"Good morning, Miss Lovill!" said the young man, in the free manner usual with him toward pretty and inexperienced country girls.
Agatha Pollin — the maiden addressed — instantly perceived how the mistake had arisen. Miss Lovill was the owner of a blue autumn wrapper, exceptionally gay for a village; and Agatha, in a spirit of emulation rather than originality, had purchased a similarly enviable article for herself, which she wore to-day for the first time. It may be mentioned that the two young women had ridden together from their homes to Maiden-Newton on this foggy September morning, Agatha prolonging her journey thence to Weymouth by train, and leaving her acquaintance at the former place. The remark was made to her on Weymouth esplanade.
Agatha was now about to reply very naturally, "I am not Miss Lovill," and she went so far as to turn up her face to him for the purpose, when he added, "I've been hoping to meet you. I have heard of your — well, I must say it — beauty, long ago, though I only came to Beaminster yesterday."
Agatha bowed — her contradiction hung back — and they walked slowly along the esplanade together without speaking another word after the above point-blank remark of his. It was evident that her new friend could never have seen either herself or Miss Lovill except from a distance.
And Agatha trembled as well as bowed. This Miss Lovill — Frances Lovill — was of great and long renown as the beauty of Cloton village, near Beaminster. She was five and twenty and fully developed, while Agatha was only the niece of the miller of the same place, just nineteen, and of no repute as yet for comeliness, though she undoubtedly could boast of much. Now, were the speaker, Oswald Winwood, to be told that he had not lighted upon the true Helen, he would instantly apologize for his mistake and leave her side," contingency of no great matter but for one curious emotional circumstance — Agatha had already lost her heart to him. Only in secret had she acquired this interest in Winwood — by hearing much report of his talent and by watching him several times from a window; but she loved none the less in that she had discovered that Miss Lovill's desire to meet and talk with the same intellectual luminary was in a fair way of approaching the intensity of her own. We are never unbiased appraisers, even in love, and rivalry usually operates as a stimulant to esteem even while it is acting as an obstacle to opportunity. So it had been with Agatha in her talk to Miss Lovill that morning concerning Oswald Winwood.
The Weymouth season was almost at an end, and but few loungers were to be seen on the parades, particularly at this early hour. Agatha looked over the iridescent sea, from which the veil of mist was slowly rising, at the white cliffs on the left, now just beginning to gleam in a weak sunlight, at the one solitary yacht in the midst, and still delayed her explanation. Her companion went on:
"The mist is vanishing, look, and I think it will be fine, after all. Shall you stay in Weymouth the whole day?"
"No. I am going to Portland by the twelve o'clock steam-boat. But I return here again at six to go home by the seven o'clock train."
"I go to Maiden Newton by the same train, and then to Beaminster by the carrier."
"So do I."
"Not, I suppose, to walk from Beaminster to Cloton at that time in the evening?"
"I shall be met by somebody — but it is only a mile, you know."
That is how it all began; the continuation it is not necessary to detail at length. Both being somewhat young and impulsive, social forms were not scrupulously attended to. She discovered him to be on board the steamer as it ploughed the emerald waves of Weymouth Bay, although he had wished her a formal good-bye at the pier. He had altered his mind, he said, and thought that he would come to Portland, too. They returned by the same boat, walked the velvet sands till the train started, and entered a carriage together.
All this time, in the midst of her happiness, Agatha's conscience was sombre with guiltiness at not having yet told him of his mistake. It was true that he had not more than once or twice called her by Miss Lovill's name since the first greeting in the morning; but he certainly was still under the impression that she was Frances Lovill. Yet she perceived that though he had been led to her by another's name, it was her own proper person that he was so rapidly getting to love, and Agatha's feminine insight suggested blissfully to her that the face belonging to the name would after this encounter have no power to drag him away from the face of the day's romance.
They reached Maiden-Newton at dusk, and went to the inn door, where stood the old-fashioned hooded van which was to take them to Beaminster. It was on the point of starting, and when they had mounted in front the old man at once drove up the long hill leading out of the village.
"This has been a charming experience to me, Miss Lovill," Oswald said, as they sat side by side. "Accidental meetings have a way of making themselves pleasant when contrived ones quite fail to do it."
It was absolutely necessary to confess this time, though all her bliss were at once destroyed.
"I am not really Miss Lovill!" she faltered.
"What! not the young lady — and are you really not Frances Lovill?" he exclaimed, in surprise.
"O forgive me, Mr Winwood! I have wanted so to tell you of your mistake; indeed I have, all day — but I couldn't — and it is so wicked and wrong of me! I am only poor Agatha Pollin, at the mill."
"But why couldn't you tell me?"
"Because I was afraid that if I did you would go away from me and not care for me any more, and I l — l — love you so dearly!"
The carrier being on foot beside the horse, the van being so dark, and Oswald's feelings being rather warm, he could not for his life avoid kissing her there and then.
"Well," he said, "it doesn't matter; you are yourself anyhow. It is you I like, and nobody else in the world — not the name. But, you know, I was really looking for Miss Lovill this morning. I saw the back of her head yesterday, and I have often heard how very good-looking she is. Ah! suppose you had been she. I wonder — "
He did not complete the sentence. The driver mounted again, touched the horse with the whip, and they jogged on.
"You forgive me?" she said.
"Entirely — absolutely — the reason justified everything. How strange that you should have been caring deeply for me, and I ignorant of it all the time!"
They descended into Beaminster and alighted, Oswald handing her down. They had not moved from the spot when another female figure also alighted, dropped her fare into the carrier's hand, and glided away.
"Who is that?" said Oswald to the carrier. "Why, I thought we were the only passengers!"
"What?" said the carrier, who was rather stupid.
"Who is that woman?"
"Miss Lovill, of Cloton. She altered her mind about staying at Beaminster, and is come home again."
"Oh!" said Agatha, almost sinking to the earth. "She has heard it all. What shall I do, what shall I do?"
"Never mind it a bit," said Oswald.
The mill stood beside the village high-road, from which it was separated by the stream, the latter forming also the boundary of the mill garden, orchard, and paddock on that side. A visitor crossed a little wood bridge embedded in oozy, aquatic growths, and found himself in a space where usually stood a waggon laden with sacks, surrounded by a number of bright-feathered fowls.
It was now, however, just dusk, but the mill was not closed, a stripe of light stretching as usual from the open door across the front, across the river, across the road, into the hedge beyond. On the bridge, which was aside from the line of light, a young man and girl stood talking together. Soon they moved a little way apart, and then it was apparent that their right hands were joined. In receding one from the other they began to swing their arms gently backward and forward between them.
"Come a little way up the lane, Agatha, since it is the last time," he said. "I don't like parting here. You know your uncle does not object."
"He doesn't object because he knows nothing to object to," she whispered. And they both then contemplated the fine, stalwart figure of the said uncle, who could be seen moving about inside the mill, illuminated by the candle, and circumscribed by a faint halo of flour, and hindered by the whirr of the mill from hearing anything so gentle as lovers' talk.
Oswald had not relinquished her hand, and, submitting herself to a bondage she appeared to love better than freedom, Agatha followed him across the bridge, and they went down the lane engaged in the low, sad talk common to all such cases, interspersed with remarks peculiar to their own.
"It is nothing so fearful to contemplate," he said." Many live there for years in a state of rude health, and return home in the same happy condition. So shall I."
"I hope you will."
"But aren't you glad I am going? It is better to do well in India than badly here. Say you are glad, dearest; it will fortify me when I am gone."
"I am glad," she murmured faintly. "I mean I am glad in my mind. I don't think that in my heart I am glad."
"Thanks to Macaulay, of honoured memory, I have as good a chance as the best of them!" he said, with ardour. "What a great thing competitive examination is; it will put good men in good places, and make inferior men move lower down; all bureaucratic jobbery will be swept away."
"What's bureaucratic, Oswald?"
"Oh! that's what they call it, you know. It is — well, I don't exactly know what it is. I know this, that it is the name of what I hate, and that it isn't competitive examination."
"At any rate it is a very bad thing," she said, conclusively.
"Very bad, indeed; you may take my word for that."
Then the parting scene began, in the dark, under the heavy-headed trees which shut out sky and stars. "And since I shall be in London till the Spring," he remarked, "the parting doesn't seem so bad — so all at once. Perhaps you may come to London before the Spring, Agatha."
"I may; but I don't think I shall."
"We must hope on all the same. Then there will be the examination, and then I shall know my fate."
"I hope you'll fail! — there, I've said it; I couldn't help it, Oswald!" she exclaimed, bursting out crying. "You would come home again then!"
"How can you be so disheartening and wicked, Agatha! I — I didn't expect — "
"No, no; I don't wish it; I wish you to be best, top, very very best!" she said. "I didn't mean the other; indeed, dear Oswald, I didn't. And will you be sure to come to me when you are rich? Sure to come?"
"If I'm on this earth I'll come home and marry you."
And then followed the good-bye.
In the Spring came the examination. One morning a newspaper directed by Oswald was placed in her hands, and she opened it to find it was a copy of the Times. In the middle of the sheet, in the most conspicuous place, in the excellent neighbourhood of the leading articles, was a list of names, and the first on the list was Oswald Winwood. Attached to his name, as showing where he was educated, was the simple title of some obscure little academy, while underneath came public school and college men in shoals. Such a case occurs sometimes, and it occurred then.
How Agatha clapped her hands! for her selfish wish to have him in England at any price, even that of failure, had been but a paroxysm of the wretched parting, and was now quite extinct. Circumstances combined to hinder another meeting between them before his departure, and, accordingly, making up her mind to the inevitable in a way which would have done honour to an older head, she fixed her mental vision on that sunlit future — far away, yet always nearing — and contemplated its probabilities with a firm hope.
At length he had arrived in India, and now Agatha had only to work and wait; and the former made the latter more easy. In her spare hours she would wander about the river banks and into the coppices and there weave thoughts of him by processes that young women understand so well. She kept a diary, and in this, since there were few events to chronicle in her daily life, she sketched the changes of the landscape, noted the arrival and departure of birds of passage, the times of storms and foul weather — all which information, being mixed up with her life and taking colour from it, she sent as scraps in her letters to him, deriving most of her enjoyment in contemplating his.
Oswald, on his part, corresponded very regularly. Knowing the days of the Indian mail, she would go at such times to meet the post-man in early morning, and to her unvarying inquiry, "A letter for me?" it was seldom, indeed, that there came a disappointing answer. Thus the season passed, and Oswald told her he should be a judge some day, with many other details, which, in her mind, were viewed chiefly in their bearing on the grand consummation — that he was to come home and marry her.
Meanwhile, as the girl grew older and more womanly, the woman whose name she had once stolen for a day grew more of an old maid, and showed symptoms of fading. One day Agatha's uncle, who, though still a handsome man in the prime of his life was a widower with four children, to whom she acted the part of eldest sister, told Agatha that Frances Lovill was about to become his second wife.
"Well!" said Agatha, and thought, "What an end for a beauty!"
And yet it was all reasonable enough, notwithstanding that Miss Lovill might have looked a little higher. Agatha knew that this step would produce great alterations in the small household of Cloton Mill, and the idea of having as aunt and ruler the woman to whom she was in some sense indebted for a lover, affected Agatha with a slight thrill of dread. Yet nothing had ever been spoken between the two women to show that Frances had heard, much less resented, the explanation in the van on that night of the return from Weymouth.
On a certain day old farmer Lovill called. He was of the same family as Frances, though their relationship was distant. A considerable business in corn had been done from time to time between miller and farmer, but the latter had seldom called at Pollin's house. He was a bachelor, or he would probably never have appeared in this history, and he was mostly full of a boyish merriment rare in one of his years. To-day his business with the miller had been so imperative as to bring him in person, and it was evident from their talk in the mill that the matter was payment. Perhaps ten minutes had been spent in serious converse when the old farmer turned away from the door, and, without saying good-morning, went toward the bridge. This was unusual for a man of his temperament.
He was an old man — really and fairly old — sixty-five years of age at least. He was not exactly feeble, but he found a stick useful when walking in a high wind. His eyes were not yet bleared, but in their corners was occasionally a moisture like majolica glaze — entirely absent in youth. His face was not shrivelled, but there were unmistakable puckers in some places. And hence the old gentleman, unmarried, substantial, and cheery as he was, was not doted on by the young girls of Cloton as he had been by their mothers in former time. Each year his breast impended a little further over his toes, and his chin a little further over his breast, and in proportion as he turned down his nose to earth did pretty females turn up theirs at him. They might have liked him as a friend had he not shown the abnormal wish to be regarded as a lover. To Agatha Pollin this aged youth was positively distasteful.
It happened that at the hour of Mr Lovill's visit Agatha was bending over the pool at the mill head, sousing some white fabric in the water. She was quite unconscious of the farmer's presence near her, and continued dipping and rinsing in the idlest phase possible to industry, until she remained quite still, holding the article under the water, and looking at her own reflection within it. The river, though gliding slowly, was yet so smooth that to the old man on the bridge she existed in duplicate — the pouting mouth, the little nose, the frizzed hair, the bit of blue ribbon, as they existed over the surface, being but a degree more, distinct than the same features beneath.
"What a pretty maid!" said the old man to himself. He walked up the margin of the stream, and stood beside her.
"Oh!" said Agatha, starting with surprise. In her flurry she relinquished the article she had been rinsing, which slowly turned over and sank deeper, and made toward the hatch of the mill-wheel.
"There — it will get into the wheel, and be torn to pieces!" she exclaimed.
"I'll fish it out with my stick, my dear," said Farmer Lovill, and kneeling cautiously down he began hooking and crooking with all his might. "What thing is it of much value?"
"Yes; it is my best one!" she said involuntarily.
"It — what is the it?"
"Only something — a piece of linen." Just then the farmer hooked the endangered article, and dragging it out, held it high on his walking-stick — dripping, but safe.
"Why, it is a chemise!" he said.
The girl looked red, and instead of taking it from the end of the stick, turned away.
"Hee-hee!" laughed the ancient man. "Well, my dear, there's nothing to be ashamed of that I can see in owning to such a necessary and innocent article of clothing. There, I'll put it on the grass for you, and you shall take it when I am gone."
Then Farmer Lovill retired, lifting his fingers privately, to express amazement on a small scale, and murmuring, "What a nice young thing! Well, to be sure. Yes, a nice child — young woman rather indeed, a marriageable woman, come to that; of course she is."
The doting old person thought of the young one all this day in a way that the young one did not think of him. He thought so much about her, that in the evening, instead of going to bed, he hobbled privately out by the back door into the moonlight, crossed a field or two, and stood in the lane, looking at the mill — not more in the hope of getting a glimpse of the attractive girl inside than for the pleasure of realizing that she was there.
A light moved within, came nearer, and ascended. The staircase window was large, and he saw his goddess going up with a candle in her hand. This was indeed worth coming for. He feared he was seen by her as well, yet hoped otherwise in the interests of his passion, for she came and drew down the window blind, completely shutting out his gaze. The light vanished from this part, and reappeared in a window a little further on.
The lover drew nearer; this, then, was her bedroom. He rested vigorously upon his stick, and straightening his back nearly to a perpendicular, turned up his amorous face.
She came to the window, paused, then opened it.
"Bess its deary-eary heart! it is going to speak to me!" said the old man, moistening his lips, resting still more desperately upon his stick, and straightening himself yet an inch taller. "She saw me then!"
Agatha, however, made no sign; she was bent on a far different purpose. In a box on her window-sill was a row of mignonette, which had been sadly neglected since her lover's departure, and she began to water it, as if inspired by a sudden recollection of its condition. She poured from her water-jug slowly along the plants, and then, to her astonishment, discerned her elderly friend below.
"A rude old thing!" she murmured.
Directing the spout of the jug over the edge of the box, and looking in another direction that it might appear to be an accident, she allowed the stream to spatter down upon her admirer's face, neck, and shoulders, causing him to beat a quick retreat. Then Agatha serenely closed the window, and drew down that blind also.
"Ah! she did not see me; it was evident she did not, and I was mistaken!" said the trembling farmer, hastily wiping his face, and mopping out the rills trickling down within his shirt-collar as far as he could get at them, which was by no means to their termination. "A pretty creature, and so innocent, too! Watering her flowers; how like a girl who is fond of flowers! I wish she had spoken, and I wish I was younger. Yes, I know what I'd do with the little mouse!" And the old gentleman tapped emotionally upon the ground with his stick.
"Agatha, I suppose you have heard the news from somebody else by this time?" said her Uncle Humphrey some two or three weeks later.
"I mean what Farmer Lovill has been talking to me about."
"No, indeed" said Agatha.
"He wants to marry ye if you be willing."
"O, I never!" said Agatha with dismay. "That old man!"
"Old? He's hale and hearty; and what's more, a man very well to do. He'll make you a comfortable home, and dress ye up like a doll, and I'm sure ou'll like that, or you baint a woman of woman born."
"But it can't be, uncle! other reasons — "
"Why, I've promised Oswald Winwood — years ago!"
"Promised Oswald Winwood years ago, have you?"
"Yes; surely you know it Uncle Humphrey. And we write to one another regularly."
"Well, I can just call to mind that ye are always scribbling and getting letters from somewhere. Let me see — where is he now? I quite forget."
"In India still. Is it possible that you don't know about him, and what a great man he's getting? There are paragraphs about him in our paper very often. The last was about some translation from Hindostani that he'd been making. And he's coming home for me."
"I very much question it. Lovill will marry you at once, he says."
"Indeed, he will not."
"Well, I don't want to force you to do anything against your will, Agatha, but this is how the matter stands. You know I am a little behind in my dealings with Lovill — nothing serious, you know, if he gives me time — but I want to be free of him quite in order to go to Australia."
"Yes. There's nothing to be done here. I don't know what business is coming to — can't think. But never mind that; this is the point: if you will marry Farmer Lovill, he offers to clear off the debt, and there will no longer be any delay about my own marriage; in short, away I can go. I mean to, and there's an end on't."
"What, and leave me at home alone?"
"Yes, but a married woman, of course. You see the children are getting big now. John is twelve and Nathaniel ten, and the girls are growing fast, and when I am married again I shall hardly want you to keep house for me — in fact, I must reduce our family as much as possible. So that if you could bring your mind to think of Farmer Lovill as a husband, why, 'twould be a great relief to me after having the trouble and expense of bringing you up. If I can in that way edge out of Lovill's debt I shall have a nice bit of money in hand."
"But Oswald will be richer even than Mr Lovill," said Agatha, through her tears.
"Yes, yes. But Oswald is not here, nor is he likely to be. How silly you be."
"But he will come, and soon, with his eleven hundred a year and all.
"I wish to Heaven he would. I'm sure he might have you."
"Now, you promise that, uncle, don't you?" she said, brightening. "If he comes with plenty of money before you want to leave, he shall marry me, and nobody else."
"Ay, if he comes. But, Agatha, no nonsense. Just think of what I've been telling you. And at any rate be civil to Farmer Lovill. If this man Winwood were here and asked for ye, and married ye, that would be a very different thing. I do mind now that I saw something about him and his doings in the papers; but he's a fine gentleman by this time, and won't think of stooping to a girl like you. So you'd better take the one who is ready; old men's darlings fare very well as the world goes. We shall be off in nine months, mind, that I've settled. And you must be a married woman afore that time, and wish us good-bye upon your husband's arm."
"That old arm couldn't support me."
"And if you don't agree to have him, you'll take a couple of hundred pounds out of my pocket; you'll ruin my chances altogether — that's the long and the short of it."
Saying which the gloury man turned his back upon her, and his footsteps became drowned in the rumble of the mill.
Nothing so definite was said to her again on the matter for sometime. The old yeoman hovered round her, but, knowing the result of the interview between Agatha and her uncle, he forbore to endanger his suit by precipitancy. But one afternoon he could not avoid saying, "Aggie, when may I speak to you upon a serious subject?"
"Next week," she replied, instantly.
He had not been prepared for such a ready answer, and it startled him almost as much as it pleased him. Had he known the cause of it his emotions might have been different. Agatha, with all the womanly strategy she was capable of, had written post-haste to Oswald after the conversation with her uncle, and told him of the dilemma. At the end of the present week his answer, if he replied with his customary punctuality, would be sure to come. Fortified with his letter she thought she could meet the old man. Oswald she did not doubt.
Nor had she any reason to. The letter came prompt to the day. It was short, tender, and to the point. Events had shaped themselves so fortunately that he was able to say he would return and marry her before the time named for the family's departure for Queensland.
She danced about for joy. But there was a postscript to the effect that she might as well keep this promise a secret for the present, if she conveniently could, that his intention might not become a public talk in Cloton. Agatha knew that he was a rising and aristocratic young man, and saw at once how proper this was.
So she met Mr Lovill with a simple flat refusal, at which her uncle was extremely angry, and her disclosure to him afterward of the arrival of the letter went but a little way in pacifying him. Farmer Lovill would put in upon him for the debt, he said, unless she could manage to please him for a short time.
"I don't want to please him," said Agatha.
"It is wrong to encourage him if I don't mean it."
"Will you behave toward him as the Parson advises you?"
The Parson! That was a new idea, and, from her uncle, unexpected.
"I will agree to what Mr Davids advises about my mere daily behaviour before Oswald comes, but nothing more," she said. "That is, I will if you know for certain that he's a good man, who fears God and keeps the commandments."
"Mr Davids fears God, for sartin, for he never ventures to name Him outside the pulpit — and as for the commandments, 'tis knowed how he swore at the church-restorers for taking them away from the chancel."
"Uncle, you always jest when I am serious."
"Well, well! at any rate his advice on a matter of this sort is good."
"How is it you think of referring me to him?" she asked, in perplexity; "you so often speak slightingly of him."
"Oh — well," said Humphrey, with a faintly perceptible desire to parry the question, "I have spoken roughly about him once now and then; but perhaps I was wrong. Will ye go?"
"Yes, I don't mind," she said, languidly.
When she reached the Vicar's study Agatha began her story with reserve, and said nothing about the correspondence with Oswald; yet an intense longing to find a friend and confidant led her to indulge in more feeling than she had intended and as a finale she wept. The genial incumbent, however, remained quite cool, the secret being that his heart was involved a little in another direction — one, perhaps, not quite in harmony with Agatha's interests — of which more anon.
"So the difficulty is," he said to her, "how to behave in this trying time of waiting for Mr Winwood, that you may please parties all round and give offence to none."
"Yes, Sir, that's it," sobbed Agatha, wondering how he could have realized her position so readily. "And uncle wants to go to Australia.
"One thing is certain," said the Vicar; "you must not hurt the feelings of Mr Lovill. Wonderfully sensitive man — a man I respect much as a godly doer."
"Do you, Sir?"
"I do. His earnestness is remarkable."
"Yes, in courting."
"The cue is: treat Mr Lovill gently — gently as a babe! Love opposed, especially an old man's, gets all the stronger. It is your policy to give him seeming encouragement, and so let his feelings expend themselves and die away."
"How am I to? To advise is so easy."
"Not by acting untruthfully, of course. You say your lover is sure to come back before your uncle leaves England,"
"I know he will."
"Then pacify old Mr Lovill in this way: Tell him you'll marry him when your uncle wants to go, if Winwood doesn't come for you before that time. That will quite content Mr Lovill, for he doesn't in the least expect Oswald to return, and you'll see that his persecution will cease at once."
"Yes; I'll agree to it," said Agatha promptly.
Mr Davids had refrained from adding that neither did he expect Oswald to come, and hence his advice. Agatha on her part too refrained from stating the good reasons she had for the contrary expectation, and hence her assent. Without the last letter perhaps even her faith would hardly have been bold enough to allow this palpable driving of her into a corner.
"It would be as well to write Mr Lovill a little note, saying you agree to what I have advised," said the Parson evasively.
"I don't like writing."
"There's no harm. 'If Mr Winwood doesn't come I'll marry you,' &c. Poor Mr Lovill will be content, thinking Oswald will not come; you will be content, knowing he will come; your uncle will be content being indifferent which of two rich men has you and relieves him of his difficulties. Then, if it's the will of Providence, you'll be left in peace. Here's a pen and ink; you can do it at once."
Thus tempted, Agatha wrote the note with a trembling hand. It really did seem upon the whole a nicely strategic thing to do in her present environed situation. Mr Davids took the note with the air of a man who did not wish to take it in the least, and placed it on the mantle-piece.
"I'll send it down to him by one of the children," said Aggy, looking wistfully at her note with a little feeling that she should like to have it back again.
"Oh, no, it is not necessary," said her pleasant adviser. He had rung the bell; the servant now came, and the note was sent off in a trice.
When Agatha got into the open air again her confidence returned, and it was with a mischievous sense of enjoyment that she considered how she was duping her persecutors by keeping secret Oswald's intention of a speedy return. If they only knew what a firm foundation she had for her belief in what they all deemed but an improbable contingency, what a life they would lead her; how the old man would worry her uncle for payment, and what general confusion there would be. Mr Davids' advice was very shrewd, she thought, and she was glad she had called upon him.
Old Lovill came that very afternoon. He was delighted, and danced a few bars of a hornpipe in entering the room. So lively was the antique boy that Agatha was rather alarmed at her own temerity when she considered what was the basis of his gaiety; wishing she could get from him some such writing as he had got from her, that the words of her promise might not in any way be tampered with, or the conditions ignored.
"I only accept you conditionally, mind," she anxiously said. "That is distinctly understood."
"Yes, yes," said the yeoman. "I am not so young as I was, little dear, and beggars musn't be choosers. With my ra-ta-ta — say, dear, shall it be the first of November?"
"It will really never be."
"But if he doesn't come, it shall be the first of November?"
She slightly nodded her head.
"Clk! — l think she likes me!" said the old man aside to Aggy's uncle, which aside was distinctly heard by Aggy.
One of the younger children was in the room, drawing idly on a slate. Agatha at this moment took the slate from the child, and scribbled something on it.
"Now you must please me by just writing your name here," she saidin a voice of playful indifference.
"What is it?" said Lovill, looking over and reading. "'If Oswald Winwood comes to marry Agatha Pollin before November, I agree to give her up to him without objection.' Well, that is cool for a young lady under six feet, upon my word — hee-hee!" He passed the slate to the miller, who read the writing and passed it back again.
"Sign — just in courtesy," she coaxed.
"I don't see why — "
"I do it to test your faith in me; and now I find you have none. Don't you think I should have rubbed it out instantly? Ah, perhaps I can be obstinate too!"
He wrote his name then. "Now I have done it, and shown my faith," he said, and at once raised his fingers as if to rub it out again. But with hands that moved like lightning she snatched up the slate, flew up stairs, locked it in her box, and came down again.
"Souls of men — that's sharp practice," said the old gentleman.
"Oh, it is only a whim — a mere memorandum," said she. "You had my promise, but I had not yours."
"Ise wants my slate," cried the child.
"I'll buy you a new one, dear," said Agatha, and soothed her.
When she had left the room old Lovill spoke to her uncle somewhat uneasily of the event, which, childish as it had been, discomposed him for the moment.
"Oh, that's nothing," said Miller Pollin assuringly; "only play — only play. She's a mere child in nater, even now, and she did it only to tease ye. Why, she overheard your whisper that you thought she liked ye, and that was her playful way of punishing ye for your confidence. You'll have to put up with these worries, farmer. Considering the difference in your ages, she is sure to play pranks. You'll get to like 'em in time."
"Ay, ay, faith, so I shall! I was always a Turk for sprees! — eh, Pollin? hee-hee!" And the suitor was merry again.
Her life was certainly much pleasanter now. The old man treated her well, and was almost silent on the subject nearest his heart. She was obliged to be very stealthy in receiving letters from Oswald, and on this account was bound to meet the postman, let the weather be what it would. These transactions were easily kept secret from people out of the house, but it was a most difficult task to hide her movements from her uncle. And one day brought utter failure.
"How's this — out already, Agatha?" he said, meeting her in the lane at dawn on a foggy morning. She was actually reading a letter just received, and there was no disguising the truth.
"I've been for a letter from Oswald."
"Well, but that won't do. Since he don't come for ye, ye must think no more about him."
"But he's coming in six weeks. He tells me all about it in this very letter."
"What — really to marry you?" said her uncle incredulously.
"But I hear that he's wonderfully well off."
"Of course he is; that's why he's coming. He'll agree in a moment to be your surety for the debt to Mr Lovill."
"Has he said so?"
"Not yet; but he will."
"I'll believe it when I see him and he tells me so. It is very odd, if he means so much, that he hev never wrote a line to me."
"We thought — you would force me to have the other at once if he wrote to you," she murmured.
"Not I, if he comes rich. But it is rather a cock-and-bull story, and since he didn't make up his mind before now, I can't say I be much in his favour. Agatha, you had better not say a word to Mr Lovill about these letters; it will make things deuced unpleasant if he hears of such goings on. You are to reckon yourself bound by your word. Oswald won't hold water, I'm afeard. But I'll be fair. If he do come, proves his income, marries ye willy-nilly, I'll let it be, and the old man and I must do as we can. But barring that — you keep your promise to the letter."
"That's what it will be, uncle. Oswald will come."
"Write you must not. Lovill will smell it out, and he'll be sharper than you will like. 'Tis not to be supposed that you are to send love-letters to one man as if nothing was going to happen between ye and another man. The first of November is drawing nearer every day. And be sure and keep this a secret from Lovill for your own sake.
The more clearly that Agatha began to perceive the entire contrast of expectation as to issue between herself and the other party to the covenant, the more alarmed she became. She had not anticipated such an arrowing of courses as had occurred. A malign influence seemed to be at work without any visible human agency. The critical time drew nearer, and, though no ostensible preparation for the wedding was made, it was evident to all that Lovill was painting and papering his house for somebody's reception. He made a lawn where there had existed a nook of refuse; he bought furniture for a woman's room. The greatest horror was that he insisted upon her taking his arm one day, and there being no help for it she assented, though her distaste was unutterable. She felt the skinny arm through his sleeve, saw over the wry shoulders, looked upon the knobby feet, and shuddered. What if Oswald should not come; the time for her uncle's departure was really getting near. When she reached home she ran up to her bedroom.
On recovering from her dreads a little, Agatha looked from the window. The deaf lad John, who assisted in the mill, was quietly glancing toward her, and a gleam of friendship passed over his kindly face as he caught sight of her form. This reminded her that she had, after all, some sort of friend close at hand. The lad knew pretty well how events stood in Agatha's life, and he was always ready to do on her part whatever lay in his power. Agatha felt stronger, and resolved to bear up.
Heavens! how anxious she was! It actually wanted only ten days to the first of November, and no new letter had come from Oswald.
Her uncle was married, and Frances was in the house, and the preliminary steps for emigration to Queensland had been taken. Agatha surreptitiously obtained newspapers, scanned the Indian shipping news till her eyes ached, but all to no purpose, for she knew nothing either of route or vessel by which Oswald would return. He had mentioned nothing more than the month of his coming, and she had no way of making that single scrap of information the vehicle for obtaining more.
"In ten days, Agatha," said the old farmer. "There is to be no show or fuss of any kind; the wedding will be quite private, in consideration of your feelings and wishes. We'll go to church as if we were taking a morning walk, and nobody will be there to disturb you. Tweedledee!" He held up his arm and crossed it with his walking-stick, as if he were playing the fiddle, at the same time cutting a caper.
"He will come, and then I shan't be able to marry you, even th — th — though I may wish to ever so much," she faltered, shivering. "I have promised him, and I must have him, you know, and you have agreed to let me."
"Yes, yes," said Farmer Lovill, pleasantly. "But that's a misfortune you need not fear at all, my dear; he won't come at this late day and compel you to marry him in spite of your attachment to me. But, ah — it is only a joke to tease me, you little rogue! Your uncle says so."
"Agatha, come, cheer up, and think no more of that fellow," said her uncle when they chanced to be alone together. "'Tis ridiculous, you know. We always knew he wouldn't come."
The day passed. The sixth morning came, the noon, the evening. The fifth day came and vanished. Still no sound of Oswald. His friends now lived in London, and there was not a soul in the parish, save herself, that he corresponded with, or one to whom she could apply in such a delicate matter as this.
It was the evening before her wedding-day, and she was standing alone in the gloom of her bedchamber looking out on the plot in front of the mill. She saw a white figure moving below, and knew him to be the deaf miller lad, her friend. A sudden impulse animated Agatha. She had been making desperate attempts during the last two days to like the old man, and, since Oswald did not come, to marry him without further resistance, for the sheer good of the family of her uncle, to whom she was indeed indebted for much; but had only got so far in her efforts as not to positively hate him. Now rebelliousness came unsought. The lad knew her case, and upon this fact she acted. Gliding down stairs, she beckoned to him, and, as they stood together in the stream of light from the open mill door, she communicated her directions, partly by signs, partly by writing, for it was difficult to speak to him without being heard all over the premises.
He looked in her face with a glance of confederacy, and said that he understood it all. Upon this they parted.
The old man was at her house that evening, and when she withdrew wished her good-bye "for the present" with a dozen smiles of meaning. Agatha had retired early, leaving him still there, and when she reached her room, instead of looking at the new dress she was supposed to be going to wear on the morrow, busied herself in making up a small bundle of ordinary articles of clothing. Then she extinguished her light, lay down upon the bed without undressing, and waited for a preconcerted time.
In what seemed to her the dead of night, but which she concluded must be the time agreed upon — half-past five — there was a slight noise as of gravel being thrown against her window. Agatha jumped up, put on her bonnet and cloak, took up her bundle, and went down stairs without a light. At the bottom she slipped on her boots, and passed amid the chirping crickets to the door. It was unbarred. Her uncle, then, had risen, as she had half expected, and it necessitated a little more caution. The morning was dark as a cavern, not a star being visible; but knowing the bearings well, she went cautiously and in silence to the mill door. A faint light shone from inside, and the form of the mill-cart appeared without, the horse ready harnessed to it. Agatha did not see John for the moment, but concluded that he was in the mill with her uncle, who had just at this minute started the wheel for the day. She at once slipped into the vehicle and under the tilt, pulling some empty sacks over, as it had been previously agreed that she should do, to avoid the risk of discovery. After a few minutes of suspense she heard John coming from under the wall, where he had apparently been standing and watching her safely in, and mounting in front, away he drove at a walking pace.
Her scheme had been based upon the following particulars of mill business: Thrice a week it was the regular custom for John and another young man to start early in the morning, each with a horse and covered cart, and go in different directions to customers a few miles off, the carts being laden overnight. All that she had asked John to do this morning was to take her with him to a railway station about ten miles distant, where she might safely wait for an up train.
How will John act on returning — what will he say — how will he excuse himself she thought as they jogged along. "John!" she said, meaning to ask him about these things; but he did not hear, and she was too confused and weary after her wakeful night to be able to think consecutively on any subject. But the relief of finding that her uncle did not look into the cart caused a delicious lull in her, and while listlessly watching the dark gray sky through the triangular opening between the curtains at the fore part of the tilt, and John's elbow projecting from the folds of one of them, showing where he was sitting on the outside, she fell asleep.
She awoke after a short interval — everything was just the same — jog, jog, on they went; there was the dim slit between the curtains in front, and, after slightly wondering that John had not troubled himself to see that she was comfortable, she dozed again. Thus Agatha remained until she had a clear consciousness of the stopping of the cart. It aroused her, and looking at once through a small opening at the back, she perceived in the dim dawn that they were turning right about; in another moment the horse was proceeding on the way back again.
"John, what are you doing" she exclaimed, jumping up, and pulling aside the curtain which parted them.
John did not turn.
"How fearfully deaf he is!" she thought, "and how odd he looks behind, and he hangs forward as if he were asleep. His hair is snow white with flour; does he never clean it, then?" She crept across the sacks, and slapped him on the shoulder. John turned then.
"Hee-hee, my dear!" said the blithe old gentleman; and the moisture of his aged eye glistened in the dawning light, as he turned and looked into her horrified face. "It is all right; I am John, and I have given ye a nice morning's airing to refresh ye for the uncommon duties of to-day; and now we are going back for the ceremony — hee hee!"
He wore a miller's smock-frock on this interesting occasion, and had been enabled to play the part of John in the episode by taking the second cart and horse and anticipating by an hour the real John in calling her.
Agatha sank backward. How on earth had he discovered the scheme of escape so readily; he, an old and by no means suspicious man? But what mattered a solution! Hope was crushed, and her rebellion was at an end. Agatha was awakened from thought by another stopping of the horse, and they were again at the mill-door.
She dimly recognized her uncle's voice speaking in anger to her when the old farmer handed her out of the vehicle, and heard the farmer reply, merrily, that girls would be girls and have their freaks, that it didn't matter, and that it was a pleasant jest on this auspicious morn. For himself, there was nothing he had enjoyed all his life so much as a practical joke which did no harm. Then she had a sensation of being told to go into the house, have some food, and dress for her marriage with Mr Lovill, as she had promised to do on that day.
All this she did, and at eleven o'clock became the wife of the old man.
When Agatha was putting on her bonnet in the dusk that evening, for she would not illuminate her ghastly face by a candle, a rustling came against the door. Agatha turned. Her uncle's wife, Frances, was looking into the room, and Agatha could just discern upon her aunt's form the blue cloak which had ruled her destiny.
The sight was almost more than she could bear. If, as seemed likely, this effect was intended, the trick was certainly successful. Frances did not speak a word.
Then Agatha said in quiet irony, and with no evidence whatever of regret, sadness, or surprise at what the act revealed: "And so you told Mr Lovill of my flight this morning, and set him on the track? It would be amusing to know how you found out my plan, for he never could have done it by himself, poor old darling."
"Oh, I was a witness of your arrangement with John last night — that was all, my dear," said her aunt pleasantly. "I mentioned it then to Mr Lovill, and helped him to his joke of hindering you.... You remember the van, Agatha, and how you made use of my name on that occasion, years ago, now?"
"Yes, and did you hear our talk that night? I always fancied otherwise."
"I heard it all. It was fun to you; what do you think it was to me — fun, too? — to lose the man I longed for, and to become the wife of a man I care not an atom about?"
"Ah, no. And how you struggled to get him away from me, dear aunt!"
"And have done it, too."
"Not you, exactly. The Parson and fate."
"Parson Davids kindly persuaded you, because I kindly persuaded him, and persuaded your uncle to send you to him. Mr Davids is an old admirer of mine. Now do you see a wheel within a wheel, Agatha?"
Calmness was almost insupportable by Agatha now, but she managed to say: "Of course you have kept back letters from Oswald to me?"
"No, I have not done that," said Frances. "But I told Oswald, who landed at Southampton last night, and called here in great haste at seven this morning, that you had gone out for an early drive with the man you were to marry to-day, and that it might cause confusion if he remained. He looked very pale, and went away again at once to catch the next London train, saying something about having been prevented by a severe illness from sailing at the time he had promised and intended for the last twelvemonth."
The bride, though nearly slain by the news, would not flinch in the presence of her adversary. Stilling her quivering flesh, she said smiling: "That information is deeply interesting, but does not concern me at all, for I am my husband's darling now, you know, and I wouldn't make the dear man jealous for the world." And she glided down stairs to the chaise.
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