In the archives of Clayton Hall, there was found the other day the little packet of letters the new Mrs. Latimer wrote to her mother on her wedding trip. Does any bride out of a book declare in such letters whether she is happy or unhappy during these momentous weeks? Certainly not any bride with the strong good sense of Pollie.
The first letter described the journey by phaeton to London, and the sights there; how Harry had shown Pollie, Tattersall’s, and the new National Gallery in the place where the old King’s Mews used to be; and, best of all, that good, wise, resolute little Queen, riding of an afternoon with Lord Melbourne. Next, Harry took Pollie their first trip in a steam carriage on one of the new railroads, and Pollie, much impressed, wrote of the “surprising velocity” of the motion. (It was to some purpose, after all, she had composed a pattern epistle three times a week in the schoolroom to an imaginary correspondent.)
After London, the pair — knowing and content to know, that this was the trip of their lives, and that, once back in Basset, Dilchester would be almost their furthest limit — crossed the Channel and posted to Paris. From there, Pollie wrote her intention of embroidering Harry a beautiful waistcoat in fuchsias — the waistcoat to come as an entire surprise to him, and so only to be worked when he was out. A subtle observer might have drawn deductions from the fact that just a fortnight later the waistcoat was announced as finished.
Finally, the couple recrossed the Channel — six hours in the packet-boat in the teeth of a contrary wind — rejoined the cobs and phaeton, and went a tour round the cathedral cities of England. By cathedral III — Lincoln — Harry had sworn off cathedrals entirely and for ever, and had gone to a horse-show instead; but Pollie conscientiously sketched nearly all of them, not worrying about perspective, but achieving results at least showing grip and spirit.
The subtle observer might again have made deductions, not only from the number of the sketches, but from the length of time and the undivided attention evidently bestowed upon each of them.
Just three months after the wedding-day, Basset, having erected a triumphal arch with a very intoxicated-looking “Welcome” in cotton-wool on it, mustered its whole population in its one street, and cheered the bride and bridegroom as Harry drove the phaeton to the Manor. He looked his ever-jolly, robust, good-natured self, and the bride seemed the merest slip of a bright-eyed little girl beside him. Miss Pilkington, having punctiliously paid her wedding call at the Manor two days later, shook her kind head, and said she hoped
— meaning she did not think — so gay a creature could be fit for the responsibilities of marriage.
Yet it may be that, even on their wedding journey, Pollie had, very dimly, begun to realize that there might be drawbacks for the wife in the happy temperament of a husband who was so incapable of believing anything but the best that he never prepared for the worst; and that if he was always careless, it might behove her to be more than commonly careful. Still, it was a very eager and trusting Pollie who had come back to the Manor, quite ready to believe that any little disillusions of the wedding journey were due to her, as yet, necessarily imperfect understanding of the nature and constitution of man.
She had been excellently well taught by her mother — then absent in the West of England nursing a sick sister — to tackle man’s domestic difficulties for him.
Harry thought Pollie looked uncommonly pretty — and so she did — with a housekeeping apron pinned to her very slender bodice, and with the heavy household keys in a great pocket, when she went off after breakfast their first morning at Basset Manor for a preliminary engagement with Harry’s cook. He looked up from pulling Tim’s ears and laughed at her alert and business-like air, and said he shouldn’t advise her to bother herself over old Jones, as Jones always had done just what she liked and always would; and Pollie, who had been told that it was her duty to make her dependents do theirs, said, “Not with me, Harry,” with such a fine determination, that Harry laughed the more. However, Mrs. Jones, who was nearly a foot taller than her mistress, and could have picked her up in one hand and shaken her, very soon became mild and apologetic under Pollie’s fearless and truthful eyes, and learnt to clean and tremble.
Harry gave Pollie quite large sums of money, at quite uncertain intervals, by way of making a housekeeping allowance, and though the sums were, at first, far more generous than was necessary, and Pollie perched a kiss on the top of his head in grateful acknowledgment of them, she was aware all the same that this was not, so to speak, the way to do business.
When she dismissed an artful housemaid, who had gauged her master’s character and taken advantage of his convenient habit of shutting his eyes to everything that was awry, Harry was much less pleased. Jane had made him very comfortable and had seemed all right, so of course she was
all right! In fact, Harry’s theory was that, since reformation was always resented by the reformees and made the reformer deucedly unpopular, why reform? Pollie, on the other hand, had always been given to understand that to do nothing is often to do wrong. She looked up at Harry — they were sitting together after dinner on an evening a few weeks after they came home — and returned to the bright-coloured wool antimacassar she was making, without saying anything.
In the mornings, she used to walk round the garden with him, in the little, thin, inadequate black satin boots in which the women of that epoch followed their lords through the rough places of the world with a courage and spirit their stoutest-shod sisters of to-day have not exceeded. Harry was not wholly pleased with her when she noticed the immense discrepancy between the seeds and bulbs bought and the flowers raised. But, as he had really rather desired the end, though not enough himself to take the means, he was quite pleased when, in the sequel, the florist’s bills were few and the flowers many.
Soon, the Manor gave the first of several large and solemn dinner-parties to the other manors and halls of the neighbourhood, and Harry was wholly delighted with the ponderous excellence of the feast Pollie and Mrs. Jones had been busily preparing since nine o’clock in the morning.
No husband — certainly not such a new and good-natured one as Harry — could have failed to admire the wife he caught sight of at times round the silver candelabra and the piled-up dishes set out on the table. Even a trousseau-frock of a heavy silk of a crude mild-blue, could not take away the colour and brightness from Pollie’s face; as the fact that she knew very little could not take away the natural intelligence of her conversation. The knighted Mayor of Dilchester, who was her neighbour, was quite delighted with her, and told Harry over the wine afterwards what a lucky man he was. Perhaps, as Harry was passing, quite gradually, to the more normal marital attitude of feeling that Pollie was a lucky woman, the information did no harm.
In the drawing-room, when all the rest of the company had made music after tea — everybody sang and played in those days, nobody very badly and nobody very well — Harry roared out to Pollie’s accompaniment the jovial history of Captain Wattle
, “who was all for love and a little for the bottle”; and then one of the comic songs from the “Vocal Library,” a song with that obvious and primitive wit — the wit of the practical joke and the pun — which has long ceased to amuse. It amused that simpler and cheerful company, however.
Harry and Pollie’s dinner-parties, having begun at half-past five, did not break up till ten. It was not to their inordinate length that sensible Pollie ascribed Harry’s crossness the next morning. She accepted man — as most of the women round her had to accept him — as a creature who, though certainly no longer drinking to intoxication, yet on festive occasions necessarily saw the world much en rose
at the moment, and much en noir
the next day. When Harry kicked Dim, not at all severely, when Dim unwittingly got in his way, and Dim, offended more than hurt, rubbed his face against Pollie’s frock asking an explanation, Pollie, stroking the large head, whispered to him that this was one of the small things of life, which he and she must not mind.
To be sure, it was also a small thing that Harry, having very generously bestowed trifling weekly pensions on some old folks in the village, invariably forgot to pay them; and that, having faithfully promised Mr. Phillips to come and inspect the roof of some distant cottage, he scarcely ever remembered the promise; and Polly, inventing a pudding, was constantly being called away from her duties to see to Harry’s, Harry being out shooting (it was now early autumn) with a neighbouring squire.
It was also a small thing that Harry put off answering his letters until his correspondents wrote to inquire of Pollie if he were dead; that he stuffed business communications into his pockets, and gaily ignored their existence; and that he was always meaning to order hoes and rakes for the gardeners, and never doing it.
Still, to every hundred persons who can bear with courage the blows of Fate, there is about one who can equably support her slaps. Pollie was astonished to find such trifles could annoy her; when Harry saw she was annoyed, and offered her a new lace tippet from London to make up, Pollie, conscientiously refusing the tippet because there were already three in her trousseau, came to Harry all the same and, laying her soft and glowing cheek against his, said that she had not meant to be cross.
It was Harry’s turn to be a little cross presently, when the weather turned wet and the gout in his toe kept him to the house for a few days.
He was not a person of resources, and it was naturally a little annoying to him to find that Pollie was; for to see others contented with things that do not content one’s self, is seldom pleasing. When the household duties were done, Pollie found footstool-covers positively calling out to beaded; and sat, looking very pretty and quite absorbed in her occupation, by Harry’s side. Then, one day, hobbling into the library on the foot he had been expressly forbidden to put to the ground, he found his wife on the top of the steps by one of the great book-cases, wholly and entirely absorbed in the Spectator
of Joseph Addison. Harry, never reading himself, entertained a dark suspicion that there was something a little unfeminine about a woman who could not rest satisfied with Miss Ferrier’s “Destiny
,” Heath’s “Book of Beauty
,” and the illustrations in Thomson’s “Castle of Indolence
” — all adorning the drawing-room table.
Pollie, still holding Mr. Addison, came down the steps slowly at Harry’s call. Her straightforward mind could not see any reason why she should not read the Spectator
because it bored Harry. But remembering the softness and the meekness which were the ideal wifely virtues, she, with an effort, did not say so.
The very next day, she herself readjusted, as it were, the intellectual balance between the sexes by driving the lady’s phaeton — Harry had given it to her, and was teaching her to handle the ribbons — into a ditch, and by inquiring at dinner, with that perfectly cheerful candour which always distinguished her, if Lord Melbourne
were a Whig
or a Tory
Still, when Harry was about again, Pollie often found her way to the old book-cases, and sitting on those steps, with her small white-stockinged, sandalled feet dangling, discovered, to her great good fortune, that Jane Porter and “The Songs of the Affections
” did not form the sum total of English literature.
One brilliant morning of early September, the post-bag, arriving at breakfast, was found to contain a solid and lengthy communication from Harry’s lawyer at Dilchester about a property to which Harry was a trustee. He threw the letter over to Pollie, not because he supposed she understood business, but because he was just going out to a neighbour for a day’s partridge-shooting, and did not want to bother about it himself. Pollie read it while Harry was putting on his shooting boots and playing with the dogs.
“Mr. Rastrick wants to see you at once — to-day, Harry,” she said. “He says the business is very important, and ‘if not attended to,’ ” reads Pollie from the letter, “ ‘might result in a very serious loss.’ ”
“Fudge!” says Harry, pulling on the second boot. “Old Rastrick’s always fussing about something.”
“It does seem serious, Harry,” answers Pollie, still reading the letter; “he says again it is most expedient he should see you to-day.”
“Then he won’t,” replies Harry, with his jolly laugh. “Here, throw it over to me, Pollie, and don’t frown like that. Women never ought to interfere in business.” With that, Harry, having impatiently read the paper himself, threw it into a drawer in his writing-table, and, whistling cheerfully, went out to the hall-door to see if Victoria had been brought round.
The sun was streaming pleasantly into the dining-room, but for the moment the world did not look gay to Pollie. “As this may be a serious matter, not for you and your wife only, but for your children hereafter,” Mr. Rastrick had written — and Harry did not find it worth the sacrifice of a day’s pleasure!
Pollie’s eyes were still thoughtful when she came out to the door to see him off. He looked so hearty and vigorous, as he flung himself into the saddle, so full of youth and life, it was inspiriting to see him. Just as he was starting, he turned to Pollie, to hope good-naturedly she would not be dull, and to suggest that if she were, she should ask old Pil (thus Harry abbreviated the representative of the house of Pilkington) to spend the afternoon with her.
About a week later, there came another solemn communication from Mr. Rastrick, expressing surprise that he had heard nothing from his client on the important business of which he had written to him, but adding that the matter had turned out less serious than he had anticipated, and, he believed, would be settled satisfactorily.
“I told you so!” says Harry, pulling one of Pollie’s little curls — in her case, they were her own, growing on her head — and Pollie found herself in the rather annoying, but not uncommon, position of being forgiven — for having been perfectly right.
That day seemed to her to mark an era. Certainly, after it, Harry’s faults often came up before the bar of her righteous young judgment, and received scant mercy there; and she forgot that in the days when Harry used to ride from Basset to Clayton Hall to woo her, it was his very insouciance
and sanguineness which used to make her home seem dull and everybody in it so old when he had gone away.
Sometimes now, they even had small disputes — over some household matter at breakfast-time, perhaps. Pollie began her house-keeping — with the keys and the pinafore — sore and troubled. When, with very great difficulty and in a few hours’ time, she had brought her high spirit to apology and contrition, she was met with the blank wall of the fact that Harry had totally and utterly forgotten, not only the nature of the offence, but that there had been one at all.
But sometimes there were graver things — “on n’a qu’a glisser pour faire mal.”
Harry’s lazy good-nature occasionally led him into small predicaments, from which the easiest way out was a by-path from the truth. The wondering honesty of Pollie’s eyes was quite lost on him. One day, alas! She tried a small shaft of contempt, and it glanced off him easily, doing neither harm nor good. As for detecting that everything was not perfectly right, if Harry did detect it, being an entirely practical person, he would simply have said that of course no one could go on honeymooning for ever.
Certainly, if troubles there were, Pollie had the best of remedies for them — plenty to do. Because one’s heart aches, is no reason the plums should not be made into jam; and whether one is happy or unhappy, the house-linen will not count and mend itself.
In the evenings after dinner, Harry used to have his wine brought into the red-satin drawing-room, and enjoyed it, sitting before the fire, while Pollie sang to him. She used to sing nearly every evening, her répertoire being quite limited —
“I’d be a butterfly!
living a rover,
Dying when fair things are fading away;”
and a very long ballad, describing minutely the five inadequate reasons why the hero Never Said He Loved
, until verse six, when, with several passionately tremulous chords, he at last expressed his feelings.
By this climax, despite the chords, Harry was generally asleep. Pollie, with her hands resting on the keyboard, could see him from where she sat: with his goodly, fair head thrown back on the chair, and self-indulgence marking — it had not yet marked — its obvious lines on his boyish face. Dim — Tim was asleep like his master — would rise slowly sometimes from the hearthrug, and come to Pollie to inquire if this was by any chance a trouble a lick could heal.
Then tea was brought in, at half-past eight, and when Pollie had brewed it, taking a great deal of interest in the process, it was her custom to sit on one of those beaded footstools by Harry’s side, and drink her cup with her head resting against his knee.
At first, she had been used to talk to him about the things which had been in her mind in the day, or her new naïf
experiences of life. While on all material questions Harry was perfectly shrewd and sensible, the world of abstract ideas had absolutely no existence for him — though, after all, it was not ideas which Pollie’s developing heart missed, but ideals. She sat there for a long time, looking into the red hollows of the fire, and seeing there, perhaps, Harry’s shortcomings and not her own. She had been too fond of him to be merciful to them.
Some chance remark he made about happening to have met her that night of the Dilchester ball, seemed to say that if he had not met her, he would have met some one else, who would have done as well. Harry, to be sure, had not meant that, or meant anything. He rested the Globe
which he was reading on Pollie’s head; and under that canopy her pretty face took a strange sadness, and she began to think — a dangerous thought — how much she would have kept if, when they were still only lovers, Harry had been taken away from her; for she guessed already that, beside the loss of illusion, the losses of death might be kind.
Harry’s laugh roused her with a start; he read aloud something out of the paper — one of those cheerfully blatant sarcasms in which the press of that day indulged.
Presently, Pollie got up to snuff the candles, shaking herself morally the while. What a fool she was! what a wicked fool! Soft, persuasive, amiable — how short she fell of that accepted, wifely standard! Yet, the very next morning, when she did try the art of coaxing to make Harry sit down and pay his bills, or keep some long-neglected promise, she found, as she was always finding, that though he seemed to yield to her at the time, he did nothing, and next day they were back at exactly the same place again — the finger removed, the indiarubber ball resumed its original and incurable shape.
In the very few novels Pollie had been permitted to read, when the heroine was not discreetly left at the church door, her children settled and simplified for her all the difficulties of life.
When, in that winter, her small, stalwart son was born, with Harry’s English blue eyes and fair hair, and a distinct likeness in his crumpled red face to Harry’s out-of-door complexion, she made quite sure this convenient rule was going to apply to her.
Harry was certainly the proudest and most affectionate of fathers, and took an even greater interest in the surprising girth of Tommy’s legs than did that comfortable, ignorant, motherly old woman who was Pollie and Tommy’s nurse. No father ever dug an infant in the ribs with more hilarious results than Harry. The heir nearly gurgled and laughed himself into a fit when Harry gently winked his cheerful eye at him, or softly touched him — Tommy rolling at his ease on the hearth-rug — with the toe of a shooting boot. Presently, he preferred the sight of his father’s jolly face even to the delicious amusement of pulling his mother’s curls as if they were a bell-rope. Harry talked loudly of his son’s perfections when he met the other squires in the field, and they laughed at him, and liked him better for his naïf
delight in his new toy.
A toy — a really valuable toy, but for whose preservation he was not in the least responsible — that is what Pollie, sitting with the child on her lap, and looking over his downy light head into the fire, very soon came to the conclusion that Harry regarded their son.
Of course, it was only natural and manlike that when Tommy became fractious or boring, Harry should precipitately resign him to his mother, and that when, on the mere suspicion of a cry upstairs of an evening, she fled in its direction as if she had been shot out of a cannon, Harry should observe lazily that he was certain she need not bother, it was sure to be all right; which, of course, it always was. It was natural, too, that Pollie and not Harry should be anxious over passing infantile complaints — in this day scientifically assigned to flies in the milk, and in that to the direct Hand of God. But was it natural, Pollie asked herself, that when, in that hour after dinner, as they sat talking over their tea, she tentatively spoke of Tommy’s education and future, Harry should obviously regard the subject as a dull one, which did not in any way concern him, and remarked indolently that of course Tommy would get along somehow? That was just, in fact, what that resolute little mother of his did not mean him to do. She meant to put forth her very best efforts to help him to get along well.
She was sitting in her usual attitude at that hour, with her head against Harry’s knee, and for the first time was conscious that she disliked the touch of his fingers on the softness of her cheek and neck. Harry-like, he did not even observe that she shrank from him, and, when the next night she took a chair opposite him instead of her footstool, to which she returned no more, noticed no change at all.
The child, indeed, whom she had made so ignorantly certain was to draw her to Harry, more deeply divided them. Pollie, whose vive
nature had been angry, but angry only, at Harry’s casual affection and indifference for herself, felt passionate resentment that he should mete the same feelings to the child. She turned away her head now even when the pair were at play, as if something in the sight hurt her. When, one night, she did bring Harry to speculate — half jocularly — on Tommy’s future, it was but to know, what she had so far only suspected, that she and Harry had not an idea in common, and that, if Tommy’s upbringing was not to be wholly harmful, she must be always counteracting Harry’s influence. In a minute his head was behind the Globe
again, and he was whistling softly as he read. On to Pollie’s little bare hand with the wedding-ring on it there splashed, to her surprise and resentment, a sudden tear.
It being the shooting season, Harry, of course, was constantly out.
As women then never followed the guns, and as they walked little and played no outdoor games, for open-air exercises only riding and driving remained, and though Pollie was learning, she had not yet learnt those arts. So she had only the occupations of indoors — where the small troubles of life always loom large. Harry’s idiosyncrasies, which had annoyed her at breakfast, came up, unforbidden, before her mind in the long, solitary hours.
Yesterday, she had lit again, by chance, on one of his lazy lies, and knew that he was neither troubled at it nor at being found out in it.
To-day — sitting in the nursery sewing clothes for Tommy, and looking above his sleeping head at the dripping window-pane, where “rain and wind beat dark December
” — it seemed to her that since her marriage she had been always accepting lowered standards, or quarreling with Harry, in itself a lowering thing, for the better ones she knew. A revolt against him and against fate, a sudden, strong tempest of hatred, took possession of her. She took Tommy from her lap into her arms, and held him so tightly to her heart — in a fierce determination he should have neither lot nor part with his father — that Tommy woke up, screamed indignation at such treatment, and old Mrs. Chinnery came in from the next room to see if her charge were being murdered.
All that week Pollie was very silent. But Harry, who always volubly filled in all pauses himself, noticed nothing.
At church, on the Sunday, the sermon chanced to be on the Forgiveness of Injuries, and Harry, who had never borne any living soul a grudge for more than five minutes, listened moved and attentive, while Pollie, staring absently under her bonnet at old Mrs. Latimer’s monument, did not hear a word from beginning to end.
At the five o’clock Sunday dinner she hardly roused herself to make the ordinary observations, or to answer Harry’s. She was dreaming deeply — not without a gloomy pleasure in her own vindictive imaginings — of a Harry, ill or troubled, whom she would by no means succour or solace. She looked at his good-natured face across the dishes of wintry pears and grapes — he was enjoying his Sunday claret (the best bin) in perfect contentment — and believed that she hated him. From force of habit, through all her distress and bitterness, she kept on absently anointing the joint in front of her with the gravy — to keep the goodness of it — and no wretchedness of spirit could prevent her from mentally noting presently that Mrs. Jones had insufficiently browned the pudding.
In the drawing-room, she and Harry both produced books suitable for the day. Everybody then read, or pretended to read, sermons on Sunday, and if Harry’s chosen discourse on the Plagues of Egypt fell off his knee before he had reached the end of the first paragraph, and his head dropped back in the chair with his mouth open, the general opinion would certainly have been that he did much better to sleep over a pious work than to keep awake over a secular.
Pollie’s sermon on Sodom and Gomorrah lay unnoticed on her knee, and she gazed past Harry’s sleeping form, with her pretty eyes blank and sad, into the future. If only there were a future for her! If only she had known — in time — what life and love and marriage meant!
The regular breathing of Dim and Tim, as they lay stretched in their after-dinner sleep on the hearth-rug, made a monotonous accompaniment to her thoughts. She was so profoundly absorbed in them that even a cry in the nursery overhead passed unheard.
Five minutes later there was the report of a gun — apparently quite close to the windows — which brought the four occupants of the drawing-room to their feet in a second. In a dozen more, Harry had his
gun, and was ready to go in quest of the poacher, with his blue eyes eager and alert, agog for a fray, and bidding Pollie to hold back Dim and Tim. She called out to him from the hearth-rug, where she had each dog by his collar, in a phrase she had used a hundred times before, “Take care of yourself, Harry!”
When she could hear his footsteps no more, and the dogs were quieter — only murmuring excitement and disappointment occasionally, as she sat between them on the floor — the phrase came back to her mind.
If he did
take care of himself, there were twenty, thirty, forty years she must spend at his side, the spirit always subdued to the flesh, herself slipping into his likeness, and — far worse — seeing Tommy slip into it too. If he never came back, she would be free to lead her own life, with the child — to find, perhaps, the happiness she had missed! She began to see what she had missed. In books, poachers shot tyrannical landowners. Even Pollie — in her absorbed bitterness — had to smile at the thought of the much too easy-going Harry as a tyrant. But it was only in books! Because she knew such a catastrophe was so exceedingly unlikely to happen, she believed that she actually wished it to-night. And suddenly, with a guilty start, she became aware of Dim, sitting up with his ridiculous head exceedingly on one side, contemplating her gravely, as if he knew what was in her mind.
On the morrow, Harry did not get up. He felt ill — a chill, perhaps, from chasing the poacher. He grumbled a good deal and made great havoc of his bed-clothes. Pollie went down to her store-room and looked out the three household remedies which her mother had assured her the prudent housewife had always at hand — arnica
for the gout, and sal volatile
. As the arnica announced itself on the bottle to be intended for bruises and outward application, and Harry had no bruises, it was manifestly unsuitable. So Pollie tried the colchicum — gout takes all forms, and Harry might be suffering from one of them; and then, in case it was not the gout after all, the sal volatile.
Harry said he felt worse when he had imbibed these remedies, and rather crossly suggested — everybody believed piously and faithfully in the curative properties of medicine then — that they were stale. Pollie shook her head and curls, and sat on the edge of the bed, regarding Harry attentively. He did not look ill; the outdoor tan on his face had not faded at all. Her own experience of sickness was limited to an attack of measles at twelve years old; she tried to remember what she had felt like on that important occasion, and could not. She brought Harry some soup and wine and the newspaper, and resumed her household duties.
When she came up to him a little later, he was still tossing untidily and unhappily, and declared himself to be in considerable pain. Pollie suggested she should send John for Dr. Benet. Her ignorance was in no way alarmed. To it, death was still a name, not a reality; a thing which had removed King William IV. and sometimes an old uncle or a cousin — her father had died in her infancy — but had never come so near to her that she had learnt either to dread or to recognize it.
Harry was not sure whether he would see old Benet, or whether he would not. Doctors were such asses! Harry, in point of fact, had several shooting engagements that week, and had not quite decided whether old Benet would cure him in time for them, or maliciously prevent him from fulfilling them.
He dozed restlessly in the afternoon. It was six o’clock before John left the Manor, and nearly eight before Dr. Benet reached it. He wheezed asthmatically up the stairs alone — he was very fat and short. Harry had been annoyed with Pollie for standing at the end of his four-poster, looking at him and inquiring if he were better, and had bidden her to go downstairs. Dr. Benet was overhead a long while, creaking about noisily, doing a good deal, it seemed to Pollie listening below, but not talking much. When at last he came heavily downstairs again, Pollie, with her work still in her hand, went to the drawing-room door to meet him, asked cheerfully how Harry was, and if he would be out of bed to-morrow.
There was a look on old Benet’s homely face that seemed to her to make her heart give a sudden leap and then stand still. But self-control had been part of her training, and it did not fail her. The wool-work dropped out of her hands, but she stooped, picked it up, folded it, and laid it by on a table, before she shut the door and came back to the hearth where the doctor was standing.
He must not disguise from her that this was a very serious thing, and that he did not like the look of the patient at all. Every one, to his misfortune, knows these time-honoured formulas, the same seventy, or seven hundred, years ago. Dr. Benet wrote a note to a colleague in Dilchester — a note summoning him to come at once — which John must ride hard and deliver. He gave Pollie some directions. She was intelligent; that he had always guessed from her face. He took hold of her slim hand, hanging at her side — it was as cold as a stone — and patted it between his own fat, red, old paws, and said there was no need to lose hope, Harry had the finest of constitutions. As he rode away from the Manor, he recalled something in her expression, and wondered that the Squire, who was handsome enough certainly to please any woman’s fancy, was quite the man to have inspired to profound and passionate a feeling.
When he had gone, Pollie stood for a moment by the hall-door, which she had opened, thinking.
Les désirs accomplis!
Out of her exceedingly limited acquaintance with the French language that little phrase came back to her, followed her upstairs to Harry’s room, and drummed in her ears above the high-sounding phrases in which Dr. Clarke from Dilchester, presently retrieved by John, tried to hide his ignorance and his anxiety.
Les désirs accomplis!
The words still throbbed in her mind as she sat the remainder of the night in Harry’s room. Gamps
were the only sick nurses of that date, and, naturally, households like Pollie’s would have none of them. She had wished Harry dead; and he was dying. By the light of the candle and her own accusing soul, he looked far more ill and sunken than he really was. She would have her wish, as a judgment: This you desired; take it — to your lifelong regret.
When “the still morn went out with sandals grey
,” and Pollie peeped again through Harry’s bed-curtains, he was asleep; and so sound asleep, for one dreadful moment she thought her punishment had come.
Dr. Benet, arriving an hour or two later, considered his patient a something, though but a trifle, better.
But there were still many days of gnawing anxiety — or alternations of hope and fear not less cruel — when Pollie believed her desire had been heard in Heaven, by the just and avenging God of the Old Testament lessons of her childhood. She had what is called no time to think, but she had time and to spare to find out that the burden refused can weigh heavier than the burden borne; and that though, in her marriage, she had made one of the most fatal of human mistakes, there was one greater and more fatal — rebellion against its consequences.
The beautiful quiver
of the most nourishing of all possible calf’s-foot jelly
, which she had made with her own eager hands, and the perfect greaselessness and potency of the beef-tea, expressed her repentance. She would most thankfully have gone down on her knees and scrubbed the floor of Harry’s bedroom, if the medical science of her age had demanded such hygienic precautions — which it certainly did not. As it was, she satisfied its requirements, and a little comforted her self-accusing soul, by piling up the patient’s fire, and excluding oxygen from his room with so much fervous and thoroughness that only that natural excellence of constitution, on which old Benet was pinning his faith, could have made him weather her devotion. In the cold dawn of many mornings, Harry saw her little figure, in the simplest and neatest of wrappers, and with her curls appearing below a small, frilled nightcap, standing inside his bed-curtains, bringing him cups of nourishment.
When, after many days, he began to be annoyed with her for always remembering to give him his medicines — they were most numerous and nauseous — a weight seemed to be lifted from her heart. He had been so ominously meek and grateful!
No good woman ever thanked Providence so fervently to hear a little bad language as Pollie, when Harry showed his renewed vigour by energetically damning all drugs and the entire medical profession. He asked for Tim, and Pollie’s housewifely soul made no account of paw-marks on the spotlessness of the counterpane
; and for Tommy, and Pollie was not even hurt when he was quite disproportionately annoyed at the child for crying at his haggard, changed face. In her remorse — though at its bitterest she knew very well that she loved every hair which composed the down on Tommy’s head (called curls by Pollie and Mrs. Chinnery) better than Harry’s whole body — she hardly allowed herself to see the child at all.
Harry recovered, chiefly because he had always been firmly convinced that it was perfectly impossible for him to do anything else. He came downstairs again, not at all a changed man, but precisely the same man he had gone up; and Pollie, not substantially a different woman, resumed her life with him.
Only now, since she had wished him dead and he had nearly died, the sense of her own failings made her merciful to his. Sometimes, when he annoyed or wounded her, she would go into the drawing-room, and, looking up at his mother’s picture, tell herself that for the son of that feebly good-natured person, with her pleasant, watery smile, the allowances should indeed be great. When he offered her a present — a peace-offering — a wiser Pollie took it, though there were more than three in her trousseau. She found out gradually that, though one has missed the best, good may yet remain; that if the Harry she had been in love with was lost to her, perhaps had never existed, there still lived beside her a Harry of whom she was really fond, and with whom her duty lay for all her day.
His good-natured camaraderie
, which was offence when she still loved him — or thought she did — she accepted as her greatest blessing, and was thankful that he gave her a kind, careless affection, and exacted no more.
She learnt in time to be “soople in things immaterial
”; and when she knew her anger was just, remembered, or tried to remember, that “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.
Patience to endure was the besetting virtue of that age, as impatience to reform is the besetting virtue of this; and Pollie was the child of her time. Her pride — the pride which not only never whines under misfortune, but denies that there is any misfortune to whine about — also helped her not a little.
After all, too, the novels were not wholly wrong. How was it possible not to feel gently to Harry when Tommy looked up to her with Harry’s eyes, and laid on hers a fat hand, stubby and strong and short — Harry’s in miniature? But, if his face was his father’s, in his nature he had his mother’s deeper and livelier feelings, quicker temper, and honest heart.
It was her care, of course — and her happiness, too — to plan, to think, to look ahead for the son, while the father was breaking in for him the cleverest little pony in the world; to persuade Harry to see Mr. Rastrick on matters which would affect Tommy hereafter, instead of aiming Mr. Rastrick’s communications, made into suitable pellets, at Tommy tumbling on the floor with Dim and Tim, his inseparable allies.
The problem — that hard problem — to make Tommy respect a father who was eminently, but only, likeable; to obey him, but not to follow in his ways — she tackled with sense and spirit, and some measure of success. And so made her compromise with Fate.
At her side, of course, Tommy learnt C A T — cat, and D O G — dog, and, from that extraordinary Early-Victorian compendium, “Infantine Knowledge
,” responded to such dissimilar questions (in this strange rotation) as “Who made you?” “What is sago?” “Where is New York?”
Presently, Pollie went into the library, found Harry’s old Latin grammar, and, with her curls rather flurried, and her cheeks rather flushed, learnt mensa
, “a table”, and amo
, “I love,” to be in time to help Tommy out of that pitfall concerning hostages and the gate of a city, into which she knew he must eventually be led. She used to hide the Latin grammar hastily under the sofa cushion when she heard Harry’s footstep approaching; he was so certain to say that women had no business with Latin, and could not possibly understand it!
Only now, she took care to remind herself that, after all, he was by no means the only man of his day who believed that “if you once suffer women to eat of the tree of knowledge
, the rest of the family will soon be reduced to the same aërial and unsatisfactory diet.”
It was also rather under the rose
, and when Harry was out, that Pollie pursued her own reading, practising that innocent and comforting deceit, as formerly, sitting on the top of a step-ladder, with a sandalled foot dangling, and the curls shadowing an absorbed, bent face.
With wonder and delight she delved into that gold-mine of inexhaustible riches — the wisdom and genius of Shakespeare; and, sometimes, when that great master of the human heart touched with his sure hand some chord in her own experience, or opened the door of a new world of passion and feeling into which she might only look, she would lift her head, catch her breath in a sudden sigh, and feel as if her life were over.
But, indeed, she had only finished Chapter II.