English Literature

A Life for a Life by Dinah Maria Craik

A Life for a Life by Dinah Maria Craik.jpg

CHAPTER I. HER STORY.

Yes, I hate soldiers.

I can’t help writing it—it relieves my mind. All morning have we been driving about that horrid region into which our beautiful, desolate moor has been transmogrified; round and round, up and down, in at the south camp and out at the north camp; directed hither and thither by muddle-headed privates; stared at by puppyish young officers; choked with chimney-smoke; jolted over roads laid with ashes—or no roads at all—and pestered everywhere with the sight of lounging, lazy, red groups,—that color is becoming to me a perfect eye-sore! What a treat it is to get home and lock myself—in my own room—the tiniest and safest nook in all Rockmount—and spurt out my wrath in the blackest of ink with the boldest of pens. Bless you! (query, who can I be blessing, for nobody will ever read this), what does it matter? And after all, I repeat, it relieves my mind.

I do hate soldiers. I always did, from my youth up, till the war in the East startled everybody like a thunder-clap. What a time it was—this time two years ago! How the actual romance of each day, as set down in the newspapers, made my old romances read like mere balderdash: how the present, in its infinite piteousness, its tangible horror, and the awfulness of what they called its “glory” cast the tame past altogether into shade! Who read history then, or novels, or poetry? Who read anything but that fearful “Times?”

And now it is all gone by we have peace again; and this 20th of September, 1856, I begin with my birthday a new journal—(capital one, too, with a first-rate lock and key, saved out of my summer bonnet, which I didn’t buy). Nor need I spoil the day—as once—by crying over those who, two years since,

“Went up

Red Alma’s heights to glory.”

Conscience, tender over dead heroes, feels not the smallest compunction in writing the angry initiatory line, when she thinks of that odious camp which has been established near us, for the education of the military mind, and the hardening of the military body. Whence red-coats swarm out over the pretty neighbourhood like lady-birds over the hop-gardens,—harmless, it is true, yet for ever flying in one’s face in the most unpleasant manner, making inroads through one’s parlour windows, and crawling over one’s tea-table. Wretched red insects! except that the act would be murder, I often wish I could put half-a-dozen of them, swords, epaulets, moustaches, and all, under the heel of my shoe.

Perhaps this is obstinacy, or the love of contradiction. No wonder. Do I hear of anything, but soldiers from morning till night? At visits or dinner parties can I speak to a soul—and ‘tisn’t much I do speak to anybody—but that she—I use the pronoun advisedly—is sure to bring in with her second sentence something about “the camp?”

I’m sick of the camp. Would that my sisters were! For Lisabel, young and handsome, there is some excuse, but Penelope—she ought to know better.

Papa is determined to go with us to the Grantons’ ball to-night. I wish there were no necessity for it; and have suggested as strongly as I could that we should stay at home. But what of that? Nobody minds me. Nobody ever did that I ever remember. So poor papa is to be dragged out from his cosy arm-chair, jogged and tumbled across these wintry moors, and stuck up solemn in a corner of the drawing-room—being kept carefully out of the card-room because he happens to be a clergyman. And all the while he will wear his politest and most immovable of smiles, just as if he liked it. Oh, why cannot people say what they mean and do as they wish! Why must they hold themselves tied and bound with horrible chains of etiquette even at the age of seventy! Why cannot he say, “Girls”—no, of course he would say “young ladies”—“I had far rather stay at home—go you and enjoy yourselves;” or better still, “go, two of you—but I want Dora.”

No, he never will say that. He never did want any of us much; me less than any. I am neither eldest nor youngest, neither Miss Johnston nor Miss Lisabel—only Miss Dora—Theodora—“the gift of God,” as my little bit of Greek taught me. A gift—what for, and to whom? I declare, since I was a baby, since I was a little solitary ugly child, wondering if ever I had a mother like other children, since even I have been a woman grown, I never have been able to find out.

Well, I suppose it is no use to try to alter things. Papa will go his own way, and the girls theirs. They think the grand climax of existence is “society;” he thinks the same—at least for young women, properly introduced, escorted and protected there. So, as the three Misses Johnston—sweet fluttering doves!—have no other chaperon, or protector, he makes a martyr of himself on the shrine of paternal duty, alias respectability, and goes.


The girls here called me down to admire them. Yes, they looked extremely well:—Lisabel, majestic, slow and fair; I doubt if anything in this world would disturb the equanimity of her sleepy blue eyes and soft-tempered mouth—a large, mild, beautiful animal, like a white Brahmin cow. Very much admired is our Lisabel, and no wonder. That white barége will kill half the officers in the camp. She was going to put on her pink one, but I suggested how ill pink would look against scarlet; and so, after a series of titters, Miss Lisa took my advice. She is evidently bent upon looking her best to-night.

Penelope, also; but I wish Penelope would not wear such airy dresses, and such a quantity of artificial flowers, while her curls are so thin, and her cheeks so sharp. She used to have very pretty hair, ten years ago. I remember being exceedingly shocked and fierce about a curl of hers that I saw stolen in the summer-house, by Francis Charteris, before we found out that they were engaged.

She rather expected him to-night, I fancy. Mrs. Granton was sure to have invited him with us; but, of course, he has not come. He never did come, in my recollection, when he said he would.

I ought to go and dress; but I can do it in ten minutes, and it is not worth while wasting more time. Those two girls—what a capital foil each makes to the other! little, dark, lively—not to say satirical: large, amiable, and fair. Papa ought to be proud of them;—I suppose he is.

Heigho! ’Tis a good thing to be good-looking. And next best, perhaps, is downright ugliness,—nice, interesting, attractive ugliness—such as I have seen in some women: nay, I have somewhere read that ugly women have often been loved best.

But to be just ordinary; of ordinary height, ordinary figure, and, oh me! let me lift up my head from the desk to the looking-glass, and take a good stare at an undeniably ordinary face. ‘Tis not pleasant. Well; I am as I was made; let me not undervalue myself, if only out of reverence for Him who made me.

Surely—Captain Treherne’s voice below: Does that young man expect to be taken to the ball in our fly? Truly he is making himself one of the family, already. There is papa calling us. What will papa say?

Why, he said nothing; and Lisabel, as she swept slowly down the staircase with a little silver lamp in her right hand, likewise said nothing; but she looked——

“Everybody is lovely to somebody,” says the proverb. Query, if somebody I could name should live to the age of Methuselah, will she ever be lovely to anybody?

What nonsense! Bravo! thou wert in the right of it, jolly miller of Dee!

“I care for nobody, no, not I;

And nobody cares for me.”

So, let me lock up my desk, and dress for the ball.


Really, not a bad ball; even now—when looked at in the light of next day’s quiet—with the leaves stirring lazily in the fir-tree by my window, and the broad sunshine brightening the moorlands far away.

Not a bad ball, even to me, who usually am stoically contemptuous of such senseless amusements. Doubtless, from the mean motive that I like dancing, and am rarely asked to dance; that I am just five-and-twenty, and get no more attention than if I were five-and-forty. Of course, I protest continually that I don’t care a pin for this fact (mem. mean again). For I do care—at the very bottom of my heart, I do. Many a time have I leaned my head here—good old desk, you will tell no tales!—and cried, actually cried—with the pain of being neither pretty, agreeable, nor young.

Moralists say, it is in every woman’s power to be, in measure, all three: that when she is not liked or admired—by some few at least—it is a sign that she is neither likeable nor admirable. Therefore, I suppose I am neither. Probably very disagreeable. Penelope often says so, in her sharp, and Lisabel in her lazy way. Lis would apply the same expression to a gnat on her wrist, or a dagger pointed at her heart. A “thoroughly amiable woman!” Now I never was—never shall be—an amiable woman.

To return to the ball—and really I would not mind returning to it and having it all over again, which is more than one can say of many hours in our lives, especially of those which roll on, rapidly as hours seem to roll, after five-and-twenty. It was exceedingly amusing. Large, well-lit rooms, filled with well-dressed people; we do not often make such a goodly show in our country entertainments; but then the Grantons know everybody, and invite everybody. Nobody could do that but dear old Mrs. Granton, and “my Colin,” who, if he has not three pennyworth of brains, has the kindest heart and the heaviest purse in the whole neighbourhood.

I am sure Mrs. Granton must have felt proud of her handsome suite of rooms, quite a perambulatory parterre, boasting all the hues of the rainbow, subdued by the proper complement of inevitable black. By and by, as the evening advanced, dot after dot of the adored scarlet made its appearance round the doors, and circulating gradually round the room, completed the coloring of the scene.

They were most effective when viewed at a distance—these scarlet dots. Some of them were very young and very small: wore their short hair—regulation cut—exceedingly straight, and did not seem quite comfortable in their clothes.

“Militia, of course,” I overheard a lady observe, who apparently knew all about it. “None of our officers wear uniform when they can avoid it.”

But these young lads seemed uncommonly proud of theirs, and strutted and sidled about the door, very valorous and magnificent, until caught and dragged to their destiny—in the shape of some fair partner—when they immediately relapsed into shyness and awkwardness. Nay, I might add—stupidity; but were they not the hopeful defenders of their country, and did not their noble swords he idle at this moment on that safest resting-place—Mrs. Gran-ton’s billiard-table?

I watched the scene out of my corner, in a state of dreamy amusement; mingled with a vague curiosity as to how long I should be left to sit solitary there, and whether it would be very dull, if “with gazing fed”—including a trifle of supper—I thus had to spend the entire evening.

Mrs. Granton came bustling up.

“My dear girl—are you not dancing?”

“Apparently not,” said I, laughing, and trying to catch her, and make room for her. Vain attempt! Mrs. Granton never will sit down while there is anything that she thinks can be done for anybody. In a moment she would have been buzzing all round the room like an amiable bee, in search of some unfortunate youth upon whom to inflict me as a partner—but not even my desire of dancing would allow me to sink so low as that.

For safety, I ran after, and attacked the good old lady on one of her weak points. Luckily she caught the bait, and we were soon safely landed on the great blanket, beef, and anti-beer distribution question, now shaking our parish to its very foundations. I am ashamed to say, though the rector’s daughter, it is very little I know about our parish. And though at first I rather repented of my ruse, seeing that Mrs. Granton’s deafness made both her remarks and my answers most unpleasantly public, gradually I became so interested in what she was telling me, that we must have kept on talking nearly twenty minutes, when some one called the old lady away.

“Sorry to leave you, Miss Dora, but I leave you in good company,” she said, nodding and smiling to some people behind the sofa, with whom she probably thought I was acquainted. But I was not, nor had the slightest ambition for that honour. Strangers at a ball have rarely anything to say worth saying or hearing. So I never turned my head, and let Mrs. Granton trot away.

My mind and eyes followed her with a half sigh; considering whether at sixty I shall have half the activity, or cheerfulness, or kindliness, of her dear old self.

No one broke in upon my meditations. Papa’s white head was visible in a distant doorway; for the girls, they had long since vanished in the whirligig. I caught at times a glimpse of Penelope’s rose-clouds of tarlatan, her pale, face, and ever-smiling white teeth, that contrast ill with her restless black eyes—it is always rather painful to me to watch my eldest sister at parties. And now and then Miss Lisabel came floating, moon-like, through the room, almost obscuring young slender Captain Treherne, who yet appeared quite content in his occultation. He also seemed to be of my opinion that scarlet and white were the best mixture of colours, for I did not see him make the slightest attempt to dance with any lady but Lisabel.

Several people, I noticed, looked at them and smiled. And one lady whispered something about “poor clergyman’s daughter,” and “Sir William Treherne.”

I felt hot to my very temples. Oh, if we were all in Paradise, or a nunnery, or some place where there was neither thinking nor making of marriages!

I determined to catch Lisa when the waltz was done. She waltzes well, even gracefully, for a tall woman—but I wished, I wished—My wish was cut short by a collision which made me start up with an idea of rushing to the rescue; however, the next moment Treherne and she had recovered their balance and were spinning on again. Of course I sat down immediately.

But my looks must be terrible tell-tales; for some one behind me said, as plain as if in answer to my thoughts:—

“Pray be satisfied; the lady could not have been in the least hurt.”

I was surprised; for though the voice was polite, even kind, people do not, at least in our country society, address one another without an introduction. I answered civilly, of course, but it must have been with some stiffness of manner, for the gentleman said:—

“Pardon me; I concluded it was your sister who slipped, and that you were uneasy about her,” bowed, and immediately moved away.

I felt uncomfortable; uncertain whether to take any more notice of him or not; wondering who it was that had used the unwonted liberty of speaking to me—a stranger—and whether it would have been committing myself in any way to venture more than a bow or a “Thank you.”

At last common-sense settled the matter.

“Dora Johnston,” thought I, “do not be a simpleton. Do you consider yourself so much better than your fellow creatures that you hesitate at returning a civil answer to a civil remark—meant kindly, too—because you, forsooth, like the French gentleman who was entreated to save another gentleman from drowning—‘should have been most happy, but have never been introduced.’—What, girl, is this your scorn of conventionality—your grand habit of thinking and judging for yourself—your noble independence of all the follies of society? Fie! fie!”

To punish myself for my cowardice, I determined to turn round and look at the gentleman.

The punishment was not severe. He had a good face, brown and dark: a thin, spare, wiry figure, an air somewhat formal. His eyes were grave, yet not without a lurking spirit of humour, which seemed to have clearly penetrated, and been rather amused by, my foolish embarrassment and ridiculous indecision. This vexed me for the moment: then I smiled—we both smiled: and began to talk.

Of course, it would have been different had he been a young man; but he was not. I should think he was nearly forty.

At this moment Mrs. Granton came up, with her usual pleased look when she thinks other people are pleased with one another, and said in that friendly manner that makes everybody else feel friendly together also:—

“A partner, I see. That’s right, Miss Dora. You shall have a quadrille in a minute, Doctor.”

Doctor! I felt relieved. He might have been worse—perhaps, from his beard, even a camp officer.

“Our friend takes things too much for granted,” he said, smiling. “I believe I must introduce myself. My name is Urquhart.”

“Doctor Urquhart?”

“Yes.”

Here the quadrille began to form, and I to button my gloves not discontentedly. He said:—“I fear I am assuming a right on false pretences, for I never danced, in my life. You do, I see. I must not detain you from another partner.” And, once again, my unknown friend, who seemed to have such extreme penetration into my motives and intentions, moved aside.

Of course I got no partner—I never do. When the doctor re-appeared, I was unfeignedly glad to see him. He took no notice whatever of my humiliating state of solitude, but sat down in one of the dancers’ vacated places, and resumed the thread of our conversation, as if it had never been broken.

Often in a crowd, two people not much interested therein, fall upon subjects perfectly extraneous, which at once make them feel interested in these and in each other. Thus, it seems quite odd this morning to think of the multiplicity of heterogeneous topics which Dr. Urquhart discussed last night. I gained from him much various information. He must have been a great traveller, and observer too; and for me, I marvel now to recollect how freely I spoke my mind on many things which I usually keep to myself, partly from shyness, partly because nobody here at home cares one straw about them. Among others, came the universal theme,—the war.

I said, I thought the three much laughed-at Quakers, who went to advise peace to the Czar Nicholas, were much nearer the truth than many of their mockers. War seemed to me so utterly opposed to Christianity that I did not see how any Christian man could ever become a soldier.

At this, Doctor Urquhart leant his elbow on the arm of the sofa, and looked me steadily in the face.

“Do you mean that a Christian man is not to defend his own life or liberty, or that of others, under any circumstances?—or is he to wear a red coat peacefully while peace lasts, and at his first battle throw down his musket, shoulder his Testament, and walk away?”

These words, though of a freer tone than I was used to, were not spoken in any irreverence. They puzzled me. I felt as if I had been playing the oracle upon a subject whereon I had not the least grounds to form an opinion at all. Yet I would not yield.

“Dr. Urquhart, if you recollect, I said ‘become a soldier.’ How, being already a soldier, a Christian man should act, I am not wise enough to judge. But I do think, other professions being open, for him to choose voluntarily the profession of arms, and to receive wages for taking away life, is at best a monstrous anomaly. Nay, however it may be glossed over and refined away, surely, in face of the plain command, ‘Thou shall not kill,’ military glory seems little better than a picturesque form of murder.”

I spoke strongly—more strongly, perhaps, than a young woman, whose opinions are more instincts and emotions than matured principles, ought to speak. If so, Doctor Urquhart gave me a fitting rebuke by his total silence.

Nor did he, for some time, even so much as look at me, but bent his head down till I could only catch the fore-shortened profile of forehead, nose, and curly beard. Certainly, though a moustache is mean, puppyish, intolerable, and whiskers not much better, there is something fine and manly in a regular Oriental beard.

Doctor Urquhart spoke at last.

“So, as I overheard you say to Mrs. Granton, you ‘hate soldiers.’ ‘Hate’ is a strong word—for a Christian woman.”

My own weapons turned upon me.

“Yes, I hate soldiers because my principles, instincts, observations, confirm me in the justice of my dislike. In peace, they are idle, useless, extravagant, cumberers of the country—the mere butterflies of society. In war—you know what they are.”

“Do I?” with a slight smile.

I grew rather angry.

“In truth, had I ever had a spark of military ardour, it would have been quenched within the last year. I never see a thing—we’ll not say a man—with a red coat on, who does not make himself thoroughly contempt—”

The word stuck in the middle. For lo! there passed slowly by, my sister Lisabel; leaning on the arm of Captain Treherne, looking as I never saw Lisabel look before. It suddenly rushed across me what might happen—perhaps had happened. Suppose, in thus passionately venting my prejudices, I should be tacitly condemning my—what an odd idea!—my brother-in-law? Pride, if no better feeling, caused me to hesitate.

Doctor Urquart said, quietly enough, “I should tell you—indeed I ought to have told you before—that I am myself in the army.”

I am sure I looked—as I felt—like a downright fool. This comes, I thought, of speaking one’s mind, especially to strangers. Oh! should I ever learn to hold my tongue, or gabble pretty harmless nonsense as other girls? Why should I have talked seriously to this man at all? I knew nothing of him, and had no business to be interested in him, or even to have listened to him—my sister would say,—until he had been “properly introduced;”—until I knew where he lived, and who were his father and mother, and what was his profession, and how much income he had a-year?

Still, I did feel interested, and could not help it. Something it seemed that I was bound to say; I wished it to be civil, if possible.

“But you are Doctor Urquhart. An army-surgeon is scarcely like a soldier: his business is to save life rather than to destroy it. Surely you never could have killed anybody?”

The moment I had put the question, I saw how childish and uncalled-for, in fact, how actually impertinent it was. Covered with confusion, I drew back, and looked another way. It was the greatest relief imaginable when just then Lisabel saw me, and came up with Captain Treherne, all smiles, to say, was it not the pleasantest party imaginable? and who had I been dancing with?

“Nobody.”

“Nay, I saw you myself, talking to some strange gentleman. Who was he? A rather odd-looking person, and—”

“Hush, please. It was a Doctor Urquhart.”

“Urquhart of ours?” cried young Treherne. “Why, he told me he should not come, or should not stay ten minutes if he came. Much too solid for this kind of thing—eh, you see? Yet a capital fellow. The best fellow in all the world. Where is he?”

But the “best fellow in all the world” had entirely disappeared.

I enjoyed the rest of the evening extremely,—that is, pretty well. Not altogether, now I come to think of it, for though I danced to my heart’s content, Captain Treherne seeming eager to bring up his whole regiment, successively, for my patronage and Penelope’s (N.B. not Lisabel’s), whenever I caught a distant glimpse of Dr. Urquhart’s brown beard, conscience stung me for my folly and want of tact. Dear me! What a thing it is that one can so seldom utter an honest opinion without offending somebody.

Was he really offended? He must have seen that I did not mean any harm; nor does he look like one of those touchy people who are always wincing as if they trod on the tails of imaginary, adders. Yet he made no attempt to come and talk to me again; for which I was sorry; partly because I would have liked to make him some amends, and partly because he seemed the only man present worth talking to.

I do wonder more and more what my sisters can find in the young men they dance and chatter with. To me they are inane, conceited, absolutely unendurable. Yet there may be good in some of them. May? Nay, there must be good in every human being. Alas, me! Well might Dr. Urquhart say last night that there are no judgments so harsh as those of the erring, the inexperienced, and the young.

I ought to add, that when we were wearily waiting for our fly to draw up to the hall-door, Dr. Urquhart suddenly appeared. Papa had Penelope on his arm, Lisabel was whispering with Captain Treherne. Yes, depend upon it, that young man will be my brother-in-law. I stood by myself in the doorway, looking out on the pitch-dark night, when some one behind me said:—

“Pray stand within shelter. You young ladies are never half careful enough of your health. Allow me.”

And with a grave professional air, my medical friend wrapped me closely up in my shawl.

“A plaid, I see. That is sensible. There is nothing for warmth like a good plaid,” he said, with a smile, which, even had it not been for his name, and a slight strengthening and broadening of his English, scarcely amounting to an accent, would have pretty well showed what part of the kingdom Dr. Urquhart came from. I was going, in my bluntness, to put the direct question, but felt as if I had committed myself quite enough for one night.

Just then was shouted out “Mr. Johnson’s,”—(oh dear, shall we never get the aristocratic into our plebeian name!)—“carriage,” and I was hurried into the fly. Not by the Doctor, though; he stood like a bear on the doorstep, and never attempted to stir.

That’s all.

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