Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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Eager as Isola was to see her true father at last, she pressed me strongly to call at her brother's lodgings on our way to Paddington, and take him with us if possible; or at any rate learn where he was, and how long he would be absent. But I refused to do anything of the kind. Though not half so proud as of old, I could not quite stoop to that. "You know, dear," she continued, "Conny will think it unfair of me to get such a start of him with the real good Papa; and it would be so much nicer to have him there to help. And I am terribly frightened, though of course you can't understand it."
"Isola, no more nonsense. For your sake, and my poor Uncle's, I would do anything honest and proper: but neither can I travel with your brother Conrad, nor can I go near his lodgings. I am not quite reduced to that, however I am trampled on."
"But, darling, they need not see you. And you know he has made some wonderful mistake."
Of course I knew it, and told myself so fifty times in a minute; but it was a likely thing that I would tell his sister so.
"He has, indeed, a very grave mistake, if he ever thinks I will forgive him. No mistake ever made by man can be pleaded for what he has done. Even if he believed, by some excess of absurdity, that my father had murdered his, instead of his murdering mine (which was much nearer the mark), would even that justify his rudeness, low rudeness, and personal violence to a lady? What he did I never told you; and he, I should hope, was too much ashamed to speak of it: why he actually pushed me; thrust me, Clara Vaughan, away from him, till I almost fell on the floor!"
"Oh, Donna, how your eyes flash! And you call me excitable! Let me put your hair back. There now, give me a kiss. I am so sorry for Conny. He loves you with all his heart, and you look as if you could kill him. But no doubt the new good papa will put every thing to rights."
"Will he indeed? Let us go and see."
We got to Paddington just in time to catch the two o'clock train, having telegraphed first to my Uncle that I was coming to take his advice, before doing anything more. This was true, so far as it went, and as much of the truth as I then dared to administer. This message was sent, not for the sake of finding the carriage at Gloucester, but in order to break the suddenness of our arrival. Through all my joy I dreaded what was to come, and knew not how to manage it. Idols talked fast enough all the way down the line. As yet she had seen scarcely anything of our quiet, rich English scenery; and although the Great Western exhibits it rather flatly, some parts there are, below Swindon, which fill the mind with content. But our minds could not be so filled, being full of excitement already. Near Stroud poor Idols was in the greatest ecstasy, and expected me to know the owner of every pretty meadow.
But after we entered my Uncle's carriage-or mine, I suppose, it should now be called-dear Isola fell away into the deepest silence.She stored her wonder inwardly, nor showed the sweet depths of her eyes, until she sprang out at the foot of the old stone steps, trodden by so many hundreds of her ancestors. Then she looked up at the long gray house, with the dusk of July around it, and bats of three varieties flitting about the gables; and I saw beneath her dark eye-lashes the tremulous light of a tear.
After leading my sweet new cousin-whom everybody stared at, and who feared to look at the pavement-to my own snug quarters, I left her there under kind Mrs. Fletcher's charge, and ran to my Uncle's favourite room. Already my breath was short, and my heart up and down with excitement, and I had but the presence of mind to know that I was sure to make a mistake of it. I saw a great change in him, even since the Monday; but he was the first to speak.
"My dear child, kiss me again. You are nearly as tall as I am, since my upright ways have departed. From the moment you went away, I have done nothing but miss you, every hour and every minute; and last night I slept never a single wink. Let us give it up, my darling. God has sent you to me to make up for both daughter and son."
"Well, Uncle, that's all very fine, but I doubt it strongly." I was forced to be flippant a little, for fear of breaking down. "It is my firm belief that proud Clara will still have to wash at the pump."
He knew what I meant; it was an old tale, in our neighbourhood, of a nobleman's second wife who would not allow her step-children even the use of a yellow basin.
"What! do you mean to say" – and he began to tremble exceedingly-"that you have found any trace, any clue even, to my poor darlings?"
"Yes, thank God, I have. Oh, Uncle, I am so glad!" And I threw myself into his arms: his head fell heavily on my shoulder, and I felt that I had been too sudden. He could not speak, but fetched one long sob. I parted his white hair, and looked at him as if in surprise at his hastiness.
"Dear Uncle, we must not be certain yet. I mean that I have found something, or fancy I have found something, which-which-I mean if properly followed up-may lead in time-but you know how sanguine I am."
"Clara, you are playing with me. It is a mistake to do so. I cannot bear it, child. But the sudden shock I can bear. Let me know all at once. Are they alive or dead?"
"Alive, I think, dear Uncle; and I hope to find them soon, if you will calmly advise me."
"You have found them. No more fencing. I know it by your eyes. All the truth this moment, unless you wish to kill me."
He stood up as if to seize me, for I had withdrawn from his grasp, but his poor legs would not carry him; so I was obliged to seize him instead. He fell sideways on a chair, and vainly tried to speak; but his eyes never faltered from mine.
"Dearest Uncle, I tell you the truth. Of course I cannot be certain yet, and it won't do to make a mistake; and so I want more evidence."
"I want no more. Only let me see them." He spoke very slowly, and the muscles of his face twitched at every word.
"Now, keep your mind calm and clear, to help me, my dear Uncle; for I know not what to do. Have you anything, any tokens at all, of their beloved mother?"
My object was to divert his mind, for I saw the approach of coma, and now trembled more than he did.
With a feeble smile at the folly of my question, after such a love as his, he answered in great exhaustion,
"Take the key from my neck. You know the large black box in-in-"
Here his chin fell on his breast, and he could not lift the key, but his eyes still shone with intelligence, and followed me everywhere. Ribbon and all I took the key, and rang the bell for Jane, the most careful and kind of nurses. I ordered her, in a whisper, to give my Uncle a glass of very strong brandy and water, if she could get him to swallow it; and away I ran upstairs, hoping to relieve him. Then suddenly it struck me that I had no right to open that box, without the presence of a competent witness. I knew at once what box it was, from the constant anxiety my poor Uncle had shown about it. Who had such right to be my witness as his darling daughter? So back I flew to my own rooms, and dragged the bewildered Isola down the broad corridor. The poor little thing was frightened so that she could hardly breathe. I had no especial object in opening that old box, at that particular moment, much as I had often longed to know what its contents were. My presence of mind was lost, and all I could think of was, that I might find something there to break that awful suspension of life, so likely to end in death.
The box was in a panelled closet by the head of my Uncle's bed. When I handed Idols the light to hold, she took it as if in a dream; her cheeks were as white and transparent as the wax, and she held the candle so that a hot flake splashed on my neck. The lock of the long box turned most easily, and the hinges moved without creaking: most likely it had been pored over every day, for many years. The lid was arched and hollow, with straps of faded web inside it.
In beautiful order, so fair that I hardly dared to touch them, lay the clothes and trinkets, the letters and little relics, the gloves and pocket-handkerchiefs, the fairy slippers, the wedding-dress, the coquettish veil, and saucy hat of the dead. I am not over sensitive, thank God, or I should not be living now; but the sight of those things upset me more than any distress of my own. The small parcels of silver paper, screwed at the end and pinned in the middle, the pins put stupidly as men always put them, the light gay dresses made for some sweet figure, folded with such care, and yet quite out of the plaits, and labelled with the dates when last the dear one wore them, even a withered fern-wreath and a sprig of shrivelled myrtle-I could not thrust my commonplace hands into these holy treasures; if I could I should never deserve to be myself so remembered. But one thing struck me, as thoughts profane always strike us crookedly; if the poor lady could have been wept to life again, how much better would she have found all her things arranged, than she had ever kept them! That is to say if she resembled her wondering and crying daughter, who knelt down and wanted to kiss every article in the box. Her little white hands were as busy as mice among them; and long-drawn sobs were tumbled with interjections.
"Now, my dearest Idols, you must not disturb these things. Your father will be so vexed."
Would he though? – said I to myself-not if he knew whose hand it was that did it. She paid no attention to me.
"Now just put back that silver knife, with the bit of peach-skin upon it: and leave the stone as it was."
To my surprise she began to suck the stone, which her mother perhaps had sucked, eighteen years ago. Inside the paper was written, "Knife and peach-stone found in my Lily's pocket. The stone was meant for me to set. I will plant it, when I have found her children. E.V., January, 1834."
"Now, you foolish child, you are really too bad." And with that I gave her a little push. In her heedless way, she fell almost into the box, and her light form lay amongst her mother's dresses. A sudden thought flashed across me.
"Isola, off with that nasty dark frock!"
"Nasty, indeed, Clara! Why you said this morning how very pretty it was."
"What has that to do with it? Pull it off, or I'll tear it. Now, out with the other arm."
In a moment or two, I had all her beauty gleaming in white before me; and carefully taking from the box a frock of pale blue silk, I lifted it over her head, and drew her dimpled arms through the sleeves; then I fixed it in front with the turquoise buttons, and buckled the slender zone. Her blue eyes looked on in amazement, like violets at a snow-storm. Then I led her to the mirror, and proud as we both had always been of her beauty, the same thought struck us now. I saw it in the mirror, by the toss of her pointed chin and the coy bend of her neck: she saw it there as clearly, by the flash of my tear-bright eyes. Neither of us had ever seen that loveliest of all girls look half so lovely before. The glow of pride and beauty's glory mantled in her cheeks; and her eyes were softly beaming down the avenue of lashes, from clearest depths of azure. I never saw such eyes as she had, among all our English beauties. Some perhaps are as fine of colour, and as liquid, though not so lustrous: but the exquisite arch of the upper lid, and the rich short fringe of the lower, cast a tremulous light and shade, which dull Anglo-Saxons feel not. Like moonbeams playing through a mantled bridge.
The dress fitted her exactly. It had been made for a slender, buoyant figure, as graceful and pure as a snow-wreath, yet full of warm motion and richness. Indeed, I must confess, that, although correct enough for the time and clime of the owner, it showed too much of the lifting snow for our conceptions of maidenhood: so I drew a gauzy scarf-perhaps a truefazoletto-over the velvet slope of the shoulders, and imprisoned it in the valley. This being nicely arranged, I hung her chalcedony charm from her neck, and fastened it to her waist-band. Then I caught up her clustering hair, nearly as thick and long as my own, after the Corsican fashion, snooded it close in ripples with a pink and white-striped mandile, and told her to love herself in the glass, while I ran off to the hot-house for a truss of Stephanotis. This, with a glossy sprig of Gardenia leaves to back it, I fastened cleverly into the clear mandile, on the curve of her elegant head, and my darling was complete. Then I kissed her sweet lips, and admired her, more than she admired herself.
"Clara, it does not matter how much trouble you take; you can't make me look a quarter so well as you do."
"Not quite so tall, my darling, nor anything like so naughty; but a thousand times more lovely."
"Well, I wish I could think so. I am always longing to change with you."
"Don't talk nonsense, my pretty; if I were a man I should die for you. Now I glory in you as a Vaughan. Come along."
I led her through the gallery and to the door of her father's room, before she had time to think. She did not know but what I was taking her back to my own rooms, along another passage. At the sick man's door I left her, while I went in to see how much might be safely ventured.
My Uncle was leaning back in his deep reclining chair, with his weak eyes fixed most eagerly on the door. In vain he strove to hide his disappointment, and to look at me with gratitude. The wandering mind too plainly hoped for something dearer than a brother's child.
Dismissing Jane through the other room, that she might not encounter Isola, I sat down to examine him. The brandy and water had rallied his vital power, but made him hot and feverish. He kissed my hand to atone for some sharp and impatient expressions, and I saw that the moment was favourable.
"Uncle dear, what will you say to me? I have brought you another new visitor, the loveliest girl in London. You know her well by name. You have often longed to see my sweet darling Isola. And she wants to see you so much. Only you must promise me one thing honourably. Be gay and sprightly with her; she is timid in this old house."
"My dear, I can't see her to-night. You don't mean that of course. Give her my best apologies. You say she is very sweet-tempered; I am sure she will excuse me."
"If she would, I will not. Nor would you excuse her, if you knew whom she resembles."
"What do you mean? Have you locked my box again?"
"Yes, and here is the key. I found a portrait of a lady" – I had not shown this to my cousin-"very like beautiful Isola."
He began to tremble again, so I thought the quicker the better. Placing the lamp-shade so that a dim light fell on the door, I ran out to fetch his daughter.
"Now, don't be a baby, Isola. Remember how ill he is. Keep as much in the shadow as possible; and if he should guess who you are, pretend not to care a bit for him."
"I will try my very best, Clara. But I don't think I can do that."
She shook so much that I was obliged to support her, as she had supported me that evening when first we met. Stiffly I brought her in, and began to introduce her, holding her back all the time.
"Uncle Edgar, this is my dearest friend, of whom you have heard so often, Miss Isola" – Ross I could not say. "Why, Uncle-why, Idols, darling-"
It was all in vain; I might as well have spared my devices. From the moment she crossed the threshold, his eyes had been leaping towards her. The paralysed man bounded forward, as if with galvanic life. His daughter met him as wildly. "My Lily, my Lily," was all he could sob, "my own Lily come from the grave!" With a father's strength he clasped her, and her dark locks were showered with silver. As for tears-but I left them together when I had seen both safe on the sofa.
To our surprise and delight, the genuine Papa, instead of being worse the next day, looked more like himself than he had done at any time since the fever. But in spite of added importance, and the sense of parental dignity, he sat hand in hand with his beautiful daughter by the hour together, playing with her cheeks and hair, as little girls do with dollies. And all the time he was talking to her about her darling mother, and made her answer him in Italian, and made her kiss him every other minute; and found out a thousand times, as a novelty every time, that she was the very image and model of her mother, and yet he was not sure that her smile was quite so sweet; then to make up for depreciation he needs must kiss her again, and say, yes, he thought it was, though it was quite impossible for any other to be so-and thus they went on, till I thought there never would be an end of it; albeit I did my utmost to keep away from them both.
Knowing that I was in their way, and feeling rather out of spirits, I went my old accustomed round of places, sacred in my memory to a certain father and mother of my own. How long I wept at their simple graves, how I knelt to their God and mine, thanking Him from my desolate heart for the light now shed upon me, and how I prayed that they might both be looking down on me now and craving heavenly guidance for me through the peril yet to come-these, and the rest of my doings there, cannot well be told except to the ears of orphans. The clouds of an overcast existence seemed to be opening rapidly, and though they could never disclose my sun and moon again, some happiness it was to know even how those had set. And more than all, the foul aspersion upon my father's memory, which all the while I scorned it so, had lain heavily on my thoughts, this was now proved liar's spittle, and my sweet darling father had offended not even a villain. A thousand times I implored his pardon for the splash having ever descended upon the hem of my garment, though shaken off straight-way with loathing.
In the midst of my dreamy thoughts, and while I sat between the two low headstones, upon the very spot where I hope my own head may lie, the tremulous beauty of the Golden Thuja, which I had planted there, was pushed aside too carelessly, and something far more beautiful planted itself in front. It was my cousin Lily. I have been strictly forbidden ever to call her "Isola," or even "Idols," again, as savouring of the evil one. Lily Vaughan was beaming with young delight and happiness: the fresh west country air, sweet from the tropic gulf-stream, had crowned the April of her cheeks with a June of roses.
"Oh, Donna, I am so glad I have found you at last. What makes you run away from me and my Papa? I have lost my way all over the world. What a lovely world it is, Donna!"
"Don't call me that name here. Do you not see where you stand?"
She glanced at the headstones engraved with initials and dates, and at once understood it all. For a long time she was silent, a long time I mean for her; and her soft eyes glistened at once with awe and pity. At last, she crept close to me, looked at the ground, and whispered with a deep sigh:
"How you must hate me, Clara."
"Hate you, my darling! What for?"
"Oh, because I have got such a dear Papa, and you have none at all. And much worse than that, because-because-oh, I don't know how to tell you."
"Tell me all you mean. Let there be no misunderstanding between us."
"Because my mother and my father seem somehow to have killed-though I am sure they would rather have killed themselves-your poor papa and mamma." And she leaned on my mother's headstone, and sobbed till I feared for her heart.
I put my arm around her waist, drew her towards me, and sat on my father's grave, with his niece upon my lap.
"Dearest, I could not be the child of those who sleep beneath us, if it were in my nature now to feel as you imagine. Years ago, I might have done so; though I hope not even then. Orphan as I am and helpless, already I perceive that I have not lived for nothing. My father, I believe, my mother, I am sure, would have laid down life with pleasure to see me led from wayward childhood even to what I am. Oh, Lily, you can't think how they loved me." And at the tender memory, came tears, the voice of silence.
Lily said not a word, but gathered and plaited a wreath of flowers, wherewith, as in a nuptial tie, she bound the white headstones together-anything so as not to disturb me just then. Even that trifle, a graceful idea born of her Southern origin, even that for the moment touched me deeply. Times there are when our souls seem to have taken hot baths in the springs of memory, and every pore of them is open.
"Darling Lily, come-how proud they would have been of you-come and kiss me in this presence, and promise that, whatever happens, none shall ever thrust cold hands between your heart and mine. That we will bear, and trust, and love; nor, if a shadow steals between us, blink it till the substance follows, but be frank and open-the very breath of friendship-and when doubt begins to grow, for the devil is sure to sow it, have it plucked away at once, each by the other's hand. Kiss me, dear; your weakness is that you are not so outspoken as I am. Never let me vex you, without knowing it."
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