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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 2. Stepmother And Nurse
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There & Back - Chapter 2. Stepmother And Nurse Post by :healthyways2101 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1271

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There & Back - Chapter 2. Stepmother And Nurse

CHAPTER II. STEPMOTHER AND NURSE

The rumour of sir Wilton's marriage was, as rumour seldom is, correct. Before the year was out, lady Ann Hardy, sister to the earl of Torpavy, representing an old family with a drop or two of very bad blood in it, became lady Ann Lestrange How much love there may have been in the affair, it is unnecessary to inquire, seeing the baronet was what he was, and the lady understood the _what pretty well. She might have preferred a husband not so much what sir Wilton was, but she was nine-and-twenty, and her brother was poor. She said to herself, I suppose, that she might as well as another undertake his reform: some one must! and married him. She had not much of a trousseau, but was gorgeously attired for the wedding. It is true she had to return to the earl three-fourths of the jewels she wore; but they were family jewels, and why should she not have some good of them? She started with fifty pounds of her own in her pocket, and a demeanour in her person equal to fifty millions. When they arrived at Mortgrange, the moon was indeed still in the sky, but the honey-pot, to judge by the appearance of the twain, was empty: twain they were, and twain would be. The man wore a look of careless all-rightness, tinged with an expression of indifferent triumph: he had what he wanted; what his lady might think of her side of the bargain, he neither thought nor cared. As to the woman, let her reflections be what they might, not a soul would come to the knowledge of them. Whatever it was to others, her pale, handsome face was never false to herself, never betrayed what she was thinking, never broke the shallow surface of its frozen dignity. Will any man ever know how a woman of ordinary decency feels after selling herself? I find the thing hardly safe to ponder. No trace, no shadow of disappointment clouded the countenance of lady Ann that sultry summer afternoon as she drove up the treeless avenue. The education she had received--and education in the worst sense it was! for it had brought out the worst in her--had rendered her less than human. The form of her earthly presence had been trained to a fashionable perfection; her nature had not been left unaided in its reversion toward the vague animal type from which it was developed: in the curve of her thin lips as they prepared to smile, one could discern the veiled snarl and bite. Her eyes were grey, her eyebrows dark; her complexion was a clear fair, her nose perfect, except for a sharp pinch at the end of the bone; her nostrils were thin but motionless; her chin was defective, and her throat as slender as her horrible waist; her hands and feet were large even for "her tall personage."

After his lady had had a cup of tea, sir Wilton, for something to do, proposed taking her over the house, which was old, and worthy of inspection. In their progress they came to a door at the end of a long and rather tortuous passage. Sir Wilton did not know how the room was occupied, or he would doubtless have passed it by; but as its windows gave a fine view of the park, he opened the door, and lady Ann entered. Sudden displeasure shortened her first step; pride or something worse lengthened the next, as she bore down on a woman too much occupied with a child on her knee to look up at the sound of her entrance. When, a moment after, she did look up, the dreaded stepmother was looking straight down on her baby. Their eyes encountered. Jane met an icy stare, and lady Ann a gaze of defiance--an expression by this time almost fixed on the face of the nurse, for in her spirit she heard every unspoken remark on her child. Not a word did the lady utter, but to Jane, her eyes, her very breath seemed to say with scorn, "Is _that the heir?" Sir Wilton did not venture a single look: he was ashamed of his son, and already a little afraid of his wife, whom he had once seen close her rather large teeth in a notable way. As she turned toward the window, however, he stole a glance at his offspring: the creature was not quite so ugly as before--not quite so repulsive as he had pictured him! But, good heavens! he was on the lap of the same woman whose fierceness had upset him almost as much as his child's ugliness! He walked to the window after his wife. She gazed for a moment, turned with indifference, and left the room. Her husband followed her. A glance of fear, dislike, and defiance, went after them from Jane.

Stronger contrast than those two women it would be hard to find. Jane's countenance was almost coarse, but its rugged outline was almost grand. Her hair grew low down on her forehead, and she had deep-set eyes. Her complexion was rough, her nose large and thick. Her mouth was large also, but, when unaffected by her now almost habitual antagonism, the curve of her lip was sweet, and occasionally humorous. Her chin was strong, and the total of her face what we call masculine; but when she silently regarded her child, it grew beautiful with the radiant tenderness of protection.

Her visitors left the door open behind them; Jane rose and shut it, sat down again, and gazed motionless at the infant. Perhaps he vaguely understood the sorrow and dread of her countenance, for he pulled a long face of his own, and was about to cry. Jane clasped him to her bosom in an agony: she felt certain she would not long be permitted to hold him there. In the silent speech of my lady's mouth, her jealous love saw the doom of her darling. What precise doom she dared not ask herself; it was more than enough that she, indubitably his guardian as if sent from heaven to shield him, must abandon him to his natural enemy, one who looked upon him as the adversary of her own children. It was a thought not to be thought, an idea for which there should be no place in her bosom! Unfathomable as the love between man and woman is the love of woman to child.

She spent a wakeful night. From the decree of banishment sure to go forth against her, there was no appeal! Go she must! Yet her heart cried out that he was her own. In the same lap his mother had lain before him! She had carried her by day, and at night folded her in the same arms, herself but six years old--old enough to remember yet the richness unspeakable of her new possession. Never had come difference betwixt them until Robina began to give ear to sir Wilton, whom Jane could not endure. When she responded, as she did at once, to her sister's cry for her help, she made her promise that no one should understand who she was, but that she should in the house be taken for and treated as a hired nurse. Why Jane stipulated thus, it were hard to say, but so careful were they both, that no one at Mortgrange suspected the nurse as personally interested in the ugly heir left in her charge! No one dreamed that the child's aunt had forsaken her husband to nurse him, and was living _for him day and night. She, in her turn, had promised her sister never to leave him, and this pledge strengthened the bond of her passion. The only question was _how she was to be faithful to her pledge, _how to carry matters when she was turned away. With those thin, close-pressed lips in her mind's eye, she could not count on remaining where she was beyond a few days.

She was not only a woman capable of making up her mind, but a woman of resource, with the advantage of having foreseen and often pondered the possibility of that which was now imminent. The same night, silent above the sleep of her darling, she sat at work with needle and scissors far into the morning, remodelling an old print dress. For nights after, she was similarly occupied, though not a scrap or sign of the labour was visible in the morning.

The crisis anticipated came within a fortnight. Lady Ann did not show herself a second time in the nursery, but sending for Jane, informed her that an experienced nurse was on her way from London to take charge of the child, and her services would not be required after the next morning.

"For, of course," concluded her ladyship, "I could not expect a woman of your years to take an under-nurse's place!"

"Please your ladyship, I will gladly," said Jane, eager to avoid or at least postpone the necessity forcing itself upon her.

"I intend you to go--and _at once_," replied her ladyship; "--that is, the moment Mrs. Thornycroft arrives. The housekeeper will take care that you have your month's wages in lieu of warning."

"Very well, my lady!--Please, your ladyship, when may I come and see the child?"

"Not at all. There is no necessity."

"Never, my lady?"

"Decidedly."

"Then at least I may ask why you send me away so suddenly!"

"I told you that I want a properly qualified nurse to take your place. My wish is to have the child more immediately under my own eye than would be agreeable if you kept your place. I hope I speak plainly!"

"Quite, my lady."

"And let me, for your own sake, recommend you to behave more respectfully when you find another place."

What she was doing lady Ann was incapable of knowing. A woman love-brooding over a child is at the gate of heaven; to take her child from her is to turn her away from more than paradise.

Jane went in silence, seeming to accept the inevitable, too proud to wipe away the tear whose rising she could not help--a tear not for herself, nor yet for the child, but for the dead mother in whose place she left such a woman. She walked slowly back to the nursery, where her charge was asleep, closed the door, sat down by the cot, and sat for a while without moving. Then her countenance began to change, and slowly went on changing, until at last, as through a mist of troubled emotion, out upon the strong, rugged face broke, with strange suggestion of a sunset, the glow of resolve and justified desire. A maid more friendly than the rest brought her some tea, but Jane said nothing of what had occurred. When the child awoke, she fed him, and played with him a long time--till he was thoroughly tired, when she undressed him, and laying him down, set about preparing his evening meal. No one could have perceived in her any difference, except indeed it were a subdued excitement in her glowing eyes. When it was ready, she went to her box, took from it a small bottle, and poured a few dark-coloured drops into the food.

"God forgive me! it's but this once!" she murmured.

The child seemed not quite to relish his supper, but did not refuse it, and was presently asleep in her arms. She laid him down, took a book, and began to read.

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