Part 4 out of 10
"I remember the circumstance," said the curate, his face darkening. "I do
not agree with my vicar about some things, and he had no warrant for what
he said in the teachings of his Master. Since you have recalled this
incident to my mind, Miss Churton, I can only apologise for having asked
you to come on Sunday."
"I think I was wrong to let that sermon influence me so much," she
returned. "I feel ashamed of keeping my resentment so long. Mr.
Northcott, I will promise to go on Sunday evening, unless something
happens to prevent me."
He thanked her warmly. "Whatever your philosophical beliefs may be, Miss
Churton, you have the true Christian spirit," he said--saying perhaps too
much. "I am glad for your sake that Miss Affleck has come to reside with
you. Your life will be less lonely."
"Tell me, what do you think of her?"
"She has a rare delicate loveliness, and there is something indescribable
in her eyes which seemed to reveal her whole past life to me. Do you
know, Miss Churton, I often believe I have a strange faculty of reading
people's past history in the expression of their faces?"
"Tell me what you read?"
"When I was talking to your mother about that drunken ruffian in the
village, and his ill-treatment of his miserable children, I caught sight
of the girl's eyes fixed on me, wide open, expressing wonder and pain.
She had never, I feel sure, even heard of such things as I spoke about. I
seemed to know in some mysterious way that she was an only child--the
child, I believe, of a widowed father, who doted on her, and surrounded
her with every luxury wealth could purchase, and permitted no breath of
the world's misery to reach her, lest it should make her unhappy. Now,
tell me, have I prophesied truly?"
She smiled, but had no desire to laugh at his little delusion about a
mysterious faculty. It is one common enough, and very innocent. The girl
was an orphan, and that, she told him, was all she knew of her history.
The curate went away with a feeling of strange elation; for how gracious
she had been to him, how happy he was to have won her confidence, how
sweet the tender music of her voice had seemed when she had freely told
him the secrets of her heart! Poor man! his human nature was a stumbling-
block in his way. By-and-by he would have to reflect that his sympathy
with an unbeliever had led him almost to the point of speaking evil of
dignities--of his vicar, to wit, who paid him seventy pounds a year for
his services. That was about all Mr. Northcott had to live on; and yet--
oh, folly!--a declaration of love, an offer of marriage, had been
trembling on his lips throughout all that long conversation.
Miss Churton hurried off in search of Fan, surprised that she had kept
out of sight so long; and as she walked through the orchard, looking for
her on this side and that, she also felt surprised at her own light-
heartedness. For how strangely happy she felt after a morning so full of
contention and bitterness! Fan saw her coming--saw even at a distance in
her bright face the reflection of a heartfelt gladness. But the girl did
not move to meet her, nor did she watch her coming with responsive
gladness; she stood motionless, her pale face seen in profile against the
green cloud of a horse-chestnut tree that drooped its broad leaves to
touch and mingle with the grass at her very feet. It seemed strange to
Constance as she drew near, still glad, and yet with lingering footsteps
so that the sight might be the longer enjoyed, that her pupil should have
come at that precise period of the day to stand there motionless at that
particular spot; that this pale city girl in her civilised dress should
have in her appearance at that moment no suggestion of artificiality, but
should seem a something natural and unadulterated as flowering tree and
grass and sunshine, a part of nature, in absolute and perfect harmony
with it. The point to which Fan had wandered was a little beyond the
orchard, close to an old sunk fence or ha-ha separating it from the field
beyond. The turf at her feet was white with innumerable daisies, and the
only tree at that spot was the great chestnut beside which she stood, and
against which, in her white dress and with her pallid face, she looked so
strangely pure, so flower-like and yet ethereal, as if sprung from the
daisies whitening the turf around her, and retaining something of their
flower-like character, yet unsubstantial--a beautiful form that might at
any moment change to mist and float away from sight. In the field beyond,
where her eyes were resting, the lush grass was sprinkled with the gold
of buttercups; and in the centre of the field stood a group of four or
five majestic elm-trees; the sinking sun was now directly behind them,
and shining level through the foliage filled the spaces between the
leaves with a red light, which looked like misty fire. On the vast
expanse of heaven there was no cloud; only low down in the east and
south-east, near the horizon, there were pale vague shadows, which in
another half-hour's time would take the rounded form of clouds, deepening
to pearly grey and flushing red and purple in the setting beams. From the
elms and fields, from the orchard, from other trees and fields further
away, came up the songs of innumerable birds, making the whole air ring
and quiver with the delicate music; so many notes, so various in tone and
volume, had the effect of waves and wavelets and ripples, rising and
running and intersecting each other at all angles, forming an intricate
pattern, as it were, a network of sweetest melody. Loud and close at hand
were heard the lusty notes of thrush and blackbird, chaffinch and
blackcap; and from these there was a gradation of sounds, down to the
faint lispings of the more tender melodists singing at a distance,
reaching the sense like voices mysterious and spiritualised from some far
unseen world. And at intervals came the fluting cry of the cuckoo, again
and again repeated, so aerial, yet with such a passionate depth in it, as
if the Spirit of Nature itself had become embodied, and from some leafy
hiding-place cried aloud with mystic lips.
Listening to that rare melody Fan had stood for a long time, her heart
feeling almost oppressed with the infinite sweetness of nature; so
motionless that the yellow skippers and small blue-winged butterflies
fluttered round her in play, and at intervals alighting on her dress, sat
with spread wings, looking like strange yellow and blue gems on the snow-
white drapery. Her mind was troubled at Miss Churton's approach; for it
now seemed to her that human affection and sympathy were more to her than
they had ever been; that a touch, a word, a look almost, would be
sufficient to overcome her and make her fall from her loyalty to Mary.
Even when the other was standing by her side, curiously regarding her
still pale face, she made no sign, but after one troubled glance remained
with eyes cast down.
"Are you not tired of being alone with nature yet, Fan?" said Miss
Churton, with a smile, and placing her hand on the girl's neck.
"Oh no, Miss Churton; it is so--pleasant to be here!" she replied. But
she spoke in a slow mechanical way, and seemed to the other strangely
cold and irresponsive; she shivered a little, too, when the caressing
hand touched her neck, as if the warm fingers had seemed icy cold.
"Then you were not sorry to be left so long alone?"
"No--I could not feel tired. I think--I could have stayed alone here
until--until--" then her inability to express her thoughts confused her
and she became silent.
"Yes, Fan, until--" said the other, taking her hand. But the hand she
took rested cold and still in hers, and Fan was silent.
At length, reddening a little, she said:
"Miss Churton, I cannot say what I feel."
"Do you feel, Fan, that the sight of nature fills your heart with a
strange new happiness, such as no pleasure in your London life ever gave,
and at the same time a sadness for which you cannot imagine any cause?"
"Oh, do you feel that too, Miss Churton? Will you tell me what it is?"
The other smiled at the question. "If I could do that, Fan, I should be a
very wise girl indeed. It is a feeling that we all have at times; and
some day when we read the poets together you will find that they often
speak of it. Keats says of the music of the nightingale that it makes his
heart ache to hear it, but he does not know why it aches any more than we
do. We can say what the feeling is which human love and sympathy give us
--the touch of loving hands and lips, the words that are sweet to hear.
This we can understand; but that mixed glad and melancholy feeling we
have in nature we cannot analyse. How can anything in nature know our
heart like a fellow-being--the sun, and wind, and trees, and singing
birds? Yet it all seems to come in love to us--so great a love that we
can hardly bear it. The sun and wind seem to touch us lovingly; the earth
and sky seem to look on us with an affection deeper than man's--a meaning
which we cannot fathom. But, oh, Fan, it is foolish and idle of me to try
to put what we feel into words! Don't you think so?"
"I think I feel what you say, Miss Churton."
"And when you said just now that you could stand here alone, seeing and
hearing, _until--until_--and then stopped, perhaps you wished to say
that you could remain here until you understood it all, and knew the
meaning of that mysterious pain in your heart?"
"Yes--I think I felt that"; and glancing up she met the other's eyes full
on her own, so dark and full of affection, and with a mistiness rising in
their clear depths. She was sorely tempted then to put her arms about her
teacher's neck; the struggle was too much for her; she trembled, and
covering her face with her hands burst into tears.
"Dearest Fan, you must not cry," said Miss Churton, tenderly caressing
her; but there was no response, only that slight shivering of the frame
once more, as if it pained her to be caressed, and she wondered at the
girl's mood, which was so unlike that of the morning. A painful suspicion
crossed her mind. Had her mother, in her anxiety about Fan's spiritual
welfare, already taken the girl into her confidence, as she had taken
others, or dropped some word of warning to prejudice her mind? Had she
told this gentle human dove that she must learn the wisdom of the serpent
_from_ a serpent--a kind of Lamia who had assumed a beautiful female
form for the purpose of instructing her? No, it could not be; there had
been no opportunity for private conversation yet; and it was also hateful
to her to think so hardly of her mother. But she made no further attempt
just then to win her pupil's heart, and in a short time they returned to
the house together.
Fan was up early next morning--the ringing concert of the orchard, so
different from the dull rumble of the streets, had chased away sleep, and
all desire to sleep--and punctually at eight o'clock she came down to
breakfast. Mr. Churton alone was in the room, looking as usual intensely
respectable in his open frock-coat, large collar, and well-brushed grey
hair. He was standing before the open window looking out, humming or
croaking a little tune, and jingling his chain and seals by way of
"Ha, my dear, looking fresh as a flower--_and_ as pretty!" he said,
turning round and taking her hand; then, after two or three irresolute
glances at her face, he drew her towards him, and was about to imprint a
kiss on her forehead (let us hope), when, for some unaccountable reason,
she shrank back from him and defeated his purpose.
"Why, why, my dear child, you surely can't object to being kissed! You
must look on me as--ahem--it is quite the custom here--surely, my dear--"
Just then Mrs. Churton entered the room, and her husband encountering her
quick displeased look instantly dropped the girl's hand.
"My dear," he said, addressing his wife, "I have just been pointing out
the view from the windows to Miss Affleck, and telling her what charming
walks there are in the neighbourhood. I think that as we are so near the
end of the week it would be just as well to postpone all serious studies
until Monday morning and show our guest some of the beauties of
"Perhaps it would, Nathaniel," she returned, with a slight asperity. "But
I should prefer it if you would leave all arrangements to me."
"Certainly, my dear; it was merely a suggestion made on the spur of the
moment. I am sure Miss Affleck will be charmed with the--the scenery,
whenever it can conveniently be shown to her."
His wife made no reply, but proceeded to open a Bible and read a few
verses, after which she made a short prayer--a ceremony which greatly
surprised Fan. The three then sat down to breakfast, Miss Churton not yet
having appeared. It was a moderately small table, nearly square, and each
person had an entire side to himself. They were thus placed not too far
apart and not too near.
Presently Miss Churton appeared, not from her room but from an early walk
in the garden, and bringing with her a small branch of May jewelled with
red blossoms. She stood for a few moments on the threshold looking at
Fan, a very bright smile on her lips. How beautiful she looked to the
girl, more beautiful now than on the previous day, as if her face had
caught something of the dewy freshness of earth and of the tender morning
sunlight. Then she came in, walking round the table to Fan's side, and
bidding her parents "Good morning," but omitting the usual custom of
kissing father and mother. Stopping at the girl's side she stooped and
touched her forehead with her lips, then placed the branch of May by the
side of her plate.
"This is for you," she said. "I know what a flower-worshipper you are."
"Constance, you ought not to say that!" said her mother, reprovingly.
"Why not?" said the other, going to her place and sitting down, a red
flush on her face. "It is a common and very innocent expression, I
"That may be your opinion. The expression you use so lightly has only one
and a very solemn meaning for me."
Fan glanced wonderingly from one to the other, then dropped her eyes on
her flowers. In a vague way she began to see that her new friends did not
exist in happy harmony together, and it surprised and troubled her. The
bright sunny look had gone from Miss Churton's face, and the meal
proceeded almost in silence to the end.
And yet father, mother, and daughter all felt that there was an
improvement in their relations, that the restraint caused by the presence
of this shy, silent girl would make their morning and midday meetings at
meal-time less a burden than they had hitherto been. To Miss Churton
especially that triangle of three persons, each repelling and repelled by
the two others, had often seemed almost intolerable. Husband and wife had
long ceased to have one interest, one thought, one feeling in common;
while the old affection between mother and daughter had now so large an
element of bitterness mingled with it that all its original sweetness
seemed lost. As for her degenerate, weak-minded, tippling father, Miss
Churton regarded him with studied indifference. She never spoke of him,
and tried never to think of him when he was out of the way; when she saw
him, she looked through him at something beyond, as if he had no more
substance than one of Ossian's ghosts, through whose form one might see
the twinkling of the stars. It was better, she wisely thought, to ignore
him, to forget his existence, than to be vexed with feelings of contempt
Mr. Churton, after finishing his breakfast, retired to his "study," with
the air of a person who has letters to write. His study was really only a
garret which his wife had fitted up as a comfortable smoking den, where
he was privileged to blow the abhorrent tobacco-cloud with impunity,
since the pestilent vapour flew away heavenwards from the open window;
moreover, while smoking at home he was safe, and not fuddling his weak
brains and running up a long bill at the "King William" in the village.
Miss Churton finished her coffee and rose from the table.
"Constance," said her mother, "I think that as it is Friday to-day it
might be as well to defer your lessons until Monday, and give Miss
Affleck a little time to look about her and get acquainted with her new
"If you think it best, mother," she returned; and then after an interval
added, "Have you formed any plans for to-day--I mean with reference to
"Why do you say Fan?"
"Because she asked me to do so," returned the other a little coldly.
Fan was again looking at them. When they spoke they were either
constrained and formal or offending each other. It was something to
marvel at, for towards herself they had shown such sweet kindliness in
their manner; and she had felt that if it were only lawful she could love
them both dearly, as one loves mother and sister.
With a little hesitation she turned to Mrs. Churton and said, "Will you
please call me Fan too? I like it so much better than Miss Affleck."
"Yes, certainly, if you wish it," said the lady, smiling on her. After a
while she continued--"Fan, my dear child, before we settle about how the
day will be spent, I must tell you that we have arranged to share the
task of teaching you between us." Her daughter looked at her surprised.
"I mean," she continued, correcting herself, "that it will be arranged in
that way. Did Miss Starbrow speak to you about it in the garden before
Fan answered in the negative: she had a painfully vivid recollection of
what Miss Starbrow had said in the garden.
"Well, this is to be the arrangement, which Miss Starbrow has sanctioned.
There are several things for you to study, and Miss Churton will
undertake them all except one. It will be for me to instruct you in
Fan glanced at her with a somewhat startled expression in her eyes.
"Do you not think you would like me to teach you?" asked Mrs. Churton,
noticing the look.
She answered that she would like it; then remembering certain words of
Mary's, added a little doubtfully, "Mrs. Churton, Mary--I mean Miss
Starbrow--said she hoped I would not learn to be religious in the
Mrs. Churton heard this with an expression of pain, then darted a quick
glance at her daughter's face; but she did not see the smile of the
scoffer there; it was a face which had grown cold and impassive, and she
knew why it was impassive, and was as much offended, perhaps, as if the
expected smile had met her sight. To Fan she answered:
"I am very sorry she said that. But you know, Fan, that we sometimes say
things without quite meaning them, or thinking that they will perhaps be
remembered for a long time, and do harm. I am sure--at least I trust that
Miss Starbrow did not really mean that, because I spoke to her about
giving you instruction in religious subjects, and she consented, and left
it to me to do whatever I thought best."
Fan wondered whether Mary "did not quite mean it" when she told her what
the consequences would be if she allowed herself to love Miss Churton.
No, alas! she must have meant that very seriously from the way she spoke.
"You must not be afraid that we are going to make you study too much,
Fan," the lady continued; "that is not Miss Starbrow's wish. I shall only
give you a short simple lesson every day, and try to explain it, so that
I hope you will find it both easy and pleasant to learn of me. And now,
my dear girl, you shall choose for yourself to-day whether you will go
out for a walk in the woods with Miss Churton, or remain with me and let
me speak with you and explain what I wish you to learn."
The proposed walk in the woods was a sore temptation; she would gladly
have chosen that way of spending the morning, but the secret trouble in
her heart caused by Mary's warning words made her shrink from the
prospect of being alone with Miss Churton so soon again; and it only
increased the feeling to see her beautiful young teacher's eyes eagerly
fixed on her face. With that struggle still going on in her breast, and
compelled to make her choice, she said at length, "I think I should like
to stay with you, Mrs. Churton."
The lady smiled and said she was glad.
Miss Churton moved towards the door, then paused and spoke coldly: "Do
you wish me to understand, mother, that Miss Affleck is to devote her
mornings to you, and that I shall only have the late hours to teach her
"No, Constance; I am surprised that you should understand it in that way.
Only for these two days Miss Affleck will be with me in the morning. I
know very well that the early part of the day is the best time for study,
when the intellect is fresh and clear; and when you begin teaching her
she will of course devote the morning to her lessons."
After hearing this explanation her daughter left the room without more
words. In a few minutes she came down again with hat and gloves on, a
book in her hand, and went away by herself, feeling far from happy in her
mind. She had so confidently looked forward to a morning with her pupil,
and had proposed to go somewhat further than she had ventured on the
previous evening in a study of her character. For it seemed to her at
first so simple a character, so affectionate and clinging, reflecting
itself so transparently in her expressive face, and making itself known
so clearly in her voice and manner. Then that mystifying change had
occurred in the orchard, when her words had been eagerly listened to, and
had seemed to find an echo in the girl's heart, while her advances had
met with no response, and her affectionate caresses had been shrunk from,
as though they had given pain. Then the suspicion about her mother had
come to disturb her mind; but she had been anxious not to judge hastily
and without sufficient cause, and had succeeded in putting it from her as
an unworthy thought. Now it came back to her, and remained and rooted
itself in her mind. Now she understood why her mother, with an
ostentatious pretence of fairness, even of generosity, towards her
daughter, had left it to Fan to decide whether she would walk in the
woods or spend the morning receiving religious instruction at home. Now
she understood why Fan, a lover of flowers and of the singing of birds,
had preferred the house and the irksome lessons. Her mother, in her
fanatical zeal, had been too quick for her, and had prejudiced the girl's
mind against her, acting with a meanness and treachery which filled her
with the greatest resentment and scorn.
We know that her judgment was at fault; and her anger was perhaps
unreasonable. _All_ anger is said to be unreasonable by some wise
people, which makes one wonder why this absurd, perverse, and superfluous
affection was ever thrust into our souls. But the feeling in her was
natural, for her mother had indirectly inflicted much unhappiness on her
already, in her mistaken efforts to do her good; and when we suffer an
injury from some unknown hand, we generally jump to the conclusion that
it comes from the enemy we wot of; and, very often, the surmise is a
correct one. She, Miss Churton, certainly regarded this thing as a
personal injury. She had anticipated much pleasure from the society of
her pupil, and after that first conversation in the garden had resolved
to win her love, and be to her friend and sister as well as teacher. Now
it seemed that the girl was to be nothing to her and everything to her
mother, and naturally she was disappointed and angry. We have all seen
women--some of them women who read books, listen to lectures, and even
take degrees, and must therefore be classed with rational beings--who
will cry out and weep, and only stop short of tearing their raiment and
putting ashes on their heads, at the loss of a pet dog, or cat, or
canary; and Miss Churton had promised herself a greater pleasure from her
intercourse with this girl, who had so won her heart with her pale
delicate beauty and her feeling for nature, than it is possible for a
rational being to derive from the companionship of any dumb brute--even
of such a paragon among four-footed things as a toy-terrier, or pug, or
griffon. All through her walk in the shady woods, and when she sat in a
sequestered spot under her favourite tree with her book lying unread on
her lap, she could only think of her mother's supposed treachery, and of
that look of triumph on her face when Fan had decided to remain in the
house with her--rejoicing, no doubt, at her daughter's defeat. All this
seemed hard to endure uncomplainingly; but she was strong and proud, and
before quitting her sylvan retreat she resolved to submit quietly and
with a good grace to the new position of affairs, though brought about by
such unworthy means. She would make no petulant complaints nor be sullen,
nor drop any spiteful or scornful words to spoil her mother's
satisfaction; nor would she make any overt attempts to supplant her
mother in the girl's confidence, or to win even a share of her affection.
She would hide her own pain, and faithfully perform the dry, laborious
task of instruction assigned her, unrelieved by any such feelings of a
personal kind, and looking for no reward beyond the approval of her own
conscience. It was impossible, she said to herself with bitterness, that
she should ever stoop, even in self-defence, to use one of those weapons
which were to be found in her mother's armoury--the little underhand
doings, hypocrisies, and whispered insinuations which her religion
That decision of Fan's to remain at home had really come with a little
surprise on Mrs. Churton; for although it was what she had hoped, the
hope had been a faint one, and the pleasure it gave her was therefore all
the greater. With this feeling another not altogether to her credit was
mingled--a certain satisfaction at finding her company preferred to that
of her daughter. For it could not be supposed that the girl experienced
just then any eager desire after religious knowledge; she had just
reported Miss Starbrow's scoffing words with such a curious simplicity,
as if she looked on religion merely as a branch of learning, like
mineralogy or astronomy, which was scarcely necessary to her, and might
therefore very well be dispensed with. No, it was purely a matter of
personal preference; and Mrs. Churton, albeit loving and thinking well of
herself, as most people do, could not help finding it a little strange:
for her daughter, notwithstanding that her mind was darkened by that evil
spirit of unbelief, was outwardly a beautiful, engaging person, ready and
eloquent of speech, and seemed in every way one who would easily win the
unsuspecting regard of a simple-minded affectionate girl like Fan. It was
strange and--_providential_. Yes, that explained the whole mystery,
and so fully satisfied her religious mind that she was instantly relieved
from the task of groping after any other cause.
While these thoughts were passing through her mind they were standing
together before the open window, following Miss Churton's form with their
eyes, as she went away in the direction of Eyethorne woods. But Fan had a
very different feeling; she recalled that interview of the last evening
in the orchard, the clear, tender eyes looking invitingly into hers, the
touch of a warm caressing hand, the words in which her own strange
feelings experienced for the first time had been so aptly described to
her; and the thought gave her a dull pain--a vague sense of some great
blessing missed, of something which had promised to make her unspeakably
happy passing from her life.
It was some slight compensation that the scene of that first lesson in
religious doctrine she had expressed herself willing to receive was in
the garden, where they were soon comfortably seated under an acacia-tree;
and that is a tree which does not shut out the heavenly gladness, like
beech and elm and lime, but rather tempers the sunshine with its loose
airy foliage, making a half-brightness that is pleasanter than shade.
By means of much gentle questioning, herself often suggesting the
answers, Mrs. Churton gradually drew from the girl an account of all she
knew and thought about sacred subjects. She was shocked and grieved to
discover that this young lady from the metropolis was in a state of
ignorance with regard to such subjects that would have surprised her in
any cottage child among the poor she was accustomed to visit in the
neighbourhood. The names of the Creator and of the Saviour were certainly
familiar to Fan; from her earliest childhood she had heard them spoken
with frequency in her old Moon Street home. But that was all. Her mother
had taught her nothing--not even to lisp, when she was small, the
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Her Scripture lessons at the Board School had powerfully impressed her,
but in a confused and unpleasant way. Certain portions of the historical
narrative affected her with their picturesque grandeur, and fragments
remained in her memory; the Bible and religion generally came to be
associated in her mind with dire wrath, and war, and the shedding of
blood, with ruin of cities and tribulations without end. It was
processional--a great confused host covered with clouds of dust, shields
and spears, and brass and scarlet, and noise of chariot-wheels and
blowing of trumpets--an awful pageant fascinating and terrifying to
contemplate. And when she stood still, a little frightened, to see a
horde of Salvationists surge past her in the street, with discordant
shouting and singing, waving of red flags and loud braying of brass
instruments, this seemed to her a kind of solemn representation of those
ancient and confused doings she had read about; beyond that it had no
meaning. Before her mother's death she had sometimes gone to St.
Michael's Church on wet or cold or foggy winter evenings; for in better
weather it was always overcrowded, and the vergers--a kind of mitigated
policemen, Fan thought them--would hunt her away from the door. For in
those days she was so ragged and such a sad-looking object, and they
doubtless knew very well what motive she had in going there. She had gone
there only because it was warm and dry, and the decorations and
vestments, the singing and the incense, were sweet to her senses; but
what she had heard had not enlightened her.
Mrs. Churton sighed. How unutterably sad it seemed to her that this girl,
so lovely in her person, so sweet in disposition, with so pure and saint-
like an expression, should be in this dark and heathenish condition! But
there was infinite comfort in the thought that this precious soul to be
saved had fallen into her hands, and not into those of some worldling
like Miss Starbrow herself, or, worse still, of a downright freethinker
like her own daughter. After having made her first survey of Fan's mind,
finding nothing there except that queer farrago of Scripture lessons
which had never been explained to her, and were now nearly forgotten, it
seemed to Mrs. Churton that it was almost a blank with regard to
spiritual things, like that proverbial clean sheet of paper on which
anything good or bad may be written. It troubled her somewhat, and this
was the one cloud on that fair prospect, that her daughter would have so
much to do with Fan's mind. She was anxious to trust in her daughter's
honour, yet felt, with her belief concerning the weakness of any merely
human virtue, that it would scarcely be safe or right to trust her. She
resolved to observe a middle course--to trust her, but not wholly, to
pray but to watch as well, lest the fowls of the air should come in her
absence and devour the sacred seed she was about to scatter.
These, and many more reflections of a like kind, occurred to her while
she was occupied in turning over that pitiful rubbish, composed of broken
fragments of knowledge, in the girl's mind; then she addressed herself
fervently to the task of planting there the great elementary truth that
we are all alike bad by nature, and that only by faith in the Son of God
who died for our sins can we hope to save our souls alive. This was
unspeakably bewildering to Fan, for in a vague kind of way her neglected
mind had conceived a system of right and wrong of its own, which was
entirely independent of any narrative or set of doctrines, and did not
concern itself with the future of the soul. To her mind there were good
people and bad people, besides others she could not classify, in whom the
two opposite qualities were blended, or who were of a neutral moral tint.
The good were those who loved their fellow-creatures, especially their
relations, and were kind to them in word and deed. The bad were those who
gave pain to others by their brutality and selfishness, by untruthfulness
and deceit, and by speaking unkind and impure words.
Now to be told that this was all a vain delusion, mere fancy, that she
was a child of sin, as unclean in the sight of Heaven as the worst person
she had ever known--a Joe Harrod or a Captain Horton, for instance--and
that God's anger would burn for ever against her unless she cast away her
own filthy rags--Fan thought that these had been cast away a long time
ago--and clothed herself with the divine righteousness--all that
bewildered and surprised her at first. But being patient and docile she
proved amenable to instruction, and as she unhesitatingly and at once
yielded up every point which her instructress told her was wrong, there
was nothing to hinder progress--if this rapid skimming along over the
surface of a subject can be so described. And as the lesson progressed it
seemed to Mrs. Churton that her pupil took an ever-increasing interest in
it, that her mind became more and more receptive and her intelligence
The girl's shyness wore off by degrees, her tremulous voice grew firmer,
her pallid cheeks flushed with a colour tender as that of the wild almond
blossom, and her eyes, bright with a new-born confidence, were lifted
more frequently to the other's face. Their hands touched often and
lingered caressingly together, and when the elder lady smiled, a
responsive smile shone in the girl's raised eyes and played on her
delicately-moulded mouth--a smile that was like sunlight on clear water,
revealing a nature so simple and candid; and deep down, trembling into
light, the crystalline soul which had come without flaw from its Maker's
hands, and in the midst of evil had caught no stain to dim its perfect
purity. It seemed now to Mrs. Churton, as she expounded the sacred
doctrines which meant so much to her, that she had not known so great a
happiness since her daughter, white even to her lips at the thought of
the cruel pain she was about to inflict, yet unable to conceal the truth,
had come to her and said with trembling voice, "Mother, I no longer
believe as you do." For how much grief had the children God had given her
already caused her spirit! Two comely sons, her first and second-born,
had after a time despised her teachings, and had grown up almost to
manhood only to bring shame and poverty on their home; and had then
drifted away beyond her ken to lose themselves in the wandering tribe of
ne'er-do-wells in some distant colony. But her daughter had been left to
her, the clear-minded thoughtful girl who would not be corrupted by the
weakness and vices of a father, nor meet with such temptations as her
brothers had been powerless to resist; and in loving this dear girl with
the whole strength of her nature--this one child that was left to her to
be with her in time and eternity--she had found consolation, and had been
happy, until that dark day had arrived, and she heard the words that
spoke to her heart
A deeper sorrow
Than the wail upon the dead.
It is true that she still hoped against hope; that she loved her daughter
with passionate intensity, and clove to her, and was filled with a kind
of terror at the thought of losing her, when Constance spoke, as she
sometimes did, of leaving her home; but this love had no comfort, no
sweetness, no joy in it, and it seemed to her more bitter than hate. It
showed itself like hatred in her looks and words sometimes; for in spite
of all her efforts to bear this great trial with the meekness her Divine
Exemplar had taught, the bitter feeling would overcome her. "Mother, I
know that you hate me!"--that was the reproach that was hardest to bear
from her daughter's lips, the words that stung her to the quick. For
although untrue, she felt that they were deserved; so cold did her anger
and unhappiness make her seem to this rebellious child, so harsh and so
bitter! And sometimes the reproach seemed to have the strange power of
actually turning her love to the hatred she was charged with, and at such
times she could scarcely refrain from crying out in her overmastering
wrath to invoke a curse from the Almighty on her daughter's head, to
reply that it was true, that she did hate her with a great hatred, but
that her hatred was as nothing compared to that of her God, who would
punish her for denying His existence with everlasting fire. Unable to
hide her terrible agitation, she would fly to her room, her heart
bursting with anguish, and casting herself on her knees cry out for
deliverance from such distracting thoughts. After one of these stormy
periods, followed by swift compunction, she would be able again to meet
and speak to her daughter in a frame of mind which by contrast seemed
strangely meek and subdued.
Now, sitting in the garden with Fan, all the old tender motherly
feelings, and the love that had no pain in it, were coming back to her,
and it was like the coming of spring after a long winter; and this girl,
a stranger to her only yesterday, one who was altogether without that
knowledge which alone can make the soul beautiful, seemed already to have
filled the void in her heart.
On the other side it seemed to Fan, as she looked up to meet the grave
tender countenance bent towards her, that it grew every moment dearer to
her sight, It was a comely face still: Miss Churton's beauty was
inherited from her mother--certainly not from her father. The features
were regular, and perhaps that grey hair had once been golden, thought
Fan--and the face now pallid and lined with care full of rich colour.
Imagination lends a powerful aid to affection. She had found someone to
love and was happy once more. For to her love was everything; "all
thoughts, all feelings, all delights" were its ministers and "fed its
sacred flame"; this was the secret motive ever inspiring her, and it was
impossible for her to put any other, higher or lower, in its place. Not
that sweet sickness and rage of the heart which is also called love, and
which so enriches life that we look with a kind of contemptuous pity on
those who have never experienced it, thinking that they have only a dim
incomplete existence, and move through life ghost-like and sorrowful
among their joyous brothers and sisters. Such a feeling had never yet
touched or come near to her young heart; and her ignorance was so great,
and the transition to her present life so recent, that she did not yet
distinguish between the different kinds of that feeling--that which was
wholly gross and animal, seen in foul faces and whispered in her ears by
polluted lips, from which she had fled, trembling and terrified, through
the dark lanes and streets of the City of Dreadful Night; and the same
feeling as it appears, sublimed and beautified, in the refined and the
virtuous. As yet she knew nothing about a beautiful love of that kind;
but she had in the highest degree that purer, better affection which we
prize as our most sacred possession, and even attribute to the immortals,
since our earthly finite minds cannot conceive any more beautiful bond
uniting them. It was this flame in her heart which had kept her like one
alone, apart and unsoiled in the midst of squalor and vice, which had
made her girlhood so unspeakably sad. Her soul had existed in a semi-
starved condition on such affection as her miserable intemperate mother
had bestowed on her, and, for the rest, the sight of love in which she
had no part in some measure ministered to her wants and helped to sustain
One of the memories of her dreary life in Moon Street, which remained
most vividly impressed on her mind, was of a very poor family whose head
was an old man who mended broken-bottomed cane-chairs for a living; the
others being a daughter, a middle-aged woman whose husband had forsaken
her, and her three children. The eldest child was a stolid-looking round-
faced girl about thirteen years old, who had the care of the little ones
while her mother was away at work in a laundry. This family lodged in a
house adjoining the one in which Fan lived, and for several weeks after
they came there she used to shrink away in fear from the old grandfather
whenever she saw him going out in the morning and returning in the
evening. He was a tall spare old man, sixty-five or seventy years old,
with clothes worn almost to threads, a broad-brimmed old felt hat on his
head, and one of his knees stiff, so that he walked like a man with a
wooden leg. But he was erect as a soldier, and always walked swiftly,
even when returning, tired no doubt, from a long day's wandering and
burdened with his bundle of cane and three or four old broken chairs--his
day's harvest. But what a face was that old man's! He had long hair,
almost white, a thin grey stern face with sharp aquiline features, and,
set deep under his feather-like tufty eyebrows, blue eyes that looked
cold and keen as steel. If he had walked in Pall Mall, dressed like a
gentleman, the passer-by would have turned to look after him, and
probably said, "There goes a leader of men--a man of action--a fighter of
England's battles in some distant quarter of the globe." But he was only
an old gatherer of broken chairs, and got sixpence for each chair he
mended, and lived on it; an indomitable old man who lived bravely and
would die bravely, albeit not on any burning plain or in any wild
mountain pass, leading his men, but in a garret, where he would mend his
last broken chair, and look up unflinching in the Destroyer's face.
Whenever he came stumping rapidly past, and turned that swift piercing
eagle glance on Fan, she would shrink aside as if she felt the sting of
sleet or a gust of icy-cold wind on her face. That was at first.
Afterwards she discovered that at a certain hour of the late afternoon
the eldest girl would come down and take up her station in the doorway to
wait his coming. When he appeared her eyes would sparkle and her whole
face kindle with a glad excitement, and hiding herself in the doorway,
she would wait his arrival, then suddenly spring out to startle him with
a joyous cry. The sight of this daily meeting had such a fascination for
Fan that she would always try to be there at the proper time to witness
it; and after it was over she would go about for hours feeling a kind of
reflected happiness in her heart at the love which gladdened these poor
Afterwards, in Dawson Place, Mary's affection for her had made her
inexpressibly happy, in spite of some very serious troubles, and now,
when Mary's last warning words had made any close friendship with Miss
Churton impossible, her heart turned readily to the mother. In this case
there had been no prohibition; Mary's jealousy had not gone so far as
that; Mrs. Churton was the one being in her new home to whom she could
cling without offence, and who could satisfy her soul with the food for
which it hungered.
They had been sitting together over two hours in the garden when Mrs.
Churton at length rose from her seat.
"I hope that I have not tired you--I hope that you have liked your
lesson," she said, taking the girl's hand.
"I have liked it so much," answered Fan. "I like to be with you so much,
because"--she hesitated a little and then finished--"because I think that
you like me."
"I like you very much, Fan," she returned, and stooping, kissed her on
the forehead. "I can say that I love you dearly, although you have only
been with us since yesterday. And if you can love me, Fan, and regard me
as a mother, it will be a great comfort to me and a great help to both of
us in our lessons."
Fan caressed the hand which still retained hers, but at the same time she
cast down her eyes, over which a little shade of anxiety had come. She
was thinking, perhaps, that this relationship of mother and daughter
might not be an altogether desirable one.
On Sunday Fan accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Churton to morning service, and
thought it strange that her teacher did not go with them. In the evening
the party was differently composed, the master of the house having
absented himself; then just as Mrs. Churton and Fan were starting,
Constance joined them, prayer-book in hand. Mrs. Churton was surprised,
but made no remark. Fan sat between mother and daughter, and Constance,
taking her book, found the places for her; for Mary had failed after all
to teach her how to use it. Mr. Northcott preached the sermon, and it was
a poor performance. He was not gifted with a good delivery, and his voice
was not of that moist mellifluous description, as of an organ fattened on
cream, which is more than half the battle to the young cleric, certainly
more than passion and eloquence, and of the pulpit pulpity. There was a
restless spirit in Mr. Northcott; he took a somewhat painful interest in
questions of the day, and in preaching was prone to leave his text, to
cast it away as it were, and, taking up modern weapons, fight against
modern sins, modern unbelief.
His piping took a troubled sound,
Of storms that rage outside our happy ground;
He could not wait their passing.
But one who was over him could, and the piping was not pleasing to him,
and scarcely intelligible to the drowsy villagers; and when in obedience
to his vicar's wish he went back to preach again of the Jews and
Jehovah's dealings with them, his sermons were no better and no worse
than those of other curates in other village pulpits. It was a sermon of
this kind that Constance heard. If some old Eyethorner, dead these fifty
years, had risen from his mouldy grave in the adjoining churchyard, and
had come in and listened, he would not have known that a great change had
come, that the bright sea of faith that once girdled the earth had
Down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
He took his text from the Old Testament, and spoke of the captivity of
the Israelites in Egypt. It was a dreary discourse, and through it all
Miss Churton sat leaning back with eyes half closed, but whether
listening to the preacher or attending to her own thoughts, there was
nothing in her face to show.
When they came out into the pleasant evening air Mrs. Churton lingered a
little, as was her custom, to exchange a few words with some of her
friends, while Constance and Fan went slowly on for a short distance, and
finally moved aside from the path on to the green turf. Here presently
the curate joined them.
"I am glad you came, Miss Churton," he spoke, pressing her hand. And
after an interval of silence he added, "I hope I have not made you hate
me for inflicting such a horribly dull discourse on you."
"You should be the last person to say that," she returned. "You might
easily have made your sermon interesting--to _me_ I mean; but I
should not have thought better of you if you had done so."
"Thanks for that. I am sometimes troubled with the thought that I made a
mistake in going into the Church, and the doubt troubled me this evening
when I was in the pulpit--more than it has ever done before."
She made no reply to this speech until Fan moved a few feet away to read
a half-obliterated inscription she had been vainly studying for a minute
or two. Then she said, looking at him:
"I cannot imagine, Mr. Northcott, why you should select me to say this
"Can you not? And yet I have a fancy that it would not be so very hard
for you to find a reason. I have been accustomed to mix with people who
read and think and write, and to discuss things freely with them, and I
cannot forget for a single hour of my waking life that the old order has
changed, and that we are drifting I know not whither. I do not wish to
ignore this in the pulpit, and yet to avoid offending I am compelled to
do so--to withdraw myself from the vexed present and look only at ancient
things through ancient eyes. I know that you can understand and enter
into that feeling, Miss Churton--you alone, perhaps, of all who came to
church this evening; is it too much to look for a little sympathy from
you in such a case?"
She had listened with eyes cast down, slowly swinging the end of her
sunshade over the green grass blades.
"I do sympathise with you, Mr. Northcott," she returned, "but at the same
time I scarcely think you ought to expect it, unless it be out of
gratitude for your kindness to me."
"Gratitude! It hurts me to hear that word. I am glad, however, that you
sympathise, but why ought I not to expect it? Will you tell me?"
"Yes, if it is necessary. I cannot pretend to respect your motives for
ignoring questions you consider so important, and which occupy your
thoughts so much. If your heart is really with the thinkers, and your
desire to be in the middle of the fight, why do you rest here in the
shade out of it all, explaining old parables to a set of sleepy villagers
who do not know that there is a battle, and have never heard of
He listened with a flush on his cheeks, and there was trouble mingled
with the admiration his eyes expressed; but when she finished speaking he
dropped them again. Before he could frame a reply Mrs. Churton joined
them, whereupon he shook hands and left them, only remarking to Constance
in a low voice, "I shall answer you when we meet again--we do things
quietly in Eyethorne."
On their way home Mrs. Churton made a few weak attempts to draw her
daughter into conversation, and was evidently curious to know what she
had been talking about so confidentially with the curate; but her efforts
met with little success and were soon given up.
Mr. Churton met them on their arrival at the house. "What, Constance, you
too! Well, well, wonders will never cease," he cried, smiling and holding
up his hands with a great affectation of surprise.
"Mr. Churton!" exclaimed his wife, rebuke in her look and tones. Then she
added, "It would have been better if you had also gone with us."
"My dear, I fully intended going. But there it is, man proposes and--
ahem--I stayed talking with a friend until it was past the time. Most
unfortunate!" and finishing with a little inconsequent chuckle, he opened
the door for them to enter.
He was extremely lively and talkative, and Mrs. Churton had some
difficulty in keeping him within the bounds of strict Sunday-evening
propriety. At supper he became unmanageable.
"What was the text this evening, Constance?" he suddenly asked _a
propos_ of nothing, and still inclined to make a little joke out of
her going to church.
"I don't remember--I think it was from one of the prophets," she returned
"That's interesting to know," he remarked, "but a little vague--just a
little vague. Perhaps Miss Affleck remembers better; she is no doubt a
more regular church-goer," and with a chuckle he looked at her.
Fan was distressed at being asked, but Mrs. Churton came almost instantly
to her relief. "It is rather unfair to ask her, Nathaniel," she said,
with considerable severity in her voice. "The text was from Exodus--the
tenth and eleventh verses of the sixteenth chapter."
"Thanks--thanks, my dear. These tenths and elevenths and sixteenths are
somewhat confusing to one's memory, but you always remember them. Yet, if
my memory does not play me false, that is a text which most young ladies
would remember. It refers, I think, to the Israelitish ladies making off
with the jewellery--always a most fascinating subject."
"It does not, Nathaniel," she said sharply. "And I wish you would reflect
that it is not quite in good taste to discuss sacred subjects in this
light tone before--a stranger."
"My dear, you know very well that I am the last person to speak lightly
on such subjects."
"I hope so. Let us say no more about it."
"Very well, my dear; I'm quite willing to drop the subject. But, my dear,
now that it occurs to me, why should I drop it? Why should you monopolise
every subject connected with--with--ahem--our religious observances? It
strikes me that you are a little unreasonable."
His wife ignored this attack, and turning to Fan, remarked that the
evening was so warm and lovely they might spend half an hour in the
garden after supper.
"Yes, that will be charming," said Mr. Churton. "We'll all go--Constance
too," he added, with a little vindictive cackle of laughter. "Don't be
alarmed, my dear, I sha'n't smoke--pipes and religion strictly
"Mr. Churton!" said his wife.
"Yes, my dear."
Constance rose from her seat.
"Will you come with us, Constance?" said her mother.
"Not this evening, mother. I wish to read a little in my room." After
bidding them good-night, she left the room.
"Wise girl--strong-minded girl, knows her own mind," muttered Mr.
Churton, shaking his head, conscious, poor man, that he had anything but
a strong mind, and that he didn't know it.
His wife darted an angry look at him, but said nothing.
"My dear," he resumed. "On second thoughts I must ask to be excused. I
shall also retire to my room to read a little."
"Very well," she answered, evidently relieved.
"I don't quite agree with you, my dear. I don't think it is very well.
There's an old saying that you can choke a dog with pudding, and I fancy
we have too much religion in this house," and here becoming excited, he
struck the table with his fist.
"Mr. Churton, I cannot listen to such talk!" said his wife, rising from
Fan also rose, a little startled at this domestic jangling, but not
alarmed, for it was by no means of so formidable a character as that to
which she had been accustomed in the old days.
"I will join you presently in the garden, Fan," said Mrs. Churton, and
then, left alone with her husband, she proceeded to use stronger
measures; but the little man was in plain rebellion now, and from the
garden Fan could hear him banging the furniture about, and his voice
raised to a shrieky falsetto, making use of unparliamentary language.
The Monday morning, to which Fan had been looking forward with
considerable apprehension, brought no new and frightful experience: she
was not caught up and instantly plunged fathoms down beyond her depth
into that great cold ocean of knowledge; on the contrary, Miss Churton
merely took her for a not unpleasant ramble along the margin--that old
familiar margin where she had been accustomed to stray and dabble and
paddle in the safe shallows. Miss Churton was only making herself
acquainted with her pupil's mind, finding out what roots of knowledge
already existed there on which to graft new branches; and we know that
the time Fan had spent in the Board School had not been wasted. Miss
Churton was not shocked nor disappointed as her mother had been: the girl
had made some progress, and what she had learnt had not been wholly
If this easy going over old ground was a relief to Fan, she experienced
another and even a greater relief in her teacher's manner towards her.
She was gentle, patient, unruffled, explaining things so clearly, so
forcibly, so fully, as they had never been explained before, so that
learning became almost a delight; but with it all there was not the
slightest approach to that strange tenderness in speech and manner which
Fan had expected and had greatly feared. Feared, because she felt now
that she could not have resisted it; and how strange it seemed that her
finest quality, her best virtue, had become in this instance her greatest
enemy, and had to be fought against, just as some fight against the evil
that is in them.
But Miss Churton never changed. That first morning when she had, so to
speak, looked over her pupil's mind, seeking to discover her natural
aptitudes, was a type of all the succeeding days when they were together
at their studies. The girl's fears were quickly allayed; while Mrs.
Churton more slowly and little by little got over her unjust suspicions.
And the result was that with the exception of little petulant or
passionate outbreaks on the part of Mr. Churton, mere tempests in a tea-
cup, a novel and very welcome peace reigned at Wood End House. Between
mother and daughter there was only one quarrel more--the last battle
fought at the end of a long war. For a few days after that evening when
Constance had accompanied her to church, the poor woman almost succeeded
in persuading herself that a long-desired change was coming, that the
quiet curate, who had all learning, ancient and modern, at his finger-
ends, had succeeded at last in touching her daughter's hard heart, and in
at least partially lifting the scales that darkened her eyes. For he was
always seeking her out, conversing with her, and it was evident to her
mind that he had set himself to bring back that wanderer to the fold. But
the very next Sunday brought a great disillusion. As usual her daughter
did not go to church in the morning, but when the bells were calling to
evening service, and she stood with Fan ready to leave the house, she
still lingered, looking very pale, her hands trembling a little with her
agitation, afraid to go out too soon lest Constance should also be
coming. With sinking heart she at last came out, but before walking a
dozen yards she left Fan and went back to the house, and going up to her
daughter's bedroom, tapped at the door.
Constance opened it at once; her hat was on, and she had a book in her
"Are you not coming to church with us, Constance?" said the mother,
speaking low as if to conceal the fact that her heart was beating fast.
"No mother, I am only going to the garden to read."
Mrs. Churton turned aside, and then stood for some moments in doubt.
There was such a repelling coldness in her daughter's voice, but it was
hard to have all her sweet hopes shattered again!
"Is it because I have expected it this evening, Constance, and have asked
you to go? Then how unkind you are to me! Last Sunday evening you went
"You are mistaken," returned the other quietly. "I am not and never have
been unkind. All the unkindness and the enmity, open and secret, has been
on your side. That you know, mother. And I did not go unasked last
Sunday. Do you wish to know why I went?"
"Why did you go?"
"Only to please Mr. Northcott, and because he asked me. He knew, I
suppose, as well as I did myself, that it makes no difference, but I
could not do less than go when he wished it, when he is the only person
here who treats me unlike a Christian."
_"Unlike_ a Christian! Constance, what do you mean?"
"I mean that he has treated me kindly, as one human being should treat
another, however much they may differ about speculative matters."
"May God forgive you for your wicked words, Constance."
"Leave me, mother; Fan is waiting, and you will be late at church. I have
not interfered with you in any way about the girl. Teach her what you
like, make much of her, and let her be your daughter. In return I only
ask to be left alone with my own thoughts."
Then Mrs. Churton went down and joined Fan, deeply disappointed, wounded
to the core and surprised as well. For hitherto in all their contests
she, the mother, had been the aggressor, as she could not help confessing
to herself, while Constance had always been singularly placable and had
spoken but little, and that only in self-defence. Now her own gentle and
kind words had been met with a concentrated bitterness of resentment
which seemed altogether new and strange. "What," she asked herself, "was
the cause of it?" Was this mysterious poison of unbelief doing its work
and changing a heart naturally sweet and loving into a home of all dark
thoughts and evil passions? Her words had been blasphemous, and it was
horrible to reflect on the condition of this unhappy lost soul.
But these distressing thoughts did not continue long. Mr. Northcott
happened that evening to say a great deal about kindness and its effects
in his sermon; and Mrs. Churton, while she listened, again and again
recalled those words which her daughter had spoken, and which had seemed
so wild and unjust--"All the unkindness and the enmity, open and secret,
has been on your side." Had she in her inconsiderate zeal given any
reason for such a charge? For if Constance really believed such a thing
it would account for her excessive bitterness. Then she remembered how
Fan had been mysteriously won over to her own side; to herself the girl's
action had seemed mysterious, but doubtless it had not seemed so to
Constance; she had set it down to her mother's secret enmity; and though
that reproach had been undeserved, it was not strange that she had made
In the evening when Miss Churton, who had recovered her placid manner,
said good-night and left the room, her mother rose and followed her out,
and called softly to her.
Constance came slowly down the stairs, looking a little surprised.
"Constance, forgive me if I have been unkind to you," said the mother,
with trembling voice.
"Yes, mother; and forgive me if I said too much this evening--I
_did_ say too much."
"I have already forgiven you," returned her mother; and then for a few
moments they remained standing together without speaking.
"Good-night, mother," said Constance at length, and offering her hand.
Her mother took it, and after a moment's hesitation drew the girl to her
and kissed her, after which they silently separated.
That mutual forgiveness and kiss signified that they were now both
willing to lay aside their vain dissensions, but nothing more. That it
would mark the beginning of a closer union and confidence between them
was not for a moment imagined. Mrs. Churton had been disturbed in her
mind; her conscience accused her of indiscretion, which had probably
given rise to painful suspicions; she could not do less than ask her
enemy's forgiveness. Constance, on her side, was ready to meet any
advance, since she only desired to be left in possession of the somewhat
melancholy peace her solitary life afforded her.
Meanwhile Fan was happily ignorant of the storm her coming to the house
had raised, and that these two ladies, both so dear to her, one loved
openly and the other secretly, had been fighting for her possession, and
that the battle was lost and won, one taking her as a lawful prize, while
the other had retired, defeated, but calmly, without complaint. Her new
life and surroundings--the noiseless uneventful days, each with its
little cares and occupations, and simple natural pleasures, the world of
verdure and melody of birds and wide expanse of sky--seemed strangely in
harmony with her spirit: it soon became familiar as if she had been born
to it; the town life, the streets she had known from infancy, had never
seemed so familiar, so closely joined to her life. And as the days and
weeks and months went by, her London life, when she recalled it, began to
seem immeasurably remote in time, or else unreal, like a dream or a story
heard long ago; and the people she had known were like imaginary people.
Only Mary seemed real and not remote--a link connecting that old and
shadowy past with the vivid living present.
Her mornings, from nine till one o'clock, were spent with her teacher,
and occasionally they went for a walk after dinner; but as a rule they
were not together during the last half of the day. After school hours
Miss Churton would hand over her pupil, not unwillingly, to her mother,
and, if the state of the weather did not prevent, she would go away alone
with her book to Eyethorne woods.
A strangely solitary and unsocial life, it seemed to Fan; and yet she
felt convinced in her mind that her teacher was warm-hearted, a lover of
her fellow-creatures, and glad to be with them; and that she should seem
so lonely and friendless, so apart even in her own home, puzzled her
greatly. A mystery, however, it was destined to remain for a long time;
for no word to enlighten her ever fell from Mrs. Churton's lips, who
seldom even mentioned her daughter's name, and never without a shade
coming over her face, as if the name suggested some painful thought. All
this troubled the girl's mind, but it was a slight trouble; and by-and-
by, when she had got over her first shyness towards strangers, she formed
fresh acquaintances, and found new interests and occupations which filled
her leisure time. Mrs. Churton often took her when going to call on the
few friends she had in the neighbourhood--friends who, for some
unexplained reason, seldom returned her visits. At the vicarage, where
they frequently went, Fan became acquainted with Mr. Long the vicar, a
large, grey-haired, mild-mannered man; and Mrs. Long, a round energetic
woman, with reddish cheeks and keen eyes; and the three Miss Longs, who
were not exactly good-looking nor exactly young. Before very long it was
discovered that she was clever with her needle, and, better still, that
she had learnt the beautiful art of embroidery at South Kensington, and
was fond of practising it. These talents were not permitted to lie folded
up in a napkin. A new altar-cloth was greatly needed, and there were
garments for the children of the very poor, and all sorts of things to be
made; it was arranged that she should spend two afternoons each week at
the vicarage assisting her new friends in their charitable work.
But more to her than these friends were the very poor, whose homes,
sometimes made wretched by want or sickness or intemperance, she visited
in Mrs. Churton's company. The lady of Wood End House was not without
faults, as we have seen; but they were chiefly faults of temper--and her
temper was very sorely tried. She could not forget her lost sons, nor
shut her eyes to her husband's worthlessness. But the passive resistance
her daughter always opposed to her efforts, her dogged adherence to a
resolution never to discuss religious questions or give a reason for her
unbelief, had a powerfully irritating, almost a maddening, effect on her,
and made her at times denunciatory and violent. Her daughter's motive for
keeping her lips closed was a noble one, only Mrs. Churton did not know
what it was. But she was conscious of her own failings, and never ceased
struggling to overcome them; and she was tolerant of faults in others,
except that one fatal fault of infidelity in her daughter, which was too
great, too terrible, to be contemplated with calm. In spite of these
small blemishes she was in every sense a Christian, whose religion was a
tremendous reality, and whose whole life was one unceasing and consistent
endeavour to follow in the footsteps of her Divine Master. To go about
doing good, to minister to the sick and suffering and comfort the
afflicted--that was like the breath of life to her; there was not a
cottage--hardly a room in a cottage--within the parish of Eyethorne where
her kindly face was not as familiar as that of any person outside of its
own little domestic circle. Mrs. Churton soon made the discovery that she
could not give Fan a greater happiness than to take her when making her
visits to the poor; to have the gentle girl she had learnt to love and
look on almost as a daughter with her was such a comfort and pleasure,
that she never failed to take her when it was practicable. At first Fan
was naturally stared at, a little rudely at times, and addressed in that
profoundly respectful manner the poor sometimes use to uninvited visitors
of a class higher than themselves, in which the words border on servility
while the tone suggests resentment. How inappropriate and even unnatural
this seemed to her! For these were her own people--the very poor, and all
the privations and sufferings peculiar to their condition were known to
her, and she had not outgrown her sympathy with them. Only she could not
tell them that, and it would have been a great mistake if she had done
so. For no one loves a deserter--a renegade; and a beggar-girl who
blossoms into a lady is to those who are beggars still a renegade of the
worst description. But the keen interest she manifested in her shy way in
their little domestic troubles and concerns, and above all her fondness
for little children, smoothed the way, and before long made her visits
welcome. She would kneel and take the staring youngster by its dirty
hand--so perfectly unconscious of its dirtiness, which seemed very
wonderful in one so dainty-looking--and start a little independent
child's gossip with it, away from Mrs. Churton and the elders of the
cottage. And she would win the little bucolic heart, and kiss its lips,
sweet and fragrant to her in spite of the dirt surrounding them; and by-
and-by the mother's sharp expression would soften when she met the tender
grey eyes; and thereafter there would be a new happiness when Fan
appeared, and if Mrs. Churton came without her, there would be sullen
looks from the little one, and inquiries from its mother after "your
beautiful young lady from London."
All this was inexpressibly grateful to Mrs. Churton, all the more
grateful when she noticed that these visits they made together to the
very poor seemed to have the effect of drawing the girl more and more to
her. To her mind, all this signified that her religious teachings were
sinking into the girl's heart, that her own lofty ideal was becoming
increasingly beautiful to that young mind.
But she was making a great mistake--one which is frequently made by those
who do not know how easily some Christian virtues and qualities are
simulated by the unregenerate. All the doctrinal religion she had
imparted to Fan remained on the surface, and had not, and, owing to some
defect in her or for some other cause, perhaps could not sink down to
become rooted in her heart. After Mrs. Churton had, as she imagined,
utterly and for ever smashed and pulverised all Fan's preconceived and
wildly erroneous ideas about right and wrong, the girl's mind for some
time had been in a state of chaos with regard to such matters. But
gradually, by means of a kind of spiritual chemistry, the original
elements of her peculiar system came together, and crystallised again in
the old form. Her mental attitude was not like that of the downright and
doggedly-conservative Jan Coggan, who scorned to turn his back on "his
own old ancient doctrines merely for the sake of getting to heaven."
There was nothing stubborn or downright in her disposition, and she was
hardly conscious of the change going on in her--the reversion to her own
past. She assented readily to everything she was told by so good a woman
as Mrs. Churton, and in a way she believed it all, and read her Bible and
several pious books besides, and got the whole catechism by heart. It was
all in her memory--many beautiful things, with others too dreadful to
think about; but it could not make her life any different, or supplant
her old simple beliefs, and she could never grasp the idea that a living
faith in all these things was absolutely essential, or that they were
really more than ornamental. Her lively sympathy for those of her own
class was the only reason for the pleasure she took in going among the
poor, and it also explained her natural unconstrained manner towards
them, which so quickly won their hearts. During these visits she often
recalled her own sad condition in that distant time when she lived in
Moon Street; thinking that it would have made a great difference if some
gracious lady had come to her there, with help in her hands and words of
comfort on her lips. It was this memory, this thought, which filled her
with love and reverence for her companion; it was gratitude for
friendship to the poor, but nothing loftier.
This was a quiet and uneventful period in Fan's life; a time of growth,
mental and physical, and of improvement; but as we have seen, the new
conditions she found herself in had not so far wrought any change in her
character. Those who knew her at Eyethorne, both gentle and simple, would
have been surprised to hear that she was not a lady by birth; in her soul
she was still the girl who had begged for pence in the Edgware Road, who
had run crying through the dark streets after the cab that conveyed her
drunken and fatally-injured mother to St. Mary's Hospital. Let them
disbelieve who know not Fan, who have never known one like her.
One afternoon in early August Fan accompanied Mrs. Churton on a visit to
some cottages on the further side of Eyethorne village; she went gladly,
for they were going to see Mrs. Cawood, a young married woman with three
children, and one of them, the eldest, a sharp little fellow, was her
special favourite. Mrs. Cawood was a good-tempered industrious little
woman; but her husband--Cawood the carpenter--was a thorn in Mrs.
Churton's tender side. Not that he was a black sheep in the Eyethorne
fold; on the contrary, he was known to be temperate, a good husband and
father, and a clever industrious mechanic. But he was never seen at
church; on Sundays he went fishing, being devoted to the gentle craft;
and it was wrong, more so in him because of his good name than in many
another. Mrs. Churton was anxious to point this out to him, but
unfortunately could not see him; he was always out of the way when she
called, no matter when the call was timed. "I wish you could get hold of
Cawood," had been said to her many times by the parson and his wife; but
there was no getting hold of him. The curate had also tried and failed.
Once he had gone to him when he was engaged on some work, but the
carpenter had reminded him very pleasantly that there is a time for
everything, that carpentering and theology mixed badly together.
But all things come to those who wait, and on this August afternoon the
slippery carpenter was fairly caught, like one of his own silly fish; but
whether she succeeded in landing her prize or not remains to be told.
Apparently he did not suspect that there were strangers in the cottage--
some prearranged signal had failed to work, or someone had blundered;
anyhow he walked unconcernedly into the room, and seemed greatly
surprised to find it occupied by two lady visitors. Mrs. Churton sat with
a book in her hand, gently explaining some difficult point to his wife;
while at some distance Fan was carrying on a whispered conversation with
her little friend Billy. The child sprung up with such sudden violence
that he almost capsized her low chair, and rushing to his father embraced
his legs. With a glance at his wife, expressing mild reproach and a
resolution to make the best of it, he saluted his visitors, then
deposited his bag of tools on the floor.
Cawood was a Londoner, who had come down to do some work on a large house
in the neighbourhood, and there "met his fate" in the person of a pretty
Eyethorne girl, whom he straightway married; then, finding that there was
room for him, and good fishing to be had, he elected to stay in his
wife's village among her own people. He was a well-set-up man of about
thirty-five, with that quiet, self-contained, thoughtful look in his
countenance which is not infrequently seen in the London artisan--a face
expressing firmness and intelligence, with a mixture of _bonhomie_,
which made it a pleasant study.
"I am glad you have come in," said the visitor. "I have been wishing to
see you for a long time, but have not succeeded in finding you at home."
"Thank you, ma'am; it's very kind of you to come and see my wife. She
often speaks of your visits. Also of the young lady's"; and here he
looked at Fan with a pleasant smile.
"Yes; your wife is very good. I knew her before you did, Mr. Cawood; I
have held her in my arms when she was a baby, and have known her well up
till now when she is having babies of her own."
"And very good things to have, ma'am--in moderation," he remarked, with a
twinkle in his eye.
"And since she makes you so good a wife, don't you think you ought to
comply with her wishes in some things?"
"Why, yes, ma'am, certainly I ought; and what's more, I do. We get on
amazingly well together, considering that we are man and wife," and with
a slight laugh he sat down.
Mrs. Churton winced a little, thinking for the moment that he had made a
covert allusion to the state of her own domestic relations; but after a
glance at his open genial face, she dismissed the suspicion and returned
to the charge.
"I know you are happy together, and it speaks well for both of you. But
we do not see you at church, Mr. Cawood. Your wife has often promised me
to beg you to go with her; if she has done so you have surely not
complied in this case."
"No, ma'am, no, not in that; but I think she understands how to look at
it; and if she asks me to go with her, she knows that she is asking for
something she doesn't expect to get."
"But why? I want to know why you do not go to church. There are many of
us who try to live good lives, but we are told, and we know, that this is
not enough; that we cannot save ourselves, however hard we may try, but
must go to Him who gave Himself to save us, and who bade us assemble
together to worship Him."
"Well, ma'am, if anyone feels like that, I think he is right to go to
church. I do not object to my wife going; if it is a pleasure and comfort
to her I am glad of it. I only say, let us all have the same liberty, and
go or not just as we please."
"We all have it, Mr. Cawood. But if you believe that there is One who
made us, and is mindful of us, you must know that it is a good thing to
obey His written word, and serve Him in the way He has told us."
"I'm sorry I can't see my way to do as you wish. My wife has given me all
your messages, and the papers and tracts you've been so good as to leave
for me. But I haven't read them. I can't, because you see my mind's made
up about such things, and I don't see the advantage of unmaking it
Here was a stubborn man to deal with! His wife heard him quietly, as if
it were all familiar to her. Fan, on the other hand, listened with an
expression of intense interest. For this man answered not like the
others. He seemed to know his own mind, and did not instantly acquiesce
in what was said, and unhesitatingly make any promise that was asked of
him. But how had he been able to make up his mind? and what to think and
believe? That was what she wanted to know, and was waiting to hear. Mrs.
Churton, glancing round on her small audience, encountered the girl's
eager eyes fixed on her face; and she reflected that even if her words
should avail nothing so far as Cawood was concerned, their effect would
not be lost on others whose hearts were more open to instruction. She
addressed herself to her task once more, and her words were meant for Fan
and for the carpenter's wife as well as for the carpenter.
"I think," she began, "that I can convince you that you are wrong. There
cannot be two rights about any question; and if what you think is right--
that it is useless to attend church and trouble yourself in any way about
your eternal interests--then all the rest of us must be in the wrong. I
suppose you do not deny the truth of Christianity?"
"Since you put it in that way, I do not."
"That makes it all the simpler for me. I know you to be an honest,
temperate man, diligent in your work, and that you do all in your power
to make your home happy. Perhaps you imagine that this is enough. It
would not be strange if you did, because it is precisely the mistake we
are all most liable to fall into. What more is wanted of us? we say; we
are not bad, like so many others; and so we are glad to put the whole
question from us, and go on in our own easy way. Everything is smooth on
the surface, and this pleasant appearance of things lulls us into
security. But it is all a delusion, a false security, as we too often
discover only when death is near. Only then we begin to see how we have
neglected our opportunities, and despised the means of grace, and lived
at enmity with God. For we have His word, which tells us that we are born
in sin, and do nothing pleasing in His sight unless we obey Him. There is
no escape from this: either He is our guide in this our pilgrimage or He
is not. And if He is our guide, then it behoves us to reflect seriously
on these things--to search the Scriptures, to worship in public, and
humbly seek instruction from our appointed teachers."
This was only a small portion of what she said. Mrs. Churton was
experienced in talk of this kind, and once fairly started she could run
on indefinitely, like a horse cantering or a lark singing, with no
perceptible effort and without fatigue.
"I think, ma'am, you could not have put it plainer," said the carpenter,
who had sat through it all, with eyes cast down, in an attitude of
respectful attention. "But if I can't go with you in this matter, then
probably it wouldn't interest you to know what I hold and where I go?"
Now that was precisely what Fan wanted to know; again she looked
anxiously at Mrs. Churton, and it was a great relief when that lady
"It will interest me very much to hear you state your views, Mr. Cawood."
"Thank you, ma'am. I must tell you that I've attended more churches, and
heard more good sermons, and read more books about different things, and
heard more good lectures from those who spoke both for and against
religion, than most working-men. In London it was all to be had for
nothing; and being of an inquiring turn of mind, and thinking that
something would come of it all, I used my opportunities. And what was the
result? Why nothing at all--nothing came of it. The conclusion I arrived
at was, that if I could live for a thousand years it would be just the
same--nothing would come of it; so I just made up my mind to throw the
whole thing up. I don't want you to think that I ever turned against
religion. I never did that; nor did I ever set up against those who say
that the Bible is only a mixture of history and fable. I did something
quite different, and I can't agree with you when you say that we must be
either for or against. For here am I, neither for one thing nor the
other. On one side are those who have the Bible in their hands, and tell
us that it is an inspired book--God's word; on the other side are those
who maintain that it is nothing of the sort; and when we ask what kind of
men they are, and what kind of lives do they lead, we find that in both
camps there are as good men as have ever lived, and along with these
others bad and indifferent. And when we ask where the intelligence is,
the answer is the same; it is on this side and on that. Now my place is
with neither side. I stand, so to speak, between the two camps, at an
equal distance from both. Perhaps there is reason and truth on this side
and on that; but the question is too great for me to settle, when the
wisest men can't agree about it. I have heard what they had to say to me,
and finding that I did nothing but see-saw from one side to the other,
and that I could never get to the heart of the thing, I thought it best
to give it all up, and give my mind to something else."
Mrs. Churton remained silent for some time, her eyes cast down. She was
thinking of her daughter, wondering if her state of mind resembled that
of this man. But no; that careless temper in the presence of great
questions and great mysteries would be impossible to one of her restless
intellect. She had chosen her side, and although she refused to speak she
doubtless cherished an active animosity against religion.
"It grieves me to find you in this negative state," she returned, "and I
can only hope and pray that you will not always continue in it. You do
not deny the truth of Christianity, you say; but tell me, putting aside
all that men say for and against our holy faith, and the arguments that
have pulled you this way and that, is there not something in your own
soul that tells you that you are not here by chance, that there is an
Unseen Power that gave us life, and that it is good for us, even here in
this short existence, if we do that which is pleasing to Him?"
"Yes, I feel that. It is the only guide I have, and I try my best to
follow it. But whether the Unseen Power sees us and reads all our
thoughts as Christians think, or only set things going, so to speak, is
more than I am able to say. I think we are free to do good or evil; and
if there is a future life--and I hope there is--I don't think that
anyone will be made miserable in it because he didn't know things better
than he could know them. That's the whole of my religion, Mrs. Churton,
and I don't think it a bad one, on the whole--for myself I mean; for I
don't go about preaching it, and I don't ask others to think as I do."
With a sigh she resigned the contest; and after a few more words bade him
good-bye, and went out with the carpenter's wife into the garden.
Fan remained standing where she had risen, some colour in her cheeks, a
smile of contentment playing about her lips.
"Good-bye, Mr. Cawood," she said; and after a moment's hesitation held
out her hand to him.
He looked a little surprised. "My hand is not over-clean, miss, as you
see," opening it with a comical look of regret on his face. "I've just
come in from work and haven't washed yet."
"Oh, it's clean enough," she said with a slight laugh, putting her small
white hand into his dusty palm.
On her way home Mrs. Churton talked a good deal to her companion. She
went over her discussion with the carpenter, repeating her own arguments
with much amplification; then passing to his, she pointed out their
weakness, and explained how that neutral state of mind is unworthy of a
rational being, and dangerous as well, since death might come
unexpectedly and give no time for repentance.
Fan listened, readily assenting to everything; but in her heart she felt
like a bird newly escaped from captivity. That restful state she had been
hearing about, in which there was no perpetual distrust of self,
vigilance, heart-searching, wrestling in prayer, looked infinitely
attractive, and suited her disposition and humble intellect.
A fortnight later, one hot afternoon, Fan was reading beside the open
window of the dining-room. After dinner Mrs. Churton had given her _The
Pleasures of Hope_, in a slim old octavo volume, to read, and for the
last hour she had been poring over it. Greatly did she admire it, it was
so fine, so grand; but all that thunderous roll of rhetoric--the
whiskered Pandoors and the fierce Hussars, and Freedom's shriek when
Kosciusko fell, and flights of bickering comets through illimitable
space--a kind of celestial fireworks on a stupendous scale--and all the
realms of ether wrapped in flames--all this had produced a slight
headache, a confusion or giddiness, like that which is experienced by a
person looking down over a precipice, or when carried too high in a
Constance came down from her room with her hat on and a book in her hand.
"Are you going for a walk, Constance?" asked her mother, who was also
sitting by the open window.
"Yes, only to the woods, where I can sit and read in the shade."
Mrs. Churton glanced suspiciously at the book in her daughter's hand--a
thick volume bound in dark-green cloth. There was nothing in its
appearance to alarm anyone, but she did not like these thick green-bound
books that were never by any chance found lying about for one to see what
was in them. However, she only answered:
"Then I wish you would persuade Fan to go with you. She is looking pale,
it strikes me."
"I shall be glad if Fan will go," she answered, a slight accent of
surprise in her tone.
Fan ran up to get her hat and sunshade, and when she returned to them her
pallor and headache had well-nigh vanished at the prospect of an
afternoon spent in the shady woodland paradise. Mrs. Churton, with a
prayer in her heart, watched them going away together--two lovely girls;
it made her anxious when her eyes rested on the portly green volume her
daughter carried, but it struck her as a good augury when she noticed
that the younger girl in her white dress had _The Pleasures of Hope_
in her hand.
For now a new thought, a hope that was very beautiful, had come into Mrs.
Churton's heart. All her life long she had had the delusion that
"spiritual pride" was her besetting sin; and against this imaginary enemy
she was perpetually fighting. And yet if some shining being had come down
to tell her that her prayers for others had been heard, that all the
worthless and vicious people she wished to carry to heaven with her would
be saved, and all of them, even the meanest, set above her in that place
where the first is last and the last first, joy at such tidings would
have slain her. She had as little spiritual pride as a ladybird or an
ant. Now the new thought had come into her mind that her daughter would
be saved; not in her way, nor by her means, but in a way that would at
the same time be a rebuke to her spiritual pride, her impatience and
bitterness of spirit, and zeal not according to knowledge. Not she, but
this young girl, herself so ignorant of spiritual things a short time
ago, would be the chosen instrument. She remembered how the girl had
taken to her from the first, but had not taken to her daughter; how in
spite of this distance between them, and of her infidelity, her daughter
had continued to love the girl--to Mrs. Churton it was plain that she
loved her--and to hunger for her love in return. It was all providential
and ordered by One
Who moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength,"
she murmured, praising God who had put this gladness in her heart, the
Christian's and the mother's love filling her eyes with tears. Up till
now it had been her secret aim to keep the girls as much apart as
possible out of school hours; now it seemed best to let them come
together; and on this August afternoon, as we have seen, she went so far
as to encourage a greater intimacy between them. Poor woman!
After they had entered the wood Fan began straying at short intervals
from the path to gather flowers and grasses, or to look more closely at a
butterfly at rest and sunning its open brightly-patterned wings.
"I think I shall sit down on the grass here to read," said Constance at
length. "You can ramble about and gather flowers if you like, and you'll
know where to find me."
They had now reached a spot to which Constance was in the habit of
resorting almost daily, where the ground was free from underwood, and
thickly carpeted with grass not yet wholly dry, and where an oak-tree
shaded a wide space with its low horizontal branches.
Fan thanked her, and dropping her book rambled off by herself, happy in
her flower-hunting, and forgetting all about the magnificent things she
had been reading. Two or three times she returned to the spot where
Constance sat reading, with her hands full of flowers and grasses, and
after depositing them on the turf went away to gather more. Finally she
sat down on the grass, took off her hat and gloves, and set to work
arranging her spoils. This took her a long time, and after making them up
two or three times in various ways she still seemed dissatisfied. At
length she tried a fresh plan, and discarding all the red, yellow, and
purple flowers, she made a loose bunch of the blue and white only, using
only those fine open grass-spears with hair-like stems and minute flowers
that look like mist on the grass. The effect this time was very pretty,
and when she had finished her work she sat for some time admiring it, her
head a little on one side and holding the bunch well away from her. She
did not know how beautiful she herself looked at that moment, how the
blue and white flowers and misty grasses had lent, as it were, a new
grace to her form and countenance--a flower-like expression that was
sweet to see. Looking up all at once she encountered her companion's eyes
fixed earnestly on her face. It was so unexpected that it confused her a
little, and she reddened and dropped her eyes.
"Forgive me, Fan, for watching your face," said Constance. "When I looked
at you I wondered whether it would not be best to tell you what I was
thinking of--something about you."
"About me? Will you tell me, Miss Churton?" returned Fan, a half-
suppressed eagerness in her voice, as if this approach to confidence had
fluttered her heart with pleasure.
"But if I tell you what was in my mind, Fan, I should have to finish by
asking you a question; and perhaps you would not like to be asked."
"I think I can answer any question, Miss Churton, unless it is about--how
we lived at home before Miss Starbrow took me to live with her. She
wishes me not to speak of that, but to forget it."
Constance listened with softening eyes, wondering what that sorrowful
past had been, which had left no trace on the sweet young face.
"I know that, Fan," she replied, "and should be very sorry to question
you about such matters. It saddens me to think that your childhood was
unhappy, and if I could help you to forget that period of your life I
would gladly do so. The question I should have to ask would be about
something recent. Can you not guess what it is?"
"No, Miss Churton--at least I don't think I can. Will you not tell me?"
"You know that my life here is not a happy one."
"Is it not? I am so sorry."
"When I first saw you I imagined that it would be different, that your
coming would make me much better off. I had been wondering so much what
you were like, knowing that we should be so much together. When I at
length saw you it was with a shock of pleasure, for I saw more than I had
dared to hope. A first impression is almost infallible, I think, and to
this day I have never for a single moment doubted that the impression I
received was a right one. But I was greatly mistaken when I imagined that
in your friendship I should find compensation for the coldness of others;
for very soon you put a distance between us, as you know, and it has
lasted until now. That is what was passing through my mind a little while
ago when I watched your face; and now, Fan, can you tell me why you took
a dislike to me?"
"Oh, Miss Churton, I have never disliked you! I like you very, very much
--I cannot say how much!" But even while this assurance sprang
spontaneously from her lips, she remembered Mary's warning words, and her
heart was secretly troubled, for that old danger which she had ceased to
fear had now unexpectedly returned.
"Do you really like me so much, Fan?" said Constance, taking the girl's
hand and holding it against her cheek. "I have thought as much sometimes
--I have almost been sure of it. But you fear me for some reason; you are
shy and reticent when with me, and out of lesson-time you avoid my
company. You imagine that it would be wrong to love me, or that if you
cannot help liking me you must hide the feeling in your heart."
It startled Fan to find that her companion was so well able to read her
thoughts, but she assented unhesitatingly to what the other had said.
This approach to confidence began to seem strangely sweet to her, all the
sweeter perhaps because so perilous; and that contact of her hand with
the other's soft warm cheek gave her an exquisite pleasure.
"And will you not tell me why you fear me?" asked Constance again.
"I should like you to know so much ... but perhaps it would not be right
for me to say it ... I wish I knew--I wish I knew."
"I know, Fan--I am perfectly sure that I know, and will save you the
trouble and pain of telling it. Shall I tell you? and then perhaps I
shall be able to convince you that you have no reason to be afraid of
"I wish you would," eagerly returned Fan.
"My mother has prejudiced you against me, Fan. She imagines that if we
were intimate and friendly together my influence would be injurious, that
it would destroy the effect of the religious instruction she gives."
"I do not understand you," said Fan, looking unmistakably puzzled.
"No? And yet I thought it so plain. My mother has told you that I am not
religious--in _her_ way, that is--that I am not a Christian. She
does not know really; I do not go about telling people what I believe or
disbelieve, and prefer to say nothing about religion for fear of hurting
any person's feelings. But that is not her way, and through what she has
said at the vicarage, and elsewhere about me I am now looked upon as one
to be avoided. I see you are reading _The Pleasures of Hope_. Let me
have it. Do you see this passage with pencil-marks against it, and all
the words underscored?
"Ah me! the laurel wreath that Murder rears,
Blood-nursed, and watered by the widow's tears,
Seems not so foul, so tainted, and so dread,
As waves the nightshade round the sceptic head.
"These words were marked for my benefit--this is what she thinks of me
--her own daughter--because I cannot agree with her in everything she
believes!" And here she flung the volume disdainfully on the grass. "When
I agreed to be your teacher I never imagined that such things would have
been put into your head. Her anxiety about your spiritual welfare made it
seem right in her eyes to do so, I suppose. But I should not have harmed
you, my dear girl, or interfered with your religion in any way; she might
have given me that much credit. When she knew how lonely my life was, and
how much your affection would have been to me, it was unkind of her to
set you also against me from the first."
All this came as a complete surprise on her listener, who now for the
first time began to understand the reason of the estrangement of mother
and daughter. But Constance was allowed to finish her speech without
interruption. She said more than she had meant to say, but her feelings
had carried her away, and when she finished it was with a half-suppressed
"Dear Miss Churton, I am so sorry you are unhappy," said Fan at length,
taking her hand. "I did not know you were not a Christian, nor why it was
that you and Mrs. Churton were always so cold to each other. But it would
have made no difference if I had known, because--I am not religious."
Constance looked at her.
"What do you mean by that, Fan?" she said. "It is my turn now, it seems,
to say that I do not understand you."
The other hesitated; then she remembered the carpenter's words, and began
a little doubtfully:
"I mean that I do not think that going to church and--reading the Bible,
and praying, and all that, make any difference. I think we can be good
without that--don't you, Miss Churton? I wish I could tell you better--it
seems so hard to say it. But Mrs. Churton never said anything to me about
you--in that way--I mean about your religion."
Constance listened to all this with the greatest surprise. That this very
simple-minded girl, impressible as soft wax as it seemed to her, should
think independently about such a subject as religion, and that she should
hold views so opposed to those which Mrs. Churton had for several months
been diligently instilling into her mind, seemed almost incredible. The
second statement was nearly as surprising, so sure had she been that her
suspicions were well-founded. "Then I have been very unjust to my mother
in this instance," she said, "and am very sorry I spoke so warmly about
older things which should be forgotten." After an interval of silence she
continued, withdrawing her hand from the other, "I can make no further
guess, Fan; and if you have any secret reason for keeping apart from me
you must forgive me for speaking to you and trying to win your
Fan was more distressed than ever now, and the tears started to her eyes
as she felt that the distance was once more widening between them, and
that it all depended on herself whether she was to drink from this sweet
cup or set it down again scarcely tasted.
"I must tell you, Miss Churton," she said at length; and then, not
without much hesitation and difficulty, she explained Miss Starbrow's
views with regard to the impossibility of a woman, or of a girl like her,
loving more than one person, or having more than one friend.
Constance gave a laugh, which, however, she quickly checked.
"Dear Fan," she said, "does not your own heart tell you that it is all a
mistake? And if you feel that you do love me, do you not know from your
own experience, whether you hide the feeling or not, that your love for
others, and chiefly for so dear a friend as Miss Starbrow, remains just
as strong as before?"
Fan gladly answered in the affirmative.
"We are all liable to strange errors about different things, and Miss
Starbrow is certainly in error about this. Besides, my dear girl, we
can't always love or not love as we like; the feeling comes to us
spontaneously, like the wind that blows where it listeth. Be sure that we
are not such poor creatures that we cannot love more than one person at a
time. But Miss Starbrow is not singular in her opinion--if it is her
opinion. I have heard men say that although a man's large heart can
harbour many friendships, a woman is incapable of having more than one
friendship at any time. That is a man's opinion, and therefore it is not
strange that it should be a wrong one, since only a woman can know the
things of a woman. How strange that Miss Starbrow should have so mean an
opinion of her own sex!"
Fan then remembered something which she imagined might throw some light
on this dark subject. "I know," she said, "that she always prefers men to
women for friends. I have heard her say that she hates women."
Constance laughed again.
"She does not hate herself--that is impossible; and that she did not hate
you, Fan, is very evident. Don't you think that, intimate as you were
with Miss Starbrow, you did not always quite understand her way of
speaking, that you took her words too literally? You know now that she
did not really mean it when she spoke of hating women, and perhaps she
did not really mean what she said about your being unable to love more
than one person."
"Yes; I think you are right. I know that she does not always mean what
she says. I am sure you are right."
"And will you be my friend then, and love me a little?"
"You know that I love you dearly, and it makes me so happy to think that
we are friends. But tell me, dear Miss Churton--"
"If we are really friends now you must call me Constance."
"Oh, I shall like that best. Dear Constance, do you think when I write to
Mary that I must tell her all we have talked about?"
"No," said the other, after a moment's reflection. "It is not necessary,
and would not be fair to me, as we have been speaking about her. But you
must be just as open about everything, as I suppose it is your nature to
be, and conceal nothing about your feelings towards others. I do not
think for a moment that you will offend her by being good friends with
That assurance and advice removed the last shadow of anxiety from Fan's
mind, and after some more conversation they returned home, both feeling
very much happier than when they had started for this eventful walk.
Mrs. Churton was quickly made aware of the now in one sense improved
relations between the girls when they returned from their walk; and with
that new hope in her heart she was not displeased to see it, although its
suddenness startled her a little. She did not know until the following
morning how great the change was. She was an early riser, and hearing
voices and laughter in the garden while dressing, she looked out of the
window, and saw the girls walking in the path, Constance with an open
book in her hand, while Fan at her side had an arm affectionately thrown
over her teacher's shoulder. It was a pretty sight, but it troubled her;
she had not expected so close a friendship as that, which had made them
rise so long before their usual time for the pleasure of being together.
If, after all, a vain hope had deluded her, then there might be an
exceedingly sad end to her experiment. With deep anxiety and returning
jealousy she reflected that the simple-minded affectionate girl might
prove as wax in the hands of her clever godless daughter. But it was too
soon to intervene and try to undo her own work. She would watch and wait,
and hope still that the infinite beauty and preciousness of a childlike
faith would touch the stony heart that nothing had touched, and win back
the wandering feet to the ways of pleasantness.
From her watching nothing much resulted for some days, although she soon
began to suspect that Fan now wore a look of patience, almost of
weariness, whenever she was spoken to on religious subjects, that it
seemed a relief to her when the lesson was finished, and she could go
back to Constance. They were constantly together now, in and out of
doors, and the woods had become their daily haunt. And one day they met
with an adventure. Arriving about three o'clock at their favourite tree,
they saw a young man in a dark blue cycling costume lying on the grass
with his hands clasped behind his head, and gazing up into the leafy
depths above him. At the same moment he saw them, standing and hesitating
which way to turn; and in a moment he sprang to his feet. He was a
handsome young fellow, a little below the medium height, clean shaved,
with black hair and very dark blue eyes, which looked black; his features
were very fine, and his skin, although healthy-looking, colourless.
"I perceive that I am an intruder here," he said with a smile, and with
an admiring glance at Miss Churton's face.
"Oh, no," she returned, with heightened colour. "This wood is free to
all; we can soon find another spot for ourselves."
"But it is evident that you were coming to sit here," he said, still
smiling. "I suppose you have done so on former occasions, so that you
have acquired a kind of prescriptive right to this place. I am putting it
on very low grounds, you see," he added with a slight laugh, and raising
his cap was about to turn away; but just at that moment he glanced at
Fan, who had been standing a little further away, watching his face with
very great interest. He started, looked greatly surprised, then quickly
recovering his easy self-possessed manner, advanced and held out his hand
to her. "How do you do?" he said. "How strange to meet you here! You have
not forgotten me, I hope?"
Fan had taken his hand. "Oh, no, Mr. Chance," she returned, blushing a
little, "I remember you very well."
"I'm very glad you do. But I am ashamed to have to confess that though I
remember your Christian name very well I can't recall your surname. I
only remember that it is an uncommon one."
"My name is Affleck. But you only saw me once, and it is not strange you
should have forgotten it."
It was true that she had only seen him once; for in spite of the brave
words he had spoken to Miss Starbrow after she had rejected his offer of
marriage, he had never returned to her house. But Fan had heard first and
last a great deal about him, and Mary had even told her the story of that
early morning declaration, not without some scornful laughter.
Nevertheless at this distance from town it seemed very pleasant to see
him once more. It was like meeting an old acquaintance, and vividly
brought back her life in Dawson Place with Mary.
For some minutes he stood talking to her, asking after Miss Starbrow and
herself, and saying that since he left Bayswater he had greatly missed
those delightful evenings; but while he talked to Fan he glanced
frequently at the beautiful face of her companion. Once or twice their
eyes met, and Mr. Chance, judging from what he saw that he had made a
somewhat favourable impression, in his easy way, and with a little
apology, asked Fan to introduce him. This little ceremony over, they all
sat down on the grass and spent an hour very agreeably in conversation.
He told them that he was spending a month's holiday in a bicycle ramble
through the south-west of England, and had turned aside to see the
village of Eyethorne and its woods, which he had heard were worth a
visit. From local scenery the conversation passed by an easy transition
to artistic and literary subjects; in a very short time Fan ceased to
take any part in it, and was satisfied to listen to this new kind of duet
in which harmony of mind was substituted for that of melodious sound.
With a pleased wonder, which was almost like a sense of mystery, she
followed them in this rapid interchange of thoughts about things so
remote from every-day life. They mentioned a hundred names unknown to
her--of those who had lived in ancient times and had written poems in
many languages, and of artists whose works they had never seen and could
yet describe; and in all these far-off things they seemed as deeply
interested as Mrs. Churton was in her religion, her parish work, and her
housekeeping. How curious it was to note their familiarity with an
endless variety of subjects, so that one could not say anything without a
look of quick intelligence and ready sympathy from the other! How well
they seemed to know each other's minds! They were talking familiarly as
if they had been acquainted all their lives!
To Constance the pleasure was more real and far greater; for not only had
her unfortunate opinions concerning matters of faith separated her from
her few educated neighbours, but in that rustic and sleepy-minded spot
there were none among them, excepting the curate, who took any interest
in literary and philosophical questions. Her friends were not the people
she knew, but the authors whose works she purchased with shillings saved
out of the small quarterly allowance her mother made her for dress. These
were the people she really knew and loved, and their thoughts were of
infinitely deeper import to her than the sayings and doings of the men
and women of her little world. In such circumstances, how pleasant it was
to meet with this young stranger, engaging in his manner and attractive
in appearance, and to converse freely with him on the subjects that
constantly occupied her thoughts. There was a glow of happy excitement on
her face, her eyes shone, she laughed in a free glad way, as Fan had
never heard her laugh before; she was surprised at the extent of her own
knowledge--at that miracle of memory, when many fine thoughts, long
forgotten, and multitudes of strange facts, and glowing passages in verse
and prose, came back uncalled to her mind; and above all she was
surprised at a ready eloquence which she had never suspected herself
Merton Chance had often conversed with clever and beautiful women, but
this country girl surprised him with the extent of her reading, her
vivacity and wit, and quick sympathy; and the more they talked the more
he admired her.
Then insensibly their conversation took a graver tone, and they passed to
other themes, which, to Constance at least, had a deeper and more
enduring interest. In all philosophical questions she could follow and
even go beyond him, although she didn't know it, and very soon they made
the discovery that towards the faith still professed by a large majority
of their fellow-beings their attitude was the same. Or so it appeared to
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