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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFated To Be Free: A Novel - Chapter 29. Unheard-Of Liberties
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Fated To Be Free: A Novel - Chapter 29. Unheard-Of Liberties Post by :hotlinkz Category :Long Stories Author :Jean Ingelow Date :May 2012 Read :3232

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Fated To Be Free: A Novel - Chapter 29. Unheard-Of Liberties

CHAPTER XXIX. UNHEARD-OF LIBERTIES


"If he come not then the play is marred: it goes not forward,
doth it?"

_Midsummer Night's Dream._


Miss Christie Grant, sitting with Emily at ten o'clock in the morning, heard a ring at the bell, which she thought she knew. She pricked up her head to listen, and as it ceased tinkling she bustled out of the room.

The first virtue of a companion in Miss Christie Grant's view, was to know how to be judiciously absent.

"Mr. Mortimer."

Emily was writing, when she looked up on hearing these words, and saw John Mortimer advancing. Of course she had been thinking of him, thinking with much more hope than heretofore, but also with much more pride.

When he had stood remote, the object of such an impassioned, and to her, hitherto, such an unknown love, which transformed him and everything about him, and imparted to him such an almost unbearable charm--a power to draw her nearer and nearer without knowing it, or wanting her at all--she had felt that she could die for him, but she had not hoped to live for him, and spend a happy life at his side.

She did not hope it yet, she only felt that a blissful possibility was thrown down before her, and she might take it up if she could.

She knew that this strange absorbing love, which, like some splendid flower, had opened out in her path, was the one supreme blossom of her life--that life which is all too short for the unfolding of another such. But the last few hours had taught her something more, it was now just possible that he might pretend to gather this flower--he had something to learn then before he could wear it, he must love her, or she felt that her own love would break her heart.

Emily had not one of those poverty-stricken natures which are never glad excepting for some special reason drawing them above themselves. She was naturally joyous and happy, unless under the pressure of an active sorrow that shaded her sky and quenched her sunshine. She lived in an elevated region full of love and wonder, taking kindly alike to reverence and to hope; but she was seldom excited, her feelings were not shallow enough to be easily troubled with excitement, or made fitful with agitation.

There was in her nature a suave harmony, a sweet and gracious calm, which love itself did not so much disturb as enrich and change,--love which had been born in the sacred loneliness of sorrow,--complicated with tender longing towards little children, nourished in silence, with beautiful shame and pride, and impassioned fear.

Yet it was necessary to her, even in all withdrawal from its object, even though it should be denied all expression for ever--necessary to the life that it troubled and raised, and enriched, with a vision of withheld completeness that was dimmed by the tears of her half "divine despair."

She rose and held out her hand, and when he smiled with a certain air of embarrassment, she did also. She observed that he was sensitive about the ridiculous affair which had led to his turning out his household, besides this early call made her feel, but not in a way to discompose her as if she were taken into the number of those ladies, among whom he meant to make his selection. Yes, it was as she had hoped. It warmed her to the heart to see it, but not the less was she aware of the ridiculous side of it. A vision of long-sustained conversations, set calls, and careful observations in various houses rose up before her; it was not in her nature to be unamused at the peculiar position that he had confessed to--"he had not decided on the lady." She felt that she knew more of this than he supposed, and his embarrassment making her quite at her ease, the smiles kept peeping out as with her natural grace she began to talk to him.

"Emily, you are laughing at me," he presently said, and he too laughed, felt at ease, and yielded to the charm that few men could resist, so far as to become at home and pleased with his hostess for making him so.

"Of course I am, John," she answered. "I couldn't think of being occupied with any one else just now!"

And then they began to talk discursively and, as it were, at large. John seemed to be fetching a wide compass. Emily hardly knew what he was about till suddenly she observed that he had ventured on dangerous ground, she managed to give a little twist to the conversation, but he soon brought it back again, and she half turned, and looked up at him surprised.

While she occupied herself with a favourite piece of embroidery, and was matching the silks, holding them up to the light, he had risen, and was leaning against the side of the bay window; a frequent attitude with him; for what are called "occasional" chairs are often rather frail and small for accommodating a large tall man, and drawing-room sofas are sometimes exceedingly low. In any one's eyes he would have passed for a fine man, something more (to those who could see it) than a merely handsome man, for the curves of his mouth had mastery in them, and his eyes were full of grave sweetness. Emily was always delighted with the somewhat unusual meeting in him of personal majesty, with the good-humoured easy _bonhomie which had caused his late discomfiture. She half turned, and looked up.

"How charming she is!" he thought, as he looked down; "there will be grace and beauty into the bargain!" and he proceeded, in pursuit of what he considered sincere and gentlemanlike, to venture on the dangerous ground again, not being aware how it quaked under him.

The casual mention of some acquaintance who had lately married gave him the chance that he thought he wanted. He would be happy enough--people might in general be happy enough, he hinted, glancing from the particular instance to lay down a general proposition--"if they did not expect too much--if they were less romantic; for himself, he had not the presumption to expect more than a sincere liking--a cordial approval--such as he himself could entertain. It was the only feeling he had ever inspired, or----"

No, he did not say felt.

But he presently alluded to his late wife, and then reverting to his former speech, said, "And yet I was happy with her! I consider that I was fortunate."

"Moderate," thought Emily; "but as much as it is possible for him to say."

"And," he continued, "she has laid me under obligations that make it impossible for me ever to forget her. I feel the blessing of having our children about me. And--and also--what I owe to her on their account--I never spend a day without thinking of her."

"Poor Janie!" thought Emily, very much touched, "she did not deserve this tribute. How coldly I have often heard her talk of him!"

And then, not without a certain grave sweetness of manner that made her heart ache, alike with tender shame to think how little her dead husband had ever been accounted of, compared with this now possible future one, and with such jealousy as one may feel of a dead wife who would have cared as little for long remembrance as she had done for living affection, Emily listened, while he managed quite naturally, and by the slightest hints, to bring her also in--her past lot and opinions. She felt, rather than heard, the intention; "and he could not presume to say," he went on, "he was not sure whether a man might hope for a second marriage, which could have all the advantages of a first. Yet he thought that in any suitable marriage there might be enough benefit on both sides to make it almost equally."

"Equally what?" Emily wondered.

John was trying to speak in a very matter-of-fact way, as merely laying down his views.

"Equally advantageous," he said at last; and not without difficulty.

"John," said Emily, rallying a little, and speaking with the least little touch of audacity,--"John, you are always fond of advancing your abstract theories. Now, I should have thought that if a man had felt any want in his first marriage, he would have tried for something more in a second, rather than have determined that there was no more to be had."

"Unless his reason assured him in more sober hours that he had had all, and given all that could in reason be expected," John answered. "I did not confess to having felt any want," he presently added. "Call this, since it pleases you, my abstract theory."

And then Emily felt that she too must speak; her dead husband deserved it of her far more than his dead wife had ever done.

"I do please," she answered; "this can be only an abstract theory to me. I knew no want of love in my marriage, only a frequent self-reproach--to think that I was unworthy, because I could not enough return it."

"A most needless self-reproach," he answered. "I venture to hope that people should never rebuke themselves because they happen to be incapable of romantic passion, or any of the follies of youthful love."

"Intended to restore my self-esteem. Shall I not soon be able to make you feel differently?" thought Emily. "You still remember Janie; you will never let her be disparaged. I think none the worse of you for that, my beloved--my hope."

He was silent till she glanced up at him again, with a sweet wistfulness, that was rather frequent with her; turning half round--for he stood at her side, not quite enough at his ease to look continually in her face--he was much surprised to find her so charming, so naive in all her movements, and in the flitting expressions of her face.

He was pleased, too, though very much surprised, to find that she did not seem conscious of his intention (a most lovely blush had spread itself over her face when she spoke of her husband), but so far from expecting what he was just about to say, she had thrown him back in his progress more than once--she did not seem to be expecting anything. "And yet, I have said a good deal," he reflected; "I have let her know that I expect to inspire no romantic love, and do not pretend to be in love with her. I come forward admiring, trusting, and preferring her to any other woman; though I cannot come as a lover to her feet." He began to talk again. Emily was a little startled to find him in a few minutes alluding to his domestic discomforts, and his intention of standing for the borough. He had now a little red box in his hand, and when she said, "John, I wish you would not stand there," he came and sat nearly opposite to her, and showed her what was in it--his father's diamond ring. She remembered it, no doubt; he had just had the diamond reset. Emily took out the ring, and laid it in her palm. "It looks small," she said. "I should not have thought it would fit you, John."

"Will you let me try if it will fit you?" he answered; and, before she had recovered from her surprise, he had put it on her finger.

There was a very awkward pause, and then she drew it off. "You can hardly expect me," she said, and her hand trembled a little, "to accept such a very costly present." It was not her reason for returning it, but she knew not what to say.

"I would not ask it," he replied, "unless I could offer you another. I desire to make you my wife. I beg you to accept my hand."

"Accept your hand! What, now? directly? today?" she exclaimed almost piteously, and tears trembled on her eye-lashes.

"Yes," he answered, repeating her words with something like ardour. "Now, directly, to-day. I am sorely in want of a wife, and would fain take you home as soon as the bans would let me. Emily?"

"Why you have been taking all possible pains to let me know that you do not love me in the least, and that, as far as you foresee, you do not mean to love me," she answered, two great tears falling on his hand when he tried to take hers. "John! how dare you!"

She was not naturally passionate, but startled now into this passionate appeal, she snatched away her hand, rose in haste, and drew back from him with flashing eyes and a heaving bosom; but all too soon the short relief she had found in anger was quenched in tears that she did not try to check. She stood and wept, and he, very pale and very much discomfited, sat before her in his place.

"I beg your pardon," he presently said, not in the least aware of what this really meant. "I beg--I entreat your pardon. I scarcely thought--forgive my saying it--I scarcely thought, considering our past--and--and--my position, as the father of a large family, that you would have consented to any wooing in the girl and boy fashion. You make me wish, for once in my life--yes, very-heartily wish, that I had been less direct, less candid," he added rather bitterly. "I thought"--here Emily heard him call himself a fool--"I thought you would approve it."

"I do," she answered with a great sobbing sigh. Oh, there was nothing more for her to say; she could not entreat him now to let her teach him to love her. She felt, with a sinking heart, that if he took her words for a refusal, and by no means a gentle one, it could not be wondered at.

Presently he said, still looking amazed and pale, for he was utterly unused to a woman's tears, and as much agitated now in a man's fashion as she was in hers,

"If I have spoken earlier in your widowhood than you approve, and it displeases you, I hope you will believe that I have always thought of you as a wife to be admired above any that I ever knew."

"My husband loved me," she answered, drying her eyes, now almost calmly. She could not say she was displeased on his account, and when she looked up she saw that John Mortimer had his hat in his hand. Their interview was nearly over.

"I cannot lose you as a friend," he said, and his voice faltered.

"Oh no; no, dear John."

"And my children are so fond of you."

"I love them; I always shall."

He looked at her for a moment, doubtful whether to hold out his hand. "Forget this, Emily, and let things be as they have been heretofore between us."

"Yes," she answered, and gave him her hand.

"Good-bye," he said, and stooped to kiss it, and was gone.

She stood quite still listening, and yet listening, till all possible chance was over of catching any longer the sound of his steps. No more tears; only a great aching emptiness. The unhoped-for chance had been hers, and she had lost it knowingly. What else could she have done?

She scarcely knew how long she remained motionless. A world and a lifetime of agitation, and thought, and passionate yearning seemed to stand between her and that brief interview, before, casting her eyes on the little velvet-covered table across which he had leaned to put it on her hand, she saw the splendid ring; sunbeams had found it out, and were playing on the diamond; he had forgotten it, and left it behind him, and there was the case on the floor. It seemed to be almost a respite.

"We are to dine with Giles and Dorothea to-day, and meet him. This morning's work, then, is not irretrievable. I can speak now to Dorothea, tell her what has occurred, and she will see that I have opportunity to return him this--and---and things may end in his loving me a little, after all. Oh, if they could--if, indeed, he had not told me he did not. He did not look in the least angry,--only surprised and vexed when I rejected him. He cares so little about me."

She took up the ring, and in course of time went with her old aunt to dine at her brother's house. She knew John was aware that he was to meet her; she was therefore deeply disturbed, though perhaps she had no right to be surprised when Dorothea said--

"We are so much disappointed! John Mortimer has sent this note to excuse himself from coming back to dinner to-day--or, indeed, coming here at all to-night. He has to go out, it seems, for two or three days."

"Ay," said Miss Christie, "that's very awkward for him." Miss Christie had built certain hopes upon that morning's visit. "It seems to me," she continued, "that John Mortimer's affairs give him twice as much trouble as they used to do."

Emily was silent; she felt that _this was not letting things be as they had been heretofore. She took up the note. He did not affirm that he was obliged to go out. Even if he was, what should she do now? She was left in custody of the ring, and could neither see him nor write to him.

"On Sunday I shall see him. I shall have his hand for a moment; I shall give him this, after morning service."

But, no. Sunday came; the Mortimers were at church, but not their father. "Father had walked over to that little chapel-of-ease beyond Wigfield, that Grand gave the money to build," they said. "He took Johnnie with him to day."

"Yes," said Barbara, "and he promised next Sunday to take me."

"He will not meet me," thought Emily.

She waited another week, hoping she might meet him accidentally; hoping he might come to her, hoping and fearing she hardly knew what. But still John Mortimer made no sign, and she could not decide to write to him; every day that she retained the ring made it more difficult for her to return it, without breaking so the slender thread that seemed to hold her to him still. There was no promise in it of any future communication at all.

In the meantime curiosity, having been once excited about John Mortimer and his concerns, kept open eyes on him still, and soon the air was full of rumours which reached all ears but those of the two people most concerned. A likely thing, if there is the smallest evidence in the world for it, can easily get headway if nobody in authority can contradict it.

All Wigfield said that Mr. Mortimer had "proposed" to Mrs. Walker, and she had refused him. Brandon heard it with amazement, but could say nothing; Miss Christie heard it with yet more; but she, too, held her peace.

Johnnie Mortimer heard it, made furtive observations on his father, was pleased to think that he was dull, restless, pale--remembered his own letter to his sisters, and considered himself to be partly to blame. Then the twins heard it, took counsel with Johnnie, believed it also, were full of ruth and shame. "So dear papa loved Mrs. Walker, and she would not marry him. There could only be one reason; she knew she had nothing to expect but rebellion and rudeness and unkindness from them. No, papa was not at all like himself; he often sighed, and he looked as if his head ached. They had seen in the paper that he had lost a quantity of money by some shares and things; but they didn't think he cared about that, for he gave them a sovereign the next day to buy a birthday present for Janie. Father must not be made miserable on their account. What had they better do?"

Emily, in the meantime, felt her heart faint; this new trouble going down to the deepest part of her heart, woke up and raised again the half-appeased want and sorrow. Again she dreamed that she was folding her little child in her arms, and woke to find them empty. She could not stand against this, and decided, in sheer desperation, to quit the field. She would go on the Continent to Justina; rest and change would help her, and she would send back the ring, when all was arranged, by Aunt Christie.

She was still at her desk, having at last managed to write the note.

She was to start the next morning. Miss Christie was then on her way to John Mortimer with the ring, and tired with her own trouble and indecision, she was resting in a careless attitude when she heard a knock at the door.

"That tiresome _boy again," she disrespectfully murmured, rousing up a little, and a half smile stealing out. "What am I to do with him?" She thought it was the new curate. "Why, Johnnie, is that you?" she exclaimed as Johnnie Mortimer produced himself in all his youthful awkwardness, and advanced, looking a good deal abashed.

Johnnie replied that it was a half-holiday, and so he thought he would come and call.

Emily said she was glad to see him; indeed, she felt refreshed by the sight of anything that belonged to John.

"I thought I should like to--to--in short, to come and call," repeated Johnnie, and he looked rather earnestly at his gloves, perhaps by way of occupation. They were such as a Harrow boy seldom wears, excepting on "speech day"--pale lilac. As a rule Johnnie scorned gloves. Emily observed that he was dressed with perfect propriety--like a gentleman, in fact; his hair brushed, his tie neat, his whole outer boy clean, and got up regardless of trouble and expense.

"Well, you could not have come at a better time, dear boy," said Emily, wondering what vagary he was indulging now, "for I have just got a present of a case of shells and birds from Ceylon, and you shall help me to unpack and arrange them, if you like."

"I should like to do anything you please," said Johnnie with alacrity. "That's what I meant, that's what I came to say." Thereupon he smoothed the nap on his "chimneypot" hat, and blushed furiously.

The case was set upon the floor, on a piece of matting; it had already been opened, and was filling the room with a smell of sandal-wood and camphor.

Emily had risen, and when she paused, arrested by surprise at the oddness of this speech, he added, taking to his lisp again, as if from sheer embarrassment, "Thome fellows are a great deal worse than they theem. No, I didn't mean that; I mean thome fellows are a great deal better than they theem."

"Now, Johnnie," said Emily, laughing, and remembering a late visit of apology, "if any piece of mischief has got the better of you, and your father has sent you to say you are sorry for it, I'll forgive you beforehand! What is it? Have you been rooting up my fences, or flooding my paddock?"

"It's a great deal worth than that," answered Johnnie, who by this time was kneeling beside the case, hauling out the birds and shells with more vigour than dexterity.

"Nothing to do with gunpowder, I hope," said Emily with her usual _insouciance_.

"There are the girls; I hear them coming in the carriage," exclaimed Johnnie by way of answer, while Emily was placing the shells on a table. "No, father didn't send me; he doesn't know."

"What is it, then?" she repeated, feeling more at liberty to investigate the matter, now she had been expressly told that John had nothing to do with it.

On this, instead of making a direct reply, he exclaimed, looking very red and indignant, "I told them it was no use at all my coming, and now you see it isn't. They thaid they wouldn't come unless I did. If you thought I should be rude, you might make me stop at school all the holidays, or at old Tikey's; I shouldn't thay a word."

Emily's hand was on the boy's shoulder as he knelt before the case. Surely she understood what he meant; but if so, where could he possibly have acquired the knowledge he seemed to possess? And even then he was the last person from whom she could have expected this blunt, embarrassed, promise of fealty.

The girls entered, and the two little ones. Emily met them, and while she gave each a kiss, Johnnie started up, and with a great war-whoop of defiance to his sisters, burst through the open window, and blushing hotly fled away.

Much the same thing over again. The girls were all in their best; they generally loved to parade the crofts and gardens clad in brown holland and shaded by flapping hats. The children scorned gloves and all fine clothes as much as they did the carriage; and here they were--little Hugh in his velvet suit, looking so fair and bright-haired; Anastasia dressed out in ribbons, and with a very large bouquet of hothouse flowers in her hand. The girls pushed her forward.

"It's for you," said the little girl, "and isn't it a grand one! And my love, and we're come to call."

"Thank you, my sweet," said Emily, accepting the bouquet, "I never saw such a beauty!" She was sitting on a sofa, and her young guests were all standing before her. She observed that little Hugh looked very sulky indeed. "It's extremely unfair," he presently burst out, "they made Swan cut the best flowers in the houses, and they gave them all to Nancy to give, and I haven't got _none_."

Barbara whispered to him, trying to soothe his outraged feelings, but he kept her off with his elbow till Emily drew him near, and observed that it was not her birthday, and therefore that one present was surely enough.

Barbara replied that Hughie had brought a present, but he was very cross because it was not so pretty as Anastasia's.

"Yes, I've brought this," said Hugh, his countenance clearing a little as he opened his small gloved hand, and disclosed a very bright five-shilling piece. "It's not so pretty, though, as Nannie's."

"But it will last much longer," said Emily; "and so you meant this for me, my sweet man. I'll take care of it for you, and look at it sometimes till you want to spend it; that will be a very nice present for me, and then you can have it back."

"Papa gave it him," said Anastasia; "it's a new one. And may we go now and look at our gardens?"

Hugh appeared to be cogitating over Emily's proposal; his little grave face was the image of his father's. "You may if Mrs. Nemily says so," answered Gladys. "You always want to do what Mrs. Nemily pleases, don't you?"

"Oh yes," said the sprite, dancing round the room; and off they set into the garden.

"And so do we all," said Barbara.

Gladys was sitting at Emily's feet now, and had a little covered basket in her hand, which rustled as if it contained some living thing.

"Janie and Bertie don't know--none of the little ones know," said Barbara; "we thought we had better not tell them."

Emily did not ask what they meant; she thought she knew. It could make no difference now, yet it was inexpressibly sweet and consoling to her.

"We only said we were coming to call, and when Janie saw the bouquet she said she should send you a present too." Thereupon the basket was opened, and a small white kitten was placed on Emily's knee.

There seemed no part for her to play, but to be passive; she could not let them misunderstand; she knew John had not sent them. "We should be so glad if you came," whispered the one who held her hand. "Oh, Janie," thought Emily, "if you could only see your children now!"

"And when Johnnie wrote that, he didn't know it was you," pleaded the other.

"My darlings!" said Emily, "you must not say any more; and I have nothing to answer but that I love you all very, very much indeed."

"But we want you to love father too."

Unheard-of liberty! Emily had no answer ready; but now, as she had wondered what their mother would have felt, she wondered what John would have felt at this utter misunderstanding, this taking for granted that he loved her, and that she did not love him. A sensitive blush spread itself over her face. "Your father would not be pleased, my dears," she answered lovingly but firmly, "at your saying any more; he would think (though I am sure you do not mean it) that you were taking a great liberty."

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