Friends I Have Made
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I need not have troubled about my future, for that was to be my home. With returning health came greater intimacy, and by degrees I learned that Madame Grainger’s troubles had been greater, perhaps, than mine, for after a brief spell of married happiness her husband, a clergyman, had succumbed to poverty and overwork, leaving her almost penniless, to drift at last into the life she had led and become a busy thriving woman.
“Yes,” she said to me more than once, “I have often regretted the society in which I used to move, but it is better to depend upon oneself, Grace, than to be a burden upon one’s friends. I offended many by taking to this life, but I should have ceased to respect myself had I remained a poverty-stricken widow existing on the charity of those who blame me the most for my course.”
“You must have had a hard fight,” I said.
“I did, my child,” she replied, “a very hard fight, and it was at a time when I used to think that it would have been better to have lain down and died, as just one year before, my poor husband had closed his eyes.”
“How well lean recall it all,” she said dreamily, “long as it is ago. You told me your little life Grace, let me tell you mine. Did I ever say to you that Mr Grainger was a clergyman?”
“Yes,” I said, watching her intently, “you told me so.”
“Poor fellow!” she said with a sigh, “he asked me quite suddenly one day to be his wife.
“I was astounded, and yet pleased, and in a moment I had said quietly that it was impossible.
“Mr Grainger rose from his seat, looking inexpressibly pained, and walked slowly up and down the room, while I sat back in my chair by the window, with my heart beating violently, and a sense of suffocation upon me that was absolutely painful. But I was pained, too, for him: grieved that he should ever have asked me – more than grieved to have caused him sorrow. For in his suffering he looked so calm and gentle – he, the tall, stalwart man, with his fast-greying hair, and countenance marked with the lines printed by maturing age and thought. He had been so kind and friendly, too, ever since he had been at the parsonage, and in our daily work we had been drawn so imperceptibly together, that I had hoped ours was to be a firm and lasting friendship; and now this meeting seemed to have brought it to an abrupt conclusion. Suddenly he stopped before me again, and stood looking down, while I crouched there almost fascinated by his gaze.
“‘Miss Denison – Laura,’ he said, in a low soft voice, ‘you must forgive me, and if you cannot accede to my proposal, let us be as we have been during the past happy year.’
“I tried to speak, but he held up his hand.
“‘Hear me out, dear friend,’ he said, ‘and let me speak again, for I still hope that I may have taken you by surprise. I have known you now for a year.’
“I tried to speak once more – to beg of him that he would let me leave the room – that he would bring our interview to an end; but my heart went on still with its heavy beat, and the suffocating sensation was still at my throat, so that I half lay there with my eyes closed, listening to his words, every one of which seemed to wake an echo, and increase the heavy throbbing of my heart.
“‘I had a love-dream once,’ he said; and his voice became very rich and soft.‘I was tutor in a noble house. There was a daughter there whom I could have loved, had I but dared. Honour, position, all forbade it. She was heiress to thirty thousand pounds, and I was the young tutor to whose care the education of her brother had been trusted. She never knew my fancy, and I saw her married to a nobleman – happily, I hoped – while I – I returned to my books.’
“He paused again, and I sat up watching his half-averted face, as in those few words – so few but so pregnant of meaning – he laid bare to me his heart; and as he sighed, the heavy throbbing in my breast began to subside, and a strange feeling of pity for him to grow.
“‘I thought it but fair to tell you this,’ he said sadly, ‘to show you that I have no youthful first love to lay before you; but I felt that here, in this village, if your lot were joined to mine, the down-hill of life would be made happy for me, as God knows I would try to make it ever green and pleasant for you, while those around us should be taught to bless us for the help we gave. It is no romantic offer,’ he said, more cheerfully. ‘It is very matter-of-fact, I know, but it was upon these grounds, dear friend, that I asked you to be my wife.’
“He looked down at me once again, and as our eyes met, something within me seemed to say, ‘Withdraw your refusal, and lay those trembling hands in his, for he is a man that you could love.’ But I only shook my head sadly, as I murmured —
“‘No, it could never be!’
“‘You are agitated,’ he said tenderly, as he took my hand and reverently kissed it. ‘I will leave you now. Mine is too solemn a proposal for us both to be replied to without consideration. Let all be as it was for a month, and then I will renew my suit. If, after this lapse of time, you shall think as you do now, believe me, I will never pain the woman whom I hope to retain as my best and dearest friend, by the faintest allusion to that which we will agree to bury in the past.’
“‘No,’ I said, with a firmness which surprised myself. ‘Stay Mr Grainger. Let me speak.’
“He bowed his head in his old pleasant manner and took his seat once more.
“‘I must undeceive you now – at once,’ I faltered. ‘It would be cruel to you – to us both, to let this rest only to be renewed at the month’s end,’
“He bowed his head still lower, and my heart gave a throb of gratitude as I saw the tender consideration with which he averted his gaze from my agitated face.
“There was again a terrible silence in the room, broken only by the distant murmur of the sunlit sea, as it broke upon the fine shingle three hundred feet below. There was a soft rustle, too, amongst the leaves around the window, and – I remember it so well – the pale pink petals of a rose kept falling slowly, fluttering down like the withered hopes of my past sad life, as I struggled hard for the calmness that should enable me to speak.
“There was no other man living to whom I could have made this confession, and not even to him an hour before; but after the way in which he had bared the secrets of his own heart to my gaze, a bond of sympathy seemed to have joined us, and something within me forced me to speak – agitatedly at first, but with a growing calmness, that was even piteous to me, as I seemed to listen to my own words, and once more grieved over my sorrows, as if they had been those of another.
“‘Ten years ago,’ I said, ‘when I was in my nineteenth year, my mother in her widowhood and sorrow took this quiet cottage by the sea, to end her days in calmness and repose.’
“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I know, she died two years ago, beloved by all.’ This in a tone of sympathy that seemed to give me strength.
“‘When we first came, we found that there were frequent mistakes made, for at the great house there was another family named Denison, and little confusions arose about our letters.’
“‘Yes, I have heard of them,’ he said pleasantly. ‘I have studied up the past history of the village. They were very wealthy, and there was a beautiful daughter, an heiress.’
“‘Yes,’ I said, ‘you are quite right, she was very beautiful and very rich. She used to call on me, and we were very friendly, for she was not spoiled by her position, and would have been my inseparable companion but for the duties I owed to my mother.
“As it was, we used to sit for hours in the nooks of the cliff, reading, or she would spend her evenings at the cottage, till Mr Denison fetched her himself, and playfully bantered me, telling me how jealous he was of her affection for the cottage and its occupants.
“Those were very bright and happy days, and the Isle seemed to us both a very Eden, though it is as beauteous now as it was then. But our dream was to be broken, for in consequence of Mr Denison’s failing health, their medical men ordered a change to a more bracing atmosphere, and the family left to spend a few months in Scotland.
“On the morning when I parted from Julia, I was so low-spirited that it was hard work to keep back my tears; but I fought with my folly, and getting the better of my trouble, I took some work and a book to go along the cliff path, and sit in one of our favourite nooks far above the sea.
“It was a dangerous place, inasmuch as the way was along a narrow sheep-track, and the slope down to the beach was very steep; but we were so accustomed to the giddy cliffs that the idea of danger never crossed our minds any more than it did those of the village children, who would run along the edges or scramble down the rock-face where there seemed hardly foothold for a goat.
“I suppose I must have been there about two hours, not reading or working, but thinking of how long the time would be before Julia Denison returned, and there I sat watching the passing vessels far out on the blue water where it seemed to melt into the sky.
“My musing came to a sudden end, for I felt that it was neglectful of me to stay away so long, and I began to hurry back.
“To reach the road above, after climbing a zig-zag path, I had to pass round a bold bluff of chalky rock which projected from the cliff, and effectually concealed the path on the other side.
“I was so used to the way that I almost ran round, when to my horror and astonishment I came roughly in contact with a gentleman walking in the opposite direction.
“I hardly know how it occurred, but partly from the collision, partly in consequence of my hasty step back, my foot slipped over the edge of the path, the crumbling stones gave way, and I fell.
“It would have been no very terrible fall, only a severe scratching and a sprain, for the cliff there was only a steep slope; but I was saved by the gentleman catching my wrist, and at the expense of a severe wrench, dragging me back to the path; and before I could recover from the surprise and the sick faint feeling that came over me, he was carrying me along the path to a grassy slope, where he tenderly laid me down, and poured between my lips a few drops of spirit from a flask.
“‘Lie still,’ he said, in a low, sympathetic voice. ‘Thank Heaven, my poor child, you are safe!’
“There was such a tone of command in his voice, and he seemed to imply that I had been saved from such a terrible danger, that in my weak state I accepted it all, and with a girl’s romantic folly began to feel gratitude to my preserver, as I lay there blushingly glancing at the handsome face so full of solicitude that was hanging over me.
“There was something in his words that went to my heart every time he spoke, and at his wish I did not attempt to move for some time, till he yielded to my solicitations, and agreed that I was sufficiently recovered to walk home.
“‘You are more hurt than you think, you brave little woman,’ he said tenderly. ‘There take my arm and I will see you home.’
“‘Indeed I can walk,’ I said, but a faint cry of pain escaped me as I tried, for my ankle was slightly sprained, and I was glad to lean upon him, and accept his escort home.
“‘Am I right in thinking I am speaking to Miss Denison?’ he said on the way.
“‘Yes,’ I said, surprised at the knowledge on the part of a stranger; ‘but how did you know?’
“‘Know!’ he said laughing; ‘did you suppose that in this little Isle of Wight a beautiful flower could blossom without its fame reaching through its length and breadth?’
“I started, hardly knowing whether to feel pleased or annoyed, and my replies were in monosyllables, till we reached the cottage, greatly to mamma’s surprise and alarm. Here, with the most gentlemanly consideration, my companion took his leave, and I was helped to the sofa, where my little sprains were seen to, and the pain soon forgotten.
“Recollect I was but nineteen, and such attentions were quite new to me. I think, then, I may be excused for listening the next day with fluttering pulses to a voice that I heard through the open window, inquiring after my health; then feeling something very near akin to pain as I heard the retiring footsteps; while when mamma took from the servant a card and read aloud, ‘Captain Hansleigh, Raypark Barracks,’ a vivid blush overspread my cheeks, only to deepen as I caught her searching gaze and heard her sigh.
“I know now how foolish I was to let my weak young heart go forth to the first fowler that laid for it his snares, but I was innocent and unskilled then. I was but a girl in ways and thoughts, and the brave, handsome young officer, who had been in India, and bore a scar upon his forehead, made the poor weak heart beat whenever he approached. For what was I – was my argument – that this man, who could pick and choose in society, should be ever coming over to our cottage to seek me out?
“Then I was, as I said, but young and vain, and in a few short weeks Julia was almost forgotten in this new, strange, wondrous feeling of love.”
Mr Grange’s head went down upon his hand, but I hardly noticed it as I proceeded, wound up now by a strange desire to tell him all, even though my heart was torn by the old recollections that were so vivid as I recalled them from the past.
“Captain Hansleigh was constantly calling. His manner won mamma to his side, and at, last he told her that he was but a poor officer who loved his profession and hoped to rise, as he begged her leave to tell me how he loved me.
“How he loved me! He had already told me a score of times, and I, weak child, believed and loved again with all my fond young heart, sitting day after day book in hand, pretending to read, but understanding never a word, as I listened by the open window for the easy, careless step on the gravel beneath the vine-clad verandah, till he came by in his easy nonchalant way, perhaps pretending not to see me as he passed on towards the door.
“I used to think afterwards that what befel me was a punishment for my selfish happiness. For I was happy then, listening to the music of his words, while we wandered along the cliff. The sea with its rich deep undertones seemed to sing of endless love and joy; there was music in the very air, sweet music that filled my heart with delight, and I was blind to all else but the one belief that I breathed in thankfulness with my prayers from my knees at night, again as my eyes unclosed to the bright morning, and felt ever beating in every throb of my pulses – ‘He loves me! he loves me! he loves me!’
“Three months fled like magic, and still my dream was unbroken. He had left me, as he won from me my confession that I would be his, and his alone – that I loved him with all my heart – and then I had in the sorrow of my parting gone down upon my knees, to thank God for giving me the love of that great, strong, brave man.
“His regiment was called away to another part, but he had said that he would be always near in thought, and had questioned me about our family, and papa, who had died so suddenly; though I did not think it was strange then, and the recollection of it all did not come to me till long afterwards.
“His head-quarters were two hundred miles away; but letters would constantly be passing to and fro, and as soon as the bitterness of the parting was over I began to look forward to our next meeting, and to write down my loving thoughts; besides which, I felt how neglectful I had of late been towards mamma and my ordinary duties. I redoubled then my efforts, and in these busy occupations the time glided on.
“I wrote almost daily, covering page after page with my fond happiness, feeling disappointed that the replies were few and short, but reading the words and investing them with rainbow hues, as I treasured each expression of fondness, and excused him on the score of his military duties. ‘And besides,’ I said, ‘men never write as a woman does; it is not right they should.’
“It was long before distrust crept into the heart so full of love. There was no room for other than loyal thoughts. Letters grew fewer and more brief, but there were always excuses ready, and I wrote to him the more. But at last constant sapping began to undermine, and though I fought long and hard, till my cheek was sunken and pale with my sleepless nights, distrust and doubt carried the citadel one day, when I had written many letters in a month, and only had one brief reply, telling me in answer to my agonised inquiries that he was quite well, but busy. Those two enemies to my peace carried the citadel at last, for the question now in my mind was – ‘Does he love me?’
“I could not bear it at first, and an agonising week passed by, during which I wrote to him again, and then again, imploring him to come to me if he could, or else to write to me at length, or my heart would break.
“Another week of misery passed away, during which my heart seemed to sink and wither, while the fount of my tears, long since drained, dried up. I went about the place like a ghost, or sat watching the lane through which the postman came.
“At last a letter; I knew that there was one, for seeing me at the window, instead of looking another way as had been his custom of late, as soon as he came in sight the postman gave me a friendly nod, and the next moment waved a letter in the air.
“I darted out to meet him, with feverish haste, caught the letter from him, and saw that it was in the well-known hand. My mother was in the passage as I rushed in.
“‘From Arthur, mamma, from Arthur!’ I panted joyously, and I hurried into the little parlour, kissing the paper with delight, as I told myself that here was balm for my sore aching heart – and then a strange fit of trembling came over me, and I felt cold and as if seized by a chill.
“I did not dare for a time to open my letter, but at last with my eyes dim, and dread feeling of sickness upon me, I made the effort and tore open the envelope. How my thin white fingers trembled as I took out the enclosure! But my strength came back with the effort I made, and I read the few lines it contained in the midst of what seemed to be a deadly calm, wherein feeling and sound were frozen up, and I was as it were alone.
“The words were very few, saying in measured terms that it would be better that the engagement should be at an end, for it had been commenced in error, and could never end in happiness for me. In short, he had during his absence tried his heart and found that he did not love me as it would be his duty, and therefore the present course would be the best for both.
“I remember that I gave a hysterical laugh as I finished the heartless lines, and then I mocked at myself. But that hard feeling passed away, and I sank down by the window softened – broken – and as my head went down upon my hand, I asked for help to bear the bitter, bitter blow that had bruised and beaten me to the earth.
“I fell into a dreamy state then, from which I was aroused by my poor mother, who came and knelt beside me. I was quite calm, and placed the letter in her hands with a sad smile, rising when she had read it, and kissing her before sitting down and taking up my work.
“I was not ill, but for the next month seemed dull and stunned, trying to bear all patiently; the greatest pang being when I heard from Julia Denison that the error of Captain Hanleigh had been that he had mistaken me for the heiress, to whom he afterwards proposed, and was indignantly refused.”
“That is my story, Mr Grange,” I said, rising and standing flushed and trembling before the second suitor of my bitter life. “It was right that you should know; and now, good-bye!”
The strength that had sustained me through my narrative was fleeting fast, and my heart had resumed its painful throbbings, as he stood before me and took my hand.
“I knew that there must have been some terrible grief,” he said in a low voice full of emotion; “but, Laura, can you tell me truly, for your own future happiness, and for mine, that this gentle heart can never love again?”
A thousand thoughts flashed through my mind of endless loving-kindness, of gentleness to the suffering, of watchful nights by sick couches, of the many acts of this man for whom the deadliest diseases had no terror even when others fled. I knew him to be the soul of truth and honour, and he, had told me of his love. Could I then say that this heart could never love again, when in spite of sadness, sorrow, and the past, it had leapt to him even as it had leapt once before? I struggled hard asking myself if this was not self-deceit, but there was none, and I knew that if I said no it would be a lie.
He saw it all and knew, for a calm sweet smile of ineffable joy overspread his face, and the next moment I was sobbing gently on his breast.
“My dream of happiness was more than fulfilled, Grace,” continued Madame Grainger, “but it was too joyous to last. Two years glided away and then I was alone once more with a future before me that was one weary blank. Ah! Grace, how little the world knows of others’ sorrows, and what histories are hidden often behind a smiling face.”
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