« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
glance sent Selina and Caroline flying in different directions for plaster, and for a moment the two were left alone, and face to face. No word was said, but Lizzie was strangely conscious of the firm pressure of his fingers, and was conscious of nothing else. How long was it before the sisters rushed in with their respective plaster-cases?
"I can manage it now, thank you!" she said, hastily.
"So you think," he replied. "I suppose you thought you could cut bread and butter. I'll do both for you to-night.”
As Lizzie sat in enforced idleness, and drank the tea which he brought, it seemed to her as if a measure of new strength and defiant courage had come back to her. She laughed and talked more like her old self, though she would not encounter those watchful eyes. The hands of the little clock on the chimney-piece went hurrying round, till Mr. Fletcher glanced at it, started, compared it with his great gold watch, and said he must go. Lizzie perceived that it was the time at which she usually left, but she felt that it would be like asking for his escort if she announced her departure when he had just spoken; so she waited, wondering why on earth he waited. At last, after leaning back some time in frowning silence, he stretched himself, said, “Well, I suppose I must be off,” and did not stir. Lizzie, determined to outstay him, talked on, till Miss Caroline yawned openly, and so compelled her to give way. But when she would have said "Good night" to Mr. Fletcher, he stood up. "Why, I'm going too," he said, "I'll see you home." She tried to refuse, but Selina hurried her off that she might not keep him waiting. Gentlemen didn't like to be kept waiting, she explained to Lizzie as they went upstairs. Lizzie was soon ready, and a minute later she found herself in the mocnlit street with Thorpe.
The pair went a few steps in silence, till a sudden impulse made the girl look up. The light fell on her companion's face, and showed her that he was looking at her, from under his heavy brows, with a direct intensity which sent a shock through her from head to foot.
"Take my arm," he said.
She shook her head, and walked more quickly.
"Of course I mean it! Thank you for your kind enquiries, Mr. Fletcher, but I am perfectly well."
"Then something else is the matter; you are unhappy." She took no notice, and after a moment he went on, in low tones which were even more imperious for their self-restraint: "Answer me, Miss Grey; are you unhappy?"
They had reached her door as he spoke, She was silent still, but not with the silence which would have been an admission of unhappiShe gathered all her strength, and met his eyes with a look of inquiry and defiance.
"No answer?" he said. "No concern of mine, of course. Oh, you are quite right, Miss Grey-your happiness wasn't in the bargain, was it?" And muttering something under his breath he walked away without a word of farewell. Lizzie looked after him while she stretched out her hand, groping for the door-handle. What right had he to ask about her happiness-he, of all men in the world! "But this will be the end of it," she said to herself. "He will be offended now."
Theophilus, however, was not easily repulsed. He tried to work upon his sisters' feelings, and arouse their generosity. He remarked how obliging and useful Miss Grey was-didn't they ever make her a little present? Miss Caroline explained to him that the advantage was really on Miss Grey's side. "You see, Theophilus, she always has her tea every time she comes, and that is something."
"Is it?" said he. "I call it as near nothing as a meal can be."
"Oh, we don't expect you gentlemen to care for early tea, and of course Miss Grey hasn't your appetite."
Lucky for Miss Grey. But I didn't mean eating and drinking. I thought if you liked to make her a little present-it needn't come out of your pockets." He coloured up as he spoke, but Miss Caroline was looking at a minute hole in the tablecloth, and did not see it.
"You are very kind. But there is no occasion, really," she said.
When, however, she repeated the conversation to her sister, Miss Selina, though generally approving, inclined to think that it might be well to give Lizzie Grey a trifle. Theophilus will like to see that we follow his advice," she said. "Just a trifle, you know; more would be absurd." Miss Caroline agreed, looked up a squirrel-skin muff which she did not want, put a fresh lining in it, and gave it to Lizzie on her birthday, at the beginning of July. Miss Fletcher, having as it were committed herself to a more liberal policy, went to the shop and bought a small box with a view of Loch Katrine outside, and three reels of cotton within, which was duly presented at the same time. Theophilus heard of these gifts, and doubtless rejoiced at the success of his scheme.
It so happened that Lizzie saw no more of him till the beginning of August, when a bazaar was held for the Lesborough Church Schools. She had a glimpse of him then, as she passed the Town Hall late in the afternoon. The Stauntons' carriage waited outside, and, as she walked, she looked at the beautiful, impatient, chestnut horses, sleek and shining in the sun, and listened to the music of the military band within. Not till her shabby gown almost brushed the splendour of silk," did she perceive the great Mrs. Staunton, with her electioneering smile, escorted by Theophilus in all his glory. Her primrose fingers rested on his sleeve, and his face was radiant. Lizzie remembers him to this day, as he stood on the lowest step, the thick gold chain, which Ernest hated, glistening in the hot sunshine, the pale grey gloves, the crimson rosebud in his coat. Had she not been taken by surprise she would have turned away, but he had seen her, their eyes had met, and instead of the good
humoured nod, which he often bestowed upon her, he lifted his hat with a ceremonious yet eager politeness which challenged Mrs. Staunton's attention. She looked after Lizzie with lofty wonder, and a faint involuntary admiration, lost the thread of what she was saying, bade Mr. Fletcher farewell a little absently, and drove off, sighing at the idea that a wealthy man should have such threadbare acquaintances.
Mrs. Staunton rather liked him than otherwise-in fact, she liked him well enough to say "Really! I'm very sorry," when a few days later a rumour ran through the town, that he was mixed up in some foreign speculation, and had lost money. People hardly knew what to think, but looked doubtfully at one another. It was so unlikely, that they could not believe anyone could have invented it. And when Mrs. taunton expressed her languid sympathy, her husband merely replied, "I should say it wasn't true; but if it is, the man must be a fool. Literally coining money at that place of his, I'm told.”
"Well, I daresay we shall hear more soon," she said. "Didn't you say we must give another dinner?" and she passed easily to the more interesting topic.
Lizzie Grey heard nothing of the report. Perhaps she was hardly in the mood to listen to Lesborough talk just then, for her prospects were darkening from day to day. The baker's daughter, having discovered that she knew French enough to give her a fine sense of superiority to her friends, had discontinued her lessons, and her teacher was left more hopeless than before. While Mrs. Staunton was arching her brows over the tidings of Thorpe Fletcher's losses, Lizzie sat by her mother's bedside, trying to impart a courage she could not feel. "I shall die in the workhouse," moaned Mrs. Grey.
"No, no!" said Lizzie. "It cannot come to that." But she trembled as she said it, and lay awake half the night, tormented with visions of sombre possibilities. It was in no sanguine frame of mind that she prepared to go out the next morning. She was just starting when the little girl, who waited on the invalid during her absence, came to her with a breathless message, "Please, Miss, Missis wants to speak to you. And, please, Miss, will you come at once, Missis says."
"Why, what on earth- Lizzie began, as she dashed past the child into her mother's room. "What is the matter, mamma?”
Mrs. Grey was siting up in bed, with shining eyes, and a faint tinge of colour in her cheeks. "I was praying to God last night, and He has And she held out a blue envelope, at the rooted to the ground.
Lizzie, look!" sight of which Lizzie stood
"A man left it at the door, Sarah says; a young man she does not know. Who could it be? Oh, Lizzie, do you see what it is?"
"Yes," said the girl slowly. "But we can't keep it, mamma." "Not keep it? It is meant for us-look at the envelope—it is directed to me!" Mrs. Grey's words came in startled gasps.
"I know it is sent to you," said Lizzie. "But you must let me take
"Back-who sent it then!"
"Mr. Fletcher." The name came out with a painful effort. "He has sent me money before-more than once-and I have sent it back." Mrs. Grey stared blankly. "What, Ernest Fletcher-no, he's Vaughan now, isn't he? Do you mean him?"
"No. Mr. Theophilus Fletcher at the foundry. Miss Fletcher's half-brother."
"Why does he send it? I suppose he wants to make you some return for your attentions to his sisters. Oh, Lizzie, we can't send it back!"
Listen, mamma?" cried Lizzie in despair. "Two years ago I happened to serve Mr. Fletcher-you must not ask me how, because it is not my secret only—at least he will have it that I served him, and ever since then he has been trying to pay me in some way. And because I would not have his money he has sent it to you. He is good, he means it kindly, but I can't take his money. Don't ask me why, mamma, but let me give it back-I can't take it!"
"But it is mine!" cried the poor weak woman. "He sent it to me!" And a dangerous look came into her eyes, as if she would do battle for her treasure with her shaking hands. Lizzie drew back a step and looked sadly at her.
"It is mine!" Mrs. Grey repeated, in her thin voice. "I shall keep it for your sake. You shall not have to work yourself to death for me." "Then, mother, you will not keep me. I cannot share it. I have no claim, on him. He thinks I lost something through him, but I know it wasn't so. I can't be paid for that day," she added, half to herself. “Oh, mamma, we have never had a quarrel before!"
But Mrs. Grey was not easily conquered. The poor woman clung to her prize as if she were in the agony of drowning, and this a saving rope. "Mamma!" cried Lizzie, with streaming eyes, "I can work! I will work! You shall not want! It would kill me if I had to live on Mr. Fletcher's charity!"
It was a hard struggle. On Mrs. Grey's side were feeble arguments, and strong entreaties and tears, and in answer the patient voice pleading, "I can't take it. He owes me nothing at all." At last it was over, and Lizzie came out. She had the blue envelope in her hand; she was going to return it that afternoon, and her mother had kissed her as she stooped to say "Good-bye."
"Was I cruel!" she said to herself, when she was once more in her own room. She went to the window. The poplar was trembling in the summer breeze, and below lay the strip of garden, down which Ernest used to come in the days which seemed so long ago. "I hope I wasn't cruel," she thought, leaning out to cool her aching eyes. "I have done nothing for him. He thinks it was a sacrifice, and I thought so too once. But I can't make money out of that; it would be a lie, and I should die of shame!"
The foundry stood a little way out of Lesborough, and the way to it led through the ugliest and most uninteresting part of the neighbourhood. Mr. Fletcher said it was a good level road, and he couldn't see anything amiss with it. Still, let him say what he would, it was not beautiful that August afternoon. On both sides, parted from it by low banks and closely-cut hedges, lay meadows, marshy and wide, coarsely overgrown with yellowish-green grass, and dotted here and there with patches of rank weeds, and tall flower-stalks whose blossom was gone. Trees there were none, except a straggling line of alders and willows which marked the river's languid course. No road is pleasant when one travels on a disagreeable errand; but Lizzie found an especial dreariness in this one, as she turned into it, and saw it visible in its flat monotony almost to the foundry-gate. She felt that she could not risk a repetition of that morning's conflict, nor the chance that another gift might arrive, and be accepted without her knowledge. She must refuse Mr. Fletcher's money in terms about which there could be no mistake. wait for a chance meeting, since it might not occur for would think all the while that she had taken his bounty. help for it; she must go to his office and find him there. was so cruel, it kept the end of her journey continually before her. Every step brought her visibly nearer to that dreaded interview, the mere thought of which made her heart die within her, yet the way was so wearily long. She walked as fast as she could, conning over the words she meant to say, with an uneasy certainty that Mr. Fletcher's eyes would frighten every syllable out of her head. If ever she feared him in old days, she feared him ten times more now.
She could not weeks, and he
There was no
At last she reached her destination. She wondered at her own calmness as she passed through the gate; and, following the guidance of a painted hand, walked straight into the office. "Is Mr. Fletcher here?" she asked a clerk. "Will you tell him that I particularly want to speak to him? I will not keep him long." It seemed to her as if, in uttering the words, she had contrived for a moment to outstrip her own nervousness, and it overtook her exactly as she ceased to speak. She felt the hot colour in her cheeks, and the eager beating of her heart made it hard to catch the man's reply. But she knew that she gave her name, and that a white-faced lad, whom they called Bates, went upstairs to ask if Mr. Fletcher were disengaged. The civil clerk gave her a chair, and she sat, looking through the open window into the busy, grimy yard. A man, who seemed to be a farmer, came in, and looked curiously at her as he went by. He leaned on the desk and spoke, and the clerk glanced at her over the new comer's shoulder, and smiled as he answered. Why had she ever come? She would have run away, but she had a wild idea that the clerks and the farmer would think her mad