It was a brilliant afternoon toward the end of May. The spring had been unusually cold and late, and it was evident from the general aspect of the lonely Westmoreland valley of Long Whindale that warmth and sunshine had only just penetrated to its bare, green recesses, where the few scattered trees were fast rushing into their full summer dress, while at their feet, and along the bank of the stream, the flowers of March and April still lingered, as though they found it impossible to believe that their rough brother, the east wind, had at last deserted them. The narrow road, which was the only link between the farm-houses sheltered by the crags at the head of the valley, and those far away regions of town and civilization suggested by the smoke wreaths of Whinborough on the southern horizon, was lined with masses of the white heckberry or bird-cherry, and ran, an arrowy line of white through the greenness of the sloping pastures. The sides of some of the little books running down into the main river and, many of the plantations round the farms were gay with the same tree, so that the farm-houses, gray-roofed and gray-walled, standing in the hollows of the fells, seemed here and there to have been robbed of all their natural austerity of aspect, and to be masquerading in a dainty garb of white and green imposed upon them by the caprice of the spring.
During the greater part of its course the valley of Long Whindale is tame and featureless. The hills at the lower part are low and rounded, and the sheep and cattle pasture over slopes unbroken either by wood or rock. The fields are bare and close shaven by the flocks which feed on them; the walls run either perpendicularly in many places up the fells or horizontally along them, so that, save for the wooded course of the tumbling river and the bush-grown hedges of the road, the whole valley looks like a green map divided by regular lines of grayish black. But as the walker penetrates further, beyond a certain bend which the stream makes half-way from the head of the dale, the hills grow steeper, the breadth between them contracts, the enclosure lines are broken and deflected by rocks and patches of plantation, and the few farms stand more boldly and conspicuously forward, each on its spur of land, looking up to or away from the great masses of frowning crag which close in the head of the valley, and which from the moment they come into sight give it dignity and a wild beauty.
On one of these solitary houses, the afternoon sun, about to descend before very long behind the hills dividing Long Whindale from Shanmoor, was still lingering on this May afternoon we are describing, bringing out the whitewashed porch and the broad bands of white edging the windows, into relief against the gray stone of the main fabric, the gray roof overhanging it, and the group of sycamores and Scotch firs which protected it from the cold east and north. The Western light struck full on a copper beech, which made a welcome patch of warm color in front of a long gray line of outhouses standing level with the house, and touched the heckberry blossom which marked the upward course of the little lane connecting the old farm with the road; above it rose the green fell, broken here and there by jutting crags, and below it the ground sank rapidly through a piece of young hazel plantation, at this present moment a sheet of bluebells, toward the level of the river. There was a dainty and yet sober brightness about the whole picture. Summer in the North is for Nature a time of expansion and of joy as it is elsewhere, but there is none of that opulence, that sudden splendor and superabundance, which mark it in the South. In these bare green valleys there is a sort of delicate austerity even in the summer; the memory of winter seems to be still lingering about these wind-swept fells, about the farm-houses, with their rough serviceable walls, of the same stone as the crags behind them, and the ravines in which the shrunken brooks trickle musically down through the débris of innumerable Decembers. The country is blithe, but soberly blithe. Nature shows herself delightful to man, but there is nothing absorbing or intoxicating about her. Man is still well able to defend himself against her, to live his own independent life of labor and of will, and to develop that tenacity of hidden feeling, that slowly growing intensity of purpose which is so often wiled out of him by the spells of the South.
The distant aspect of Burwood Farm differed in nothing from that of the few other farmhouses which dotted the fells or clustered beside the river between it and the rocky end of the valley. But as one came nearer certain signs of difference became visible. The garden, instead of being the old-fashioned medley of phloxes, lavender bushes, monthly roses, gooseberry trees, herbs, and pampas grass, with which the farmers’ wives of Long Whindale loved to fill their little front enclosures, was trimly laid down in turf dotted with neat flowerbeds, full at the moment we are writing of with orderly patches of scarlet and purple anemones, wallflowers, and pansies. At the side of the house a new bow window, modest enough in dimensions and make, had been thrown out on to another close-shaven piece of lawn, and by its suggestion of a distant sophisticated order of things disturbed the homely impression left by the untouched ivy-grown walls, the unpretending porch, and wide slate-window sills of the front. And evidently the line of sheds standing level with the dwelling-house no longer sheltered the animals, the carts, or the tools which make the small capital of a Westmoreland farmer. The windows in them were new, the doors fresh painted and closely shut; curtains of some soft outlandish make showed themselves in what had once been a stable, and the turf stretched smoothly up to a narrow gravelled path in front of them, unbroken by a single footmark. No, evidently the old farm, for such it undoubtedly was, had been but lately, or comparatively lately, transformed to new and softer uses; that rough patriarchal life of which it had once been a symbol and centre no longer bustled and clattered through it. It had become the shelter of new ideals, the home of another and a milder race than once possessed it.
In a stranger coming upon the house for the first time, on this particular evening, the sense of a changing social order and a vanishing past produced by the slight but significant modifications it had undergone, would have been greatly quickened by certain sounds which were streaming out on to the evening air from one of the divisions of that long one-storied addition to the main dwelling we have already described. Some indefatigable musician inside was practising the violin with surprising energy and vigor, and within the little garden the distant murmur of the river and the gentle breathing of the West wind round the fell were entirely conquered and banished by these triumphant shakes and turns, or by the flourishes and the broad cantabile passages of one of Spohr’s Andantes. For a while, as the sun sank lower and lower toward the Shanmoor hills, the hidden artist had it all his, or her, own way; the valley and its green spaces seemed to be possessed by this stream of eddying sound, and no other sign of life broke the gray quiet of the house. But at last, just as the golden ball touched the summit of the craggy fell, which makes the western boundary of the dale at its higher end, the house-door opened, and a young girl, shawled and holding some soft burden in her arms, appeared on the threshold, and stood there for a moment, as though trying the quality of the air outside. Her pause of inspection seemed to satisfy her, for she moved forward, leaving the door open behind her, and, stepping across the lawn, settled herself in a wicker chair under an apple-tree, which had only just shed its blossoms on the turf below. She had hardly done so when one of the distant doors opening on the gravel path flew open, and another maiden, a slim creature garbed in aesthetic blue, a mass of reddish brown hair flying back from her face, also stepped out into the garden.
‘Agnes!’ cried the new-comer, who had the strenuous and dishevelled air natural to one just emerged from a long violin practice. ‘Has Catherine come back yet?’
‘Not that I know of. Do come here and look at pussy; did you ever see anything so comfortable?’
‘You and she look about equally lazy. What have you been doing all the afternoon?’
‘We look what we are, my dear. Doing? Why, I have been attending to my domestic duties, arranging the flowers, mending my pink dress for to-morrow night, and helping to keep mamma in good spirits; she is depressed because she has been finding Elizabeth out in some waste or other, and I have been preaching to her to make Elizabeth uncomfortable if she likes, but not to worrit herself. And after all, pussy and I have come out for a rest. We’ve earned it, haven’t we, Chattie? And as for you, Miss Artistic, I should like to know what you’ve been doing for the good of your kind since dinner. I suppose you had tea at the vicarage?’
The speaker lifted inquiring eyes to her sister as she spoke, her cheek plunged in the warm fur of a splendid Persian cat, her whole look and voice expressing the very highest degree of quiet, comfort, and self-possession. Agnes Leyburn was not pretty; the lower part of the face was a little heavy in outline and moulding; the teeth were not as they should have been, and the nose was unsatisfactory. But the eyes under their long lashes were shrewdness itself, and there was an individuality in the voice, a cheery even-temperediness in look and tone, which had a pleasing effect on the bystander. Her dress was neat and dainty; every detail of it bespoke a young woman who respected both herself and the fashion.
Her sister, on the other hand, was guiltless of the smallest trace of fashion. Her skirts were cut with the most engaging naïveté, she was much adorned with amber beads, and her red brown hair had been tortured and frizzled to look as much like an aureole as possible. But, on the other hand, she was a beauty, though at present you felt her a beauty in disguise, a stage Cinderella as it were, in very becoming rags, waiting for the fairy godmother.
‘Yes, I had tea at the vicarage,’ said this young person, throwing herself on the grass in spite of a murmured protest from Agnes, who had an inherent dislike of anything physically rash, ‘and I had the greatest difficulty to get away. Mrs. Thornburgh is in such a flutter about this visit! One would think it was the Bishop and all his Canons, and promotion depending on it, she has baked so many cakes and put out so many dinner napkins! I don’t envy the young man. She will have no wits left at all to entertain him with. I actually wound up by administering some sal-volatile to her.’
‘Well, and after the sal-volatile did you get anything coherent out of her on the subject of the young man?’
‘By degrees,’ said the girl, her eyes twinkling; ‘if one can only remember the thread between whiles one gets at the facts somehow. In between the death of Mr. Elsmere’s father and his going to college, we had, let me see,—the spare room curtains, the making of them and the cleaning of them, Sarah’s idiocy in sticking to her black sheep of a young man, the price of tea when she married, Mr. Thornburgh’s singular preference of boiled mutton to roast, the poems she had written to her when she was eighteen, and I can’t tell you what else besides. But I held fast, and every now and then I brought her up to the point again, gently but firmly, and now I think I know all I want to know about the interesting stranger.’
‘My ideas about him are not many,’ said Agnes, rubbing her cheek gently up and down the purring cat, ‘and there doesn’t seem to be much order in them. He is very accomplished—a teetotaller—he has been to the Holy Land, and his hair has been cut close after a fever. It sounds odd, but I am not curious. I can very well wait till to-morrow evening.’
‘Oh, well, as to ideas about a person, one doesn’t got that sort of thing from Mrs. Thornburgh. But I know how old he is, where he went to college, where his mother lives, a certain number of his mother’s peculiarities which seem to be Irish and curious, where his living is, how much it is worth, likewise the color of his eyes, as near as Mrs. Thornburgh can get.’
‘What a start you have been getting!’ said Agnes lazily. ‘But what is it makes the poor old thing so excited?’
Rose sat up and began to fling the fir-cones lying about her at a distant mark with an energy worthy of her physical perfections and the aesthetic freedom of her attire.
‘Because, my dear, Mrs. Thornburgh at the present moment is always seeing herself as the conspirator sitting match in hand before a mine. Mr. Elsmere is the match—we are the mine.’
Agnes looked at her sister, and they both laughed, the bright rippling laugh of young women perfectly aware of their own value, and in no hurry to force an estimate of it on the male world.
‘Well,’ said Rose deliberately, her delicate cheek flushed with her gymnastics, her eyes sparkling, ‘there is no saying. “Propinquity does it”—as Mrs. Thornburgh is always reminding us. But where can Catherine be? She went out directly after lunch.’
‘She has, gone out to see that youth who hurt his back at the Tysons—at least I heard her talking to mamma about him, and she went out with a basket that looked like beef-tea.’
Rose frowned a little.
‘And I suppose I ought to have been to the school or to see Mrs. Robson instead of fiddling all the afternoon. I dare say I ought—only unfortunately I like my fiddle, and I don’t like stuffy cottages, and as for the goody books, I read them so badly that the old women themselves come down upon me.’
‘I seem to have been making the best of both worlds,’ said Agnes placidly. ‘I haven’t been doing anything I don’t like, but I got hold of that dress she brought home to make for little Emma Payne and nearly finished the skirt, so that I feel as good as when one has been twice to church on a wet Sunday. Ah, there is Catherine, I heard the gate.’
As she spoke steps were heard approaching through the clump of trees which sheltered the little entrance gate, and as Rose sprang to her feet a tall figure in white and gray appeared against the background of the sycamores, and came quickly toward the sisters.
‘Dears, I am so sorry; I am afraid you have been waiting for me. But poor Mrs. Tyson wanted me so badly that I could not leave her. She had no one else to help her or to be with her till that eldest girl of hers came home from work.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said, Rose, as Catherine put her arm round her shoulder; ‘mamma has been fidgeting, and as for Agnes, she looks as if she never wanted to move again.’
Catherine’s clear eyes, which at the moment seemed to be full of inward light, kindled in them by some foregoing experience, rested kindly, but only half consciously, on her younger sister as Agnes softly nodded and smiled to her. Evidently she was a good deal older than the other two—she looked about six-and-twenty, a young and vigorous woman in the prime of health and strength. The lines of the form were rather thin and spare, but they were softened by the loose bodice and long full skirt of her dress, and by the folds of a large, white muslin handkerchief which was crossed over her breast. The face, sheltered by the plain shady hat was also a little spoilt from the point of view of beauty by the sharpness of the lines about the chin and mouth, and by a slight prominence of the cheek-bones, but the eyes, of a dark bluish gray, were fine, the nose delicately cut, the brow smooth and beautiful, while the complexion had caught the freshness and purity of Westmoreland air and Westmoreland streams. About face and figure there was a delicate austere charm, something which harmonized with the bare stretches and lonely crags of the fells, something which seemed to make her a true daughter of the mountains, partaker at once of their gentleness and their severity. She was in her place here, beside the homely Westmoreland house, and under the shelter of the fells. When you first saw the other sisters you wondered what strange chance had brought them into that remote sparely peopled valley; they were plainly exiles, and conscious exiles, from the movement and exhilarations of a fuller social life. But Catherine impressed you as only a refined variety of the local type; you could have found many like her, in a sense, among the sweet-faced serious women of the neighboring farms.
Now, as she and Rose stood together, her hand still resting lightly on the other’s shoulder, a question from Agnes banished the faint smile on her lips, and left, only the look of inward illumination, the expression of one who had just passed, as it were, through a strenuous and heroic moment of life, and was still living in the exaltation of memory.
‘So the poor fellow is worse?’
‘Yes. Doctor Baker, whom they have got to-day, says the spine is hopelessly injured. He may live on paralyzed for a few months or longer, but there is no hope of cure.’
Both girls uttered a shocked exclamation. ‘That fine strong young man!’ said Rose under her breath. ‘Does he know?’
‘Yes; when I got there the doctor had just gone, and Mrs. Tyson, who was quite unprepared for anything so dreadful, seemed to have almost lost her wits, poor thing! I found her in the front kitchen with her apron over her head, rocking to and fro, and poor Arthur in the inner room—all alone—waiting in suspense.’
‘And who told him? He has been so hopeful.’
‘I did,’ said Catherine, gently; ‘they made me. He would know, and she couldn’t—she ran out of the room. I never saw anything so pitiful.’
‘Oh, Catherine!’ exclaimed Rose’s moved voice, while Agnes got up, and Chattie jumped softly down from her lap unheeded.
‘How did he bear it?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ said Catherine, while the quiet tears filled her eyes and her voice broke, as the hidden feeling would have its way. ‘It was terrible. I don’t know how we got through that half-hour—his mother and I. It was like wrestling with someone in agony. At last he was exhausted—he let me say the Lord’s Prayer; I think it soothed him, but one couldn’t tell. He seemed half asleep when I left. Oh!’ she cried, laying her hand in a close grasp on Rose’s arm, ‘if you had seen his eyes, and his poor hands—there was such despair in them! They say, though he was so young, he was thinking of getting married; and he was so steady, such a good son!’
A silence fell upon the three. Catherine stood looking out across the valley toward the sunset. Now that the demand upon her for calmness and fortitude was removed, and that the religious exaltation in which she had gone through the last three hours was becoming less intense, the pure human pity of the scene she had just witnessed seemed to be gaining upon her. Her lip trembled, and two or three tears silently overflowed. Rose turned and gently kissed her cheek, and Agnes touched her hand caressingly. She smiled at them, for it was not in her nature to let any sign of love pass unheeded, and in a few more seconds she had mastered herself.
‘Dears, we must go in. Is mother in her room? Oh, Rose! in that thin dress on the grass; I oughtn’t to have kept you out. It is quite cold by now.’
And, she hurried them in, leaving them to superintend the preparations for supper downstairs while she ran up to her mother.
A quarter of an hour afterward they were all gathered round the supper-table, the windows open to the garden and the May twilight. At Catherine’s right hand sat Mrs. Leyburn, a tall delicate-looking woman, wrapped in a white shawl, about whom there were only three things to be noticed—an amiable temper, a sufficient amount of weak health to excuse her all the more tiresome duties of life, and an incorrigible tendency to sing the praises of her daughters at all times and to all people. The daughters winced under it: Catherine, because it was a positive pain to her to bear herself brought forward and talked about; the others, because youth infinitely prefers to make its own points in its own way. Nothing, however, could mend this defect of Mrs. Leyburn’s. Catherine’s strength of will could keep it in check sometimes, but in general it had to be borne with. A sharp word would have silenced the mother’s well-meant chatter at any time—for she was a fragile nervous woman, entirely dependent on her surroundings—but none of them were capable of it, and their mere refractoriness counted for nothing.
The dining room in which they were gathered had a good deal of homely dignity, and was to the Leyburns full of associations. The oak settle near the fire, the oak sideboard running along one side of the room, the black oak table with carved legs at which they sat, were genuine pieces of old Westmoreland work, which had belonged to their grandfather. The heavy carpet covering the stone floor of what twenty years before had been the kitchen of the farm-house was a survival from a south-country home, which had sheltered their lives for eight happy years. Over the mantelpiece hung the portrait of the girls’ father, a long serious face, not unlike Wordsworth’s face in outline, and bearing a strong resemblance to Catherine; a line of silhouettes adorned the mantelpiece; on the walls were prints of Winchester and Worcester Cathedrals, photographs of Greece, and two old-fashioned engravings of Dante and Milton; while a bookcase, filled apparently with the father’s college books and college prizes and the favorite authors—mostly poets, philosophers, and theologians—of his later years, gave a final touch of habitableness to the room. The little meal and its appointments—the eggs, the home-made bread and preserves, the tempting butter and old-fashioned silver gleaming among the flowers which Rose arranged with fanciful skill in Japanese pots of her own providing—suggested the same family qualities as the room. Frugality, a dainty personal self-respect, a family consciousness, tenacious of its memories and tenderly careful of all the little material objects, which were to it the symbols of those memories—clearly all these elements entered into the Leyburn tradition.
And of this tradition, with its implied assertions and denials, clearly Catherine Leyburn, the eldest sister, was, of all the persons gathered in this little room, the most pronounced embodiment. She sat at the head of the table, the little basket of her own and her mother’s keys beside her. Her dress was a soft black brocade, with lace collar and cuff, which had once belonged to an aunt of her mother’s. It was too old for her both in fashion and material, but it gave her a gentle, almost matronly dignity, which became her. Her long thin hands, full of character and delicacy, moved nimbly among the cups; all her ways were quiet and yet decided. It was evident that among this little party she, and not the plaintive mother, was really in authority. To-night, however, her looks were specially soft. The scene she had gone through in the afternoon had left her pale, with traces of patient fatigue round the eyes and mouth, but all her emotion was gone, and she was devoting herself to the others, responding with quick interest and ready smiles to all they had to say, and contributing the little experiences of her own day in return.
Rose sat on her left hand in yet another gown of strange tint and archaic outline. Rose’s gowns were legion. They were manufactured by a farmer’s daughter across the valley, under her strict and precise supervision. She was accustomed, as she boldly avowed, to shut herself up at the beginning of each season of the year for two days’ meditation on the subject. And now, thanks to the spring warmth, she was entering at last with infinite zest on the results of her April vigils.
Catherine had surveyed her as she entered the room with a smile, but a smile not altogether to Rose’s taste.
‘What, another, Röschen?’ she had said with the slightest lifting of the eyebrows. ‘You never confided that to me. Did you think I was unworthy of anything so artistic?’
‘Not at all,’ said Rose calmly, seating herself. ‘I thought you were better employed.’
But a flush flew over her transparent cheek, and she presently threw an irritated look at Agnes, who had been looking from her to Catherine with amused eyes.
‘I met Mr. Thornburgh and Mr. Elsmere driving from the station,’ Catherine announced presently; ‘at least there was a gentleman in a clerical wideawake with a portmanteau behind, so I imagine it must have been he.’
‘Did he look promising?’ inquired Agnes.
‘I don’t think I noticed,’ said Catherine simply, but with a momentary change of expression. The sisters, remembering how she had come in upon them with that look of one ‘lifted up,’ understood why she had not noticed, and refrained from further questions.
‘Well, it is to be hoped the young man is recovered enough to stand Long Whindale festivities,’ said Rose. ‘Mrs. Thornburgh means to let them loose on his devoted head to-morrow night.’
‘Who are coming?’ asked Mrs. Leyburn eagerly. The occasional tea parties of the neighborhood were an unfailing excitement to her, simply because, by dint of the small adornings, natural to the occasion, they showed her daughters to her under slightly new aspects. To see Catherine, who never took any thought for her appearance, forced to submit to a white dress, a line of pearls round the shapely throat, a flower in the brown hair, put there by Rose’s imperious fingers; to sit in a corner well out of draughts, watching the effect of Rose’s half-fledged beauty, and drinking in the compliments of the neighborhood on Rose’s playing or Agnes’s conversation, or Catherine’s practical ability—these were Mrs. Leyburn’s passions, and a tea-party always gratified them to the full.
‘Mamma asks as if really she wanted an answer,’ remarked Agnes dryly. ‘Dear mother, can’t you by now make up a tea-party at the Thornburghs out of your head?’
‘The Seatons?’ inquired Mrs. Leyburn.
‘Mrs. Seaton and Miss Barks,’ replied Rose. ‘The rector won’t come. And I needn’t say that, having moved heaven, and earth to get Mrs. Seaton, Mrs. Thornburgh is now miserable because she has got her. Her ambition is gratified, but she knows that she has spoilt the party. Well, then, Mr. Mayhew, of course, his son, and his flute.’
‘You to play his accompaniments?’ put in Agnes slyly. Rose’s lip curled.
‘Not if Miss Barks knows it,’ she said emphatically, ‘nor if I know it. The Bakers, of course, ourselves, and the unknown.’
‘Dr. Baker is always pleasant,’ said Mrs. Leyburn, leaning back and drawing her white shawl languidly round her. ‘He told me the other day, Catherine, that if it weren’t for you he should have to retire. He regards you as his junior partner. “Marvellous nursing gift your eldest daughter has, Mrs. Leyburn,” he said to me the other day. A most agreeable man.’
‘I wonder if I shall be able to get any candid opinions out of Mr. Elsmere the day after to-morrow?’ said Rose, musing. ‘It is difficult to avoid having an opinion of some sort about Mrs. Seaton.’
‘Oxford dons don’t gossip and are never candid,’ remarked Agnes severely.
‘Then Oxford dons must be very dull,’ cried Rose. ‘However,’ and her countenance brightened, ‘if he stays here four weeks we can teach him.’
Catherine, meanwhile, sat watching the two girls with a soft elder sister’s indulgence. Was it in connection with their bright attractive looks that the thought flitted through her head, ‘I wonder what the young man will be like?’
‘Oh, by the way,’ said Rose presently, ‘I had nearly forgotten Mrs. Thornburgh’s two messages. I informed her, Agnes, that you had given up water color and meant to try oils, and she told me to implore you not to, because “water color is so much more lady-like than oils.” And as for you, Catherine, she sent you a most special message. I was to tell you that she just loved the way you had taken to plaiting your hair lately—that it was exactly like the picture of Jeanie Deans she has in the drawing-room, and that she would never forgive you if you didn’t plait it so to-morrow night.’
Catherine flushed faintly as she got up from the table.
‘Mrs. Thornburgh has eagle-eyes,’ she said, moving away to give her arm to her mother, who looked fondly at her, making some remark in praise of Mrs. Thornburgh’s taste.
‘Rose!’ cried Agnes indignantly, when the other two had disappeared, ‘you and Mrs. Thornburgh have not the sense you were born with. What on earth did you say that to Catherine for?’
Rose stared; then her face fell a little.
‘I suppose it was foolish,’ she admitted. Then she leant her head on one hand and drew meditative patterns on the tablecloth with the other. ‘You know, Agnes,’ she said presently, looking up, ‘there are drawbacks to having a St. Elizabeth for a sister.’
Agnes discreetly made no reply, and Rose was left alone. She sat dreaming a few minutes, the corners of the red mouth drooping. Then she sprang up with a long sigh. ‘A little life!’ she said half-aloud, ‘A little wickedness!’ and she shook her curly head defiantly.
A few minutes later, in the little drawing-room on the other side of the hall, Catherine and Rose stood together by the open window. For the first time in a lingering spring, the air was soft and balmy; a tender grayness lay over the valley; it was not night, though above the clear outline’s of the fell the stars were just twinkling in the pale blue. Far away under the crag on the further side of High Fell a light was shining. As Catherine’s eyes caught it there was a quick response in the fine Madonna-like face.
‘Any news for me from the Backhouses this afternoon?’ she asked Rose.
‘No, I heard of none. How is she?’
‘Dying,’ said Catherine simply, and stood a moment looking out. Rose did not interrupt her. She knew that the house from which the light was shining sheltered a tragedy; she guessed with the vagueness of nineteen that it was a tragedy of passion and sin; but Catherine had not been communicative on the subject, and Rose had for some time past set up a dumb resistance to her sister’s most characteristic ways of life and thought, which prevented her now from asking questions. She wished nervously to give Catherine’s extraordinary moral strength no greater advantage over her than she could help.
Presently, however, Catherine threw her arm round her with a tender protectingness.
‘What did you do with yourself all the afternoon, Röschen?’
‘I practised for two hours,’ said the girl shortly, ‘and two hours this morning. My Spohr is nearly perfect.’
‘And you didn’t look into the school?’ asked Catherine, hesitating; ‘I know Miss Merry expected you.’
‘No, I didn’t. When one can play the violin and can’t teach, any more than a cuckatoo, what’s the good of wasting one’s time in teaching?’
Catherine did not reply. A minute after Mrs. Leyburn called her, and she went to sit on a stool at her mother’s feet, her hands resting on the elder woman’s lap, the whole attitude of the tall active figure one of beautiful and childlike abandonment. Mrs. Leyburn wanted to confide in her about a new cap, and Catherine took up the subject with a zest which kept her mother happy till bedtime.
‘Why couldn’t she take as much interest in my Spohr? thought Rose.
Late that night, long after she had performed all a maid’s offices for her mother, Catherine Leyburn was busy in her own room arranging a large cupboard containing medicines and ordinary medical necessaries, a storehouse whence all the simpler emergencies of their end of the valley were supplied. She had put on a white flannel dressing-gown and moved noiselessly about in it, the very embodiment of order, of purity, of quiet energy. The little white-curtained room was bareness and neatness itself. There were a few book-shelves along the walls, holding the books which her father had given her. Over the bed were two enlarged portraits of her parents, and a line of queer little faded monstrosities, representing Rose and Agnes in different stages of childhood. On the table beside the bed was a pile of well-worn books—Keble, Jeremy Taylor, the Bible—connected in the mind of the mistress of the room with the intensest moments of the spiritual life. There was a strip of carpet by the bed, a plain chair or two, a large press; otherwise no furniture that was not absolutely necessary, and no ornaments. And yet, for all its emptiness, the little room in its order and spotlessness had the look and spell of a sanctuary.
When her task was finished Catherine came forward to the infinitesimal dressing-table, and stood a moment before the common cottage looking-glass upon it. The candle behind her showed her the outlines of her head and face in shadow against the white ceiling. Her soft brown hair was plaited high above the broad white brow, giving to it an added stateliness, while it left unmasked the pure lines of the neck. Mrs. Thornburgh and her mother were quite right. Simple as the new arrangement was, it could hardly have been more effective.
But the looking-glass got no smile in return for its information. Catherine Leyburn was young; she was alone; she was being very plainly told that, taken as a whole, she was, or might be at any moment, a beautiful woman. And all her answer was a frown and a quick movement away from the glass. Putting up her hands she began to undo the plaits with haste, almost with impatience; she smoothed the whole mass then set free into the severest order, plaited it closely together, and then, putting out her light, threw herself on her knees beside the window, which was partly open to the starlight and the mountains. The voice of the river far away, wafted from the mist-covered depths of the valley, and the faint rustling of the trees just outside, were for long after the only sounds which broke the silence.
When Catherine appeared at breakfast next morning her hair was plainly gathered into a close knot behind, which had been her way of dressing it since she was thirteen. Agnes threw a quick look at Rose; Mrs. Leyburn, as soon as she had made out through her spectacles what was the matter, broke into warm expostulations.
‘It is more comfortable, dear mother, and takes much less time,’ said Catherine, reddening.
‘Poor Mrs. Thornburgh!’ remarked Agnes dryly.
‘Oh, Rose will make up!’ said Catherine, glancing, not without a spark of mischief in her gray eyes, at Rose’s tortured locks; ‘and mamma’s new cap, which will be superb!’
Categories: English Literature