« السابقةمتابعة »
"I have no doubt you could," responded the General. “You are always in extremes, always loving something or somebody; but pray, who is your new friend?”
“Now, Harvey, please not to be angry: I am half afraid you will be when you hear that it was Mrs. Vaughan who —”
"Mrs. Vaughan!" 'broke in the General, suddenly checking his horse in the extremity of his surprise and indignation. “Mrs. Vaughan! Impossible! You must be mistaken; she never could have dared —"
“Dared what, dear Harvey?” she asked interrupting him gently. “She only dared to perform a duty from which many a woman would have shrunk back in disgust and dismay. She closed that poor man's eyes, brother, when he was no more, and (harder trial still) defended the unhappy children from the blows of their violent drunken mother, awing and controlling her. Oh! indeed, she was brave and good, and I can never cease to admire and respect her:" but the last words were spoken to her own heart whisperingly.
The General was somewhat moved, stern man as he was, and rigorously as he maintained his watch over his womankind.
“I am very sorry, Mary,” he said in a kinder tone, 'very sorry indeed that
should have fallen in with and spoken to this
However, that cannot now be undone, and I can only strongly advise you to say nothing about the affair to Duncan; for if you do, there'll be a row,
I suspect.” “But I have no secrets from Duncan," said Mary quietly, but with a pleasant confidence; for the said Duncan was her affianced husband, and the man whom,
after a betrothal of many a year, she had left her home in England to make happy at last. Mary's girlhood had passed away, and a few silver lines might be traced on her braided hair, while on that middle-aged soldier's brow, time and care and foreign service had drawn many a deepening furrow; but for all this their hearts were full of hope, and the Indian summer of their souls was bright with glowing colours.
"Well, do as you like," said Mary's brother, beginning to tire of the subject; "you know your own affairs best; only, pray let me hear no more of Mrs. Vaughan from you, for really you ought to know better than to talk of that class of women.'
A day or two elapsed before Mary Owen found an opportunity of consulting Major Duncan as to the expediency of her again visiting the place where she might possibly come in contact with the tabooed woman; and great was her delight when instead of combating her wishes, he, in spite of the General's lingering remonstrances, pronounced all she did and said to be wise, discreet, and praiseworthy.
Meanwhile Helen had not ceased from her errands of mercy, and might have been daily found in the lowly dwelling where that singular and most incongruous fellowship had first commenced. She had given money, and been thanked for it, and had bestowed advice and sympathy, which had been tolerated; moreover, as the widow had, by dint of strenuous exertions, been kept for several days from any indulgence in her besetting sin, Helen rejoiced greatly in the reformation she had worked.
A few days after the serjeant's death, Mrs. Vaughan and Mary Owen met again, and this time on the thresh
old of the room whose inmates they were come to visit. Their greeting was cordial, nay, almost affectionate; and Helen, ere they entered, imparted to the General's sister her satisfaction in the belief that reformation had commenced, and that gratitude for all that had been done for her was strong and deep in the breast of the bereaved woman.
The room was still and desolate enough now: for there was no dead husband on the soldier's bed, and the children, sickly and subdued, were crouching about, watching the almost dreaded mother, who was mending their poor clothes and pondering on her own unhappy future. She rose at the approach of the ladies, and dropped a curtsey in honour of the General's sister; but to Helen she showed no token of respect. Mary looked from one to the other in surprise, waiting in vain for the symptoms of gratitude on which Mrs. Vaughan had enlarged, and almost doubting (so great was the change wrought in the woman's manner) whether it were indeed the serjeant's widow who stood before them. Helen remained passive, though the blood had mounted to her cheek and brow; and it was by Mary that the embarrassing silence was at length broken.
"Well, Mrs. Jones," began the sweet musical voice that Helen loved to hear, “I am very glad to see you better. Mrs. Vaughan has given me an excellent account of you, and I hope all will now go well with
you and with your children.”
“Indeed, ma'am,” responded the widow in doleful accents, "I'm very poorly, very poorly. She may tell you as I'm better, but what does the likes of her know what it is to lose a good husband? And a good husband he was to me, though I says it; and he to be Recommended to Mercy. I.
taken from me all on a sudden like!
." and the ready apron was lifted to her eyes. “They do say he'll be hanged, the man as did it, milady, which I'll go to see, God willing:" and wiping her eyes she cast them up to heaven, as though grateful for the grace that had been given her, and to the inspiration by which she had been led to utter a sentiment so pious.
Helen was shocked at her tone, and ventured upon a remonstrance. "Mrs. Jones," she said firmly, "we know how sorely you have been tried, and can scarcely wonder that you find it difficult to forgive; but will you not try to remember that the man who has done you this great wrong is in the hands of God, to punish or to pardon, and that there is one excuse which might (at least with you) be brought forward in his favour,
namely, that the wretched man had been drinking to excess, and could scarcely, be deemed accountable for the act of which he now (as I am told) 'sincerely repents?”
"And pray, what odds is that to me?” said the woman, sharply. "His sorrow won't give me back my man, or put bread into the children's mouths.”
There was so much of disrespect conveyed in the tone in which these words were said, and the woman's manner when speaking to Helen was so far from deferential, that the latter, angry and abashed, rose from her seat, determined no longer to endure a mortification so unlooked for and unmerited. Before, however, she could put her design into execution, the widow's whining voice was heard again.
"I suppose I'll have to go home, milady,” she said, again addressing Miss Owen; "and I hope as you'll be so good to give me a character, for to service I must
go, and leave the poor blessed children with
mother. Mother's a poor woman like myself, ma'am, but respectable. We always kept ourselves respectable at the worst of times, milady, and I wouldn't have you to think that I ever keep company with them as wasn't," and a sagacious look at Helen gave point to the last remark.
It was then that the sharp pang of shame shot through the heart of that hapless creature then that no veil seemed thick enough to hide her degradation, and conceal the blushes on her guilty face. Why, even that drunken, graceless woman had a right to despise and rebuke her, for she at least, had been a wedded wife, and was now a widow indeed.
Mary noted the struggle in her breast, and heard the convulsive sob that rose in the fair round throat, bent low in the depth of her humiliation.
It was a piteous sight, and drawing her gently away, she tried to soothe her with kindly spoken words.
“Poor thing, poor thing!” she said, repeating the pitying exclamation again and again, as, standing beneath the wide verandah, she softly pressed the hand that lay so passively within her own. Helen sobbed bitterly at first, greatly to the distress of her companion, who felt (and truly felt) that the tears of a woman who is not given to weeping, are as painful to witness, and seem to afford as little relief as those which, wrung from the eyes of stalwart men, fall in ungenial and unrefreshing showers. At length she contrived to stammer out a few words of apology. “I am so sorry
I am not often so foolish pray forgive me,
it was your
kindness and the tears broke forth afresh.