Read CHAPTER XIV - A CHANGE OF MIND of The Village by the River , free online book, by H. Louisa Bedford, on ReadCentral.com.

Three months later Paul Lessing stood, one morning in March, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, looking out of his sitting-room window. His eyes rested on the little plot of ground before him, with its borders of snowdrops and crocuses, and the road beyond, along which the village children in their scarlet cloaks hurried to school: a narrow boundary to a narrow life, he told himself and lonely, since Sally had left him a week or two ago. He was intolerably dull, and Sally’s letter, which lay open on the table, brimful as it was of new energies and interests, had set him wondering whether he could continue his present course of life much longer. There was positively no one left in the village, at present, with whom he could interchange an idea.

Mr. Curzon, with whom, in the last three months, he had become fairly intimate, had gone to his new field of work, leaving a blank behind him in every house in the place; his successor had not yet arrived. “And we are not likely to have much in common when he does come,” Paul thought, with a smile. May Webster, after manfully fulfilling her purpose of helping in the village until the trouble and distress, brought by the fever, had passed away, had returned to London; and it was little enough that Paul had seen of her whilst she had been there. And that very day Paul had received a letter from Mrs. Webster to tell him that at Michaelmas she wished to vacate the Court, which she now kept on as a yearly tenant.

“It cannot matter to me,” Paul said to himself. “In many ways, of course, it is the best thing that could happen.” And yet he found himself thinking of nothing but the utter desolation of Rudham, when May’s bright presence should be removed from it, when he could no longer hope for a passing glimpse of her in the street.

“I have vegetated down here until I run a risk of softening of the brain,” he said aloud. “I must have change. I’ll be off to London for a week, put up at my club, see a few of my friends, and unearth Sally in her new quarters.”

The thought had scarcely formed itself before he began to carry it into execution: putting together his papers, looking out a convenient train. And, shoving his head inside the door of the Macdonald’s sitting-room, he enlisted Mrs. Macdonald’s help in the matter of packing.

“Rather sudden, sir, isn’t it?” she said, as she knelt upon the floor in the centre of the clothes which Paul had pulled out of his drawers and littered about in hopeless confusion. “It’s bad enough to lose Miss Sally, but John and I won’t know ourselves when you’ve gone too.”

“It won’t be for very long,” said Paul, good-humouredly, grateful to discover that anybody would miss him, and careful to suppress the fact that he was dull.

Arrived in London the stir and bustle of the streets was as refreshing to him as water to a thirsty man, and to find himself once more amongst his fellows in the club, where many a man greeted him with a friendly nod, was simply delightful, One friend asked him to dinner that night, another made an appointment for the play on the night following; his presence was demanded at an important political meeting, where he was requested to speak on the labour question. And again the thought forced itself upon him how much better he felt fitted to cope with the masses, and work at the big social problems of the day, than to deal with the individual lives of the people of Rudham. And the parliamentary career for which he longed was absolutely within his grasp, for a seat belonging to his political party was to be vacated in the autumn, and his name was already mentioned as that of the likely candidate; but there was no course open to him but to refuse the offer if it came. It took more means than he had at his disposal to do his duty by Rudham.

He found Sally keen and happy over her work, and was satisfied that she had discovered her proper vocation.

The last day of his London visit had come, and, late in the afternoon, Paul found himself walking down Park Lane; and he hesitated for a moment, when he came to the house which he knew to be the Websters, wondering whether he would call and answer Mrs. Webster’s note in person. That, at any rate, would be the ostensible reason for his visit; he scarcely cared to admit that it was the longing for a sight of May’s face that made it impossible for him to pass the door. In another minute he had mounted the steps and rung the bell, and was handed into a room crammed with people society people, all talking society gossip over their tea. Many of them bestowed a passing glance upon Paul as he made his way towards Mrs. Webster, but their interest died down when they discovered that he was not of their set.

“Mr. Lessing!” exclaimed Mrs. Webster. “Quite a welcome surprise! You are not often in London, are you? So good of you to call. Have you had any tea? Yes? Pray have some more.”

Then another visitor demanded her attention, and Paul found himself stranded in a room full of people of whom he knew not one. May was nowhere to be seen; but, as Paul sidled his way past chairs and tables, making for the door, he found himself face to face with her as she led a party of people from the conservatory back to the drawing-room. She was talking with that brilliant, rapid fluency which had marked the earlier stages of their acquaintance; but at sight of him she coloured and stretched out her hand with unmistakable cordiality.

“This is indeed an unexpected honour,” she said, letting her other guests move on, and taking up her own position by Paul. “I should not have thought wild horses would have dragged you to a tea-fight.”

“And they would not have done,” Paul answered, with a laugh, “had I known that such a thing was in process; but, finding myself in London, I came to call in answer to a note of your mother’s.”

A professional singer at the far end of the room rose preparatory to singing, and May gave an impatient little exclamation.

“Come into the conservatory and talk; I’m tired of all these people. You bring a whiff of country air with you.”

As she spoke she led the way towards two easy-chairs, placed by the fountain in the middle of the conservatory, and, sinking into one herself, she motioned Paul to the other. From the half-open door of the drawing-room came the confused murmur of voices, dominated by the tenor soloist; but to Paul that society life seemed miles distant. He was enfolded by a sense of enchantment: for him, at that moment, there was but two people in the world himself and May. To speak would be to break the brief spell of enjoyment, so he sat silent and content.

“We are wasting the time; I brought you here to talk,” said May, turning towards him with a smile. “How do things fare at Rudham now Mr. Curzon has gone?”

“Badly; there is a sense of flatness. He embodied the life of the village in a way one could not believe unless one had lived there. I’ve seen a lot of him in the last few months; we were fairly driven into each other’s society.”

“How do you get on together?”

“To know Curzon intimately goes halfway towards converting one to his way of thinking,” said Paul, slowly.

May looked up quickly.

“I don’t mean that I am fully prepared to accept his opinions, but I have modified my views concerning them,” Paul went on. “A man like Curzon, and his enormous power for good, cannot be ignored. His creed, which makes him what he is, must be reckoned with as a motive-force in the world. I said to myself at one time that, starting from opposite poles, he and I worked for the same end the good of the race. But where I seem only to scratch the surface, he gets below it. Look at Burney, for example. I believed I had made a man of him by restoring his self-respect and giving him a fresh chance by trusting him, in fact. It did well enough for a time, but then he broke out worse than ever. Then, from what Tom told me, Curzon stepped in, saved him from suicide, and saved him from himself; and has given him, apparently, some principle to live by that will turn him into a fine character yet at any rate, I get excellent accounts of him.”

“I did not know he had tried to kill himself,” said May; “perhaps that is what has sobered poor Rose Lancaster so effectually. She told me the other day that she would marry no one but Tom. By the way, what brought you to London?”

“Mixed motives. Sheer dulness for one thing.”

“You once aired a theory that only stupid people could be dull.”

“Then, I suppose, I have grown stupid; I have not enough to occupy me, for one thing. If I could carry out all my whims I could be busy enough; but I have had to abandon that scheme for rebuilding a good many of my cottages from want of money, and that same want stands between me and my one ambition: a seat in Parliament. I might have had a chance of a vacancy in the autumn. By the way, as you intend to throw me over, I trust that amongst your numerous friends you will find me another tenant for the Court.”

“I don’t understand what you are talking of! Who is going to throw you over?”

“Your mother has written to say that she wishes to leave at Michaelmas. Her letter was my excuse for calling.”

May did not answer for a minute; she was busily pondering what her mother’s reason could have been for arriving at this decision without consulting her. It might be that the relations between themselves and the Blands being somewhat strained, she had thought it wise to go somewhere else, or and here May’s heart quickened its beating it might be that she feared a rival in Paul Lessing.

“I hope you are sorry to lose us,” she said.

“Am I to tell the conventional falsehood or the truth?” Paul asked.

“The truth, of course; we have not studied conventionality much, have we?”

“Then I am unfeignedly glad,” said Paul, deliberately.

May had turned rather white. “You don’t mince matters certainly.”

“No, I don’t; but I prefer solitude to living perpetually within sight of unattainable happiness. Our friendship is destroyed, you remember; you admitted as much once. I cannot pretend that you are an ordinary acquaintance, and, therefore, to have you taken out of my reach is really the best thing that could happen to me.”

“And you have left any wish I might have about it outside your calculation,” said May.

“It cannot signify to you where you live. You will amuse yourself wherever you are.”

“It signifies considerably; as I like Rudham, at present, better than any place in the world.”

Paul broke into an incredulous laugh.

“I suppose it would be an impertinence to ask your reason for this unaccountable preference?”

“It is a simple one: you live there,” said May, with averted face.

Paul sprang to his feet and stood before May with arms folded, and looked down at her with eyes that literally burned.

“May!” he said hoarsely, “if it is a joke it is a cruel one.”

“Oh, it’s true that you have grown stupid!” cried May, between laughter and tears. “It is no joke to have to tell you that I have changed my mind. I love you better than all the world besides.”

With an incoherent cry Paul clasped her to his breast.

“My darling! my darling!” he said, after the rapture of that first moment, “I am not worthy, and the sacrifice on your side is too great. I had no right ever to ask you to marry me. What will the world say of me? I could wish that you had no fortune

“Oh, nonsense! you were groaning for want of it just now. It is my own, to do as I like with; and I shall have a lot more, some day, unless mother disinherits me.”

“Which reminds me that I have to face her,” said Paul, rather ruefully.

“I think you had better go at once,” said May, with merry decision, “and leave mother to me. I don’t pretend she will like it; but she may consent, as she has been grievously worried by the fear that I was going to be an old maid and so I should have been but for you.”

Paul tried to repossess himself of her hands, but May had glided back to the drawing-room, turning as she left to tell him to call again in the morning. Left to himself, Paul tried to collect his thoughts, and to realize the intense happiness that had come to him. If it were true that May loved him, he would marry her in the face of all opposition, for she knew well enough that he did not care for her money, but for herself. Then he fell again to wondering whether she had sufficiently counted the cost of uniting her life with his, for, in marrying, Paul felt it would be impossible for him to change the whole scheme of his life. His objects and ambitions would be the same after it as before, and, unless May was prepared to share them, they would gradually drift apart. He must put it all before her to-morrow, lest she should make a lifelong mistake.

But May had made no mistake; she knew her own mind, at last, for absence from Paul had taught it her. She had turned with absolute loathing from the mill-round of gaiety which was the only marked characteristic of her life in London; and her thoughts had recurred persistently to Rudham, until finally, in the time of distress, she had followed the dictates of her heart and gone down there. But not until the day of Kitty’s funeral, when she stood beside Paul at her grave, had she owned to herself that he was the man she loved: a conviction which deepened into certainty in the weeks which followed, for, although she saw little of him, to be in the place where he lived, and in some way to share his work, made her happy, and gave her a sense of repose which had not been hers since she left.

Mrs. Webster shed some very bitter tears when, after dinner that evening, May announced her engagement.

“It is wicked of him to have asked you! he is as poor as a church mouse!”

“I can’t remember, exactly, but I don’t think he did ask me,” said May, knitting her pretty brows. “He did once before, but I don’t think he did to-day. But he was so very miserable that

“Well!” interposed Mrs. Webster, “in my young days girls left it to the men to speak.”

“Oh, mother, don’t scold! I am so happy happier that I have ever been before. You know you have wished me to marry; let me marry the man I love.”

“It is such an ill-assorted match; he has no money

“And I have plenty,” said May.

“And how can I ever consent to your living in a cottage?” went on Mrs. Webster, with a wail of despair.

“Oh, we have not come to that yet!” May answered, unable to check a laugh; “but I dare say he will not wish it. We could live quite simply at the Court. I wonder if we shall run to a house-parlourmaid?”

“It’s no laughing matter; you have been used to every luxury, May.”

“I have had more than my share. I feel rather a surfeit of the sweetest things.”

“And he does not go to church

“But he is more in earnest than many of the men who do,” said May. “Of this I am sure, that he is seeking after God; if I were not sure, I do not believe I should have the courage to marry him. A year back I should not have cared what a man thought as long as he led a straight life, but lately I have felt different about things. My own convictions are stronger.”

“Well, if we discuss it from now until Doomsday I shall not like it, May; but it is equally certain that if you have set your mind on this man you will not give him up.”

“I have set my heart upon him,” said May, an unusual softness in her voice. “After all, mother, love is the first thing.”

Mrs. Webster sat silent, the tears dropping down her face. Love, either of God or man, had been no important factor in her life. She had married for money, and such love as she could give had been centred on her one beautiful daughter; but even with her, her ambition was stronger than her love, and it received its deathblow with May’s unaccountable choice of a husband. Further opposition she saw to be useless, so she surrendered with as good a grace as possible.

When May’s engagement was publicly announced friends poured in to offer congratulations that had a note of surprise behind them; but Mrs. Webster proved fully equal to the occasion.

“Yes,” she said; “May has been a long time making her choice, and now it seems a funny one, doesn’t it? But Mr. Lessing is a very clever man, and May became bitten with his views first, and with the propounder of them afterwards. He is the sort of man who will make a career for himself yet. I believe he means to stand for in the autumn.”

Perhaps no one received the news with such genuine delight as Sally, who came flying up to Park Lane directly she heard of it.

“I’ve always thought Paul the nicest man in the world, and you the most fascinating woman; and that you should make a match of it is ideally delightful,” she said. “It really is very funny, though, when I come to think of it, and look back at that night in Brussels.”

“What about that night at Brussels?” asked Paul, who had entered the room unperceived by either of the girls. But Sally laughed and held her tongue.

“If you had stayed away a minute longer I should have wormed the truth out of the too-truthful Sally,” May said, turning upon him with a smile. “You clearly hated me.”

“I don’t think I ever hated you. I believe I struggled from the first against a tremendous fascination that you possessed for me. I quarrelled with your surroundings, with your money rather than with you.”

“It is a distinct judgment that that same money will enable you to carry out all your schemes,” May said quaintly, “from the new cottages to the seat in Parliament.”

“I shall wish you to do exactly what you like, May.”

“And what else could give me so much pleasure?”

“Oh, May, how perfectly lovely it all sounds!” cried Sally, enthusiastically. “And shall you have open-air evenings on the bowling-green for the village people, with a band playing and every one dancing? If so, ask me down with a contingent of girls.”

When Paul returned to Rudham and informed Mrs. Macdonald of his approaching marriage, he was a little puzzled by the look of alarm with which she received the news.

“Come, come, Mrs. Macdonald! you have been as good as a mother to me; I thought you would be the first to wish me good luck,” Paul said.

“It’s not that, sir! it’s not that at all, that I’m thinking; but plain people like John and me could noways manage for a pretty lady like Miss Webster,” she said.

Paul sat down and laughed. “So that’s it. Well! I had not thought of bringing my wife here to live. Happy as you have made me, it would be a little small for her. I suppose we shall go to the Court, and I could turn my rooms here into a workman’s club, couldn’t I? And we could keep a bedroom for any of Miss Sally’s girls who want a change.”

After which Mrs. Macdonald recovered her spirits, and offered her congratulations with Scotch sincerity.

“She’s bonny, sir! she’s very bonny! But my John will say that there’s not another lady in the world like our Miss Sally. His heart is set on her, that it is! And when will be the wedding, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“To-morrow, if I had my way. Six weeks hence, as I have to wait Miss Webster’s pleasure; and, I believe, in the years to come, she will rival Miss Sally in your affections.”

“Maybe, sir,” replied Mrs. Macdonald, cautiously.

More than two years had passed; and on a sunny day in June, Rose Lancaster was once again making her way across the bowling-green at the Court towards the rose-garden, bent upon the same quest as on the summer morning, which seemed such a long time ago, when Tom Burney had first declared his love for her. It was said in the village that Rose had lost her looks, and certainly the indefinable first blush of youth had faded; but if Rose’s face had lost its delicacy of colouring, it had gained infinitely in expression. The blue eyes were soft and wistful, the pretty lips had lost their trick of pouting, the head was poised less saucily; trouble had taught Rose lessons which had left a lasting impression upon her character. She had been retained in Mrs. Lessing’s service; nor ever showed any desire to quit it, until such time as Tom was ready to come home and fetch her. But oh! how long it seemed to wait. He had hinted, a month or two back, at the possibility of his being sent over to England upon his master’s business; but in the letter which followed immediately after, no mention had been made of the subject, so Rose feared that the happy chance was not to come yet, since which time there had been silence the longest silence that had occurred since Tom had left. Whether the rose-garden unconsciously brought back her lover to her mind it is impossible to say, but as Rose snipped the buds there were tears in her eyes with the simple longing for news of her absent lover. She chose all white roses to-day, for the newly-arrived baby-girl at the Court was to be baptized, and Mr. Curzon was coming to take the service; and Rose had planned that she would slip off quietly to the church and put a wreath of white roses round the font. It was a business that must be carried through with secrecy and despatch, as presently her mistress would want her to help her to dress: she was far from strong yet. A straying bramble caught her gown and held it fast, and with an impatient little cry she stooped down to disentangle it, when, to her astonishment, a great brown hand from behind closed upon hers, and a strong arm was slipped round her waist, and a voice, that set her trembling from head to foot, exclaimed

“Rose, Rose, my beauty! what luck to find you, the first minute I’ve come, like this! I was just making my way up the drive, and caught sight of something shining through the trees; and if it wasn’t your head shining all yellow in the sun the same as when I left it! And I crept up behind you, and caught you crying over a thorn, I do believe.”

Needless to say it was Tom Burney who was the speaker, a broader, bigger Tom than Rose remembered: a handsome, strong fellow that any girl might be proud of as a lover, who spoke half in jest to hide the fact that tears were not far from his own eyes. He held her so tightly clasped to his breast, that it was some few minutes before Rose could either speak or get a good look at her lover.

“Oh, Tom, you’ve taken the life out of me; you’ve given me such a start!” she said when she could speak. “How brown and big you are! but you’re worth the waiting for. Oh dear, how glad I am you’ve come!” And then Rose began to sob helplessly, and needed a deal of comforting, which Tom was not slow to offer. “There!” said Rose, at last, pushing him from her, and showing him her dimples for the first time, “you are wasting all my time; but you can come down to the church, if you like, and help me to put the roses on the font.”

“What for?” asked Tom, unsympathetically, preferring the privacy of the rose-garden.

“For little Miss Kitty as is to be; that’s the new baby at the Court. And nothing will satisfy Mr. Lessing but that she shall be named after the one that’s gone. Mr. Curzon is coming to baptize her.”

“Is he?” cried Tom, eagerly. “I’ll come, then, and wait all day for a sight of him, the best friend I’ve ever had, Rose, my darling. Shall I ask him to tie up you and me?”

“Oh!” cried Rose, blushing rosy red, “I had not thought of that yet, Tom.”

“Time you did,” said Tom. “I must start back again in a month, and I’m not going without you.”

“Oh no,” said Rose. “It seems to come sudden at the last, but I’ve waited so long that I’ll come when you like. I’ve not looked at another man since you went away.”

Tom caught her again and kissed her. “And there was plenty to look at you, I’ll bet.”

“Yes, plenty,” Rose admitted, with a dash of her old coquetry.

Then hand in hand, like two happy children, they walked down the lane to the church; and Tom stood and handed the flowers, which Rose’s deft fingers arranged round the font. And all that miserable past seemed blotted out, and a future of perfect happiness seemed opening out before them. Just as their task was finished, and they stood side by side admiring their handiwork, the church door was softly pushed open, and Mr. Curzon entered. Real joy flashed into his face as he recognized Tom Burney, and saw that Rose was with him; but the words of greeting were very simple.

“So you’ve come home, Tom?” he said, as he heartily grasped his hand.

“For a bit, sir just for a week or two.”

“And you will take out Rose with you, I expect?” with a kindly smile at the pretty, downcast head.

“Well, yes, sir; that is my meaning. And we were thinking, she and I, as we would not feel rightly married unless you was kind enough to come and marry us.”

“And that I will gladly.”

“You’re the best friend as ever I had,” said Tom speaking with some effort. “And if I’ve kept straight and got a good name, it’s you I have to thank for it.”

“No, no,” said Mr. Curzon; “God alone could do that. I may have chanced to be the sign-post that directed you to Him. Shall we thank Him now for bringing you back, and pray that He may bless your life with Rose?”

So side by side the three knelt down, and in a few simple words Mr. Curzon commended them to God. And when he rose from his knees he laid his hands upon their heads in blessing.

Then Tom and Rose made their way back to the Court, sobered, but unspeakably happy, whilst Mr. Curzon lingered awhile by Kitty’s grave.

“There’s to be another little Kitty named in memory of you, my darling,” he said aloud, as he turned away from the grave with a tender smile on his face.

It never seemed to him that his own little Kitty was far from him, and a prayer was in his heart that Kitty the second might be as sweet, as good as the one who was ever present in his thoughts.

Paul Lessing, too, thought tenderly of his first child-friend that same afternoon, as he stood a little apart from the group gathered round the font, and heard the familiar name of Kitty bestowed upon his own little child. That first Kitty had been dear to him, but the baby who whimpered in Mr. Curzon’s arms was nearer still and dearer; and in the full realization of his own fatherhood Paul knelt, and, with his face hidden in his hands, acknowledged the Fatherhood of God.

There was a very large party at the Court, that evening, to which every inhabitant of Rudham had received an invitation an invitation printed in silver letters on a very small card.

“Kitty Lessing requests the company of Mr. and Mrs. , etc.”

It had been May’s particular wish that the invitations should be issued in her daughter’s name, and Paul, who considered the notion a little fantastic, had yielded to his wife’s whim.

“It seems rather nonsense that the giver of the feast should be fast asleep in her cradle upstairs,” he said, when he found himself standing by Mr. Curzon in the course of the evening, “but May would have it so.”

The two men stood side by side upon the terrace, looking down upon the moving crowd of happy people that wandered hither and thither about the beautiful grounds. From the bowling-green below there floated the strains of a string-band specially hired for the occasion; but, above it all, came the sound of Sally’s laughter as she tried to steer some of the village boys and girls safely through the mysteries of a new country dance an effort not wholly crowned with success. The shifting scene was full of animation and happiness.

“I think Mrs. Lessing was right,” said Mr. Curzon, presently. “Kitty is promising, by proxy, that she will carry on the work of kindliness and good-will that you and your wife have begun in Rudham.”

“I’m glad you are on my side,” said May, who had come up in time to hear Mr. Curzon’s words. “We’ll have a birthday party every year as long as Kitty lives at home. I came to find you, Paul; some of the elderly ones are going, and I want you to be at the gate to say good-bye.”

“No, no,” Paul answered; “we’ll go together to the bowling-green and issue a yearly invitation.”

A few minutes later Paul stood bare-headed, with May by his side, upon the band-stand; and the guests from all parts of the grounds gathered round, feeling that the squire had something to say to them.

“My friends,” Paul began, “I am here not to make a speech, but just to tell you, quite simply, what great pleasure it has given my wife and myself to see you here this evening, at the birthday party of our little girl. If she be spared to us it is our wish that every birthday of hers should be celebrated in a similar manner. Her name, I hope, will bring back to your memory the thought of another Kitty, who lived long enough to make her influence felt in every cottage of our village. That our little daughter shall also find a place in your hearts is her mother’s and my chief ambition concerning her.”

There was a moment’s pause when Paul ceased speaking, a passing hesitation lest any open manifestation of gladness over the birthday festival of the new Kitty should make their late rector more painfully conscious of the loss of his own little daughter; and with his quick, intuitive sympathy Mr. Curzon understood and appreciated the momentary silence. He sprang on to the platform and took his place by Paul’s side.

“Give expression to your thanks in the way which our entertainers will like the best,” he said. “Three cheers for Kitty Lessing!”

The sound of the hearty cheering reached even to the nursery, and baby Kitty stirred for a moment, opened her dark eyes, then, turning her head on the pillow, slept more profoundly than ever.

In years to come she would be told the tale of her first birthday party.