THE HOUSEKEEPER

Like a lone mountain white with virgin snow,
Which holds within its breast eternal fire
This woman cold and pale with face of woe
Yet feels at heart an unappeased desire.

Reginald Blake walked briskly up the avenue. It had an excessively
dreary appearance, for the black looking trees with their angular
branches seemed starved and attenuated while the leaves underfoot were
sodden with rain. The marble statues which were standing here and
there, wore a disconsolate look, as if they longed for the sunny skies
of their native Italy, and mutely protested against this misty climate
which discoloured and marred their beauty.

When he arrived at the terrace, the long white façade of the house
seemed grim and uninviting. No smoke ascended from the slender
chimneys, no face appeared at the bare staring windows, and the
terrace, which should have been thronged with gay company, was silent
and deserted, chilling the very soul with its mute sense of
desolation.

The young man rang the bell in the monstrous porch, and before the
harsh jangling had ceased to echo through the dreary house, the door
was opened by Jellicks. On recognising Blake, she wriggled a welcome
and admitted him into the vault-like hall which still retained the
musty smell observed by Nestley. Outside the grey sky, inside the grey
twilight, it seemed as though the sun had not warmed this dismal place
with his cheerful beams for centuries.

“I want to see Miss Challoner,” said Reginald, when the heavy door was
once more closed, “is she at home?”

Jellicks replied that she was, in a serpent-like hiss, and then, still
more like a serpent, she wriggled along the dark corridor on the
ground floor followed by Blake, who felt depressed by the surrounding
atmosphere of decay.

At length she stopped midway in the passage and on knocking at a door
was bidden by a thin voice, seemingly that of Miss Cassy, to enter.

Reginald did so, and Jellicks having twisted herself apologetically
out of the room, he stepped forward to greet Una and Cassandra, who
were seated in the wide window looking out on to the white terrace and
dreary landscape.

Una, flushed with life and beauty, seemed somewhat out of place in
this charnel house though, truth to tell, the room had a more homelike
appearance than the rest of the Grange. Not very large, panelled
with carved oak, dark and solemn-looking, it was hung round with
pictures in tarnished gilt frames, the floor being covered with a
comfortable-looking carpet of reddish tint. In the huge fireplace
burned a goodly fire, which somewhat warmed the chill atmosphere. The
furniture was quaint and old-fashioned, of all dates, ranging from
heavy oak tables of Tudor days to spindle-legged Chippendale chairs
and curiously inlaid cabinets of more modern construction. There was
only one window in the room, a deep oriel with benches set in its
depths and its diamond panes rich with brightly tinted escutcheons of
the Garsworth family. A quaint room of ancient and incongruous
appearance, yet having withal a quiet beauty of its own, a tone of
intense restfulness, which was not without charm.

“Good morning, Miss Challoner,” said Reginald politely, mindful of the
presence of Miss Cassy. “I have called by the desire of Dr. Larcher to
see how the squire is.”

“Oh, better, much better,” interposed Miss Cassy before Una could
speak. “I said it was nerves all along–so very odd–quite excitable
he was, but the dear doctor’s medicine you know–so soothing, really
very soothing–I don’t know what the dear squire will do without the
dear doctor.”

“He’s not going to do without him, aunt,” said Una with a smile; “my
cousin is afraid of getting ill again, so has asked Dr. Nestley to
stay down here for a few weeks to complete the cure.”

“What about his own practice?” asked Reginald.

“Oh, he says that will be all right, as he has left it in charge of
his partner. Have you met Dr. Nestley?”

“Yes, at the gates; he has gone back to Garsworth with Mr. Beaumont.”

“Beaumont,” said Miss Cassy with vivacity, “that is the painter, very
odd, isn’t it? he’s going to paint the dear squire’s picture–how
nice.”

“Why does the squire want his picture painted?” inquired Blake.

Una laughed.

“Not for his beauty, at all events,” she said mischievously, “but, you
know, there is only one picture of him in the gallery–as a young man.
I presume this will be for the sake of contrast. Do you know Mr.
Beaumont?”

“Slightly. He’s a stranger here,” replied Blake, a little coldly. “I
should say he was a very clever man–but he is hardly the style I care
about.”

“He looks wicked,” said Miss Cassy, nodding her head sagely; “worn,
you know–oh, shocking!–but very handsome–just the kind of man I
would like for a son.”

“Oh, aunt!” said Una, slightly shocked.

“Well, I would, Una. You know I should like to have been married–I’m
sure I don’t know why I haven’t been married,” said the poor lady,
pathetically. “I’m sure anyone can see I’m not made for a
spinster–it’s so odd, isn’t it?”

Blake, being directly appealed to, suppressed a smile, and, and
assented politely; whereupon Miss Cassy resumed:

“It’s so hard for an unmarried girl to know when to leave off being a
girl–I’m sure I don’t know–ivy, you know, I feel like it; I’m made
to cling to a manly oak–no, I mean an oakly man–no! not that–mixed,
you see! I mean a man like an oak–yes, that’s it, and then I might
have had twelve stalwart sons–all oaks! Odd, isn’t it?–most
peculiar.”

“My dear aunt, what curious things you say!” said Una, looking
reproachfully at Reggy, who was trying to smother his laughter.

“Yes, I know, dear,” replied Miss Cassy, complacently, “we’re all
odd–nerves–quite chronic; anyone can see that it comes of being an
ivy–I mean a woman–so very nice–yes, I always say so–don’t you,
Mr. Blake?”

Reginald could not exactly say he did, as he was in doubt as to what
Miss Cassy meant, but made some confused answer, and then asked to see
Patience Allerby.

“She’s in the housekeeper’s room, I think,” said Una. “Auntie will
take you there, and when you are done with her I’ll go to Garsworth
with you.”

“Will you, really? I’m so glad!” said Reginald, eagerly.

“I want to see Cecilia in the church,” replied Miss Challoner, “about
the concert.”

“What concert?”

“Don’t you know? Oh, we’re going to have a concert in the school-room
shortly. You are to be asked to sing.”

“Delighted.”

“Cecilia will play a piece–she doesn’t like the piano as much as the
organ, but we can hardly get that out of the church.”

“I’m going to sing also,” said Miss Cassy, shaking her curls, “so
nice–quite operatic. I’ll sing a duet with you, Mr. Blake, if you
like.”

Blake hastily excused himself, as he had great dread of Miss Cassy’s
vocal performances, which were, to say the least, somewhat screechy.
The lady accepted his apology graciously, and then led him out of the
room to find the housekeeper, leaving Una to get ready for the walk.

Miss Cassy, being delighted to have a charming young man for audience,
chattered all the way in a disconnected fashion.

“So damp, isn’t it–quite chilly. I never did like the weather. Very
watery–rheumatic, you know. I mean the weather, of course–not
myself! I think Patience is in her room–so kind of you to see
your old nurse–quite delightful! Light of what’s his name, you
know–Moore–exactly; Irish melodies–so pretty! This is the door. Oh,
Patience–you are in–so glad–here is Mr. Blake to see you! The
squire’s easier–yes, nerves, of course–I knew it. I’ll go back to
Una, Mr. Blake, and see you later on–very pleased, indeed–quite a
treat to see a male. Sounds like the post–very odd, isn’t it?–yes!”

And Miss Cassy, closing the door after her, departed leaving Reginald
alone with his old nurse.

The tall, placid woman, standing near the fireplace, made a step
forward, as if to embrace Reginald, but restrained herself, as though
doubtful how to proceed. Blake, however, crossed over to her and
kissed her affectionately, which seemed to awaken a feeling of emotion
in her breast, for she flushed a little at the caress, and smiled
lovingly at him. In her demure, slate-coloured dress, with the white
apron and pale, rigid face, she looked like a woman who had never
known what it was to love or be loved; but every now and then a flash
in the sombre depths of her eloquent eyes betrayed the fiery nature
hidden beneath that calm exterior. The young man’s kiss seemed to warm
her frozen soul to life, and, as she resumed her seat, her face was
rose-flushed, her eyes soft, and the hard lines about her mouth
disappeared under the magic of Reginald Blake’s presence. He, dark and
handsome, leaned against the mantelpiece, looking down at her
curiously, as if puzzled how to begin the conversation.

“I am so glad to see you, Master Reginald,” she said, the hard voice
in which she habitually spoke becoming soft and tender. “I have not
seen you for a long time.”

“A whole week, Patience, that’s all,” he replied, carelessly. “You see
I’m busy with my studies.”

“That’s right, dear!” she said, eagerly. “Work–work hard, and make a
name in the world.

“For whose sake?” he asked, a little bitterly.

“For mine!”

There was a world of tenderness in the way in which she spoke the
words, and her eyes seemed to devour him as she gazed. He moved
restlessly, and with a supreme effort plunged straight into the object
of his visit.

“Why not for my parents’ sake?”

The woman’s face lost its look of tenderness, and became hard and
rigid as she pressed the arms of her chair convulsively, and looked up
into his face.

“Who has been speaking to you about them,” she asked fiercely.

“Doctor Larcher.”

“And the reason?”

“Simply this: I am two-and-twenty years of age, so it’s time I had
some aim in life. Before I do this I want to know all about my
parentage. Are my parents alive or dead?–who are they?–why was I
placed in your charge?–can they, or their relations, assist me to get
on in the world? I cannot move until I know who and what I am.”

He spoke vehemently, and as he did so the woman seemed to shrink back
into her chair with a nameless dread in her eyes. There was no sound
for a moment. At last she broke the silence.

“Your parents were my master and mistress,” she said at length, in a
low, harsh voice, “married against their parents’ wish.”

“They were married, then?”

“Who said they were not?” she demanded, fiercely.

“No one. But the mystery of my birth led me to think there might
be—-”

“Shame!” she interrupted, vehemently. “You are wrong. There was no
shame–they kept the marriage secret, for if known they would have
lost their property. When you were born, they went over to France for
the sake of your father’s health, leaving you in my charge. I was to
keep you till they could acknowledge you as their son; but before they
could do so they died.”

“Died!”

“Yes. Your father died of phthisis at Cannes six months after he left
England, and your mother very soon followed him to the grave.”

“She died of what?”

“A broken heart,” replied Patience, in a low voice, “a broken heart,
poor soul.”

“Good God!”

“I heard of it shortly afterwards,” she went on, rapidly, “and as your
birth had never been acknowledged I determined to bring you up without
letting anyone know the truth. After staying some time in London, I
brought you to Doctor Larcher, and he has had charge of you since.”

“Why did you come here?”

“Because it is my native place. I only intended to stay for a time,
and then return to service in London, but Squire Garsworth wanted a
housekeeper, so I took the situation in order to remain near you.”

“Why did you not tell me this before.”

“There was no need to,” she answered, coldly, “and even now it is
useless. Your parents are dead, and the property has gone to distant
heirs.”

“But I am the heir.”

She shook her head.

“No, the property was not entailed–it was left by will, and you have
no claim on the present holder.”

“Who was my father?”

“He had been in the army, but sold out when he married, and became a
writer.”

“What was his name?”

“Reginald Blake–the same as your own.”

“It’s my real name, then?”

She looked at him in surprise.

“Of course! Why should you not take your father’s name? There was no
reason.”

“So I am alone in the world?”

“Yes, except for me.”

He stepped over to her, and placed his arm caressingly on her
shoulder.

“Ah, you have been a mother to me,” he said quickly, “and I shall
never forget it. No one could have acted with more kindness and
fidelity.”

Patience winced and shrank away from his caress while he walked up and
down the room, talking cheerfully.

“Now my mind is at rest,” he said, with a sigh of relief. “I thought
the mystery of my birth involved some stain, but since I have the
right to bear my father’s name, why! I feel quite happy. I can make my
way in the world by myself, can ask the girl I love to be my wife.”

“The girl you love,” she repeated jealously.

“Yes, I will tell you her name, though no one else knows it–Una.”

“Miss Challoner,” said the woman, starting up; “impossible!”

“Why impossible?” he retorted gaily. “You think I am not rich enough.
Never mind; I carry a fortune in my throat, and will soon be able to
keep her in comfort. She loves me and I love her, so we shall be quite
happy.”

“I hope so,” she said fervently. “May God’s blessing rest on your
efforts. Yes, marry Una Challoner if she loves you, and make your own
way without troubling about the dead.”

“I never knew my parents,” said Reginald, sighing, “so I can hardly
regret them, but with Una to work for I will forget the past and look
forward to the future. I have nothing to offer her now but a stainless
name. Never mind; ambition can perform miracles. Now, good-bye, nurse;
I must get back to Garsworth.”

“Good-bye,” she said, kissing him eagerly. “Come again soon, my dear
boy; and although Una Challoner loves you, do not forget your old
nurse.”

“Of course not,” he replied gaily, and walked away humming an air.
Patience Allerby waited till the door was closed and the sound of his
voice had died away, then fell on her knees, beating her breast with
her hands and weeping bitterly.

“God! God!” she cried, amid convulsive sobs, “pardon my sin. It was
for his sake, for his dear sake, not for my own. Let the dead past be
forgotten. Let him never know anything but what I have told him, and
bless him, oh God, in his future life.”

There was a crucifix of black ebony against the wall, and from it,
with pitying eyes, looked down the face of the Lord at the stricken
woman kneeling before him. The ineffable sorrow of the sacred face
seemed to calm her spirit, for she ceased to weep and her lips moved
in a prayer which seemed to come from her heart.

“_Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against
us_.”