Shadows on the Snow: A Christmas Story
Part III. Christmas Again at Warleycombe
Part III. Christmas Again at Warleycombe.
There are two faces under every hat—one is worn in solitude, the other is shown to the world. Each mortal lives two lives—an outer and an inner life. Simulation appears to be a necessity; and the glossy cloak exhibited to the world has generally a somewhat ragged lining.
Another year has gone, and it is Christmas again at Warleycombe. The curtain has dropped upon the tragedy of many thousands of human lives, and myriads of hopes and fears have culminated and been engulphed in the awful Mystery which surrounds humanity. Life-sorrows have been quieted, and ambitions set at rest, since Father Christmas last smiled upon the pretty Devon lane. As we know, sorrow has visited Laura Harrild; but she still moves amongst her father's guests with the quiet grace of old. She has been smitten with a great grief, which will shadow all her future years; but she has her duties to perform in the world, and she performs them meekly and patiently. She dwells with calm sorrow upon the memory of her lover, and in her heart she cherishes the hope that he will return to her; and she will forgive him, and take him to her heart again. On that she has resolved; for a nature like Laura's loves only once, and loves for ever.page 107
But still, it is very painful to her. This Christmas is so like the last: the snow is on the ground, and all around is so little changed; the company is the same; and, but for the absence of one, and the silent grief which dwells within her heart, old Father Time might have been standing still during the year.
The Woys and the Wymers are present, as are also the Ramages. Time certainly has stood still for them. There is so little change in them that they might have been put to sleep last Christmas Eve, when the party broke up, and might only have just awoke to continue the festivity. The very young people have grown somewhat taller, and have acquired additional experience: as witness an extremely young lady in white muslin and a blue sash, who last year was much too infantine to take an important part in the proceedings, but who is now flirting desperately with three little boys. It is wonderful, indeed, where and how women learn the thousand charms of manner which send the brains of the other sex a-whirling. One thing is certain—they commence very young.
In the kitchen are Samuel Nock and Kitty Grater. It is scarcely necessary to mention the retainer of low degree, who has been again engaged to assist in the domestic arrangements; for he has fallen to his proper level. Had he been presumptuous enough this Christmas Eve to attempt to kiss Kitty under a sprig of mistletoe, the chances are that he would there and then have been wiped out of existence by Samuel Nock; for, wonderful to relate, in this the sixteenth year of their courtship, Samuel's passion has found expression. How it occurred page 108 —in what shape or manner—remains a mystery to this day. Neither of them can tell; but it has occurred, and it is a settled thing between them. But when marriage was talked of, Kitty resolutely shakes her head:
“No, Samuel,” she says, “it's no use your talking to me of that. For until Miss Laura's sweetheart comes back and makes it up, I'll never marry, if I live to be as old as Methuselah.”
With this, Samuel was fain to be content; and he had, indeed, by this time, accepted Kitty's ultimatum with perfect resignation.
Doctor Bax was there, as genial as ever. He had not changed a whit. And except that during the past year he had made himself more loved by his quiet sympathy, Father Time would also seem to have stood still for him. There are some men who never grow old; the goodness of their lives scares off wrinkles, and their faces are as pleasant to look upon in their age as in their youth.
And Stephen Winkworth and his daughter were not absent. True to his promise of spending Christmas with his friend, Stephen would remain until death. The faces of father and daughter showed the impress of the past year. Some fresh grief seemed to have fallen upon them, and Stephen's eyes were constantly wandering, apprehensively, to his daughter's face. In all that group, Stephen, probably, was the only one who knew the cause of William Fairfield's flight. He had not divulged even to his daughter, what had passed with William on that Christmas Eve; she had once or twice asked him questions which he had evaded; and he knew that she suspected him to be the cause of the estrangement page 109 between the lovers. He had accused himself, over and over again, of his conduct on that night. True, he had but told William the story of his life, but he had told it with a purpose which he did not care to conceal; but he was not at all certain that what he had seen of Laura's conduct was blamable. Then, what had been the result? His poor child had been rendered more wretched; her happiness had been the stake, and he had lost. And she was for ever mutely reproaching him with her eyes, for the misery he had caused.
Laura was sitting in the curtained recess in which she sat last year with William. Her thoughts were dwelling sadly on that time; and as she looked out upon the unchanged scene, her eyes filled with tears. Her father, who was watching her silently, presently joined her at the window, and taking her hand, begged her not to grieve.
“I am not grieving, father,” she said; “but I cannot help thinking of the difference between this Christmas and the last. It does make me a little unhappy,” and unable to proceed, the girl laid her head upon her father's breast, and sobbed quietly.
“I wish,” said Reuben Harrild, “that William Fair-field had been at the bottom of the Red Sea, before he thought of coming to Warleycombe.”
“Hush, father!” said Laura, gently. “Do not say that. William is not to blame. It was all my fault.”
“You are always saying that, child. How can it be your fault that he should deceive you?”
“He has not deceived me, father,” Laura replied; “it was I who deceived him. Yes,” she continued, quickly, stopping the hasty remark that was rising to Reuben page 110 Harrild's lips, “I must tell you all, father. I cannot bear that you should wrong him in your thoughts. Oh, father, as you love me, let me speak, and listen to me patiently for a few minutes.”
“What are you going to say, Laura?” asked Reuben Harrild, as a grave expression stole over his face.
“You have made me promise,” continued Laura, “not to speak upon one subject; but I cannot keep silence any longer. Do not shrink from me,” she said, as he turned his head; “look at me, dear father, and, as it is Christmas Eve, be patient with me, only for a little time.”
He could not resist her pleading, and he motioned her to proceed.
“Do you remember last Christmas Eve, father?” Laura asked.
“Do you remember my coming to you in the study, and asking you for a Christmas box?”
“Father, I came then to ask your forgiveness for Arthur”——
“Laura!” He had risen hastily to his feet, but Laura caught his hand and pressed it to her lips. Doctor Bax, passing at the moment, carelessly arranged the curtains, so that the two were shut out from observation.
“I must speak, father,” said Laura, passing his arm round her neck, and pressing it to her bosom. “I must speak now, if I never speak again.”
He allowed himself to be drawn closer to her, and listened.
“He was out in the cold, the whole night, father,” she page 111 continued. “William and I were standing where we are standing now, and I saw Arthur's shadow on the snow.”
“But William did not know?” he interrupted, quickly.
“No; William did not know. That is the cause of my unhappiness. William saw the Shadow, and wanted to go out; but I knew it was Arthur, and begged William to remain. Arthur had come to wish me good-bye, for he was going to the Colonies the next day. Oh! father, it almost broke my heart to part with him, and I begged him to see me once more at midnight. For I thought I might prevail upon you to forgive him, and I came up to your study to ask you; but you remember you would not listen to me. He was watching you through the window, father, and bade you good-bye in his heart; for for he loves you, and has never committed a fault since that one.”
Reuben Harrild's countenance twitched convulsively, and he disengaged himself gently from Laura, and turned his face to the wall.
“At midnight last Christmas Eve, I wished him goodbye. He bade me, if at any time you would allow me to speak of him, to give you his dear love and duty, and to tell you that he would, through all his future life, endeavor to atone for the one fault of which he had been guilty. Oh! father, think of him with love, and forgive him!”
“Go on to the end, child,” said Reuben Harrild, quietly.
“I have never seen William since that night. He wrote me a few words, saying that he had watched our page 112 meeting—of course, he did not know it was Arthur—and he went away believing that I had deceived him. I did blame him a little at first,” Laura said sweetly, “for doubting me. But I have thought since that he was hardly to blame. For he did not know that I had a brother; and I was wrong in concealing it from him.”
“And all your unhappiness has sprung from my fault,” Reuben said, drawing his daughter to him; “oh! my child! if I had only known”——
“You would have forgiven Arthur, father?” she asked, in a whisper, as she lay upon his breast.
“Yes, child! God pardon me! I would have forgiven him!”
“And you forgive him now, father?”
“I forgive him now, darling!” and he pressed his lips to hers.
“I am so happy,” said Laura; “I can bear my pain, now, for I shall write to Arthur, and tell him.”
Her grief seemed almost to pass from her as she spoke. And presently they joined the guests.
“It is a most extraordinary case,” Mr. Wymer was saying. “I think the annals of the law can scarcely furnish anything more remarkable. The overland mail has just arrived, and I have the letter here, with all the particulars,” and he pulled out an official-looking envelope, which he regarded with solemn satisfaction. “The man, that is, the father of the girl, was a sailor, and was in Port Phillip twenty years ago. Strolling into an auction room, where some Government land was being sold, he, with a sailor's recklessness, bid for an allotment. It was knocked down to him, and pulling some money out of page 113 his pocket, he paid for it, and took a receipt. A few days after that, his shipset sail for England, and he arrived here with the receipt, which he gave to his wife, who in return gave him a great blowing up for throwing away his money. Years passed, and the sailor died, leaving behind him a little girl. The widow married again—this time to a tallow chandler, who also had been married before. The tallow chandler had two grown-up daughters, and these two women behaved unkindly to the sailor's little girl”——
“Quite a case of Cinderella over again,” interposed Doctor Bax, pleasantly.
“I don't know anything about that,” grimly remarked Mr. Wymer, and giving the little Doctor a severe look for the interruption. “I look at the matter only in its legal aspect. The tallow chandler dies, and the tallow chandler's second wife dies, and the little girl is left to the mercy of those two shrews. They treat her abominably. They beat her, they do not give her enough to eat; but for all that the girl grows up into a remarkably good-looking young woman, and a respectable young man falls in love with her. An attachment springs up between them, but the two shrews, directly they become aware of it, warn the young man away from the house, threaten the girl with all sorts of punishments if she does not break with him, and so persecute them that the young man emigrates to Victoria, promising the girl to send for her or to come home for her directly he has made some money. He arrives in Melbourne, and gets employment in a lawyer's office. His employers do a great business in conveyancing, and he has to search over deeds and page 114 government grants in the government land office, until he knows who owns every inch of the city. One day he comes across the record of the government sale at which the sailor purchased this allotment—he sees the name of his sweetheart's father—he knows that he was a sailor”——
“Ebenezer!” here exclaimed Mrs. Wymer, warningly, “don't get excited.”
“Only my enthusiasm, Eliza,” said Mr. Wymer apologetically, and cooling down directly. “As I said, he recognises the name, and writes home to the girl for particulars. She writes, in return, that her father had once been in that part of the world; that she is very miserable, and hopes he will come and fetch her. At the same time, she sends him some old papers, which were her mother's; and, searching amongst them, he comes upon an old receipt, worn almost to shreds, and finds that the allotment the sailor purchased is in the very heart of Melbourne city. He lays claim to it on behalf of the girl, he comes home, and gives the case into our hands; we get up the case, and instruct proceedings, of course,” and here all the members of the firm smile agreeably, “and this is the letter telling us we have won, and that the young man is coming home again with twenty thousand pounds to marry the poor sailor's daughter.”
“Wonderful places, the Colonies,” remarked Doctor Bax, “and wonderful things have taken place there; some very dreadful things, too. I read in the papers this morning, that at some new gold fields discovered in New Zealand, forty men were found perishing in the snow, and that most of them died. What is the matter, Laura?” he asked, as Laura rose, and, with a white face, walked tremblingly away.page 115
She did not reply, but went mechanically to the door. How like to last year everything was, outwardly. Upon this spot, William had kissed her, and bade her good night; and she might never see him again. She shuddered at what Doctor Bax had said—“forty men perishing in the snow!” Her brother or her lover might be amongst those men. There was horror in the thought, and a sudden faintness came over her. In truth, she did faint, dead into the arms of Doctor Bax, who had followed her to the door.
“Poor dear! poor dear!” exclaimed the Doctor, looking at the white face lying upon his shoulder. “It is a sad Christmas this for you, my poor Laura. Come, cheer up, my dear,” he said, as she opened her eyes; “we must not have you fainting away like this. Idiot that I am, to speak of such things. I might have known”——
“How could you have known, Doctor Bax?” asked Laura. “I do not know that he is amongst them. I am strong again, thank you. It is very foolish of me to give way. Go inside, dear Doctor. Don't let me make everybody miserable this Christmas Eve. Very well, if you will not go in without me, I suppose I must accompany you.”
And, smiling almost cheerfully, she took the Doctor's arm, and joined the guests. The young people of the party were happy enough—sorrow had not entered into their lives; and most of them spent the evening pretty much as they had done a year before.
But there was one present who was, indeed, supremely unhappy. Hardened and cynical as he was, Stephen Winkworth could not look unmoved upon the form of page 116 his poor, crippled child. His misery was intense, for it was not relieved by hope. Day by day he saw her wasting away. She bore her lot uncomplainingly, and in silence. In this lay his chief unhappiness. If she had confided in him as of old—if she had complained to him of her suffering—he would have been more content. But no: the bond that united them was loosened. She chose rather to suffer in silence than seek his sympathy. Hapless, indeed, is that mortal whose life is passed without the light of sympathy and love!
He had been watching his daughter the whole of the night. Not once did he see her smile;—not once had she looked to him with affection. He could not endure it longer.
“Alice,” he said, in a hoarse whisper, as he bent over her chair; “Alice, I want to speak with you alone. Will you come out?”
He could not but speak tenderly to her. She was his child; she was all he loved on earth; and though his passionate agitation was mastering him, he schooled his voice so that it should sound as little harshly as possible.
Without a word, she rose and followed him. It was a strange fashion of her's, that she should wear her hair loosely; and as it hung down in heavy masses, it almost concealed her deformity when she was standing in repose
“Come out into the night,” he said.
He scarcely knew what impelled him to take her into the cold air; but he felt stifled in the house, and experienced a sense of relief when he reached the garden walk that bordered Warleycombe Lodge. The girl stood patiently before him.page 117
“Alice,” he said, “why do you not speak to me?”
“What shall I say, father?” she asked, in a weary tone.
“Say!” he returned, almost harshly; “say anything. Why do you avoid my look? Why do you torture me with your silence?”
“Father,” she said, solemnly, taking his hand, “look up to the stars. They are very beautiful. Not in my dreams have I seen a grander picture than this. The Divine Lord that shaped the world, that gave us eyes to see, and ears to hear, and mind to understand, is looking down upon us now. See! the earth so pure—the trees so lovely—the sky so bright! If Heaven be as beautiful as this, how blessed is immortality!”
“Well, child!” he said, awed into quietude.
“Well, father!” she returned; “we are sent into this beautiful world to enjoy its blessings. We are here not to repine, not to murmur, but to live, and be grateful. If any one of us has sorrow to bear, it must be borne. My lot, Heaven help me! is hard enough”——
“It is, child, it is,” he groaned, remorsefully.
“Why should you make it harder?”
“You have brought me here to speak, and speak I must. My heart cries out against you; I cannot help it. Since last Christmas, a new light has shone upon me. Father!” she exclaimed, turning her face suddenly to his; “why have you never spoken to me of my mother?”
Stephen staggered as if he had been struck, and a deadly shudder passed through him.
“I never saw her—I have never seen her picture. I page 118 often wonder if I shall know her when I see her in Heaven; or if there is something which will shut me out from her love in the next world, as death has done in this. Father, speak to me of my mother!”
“I cannot, child; I cannot,” he murmured, hiding his face in his hands.
“I so yearn for love, father. It seems to me that I can no longer live without it—your love—forgive, oh! forgive me!” and she wound her arms round his neck, and drew his face down; “your love pains me. It appears to me unholy; for you take it from all others to give it to me. Do you think that, when I see the want of sympathy that exists between you and all around you, I am not pained? Do you think I do not suffer when I see good men and women smile upon each other, and not upon you? When you shut yourself out from man's goodwill, you shut me out, also. Your life is not a blessing, father—Heaven pardon me for saying so—but it is a curse!”
Yes, he felt that what she said was true. His life was a curse, blighting everything with which he came in contact—blighting even his child's happiness.
“Alter it father, alter it!” she continued, earnestly. “Think better of the world. Live in it and be of it. Do you remember what I told you, last Christmas Eve, of my—of my love for William Fairfield?” and she blushed crimson, and trembled as she spoke. “I have conquered it, father. His love does not belong to me—it belongs to Laura. And oh! I pray that he may come back and make her happy. I have been silent to you. I have not been to you what I was; for I have felt within my page 119 heart that you did something last Christmas night to part them. What you did was done for my sake, and when I look at Laura, who is good, who is true, I say to myself, that I am the cause of her misery. I do not ask you to tell me anything, but, oh! father, if you can remedy any wrong you have done, do so at once, and make her happy.”
There was such anguish in his face, that she took his hand, and held it as if to comfort him.
“You can make my life different to what it is, father,” she continued, softly. “Speak to me of my mother.”
“Child,” he answered, as in agony, “I cannot speak of your mother. She made me what I am.”
“How long has she been dead? It must be a long, long time, for she has been dead to me all my life. Did she wrong you, father?”
“Silence, daughter!” he cried, in a voice of pain. “You must not question me!”
“I must not be silent,” she returned, firmly. “Oh, if she wronged you, father, have you never forgiven her? It is awful to think that she has been dead all these years, and that the ashes of your anger are still burning. Bless me, father, in my mother's name, and say that you forgive her!”
She knelt down upon the snow, and raised her hands. Could he look upon his poor, maimed child, and not relent? Slowly the tears came into his eyes and blinded him. The flood-gates of his heart were opened once more, and the memory of happier times—of times when he was a better man—clung about him with softening influence. Blurred in the moonlight, he saw the form page 120 of his daughter still kneeling on the snow; and placing his hands upon her head, he said—
“For your sake, my child, I forgive! In your mother's name, I bless you!”
There was certainly something extraordinary affecting little Doctor Bax; for Laura, who, strnggling to forget her grief, had been playing forfeits with the young people, raising her eyes, saw him looking at her with an expression she had never seen before. Directly their eyes met, he turned away his head; but the next moment he was looking at her again, and still so strangely, that she asked him if anything ailed him?
“No, my dear,” he replied, but speaking very confusedly, “there is nothing the matter with me. What should be the matter with me, you little puss, eh?”
“I don't know,” said Laura; “but, upon my word, you look as if you had seen a ghost?”
“Ha! ha!” exclaimed the Doctor, laughing so loudly that all eyes were turned upon him immediately. “What do you think, Mr. Harrild? Do I look as if I had seen a ghost.”
“I don't believe in ghosts,” replied Reuben Harrild, smiling, “therefore I am not a competent judge.”
“You don't believe in ghosts, don't you?” said Doctor Bax, taking Laura's hand in his, and patting it gently. “I do; I see them often. I am always seeing them. I never pass a churchyard at night without seeing a hundred of them dodging round about the tombstones. I do believe, now, that if I went outside this house, I should see a ghost directly.”page 121
“What sort of one, Doctor?” asked Laura, almost gaily.
“I am a wizard, my dear,” replied the Doctor; “and I should raise up the one I most wished to see. If you had your choice, now, what sort of a ghost would you conjure up?”
Laura turned very pale, and would have withdrawn her hand, but Doctor Bax held it firmly.
“Curious associations gather round one at odd moments,” said the Doctor. They had drawn away from the company, and were standing by the window. “I am just thinking of a little episode which happened in our family. My father—it is forty years now since he died—had a brother, Frank, from whom he parted in anger, and whom he never saw again. Upon his death-bed, the thought of that brother was his greatest trouble. I was a youngster at the time, but I remember well his words. ‘If I could but see Frank,’ he murmured; ‘if I could but see Frank!’ And then he turned to me, and bade me solemnly never to nurse anger against mortal man. ‘Your uncle treated me badly,’ he said, ‘and I have been at war with him all my life; but if I could see him now, and press his hand, and exchange a loving word, I should die happy.’ I have never forgotten his words, and through all my life I have never let the sun go down upon my wrath.”
He still held Laura's hand, and did not appear to heed the curious look that Reuben Harrild threw at him.
“There are mysteries and miseries in all families,” the Doctor continued. “It is wonderful, the suffering man inflicts upon himself. You had a son, I remember, Reuben”——page 122
Laura held her breath.
“Yes, I had a son,” said Reuben, gently. “Go on, Doctor.”
“You parted from him in anger,” pursued Doctor Bax. “He went abroad: what if he should be dead”——
“No! no! Doctor Bax!” cried Laura. “Do not say that! For mercy's sake, do not say that!”
“What if he should be dead!” continued Doctor Bax, firmly. “What if he should have died, unforgiven! If it were so, would you not give your all, Reuben, to take him once more to your heart, as you used to do when he was a curly-headed boy?”
“I would, Heaven help me!”
“Last Christmas he was here, was he not Laura?” asked the Doctor.
“Yes, he was here,” sighed Laura.
“You saw his shadow upon the snow,” said the Doctor waving his handkerchief across the window.
“I saw his shadow upon the snow. Look, Doctor, look!” Laura gasped, for at that moment, the shadow of a man darkened the snow-plain without.
“Keep up your courage, Laura. Do not tremble so my dear. Reuben Harrild, if that were your son—if he were come to ask his father's pardon for a fault deeply repented of—if, rescued almost miraculously from a dreadful death, he should have travelled back over stormy seas, to the home of his youth, humbled, contrite, purified,”——
“It is he!” cried Reuben Harrild, as the shadow advanced. “Come, child, let us welcome your brother!”page 123
“Upon my word,” said little Doctor Bax, wiping his eyes, as he was left alone, “this promises to be the most glorious Christmas Eve in my remembrance.”
And going amongst the company, he decoyed every woman and every girl under the misletoe, from the little thing in the blue sash to the dignified Mrs. Ramage, and kissed them all with the most intense enjoyment: which operation being satisfactorily concluded, he went out and joined the Harrild's.
Laura was weeping upon her brother's breast, while Reuben stood by, holding his son's hand.
“God bless you, sister!” sobbed Arthur. “But for your sweet counsel, this blessing might have been denied me. Oh, Laura, do not weep! There is a greater blessing in store for you”——
“Arthur!” she cried, raising her eyes to his with a hungry, yearning look.
“Yes, darling,” continued Arthur, “there is a greater blessing in store for you. Do not turn away, Laura! He saved my life, dear: but for him, I should not now be holding you in my arms; and he has come with me to ask your forgiveness. You will forgive him, will you not? He loves you perfectly, dear. Thank God! thank God! This moment recompenses for all!”
At her feet knelt William Fairfield! She raised him to her breast, and on that blessed Christmas Eve, under the solemn splendor of the starlit heavens, the lovers were re-united, never more to part in life!
It was late before the Christmas party broke up. A happier company had certainly never assembled within page 124 the walls of Warleycombe Lodge. There was gladness around all; everyone appeared to have grown suddenly younger. Even Stephen Winkworth's countenance wore a satisfied expression; and, much to the astonishment of the guests, he was observed to smile on two distinct occasions.
“Where is your skeleton now, Doctor Bax?” asked Laura, as she, William, and Alice walked up to him. The skeleton you were grumbling at last year?”
“Gone, my dear,” replied the good Doctor, gaily; “flown away, in company with a host of others. It is hiding itself in a corner, grumbling at my happiness. Ah, William! before you sleep to-night, fall upon your knees and thank God for the good he has bestowed upon you! As for you, my dear,” he added, turning to Alice, “if I were not an old man, I would marry you to-morrow; but as it is, I suppose we must be contented with our lots, and go on in the same hum-drum way as ever. Stephen Winkworth,” he said, as Stephen approached, “will you let William have back his farm? Come, say yes, good-naturedly.”
“Yes,” returned Stephen, turning very red, as Alice kissed his hand; “I have been wanting to offer it back to him, but I did not know how.”
“Then, everything is settled,” said the Doctor; “and, excepting that we are all happier, this Christmas might be last Christmas, and the year that has passed might have been a mistake. A mistake, however,” he added gently, “which cannot be rectified, and which will not be taken into account when the life-account of each of us is balanced in the ledger of Old Father Time!”page 125
The guests had departed, and William, who had lingered behind, was standing at the door with Laura, looking out upon the night. He had told her of his dream on last Christmas Eve, and was pointing out to her the place where he had seen the shadows.
“They have taught me a lesson that I shall never forget, darling,” he said. “My Love, strengthened by Faith, can never yield again to doubt. Tell me once more, Laura, that you forgive me for the sorrow I have caused you.”
“I forgive you, William,” she said; “although it seems as if I had nothing to forgive, I am so perfectly happy. The sorrow of the past year was bitter; but its fruits will be sweet. And oh, William! I shall never think with any other feeling than gratitude, of the Shadows you saw last Christmas upon the Snow!”
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