THE SECRET DRAWER.
OUR NEW LODGERS.
WE lived in a very quiet square in Westminster. It was a peculiar square, with a quaint church in the middle, – and two sides of it consisted of very small ruinous structures, chiefly used as stables or storehouses. But the other side had rows of somewhat stately buildings, which must have been built for wealthy people; for many of them had wide halls, with rooms at either side. They were dear old houses, – I love their memory, for the sake of the particular one in which we dwelt, my widowed mother, my brother Harry and I.
My mother was left in what are called "narrow circumstances," – that is to say, she had enough to live upon within certain humble limits. My father had been cashier in a City warehouse, and his savings, with one or two bequests, made up our little property. One of these bequests was the old house in Brown Square, which had belonged to my mother's maiden godmother. It had not been ours in my father's lifetime, – of which period I could remember little, except that we lived in a narrow City lane, over the counting-house where my father worked, – but it came to my mother's hands very soon after his death, together with divers old-fashioned furniture standing in its wide chambers. And there we lived comfortably enough, only that our moderate fires never seemed to thaw the chill of the great rooms, and the long, heavily framed windows appeared constantly demanding richer hangings than our plain holland blinds. The place was much too large for us, so we let the second floor – "unfurnished" – to a law stationer and his wife, very decent people, with no faults except those incident to humanity, such as grumbling, fault-finding, nervous headaches at awkward times, &c. But still the first floor remained cold, stately, and proper, with its faded carpet on the uneven floor, and its black, thin-legged chairs drawn up against the painted wall. These apartments boasted several pieces of china, some needlework, pictures, and two family portraits – whose features, I am thankful to say, have not descended to either Harry or me. My mother could never behold these articles without much admiration. In girlhood she had been taught to regard them with wondering awe, and the sensation had never worn away. Still we were not rich enough to keep rooms to look at; so these magnificent chambers were let furnished – that is to say, they were always "to be let," but were seldom occupied more than three months out of each year – the only lodgers who would conform to my mother's household regulations being simple country people, who had cause for a short stay in the metropolis.
Harry and I were always glad when the rooms were "taken," firstly, because the house was livelier; secondly, because we hated the bill in the parlour window; and thirdly, because this rent, being a sort of surplus revenue, procured us many little indulgences which we generally went without, and therefore our private regrets were very numerous when, one severe winter nearly twenty years ago, day after day went by, and no one even inquired after the "apartments."
"Nobody comes into the square," said Harry, ruefully, as we peered over the wire blind one frosty afternoon. "I wish mother would advertise; but she always says, 'No, I'll not send good money to look for what it may never find; a penny saved is a penny gained, Harry;' and I suppose she's right, but my proverb is – 'Nothing venture, nothing have.'"
"Yes, when you bought the ticket for the twelfth-cake raffle," I remarked, mischievously.
"Here come some people!" exclaimed Harry, not heeding me, "and I declare they're looking about as if they wanted something, – I hope it's lodgings!"
"The people" were two, – a tall gentleman wrapped in a long cloak with a velvet collar, who walked with some difficulty, supported by an ebony stick and the shoulder of his companion, a small, slight girl about sixteen. The girl was dressed in sable garments, of quaint outlandish form, which suggested that touching description, "makeshift mourning," and her small dark-eyed face was pale and thin to the extreme. In her arms she carried a rather large parcel done up in brown paper, and her whole manner was that of a person who, although sufficiently weary, was prepared to struggle on as long as necessity required.
"They do want lodgings," whispered Harry and I to each other, drawing back out of sight, for the pair paused in front of the bill, and seemed to hold a whispered consultation. Presently the gentleman stepped to the door and knocked.
Our mother herself admitted them, and as the parlour door was ajar we could hear the conversation in the hall. They were plainly foreigners, – the gentleman used many words we could not understand at all, and his daughter interpreted, speaking English with a pretty foreign accent. Our mother had strong British prejudices, but as the parley proceeded, we noticed her voice grew less constrained and more genial, and at last she led the way up-stairs. They all stayed there more than half-an-hour, and the law stationer's wife, who always managed to know perfectly well all that went on in the house, hovered curiously about the staircase and hall. Presently my mother came out alone, and she and Mrs. Simms entered the parlour together.
"I wonder if I've done right," said my mother, going up to the fireplace.
"Dear me!" sighed Mrs. Simms, expectantly, "any friendly counsel I can give, you know you may always depend on, Mrs. Blake."
"I have taken them in," said my mother suddenly, as if it was a truth which must come out sooner or later.
"What! those foreigners that I heard parley vooing here awhile ago, when I was in the back yard getting snow-water for my poor chilblain? Mrs. Blake, may I be allowed to ask in a friendly way, have you got good references with 'em?"
"Where can they get good references?" said my mother, defending her supposed folly with the courage of desperation. "They've only been in London two days, lodging at a coffee-house. They've just come from Italy. They seem quite respectable people."
"Ah, Mrs. Blake, but one must be very knowing not to be deceived! They mayn't be foreigners at all, or if they be, so much the worse. When do we, or other decent people, go gadding about the world, leaving all our connections behind us? It is not likely. Those who have anything worth sticking to, stick to it."
"There is some truth in what you say, Mrs. Simms," replied my mother, meekly, "but can we hope to hear Christ say, 'I was a stranger, and ye took me in,' if we always fear to give unsuspicious hospitality when God sends us a chance?"
"Ah, it's all very fine, Mrs. Blake, but the world is the world, and so I must take care and keep Mr. Simm's door locked just now;" and Mrs. Simms retreated to her own dominions.
"Yes, I've taken them in," repeated my mother, turning to us. "They are poor refugees from Italy. The gentleman is still lame from a wound he received in that terrible war, and the daughter looks just worn out. Their name is Silvani. The young lady says her mother was a Swiss, and had been a governess in England, and that is how she knows the language so well."
"What are they?" asked Harry.
"The Signor says he was a professor of the dead languages, and that he thinks he shall soon get employment here, and his daughter says she can earn money too, poor child!"
"When are their things coming?" I asked.
"There is nothing to come," answered my mother.
"They escaped with nothing but the clothes which they wear, and that parcel, which is a curious inlaid desk."
"Escaped?" questioned Harry, eagerly. "Did they tell you about it?"
"Not much; only they lived under a very hateful, unjust Government, and when there was an effort to change this for a good free rule, the Signor with many others joined in it, and as it has proved unsuccessful, and the old Grand Duke, or whatever they called him, has returned to his throne, as many as could hid, or disguised themselves, and got away secretly."
"And what became of those who couldn't?" asked Harry.
"Some were executed," said my mother, with a sigh, "and others put into prisons so dreadful that they are sure to die a lingering death. We've had it in all the newspapers, Harry, – but I'm afraid we think very little of what we read till something brings it home to us."
"Where is the gentleman's wife?" I asked.
"They say she died years ago," returned my mother, "but now I must go and see about their tea. And I should like you, Mary, to help Jane take it up. It may make the young lady feel more at home to see another of her own age."
And so I carried in the bread and butter. The Signor rose and saluted me with the grave courtesy of his nation, and his daughter smiled and thanked me in her pretty voice. They seemed quite settled. The inlaid desk was placed upon the sideboard, evidently relieved of some of its contents, for I saw two strange portraits standing at either end of the mantel-shelf. That on the right hand represented a lad with golden hair and blue eyes, and a smiling face bright with delicate bloom. The other depicted a young man, apparently just above twenty, with crisp brown curls pushed off a broad noble brow. The eyes were dark, and they and the mouth were full of intense energy. The figure was draped in a scarlet shirt. The first picture was a miniature, carefully finished and well-framed; the second was without a frame, and seemed the dashed-off work of a gifted artist, who had no time, nor perhaps trained skill, to perfect his "study." It attracted me wonderfully; as I answered the Signor's laborious questions my eyes turned to it, and I fear the young lady observed this, for she looked earnestly at me and then at it, and suddenly starting away, burst into tears. Her father smoothed her hair gently with his thin brown hand, and spoke to her in their own melodious tongue, calling her "Christine." Then he drew her chair near his, and opened a small dingy book which lay on the table. From its close print and well-worn look I guessed it some religious manual; for I had jumped to the conclusion that they were sure to be Roman Catholics.
And so I took the opportunity to steal out of the room, with my mind filled with that vague consciousness of mystery which is so charming to romantic young people.
THE DEATH OF SIGNOR SILVANI.
SIGNOR SILVANI and his daughter seemed everything one could desire in lodgers. They went out once or twice together, but the weather continued severe, and the Signor's wound was so painful, that his daughter was generally obliged to go alone. She made no secret of her errands, she went to "seek pupils," as she thought she could teach music and Italian, and even drawing, – "at least to very little children," she added humbly, and my mother advised her as to one or two quarters where she might get introductions.
One evening, just at dusk, she returned from one of these expeditions, and we noticed that she closed the door, and ran up-stairs with unusual energy. We three were sitting idle by the firelight, very likely half asleep.
"Listen!" exclaimed my mother.
For we were startled by a sudden burst of melody, such as I, at least, had never heard before. For a minute we silently wondered "what was it?" Then Harry whispered, – "It is the young lady singing, and playing on great-aunt's old piano." After that we were hushed, unwilling to miss a single note.
The first tune was quick, energetic, buoyant, – like an eager captain hurrying on his soldiers "to conquer or to die;" the second was a most pathetic wail, like the sobs of the women when the battle is over. I always disown any "taste for music," could never learn a note, and cannot recognise a tune except, sometimes, by its associations. Therefore I know I did not understand the wonderful beauty of those melodies, but I felt it, and since then I can comprehend how people are sometimes moved to tears by an eloquent discourse in an unknown tongue.
The music ceased, and some minutes went by, yet we neither stirred nor spoke, till there was a soft rap on the door. It was Christine Silvani herself.
"Can you be greatly kind to us, madame," she said, addressing my mother, "and permit us to have our tea as soon as possible, for my poor papa is very unwell?"
"It is such trying weather," said my mother. "But what a treat you have just given us, mademoiselle."
"Could you hear me?" she asked, startled, "oh, I fear I shall disturb – be troublesome."
"You can't disturb us with that, miss," said Harry.
"For thanks to your goodness, madame," continued the foreigner, with a smile for my brother, "I have got one little appointment. I am to go to the – what you call – 'Daily School' in the next street, and teach music."
"I hope Miss Withers gives you good terms," remarked my mother, for we knew that lady to be something of what Harry irreverently called "a screw."
"Yes, very good for me," she answered. "I am to have half-a-guinea a quarter for every pupil; and she says there are never less than six."
"And she gets a guinea a quarter," interposed Harry, "and she'll put down 'Signora Silvani' on her prospectus, and make herself out ever so grand."
Christine looked amused.
"But the lady has the piano, and the nice room, and the good name in the neighbourhood, monsieur," she said. "Oh, I am well content. Will you take my thanks, madame? and now I must go back to my poor papa."
They had their tea sent up directly. But when our servant Jane went to remove it, she brought down such a tale of the Signor's manifold sufferings, and his daughter's hidden tears, that my mother herself proceeded to their room. She was not too soon. She had not seen much of sickness or death, but she felt sure the Signor was sinking fast, and Harry was at once despatched for our good old doctor, who returned with him.
"It is too late, ma'am," said he, conferring with my mother in the parlour, after he had seen his patient. "The poor man's case must have been hopeless when he entered this house. I don't suppose he knew it. His mind, his energies, were so tried that his physical sufferings were deadened, and so death has come on unawares. Do you know anything of them, ma'am? Have they any friends?"
My mother told all she knew, which was little enough. And then she and the doctor returned to the sick-room.
"What is your own opinion of yourself, Signor?" he asked.
"That exile is ended in Heaven!" said the sick man, speaking in English. "But oh! Christine, mia cara, what will become of you!"
"Have you any friends here?" questioned the doctor.
"There is one who knows my name," answered the invalid, "but I cannot send any one to him but Christine, and she must not leave me now. She will go directly I am gone."
"And have you no directions, sir, respecting your daughter?"
"Do not trouble my father about me, monsieur," said Christine, with trembling lips; "you are very kind, but I know all."
After that there was a long silence.
"Bring me the portrait, Christine," moaned the sufferer, in Italian. "Not that – not that" – as she went towards the miniature – "I shall see him again before midnight – but the other!"
She brought the little painting, and held it before the death-stricken face. The glazing eyes rested on it with passionate affection.
"Oh, Marco, Marco, my boy!" he moaned, and turned away.
"Perhaps you will see him too, my father," cried Christine, kneeling beside the couch. "Perhaps only I remain."
"I feel not so, cara mia," said her father, stroking her bowed head. "But why does God will that I leave you alone? The waiting is so hard! Give Marco his father's dying love and last blessing, my daughter."
Christine only sobbed.
"I know you will. And never forget 'The Secret Drawer.' What God forbids may not be. But you must never forget it, – answer me this time, Christine."
"I never will," she replied, almost calmly.
Nobody but Christine heard him speak again. To her he murmured once or twice, but only one or two words, and in a few moments they all knew he would never speak more.
My mother and the doctor offered their consolations to the lonely orphan. For a moment, hiding her face in her father's pillow, she did not heed them. Then suddenly rising, she swiftly passed them, saying with an imploring wave of her hands, "Let me be by myself, you are very kind, but only God can comfort me," and so passed from the room.
My mother and the medical man came down-stairs, and it was in our parlour that we heard these details of the Signor's deathbed, – which, but for the presence of the doctor, who understood Italian, must have remained unknown to us. As it was, the little we learned only increased the romantic mystery which hung over our lodgers, and our Irish servant, Jane, who brought in the supper during the conversation, lingered in the room when the doctor departed, and narrated sundry little incidents she had observed in her attendance up-stairs, and was neither tardy nor cold in her maledictions against "thim tyrantious princes and Popes (for Jane was a Protestant), whose thumb-screwing and police-spies had driven such a rale gintleman to die in a stranger's house."
Poor Christine Silvani! Early next morning she went out alone, and after a long absence, returned with an elderly, long-bearded countryman of her own, who could not speak a word of English, but who she introduced to the parlour to lay a little roll of notes upon the table, while she explained that he had known "her poor papa, and was kind enough to trust that her father's daughter (how proudly she said it!) would repay his kindness when she could, and would madame kindly make arrangements for a very simple funeral in a very simple grave, it did not matter where, – 'for it cannot be in Italy!'" she said, in her sweet, wailing voice.
My mother said she would do her best, – and she made this answer so gently that the swarthy Italian's eyes gleamed with eloquence, and he uttered a few emphatic words.
"My friend says," explained Christine in faltering tones, "that God rewards kindness which is too great for man to repay."
The orphan girl took her meals with us while her father's corpse remained in the house. She was very quiet, keeping her grief in wonderful control, and rejecting all our suggestions respecting mourning, simply saying that she would wear what she had; the money in her possession – that which remained above the funeral expenses – was not her own, and must not be wasted; "if the angels in Heaven can see us," she said, "papa will say, 'Christine is doing right.'"
I remember one evening, while the whole house was in the shadow of drawn blinds, I left her alone in the parlour, diligently engaged in making as much as possible of the black ribbons on her bonnet, together with a little crape my mother had produced from her stores, and which Christine accepted with a tearful kiss. I went down-stairs to the kitchen, – Jane was out, but Mrs. Simms was there, performing some little domestic office.
"Well, Miss Mary," said she, in a marked tone.
"Well! Mrs. Simms," said I.
"And so the funeral is to be to-morrow," she remarked, in a whisper. "La! what a world it is."
I did not perceive that I was required to answer, so I went about my business, which I remember was to get some hot water from the boiler.
"Now, as a friend, Miss Mary," she went on, "does your dear mother really know nothing about these people?"
"Jane knows as much as we do, Mrs. Simms," I replied, "and I daresay she has told you all about it."
"I don't like mysteries," said Mrs. Simms, decidedly, "and this affair is all mystery. The monsieur spoke of some one being waited for, Jane said."
I answered not, for I recoiled to hear the dead man's sorrows spoken of in such sharp contemptuous tones.
"Mr. Simms is always for law and order," she continued, "and so am I, – and these people abroad seem to have been making a disturbance – so serves 'em right they didn't succeed. I don't deny one reads dreadful things about prisons and cruelties, but la! these foreigners need 'em! They can't expect to make their outlandish governments like our free British Constitution."
MRS. SIMS GIVES HER OPINION.
"Still, let them try, Mrs. Simms," said I, rather mischievously, and with no idea of the solemnity of the topic, "and let them 'try, try, try again!' Mrs. Simms."
"Don't make fun," she answered, shortly. "I don't like people about the house who may be hatching plots, or keeping an infernal machine. And I don't like not to know who's who, – having a little miss about whom one naturally treats as nobody, – and yet may prove to be a Duchess of Something, and serve one out for not making much of her when she was down, – which, mind you, I would be above doing for the sake of my expectations, for I'm not mercenary, Miss Mary."
"Then what does it matter who she is?" I said, as I thought of sweet Christine sitting solitary at her sad work, and accordingly prepared to return to her.
"Ah, you may profess to be very unconcerned," sneered Mrs. Simms, "but I'll be bound you'd dearly like to know what is in the Secret Drawer, wherever it may be."
THE day of the funeral came and passed. The sad procession was touching in its simple lowliness, with the bare, undecked hearse, and the solitary mourning coach, wherein rode Christine and her only friend. Harry and I followed far behind, for town burials had not then ceased, and the destined grave was not distant.
I could not tell whether Christine fully entered into the beautiful service; she stood perfectly still and scarcely cried. It occurred to me then that the Silvani family could not be Romanists, or the last rites would have been performed by a priest of that church. When all was over, and the sexton was filling in the sods, the orphan girl suddenly bent forward and uttered a few earnest words in Italian, then hastily gathering some blades of half-yellow grass which grew on the margin of the grave, she rejoined her companion, and allowed him to lead her back to the coach; and neither Harry nor I saw her again that night.
Early the next morning she had a long interview with our mother, which ended in an arrangement that, at least for the present, she should remain in our house, giving up the first floor, and occupying a small room next to my bedroom, and taking her meals with us. When my mother acquainted us with this plan, I think she had a dread of the Simms' opinion in her mind, for she added, with a little sigh, –
"I hope it is a wise scheme."
"Why, mother," cried Harry, "it is jolly!"
Further comment was interrupted by the entrance of Christine herself, ready equipped for her first "attendance" at Miss Withers' "ladies' school." My mother told her that as she and Harry were going to spend the later part of the day with a friend in the City, there would be only "Mary" to receive her when she came back. Whereupon Christine remarked, that would be a very good opportunity for us to improve our acquaintance, adding, with a pretty complimentary air, "that she hoped mademoiselle would not find it dull." And then she gathered up some music she had bought, and went off.
"Mrs. Simms says she considers she takes her father's death very coolly," remarked my mother, in a doleful way.
"Mrs. Simms is a simpleton!" ejaculated Harry; "why, that girl is a perfect hero (of course he should have said heroine). She's got lots of tears in her, but she keeps them behind her eyes."
I remembered that remark when in the afternoon Christine returned, and came into the parlour, where I remained alone. I never beheld a sadder sight than her white, calm face. It seemed as if the tears "behind her eyes" were frozen there. I took away her bonnet and mantle, and put her into the easy chair. She only said "thank you," and then leaned back, gazing into the fire, with glassy eyes and clenched lips. I could not endure it. I went up to her, and laid a hand on each shoulder, and said, "You are very tired, dear, you should not have gone out to-day, – mamma said so."
She turned and looked at me, and the frozen tears thawed instantly. I sat down beside her, and put my arm round her neck, and there was a long silence.
"You must not speak kindly to me," she said. "I cannot be brave when I hear a gentle voice, – and yet I so love to hear one! But I must be brave. I've got to face the world, – and the world is selfish, and does not like to see tears. You must leave me alone, – only don't think me hard-hearted."
"I shall not leave you alone," I answered, warmly, "and you must not make yourself feel a stranger. I care very much for you already."
She put her arm round me and kissed me, saying, "Then always call me 'Christine,' and let me call you 'Marie;' and sometimes, when I want very much to cry a little, will you let me cry, without thinking I am making you miserable with sorrows which are nothing to do with you?"
"I shall think no such thing," I replied.
We did not speak again till she rose, and proposed we should go up-stairs and remove her little possessions from the first floor. "I shall carry my desk to my bedroom," she said; "I shall like to feel it near me in the night. And I must take the portraits there too. [A little sigh.] I shall see them every morning."
"Bring them down-stairs to the parlour," I suggested. "Let them stand at each side of the looking-glass."
"But your mamma will not care to see them. They are but strange faces to her."
"Are they very dear to you?" I asked.
"They are my brothers," she replied, – "those are all that remain of two dear brothers."
We sat down side by side; I almost cried to see the silent sorrow on her face, for she was quite tearless now.
"Will you tell me about it?" I whispered, timidly; for since her father's death she had seemed to grow so wise and womanly that I had quite a reverence for her.
"Yes, if you like to hear it," she answered, dreamily, "but I don't know where to begin."
"Where did you live in Italy?" I asked.
"In Rome," she replied, with a flash in her eyes – "grand, beautiful, wasted Rome! One of my earliest recollections is of a Popish procession; – some of these processions are pretty, but they are all foolish, and many are wicked."
CHRISTINE TELLING HER STORY.
"Then you are a Protestant?" I queried.
"Scarcely that," she answered, with a faint smile.
"I was brought up in my mother's church, which my dear papa joined; it is the church of the Waldenses, which has never been reformed, because it resisted the very entrance of corruption."
"Yes, I had often heard of them," I said.
"We kept that faith in Rome," Christine proceeded, "but it was very hard. There was no church to attend, and we had to hide our Bible. There were other Waldensians there, and sometimes we had little meetings for prayer and praise, especially when any good foreigner brought us glad news from happier lands; but it was always hidden, for there are many priests in Rome, and those people who do not attend mass and confession are much suspected and watched. Sometimes a Waldensian was seized and put in prison, and his Bible taken from him and destroyed.
"My dear mother died when we were all little. She had never been quite well since the birth of my youngest brother Angelo," – she pointed to the miniature of the fair-haired lad, – "who was just one year older than I. Angelo was a very delicate child, with blue eyes and yellow hair, like my mother's, and so he was papa's pet, and Marco and I were left to each other. Marco was eldest: he was just twenty when that picture was painted at the beginning of last year. Oh, Marco was so handsome, noble, and good! Oh, Marco, my brother, my darling!" she wailed; and her voice died away in a desolate sob.
"On the whole, we were a happy family, – never rich, often very poor," she resumed. "But there's a strange pleasure in struggling to make both ends meet, and a wonderful excitement when they do just meet, with nothing over. Papa took great pains with us. We had all learned English from our mother, who had lived long in England in her youth, and he made us keep it up, though he could not speak it himself. I almost think he wished us to live in England when we grew up. Angelo was a great student, and wrote poetry; – he was a genius, my poor little brother, but he was so very weak and frail that he could not be much with Marco and me. I knew all Marco's secrets. He was strong, and brave, and clever, and had many friends, but there was no companion he loved better than his little sister; and it was from him I heard that troubled times were coming, while as yet they were far off, – a 'cloud no larger than a man's hand.'
"The Italians were weary of their rulers. Our dear land is ridden by a score of tyrants, who slay and torture and imprison every one who crosses their wicked will. But suddenly the people rose (Christine sprang up as she said it); and when the people rose, the wicked kings and grand dukes fled, and left their subjects to do as they liked. The Pope fled, – the poor Pope," said Christine, "who would have been a good man if he had not been a Pope, – and there was a new Government in our glorious City of Rome.
"Of course there was much confusion, Marie, for a new Government cannot guide things like an old one. It was hard for a whole city to leave the bad old ways, and get into good new ones. The new Government was not always wise, – dear papa said that, – though Marco would never hear anything against it; but one thing know, there was no more need to conceal the Bible; – nay, it was openly sold in the streets and shops! and when we wished to worship God we no longer met together in the night.
"But it all came to an end," said Christine, leaning back in her chair as if she was weary, "for the French army came to restore the Pope, and instead of peace and thanksgiving there was war and misery. Rome was fortified, with General Garibaldi to defend it, and Marco, and papa, and even poor Angelo took arms under him. We left our old home, which was in the suburbs, and took a lodging in a great crowded house in the very heart of the city, where I used to remain alone whilst they all three went out to fight.
"Well, the French kept on winning and winning, and they had almost got a footing inside the city, when papa was wounded. The worst night of all was when they did get inside the walls. Papa was very ill, and in great pain, and when the doctor came he gave him something which made him sleep through his sufferings, and through the noise of the firing. I was alone, and I knew my brothers were both in the thick of the fight. I think I can hear the shots now;" and she shuddered.
"In the morning they brought Angelo home – not dead, but fast dying, with a fearful wound in his neck. Nothing could be done for him – the doctor could spare no time for a hopeless case, – and all that remained was to give him water and bathe his forehead. He was in fearful pain at first, but so patient, my poor Angelo! After a while, that passed, and he was quite easy, and then be died!
"Marco never saw him again alive, for he could not get home until just before Angelo was buried. Then he only came for a moment. Rome had surrendered to the French, but Garibaldi would not surrender, and he and part of his army intended to leave the city by night. Marco only came to ask my father's permission to join them. He got it. He kissed poor Angelo, and he kissed me, and bade me look out for him when the troops went by. If it was so dark that I could not see his face, he promised to tie a handkerchief to his musket. He was not with us more than ten minutes.
"At twilight that day Angelo was buried, and a cross was put up over his grave – just two rough sticks, with 'Angelo' carved on one. I hope that grave will be kept sacred, Marie, and perhaps some day I shall go back and see it.
"Just at midnight the troops passed our house on their way to the gate. My father was able to sit at the window and watch them. I told him of Marco's signal, and we both saw it. We watched it, passing – passing – passing away, – and that was the last I have ever seen of my brother!"
"Did you not hear whether he was wounded?" I inquired.
"No," she replied: "we had to leave our lodgings and hide – anywhere, anyhow – for papa would have been imprisoned if he had been discovered. We lost everything except the desk which you know. After a while we got to Piedmont, where we were a little safer, and there papa met some one who had seen Marco after he left Rome. He was with Garibaldi when scarcely one hundred others remained faithful. These, Marco among them, tried to escape with their General in some fishing-boats, but they were fired on by an Austrian vessel, and forced to return and take shelter in the woods. No one saw Marco after that. He may be dead, he may be a prisoner, he may be in safe hiding, he may actually be in England (Christine sprang up and paced the room), but where he is I cannot tell! Oh, it is dreadful, Marie. It is so different with papa and Angelo; I know where their bodies rest – one under the cross at Rome, and the other in the English graveyard; I know their souls are with God! But Marco may be pining in a dungeon, – Marco may be ill, – dying with no one to be kind to him! I sometimes almost wish I knew him to be dead – and safe! But papa fancied he still lived, – papa said so just before he died. Oh, Marco, Marco!" she wailed, – "Marco; my darling! the moon still shines on the Campagna, but you and I walk there no more!"
"How can you bear it?" I asked, impetuously.
"I do not know," she answered, with a sweet thrill in her voice, "I do not know – but God does."
Then we parted – she up-stairs, I down – and when my agitation calmed away, I remembered her story had shed no light into the Secret Drawer.
MRS. SIMMS' CURIOSITY.
DAYS and weeks passed on. Christine kept up her attendances at Miss Withers' school, and procured other engagements elsewhere, and very soon her mornings were fully occupied. It was not surprising, for her terms seemed terribly moderate compared with her talents; but Christine had a humble estimate of herself, constantly lamenting her "want of training," and spending every spare moment in the improvement of one or other of her accomplishments. Besides her teaching she managed to get some translating and foreign copying, at which she worked during the evening; and, in truth, our little lodger's only rest seemed change of occupation.
Her early success in independence enabled her to return some of her countryman's loan untouched. At the end of August she told us that the rest of her little debt was discharged. From that time she was never out except on business, or for a walk.
One lovely autumn evening she and I went to the West End, and found plenty of amusement in the brilliant shops, which we did not often see. Suddenly Christine said, in a voice strangely grave for the words, –
"I suppose I must have a new dress."
"Of course you must," I answered, promptly. "I can't think how you have made yours last so long, – and you should not begrudge yourself now when you must be getting quite rich."
She did not answer, but I remember her dark eyes turned an earnest glance towards me.
"Buy a black bombazine," I went on, eagerly; "you really should have a nice dress at last, after wearing such a shabby thing so long."
"Oh, Marie, Marie," she said, in a sweet, thrilling voice, "it may be shabby in your eyes, but it is the last attire in which they knew me!"
I was a little touched, and was silent. Presently she drew me to a draper's window, and asked my opinion on the wares therein.
"Don't look there," I said, "it is such a cheap shop!"
"I thought that," she answered; "there can be nothing cheaper than that," pointing to a coarse fabric of mingled black and grey. "Look! only fivepence a yard; and I need but ten yards, – how much is that? I am so slow at your English money!"
"Four-and-twopence," I replied, with great contempt. "Why, it would not be more than five-and-sixpence, lining and all! Ridiculous!"
"I shall buy it," she said, calmly.
And so she did.
I felt angry at the purchase, and during the process of making the dress I would not offer a single opinion or suggestion. I do not know whether Christine observed this; she took no notice, and was as sweet and gentle as ever. Yet something seemed to have come between us, a
"First slight swerving of the heart,"
which did not heal as days went on. I cannot explain my feelings. If I thought her stingy, I need not have felt injured, since she only grudged herself. Perhaps I thought she set a bad precedent in dress expenses. Perhaps I did not like her for looking neat and ladylike in the despised garment. Perhaps my resentment sprung from a mixture of all these feelings.
There came a particularly hot, sultry day. Most of Christine's pupils were out of town, and she was almost idle. She looked pale and preoccupied. At last she said, with sudden energy, that she must go out, and went upstairs for her bonnet and mantle. I followed, but only to the second floor, for I had been making a few little purchases for Mrs. Simms.
I found that lady sitting by the open window, quite "prostrated" by the weather. I displayed my wares (I remember they were blonds and gauzes), and whilst we were commenting upon them our street-door shut, and Mrs. Simms popped her head out of the window to see who had made an exit.
"Ill-bred woman!" thought I.
"There now!" she exclaimed, clutching my dress, but not drawing in her head. "Look with your own eyes, my dear, for perhaps you won't believe me."
And out went my head in a twinkling!
All I saw was a small dark figure, running off as fast as legs could carry it. It turned the corner of the square, and was lost to sight. Then we both brought our heads back inside the room.
"What do you think of that?" asked Mrs. Simms.
"What was it?" I asked, perplexed.
"Just your Mademoiselle Silvani," said the law-stationer's wife; "and is that the pace of a young lady who hasn't a place to go to outside this house, nor a single kith nor kin in all London? Do you or I hurry when we're going nowhere? There's something not right about her, Miss Mary."
Somehow the coarse-minded gossip did not irritate me now; I even asked Mrs. Simms what made her say so.
"There's more than meets the eye in most things, my dear," she went on, picking imaginary ends from the carpet.
"But Christine shows herself such a good girl," I said; for I believed I still loved her and was her sincere champion. Our hearts change before we are aware.
"Mark my words," said Mrs. Simms, with oracular emphasis: "she's come from some beginning we don't guess, and she's living for some aim we don't know!"
"But you must have a reason for saying this," I persisted, with more curiosity than indignation.
"Be sure I don't speak without a reason," she said.
"And if you have a good reason you can tell it, for I know how you dislike mysteries, ma'am," I remarked, shrewdly bringing her own words to bear upon her.
"Well, where there's a secret," she began, after a pause, "I think it's fair to try which is cleverest, the one who wants to keep it or the other who tries to find it out."
At another time I should have said that a person's secret was as much his own property as his watch, but I felt this was only an apology for some mean trick about to be disclosed, and I was not averse to profit by the shabby action of another; so I made a sign which I wished Mrs. Simms to consider encouraging; and she proceeded in a whisper, –
"I could never forget what Jane told me about the Secret Drawer. It's quite haunted me of a night to know that young creature was in the room above me, with some mystery – no one knows how awful a-resting on her soul. Mr. Simms has heard me talking of secret drawers in my dreams, and he's wondered what I meant; for you know I never talk to Simms, my dear; he's as simple as a child; and if he knew I was wondering about anything, he'd just say, 'Ask the young lady herself, and put your mind at rest.' That's Simms' wisdom, Miss Mary.
"Well, one night I heard her go up to bed at the same time as you; but long after you were asleep as sound as a top, like a dear blessed innocent angel, she was fidgeting about as if there was something in her wouldn't let her rest. Simms was out, it was busy time, and he was working four-and-twenty hours on a stretch. So I slipped on my carpet shoes and put a shawl round me, and crept up-stairs to her door. Sure enough the candle was burning, and I'm telling you in confidence, my dear," – and she laid her skinny hand on my shoulder, – "I just looked through the key-hole, and there she was, sitting at the table, with that odd-looking desk before her, and a drawer open, somehow out of its side, – a thorough secret drawer, Miss Mary, – I couldn't find it again if I had the chalice to try, – and a lot of papers in it, and spread all over the table. And she took one of them, and looked over it, as if it was an account. Then she took two or three gold pieces out of her purse – I could not tell whether they were sovereigns or halves, – and folded them up in it, and put it in a corner of the drawer, – and took a blank piece of paper, and wrote something on it, and then laid her head on her hands, and cried as if her heart would break. And then she started up, and I thought she might have heard a creaking, so I made off as quickly as I could."
"It's certainly very strange," I remarked; "she told me a great deal of her history, but nothing about this."
"Of course you'll not mention it to her, Miss Mary," said Mrs. Simms, "nor to your mother either, only be upon your guard." And so we parted.
About six o'clock Harry returned, and rushed into the parlour shouting, "Christine! Christine! where's Christine? I've got some news!"
"Gently, gently," said my mother, "Christine is out."
"Where is she gone?" he asked.
"We do not know," I answered, with an emphasis.
Harry threw himself into a chair. "There's a lot of Italian refugees just landed," he said – "some of them escaped from prison; they only came yesterday, and they're awfully bad off."
"Poor things!" said my mother; "I wonder if Christine will know any of them?"
"Not very likely. I think they come from the very toe and heel of the leg of Europe," said my learned brother. "But there's a subscription opened for them, and I know she'll like to give something."
HARRY IMPARTING THE NEWS.
"We shall see," I remarked, significantly.
At that moment she entered, looking jaded and dusty. Harry eagerly imparted his news.
"Yes, I've heard of the poor refugees," she said, a little dreamily, leaning against the wall.
"And have you heard of the subscription for them?" asked Harry, not so enthusiastically.
"No," she said, turning towards him. "Is there one?"
"Yes," the boy went on, excited again, "and my chum Dick Thornton is collecting, and I told him you would be sure to send a trifle."
"I am sorry you said so, Harry," she replied, gently, "for I cannot do it."
"You shouldn't have been so rash, my boy," said my mother.
I think Harry had made a boast of Christine's patriotism and certain liberality, for he was keenly disappointed, and I provoked him further by a laugh.
"Well, all have a right to do as they like," he said, bitterly, "but when one's heard a lot of fine talk about a 'dear country and brave compatriots' (he actually mimicked Christine's tone and words), one naturally sets them down as worth a shilling or half-a-crown."
"Harry! I'm ashamed of you," said our mother, as he swung out of the room. "Harry, come back and apologise."
But he wouldn't, and she went after him.
Christine still stood in front of the picture, and I think she murmured, "Oh, Marco! Marco!" Her face was very pale.
"You must not mind Harry," I remarked (not, God forgive me! with a good intention); "he only made a very natural blunder."
"I know it," she said.
"People that keep secrets cannot expect to be understood," I added, stitching vigorously.
She looked earnestly at me, and a slight flush passed over her paleness. "What makes you name 'secret?'" she asked, with firmness.
My plight was a little awkward. I dare not allude to Mrs. Simms' narrative, so I was obliged to be unfeeling, and refer to her father's death-bed. "The doctor told us there was something about a Secret Drawer," I said, folding my work and leaving the room.
She followed me to the door and held me a moment. "Oh, Marie," she said, "when you cannot be sure, why not hope good as well as suspect evil?"
I saw her no more that night.
CHRISTINE'S VISIT TO THE REFUGEES.
AFTER that little "tiff" on the sultry evening, Harry showed no more temper, but was decidedly reserved, and made no friendly advances to Christine, who seemed wearied and depressed. There was a constraint upon us. More than once, I was inclined to tell her Mrs. Simms' story, but I had made a promise of secrecy. Besides, I was conscious that my own part in the interview had been mean and unworthy. At the same time I found it quite impossible to put aside the knowledge I had so shabbily obtained, and whenever I felt impelled to behave warmly towards Christine, the memory of her jealously guarded secret chilled the impulse.
Harry had left school in the spring, and about this time he got a situation as messenger in some office in Parliament Street. He was a handsome boy, tall for his age, rather fastidious in dress, and very impressible, – altogether, everything which "the only son of a widow" had better not be. Of course, he was rather spoiled in our female household at Brown Square. He and I got on pretty well in a scrambling way, quarrelling one hour, and very loving the next.
But Christine always behaved wisely towards him, not because least burdened by affection, for I believe her bereaved heart quite received him in place of the fair-haired Angelo sleeping under the wooden cross at Rome. She never "nagged" at him. She expostulated sometimes, but generally her silence had more effect than my volleys of reproof. She had once or twice spoken very firmly to him, and though he had gone off offended, he had always returned, convinced that she was right, and desiring to regain her good graces, which she never withheld. Therefore, I believe, Christine deeply felt his continued coolness.
Winter came, and found her busily employed with lessons and translating. As I recalled her arrival at our house, I felt she had changed during the year. She looked much older, and her face was worn, and had a touching expression of patient endurance. She often uttered bright and lively things, and yet sometimes, when making an ordinary remark, there was a sound in her voice which made me look to see if she were crying. I never noticed this in conversation, it was only in unguarded moments, generally when she had just come in from the street.
Not long before Christmas, my mother went out to tea, leaving us in charge of the house. Just after she had gone, the postman brought a letter for "Mademoiselle Silvani." It was the first she had ever received, for it had happened her business had gone on without need of correspondence. She laid it on her knee, with the superscription turned down. She sat so several minutes, and I saw her face was very white then she cut it open, read it, and burst into tears.
"Is it bad news, Christine?" I whispered; "you will tell me, will you not?"
"It is good news," she sobbed, "it is from a gentleman who wishes me to copy a great heap of Italian papers for him. He says he will give me quite five pounds for doing it."
"Then why do you cry?" I said, caressing her.
"Because I am disappointed," she sobbed.
Presently she dropped her handkerchief, and said, a little calmly, "You are very kind to have patience with me. I do my best not to trouble you often, only I am so tired!"
"You work too hard, – I always say so," I remarked, feeling inclined to add, "and what on earth you do with all your money, I cannot tell!"
"I don't mean that," she said, "I'm never tired of work, – it's my best blessing."
"What tires you then?" I asked.
"Waiting – waiting for Marco," she murmured, wearily laying her head on my shoulder.
"No one can tell what it is, till they feel it," she went on presently. "Every time I take up a newspaper I half fancy I may see his name. Sometimes I think he may come to England, and I look for him as I go along the street. I've sometimes gone out expressly to do so. I can hardly keep from peeping into the foreign restaurants to see if he is there. I thought this letter might be from him or about him. Then often, when I'm in the middle of teaching or talking, it comes into my mind, 'What is Marco doing now – at this minute,' and that is such sharp pain, Marie!"
CHRISTINE'S INTERVIEW WITH THE ITALIAN.
"How we notice and sympathise with what we know," she added. "Since I lost Marco, I have noticed how many are in like sorrow. All the friends of those who go out in ships that are never 'heard of;' all the friends of Sir John Franklin's men; all the people who belong to those who are advertised as 'Missing.'"
"But they have generally ran away," I said, "so that is their own fault."
"None the better for those they leave behind them," she answered. "Oh how very cruel they are, – those people who run away!"
Somehow, at that moment, Harry came into my mind.
"You recollect the Italian refugees we talked about last summer?" she said, in a constrained voice, as if she did not wish to allude to the whole of the subject.
"Yes, I remember," I answered, turning eagerly towards her.
"I heard about them first," she said, "and though they came from a part where Marco was little likely to be, I could not help running off to see if he were among them."
"Where were they?" I asked.
"In a little street off Leicester Square, in a Café de Liberté," she said, with a pitiful smile; "when I got there, I could not tell how to hear what I wanted. But I took courage, and asked a waitress to tell the principal gentleman of the party, that an Italian girl wanted to speak to him about something very important to her. Presently an old man came downstairs to me, – a venerable man with long white hair, and when I told my name, he had heard it before; he knew a Marco Silvani who fought among the defenders of Rome! But when I told what I wanted, he could give no help, though he spoke very kindly, and told me how his own hair had grown grey in prison, and how his cell had become so like home, that he often yearned for it. 'But the loneliness, Signor,' I said. 'Nay, my daughter,' he answered, 'there is no loneliness like being alone out in the world.' Fancy, Marie, if Marco should live to say that!"
"That is Harry's ring," she exclaimed, starting up; "I will go away until I am calm. When I come back, don't look at me, Marie, don't speak too kindly to me, and then I shall not break down!"
Harry came in and threw himself on a sofa. He looked annoyed, and seemed absent when I spoke. Presently Christine glided in, and took a seat in a shady corner, occupying her fingers with some simple knitting, for which she did not require light.
"I am going out again," said Harry, moodily.
"Not for long, I hope," I remarked; "you'll be home before mother comes back, I suppose?"
"I don't know that," he responded.
"You've been out every evening this week," I said; "do you call that a good habit?"
"I don't care, and it's nothing to do with you," he answered again.
Whilst I was planning some bitter retort, Christine stepped to the piano. Presently she began to play. Her music had great charms for Harry, – indeed, in former months, he had taken lessons from her, but that custom had dropped off as his habits grew less domestic. My angry words were checked, and I sat in silence, occasionally glancing at my brother on the sofa. Somehow, I recalled the story of Saul with his evil spirit listening to the sweet melodies of the youthful David. Certainly, poor Harry looked fretted and unhappy, and a little excited. But gradually the fierce, rebellious expression faded, and more than once I heard a little quick sigh. Christine still played, – now a march, then a dirge, next a vineyard song. Presently Harry turned his face towards the wall. At last my mother came home, and supper was brought in, but Harry said no more about going out.
I went up-stairs to my room as usual, and happened to look out upon the street. The square was empty, with the exception of one man, who lingered at the corner and then turned back. I closed the shutter, and proceeded to my toilet.
At that moment Christine entered. She had already unfastened her hair, and it hung in rich locks about her shoulders. Her face looked wild and white. She laid a very cold hand on mine, and whispered, –
"Marie, something is wrong; this house is watched."
"Nonsense," I said; "you will work yourself up until you become crazy, Christine."
"Ah! very likely!" she answered. "But that does not alter this. Every night for a week a man has watched this house. I know not when he comes, but he does not depart until long after midnight. He is there now!"
I bustled to the window, she following. True enough the man I had seen was still there, sauntering about as no wayfarer does on such a night.
"Is it always the same man?" I asked.
"Yes, as far as I can see," she replied. "Oh, Marie, Marie, what is it? What can it be?"
"Perhaps it is an unlucky sweetheart of Jane's, who finds a little consolation in seeing her candle in the attic window."
"How can you laugh!" she exclaimed, piteously. "Marie, the shadow of evil is creeping over this house; I can feel it; it is no stranger to me."
"Hush, darling," I said, putting my arm about her neck, "you are so tired, and you endure so much, I don't wonder you get nervous."
"I can't keep them down," she moaned, "I can only pray, 'Lord, pity me, pity me.' But, Marie," and she suddenly sprang up with renewed energy, "can we do anything? Shall I tell your mother? and if she pleases I will go out and ask the man why he is there."
"You little knight-errant," said I, "don't forget that you are in a free country. The man may stand there as long as he likes."
"Well, I suppose he must," she answered, drawing a long breath, "but it is very horrible to be watched, it is like sitting still and seeing a thief plunder one's goods."
I felt my cheeks burn as she said these words; then with an exhortation not to worry herself, I kissed her, and we parted.
My old regard for her seemed to have blossomed into new life during that day. I can never altogether explain my feelings towards Christine – they were a mingling of pity for her loneliness in the stranger's land, and yet reverence because I felt her life was higher than mine. Each little mystery of her story, when cleared up – like that of her lonely walk on that unhappy sultry day – only displayed more of the sweetness of her character. And yet it was strange how ready she was to dispel all mysteries except that ONE, about which she would take no hint. And why was she so terrified at that watcher outside? Was it possible that Christine was really the unwilling keeper of a miserable secret? Whatever this thing was which lurked in the chamber next to mine, her father had known it, had expressly committed it to her charge. Was her natural longing for her brother Marco mingled with another longing for him as one with whom she could share her hidden burden, so that it should no longer lay between herself and the dead man in yonder dreary graveyard? And did she fear lest this mysterious watcher knew more than he should? I actually rose from my bed to see if he were still there. The moon was as bright as ever – a million stars were shining – but the square was quite empty, – the man was gone. At that moment I thought our street door closed. Stealthily I opened the window and looked out, but the pathway by our house lay in darkness, and I could see nothing.
NEXT morning I was the first astir. I had not passed a good night. It seemed a relief to enter the brown familiar parlour, and take up one's household tasks. I settled to some plain needlework, and I remember I wished Harry would come down and break the hush by his rattling, boyish ways. It was quite time he had risen, and I resolved to go and call him. I recollected how uneasy he had been the evening before, and I was sorry I had not spoken kindly to him, and tried to win that perfect confidence which he had once been so ready to give. "Never mind," I thought, "we shall get a little talk this morning before the others come down, and then we shall make things all right, and I shall feel at ease while he is away, which I never do when we have fallen out."
So I ran up-stairs, singing to myself, and determined to keep my temper, even if Harry should be a little provoking. Then I knocked at his door, once – twice.
"How tiresome he is!" I thought, getting pettish; "he guesses who it is, and won't answer." So I knocked again, sharply.
There was no movement in the room, and somehow at that instant my petulance faded away, and I called his name quite beseechingly – a tone I knew Harry would certainly answer – if he could.
Oh that ghastly moment when I stood with my hand upon the lock, gathering courage to open the door! A prayer – I scarcely knew for what – flew up to heaven. Then I entered.
The chamber was EMPTY.
The little blue-draped bed had not been slept in, but the quilt was disturbed – as though some one had laid down across the couch, – and in one or two places it seemed to have been grasped and crumpled in clenched, agonised hands. Nothing about the room was out of place. On the little toilet-table the comb stood in the brush, according to Harry's wont, and a pretty blue silk neck-tie lay exactly as I had seen it the day before. I don't know how I noticed these trifles, but I did.
As I stood by the bedside, gazing forlornly round, I saw an open book lying on the top of the drawers. It was a small prayer-book which generally stood there beside Harry's Bible. I moved to look at it, but did not touch it; – it had suddenly grown a sacred thing. It was open at the fly-leaf, on which was some writing, evidently done laboriously with a badly-pointed pencil. The paper was blurred and warped with tears, and it was with difficulty I read, –
"Don't believe all they'll say, Mary; but it's bad enough. Don't trouble after me, and don't let mother fret: I'm not worth it."
Oh, Harry, Harry!
I crept to Christine's room. She was up and dressed, sitting on the window-sill with a book upon her knee. I cannot remember how I told my sad story. The first thing I recollect is half lying on the floor, while she stood before me, saying, "Marie, be calm now, for it may not be too late: something must be done."
I moaned, "Mother must be told."
"Ah, but other things beside. Whereabouts is Harry's office? I have never exactly known."
"In that street north of Whitehall; – but nobody will be there till half-past nine, and it is not eight yet."
"The concierge – the keeper of the chambers – will be there, Marie, and there I will go. I will return as soon as I can, but do not wonder if I be long."
"What do you expect? what shall you do?" I asked, as she proceeded to get out her bonnet and cloak.
"Make no hindrance, Marie, mine own," she said, gravely. "Shall I stop to make plans? The Lord will provide. Do not let your mother fear much yet."
And so she went out into the clear morning streets, and I stole down-stairs to shut the door behind her. Jane was just setting the breakfast-things, and there was a comfortable smell of toast and coffee, which no one would ever touch. I told Jane all the tale, for the good creature had put her whole soul into our family interests, but over and over again I entreated her "not to tell Mrs. Simms – not to let Mrs. Simms know anything about it."
"The mistress must be told," said Jane, – "and she sitting up-stairs at this minute as happy and innocent as she can be! It may all come right again, Miss darling, most like it will, – for young birds are generally glad to get back to the old nest; – but it'll give your mother's heart a wrench that will last her lifetime, be it long or be it short."
So my mother was told, and she went with us to the deserted chamber, and gently fingered the little blue tie, and softly asked, "Where is Harry's Bible?"
"He has – taken it," I sobbed.
She sighed, and Jane broke out in wild efforts at consolation. "Ay, he's thinking he'll make his fortune like Whittington, he is, poor dear; but by- and-bye he'll get hungry, and want his dinner, and before evening he'll be back with his feathers ruffled like a moulting bird; and unless you've both half killed yourself with fretting, there'll be no harm done, and we'll all be just where we have been!"
"O Jane, don't – don't!" said my mother, putting her hand on Jane's shoulder; and then the kind-hearted girl threw her apron over her head and burst into tears.
How wearily that morning passed! It was quite noon before a cab drove up to our door, and Christine and a gentleman got out. It was Harry's employer, Mr. Wilmot.
He came up to my mother respectfully, and made her return to the chair from which she had risen. "I wish to spare you all the pain I can," said he. I noticed Christine had a fierce, determined look, like that of a hunted animal at bay.
"The future may always retrieve a youthful error," said the gentleman.
"What do you mean?" asked my mother; then she wailed, "Oh, Harry, Harry, what have you done?"
"Nothing – or very little," said Christine, sharply.
"Hush! hush!" whispered the gentleman, "it must be told. Your poor boy robbed me."
"Robbed!" screamed my mother, – "my Harry, my darling – a thief – "
"I don't believe it!" put in Christine.
"No more don't I!" said Jane from the half-open door, where she was eavesdropping.
"Nearly a fortnight ago I lost thirty pounds from my cash-box," continued Mr. Wilmot. "Be calm, dear madam, be calm," – for my mother started up, "I did not suspect your son. He had been careless sometimes, but I thought him a good lad. Yet in the course of a day or two I heard things which justified suspicion, still I would not believe them until I knew; and I desired to ascertain the truth, – not to bring the boy to justice, only to check him on the road to ruin."
"But still you only suspect; you do not know – you cannot prove," said my mother.
"I do know," replied Mr. Wilmot. "I cannot prove, simply because the culprit is fled. I know that Harry had a large sum in his possession, for which his salary cannot account. Had he any from you?"
"No," faltered my mother.
"I know that for the last week he has frequented a gaming saloon, and that he has always been unlucky in his play."
"Oh, Harry, Harry!" sobbed my mother.
"So you had him watched, sir?" said Christine, suddenly, in a strange clear voice.
"I did," replied Mr. Wilmot. Of course it had been only in the way of business, and yet I am sure the gentleman did not like making the confession, and he proceeded to defend himself. "I did not wish to make a groundless charge."
"Then did you set on the watch before you had ground for suspicion?" Christine asked again.
"I had grounds – from information received."
"Will you tell us what that information was?" queried Christine. "Have pity for the poor mother, sir."
"I do – I do sincerely," he answered, "but it was given me in confidence; I cannot betray it."
"I suppose, sir, the informer made that stipulation," said Christine.
"Just so," replied Mr. Wilmot, reluctantly.
"Yes," she exclaimed, bitterly; "that is a safe armour in which to tell lies!"
"I honour your feelings, young lady," said Mr. Wilmot, rising, "but in justice to myself let me say that I received this information from two individuals, each unknown to the other. Doubtless my presence only increases your grief, but if in the course of events I can render any assistance, remember I am at command." And so he departed.
I have but a confused recollection of the days which followed. I know many people came and went, – an attorney, and some policemen in private clothes. Amongst them all I only recall one face. It belonged to a young man who was in Mr. Wilmot's office. Directed by the housekeeper at "the chambers," Christine had gone to his lodgings to obtain his master's private address, and this youth called several times at our house, each time with a different suggestion as to Harry's whereabouts. He was an elegant-looking man fully twenty years of age, quiet in manner, and with nothing objectionable about him, except a somewhat furtive glance. Yet Christine took a demonstrative dislike to him, and at last caused Jane to deny him entrance.
She was the ruling spirit during that time. She went to the hospitals – ay, and to the dead-houses; she paid personal visits to the Docks; she advertised; she made acquaintance with many queer specimens of humanity. My mother knew little of this. She sank under the weight of suspense, and could no longer enter into details. But I understood it all. Sometimes I murmured that I could not endure that one with such sorrows of her own should bear so much for strangers, but each time she replied almost in the same words, –
"What is the use of suffering unless it teach us how to act? Have no fears for me, Marie. I had to pass through the streets of besieged Rome at midnight, and there was no harm. God guards the path of duty." And then she would kiss me, and tie on her little brown bonnet and set off on some new quest, which always ended – in vain.
Sunday came. My mother remained in her chamber, but Christine and I found ourselves in Harry's room. It had not been touched yet. Most of the things remained exactly as he left them. It was Christine's turn to comfort.
"But your sorrow is not like our sorrow," I cried, passionately, "your brother is lost in honour, and poor Harry is called a – " I could not say what.
"Never mind what he is called, Marie. See!" and she took up the little prayer-book, "he says, 'Don't believe all they'll say.'"
"He wouldn't have written that unless he knew they could say something," I sobbed.
"Ay, doubtless he is in fault, but not as they think. Why, Marie, you don't know how differently a story looks from opposite sides!"
"What was the use of his putting 'not to fret?'" I moaned, leaning on her shoulder. "He might know we must. He may know we are miserable at this very moment; why doesn't he come back? Oh, Christine, where may he be? – what may he be doing?"
"He cannot run away from God," she said, sweetly; "and God loves him even better than his mother does. Let us remember, Marie, God is both with Harry and with Marco!"
"But oh! I fear Harry must have forgotten God," I wailed; "and oh! I wish I had him even for one moment, just to speak kindly to him once more."
"Marie," she said, "Harry took his Bible with him. Let us hope he is looking into it at this very moment." And we both stood in reverent silence, as we should if we had really seen him so doing.
THE VISIT TO THE EXHIBITION.
THAT was a sorrowful spring-tide. My mother tried to fix her mind on her domestic duties, and outwardly she succeeded, but as I gazed at her worn face and whitening hair, I felt that Jane's prophecy was true.
Of course Mrs. Simms knew that Harry was gone. I did not see her for some weeks: Christine received her rent and gave her a receipt. But I encountered her at last, and how I shrank from her cutting hints! how well I knew that she greedily believed the worst! and of course there was a due amount of gossip in the neighbourhood. What comfort it was that Christine was loyal and staunch in heart and act, hoping even more than I did, and repelling every attempt to invade the sanctuary of our sorrow!
In the outer world that year 1851 was a glorious time. Once or twice Christine and I wandered to Hyde Park, and gazed at a fairy palace, wherein the many Babel-sundered nations of the earth were to mix as "friends and brethren." "The Great Exhibition of Industry" was the one topic everywhere, – in pulpits, in society, and at home.
One Sunday evening a strange clergyman preached at our church. He was a famous man, who had wrought many good works both in England and abroad. His quick imagination was fired by the great enterprise rising before him, and I shall never forget his impassioned tone as he urged us to give thanks that our lot was cast when the reign of Peace was to begin – when there should be no more "battles of the warrior, with confused noise and garments rolled in blood;" but "swords should be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks."
His enthusiasm awakened mine; and when next evening I went with Christine to the park, and saw the grand old trees in their transparent prison, I was somewhat chilled by her grave face and simple remark,―
"Do you think so?"
"Oh, Christine, only realise what it is to have no more war, – that means no more exile, no more――"
"No, it does not," she answered, looking at me with a smile. "By your account the reign of Peace is even now commenced; yet I am here, and Marco is doubtless in prison. I should not like the world to stay as it is, nor would half the people in it."
"Then you do not believe war will ever cease?" I asked, in a disappointed tone.
"Yes, I do," she replied, earnestly; "it will cease in God's good time, but I fear that will not be in our days, my Marie."
"What is the use of all this, then?" I said, gazing at the great "hall of glass."
"It is a step to the temple of Peace," she answered, smiling. "The better nations know each other, the less they will fight. Wars are like quarrels, they spring from misunderstandings and suspicions. Don't think me over-wise, Marie, I only repeat what my dear father said."
That allusion to her father called our thoughts from the great bustling world to the very lonely house in Brown Square, and we walked home rather silently, though at supper we both talked of all we had seen, while my poor fading mother "made believe" to take great interest therein.
Alas! how often since, while looking over the newspaper, Christine has turned to me, and asked, "Marie, is this the reign of Peace?"
Then came that sunny First of May, when the great ones of every land gathered in the "Crystal Palace," while a good-humoured, happy, sturdy crowd thronged the parks around. Early that morning there had been unwonted stir even in our quiet square, and later in the day we heard the guns.
Christine was out, fulfilling some engagement and mother and I were alone. Oh, how those booming cannons echoed through the forlorn, deserted home! Ever since then, at every day of national rejoicing, I have remembered the stricken ones who hide in their houses.
A little further on in the year, among the early "shilling days," Christine and I paid one solitary visit to the world's fair. My mother never went. The green trees and the crystal fountains did not smile for her. She said she "could not" go, but she persisted in sending us.
I have forgotten nearly all the details of that marvellous show. I can only remember a few comparatively insignificant items, – the models of a lighthouse and a breakwater, two groups of statuary, representing a great dog saving a child from a serpent, the Queen of Spain's jewels, some beautiful silver work, and the priceless KOH-I-NOOR. These have lingered in my memory, while better things have departed. But the greatest sight was the Exhibition itself, and the crowd which thronged it. It was wonderful to stand in the gallery – with fresh green leaves waving in one's face, – and watch the tide of humanity flowing past below. Christine and I stood so for a long time; then at last she said, "Let us rest awhile, Marie."
We found a little nook among some machines, where we might have imagined ourselves alone in building, but that we could see the denizens of the opposite gallery. We had frugally brought some biscuits with us, and here we proposed to enjoy them. "Enjoy!" I had not known the meaning of that word since the morning when I stood in Harry's deserted room.
Yet we smiled and chatted, and I dare say the sturdy farmers who now and then came to examine the agricultural implements thought us two merry London girls, – a little frivolous perhaps, and not likely to know much about the useful arts of dairy and poultry-yard. I remember I envied them – they seemed so jovial and free from care, – especially one family, consisting of father, mother, and children, from grown-up sons to a wee toddler, who had all come together to enjoy the world's wonder. All? Yet, for aught I can tell, there was one missing. We cannot see the blanks in our neighbour's heart. Well, God can, and He is the best comforter.
Suddenly Christine sprang up; so suddenly that I quite started. "It is he! it is Marco!" she exclaimed, "there – in the gallery opposite!" and away she flew to the nearest bridge – I following. There we paused.
"Was he coming this way?" I asked.
"Yes," she gasped, straining her eyes along the passage.
"Then let us wait here," I suggested; "we are likely to miss him among those tall cases, and in this clear space cannot fail to see him."
In truth, she was trembling so, that she could scarcely move. There we stayed, eagerly watching the passing crowd. Presently she whispered, "I can hardly see, Marie, I think I am losing my senses. He had a dark purple cloak over his shoulder. Do not let him pass!"
CHRISTINE SEES MARCO.
But that figure with the purple cloak never came. After a time we went along the gallery, going round each counter, but in vain. Presently we came upon a staircase leading below. Evidently, that was how we had lost him. We went down, and wandered about among the crowd – looking – looking. On and on we went, among the glories of the foreign courts, to which we could not spare a glance. At last it was time to return home.
"This has been dreadful, Marie," whispered Christine, when we found ourselves in a comparatively quiet part of Hyde Park; "it is like standing on a beach and seeing a wave bear up a dear face, and wash it away again!"
"But, after all, perhaps it was only fancy," I urged. "You could not have seen very distinctly across that distance."
"No," she answered, meekly, "I could not. It may have been fancy. I have had such fancies before. It seems such a hopeless separation. While I am looking for Marco, perhaps he is searching for me, and yet neither of us able to find the other!"
"Ah, Christine," I whispered, "it is harder when the lost well knows where to find one, and yet does not come!"
"I'm afraid I am selfish," she said presently, pressing my arm. "I should not trouble you with my miseries, for you have more to bear. But, Marie, look who is coming along that walk."
It was Mrs. Simms and Harry's fellow-clerk, Mr. John Nelson, the handsome young man with the furtive glance.
We exchanged greetings, and then all four walked in a row, – Mrs. Simms and I in the middle, Christine and Mr. Nelson at either end.
"I did not know Mr. Nelson was an acquaintance of yours," said Christine, addressing the law stationer's wife.
"Oh dear, yes!" she answered, nervously. "I've known John since he was a baby, – and he was apprenticed to Mr. Simms, and lived with us before we came to Brown Square."
"How very nice!" said Christine, in a tone which I thought rather peculiar; "and of course Mr. Simms can always easily get his apprentices into offices if they wish."
"Of course, of course," replied Mrs. Simms.
"He did not introduce me to Mr. Wilmot," said young Nelson.
"Mr. Wilmot is a very nice gentleman," remarked Christine.
"Do you think so?" said Mr. Nelson; "well, so he is: but he has notions of his own."
"And I dare say they are wrong – sometimes," said Christine, with an emphatic nod.
"I wonder you never visit Mrs. Simms, when she is such an old friend," she said, after a few minutes silence.
"Well, I must tell you," answered Mrs. Simms, in a great flutter, "that my husband and he had a few words together, and Simms had a stubborn temper, and will never make it up. The whole truth is, John is my husband's nephew, and I don't like to see a young relation altogether cast off, Miss Silvani. I often say to Simms, 'If you don't choose to be friendly, still you might be civil, and keep up acquaintance, just for appearance sake.'"
"Ah, if one does not keep up acquaintances, one knows nothing that is going on," said Christine, in the same strange tone. "But as Mr. Simms works for Mr. Wilmot, he and his nephew can meet in the office without visiting at home. I wonder our poor Harry [I thought her cruel to name him] never told us about it."
"But that's just where I find fault with Simms," returned his wife, excitedly. "He won't recognise John to the extent of throwing him a 'good morning,' as one does to a common stranger. Nobody guesses they're related."
"Dear me!" said Christine; "and Mr. Simms seems such a kind man: I should not have thought he would act so without good reason."
By this time we had emerged into Piccadilly, and no further conversation was possible, nor did Christine and I exchange a word until we reached home.
"How you stare, Marie!" said she, as she took off her bonnet.
"You have seemed so mysterious all the way home," I said. "I think you frightened poor Mrs. Simms."
"My Marie," she replied, taking my hand, "I was only cross-examining the two witnesses who gave secret information! I thought they were those two from the first, but this link between them makes it much more likely. Not quite so 'independent' as Mr. Wilmot thinks! But I must learn a great deal more."
"How shall you do it?" I asked.
"When there is a secret one has a right to find out," she said, "always attack the people who keep it: it is the honourable way, and prevents mischief."
"What kind of secret do you think one has a right to find out?" I inquired.
"That which concerns one's self or one's friends," she answered, promptly. There was a short silence, for I suddenly remembered the Secret Drawer, – and I soon heard where her thoughts were, for presently she sighed, –
"Oh that man in the purple cloak!"
TIDINGS OF HARRY.
NOT many Saturdays after our visit to the Exhibition, Mrs. Simms gave "notice" that she intended to leave on that day month. She found Brown Square dull, she said, Mr. Simms was so much from home, that she must go to a house where she could have some "companionableness."
"I never noticed it dull until lately," she went on, in a drony, gossiping voice, watching my mother's face, but not sparing its patient sorrow. "Of course there are troubles and troubles in the world, but there needn't be mysteries, and there needn't be suspicions. She didn't wish to offer her sympathy where it was not wanted, oh no! but still, after living in one house so long, she felt it – she did feel it."
"Oh, if you only knew," wailed my mother.
"I know that folks seldom keep creditable things secret," said Mrs. Simms, with a quick glance at Christine, who sat sewing. "And I know that some – who like their own affairs shut up close enough, and might tell us a pretty history if they choose – pounce upon others like a sheriff's officer. And I know that Master Harry – "
"Stop, Madam," exclaimed Christine, in a tone which made us all start, – "stop! only regret you did not leave this house months ago!"
"And why, Miss?" asked Mrs. Simms; but instead of the blaze which I expected, her manner was almost cowed.
"Because you say no creditable things are kept secret, and yet you have secrets yourself. Your own words judge you, Madam. You maintain a secret communication with a secret relation" (poor Christine was excited, and picked up her words with difficulty), "and you and that relation give secret information, Madam."
"How dare you say all this, Miss?"
"Will you deny it, Madam?" asked Christine.
Mrs. Simms fairly burst into tears. "To think that misguided young upstart will even make mischief out of my motherly feelings for poor John," she sobbed. "And Mr. Simms' obstinacy is at the bottom of it all," she added.
"Mr. Simms must have good reasons," said Christine, curtly. "May I ask what they are?"
"Our family matters don't concern you, Miss."
"Yes, they do," said our champion, firmly. "Mr. Nelson was one of the secret informers." (There was a world of Italian bitterness in her tone, as she uttered the words which she had heard coupled with every horror in her own land.) "As his character, so the worth of his testimony: and perhaps Mr. Simms knows a different side from Mr. Wilmot."
"Oh dear, dear, is bygones never to be bygones?" sobbed the law stationer's wife; "and where's the good of being zealous for an employer if he can't keep from betraying one?"
"Mr. Wilmot did not betray you," said Christine, with a composure that seemed to freeze Mrs. Simms. I saw she now read the riddle, and knew that she had only been convicted by circumstantial evidence, and would not have scrupled to deny everything, had she not feared the direct testimony of some other person. But denial was now too late.
"Well, for old acquaintance sake I'm sorry there's bitter words among us," said she, "so I'll wish you good morning; and it's a pity there isn't another person in the house as quick in finding out secrets as Miss Silvani there."
I was struck by my mother's want of interest in the scene. She listened, as a deaf person listens, who catches a word here and there, but cannot keep the thread of the discourse around: and when Mrs. Simms had departed, she went to her room without saying a word.
"Shall you ask Mr. Simms about his nephew?" I inquired of Christine.
"I don't think so," she answered. "But I shall go to Mr. Wilmot, and tell him that I have discovered who his informers are, and how they are connected."
She went to Mr. Wilmot, and her interview resulted in nothing; but that very day a new shadow fell on our household. My mother was found lying on her bed paralyzed; and though she lived for some weeks, she was never again conscious.
I will not dwell on the dull pain of those days when I knew only that frail, fast fading form remained betwixt me and utter loneliness; for though I had relations, they were all strangers. Still less will I linger over that solemnly splendid autumn evening when the nurse told me that "all was over," and drew me from the bed. I have known no anguish like that anguish, for God gives us only one mother. And as I turned from the hushed chamber I saw the little prayer-book in which Harry had bidden us "not to fret." It ended in this, nevertheless!
I don't remember the funeral, for I was ill and in bed; I was very ill, – once or twice I half hoped I was about to follow my mother. But it must take a great deal to break a heart, or mine would have broken then.
I gradually grew better, and Christine used to sit in my room, and work, and talk to me. She wore mourning for my mother, – almost as deep as mine, for we looked upon each other as sisters; and when I grew strong enough, we discussed our plans for the future. I had a little property, and my uncle had suggested to Christine that we had better consider whether we could conduct a small school. He knew of one which might suit us.
"And I'll go with you," said Jane, who was once in the room when we mentioned it; "you can just give me what wages you can, till you look about you, Miss. Not that I'm thinking ye won't be able to afford it, only ready money is often scarce at first. And sure I'm ould and ugly" (she was about eight-and-twenty, and Mrs. Simms had once insinuated that the butcher stayed at the area gate twice as long as he need), "and I'll be able to purtect ye, the two young darlints!"
So after a little delay the matter was settled, and we went to survey our new home. It was a small, compact cottage, containing six rooms, five of them very small. But it was a pleasant suburban lane, on the Chelsea side of the Fulham Road. We saw the lady who was about to abdicate, and were introduced to five-and-twenty youngsters, our future pupils. I did not like the change from the great roomy house in Brown Square – that dear old place which had a wealth of sweet memories no new home could ever have. But I thought I should be as happy here as anywhere, and there was one great advantage, it was within a short walk of my mother's grave in the beautiful West London Cemetery.
So we packed up as much furniture as we wanted, for those tiny rooms would not hold a great deal; but we did not leave behind one relic of Harry, not a book, nor a garment, nor even an old toy. It was sad work, that packing up, and our journey to Chelsea was a sad journey. Our last task in Brown Square was to fix up a placard announcing that "inquiries" would be answered at our new residence. Would any inquiry be made? Our hearts were both full of that thought.
THE SHADOW ON THE BLIND.
We settled down to our school duties in Primrose Terrace. Two girls, neither quite twenty years old, were rather young housekeepers, but Jane's sense and experience made up for our shortcomings, and we soon grew to love the peaceful monotony of our lives.
One incident, and only one, broke the even tenor of our way for many years, and it occurred when we had been in Primrose Terrace rather more than eighteen months.
It was Wednesday half-holiday, and I had been to pay my weekly visit to my mother's grave. During my absence the weather grew very rough and wild, and I hastened home, longing for the joys of our fire-side. It was dark when I entered the terrace, our parlour blind was drawn, and the lamp lit. As I drew nearer I saw upon the blind the shadow of a man's head!
How my hand trembled on the knocker! which Jane quickly answered, whispering as she let me in, "Who d'ye think is in the parlour, Miss? No other than John Nelson!"
I went in. Christine was standing on the rug, with a pale face, bearing an intense expression. Between the light and the window sat Mr. Nelson. I don't think I should have known him, he was so thin, and pale, and altered.
We exchanged a few ordinary greetings, and I threw off my bonnet and shawl. Then came an awkward silence, which Christine broke by saying softly, "Mr. Nelson is very ill, Marie."
"Yes," he joined in, "I have been very ill for a long time, but to-day the doctor tells me I must make up my mind to die!"
"It's rather a bad night for you to be out," I remarked, scarcely knowing what to say.
"I have to come down here for medicine and advice," he said; "I am an out-patient at the Consumption Hospital."
"But you have something to tell Marie, Monsieur," said Christine, gently.
"Is it about Harry?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, moving restlessly. "He was quite innocent of – of – what was said."
By Christine's silence I concluded he had already told her the history.
"It's a pity he was in the same office with me," he said, bitterly. "He was a nice boy, only simple enough to think it would be grand to see a little fast life. So I took him to billiard-rooms and betting-places, and I lent him money. Then the thirty pounds were stolen. He had nothing to do with that, – I did – " and again the restless movements, and a pause. "I think Mr. Wilmot suspected me," he went on. "I thought so by his manner, and I knew if he once got on the right track he might easily find it out. So I told him about Harry, and the places he went to, and the money he had been seen with. I thought Wilmot was still suspicious, so I told Mrs. Simms to get my uncle to drop a hint about your brother's late hours; and my uncle did, not guessing who the suggestion came from. Then the detective was put on; and I was never seen with Harry after that, but I lent him a larger sum than before, – and he lost it."
"Harry did not know where it came from?" I asked, eagerly.
He shook his head.
"Did Harry know about the detective?"
"Yes," he answered, "because I told him the day before he went away. And when I heard I must die in a few days, I thought this was the best thing I could do. You needn't doubt about Harry any more."
"Did Mrs. Simms know much of this?" asked Christine.
"At first she only liked meddling and making mischief," he answered, wearily; "but when she guessed the truth, she wasn't the woman to try and undo the harm she'd done."
"Do you see her now?" I inquired.
"No," he said, "she never wanted to see me after I once left Wilmot's – a year ago. I've been a bad fellow all through, and now I must die alone, like a wild beast."
Christine went up to him and spoke a few words, so softly that I could not hear them, but I saw she laid her hand on his shoulder, and the hard look died on his white face, and he bowed his head and wept.
She gave him tea and made him rest awhile by the fire; and when I saw how near the end was, my heart softened to my brother's enemy, and I let him see that I forgave him.
We both shook hands with him when he went away, and when he was gone Christine said, –
"How beautiful it is to know that God can take everything into consideration! If we had lived in such a home as he told me his had been, we might have all been like him!"
Next week a scrawled letter from his landlady told us that John Nelson died on Sunday evening. "Just before he went, he desired me to write this," she added in a postscript.
THE VISIT TO ITALY.
AFTER that, time slipped quietly away. One year – five years – seven years. It is wonderful how little there is to remember about those seven years, – each was so like the other. Of course there were changes, but they were gradual and commonplace. We had a new servant in Jane's place, for when we were fairly settled, and growing accomplished in housewifery, the Westminster butcher became impatient, and Jane deserted us. Also, we got on. Our school increased in numbers and importance, and towards the end of that quiet seven years, I noticed that Christine grew less thrifty in her private expenditure. She actually bought a black silk dress. Of course the SECRET DRAWER was still in the house; the inlaid desk stood on Christine's dressing table, but I had lost all curiosity on the subject. If she wished to tell me, I should like to hear, but if not – well, it did not matter!
"I shall try to go to Italy this year," Christine often said, as she unfolded the newspaper at breakfast, for it was at the time of Italy's resurrection, 1860. Men, of whom she had last heard as prisoners and exiles, were coming forward again to arouse their chained, sleeping mother-country.
"Two foreign letters, Miss," said our servant, peeping in one morning, as Christine uttered these words, – "and there's postage to pay, please."
Christine caught the letters, and they dropped from her hands. I knew it had come at last. "It is he! it is he!" she exclaimed, and snatching up the packets, she fled away, to drink in the great draught of joy where none but God could see her.
I went out and paid the postman, and returned to the deserted breakfast table. There were bitter tears in my eyes. Would no letter ever come for me? "Oh, Harry, Harry," I mused, "what must you have thought of us, that you can so little trust our love!"
Christine returned sooner than I expected, and she brought both letters in her hands. She came up to me and kissed me, and I kissed her fervently, but still I turned away my face, for I wished to hide my tears. She caught me in her arms, and turned me round. By this time my eyes were streaming
"Can you bear great, good news, Marie?" she asked. "God is so good, Marie, when we have mourned together so long, why should one be comforted and not the other?"
"I do rejoice with you, truly, Christine," I sobbed.
"Rejoice for yourself," she answered, solemnly; "God pays those debts which no gratitude can pay. Marco is found – but Harry is found also!"
There we sat, clasped in each other's arms, crying, laughing, murmuring thanksgivings. Christine was the first to grow calm, and to give the explanation which I was too excited to seek.
"This letter came first," she said, holding up the shorter one, "but it was delayed on the way, so the one which followed has arrived with it. I will read them both to you, Marie, and then you will know all about it." So she began, and her voice sounded younger than it had even when I first heard it ten years ago. The letters were in Italian, but she translated as she read: –
Melazzo, July, 1860.
MY CHRISTINE, –
"Only an hour ago I learned you were still on earth, that you alone remained, that my father is at rest! Darling sister, I cannot come to you because I am in Garibaldi's army, and I must not desert. Can you come to me? Can you go to Naples? I may see you there very soon, and you will be safe among the English visitors there. I cannot write much, because I shall be on duty in a few minutes. I must take my chances of an answer, but now you know where you can inquire about me, if you shouldn't be able to send a letter. Cara mia, it's no use trying to write what I feel!
"Thank God, you have found kind friends. I must tell how I found you. This afternoon a young Englishman among our volunteers heard my name, and asked if I had a sister Christine, and said she was staying with his sister, at the address where I now write. Poor fellow, I have not been able to say much to him, but he regards himself as an outcast. You must tell about this, and speak a good word for him. I am summoned now, but will write a long letter next opportunity.
"Your loving brother,
"Here is the other," said Christine, unfolding it, and beginning
DEAR SISTER, –
"Another dispatch from the lost ones. I must leave the details of my story till we meet. I have been in prison, then in England, then in America, now in Italy, with my General Garibaldi. What a good, great man he is, but how changed since '48! Ah, then he had his wife, Christine! And every day now he changes more, for it is a terrible thing to overthrow thrones, but I think he is God's instrument.
"I have had a long talk with Henry. The best return I can make for the kindness shown to my sister is to tell his story. I can guess how it will be received, though he will not hope. He was led astray into sin, but not into crime, tell them that, Christine. A terrible doom seemed coming to him, and he ran away to save his family from the shame of having a thief among them. He was not a thief, but his follies had woven such a web around him that he could not save himself from being called one.
"He knows his mother is dead. Some years ago he went to the old house, and read the notice of the present address. He went there and saw both you and his sister. Neither of you saw him. Once he ventured into church behind you [Oh, Harry, Harry!] and he says he even heard his sister's voice, but he kept out of her sight. He was much moved when he told me this. He thinks he was wrong not to trust more to his sister's love, but he says now he has been so long away, her grief must have died out, and he is better forgotten. If it is not so, he sends his love; and then he broke down, Christine, and couldn't say any more.
"We had a fierce battle a few days ago, – and he was wounded, but not dangerously. I keep him with me, he is beside me now, is asleep, for he is very weak. Tell his sister he's a fine young man; she must expect a great difference between sixteen and five-and-twenty, but I don't think there can be a change for the worse. From what I hear, I fancy he has had a hard time of it, but 'roughing' does not seem to have hurt him much. He is a great favourite with us all, though he is very quiet and shy.
"Oh, Christine, if this English lady feels towards her brother as I think she will, what a sweet return she receives for her kindness to you, when you were a poor little foreign stranger. When I think of your life during these past years, I cannot thank God enough that He placed you among good people. But how you must have suffered at first, cara mia! Never mind, it is all over now; I shall look forward to a meeting in Naples. Will not your sweet friend come with you? Her brother will need a nurse for some time to come. If you once take courage to start on the journey, you will be taken care of, for, from every land, Italians are swarming home, and you are almost certain to find some who will be proud to recognise Silvani's daughter. I hope there will be no more need for writing. Let me see you, Christine.
"Your loving brother,
"Let us go at once, as soon as we can," said she. "I know who will advise our arrangements – that dear old gentleman whom I saw in the coffee-house at Leicester Square. What a kind friend he has been to me ever since!"
I was so stupified with gratitude, that I was quite neutral, and Christine took the control of everything, and I was glad to be ordered about, and what to do, and what not to do. I did some packing, but we took as little encumbrance as possible; not a superfluous article except one, which I thought such. It was the inlaid desk.
We had a very pleasant journey. Signor Silvani's prophecy proved true, and we found plenty of agreeable company in returning exiles – full of hope and eagerness. I hope some one admired the beautiful scenery we passed through. I can't recall it. My thoughts were only of a wounded Garibaldian suffering among strangers – kindly enough, but still strangers.
I never understood how we got into Naples: we reached there on the fourth of September. There was a large party of us together, and we were bandied about among several officials, who did not seem to want us in, but did not appear to know how to keep us out. I fear some of the gentlemen of our number said cutting things to those poor officials, but the officials only laughed. As we walked to the hotel amid the clatter of the unknown tongues around, I could distinguish the oft-repeated name of Garibaldi.
"They say he will be in Naples before the eighth," whispered Christine.
In the evening of the next day we took a walk along the eminence overlooking the royal palace and the beautiful bay. We knew that was probably the doomed king's last night in the home of his ancestors. Many of his subjects were hanging about, with that thought written in their faces; and here and there, we caught sight of strange, wild figures, which told stories of cruel griefs outside the common lot. One old man we particularly noticed. His tall and grand form was clad in miserable rags, and his white hair and beard were floating in the soft sea breeze. In his right hand he carried a rude staff, and ever and anon be shook his hand at the palace and muttered inaudible curses. One of our friends had seen him before, and knew his story. He was a learnčd man, and had been a professor of the ancient languages, and had a wife and three noble sons. As they grew up, they all learned the dread lesson, that if they loved Italy and freedom they must become the enemies of their ruler – the father of the young King of Naples. They joined in some unsuccessful revolt, and in one day the two eldest were beheaded. Their mother died while they stood on the scaffold. The youngest son was thrown into prison, into a dreadful dungeon said to be below the level of that sunny bay. Many have been imprisoned since then, and many have been set free, but the old father has never again seen his son, and never will in this world.
THE OLD PROFESSOR.
"Well, the Bourbon's turn is come at last," said one of our party. "They will know what exile is, at least, though I wish our general would let us visit better vengeance on their heads."
"No, no, let us leave vengeance to God," whispered Christine, "for He knows everything, and can take all things into consideration. We should often be cruel, while we thought ourselves just."
So we lingered a little while in the fading twilight, and watched the lamps lit inside the gloomy palace; and at least one gentle heart amongst us – and yet one which tyranny had sorely bruised – had pitying thoughts for the poor misguided youth, who at that very moment may have been taking his last farewell of the stately rooms which had been the scene of his childhood. Then we returned home; and when Christine and I prayed together in our room, she besought God for "the speedy arrival and success of His servant, the Deliverer," but she added, "guard and comfort King Francis in his hour of tribulation."
By that time next evening the King was gone.
THE seventh of September, 1860! What did those words mean that day in Naples?
They meant that the reign of fear was over, – that men might utter their opinions without dread of prison or scaffold. They meant a cheerful bustle – a waving of flags – a shouting of vivas – such as the despot-governed city had scarcely known before. They meant a great, eager, wonderful crowd, – on the pathways, in the windows, on the housetops, – with faces all turned one way, to watch for the first glimpse of Italy's deliverer – Giuseppe Garibaldi.
We sat on the balcony of our hotel – I and Christine, – just a little apart from the rest of our party, whose spirits were sometimes rather too buoyant for our mood of patient expectation. Christine was very pale, looking all the paler for her black attire, unrelieved by any colour except one rose-tinted ribbon about her hat; but I envied her calmness, for I was frightfully restless, filled with a thousand fears about Harry's safety and general well-being, though I quite appreciated Christine's general remonstrance, –
"When God has taken good care of him for ten years, can you not trust His goodness for a few hours more, my Marie?"
At last! a stir in the crowd, a burst of shouts, and weeping, and wild laughter, – the sound of a city gone wild with joy, and there came an open carriage, drawn by rudely harnessed horses, and surrounded by red-shirted men, with unkempt beards and dusty hair. Three more red-shirted men sat in the carriage, but we only saw one, – a middle-aged man, with a seamed, freckled face, and chestnut hair streaked with grey, with eyes neither dark nor striking, yet wonderful with a depth of kindliness and good-will. The rough face smiled a little, and yet it was unspeakably sad. It was Garibaldi's triumph, but it was not enjoyed by the faithful wife who had shared his defeats. He was the idol of the time, but I am sure he did not forget that the fate of idols is to be broken and thrown aside. In that hour, when the task of his life was nearly accomplished, he remembered how much happiness it had cost him, and yet I am certain he did not grudge the sacrifice.
GARIBALDI'S ARRIVAL IN NAPLES.
Some of our party threw down some roses. They fell at his feet, and he looked up and smiled; and then the carriage passed on, and new shouts burst forth, and another thousand greeted that way-worn, gentle face. I felt a movement at the window behind us, but did not take my gaze from the crowds below until I heard Christine give a cry of joy, and then I turned.
I did not need to be told that it was Marco Silvani upon whose shoulder she was weeping. Still a young man – barely thirty, – he had not much changed from that old beloved portrait, except that his face bore a likeness to his father's, which the picture did not. I turned again, and made believe to watch the crowd. It was not for me to intrude on such a meeting.
But Christine very soon fetched me in from the balcony. And I remember the Signor said many things which I did not deserve, and I told him candidly that his sister owed me nothing, but I owed her a great deal. And then I asked for Harry.
He was in a villa just outside the town, the Signor said, and he would take us to him directly the streets were a little clear. They had both got leave of absence, – indeed, it was thought there would be very little more fighting at present, for the volunteers at least. He would leave us with Harry, for he had business in the town with some of "the general's" staff; but he would return to the villa at nightfall, and we should stay there together for some days.
The villa was a very small one, standing in a pleasant garden overlooking the bay. Marco and Christine lingered on the terrace, and I entered alone.
I shall not tell anything about my first hour in that house. What interest is there in a wounded "red-shirt" lying on a chintz sofa, with a little plain woman kneeling on the floor beside him, and both of them crying? And what was said? Well, my first words were, "Oh, Harry, Harry, why did you – ?" And he sat up and cried out, "Polly, Polly, don't!" and hugged me so vehemently that all my back hair came undone, and hung down about my shoulders. Ah, it was a thrilling page in our lives, but I'm afraid it would not make a very imposing picture!
Marco returned to the town without entering the villa, but Christine came in presently, and Harry rose as well as he could, and they met as brother and sister might. But I noticed that Christine's cheeks seemed unusually pink; and in the course of the evening it struck me that their positions were strangely reversed. She was the elder by two years, and when in Brown Square she had appeared a woman while he was yet a boy, but now she looked younger than her age, and he looked fully his. I wonder if I shall be thought uncommonly foolish if I confess that on that very evening I wove a romance about those two.
At nine o'clock Marco returned, full of enthusiasm concerning the delight of the people, and the grand thrilling words that Garibaldi had spoken, reminding the crowd of that great Deliverer who had given His own life to save them from the worst tyranny of all – the tyranny of sin. "And seven thousand Bibles have been sold in the streets to-day," added Signor Silvani.
Oh, what a blessed, blessed evening that was! Harry and I sat side by side on the sofa, hand clasped in hand, stirring the fire of sweet old memories. Somehow I did not even wish that mother was alive that night. Do the dead know what passes among those they love? I think so. I feel almost sure mother knew about us two sitting there. But in that case, as she had been in heaven many years, all that time she had known that her boy was not "lost" in the worst sense. A day or two after, when I was looking over his store of shirts and stockings, I found the little Bible which he took away from home, and it was so worn that it would scarcely hold together. Did his mother's angel never bend over him as he read that holy book? I think it did.
Marco and Christine were pacing the balcony together, and as we within subsided into happy silence, – I heard him say, –
"I never dreamed of this, Christine! [A pause.] Well, cara mia, half of all I have is yours, but you shall have the happiness and honour you deserve so well."
"Let us go inside," she answered, softly, "and I will show you the papers."
They came in, and Christine brought forward a certain black portmanteau which she had not forgotten to bring from the hotel to the villa. It contained the inlaid desk.
She sat it on the table and unlocked it, and then touching a spring, displayed the Secret Drawer. It contained a few written papers, and a small roll of bank-notes. Of course Harry and I looked on with considerable interest. "I only got it all a few months ago," she said, "and even then I did not know how to send it safely."
"Ah, no," remarked Marco, "things must go by very sure hands if they are to get safely into Rome; but my friend will start to-morrow, and before we leave here he will be back with the receipts."
There was a short silence.
"Did these things greatly trouble my father?" asked Marco, softly touching the papers.
"He thought of them," answered Christine, "but he knew it was not his own fault. He bade me remember them, if it were God's will I should sufficiently succeed."
"He could scarcely hope that then," said Marco, "it seemed a sad fortune to leave you, my Christine.
"I don't know," she answered, smiling brightly; "after all, it gave me an object in life."
"Seventy pounds!" said Marco, musingly, lifting the bank-notes, and fingering them tenderly. "I know what these signify, cara mia, – self-denial, toil, humiliation – "
"And a world of happiness!" she exclaimed, eagerly; "why, the work was all play, and the self-denial was quite self-indulgence! But I knew other people would not think so, and I could not bear to be pitied for my duty and my pleasure, so I kept it a close secret."
"Surely not from you?" queried Marco, addressing us.
"Yes, at this very moment all your words are riddles," I replied.
"Then let me tell you," said the Signor, rising and speaking earnestly, "that my poor father was compelled to leave some unpaid debts at Rome, and that Christine did not forget it was our duty to pay them. I did not know they existed. And in a week's time Christine will have their receipts, and no one will be a whit the poorer for trusting our father."
I crossed the room and kissed Christine fervently. I know she understood what that kiss meant – a confession of old injustice and suspicion laid to rest, – thank God, long before destroyed by actual proof. Then Marco took the bills and notes into his possession, and the empty Secret Drawer was restored to its place.
* * * * *
Well, seven more years have passed since that blissful, dream-like evening. These have not been quite so uneventful as that other seven spent in the Fulham Road. Not only have Christine and I changed our names, but we have exchanged them. I have been "Signora Silvani" for five years, and three years ago she married Harry, which makes a very comfortable conclusion to my story; only I wish that Marco and I could see our dear brother and sister a little oftener, for it is a long way from their prim cottage at Brompton to our airy villa overlooking that lovely Bay of Naples. But Marco's duties keep him in Italy, and so a black-eyed little daughter is standing beside me now, prattling in a musical language, which will never be quite so familiar to her mother's ears as the dear old English.
Marco has taken me to see the prison where he was confined when he was captured in 1849. It made me shudder to know he had once been shut in that dismal place without any light or air except from one small grating. I said very many bitter things about the Government that put him there. Marco did not; he never does, he only says, –
"Most of us have the spirit which imprisons, and tortures, and kills, – though, thank God, we have not the power. We cry out at injustice towards ourselves, and yet we are unjust to others. None but the All-seeing can be really just, so let us keep to charity."
And then I feel I need not be a judge of others, for I remember my old suspicion about
"THE SECRET DRAWER."
UNWIN BROTHERS, PRINTERS, BUCKLERSBURY, LONDON.