The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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"My mamma said I must come away at once," Isaline replied demurely. "She is without doubt busy and wants my aid." And she turned to go towards the door.
"Oh, do come back, mademoiselle," I cried, raising myself again, and giving myself, oh, such a wrench in the spine: "don't you see how much it hurts me to sit up?"
She turned back, indecisively, and sat down in the big chair just beyond the table, handing me the cup, and helping me to cream and sugar. I plunged at once in medias res.
"You have been crying, mademoiselle," I said, "and I think I can guess the reason. M. Claude has told me something about it. He has asked you for your hand, and you have refused him. Is it not so?" This was a little bit of hypocrisy on my part, I confess, for I knew what she had been crying about perfectly: but I wished to be loyal to M. Claude.
Isaline blushed and laughed. "I do not cry for M. Claude," she said. "I may have other matters of my own to cry about. But M. Claude is very free with his confidences, if he tells such things to a stranger."
"Listen to me, Mademoiselle Isaline," I said. "Your father and mother have asked me to leave here to-morrow and go down to Lausanne. I shall probably never see you again. But before I go, I want to plead with you for M. Claude. He has saved my life, and I owe him much gratitude. He loves you; he is a brave man, a good man, a true and earnest man; why will you not marry him? I feel sure he is a noble fellow, and he will make you a tender husband. Will you not think better of your decision? I cannot bear to leave Les Pentes till I know that you have made him happy."
"And you go away to-morrow?"
There isn't much in those two words; but they may be pronounced with a good deal of difference in the intonation; and Isaline's intonation did not leave one in much doubt as to how she used them. Her eyes filled again with tears, and she half started up to go. Ingrate and wretch that I was, forgetful of my promise to M. Claude, my eyes filled responsively, and I jumped to catch her and keep her from going, of course at the expense of another dreadful wrench to my poor back. "Isaline," I cried, unconsciously dropping the mademoiselle, and letting her see my brimming eyelids far too obviously, "Isaline, do wait awhile, I implore you, I beseech you! I have something to say to you."
She seated herself once more in the big chair. "Well, mon pauvre monsieur," she cried, "what is it?"
"Isaline," I began, trying it over again; "why won't you marry M. Claude?"
"Oh, that again. Well," answered Isaline boldly, "because I do not love him, and I love somebody else. You should not ask a young lady about these matters. In Switzerland, we do not think it comme il faut."
"But," I went on, "why do you not love M. Claude? He has every good quality, and – "
"Every good quality, and – he bores me," answered Isaline."Monsieur," she went on archly, "you were asking me the other day what books I had read in English. Well, I have read Longfellow. Do you remember Miles Standish?"
I saw what she was driving at, and laughed in spite of myself. "Yes," I said, "I know what you mean. When John Alden is pleading with Priscilla on behalf of Miles Standish, Priscilla cuts him short by saying – "
Isaline finished the quotation herself in her own pretty clipped English, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?"
I laughed. She laughed. We both looked at one another; and the next thing I remember was that I had drawn down Isaline's plump little face close to mine, and was kissing it vigorously, in spite of an acute darting pain at each kiss all along my spine and into my marrow-bones. Poor M. Claude was utterly forgotten.
In twenty minutes I had explained my whole position to Isaline: and in twenty minutes more, I had monsieur and madame up to explain it all to them in their turn. Monsieur listened carefully while I told him that I was an English advocate in no practice to speak of; that I had a few hundreds a year of my own, partly dependent upon my mother; that I had thoughts of settling down permanently in Switzerland; and that Isaline was willing, with her parents' consent, to share my modest competence. Monsieur replied with true Swiss caution that he would inquire into my statements, and that if they proved to be as represented, and if I obtained in turn my mother's consent, he would be happy to hand me over Isaline. "Toutefois," he added quietly, "it will be perhaps better to rescind your journey to Lausanne. The Glion doctor is, after all, a sufficiently skilful one." So I waited on in peace at Les Pontes.
Madame had insisted upon telegraphing the news of my accident to my mother, lest it should reach her first in the papers ("Je suis m?re moi-m?me, monsieur," she said, in justification of her conduct). And next morning we got a telegram in reply from my mother, who evidently imagined she must hurry over at once if she wished to see her son alive, or at least must nurse him through a long and dangerous illness. Considering the injuries were a matter of about three days' sofa, in all probability, this haste was a little overdone. However, she would arrive by the very first rapide from Paris; and on the whole I was not sorry, for I was half afraid she might set her face against my marrying "a foreigner," but I felt quite sure any one who once saw Isaline could never resist her.
That afternoon, when school was over, M. Claude dropped in to see how I was getting on. I felt more like a thief at that moment than I ever felt in my whole life before or since. I knew I must tell him the simple truth; but I didn't know how to face it. However, as soon as I began, he saved me the trouble by saying, "You need not mind explaining. Mademoiselle Isaline has told me all. Yon did your best for me, I feel sure; but she loves you, and she does not love me. We cannot help these things; they come and go without our being able to govern them. I am sorry, more than sorry; but I thank you for your kind offices. Mademoiselle Isaline tells me you said all you could on my behalf, and nothing on your own. Accept my congratulations on having secured the love of the sweetest girl in all Switzerland." And he shook my hand with an honest heartiness that cost me several more twinges both in the spine and the half-guilty conscience. Yet, after all, it was not my fault.
"Monsieur Claude," I said, "you are an honest fellow, and a noble fellow, and I trust you will still let me be your friend."
"Naturally," answered M. Claude, in his frank way. "I have only done my duty. You have been the lucky one, but I must not bear you a grudge for that; though it has cost my heart a hard struggle;" and, as he spoke, the tears came for a moment in his honest blue eyes, though he tried to brush them away unseen.
"Monsieur Claude," I said, "you are too generous to me. I can never forgive myself for this."
Before many days my mother came to hand duly; and though her social prejudices were just a trifle shocked, at first, by the farmhouse, with its hams and maize, which I had found so picturesque, I judged rightly that Isaline would soon make an easy conquest of her. My mother readily admitted that my accent had improved audibly to the naked ear; that Isaline's manners were simply perfect; that she was a dear, pretty, captivating little thing; and that on the whole she saw no objections, save one possible one, to my marriage. "Of course, Charlie," she said, "the Clairons are Protestants; because, otherwise, I could never think of giving my consent."
This was a poser in its way; for though I knew the village lay just on the borderland, and some of the people were Catholics while others were Reformed, I had not the remotest notion to which of the two churches Isaline belonged. "Upon my soul, mother dear," I said, "it has never struck me to inquire into Isaline's private abstract opinion on the subject of the Pope's infallibility or the Geneva Confession. You see, after all, it could hardly be regarded as an important or authoritative one. However, I'll go at once and find out."
Happily, as it turned out, the Clairons were Reformed, and so my mother's one objection fell to the ground immediately. M. Clairon's inquiries were also satisfactory; and the final result was that Isaline and I were to be quietly married before the end of the summer. The good father had a nice little vineyard estate at Pic de la Baume, which he proposed I should undertake to cultivate; and my mother waited to see us installed in one of the prettiest little toy ch?lets to be seen anywhere at the Villeneuve end of the lovely lake. A happier or sweeter bride than Isaline I defy the whole world, now or ever, to produce.
From the day of our wedding, almost, Isaline made it the business of her life to discover a fitting wife for good M. Claude; and in the end she succeeded in discovering, I will freely admit (since Isaline is not jealous), the second prettiest and second nicest girl in the whole Pays de Vaud. And what is more, she succeeded also in getting M. Claude to fall head over ears in love with her at first sight; to propose to her at the end of a week; and to be accepted with effusion by Annette herself, and with coldness by her papa, who thought the question of means a trifle unsatisfactory. But Isaline and I arranged that Claude should come into partnership in our vineyard business on easy terms, and give up schoolmastering for ever; and the consequence is that he and his wife have now got the companion ch?let to ours, and between our two local connections, in Switzerland and England, we are doing one of the best trades in the new export wine traffic of any firm along the lake. Of course we have given up growing Yvorne, except for our own use, confining ourselves entirely to a high-priced vintage-wine, with very careful culture, for our English business: and I take this opportunity of recommending our famous phylloxera-proof white Pic de la Baume, London Agents – . But Isaline says that looks too much like an advertisement, so I leave off. Still, I can't help saying that a dearer little wife than Isaline, or a better partner than Claude, never yet fell to any man's lot. They certainly are an excellent people, these Vaudois, and I think you would say so too if only you knew them as well as I do.
PROFESSOR MILLITER'S DILEMMA
The Gospel Evangelists were naturally very proud of Professor Milliter. A small and despised sect, with not many great, not many rich, not many noble among them, they could comfort themselves at least with the reflection that they numbered in their fold one of the most learned and justly famous of modern English scientific thinkers. It is true, their place of meeting at Mortiscombe was but an upper chamber in a small cottage; their local congregation consisted of hardly more than three score members; and their nickname among their orthodox churchy neighbours was the very opprobrious and very ridiculous one of "the Shivering Ranters." Still, the Gospel Evangelists felt it was a great privilege to be permitted the ministrations of so learned and eloquent a preacher as Professor Milliter. The rector of the parish was an Oxford M.A., of the usual decorously stereotyped conventional pattern; but in point even of earthly knowledge and earthly consideration, said the congregation at Patmos Chapel, "he is not worthy to unloose the latchet of our pastor's shoe." For Professor Milliter was universally allowed to be the greatest living authority in England on comparative anatomy, the rising successor of Cuvier, and Owen, and Milne-Edwards, and Carpenter, in the general knowledge of animal structure.
Mortiscombe, as everybody knows, is the favourite little suburban watering-place, close by the busy streets and noisy wharves of a great English manufacturing centre. It is at Mortiscombe that the Western Counties College of Science is situated, away from the smoke and bustle of the whirring city: and it was in the Western Counties College of Science that Cyril Milliter ably filled the newly founded chair of Comparative Anatomy. When he was first appointed, indeed, people grumbled a little at the idea of a Professor at the College undertaking every Sunday to preach in a common conventicle to a low assembly of vulgar fanatics, as in their charitable Christian fashion they loved to call the Gospel Evangelists. But Cyril Milliter was a man of character and determination: he had fully made up his own mind upon theological questions; and having once cast in his lot with the obscure sect of Gospel Evangelists, to which his parents had belonged before him, he was not to be turned aside from his purpose by the coarse gibes of the ordinary public or the cynical incredulity of more cultivated but scarcely more tolerant polite society. "Not a Gospel Evangelist really and truly: you must surely be joking, Mr. Milliter," young ladies said to him at evening parties with undisguised astonishment; "why, they're just a lot of ignorant mill-hands, you know, who meet together in an upper room somewhere down in Ford's Passage to hear sermons from some ignorant lay preacher."
"Quite so," Cyril Milliter would answer quietly; "and I am the ignorant lay preacher who has been appointed to deliver those sermons to them. I was brought up among the Gospel Evangelists as a child, and now that I am a man my mature judgment has made me still continue among them."
Mortiscombe is well known to be a very advanced and liberal-minded place; so, after a time, people ceased to talk about the curious singularity of Cyril Milliter's Sunday occupation. All through the week the young professor lectured to his class on dry bones and the other cheerful stock-in-trade of his own department; and on Sundays he walked down erect, Bible in hand, to his little meeting-room, and there fervently expounded the Word, as it approved itself to his soul and conscience, before the handful of earnest artisans who composed his faithful but scanty congregation. A fiery and enthusiastic preacher was Cyril Milliter, devoured with zeal for what seemed to him the right doctrine. "There is only one thing worth living for in this fallen world," he used to say to his little group of attentive hearers, "and that is Truth. Truth, as it reveals itself in the book of nature, must be our quest during the working week: Truth, as it reveals itself in the written Word, must be our quest on these happy blessed seventh-day Sabbaths." There was a high eager light in his eye as he spoke, mingled with a clear intellectual honesty in his sharply cut features, which gave at once the stamp of reality to that plain profession of his simple, manly, earnest creed.
One other subject, however, beside the pursuit of truth, just at that moment deeply interested Cyril Milliter; and that subject assumed bodily form in the pretty little person of Netta Leaworthy. Right in front of Cyril, as he expounded the Word every Sunday morning, sat a modest, demure, dimpled English girl, with a complexion like a blushing apple-blossom, and a mouth like the sunny side of a white-heart cherry. She was only the daughter of an intelligent mill-hand, a foreman at one of the great factories in the neighbouring city, was dainty, whitefingered, sweet-voiced little Netta; but there was a Puritan freshness and demureness and simplicity about her that fairly won the heart of the enthusiastic young professor. Society at Mortiscombe had made itself most agreeable to Cyril Milliter, in spite of his heterodoxy, as Society always does to eligible young bachelors of good education; and it had thrown its daughters decorously in his way, by asking him to all its dinners, dances, and at-homes, with most profuse and urgent hospitality. But in spite of all the wiles of the most experienced among Society's mothers, Cyril Milliter had positively had the bad taste to fix his choice at last upon nobody better than simple, unaffected, charming little Netta.
For one sunny Sunday morning, after worship, Cyril had turned out into the fields behind the Common, for a quiet stroll among the birds and flowers: when, close by the stile in the upper meadow, he came unexpectedly upon Netta Leaworthy, alone upon the grass with her own fancies. She was pulling an ox-eye daisy carelessly to pieces as he passed, and he stopped a minute unperceived beside the hedge, to watch her deft fingers taking out one ray after another quickly from the blossom to the words of a foolish childish charm. Netta blushed crimson when she saw she was observed at that silly pastime, and Cyril thought to himself he had never seen anything in his life more lovely than the blushing girl at that moment. Learned and educated as he was, he had sprung himself from among the ranks of the many, and his heart was with them still rather than with the rich, the noble, and the mighty. "I will never marry among the daughters of Heth," he said to himself gently, as he paused beside her: "I will take to myself rather a wife and a helpmate from among the Lord's own chosen people."
"Ah, Miss Leaworthy," he went on aloud, smiling sympathetically at her embarrassment, "you are following up the last relics of a dying superstition, are you? 'One for money, two for health, Three for love, and four for wealth.' Is that how the old saw goes? I thought so. And which of the four blessings now has your daisy promised you I wonder?"
The tone he spoke in was so very different from that which he had just been using in the chapel at worship that Netta felt instinctively what it foreboded; and her heart fluttered tremulously as she answered in the quietest voice she could command, "I haven't finished it yet, Mr. Milliter; I have made five rounds already, and have a lot of rays left still in the middle of the daisy."
Cyril took it from her, laughingly, and went on with the rhyme – his conscience upbraiding him in an undertone of feeling meanwhile for such an unworthy paltering with old-world superstition – till he had gone twice round the spell, and finished abruptly with "Three for love!" "Love it is!" he cried gaily. "A good omen! Miss Leaworthy, we none of us love superstition: but perhaps after all it is something more than that; there may be a Hand guiding us from above, even in these everyday trifles! We must never forget, you know, that every hair of our heads is numbered."
Netta's heart fluttered still more violently within her as he looked at her so closely. Could it be that really, in spite of everything, the great, learned, good, clever young professor was going to ask her to be his wife? Netta had listened to him with joy Sunday after Sunday from his simple platform pulpit, and had felt in her heart that no man never expounded the gospel of love as beautifully as he did. She had fancied sometimes – girls cannot help fancying, be they as modest and retiring as they may – that he really did like her just a little. And she – she had admired and wondered at him from a distance. But she could hardly believe even now that that little vague day-dream which had sometimes floated faintly before her eyes was going to be actually realized in good earnest. She could answer nothing, her heart beat so; but she looked down to the ground with a flushed and frightened look which was more eloquent in its pretty simplicity than all the resources of the most copious language.
Cyril Milliter's mind, however, was pretty well made up already on this important matter, and he had been waiting long for just such an opportunity of asking Netta whether she could love him. And now, even without asking her, he could feel at once by some subtle inner sense that his eager question was answered beforehand, and that modest, maidenly little Netta Leaworthy was quite prepared to love him dearly.
For a moment he stood there looking at her intently, and neither of them spoke. Then Netta raised her eyes from the ground for a second's flash; and Cyril's glance caught hers one instant before she bent them down again in haste to play nervously with the mangled daisy. "Netta," he said, the name thrilling through his very marrow as he uttered it, "Netta, I love you."
She stood irresolute for a while, listening to the beating of her own heart, and then her eye caught his once more, timidly, but she spoke never a syllable.
Cyril took her wee white hand in his – a lady's hand, if ever you saw one – and raised it with chivalrous tenderness to his lips. Netta allowed him to raise it and kiss it without resistance. "Then you will let me love you?" he asked quickly. Netta still did not answer, but throwing herself back on the bank by the hedgerow began to cry like a frightened child.
Cyril sat down, all tremulous beside her, took the white hand unresisted in his, and said to her gently, "Oh, Netta, what is this for?"
Then Netta answered with an effort, through her tears, "Mr. Milliter, Mr. Milliter, how can you ever tell me of this?"
"Why not, Netta? Why not, my darling? May I not ask you to be my wife? Will you have me, Netta?"
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