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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 54. Barbara At Home
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There & Back - Chapter 54. Barbara At Home Post by :Merry_V Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1037

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There & Back - Chapter 54. Barbara At Home

CHAPTER LIV. BARBARA AT HOME

Barbara's brother, her father's twin, was fast following her mother's to that somewhere each of us must learn for himself, no one can learn from another. While they were in London, he was in the Isle of Wight with his tutor. His mother and sister had several times gone to see him, but he did not show much pleasure in their attentions, and was certainly happier with his tutor than with any one else. Disease, however, was making straight the path of Love. Now they were all at home at Wylder Hall, and Death was on his way to join them. Love, however, was watching, ready to wrest from him his sting--without which he is no more Death, but Sleep. As the poor fellow grew weaker, his tutor became less able to console him: and he could not look to his mother for the tenderness he had seen her lavish on his brother. But the love of his sister had always leaned toward him, ready, on the least opening of the door of his heart, to show itself in the chink; and at last the opportunity of being to him and doing for him what she could, arrived. One day, on the lawn, he tripped and fell. The strong little Barbara took him in her arms, and carried him to his room. When two drops of water touch, the mere contact is not of long duration: the hearts of the sister and the dying brother rushed into each other. After this, they were seldom apart. A new life had waked in the very heart of death, and grew and spread through the being of the boy. His eye became brighter, not with fever only, but with love and content and hope; for Barbara made him feel that nothing could part them; that they had been born into the world for the hour when they should find one another--as now they had found one another, to have one another to all eternity: it was an end of their being! He would come creeping up to her as she worked or read, and sit on a stool at her feet, asking for nothing, wishing for nothing, content to be near her. But then Barbara's book or work was soon banished. He was bigger than she, but the muscles of the little maiden were as springs of steel, informed with the tenderest, strongest heart in all the county, and presently he would find himself lifted to her lap, his head on her shoulder, the sweetest voice in all the world whispering loveliest secrets in his willing ear, and her face bent over him with the stoop of heaven over the patient, weary earth. In her arms his poor wasting body forgot its restlessness; the fever that irritated every nerve, burning away the dust of the world, seemed to pause and let him grow a little cool; and the sleep that sometimes came to him there was sweet as death. The face that had so long looked peevish, wore now a waiting look: in heaven, every one sheltered the other, and the arms of God were round them all!

One day the mother peeped in, and saw them seated thus. Motherhood, strong in her, though hitherto, as regarded the boy, poisoned by her strife with her husband, moved and woke at the sight of her natural place occupied by her daughter.

"Let me take him, poor fellow!" she said.

Delighted that her mother should do something for him, Barbara rose with him in her arms. The mother sat down, and Barbara laid him in her lap. But the mother felt him lie listless and dead; no arm came creeping feebly up to encircle her neck. One of her babies died unborn, and she knew the moment the strange sad feeling of the time came back to her now; she felt through all her sensitive maternal body that her child did not care for her. Grown, through her late illness, at once weaker and tenderer, she burst into silent weeping. He looked up; the convulsion of her pain had roused him from a half-sleep. A tear dropped on his face.

"Don't rain, mamma! I will be good!" he said, and held his mouth to be kissed.

He was much too old for such baby-speech, but as he grew weaker, he had grown younger; and it seemed now as if, in his utter helplessness, he would go back to the bosom of his mother. She clasped him to her, and from that moment she and Barbara shared him between them.

So for a while, Barbara had not the same room to think about Richard; but when she did think of him, it was always in the some loving, trusting, hoping way.

When in London, she went to all the parties to which she was expected to go, and enjoyed them--after her own fashion. She loved her kind, and liked their company up to a point. But often would the crowd and the glitter, the motion and iridescence, vanish from her, and she sit there a live soul dreaming within closed doors. She would be pacing her weary pony through a pale land, under a globose moon, homeward; or, on the back of one of her father's fleet horses, sweeping eastward over the grassy land, in the level light of the setting sun, watching the strange herald-shadow of herself and her horse rushing away before them, ever more distort as it fled:--like some ghastly monster, in horror at itself, it hurried to the infinite, seeking blessed annihilation, and ever gathering speed as the sun of its being sank, till at last it gained the goal of its nirvana, not by its well run race, but in the darkness of its vanished creator. Then with a sigh would Barbara come to herself, the centre of many regards.

Arthur Lestrange found himself no nearer to her than before--farther off indeed; for here he was but one among many that sought her. But her behaviour to him was the same in a crowded room in London as in the garden at Mortgrange. She spoke to him kindly, turned friendly to him when he addressed her, and behaved so that the lying hint of lady Ann, that they had been for some time engaged, was easily believed. A certain self-satisfied, well-dressed idiot, said it was a pity a girl like that, a little Amazon, who, for as innocent as she looked, could ride backward and steer her steed straight, should marry a half-baked brick like Lestrange: Arthur, though he was not one of the worthiest, was worth ten of him, faultless as were his coats and neckties!

Her father had several times said to her that it was time she should marry, but had never got nearer anything definite; for there her eyes would flash, and her mouth close tight--compelling the reflection that her mother had been more than enough for him, and he had better not throw his daughter into the opposition as well. He could not, he saw clearly, prevail with her against her liking; but it would be an infernal pity, he thought, seeing poor Marcus must go, if she would not have Lestrange; for the properties would marry splendidly, and then who could tell what better title might not stand on the top of the baronetcy!

Lady Ann would not let her hope go. She grew daily more fearful of the cloud that hung in the future: out of it might at any moment step the child of her enemy, the low-born woman who had dared to be lady Lestrange before her! Then where would she and her children be! That her Arthur would not succeed him, would be a morsel to sweeten her husband's death for him! It would be life in death to him to spite the woman he had married! At one crisis in their history, he had placed in her hands a will that left everything to her son; but he might have made ten wills after that one! She knew she had done nothing to please him: she had in fact never spent a thought on making life a good thing to the man she had married. She wished she had endeavoured or might now endeavour to make herself agreeable to him. But it was too late! Sir Wilton would instantly imagine a rumour of the lost heir, and be on the alert for her discomfiture! If only he had not yet made a later will! He must die one day: why not in time to make his death of use when his life was of none! No one would wonder he had preferred the offspring of her noble person to the lost brat of the peasant woman!

How far over the line that separates guilt from greed, lady Ann might not have gone had she been sure of not being found out, she herself could not have told. The look of things is very different at night and in the morning; the bed-chamber can shelter what would be a horror in a court of justice; a conscience at peace in its own darkness will shudder in the gaslight of public opinion. It is marvellous that what we call _the public_, a mere imbecile as to judgment, should yet possess the Godlike power of awakening the individual conscience--and that with its own large dullness of conscience! Truly the relation of the world to its maker cannot primarily be an intellectual one; it must be a relation tremendously deeper! We do not, I mean, to speak after the manner of men, come of God's intellect, but of his imagination. He did not make us with his hands, but loved us out of his heart.

The same week in which sir Wilton gave that will into his lady's keeping, he executed a second, in which he made the virtue of the former depend on the non-appearance of the lost heir. Of this will he said nothing to his wife. Even from the grave he would hold a shadowy yet not impotent rod over her and her family! Lady Ann suspected something of the sort, and spent every moment safe from his possible appearance, in searching for some such hidden torpedo. But there was one thing of which sir Wilton took better care than of his honour--and that was his bunch of keys.

After the return of the Lestranges and the Wylders to their country-homes, lady Ann, having prevailed, on Mrs. Wylder to pay her a visit, initiated an attempt to gain her connivance in her project for the alliance of the houses. For this purpose she opened upon her with the same artillery she had employed against her husband. Mrs. Wylder sat for some time quietly listening, but looking so like her daughter, that lady Ann saw the mother's and not the father's was the alliance to seek. Thereupon she plucked the tompion out of the best gun in her battery, as she thought, and began to hint a fear that Miss Wylder had taken a fancy to a person unworthy of her.

"Girls who have not been much in society," she said, "are not unfrequently the sport of strange infatuations! I have myself known an earl's daughter marry a baker! I do not, of course, imagine _your daughter guilty of the slightest impropriety,--"

Scarcely had the word left her lips, when a fury stood before her--towered above her, eyes flashing and mouth set, as if on the point of tearing her to pieces.

"Say the word and my Bab in the same breath again, and I'll throttle you, you vile woman!" cried Mrs. Wylder, and hung there like a thunder-cloud, lightening continuously.

Lady Ann was not of a breed familiar with fear, but, for the first time in her life, except in the presence of her mother, a far more formidable person than herself, she did feel afraid--of what, she would have found it hard to say, for to acknowledge the possibility of personal violence would be almost as undignified as to threaten it!

"I did not mean to offend you," she said, growing a little paler, but at the same time more rigid.

"What sort of mother do you take me for? Offended, indeed! Would you be all honey, I should like to know, if I had the assurance, to say such a thing of one of your girls?"

"I spoke as to a mother who knew what girls are like!"

"You don't know what my girl Bab is like!" cried Mrs. Wylder, with something that much resembled an imprecation: the word she used would shock thousands of mothers not comparable to her in motherhood. If propriety were righteousness, the kingdom of heaven would be already populous.

Lady Ann was offended, and seriously: was alliance with such a woman permissible or sufferable? But she was silent. For once in her life she did not know the proper thing to say. Was the woman mad, or only a savage?

Mrs. Wylder's eloquence required opposition. She turned away, and with a backward glance of blazing wrath, left the room and the house.

"Home like the devil!" she said to the footman as he closed the door of the carriage--and she disappeared in a whirlwind.

From the library sir Wilton saw her stormy exit and departure. "By Jove!" he said to himself, "that woman must be one of the right sort! She's what my Ruby might have been by this time if she'd been spared! A hundred to one, my lady was insolent to her!--said something cool about her mad-cap girl, probably! _She's the right sort, by Jove, that little Bab! If only my Richard now, leathery fellow, would glue on to her! There's nothing left in this cursed world of the devil and all his angels that I should like half so well! I'll put him up to it, I will! Arthur and she indeed! As if a plate of porridge like Arthur would draw a fireflash like Bab! I'd give the whole litter of 'em, and throw in the dam, to call that plucky little robin my girl! I'd give my soul to have such a girl!"

It did not occur to him that his soul for Barbara would scarcely be fair barter.

"Dick's well enough," he went on, "but he's a man, and you've got to quarrel with him! I'm tired of quarrelling!"

The instant she reached home, Mrs. Wylder sent for her daughter, and demanded, fury still blazing in her eyes, what she had been doing to give that beast of a lady Ann a right to talk.

"Tell me first how she talked, mamma," returned Barbara, used to her mother's ways, and nowise annoyed at being so addressed. "I can't have been doing anything very bad, for she's been doing what she can to get me and keep me."

"She has?--And you never told me!"

"I didn't think it worth telling you.--She's been setting papa on to me too!"

"Oh! I see! And you wouldn't set him and me on each other! Dutiful child! You reckoned you'd had enough of that! But I'll have no buying and selling of my goods behind my back! If you speak one more civil word to that young jackanapes Lestrange, you shall hear it again on both your ears!"

"I will not speak an uncivil word to him, mamma; he has never given me occasion; but I shan't break my heart if I never see him again. If you like, I won't once go near the place. Theodora's the only one I care about--and she's as dull as she is good!"

"What did the kangaroo mean by saying you were sweet on somebody not worthy of you?"

"I know what she meant, mother; but the man is worthy of a far better woman than me--and I hope he'll get her some day!"

Thereupon little Bab burst into tears, half of rage, half of dread lest her good wish for Richard should be granted otherwise than she meant it. For she did not at the moment desire very keenly that he should get all he deserved, but thought she might herself just do, while she did hope to be a better woman before the day arrived.

"Come, come, child! None of that! I don't like it. I don't want to cry on the top of my rage. What is the man? Who is he? What does the woman know about him?"

At once Barbara began, and told her mother the whole story of Richard and herself. The mother listened. Old days and the memory of a lover, not high in the social scale, whom she had to give up to marry Mr. Wylder, came back upon her and her heart went with her daughter's before she knew what it was about; her daughter's love and her own seemed to mingle in one dusky shine, as if the daughter had inherited the mother's experience. The heart of the mother would not have her child like herself gather but weed-flowers of sorrow among the roses in the garden of love. She had learned this much, that the things the world prizes are of little good to still the hearts of women But when Barbara told her how lady Ann would have it that this same Richard, the bookbinder, was a natural son of sir Wilton, she started to her feet, crying,

"Then the natural bookbinder shall have her, and my lady's fool may go to the devil! You shall have _my money, Bab, anyhow."

"But, mammy dear," said Barbara, "what will papa say?"

"Poof!" returned her mother. "I've known him too long to care what he says!"

"I don't like offending him," returned Barbara.

"Don't mention him again, child, or I'll turn him loose on your bookbinder. Am I to put my own ewe-lamb to the same torture I had to suffer by marrying him! God forbid I When you're happy with your husband, perhaps you'll think of me sometimes and say, 'My mother did it! She wasn't a good woman, but she loved her Bab!'"

A passionate embrace followed. Barbara left the room with a happy heart, and went--not to her own to brood on her love, but to her brother's, whose feeble voice she heard calling her. Upon him her gladness overflowed.

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