANES AGAIN.

In spite of all the ways you tried
To stifle him with vain endeavour,

Love never for a moment died
But lives forever.

Baxendale no doubt ought to have rejoiced to
find that his suspicions were incorrect so far as Lady
Alicia was concerned. He felt this very strongly
himself, and acknoweldged in his heart that his
modified satisfaction proved him to be a most un-
dutiful son. Yet he had an excuse — so he had con-
vinced himself — in the fact of the guilty person's
being neither his mother nor Nancy; so that the
exculpation of the one meant the implication of the
other. Wherefore the dutiful son gave way to the
devout lover : which was human nature.

None the less, he repented him of having done his
mother an injustice — although Lady Alicia's con-
fession of her unlawful intention robbed this injus-
tice of most of its grossness : and he tried in every
way to make up to her for the imagination of his
heart by an unwonted tenderness.

Yet he could not conceal from himself that his
cup of misery was well-nigh overflowing. So long



THE LANES AGAIN 357

as a doubt existed in his mind as to whether of the
twain was the culprit, he was able to give the benefit
of the doubt to Nancy. He had been wretched
enough, no doubt; yet the fact that the guilt of
neither was assured seemed somehow to relieve both
of the stigma. Now, however, he knew that his
mother was as good as guilty; and he also was
driven to the conclusion that her actual innocence
fixed the crime on Nancy. Consequently his heart
was filled with grief and bitterness.

Nancy — a culprit ! That was the fact, the horri-
ble fact, that stared him in the face. He hated him-
self for doubting her: yet as he turned the matter
over and over again in his mind, his reason would
not let him come to any other conclusion. It is hard
for a man when his reason apparently makes it im-
possible for him to believe the truths he learned as
a child : it is harder still when his reason takes an
opposite course, and makes it impossible for him to
believe that the one who is dearer to him than life
itself is worthy of his love.

At this period of his life Baxendale went through
a time of storm and stress that left a lasting impress
upon his character. He did his best to tear Nancy
from his heart: but it was all in vain. It may be
possible — or it is sometimes necessary for a man to
pluck out his offending eye or cut off his offending
right hand ; but to exorcise from his heart the woman
who has firmly ensconced herself therein is an oper-
ation which a certain type of man cannot perform



358 FUEL OF FIRE

and yet live : of which type was Laurence Baxendale.
The memories — bitter memories they were — of her
lovely eyes and her bright wit, of her sweet temper
and cheerful stoicism, of her tolerant good nature
and tender sympathy, would come back and flood
his soul. At such times his heart would rise
superior to his reason, and he would swear to him-
self that one so sweet and noble could never be
guilty — even for one she loved — of conduct so dis-
honourable. Then would come the reaction of com-
mon sense: and the facts wdiich all pointed her out
as the doer of the deed became unto him convincing
evidence.

Yet throughout all this turmoil of doubt and de-
spair he loved her still : nay, he loved her better than
ever. He seemed possessed by an overmastering
passion which he strove in vain to control. Then
arose a struggle in his heart between his love and his
pride : pride demanded the sacrifice of Nancy on the
altar of stainless ancestry and outraged family pro-
priety : love putting in a pitiful little plea for mercy,
which he felt had no justification whatsoever. That
mercy would tend to his own personal satisfaction
and comfort was to Baxendale a powerful argument
in favour of severity : he would not have been the fit
descendant of men who had died in defending the
property of the Church in the time of Henry the
Eighth, and in supporting the cause of the King in
the time of Oliver Cromwell, if this had not been so.
Thus the struggle went on — a struggle which was



THE LANES AGAIN 359


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 20 22

Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerFuel of fire → online text (page 20 of 22)