George Moore.

Muslin online

. (page 20 of 23)
Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 20 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


middle of the floor she looked round the room vacantly, unable to
collect her thoughts. The wardrobe was on her right, and, seeing herself
in the glass, she wondered if she were looking well. Her eyes wandered
from her face to her shoulders, and thence to her feet. Going over to
the toilette-table she sought amid her boots, and, having selected a
strong pair, she began to button them. Her back was turned to the door,
and at the slightest sound she started. Once or twice the stairs
creaked, and she felt something would occur to stop her. Her heart was
beating so violently that she thought she was going to be ill; and she
almost burst out crying because she could not make up her mind if she
should put on a hat and travelling-shawl, or run down to the wood as she
was, to meet the Captain. 'He will surely,' she thought, 'have something
in the carriage to put around me, but he may bring the dog-cart, and it
looks very cold. But if Alice or mamma saw me coming downstairs with a
shawl on, they'd suspect something, and I shouldn't be able to get away.
I wonder what time it is? I promised to meet Edward at nine; he'll of
course wait for me, but what time is it? We dined at half-past seven; we
were an hour at dinner, half-past eight, and I have been ten minutes
here. It must be nearly nine now, and it will take me ten minutes to get
to the corner of the road. The house is quiet now.'

Olive ran down a few steps, but at that moment heavy footsteps and a
jingling of glasses announced that the butler was carrying glasses from
the dining-room to the pantry. 'When will he cease, when will he cease;
will he hang about that passage all night?' the girl asked herself
tremblingly; and so cruel, so poignant had her suspense become, that had
it been prolonged much further her overwrought nerves would have given
way, and she would have lapsed into a fit of hysterics. But the
tray-full of glasses she had heard jingling were now being washed, and
the irritative butler did not stir forth again. This was Olive's
opportunity. From the proximity of the drawing-room to the hall-door it
was impossible for her to open it without being heard; the kitchen-door
was equally, even more, dangerous, and she could hear the servants
stirring in the passages; there was no safe way of getting out of the
house unseen, except through the dining-room.

The candles were lighted, the crumbs were still on the tablecloth;
passing behind the red curtain she unlocked the French window, and she
shivered in the keen wind that was blowing.

It was almost as bright as day. A September moon rose red, and in a
broken and fragmentary way the various aspects of the journey that lay
before her were anticipated: as she ran across the garden swards she saw
the post-horses galloping in front of her; as her nervous fingers strove
to unfasten the wicket, she thought of the railway-carriage; and as she
passed under the great dark trunks of the chestnut-trees she dreamed of
Edward's arm that would soon be cast protectingly around her, and his
face; softer than the leafy shadows above her, would be leaned upon her,
and his eyes filled with a brighter light than the moon's would look
down into hers.

The white meadow that she crossed so swiftly gleamed like the sea, and
the cows loomed through the greyness like peaceful apparitions. But the
dark wood with its sepulchral fir-tops and mysteriously spreading
beech-trees was full of formless terror, and once the girl screamed as
the birds flew with an awful sound through the dark undergrowth. A
gloomy wood by night has terrors for the bravest, and it was only the
certainty that she was leaving girl-life - chaperons, waltz-tunes, and
bitter sneering, for ever - that gave courage to proceed. A bit of
moss-grown wall, a singularly shaped holly-bush, a white stone, took
fantastic and supernatural appearances, and once she stopped, paralyzed
with fear, before the grotesque shadow that a dead tree threw over an
unexpected glade. A strange bird rose from the bare branches, and at
that moment her dress was caught by a bramble, and, when her shriek tore
the dark stillness, a hundred wings flew through the pallor of the
waning moon.

At the end of this glade there was a paling and a stile that Olive would
have to cross, and she could now hear, as she ran forward, the needles
of the silver firs rustling with a pricking sound in the wind. The heavy
branches stretched from either side, and Olive thought when she had
passed this dernful alley she would have nothing more to fear; and she
ran on blindly until she almost fell in the arms of someone whom she
instantly believed to be Edward.

'Oh! Edward, Edward, I am nearly dead with fright!' she exclaimed.

'I am not Edward,' a woman answered. Olive started a step backwards; she
would have fainted, but at the moment the words were spoken Mrs.
Lawler's face was revealed in a beam of weak light that fell through a
vista in the branches.

'Who are you? Let me pass.'

'Who am I? You know well enough; we haven't been neighbours for fifteen
years without knowing each other by sight. So you are going to run away
with Captain Hibbert!'

'Oh, Mrs. Lawler, let me pass. I am in a great hurry, I cannot wait; and
you won't say anything about meeting me in the wood, will you?'

'Let you pass, indeed; and what do you think I came here for? Oh, I know
all about it - all about the corner of the road, and the carriage and
post-horses! a very nice little plan and very nicely arranged, but I'm
afraid it won't come off - at least, not to-night.'

'Oh, won't it, and why?' cried Olive, clasping her hands. 'Then it was
Edward who sent you to meet me, to tell me that - that - What has
happened?'

'Sent me to tell you! Whom do you take me for? Is it for a - well, a nice
piece of cheek! I carry your messages? Well, I never!'

'Then what did you come here for - how did you know? . . .'

'How did I know? That's my business. What did I come here for? What do
you think? Why, to prevent you from going off with Teddy.'

'With Teddy!'

'Yes, with Teddy. Do you think no one calls him Teddy but yourself?'

Then Olive understood, and, with her teeth clenched she said, 'No, it
isn't true; it is a lie; I will not believe it. Let me pass. What
business have you to detain me? - what right have you to speak to me? We
don't know you; no one knows you: you are a bad woman whom no one will
know.'

'A bad woman! I like that - and from you. And what do you want to be, why
are you running away from home? Why, to be what I was. We're all alike,
the same blood runs in our veins, and when the devil is in us we must
have sweethearts, get them how we may: the airs and graces come on
after; they are only so much trimming.'

'How dare you insult me, you bad woman? Let me pass; I don't know what
you mean.'

'Oh yes, you do. You think Teddy will take you off to Paris, and spoon
you and take you out; but he won't, at least not to-night. I shan't give
him up so easily as you think for, my lady.'

'Give him up! What is he to you? How dare you speak so of my future
husband? Captain Hibbert only loves me, he has often told me so.'

'Loves nobody but you! I suppose you think that he never kissed, or
spooned, or took anyone on his knee but you. Well, I suppose at twenty
we'd believe anything a man told us; and we always think we are getting
the first of it when we are only getting someone else's leavings. But it
isn't for chicks of girls like you that a man cares, it isn't to you a
man comes for the love he wants; your kisses are very skim milk indeed,
and it is we who teach them the words of love that they murmur
afterwards in your ears.'

The women looked at each other in silence, and both heard the needles
shaken through the darkness above them. Mrs. Lawler stood by the stile,
her hand was laid on the paling. At last Olive said:

'Let me pass. I will not listen to you any longer; nor do I believe a
word you have said. We all know what you are; you are a bad woman whom
no one will visit. Let me pass!' and pushing passionately forward she
attempted to cross the stile. Then Mrs. Lawler took her by the shoulder
and threw her roughly back. She fell to the ground heavily.

'Now you had better get up and go home,' said Mrs. Lawler, and she
approached the prostrate girl. 'I didn't mean to hurt you; but you
shan't elope with Teddy if I can prevent it. Why don't you get up?'

'Oh! my leg, my leg; you have broken my leg!'

'Let me help you up.'

'Don't touch me,' said Olive, attempting to rise; but the moment she put
her right foot to the ground she shrieked with pain, and fell again.

'Well, if you are going to take it in that way, you may remain where you
are, and I can't go and ring them up at Brookfield. I don't think there
will be much eloping done to-night, so farewell.'




XXVI


About ten o'clock on the night of Olive's elopement, Alice knocked
tremblingly at her mother's door.

'Mother,' she said, 'Olive is not in her room, nor yet in the house; I
have looked for her everywhere.'

'She is downstairs with her father in the studio,' said Mrs. Barton;
and, signing to her daughter to be silent, she led her out of hearing of
Barnes, who was folding and putting some dresses away in the wardrobe.

'I have been down to the studio,' Alice replied in a whisper.

'Then I am afraid she has run away with Captain Hibbert. But we shall
gain nothing by sending men out with lanterns and making a fuss; by this
time she is well on her way to Dublin. She might have done better than
Captain Hibbert, but she might also have done worse. She will write to
us in a few days to tell us that she is married, and to beg of us to
forgive her.'

And that night Mrs. Barton slept even more happily, with her mind more
completely at rest, than usual; whereas Alice, fevered with doubt and
apprehension, lay awake. At seven o'clock she was at her window,
watching the grey morning splinter into sunlight over the quiet fields.
Through the mist the gamekeeper came, and another man, carrying a woman
between them, and the suspicion that her sister might have been killed
in an agrarian outrage gripped her heart like an iron hand. She ran
downstairs, and, rushing across the gravel, opened the wicket-gate.
Olive was moaning with pain, but her moans were a sweet reassurance in
Alice's ears, and without attempting to understand the man's story of
how Miss Olive had sprained her ankle in crossing the stile in their
wood, and how he had found her as he was going his rounds, she gave the
man five shillings, thanked him, and sent him away. Barnes and the
butler then carried Olive upstairs, and in the midst of much confusion
Mr. Barton rode down the avenue in quest of Dr. Reed - galloped down the
avenue, his pale hair blowing in the breeze.

'I wish you had come straight to me,' said Mrs. Barton to Alice, as soon
as Barnes had left the room. 'We'd have got her upstairs between us, and
then we might have told any story we liked about her illness.'

'But the Lawlers' gamekeeper would know all about it.'

'Ah, yes, that's true. I never heard of anything so unfortunate in my
life. An elopement is never very respectable, but an elopement that does
not succeed, when the girl comes home again, is just as bad as - I cannot
think how Olive could have managed to meet Captain Hibbert and arrange
all this business, without my finding it out. I feel sure she must have
had the assistance of a third party. I feel certain that all this is
Barnes's doing. I am beginning to hate that woman, with her perpetual
smile, but it won't do to send her away now; we must wait.' And on these
words Mrs. Barton approached the bed.

Shaken with sudden fits of shivering, and her teeth chattering, Olive
lay staring blindly at her mother and sister. Her eyes were expressive
at once of fear and pain.

'And now, my own darling, will you tell me how all this happened?'

'Oh, not now, mother - not now . . . I don't know; I couldn't help it. . . .
You mustn't scold me, I feel too ill to bear it.'

'I am not thinking of scolding you, dearest, and you need not tell me
anything you do not like. . . . I know you were going to run away with
Captain Hibbert, and met with an accident crossing the stile in the
Lawler Wood.'

'Oh, yes, yes; I met that horrid woman, Mrs. Lawler; she knew all about
it, and was waiting for me at the stile. She said lots of dreadful
things to me . . . I don't remember what; that she had more right to
Edward than I - '

'Never mind, dear; don't agitate yourself thinking of what she said.'

'And then, as I tried to pass her, she pushed me and I fell, and hurt my
ankle so badly that I could not get up; and she taunted me, and she said
she could not help me home because we were not on visiting terms. And I
lay in that dreadful wood all night. But I can't speak any more, I feel
too ill; and I never wish to see Edward again. . . . The pain of my ankle
is something terrible.'

Mrs. Barton looked at Alice expressively, and she whispered in her ear:

'This is all Barnes's doing, but we cannot send her away. . . . We must put
a bold face on it, and brave it out.'

Dr. Reed was announced.

'Oh, how do you do, doctor? . . . It is so good of you to come at once.
. . . We were afraid Mr. Barton would not find you at home. I am afraid
that Olive has sprained her foot badly. Last night she went out for a
walk rather late in the evening, and, in endeavouring to cross a stile,
she slipped and hurt herself so badly that she was unable to return
home, and lay exposed for several hours to the heavy night dews. I am
afraid she has caught a severe cold. . . . She has been shivering.'

'Can I see her foot?'

'Certainly. Olive, dear, will you allow Dr. Reed to see your ankle?'

'Oh, take care, mamma; you are hurting me!' shrieked the girl, as Mrs.
Barton removed the bedclothes. At this moment a knock was heard at the
door.

'Who on earth is this?' cried Mrs. Barton. 'Alice, will you go and see?
Say that I am engaged, and can attend to nothing now.'

When Alice returned to the bedside she drew her mother imperatively
towards the window. 'Captain Hibbert is waiting in the drawing-room. He
says he must see you.'

At the mention of Captain Hibbert's name Mrs. Barton's admirably
governed temper showed signs of yielding: her face contracted and she
bit her lips.

'You must go down and see him. Tell him that Olive is very ill and that
the doctor is with her. And mind you, you must not answer any questions.
Say that I cannot see him, but that I am greatly surprised at his
forcing his way into my house after what has passed between us; that I
hope he will never intrude himself upon us again; that I cannot have my
daughter's life endangered, and that, if he insists on persecuting us, I
shall have to write to his Colonel.'

'Do you not think that father would be the person to make such
explanations?'

'You know your father could not be trusted to talk sensibly for five
minutes - at least,' she said, correcting herself, 'on anything that did
not concern painting or singing. . . . But,' she continued, following her
daughter to the door, 'on second thoughts I do not think it would be
advisible to bring matters to a crisis. . . . I do not know how this affair
will affect Olive's chances, and if he is anxious to marry her I do not
see why he should not; . . . she may not be able to get any better. So you
had better, I think, put him off - pretend that we are very angry, and
get him to promise not to try to see or to write to Olive until, let us
say, the end of the year. It will only make him more keen on her.'

When Alice opened the drawing-room door Captain Hibbert rushed forward;
his soft eyes were bright with excitement, and his tall figure was
thrown into a beautiful pose when he stopped.

'Oh, I beg your pardon. Miss Barton. I had expected your sister.'

'My sister is very ill in bed, and the doctor is with her.'

'Ill in bed!'

'Yes, she sprained her ankle last night in attempting to cross the stile
in the wood at the end of our lawn.'

'Oh, that was the reason . . . then . . . Can I see your sister for a few
minutes?'

'It is quite impossible; and my mother desires me to say that she is
very much surprised that you should come here. . . . We know all about your
attempt to induce Olive to leave her home.'

'Then she has told you? But if you knew how I love her, you would not
blame me. What else could I do? Your mother would not let me see her,
and she was very unhappy at home; you did not know this, but I did, and
if luck hadn't been against me - Ah! but what's the use in talking of
luck; luck was against me, or she would have been my wife now. And what
a little thing suffices to blight a man's happiness in life; what a
little, oh, what a little!' he said, speaking in a voice full of
bitterness; and he buried his face in his hands.

Alice's eyes as she looked at him were expressive of her thoughts - they
beamed at once with pity and admiration. He was but the ordinary
handsome young man that in England nature seems to reproduce in
everlasting stereotype. Long graceful legs, clad in tight-fitting
trousers, slender hips rising architecturally to square wide shoulders,
a thin strong neck and a tiny head - yes, a head so small that an artist
would at once mark off eight on his sheet of double elephant. And now he
lay over the back of a chair weeping like a child; in the intensity of
his grief he was no longer commonplace; and as Alice looked at this
superb animal thrown back in a superb abandonment of pose, her heart
filled with the natural pity that the female feels always for the male
in distress, and the impulse within her was to put her arms about him
and console him; and then she understood her sister's passion for him,
and her mind formulated it thus: 'How handsome he is! Any girl would
like a man like that.' And as Alice surrendered herself to those
sensuous, or rather romantic feelings, her nature quickened to a sense
of pleasure, and she grew gentler with him, and was glad to listen while
he sobbed out his sorrows to her.

'Oh, why,' he exclaimed, 'did she fall over that thrice-accursed stile!
In five minutes more we would have been in each other's arms, and for
ever. I had a couple of the best post-horses in Gort; they'd have taken
us to Athenry in a couple of hours, and then - Oh! what luck, what
luck!'

'But do you not know that Olive met Mrs. Lawler in the wood, and that it
was she who - '

'What do you say? You don't mean to tell me that it was Mrs. Lawler who
prevented Olive from meeting me? Oh, what beasts, what devils women
are,' he said; 'and the worst of it is that one cannot be even with
them, and they know it. If you only knew,' he said, turning almost
fiercely upon Alice, 'how I loved your sister, you would pity me; but I
suppose it is all over now. Is she very ill?'

'We don't know yet. She has sprained her ankle very badly, and is
shivering terribly; she was lying out all night in the wet wood.'

He did not answer at once. He walked once or twice up and down the room,
and then he said, taking Alice's hand in his, 'Will you be a friend to
me, Miss Barton?' He could get no further, for tears were rolling down
his cheeks.

Alice looked at him tenderly; she was much touched by the manifestation
of his love, and at the end of a long silence she said:

'Now, Captain Hibbert, I want you to listen to me. Don't cry any more,
but listen.'

'I dare say I look a great fool.'

'No, indeed you do not,' she answered; and then in kindly worded phrases
she told him that, at least for the present, he must not attempt to
correspond with Olive. 'Give me your word of honour that you will
neither write nor speak to her for, let us say, six months, and I will
promise to be your friend.'

'I will do anything you ask me to do, but will you in return promise to
write and tell me how she is getting on, and if she is in any danger?'

'I think I can promise to do that; I will write and tell you how Olive
is in a few days. Now we must say good-bye; and you will not forget your
promise to me, as I shall not forget mine to you.'

When Alice went upstairs, Dr. Reed and Mrs. Barton were talking on the
landing.

'And what do you think, doctor?' asked the anxious mother.

'It is impossible to say. She has evidently received a severe nervous
shock, and this and the exposure to which she was subjected may develop
into something serious. You will give her that Dover's powder to-night,
and you will see that she has absolute quiet and rest. Have you got a
reliable nurse?'

'Yes, the young ladies have a maid; I think Barnes can be trusted to
carry out your orders, doctor.'

'Oh, mamma, I hope you will allow me to nurse my sister; I should not
like to leave her in charge of a servant.'

'I am afraid you are not strong enough, dear.'

'Oh, yes, I am; am I not strong enough, doctor?'

Dr. Reed looked for a moment steadily at Alice. 'Your sister will,' he
said, 'require a good deal of looking after. But if you will not overdo
it, I think you seem quite strong enough to nurse her. But you must not
sit up at night with her too regularly; you must share the labour with
someone.'

'She will do that with me,' said Mrs. Barton, speaking more kindly,
Alice thought, than she had ever heard her speak before.

Then a wailing voice was heard calling to Alice.

'Go in and see what she wants, dear, but you will not encourage her to
talk much; the doctor does not wish it.'

The room did not look the same to Alice as it had ever looked before.
Her eyes fell on the Persian rugs laid between the two white beds and
the tall glass in the wardrobe where Olive wasted half-an-hour every
evening, examining her beauty. Would she ever do so again? Now a broken
reflection of feverish eyes and blonde hair was what remained. The white
curtains of the chimneypiece had been drawn aside, a bright fire was
burning, and Barnes was removing a foot-pan of hot water.

'Sit down here by me, Alice; I want to talk to you.'

'The doctor has forbidden you to talk, dear; he says you must have
perfect rest and quiet.'

'I must talk a little to you; if I didn't I should go mad.'

'Well, what is it, dear?'

'I will tell you presently,' said the sick girl, glancing at Barnes.

'You can tidy up the room afterwards, Barnes; Miss Olive wants to talk
to me now.'

'Oh, Alice, tell me,' cried the girl, when the servant had left the
room, 'I don't want to ask mamma - she won't tell me the exact truth; but
you will. Tell me what the doctor said. . . . Did he say I was going to
die?'

'Going to die? Olive, who ever heard of such a thing? You really must
not give way to such fancies.'

'Well, tell me what he said.'

'He said that you had received a severe nervous shock, that you had been
subjected to several hours' exposure, that you must take great care of
yourself, and, above all, have perfect rest and quiet, and not excite
yourself, and not talk.'

'Is that all he said? Then he cannot know how ill I feel; perhaps I
ought to see another doctor. But I don't believe anyone could do me much
good. Oh, I feel wretchedly ill, and somehow I seem to know I am going
to die! It would be very horrible to die; but young girls no older than
I have died - have been cut off in the beginning of their life. And we
have seen nothing of life, only a few balls and parties. It would be
terrible to die so soon. When Violet carried off the Marquis I felt so
bitterly ashamed that I thought I would have liked to die; but not
now - now I know that Edward loves me I would not care to die; it would
be terrible to die before I was married. Wouldn't it, Alice? . . . But you
don't answer me; did you never think about death?'

Then, as the thin wailing voice sank into her ears, Alice started from
her dreams, and she strove to submit her attention to her sister.

'Yes, dear, of course I have. Death is, no doubt, a very terrible thing,
but we can do no good by thinking of it.'

'Oh yes, we should, Alice, for this is not the only world - there is
another and a better one; and, as mamma says, and as religion says, we
are only here to try and get a good place in it. You are surprised to
hear me speak like this; you think I never think of anything but the
colour of a bonnet-string, but I do.'

'I am sure you do, Olive; I never doubted it; but I wish you would now
do what the doctor orders, and refrain from talking and exciting
yourself, and try and get well. You may then think of death and other
gloomy things as much as you like.'

'You don't understand, Alice; one can't think of death, then - one has so
much else to think of; one is so taken up with other ideas. It is only


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 20 22 23

Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 20 of 23)