A Tragedy in Black and White and Other Stories
It was a lovely summer morning, and the pretty garden of Fetherston Rectory was a blaze of gay flowers and velvety turf. Helen Graham, the niece of the old rector, was strolling leisurely round the paths, stopping here and there to gather some choice bloom and add it to the dewy bunch already in her hand. Presently she reached the low entrance gate, and stood leaning her arms on the top bar, waiting till the postman should appear. She was a handsome girl, tall and straight, graceful with the grace which always accompanies a well-proportioned figure. Her grey eyes looked fearlessly out from thick black lashes, and her brown hair as it caught the rays of the sun was transformed into ruddy gold.
After waiting five minutes or so, Helen grew impatient, and muttering “Stupid old thing, he gets later every day,” she unlatched the gate and walked to the corner of the lane, whence she could see the length of the village street. Ah! there was the postman, close to her, and blushing at being thus detected, she turned and walked back towards the gate. But before she reached it the asthmatic old man overtook her, and wheezing out “Fine mornin', miss,” gave her a bundle of letters. Helen returned his greeting, and made enquiry after his asthma, but did not, perhaps, pay as much attention to his reply, as she might have done, had not her eyes been fixed eagerly on a letter, addressed in a bold hand to
Care of Rev. F. Graham,
“I'm very sorry, Thomas. Send your little girl up to the rectory, and I'll give her something for you. Don't page 44 forget,” and, with a smiling nod, she closed the gate and was at liberty to open the letter which had so distracted her attention.
Let us look over her shoulder.
My Darling Nell—
“Just a line to tell you that I can get away for a month, so hurrah for Fetherston. I have some good news for you, at least I hope you will think so. West and Norton have offered to take me into partnership, and I must see Uncle Frank about the money part of the business. But the best part is, that now, dearest, I think I shall be justified in asking him to give you to me. I know how you have hated all this concealment, but how could I, a poor lawyer, ask for the hand of a millionaire like you. Now, if I get into partnership with these fellows, I hope I shall soon be making a nice little income, and, in less than a year we'll be married, and we can put away your £10,000 in an old stocking for a rainy day. Talking of marriage, has that little flirt, Flossy Whyte, caught Mr. Simpson yet? Give her my love, and tell her to ask me to the wedding. I shall be down on Friday; couldn't you meet me? Till then, take care of yourself, my darling, for the sake of your loving“
Helen read the letter through and then again, a loving smile curving her pretty mouth. Perhaps she pressed the paper to her lips, but we will not be too inquisitive. At all events, when she arrived at the open French window of the breakfast room, she looked so bright and happy that her aunt involuntarily exclamed, “Gracious me, child! how well you look this morning.”
“Any letters to-day?” said the rector, pausing with his cup in mid-air.
“Two for Aunt Mary, and one for you from Jack. I got a note from him, too, saying that he is coming down on Friday.”
“Friday!” interrupted Mrs. Graham. “Dear, dear, that's to-morrow; and the blue room must be got ready. page 45 So like Jack, to give us no notice. Excuse me my dears, but I must go and see about it;” and the old lady bustled away, anxious that all should be in apple-pie order to welcome her prime favourite—that rising young lawyer, Mr. John Steyne.
Helen finished her breakfast, and then putting on her hat went to call on her bosom friend, the Miss Florence Whyte, before alluded to, who lived with her widowed mother in a pretty cottage, about a mile from the Rectory. While Helen is walking thither, let us explain a little more fully who she is, and what relation she bears to Mr. Steyne.
Her father was a younger brother of the Rev. Frank Graham's, who married an heiress, all of whose money he spent, except £10,000 settled on the children. His wife died after two years of unhappiness, when Helen was born. Not that she was ill-treated by her husband. Far from it; in his selfish way, Gerald Graham was very fond of his delicate wife, only—he was handsome, gay, and very popular with both men and women, while she was not strong enough to go out with him, but could only fret in loneliness at home. After her death, Mr. Graham sent the baby to the care of his brother, and embarked on a voyage to India, but his ship never arrived at its destination. Helen, however, found the kindest of parents in her uncle and his wife, and grew up with only passing thoughts of regret for the father and mother she had never known.
In the holiday time the rectory was enlivened by the presence of a daring, good-tempered school boy, whom Helen called her cousin, though, as he was the nephew of her uncle's wife, he was in truth no relation. He, also, had lost his parents when young, and divided his holidays between the rectory and Steyne Court, where his uncle, Sir James Steyne, lived. Here there were a great many true cousins, but somehow the boy seemed to find a greater attraction in the little Devonshire village, and, as the years went by and Helen shot up into a graceful girl, the attraction became stronger, till every spare moment the young man could find was spent at Fetherston. So gradual, however, was the growth of the affection between the two, that it page 46 was only on hearing from Mrs. Graham of Helen's refusal of a most eligible offer, that Jack awoke to the fact that his chief hope in life was to make Helen his wife.
Helen herself had never in her letters mentioned the proposal and rejection of Mr. Dunbar, from a feeling that it would not be fair to him. Besides, the rejected suitor, when begging her to reconsider her decision, had asked if he had been forestalled by anyone. Helen had shaken her head and said “No.” But the vivid blush which had spread over her face from neck to forehead had convinced Mr. Dunbar that his suit was hopeless more effectually than any words could. Mrs. Graham, rather indignant at Helen's decided refusal of such an excellent offer, had questioned her somewhat severely, but had only elicited the unsatisfactory answer that “she didn't kuow, only she did not want to marry yet.” But Helen did not attempt to deny to herself that it was the involuntary and uncomplimentary comparison of Mr. Dunbar with Jack Steyne that had been the cause of the former's dismissal.
Such being the respective states of mind of the two young people, it was no wonder that Jack had shortly paid a visit to the Rectory, and told Helen all his hopes and fears. Her reply (they had been reading “The Tempest” together) was to quote Miranda's speech to Ferdinand,
“I am your wife, if you will marry me;
If not, I'll die your maid: to be your fellow
You may deny me; but I'll be your servant,
Whether you will or no.”
Which answer, though somewhat lengthy, seemed to give satisfaction.
They decided to keep the engagement secret till Jack should be making a fair income, which he hoped to do in a year or so. They had always corresponded, and the increased frequency of their letters caused but little remark. Matters had been going on in this way for about six months when the letter which we took the liberty of reading arrived, and Helen set out on her walk to Myrtle Cottage.
Mrs. Whyte and her daughter Florence, had been living in the village some seven or eight months. The mother was a little vivacious woman, who must in her youth have been page 47 very pretty; the daughter was pale, and at first sight seemed quite plain; the second time you saw her you probably said her face had something attractive in it, and the third time, if you liked her, your verdict would be that she was a very pretty girl. She was slight and delicate, much given to lavishing terms of endearment upon her friends, and to emphasising her most ordinary remarks.
She and Helen had struck up a great friendship, chiefly due to the fact that Miss Whyte, who was a most observant young lady, had, by a system of ingenious pumping, succeeded in drawing from Helen an acknowledgment of her engagement to Jack Steyne. In return, she had confided to Helen all the particulars of her own love affairs, including a full account of the latest, an engagement between herself and a penniless youth for whom she intended to wait, spite of stony-hearted parents, till he should have made his fortune, or “till death,” as she would impressively end her sentence. Helen believed in, and sympathised with her, and the two girls took many walks together, talking of their respective lovers and their future lives.
It sometimes struck Helen as inconsistent with her friend's professions of undying love for the absent Frederick, that she should receive with apparent complaisance the frequent attentions of a certain Mr. Simpson, a self-made man, with much wealth and little education, who lived about a couple of miles away. Still, Flossie always answered her remonstrances by pleading that her mother was old, and accustomed to luxuries that they could not afford now, and where was the harm of using Mr. Simpson's carriage, eating his grapes and accepting sundry other little attentions. Helen was not quite convinced, but nevertheless defended her friend bravely, when Jack, with the coarseness of the masculine mind, suggested that Miss Whyte was trying to “catch” the H-less millionaire, and should she succeed, would throw over the unfortunate Frederick.
After this digression, let us return to Helen who strolled slowly down the street, stopping every now and then to exchange a cheery word or two with one of the page 48 villagers, with all of whom she was a great favourite. Presently she turned into a shady lane, steep and stony, like most Devonshire lanes. In about a quarter of an hour she arrived at a small white gate, which she opened, and passing through, walked at a rather quicker pace up a gravel path ending in two or three stone steps. Mounting these, she walked along a pretty verandah, thickly hung with creepers, till she came to a French window, where she tapped on the glass.
“Is that you, darling?” said a voice from inside, and Miss Whyte appeared, looking cool and pretty in a pale lilac cambric. “I thought yon were never coming again,” she went on, kissing Helen very effusively. “Come in and rest. I've lots to talk about; I've just got a letter from dear Fred.”
Helen smiled and blushed a little as she answered, “Well, to say the truth, I came to tell you that I had a note from Jack this morning, and he is coming down tomorrow.”
“To-morrow! dear girl, I am so glad for your sake. But alas! I shall never see anything of you now. I know Mr. Steyne can't bear me.”
“Nonsense, Flossie,” said Helen hastily and rather guiltily as she thought of Jack's somewhat outspoken comments on her friend, “how can you be so silly. Besides,” she added naïvely, “he shall like you; I will make him.”
“I wish you could, darling,” sighed Flossie, thinking to herself—“Yes, he shall like me, but I don't think it will be all your doing, Miss Helen.”
“Now,” she continued, we'll take some chairs and a basket of cherries out under the trees and have a real good talk.”
Helen assented, though she knew that the “real good talk” would probably be on one side.
“Where's Mrs. Whyte?” she asked, as she sank into a low wicker chair.page 49
“Mamma,” said Flossie carelessly, picking out a particularly ripe cherry, “Oh! she's got a headache, and isn't up yet. Never mind her, Helen, just listen to this,” pulling out a bulky envelope as she spoke. “Isn't it sweet of Fred, to write such long letters?” And she proceeded to read the same aloud, duly emphasising the endearing expressions, and stopping occasionally to invite Helen's admiration of some specially lover-like sentiment. This was by no means the first letter she had read to Helen, who hated listening, but did not like to refuse, fearing to hurt her friend's feelings. She did not listen very attentively, and was just picturing to herself Jack's arrival on the morrow, when lifting her eyes, she saw her uncle's gardener and general factotum coming hastily up the path.
“Why, there's Jones,” she exclaimed. “Excuse me, Flossie, I must go and see what he wants.” She crossed the lawn as she spoke, and Jones, seeing her, hurried towards her, his honest brown face looking scared and troubled.
“Oh, Miss Helen!” he exclaimed, “you are to go home directly, the master has had a bad accident.”
“An accident; my uncle,” faltered Helen, turning pale—“What has happened? Never mind, don't wait now, you can tell me as we go. Good-bye, Flossie. I can't stop, I'll let you know later,” and she ran down the path, the faithful Jones following.
Flossie stood watching her. Helen's innocent speech about Jack Steyne evidently rankled in her mind, for she repeated to herself, “So he tells you he doesn't like me! Very good, my dear. You said he was coming for a month. When that month is over we shall see.” Then she returned to the sofa and novel whence Helen's visit had roused her.
“Now, Jones,” said Helen, as the steepness of the lane forced her to slacken her pace, “tell me about the accident.”
“Well, you see Miss, Dr. Barton called this morning for the master. He wanted him to go and see Mrs. Munro, who's dying, and said as how he'd drive him there hisself. He had that new 'orse of his in the gig, and just page 50 as master was steppin' in, the 'orse, I alwis said he was a wicious brute, commenced to kick and plunge, and master lost his 'librium and fell back'ards against the door-step. Thank the Lord, the doctor was there, and we carried him in, and I came straight off for you.”
Helen shuddered as she asked, “Did the doctor say anything?”
“He said as how he feared 'twere discussion of the brain the master had. Everythin's topsy-turvy, and the missus is in a great way. She told me to telegraph for Mr. Jack so soon as I'd fetched you.”
Helen said no more, but, the top of the hill being reached, she sped swiftly on till she came to the rectory where, as Jones had said, she found everything in confusion.
The doctor was just going. “I can do nothing more just now,” he said, drawing on his gloves—“but I'll come again this evening. Ah! Helen, my dear; just the person I wanted. I am going to send a nurse for your uncle, and you must try and soothe your aunt. It is a dreadful shock to her, poor soul, and she will want almost as much care as the rector.” Then the doctor drove away, and Helen went upstairs, feeling as though the day had suddenly turned cold and bleak, and longing with all her heart for Jack's arrival.
Mr. Steyne came by the late train that evening, having received an urgent telegram from the faithful Jones. He found the rector still unconscious, and although he could be of no use in the sick-room where a professional nurse now reigned, still his presence was invaluable to Helen, as he had great influence over his aunt, whom he, at last, persuaded to go to bed. Helen went with her to see that she was comfortable, and half-an-hour afterwards, returned to the drawing-room, where she found Jack eagerly waiting for her.
“My darling, how pale you look,” he exclaimed, drawing her down beside him on the broad sofa.
“Yes, I'm dreadfully tired and upset, but I feel almost happy now you have come, dear”—nestling close to him page 51 as she answered. Thereupon ensued a low conversation, which, however interesting to the lovers themselves, might prove somewhat wearisome to outsiders.
The redoubtable Mr. Steyne, who has hitherto reversed the excellent precept given to little children, and has been heard of but not seen, was by no means remarkable in appearance. Helen thought him perfection, but the casual observer saw no more in him than in any other fairly good-looking, well set-up young Englishman of twenty-seven or thereabouts. However, the rector said that he was “a gentleman every inch of him, and a good fellow into the bargain,” so we may conclude that Helen had some grounds for supposing herself the luckiest of girls.
After conversing for a while in that sublimely selfish strain known only to lovers, the young people found time to speak of their neighbours. Amongst others, Flossie Whyte was mentioned, and Helen gave an account of all her sayings and doings, winding up with, “I'm so sorry for her, Jack. I'm sure her Fred. isn't so nice as—–.” Here there was a short pause, then Helen resumed, “By the way, she is very unhappy because she thinks you don't like her. You don't, do you? But I wish you would try to, if it's only to please me.”
“I'll make violent love to her if you like,” Jack answered obligingly, kissing Helen's hand as he spoke.
“Well I'm not sure that I should like that, but you needn't laugh at her and mock at her love affairs. You wouldn't like me to be laughed at for loving you.”
“You! No, indeed, but then you are quite different. My dear girl, Flossie Whyte is a most arrant flirt. You needn't waste your pity on a girl without any real feeling. However, I'll be civil to her if it will please you.”
“That's a good boy. You shall begin to-morrow by going down to the cottage to tell them how Uncle Frank is getting on. I promised to send. And now, good night, dear, I must go and see how he is.” And she hurried away, feeling very guilty that the presence even of her lover could make her forget her uncle's critical condition.