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slowly down. He looked up, saw the lilac-boughs stirring uneasily against a threatening sky, and accomplished the brief remainder of his task in haste, while the storm whirled round him. A minute later the deed was done, and the young fellow, feeling very like a murderer, was stamping the earth down again, and trying to efface the traces of his work, when through the eddying flakes came a peevish cry, "Ernest! Ernest! Are you out there, Ernest?"
Coming!" he cried with unwonted alacrity, for he did not want anyone to come to him. "Coming directly." He gave a final touch to the ground, thrust his tools aside, and catching up his coat, he struggled into it as he ran.
Miss Caroline eyed him with sour curiosity. "What's the matter with you?" she said. "Here's a letter come by the second post, who on earth is it from?"
Letters were not plentiful with Ernest. He opened this one, read it, and uttering a curious inarticulate cry, he caught at the door-post to steady himself. For a moment all things vanished in a sudden haze. Then he seemed to see Aunt Caroline, with open mouth and startled eyes, swimming in the mist, and clutching feebly at him.
"Dorcas! Selina! What has come to the boy?"
The tone brought them both-Dorcas, wiping her hands on her apron, and Miss Selina muffling her swelled face in a shawl. Ernest had recovered himself a little, and stood up in the midst of the wondering group.
"It is good news!" he began. "At least-no!" drawing a hasty veil of propriety over the bare selfishness. "I mean it is good for me, though it is very sad. My uncle, Mr. Vaughan, has been drowned yachting in the Mediterranean, with his only son."
"And you'll have some money?" cried Miss Selina.
"The estate-Southdale. At least so I understand it."
"Southdale!" The sisters looked at each other in awe; they had heard of the glories of Southdale. "Let me look!" said Aunt Selina, gasping for breath. Ernest resigned the letter, and the spinsters' faded faces jostled each other over the wonderful tidings. Sudden transformations are not confined to fairy tales and pantomimes, as we are prosaically wont to believe. When the Misses Fletcher looked up from that magical page, there stood before them, where their sullen slouching nephew had been but a moment earlier, a tall aristocratic young man, carelessly and even meanly dressed, it is true, but betraying his rank in look, and word, and distinguished ease of manner. "Oh, Ernest, my dear boy, what a happy day this is!" cried Miss Selina, and offered him her best cheek to kiss; while Miss Caroline fondled one of his hands in her skinny fingers. "Oh, what a happy day!" she echoed.
"Isn't it?" said Ernest. He drew himself up, and away from Miss Selina's caress, and she could only fasten herself on his other hand. "Isn't it a happy day? Does anyone know whether there is a Mrs. Vaughan? What do you suppose she thinks of it?"
"Since Providence has ordained it, we will hope she sees that it is her duty to be resigned," said Miss Selina.
"And I daresay she is well provided for," Miss Caroline interposed.
"That would make resignation easier, no doubt," said Ernest. "Do you think a good example would help her at all? Because I feel quite resigned to my fate, and shall be happy to set her one. You would be sure of the wisdom of Providence if you were in my place, wouldn't you, Aunt Selina? I must show myself worthy of being your nephew."
"That I am sure you will do," she said warmly.
"Are you really? Quite sure? And Aunt Caroline too?" (She was testifying delight by rapturously worrying his hand.) "How should I begin?" He looked from one to the other with a sneer. "By being grateful to Providence, that when the yacht went down my uncle was on board? Oh! and do I add a special thanksgiving because my cousin went down with him?”
"My dear Ernest!" she hesitated, "I am not sure that I would put it so, exactly."
"Ernest is a little excited and can't be expected to pick his words just now," exclaimed Miss Caroline. She turned to Dorcas, "Of course
Mr. Ernest is a little excited, it's only natural, isn't it, Dorcas ?" Dorcas had rapidly decided that she had nothing to hope from Ernest. The bitter dislike between them had been the growth of years. use my trying to smooth him down now, he won't stand it," she thought so she answered sourly, "Well, Miss Caroline, that sort of talk may come natural to Mr. Ernest-seemingly it does-but I call it downright wicked so there!"
Ernest wrenched himself away from his aunts, and grasped her hand. "And you call it just what it is," he said; "it's the truest word you ever spoke, old Dorcas, and God knows I'm sorry for the poor lady!" (As it happened Mr. Vaughan had been five years a widower.) Dorcas stood utterly confounded, having merely followed the instinct which led her to say the most disagreeable thing she could. Golden possibilities flashed before her eyes, but she had no idea how she had pleased Mr. Ernest, nor what she ought to do for the future.
"Now mind," said the young master, sharply, "not a word about this till to-morrow-not a syllable to anyone. My affairs shan't be chattered about in this gossiping hole till I am well out of it."
"Oh, no! Of course not!" said the sisters, with blank disappointment on their faces. And Selina added, "You mean to go to-morrow then?" "First train. Don't you see this man says they'll meet me? If it weren't for that I'd go to-night."
"Oh, Ernest!" moaned Aunt Caroline, "is it too much to spend one more evening in your old home before you leave it for your splendour?" "You will go before Thorpe gets back!" cried Selina in dismay. "6 Well, you don't suppose I should stop for him!" said Ernest. "If
I were going to start as an ironmonger he might be some good. He wouldn't exactly help me in starting as a gentleman!"
The sisters quite agreed with him in this estimate of Thorpe, and Selina felt rather ashamed of having mentioned him at all.
Ernest's remembrance of that evening is like the remembrance of a dream, where vivid clearness wars with as vivid a sense of unreality. He had that dream-like feeling of central loneliness with which the sleeper sees a stream of fantastic changes eddying round him, while he is himself unchanged. The spinsters' fond caresses were grotesque and hateful as a nightmare. But the time came at last when he could escape from their tearful enumeration of his many virtues, and take refuge yet once more in his garret. He had to pack, he said.
His packing did not take him long. He put a few clothes into a little portmanteau, adding to them one or two trifles which had belonged to his mother, and a couple of books which Mr. Markham had given him. Then he stood looking at a faded rose, some morsels of coloured sewing silk, and a torn scrap of paper with fragments of words pencilled on it in a dashing hand. Gifts from Lizzie he had none. Once, in the first bloom of his passion, he had declared that true love had no need of such tokens, and Lizzie had reverenced the chance utterance as a sacred law. But later Ernest himself had felt a natural longing for some remembrance of her, and had hoarded these things for her sake. He eyed them a moment, crushed them in his hand so that the dry rose crumbled into innumerable fragments, and opening his fingers, let them drift to the floor and lie there. The act was emphatic. There is a certain tenderness in burning such things. You will treasure them no longer, but at least they shall be safe from insult. Though love may be dead, no unkindly hand shall be laid upon the corpse. But Ernest left the memorials of his first dream to Dorcas and the dust-hole.
He flung himself on his bed, and tried to realise his altered fortunes. But it was too bewildering. A gulf had suddenly opened to part him from his former life, and Selina, Caroline, Theophilus, nay, Lizzie herself, stood on the further side. The idea of her faithlessness glided past him in the strange procession of events, and seemed natural enough in the universal change. So, between sleeping and waking, the night wore away, till the Lesborough clock struck five, slowly as if it were a knell. Ernest suddenly remembered that Clark was going to work that morning and would want his tools. It was a curious fact that nothing was changed for Clark, and that he was still doomed to toil with the pickaxe which Ernest had borrowed in a previous existence, and omitted to return. It set bounds to the stupendous transformation which had absorbed the young man's thoughts. He perceived that he was not the centre of the universe, and was somewhat sobered and saddened in consequence. And he also perceived that he had broken his word. After lying for a few minutes, meditating on these things, he sprang up and hurried on his clothes in the dark, for his candle had long since died in the
socket. "He can't go to work before six," he said to himself. have time yet," and he felt his way downstairs, unbolted the door, and stepped into the garden.
It was cold but very still. There was no breath of wind nor any sound of life. After a minute, when his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he distinguished the line of the wall, and guided himself by that till he turned the corner, trod on a roughened spot, and knew that he had reached Sandy's grave. He knelt on one knee to feel for his tools, and, having found them, he lingered, laying his hand on the cold earth, as if he caressed his dead favourite. "Good-bye, old Sandy," he said softly; "if I had only known, you should have feasted like a king, old fellow; but it's too late. Only last night, Sandy, you came to me, mewing to be let in" As Ernest spoke he chanced to look up, and the words died on his lips. Overhead, a lamp in a garret window burned like a great star in the blackness, girding a leafless poplar with a band of yellow light. The world slept, but Lizzie shared his vigil. He knelt for a moment, gazing upward. Then he started to his feet and spoke under his breath, lifting his hand towards the far-off brightness.
"If I have judged wrongly-if I have misunderstood-I dare not think it, but if I have-God give me a chance to make amends! If she marries Thorpe Fletcher I shall know that I was not mistaken. If not, I will come back some day, we will stand face to face, and this miserable mystery shall be cleared up. Till then, good-bye, my Lizzie, if by any wonderful chance my Lizzie still lives." He stamped in sudden anger on the hardened ground. "As if I didn't know it is impossible! Shall I come back and ask to be fooled a second time?" He turned to go, but memories of the moments he had spent there, of the beauty which was his life's one charm, of the love which never failed him till that fatal day, conspired to hold him back. He looked over his shoulder at the window, across which a shadow moved. "In three years!" he exclaimed," Lizzie, in three years!" And, in the fervour of that sudden resolution, he went.
When Theophilus arrived that same morning, intending to electrify the household with a little paragraph out of his penny paper, he found the household electrified already, and Ernest gone. He was not at all disconcerted, and merely said he would have some luncheon. Miss Caroline presided over the meal, in a frenzy of impatience, certain that Selina was carrying the great news round Lesborough; while she was answering Thorpe's leisurely questions, and watching every mouthful he ate. She felt that Fate was cruel, and found her only comfort in the thought, "How bad Selina will make her swelled face, to be sure, going out in this east wind!"
Thorpe dwelt complacently on the thought that Mr. Vaughan, who
disowned his sister because she married the ironmonger, had got the ironmonger's boy for his heir. Then he remembered Lizzie, and smiled to himself. "No need for her to trouble herself about our bargain now. He'll be true to her, I think he ought to be kicked if he isn't—a girl like that! She deserves her luck-she's one in a thousand!" Later in the afternoon, when he had ended his meditations, and rested awhile in pleasant drowsiness, he looked at his watch, sprang up hastily, and went out, hoping to meet Miss Grey.
He did meet her, and stopped short. This was not the flushed, excited, triumphant girl he had expected to see. She was pale and cold, and held out her hand to him with a quiet smile. "I wanted to speak to you, Mr. Fletcher," she said.
"Is it possible-haven't you heard?" he began. "About that poor Mr. Vaughan? Yes, Miss Selina told me this morning."
"Selina! Didn't Ernest tell you himself?"
She shook her head. "Ernest will never tell me anything more. We had a difference yesterday. It is all over."
Thorpe stood aghast. "You kept your word then!" He whistled softly, then finding that she only looked at him in silence, he recovered himself with a laugh. "Rather a complication!" he said. “We were a little too quick, eh? But we must set all that right, you know."
"I thought you would say that."
"Of course I say so. That was what you wanted me for?”
They were at Lizzie's door. "Please come in-I won't keep you long," she said, and he followed her into a fireless and only partially furnished room. The low ceiling made it oppressively sad, and it was very cold. Thorpe shuddered in his thick coat, and felt as if Lizzie had ushered him into his sepulchre. She glanced at the desolate hearth. "I'm sorry we have no fire. Won't you sit down!"
"It doesn't matter-no, I'd rather stand, thank you." He rested his arm on the chimney-piece as he spoke, and looked curiously at her. Why was her face so white and still?
"How will you set everything right, Mr. Fletcher?"
"Oh, leave that to me— -I'll see about it-don't be afraid," he said with a slight swagger in his tone. But it ended in a shiver. "Miss Grey, I hoped you knew me better than to think I'd leave you in the lurch." "I didn't think it for a moment. I knew you wouldn't."
He advanced a step. "Well, what on earth makes you look so miserable then?"
"How will you set everything right?" she repeated, fixing her eyes on his as she drew back.
"How? I shall go to Ernest, tell him my plan, and the bargain I made with you—I'll take care he understands how uncommonly well you behaved-and I'll either bring him back, or a letter saying he isn't far behind it. That'll do, I think?"
"Thank you. Now listen to me. I forbid you to say one word