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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Survivor - Chapter 2. A Strange Betrothal
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The Survivor - Chapter 2. A Strange Betrothal Post by :anitaandeverett Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1763

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The Survivor - Chapter 2. A Strange Betrothal

CHAPTER II. A STRANGE BETROTHAL

The room had all the chilly discomfort of the farmhouse parlour, unused, save on state occasions--a funereal gloom which no sunlight could pierce, a mustiness which savoured almost of the grave. One by one they obeyed the stern forefinger of Gideon Strong, and took their seats on comfortless chairs and the horse-hair sofa. First came John Magee, factor and agent to the Earl of Cumberland, a great man in the district, deacon of the chapel, slow and ponderous in his movements. A man of few words but much piety. After him, with some hesitation as became his lowlier station, came William Bull, six days in the week his master's shepherd and faithful servant, but on the seventh an elder of the chapel, a person of consequence and dignity. Then followed Joan and Cicely Strong together, sisters in the flesh, but as far apart in kin and the spirit as the poles of humanity themselves. And lastly, Douglas Guest. At the head of his shining mahogany table, with a huge Bible before him on which rested the knuckle of one clenched hand, stood Gideon Strong, the master of Feldwick Hall Farm. It was at his bidding that these people had come together; they waited now for him to speak. His was no common personality. Neat in his dress, precise though local, with a curious mixture of dialects in his speech, he was feared by every man in Feldwick, whether he stood over them labouring or prayed amongst them in the little chapel, where every Sunday he took the principal place. He was well set-up for all his unusual height and seventy years, with a face as hard as the ancient rocks which jutted from the Cumberland hillside, eyes as keen and grey and merciless as though every scrap of humanity which might ever have lain behind them had long since died out. Just he reckoned himself and just he may have been, but neither man nor woman nor child had ever heard a kindly word fall from his lips. Children ran indoors as he passed, women ceased their gossiping, men slunk away from a friendly talk as though ashamed. If ever at harvest or Christmas time the spirit of good fellowship warmed the hearts of these country folk and loosened their tongues the grim presence of Gideon Strong was sufficient to check their merriment and send them silently apart. He had been known to pray that sinners might meet with the punishment they deserved, both in this world and hereafter. Such was Gideon Strong.

He cleared his throat and spoke, addressing the young man who sat on the corner of the horse-hair sofa, where the shadows of the room were darkest.

"Nephew Douglas," he said, "to-day you ha' come to man's estate, and I ha' summoned those here who will have to do wi' your future to hear these few words. The charge of you left on my shoulders by your shiftless parents has been a heavy one, but to-day I am quit of it. The deacons of Feldwick chapel have agreed to appoint you their pastor, provided only that they be satisfied wi' your discourse on the coming Sabbath. See to it, lad, that 'ee preach the word as these good men and mysen have ever heard it. Let there be no new-fangled ideas in thy teachings, and be not vain of thy learning, for therein is vanity and trouble. Dost understand?" "I understand," the young man answered slowly, and without enthusiasm.

"Learning and godliness are little akin," said John Magee, in his thin treble. "See to it, lad, that thou choosest the one which is of most account."

"Ay, ay," echoed the shepherd thickly. "Ay, ay!" Douglas Guest answered nothing. A sudden light had flashed in his dark eyes, and his lips had parted. But almost at the same moment Gideon Strong stretched out his hand.

"Nephew Douglas," he said. "I am becoming an old man, and to-day I will release myself from the burden of your affairs once and for all. This is the woman, my daughter Joan, whom I have chosen to wife for thee. Take her hand and let thy word be pledged to her."

If silence still reigned in that gloomy apartment, it was because there were those present whom surprise had deprived of speech. The very image of her father, Joan looked steadily into her cousin's face without tremor or nervousness. Her features were shapely enough, but too large and severe for a woman, her wealth of black hair was brushed fiat back from her forehead in uncompromising ugliness. Her figure was as straight as a dart, but without lines or curves, her gown, of homely stuff and ill-made, completed her unattractiveness. There was neither blush nor tremor, nor any sign of softening in her cold eyes. Then Douglas, in whom were already sown the seeds of a passionate discontent with the narrowing lines of his unlovely life, who on the hillside and in the sweet night solitudes had taken Shelley to his heart, had lived with Keats and had felt his pulses beat thickly to the passionate love music of Tennyson, stood silent and unresponsive. Child of charity he might be, but the burden of his servitude was fast growing too heavy for him. So he stood there whilst the old man's eyes flashed like steel, and Joan's face, in her silent anger, seemed to grow into the likeness of her father's.

"Dost hear, nephew Douglas? Take her hands in thine and thank thy God who has sent thee, a pauper and a youth of ill-parentage, a daughter of mine for wife."

Then the young man found words, though they sounded to him and to the others faint and unimpressive.

"Uncle," he said, "there has been no word of this nor any thought of it between Joan and myself. I am not old enough to marry nor have I the inclination."

Terrible was the look flashed down upon him from those relentless eyes-fierce, too, the words of his reply, measured and slow although they were.

"There is no need for words between thee and Joan. Choose between my bidding and the outside o' my doors this night and for ever."

Even then he might have won his freedom like a man. But the old dread was too deeply engrafted. The chains of servitude which he and the whole neighbourhood wore were too heavy to be thrown lightly aside. So he held out his hand, and Joan's fingers, passive and cold, lay for a moment in his. The old man watched without any outward sign of satisfaction.

"Thou ha' chosen well, nephew Douglas," he said, with marvellous but quite unconscious irony. "I reckon, too, that we ha' chosen well to elect you our pastor. Thou wilt have two pounds a week and Bailiff Morrison's cottage. Neighbour Magee, there is a sup o' ale and some tea in the kitchen."

John Magee and William Bull betrayed the first signs of real interest they had exhibited in the proceedings. One by one they all filed out of the room save Douglas Guest and Joan. Cicely had flitted away with the first. They two were alone. He wondered, with a grim sense of the humour of the thing, whether she was expecting any love-making to follow upon so strange an engagement. He looked curiously at her. There was no change in her face nor any sign of softening.

"I hope you will believe, Joan," he said, taking up a book and looking for his place, "that I knew nothing of this, and that I am not in any way responsible for it."

Her face seemed to darken as she rose and moved towards the door.

"I am sure of that," she said, stiffly. "I do not blame you."

* * * * *

Up into the purer, finer air of the hills-up with a lightening heart, though still carrying a bitter burden of despondency. Night rested upon the hilltops and brooded in the valleys. Below, the shadowy landscape lay like blurred patchwork-still he climbed upwards till Feldwick lay silent and sleeping at his feet and a flavour of the sea mingled with the night wind which cooled his cheeks. Then Douglas Guest threw himself breathless amongst the bracken and gazed with eager eyes downwards.

"If she should not come," he murmured. "I must speak to some one or I shall go mad."

Deeper fell the darkness, until the shape of the houses below was lost, and only the lights were visible. Such a tiny little circle they seemed. He watched them with swelling heart. Was this to be the end of his dreams, then? Bailiff Morrison's cottage, two pounds a week, and Joan for his wife? He, who had dreamed of fame, of travel in distant countries, of passing some day into the elect of those who had written their names large in the book of life. His heart swelled in passionate revolt. Even though he might be a pauper, though he owed his learning and the very clothes in which he stood to Gideon Strong, had any man the right to demand so huge a sacrifice? He had spoken his mind and his wishes only to be crushed with cold contempt. To-day his answer had been given. What was it that Gideon Strong had said? "I have fed you and clothed you and taught you; I have kept you from beggary and made you what you are. Now, as my right, I claim your future. Thus and thus shall it be. I have spoken."

He walked restlessly to and fro upon the windy hilltop. A sense of freedom possessed him always upon these heights. The shackles of Gideon Strong fell away. Food and clothing and education, these were great things to owe, but life was surely a greater, and life he owed to no man living--only to God. Was it a thing which he dared misuse?--fritter helplessly away in this time-forgotten corner of the earth? Life surely was a precious loan to be held in trust, to be made as full and deep and fruitful a thing as a man's energy and talent could make it. To Gideon Strong he owed much, but it was a debt which surely could be paid in other ways than this.

He stopped short. A light footstep close at hand startled, then thrilled him. It was Cicely--hatless, breathless with the climb, and very fair to see in the faint half-lights. For Cicely, though she was Gideon Strong's daughter, was not of Feldwick or Feldwick ways, nor were her gowns simple, though they were fashioned by a village dressmaker. She had lived all her life with distant relatives near London. Douglas had never seen her till two months ago, and her coming had been a curious break in the life at the farm.

He moved quickly to meet her. For a moment their hands met. Then she drew away.

"How good of you, Cicely," he cried. "I felt that I must talk to some one or go mad."

She stood for a moment recovering her breath--her bosom rising and falling quickly under her dark gown, a pink flush in her cheeks. Her hair, fair and inclined to curliness, had escaped bounds a little, and she brushed it impatiently back.

"I must only stay for a moment, Douglas," she said, gravely. "Let us go down the hill by the Beacon. We shall be on the way home."

They walked side by side in silence. Neither of them were wholly at their ease. A new element had entered into their intercourse. The wonderfully free spirit of comradeship which had sprung up between them since her coming, and which had been so sweet a thing to him, was for the moment, at least, interrupted.

"I want you to tell me, Douglas," she said at last, "exactly how much of a surprise to-day has been to you."

"It is easily done," he answered. "Last night I went to your father. I tried to thank him as well as I was able for all that he has done for me. I then told him that with every respect for his wishes I did not feel myself prepared at present to enter the ministry. I showed him my diplomas and told him of my degrees. I told him what I wished--to become a schoolmaster, for a year or two, at any rate. Well, he listened to me in fixed silence. When I had finished he asked, 'Is that all?' I said, 'Yes,' and he turned his back upon me. 'Your future is already provided for, Douglas,' he said. 'I will speak to you of it to-morrow.' Then he walked away. That is all the warning I had."

"And what about Joan?"

His face flushed hotly.

"No word from him, nor any hint of such a thing has ever made me think of Joan in such a connection. I should have been less surprised if the ceiling had fallen in upon us."

She looked at him and nodded gravely.

"Well," she said, "our oracle has spoken. What are you going to do?"

"I am going to ask for your advice first," he said.

"Then you must tell me just how you feel," she said.

He drew a long breath.

"There are so many things," he said, speaking softly and half to himself. "Last week, Cicely, I took a compass and a stick and I walked across the hills to Rydal Mount, where Wordsworth lived. When I came back I think that I was quite content to spend all my days here. It is such a beautiful world. Some day when you have lived here longer, you will know what I mean--the bondage will fall upon you, too. The mountains with their tops hidden in soft blue mist, the winds blowing across the waste places, the wild flowers springing up in unexpected corners, the little streams tearing down the hillside to flow smoothly like a belt of beautiful ribbon through the pasture land below. The love which comes for these things, Cicely, is a strange, haunting thing. You cannot escape from it. It is a sort of bondage. The winds seem to tune themselves to your thoughts, the sunlight laughs away your depression. Listen! Do you hear the sheep-bells from behind the hill there? Isn't that music? Then the twilight and the darkness! If you are on the hilltop they seem to steal down like a world of soothing shadows. Everything that is dreary and sad seems to die away; everywhere is a beautiful effortless peace. Cicely, I came back from that tramp and I felt content with my lot, content to live amongst these country folk, speak to them simply once a week of the God of mysteries, and spend my days wandering about this little corner of the world beautiful."

"Men have lived such lives," she said quietly, "and found happiness."

"Ay, but there is the other side," he continued, quickly. "Sometimes it seems as though the love for these things is a beautiful delusion, a maddening, unreal thing. Then I know that my God is not their God, that my thoughts would be heresy to them. I feel that I want to cast off the strange passionate love for the place which holds me here, to go out into the world and hold my place amongst my fellows. Cicely, surely where men do great works, where men live and die, that is the proper place for man? I have no right to fritter away a life in the sensuous delight of moving amongst beautiful places. I want to come into touch with my kind, to feel the pulse of humanity, to drink the whole cup of life with its joys and sorrows. Contemplation should be the end of life--its evening, not its morning."

"Douglas," she cried, "you are right. You know that you have power. Out into the world and use it! Oh, if I were you, if I were a man, I would not hesitate for a moment."

His hand fell upon her shoulder. He pointed downwards.

"How far am I bound," he asked hoarsely, "to do your father's bidding?"

The glow passed from her cheeks. She moved imperceptibly away from him.

"Douglas," she said, "it is of that I came to speak to you to-night. You know that I have a brother who is eternally banished from home, whose life I honestly believe my father's severity has ruined. I saw him in London not long ago, and he sent a message to you. It is very painful for me to even think of it, Douglas, for I always believed my father to be a just man. He has let you believe that you were a pauper. My brother told me that it was not true--that there was plenty of money for your education, and that there should be some to come to you. There, I have told you! You must go to my father and ask him for the truth!"

He was silent for a moment. It was a strange thing to hear.

"If this is true," he said, "it is freedom."

"Freedom," she repeated, and glided away from him whilst he stood there dreaming.

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