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- The Young Step-Mother - 100/124 -

The day after Mr. Kendal's departure, Mrs. Meadows had another attack, but a fortnight still passed before the long long task was over and the weary spirit set free. There had been no real consciousness and no one could speak of regret; of anything but relief and thankfulness that release had come at last, when Albinia had redeemed her pledge and knew she should no more hear of the dreary 'very bad night,' nor be greeted by the low, restless moan. The long good-night was come, and, on the whole, there was peace and absence of self-condemnation in looking back on the past connexion. Forbearance and unselfishness were recompensed by the calm tenderness with which she could regard one who at the outset had appeared likely to cause nothing but frets and misunderstandings.

Had she and Sophy been left to themselves, there would have been nothing to break upon this frame of mind, but early the next day arrived Mr. and Mrs. Drury, upsetting all her arrangements, implying that it had been presumptuous to exert any authority without relationship. It did seem hard that the claims of kindred should be only recollected in order to unsettle her plans, and offend her unostentatious tastes.

Averse both to the proposals, and to the discussion, she felt unprotected and forlorn, but her spirit revived as she heard her brother's voice in the hall, and she hastened to put herself in his hands. He declined doing battle, he said it would be better to yield than to argue, and leave a grudge for ever. 'It will not vex Edmund,' he said, 'and though you and Sophy may be pained by incongruities, they will hurt you less than disputing.'

She felt that he was right, and by yielding the main points he contrived amicably to persuade Mr. Drury out of the numerous invitations and grand luncheon as well as to adhere to the day that she had originally fixed for the funeral, after which he hoped to take her and the young ones home with him and give her the thorough change and rest of which the over-energy of her manner betrayed the need.

Not that she consented. She could not bear not to meet her letters at once; or suppose Edmund and Gilbert should return to an empty, unaired house, and she thought herself selfish, when it might do so much good to Sophy, &c., &c., &c.--till Mr. Ferrars, going home for a night, agreed with Winifred, that domineering would be the only way to deal with her.

On his return he found Albinia on the stairs, and boxes and trunks carried down after her. Running to him, she exclaimed, abruptly, 'I am going to Malta, Maurice, to-morrow evening!'

'Has Edmund sent for you?'

'Not exactly--he did not know--but Gilbert is dying, and wretched at my not coming. I never wished him good-by--he thinks I did not forgive him. Don't say a word--I shall go.'

He held her trembling hands, and said, 'This is not the way to be able to go. Come in here, sit down and tell me.'

'It is no use to argue. It is my duty now,' said Albinia; but she let him lead her into the room, where Sophy was changing the bright border of a travelling-cloak to crape, and Maurice stood watching, as if stunned.

'It is settled,' continued she, rapidly. 'Sophy and the children go to the vicarage. Yes, I know, you are very kind, but Maurice would be troublesome, and Winifred is not well enough, and the Dusautoys wish it.'

'Yes, that may be the best plan, as I shall be absent.'

She turned round, startled.

'I cannot let you go alone.'

'Nonsense--Winifred--Sunday--Lent--I don't want any one. Nothing could happen to me.'

Mr. Ferrars caught Sophy's eye beaming with sudden relief and gratitude, and repeated, 'If you go, I must take you.'

'I can't wait for Sunday,' she said.

'What have you heard?'

She produced the letter, and read parts of it. The whole stood thus:--

'Bormola, 11 p.m., February 28th, 1855. 'Dearest Albinia,

'I hope all has gone fairly well with you in my absence, and that Sophia is well again. Could I have foreseen the condition of affairs here, I doubt whether I could have resolved on leaving you at home, though you may be spared much by not being with us. I landed at noon to-day, and was met in the harbour by your cousin, who had come off in a boat in hopes of finding you on board. He did his best to prepare me for Gilbert's appearance, but I was more shocked than I can express. There can no longer be any doubt that it is a case of rapid decline, brought on by exposure, and, aggravated by the injury at Balaklava. Colonel Ferrars fancies that Gilbert's exertions on his behalf in the early part of his illness may have done harm, by preventing the broken bone from uniting, and causing it to press on the lungs; but knowing the constitutional tendency, we need not dwell on secondary causes, and there is no one to whom we owe a deeper debt of gratitude than to your cousin, for his most assiduous and affectionate attendance at a time when he is very little equal to exertion. They are like brothers together, and I am sure nothing has been wanting to Gilbert that he could devise for his comfort. They are in a tolerably commodious airy lodging, where I found Gilbert propped up with cushions on a large chair by the window, flushed with eager watching. Poor fellow, to see how his countenance fell when he found I was alone, was the most cutting reproach I ever received in my life. He was so completely overcome, that he could not restrain his tears, though he strove hard to command himself in this fear of wounding my feelings; but there are moments when the truth will have its way, and you have been more to him than his father has ever been. May it be granted that he may yet know how I feel towards him! His first impression was that you had never forgiven him for his unfortunate adventure with Maurice, and could never feel towards him as before; and though I trust I have removed this idea, perhaps such a letter as you can write might set his heart at rest. Ferrars says that hitherto his spirits have kept up wonderfully, though latterly he had been evidently aware of his condition, but he has been very much depressed this evening, probably from the reaction of excited expectation. On learning the cause of Lucy's desertion, he seemed to consider that his participation in the transactions of that night had recoiled upon himself, and deprived him of your presence. It was very painful to see how he took it. He was eager to be told of the children, and the only time I saw him brighten was when I gave him their messages. I am writing while I hope he sleeps. I am glad to be here to relieve the Colonel, who for several nights past has slept on the floor, in his room, not thinking the Maltese servant trustworthy. He looks very ill and suffering, but seems to have no thought but for Gilbert, and will not hear of leaving him; and, in truth, they cling together so affectionately, that I could not bear to urge their parting, even were Fred more fit to travel home alone. I will close my letter to-morrow after the doctor's visit.'

The conclusion was even more desponding; the physician had spoken of the case as hopeless, and likely to terminate rapidly; and Gilbert, who was always at the worst in the morning, had shown no symptom that could lead his father to retract his first impression.

Mr. Ferrars saw that it would be useless and cruel to endeavour to detain his sister, and only doubted whether in her precipitation, she might not cross and miss her husband in a still sadder journey homeward, and this made him the more resolved to be her escort. When she dissuaded him vehemently as though she were bent on doing something desperate, he replied that he was anxious about Fred, and if she and her husband were engrossed by their son, he should be of service in bringing him home; and this somewhat reconciled her to what was so much to her benefit. Only she gave notice that he must not prevent her from travelling day and night, to which he made no answer, while Sophy hoarsely said that but for knowing herself to be a mere impediment, she should have insisted on going, and her uncle must not keep mamma back. Then Maurice imitatively broke out, 'Mamma, take me to Gilbert, I wont be a plague, I promise you.' He was scarcely silenced before Mr. Dusautoy came striding in to urge on her that Fanny and himself should be much happier if he were permitted to conduct Mrs. Kendal to Malta (the fact being that Fanny was persuaded that Mr. Ferrars would obviate such necessity). Albinia almost laughed, as she had declared that she had set all the parsons in the country in commotion, and Mr. Dusautoy was obliged to limit his good offices to the care of the children, and the responsibility of the Fairmead Sunday services.

The good hard-worked brother had hardly time to eat his luncheon, before he started to inform his wife, and prepare for his journey. Winifred was a very good sister on an emergency; she had not once growled since poor Mrs. Meadows had been really ill; and though she had been feeding on hopes of Albinia's visit, and was far from strong, she quashed her husband's misgivings, and cheerily strove to convince him that he would be wanted by no one, least of all by herself. A slight vituperation of the polysyllabic pair was all the relief she permitted herself, and who could blame her for that, when even Mr. Dusautoy called the one 'that foolish fellow,' and the other 'poor dear Lucy?'

Albinia and Sophy safe over the fire that evening, after their sorrowful tasks unable to turn to anything else, wondering how and when they should meet again, and their words coming slowly, and with long intervals of silence.

'Dear child,' said Albinia, 'promise me to take care of yourself, and to let Mrs. Dusautoy judge what you can do.'

'I'm not worth taking care of,' muttered Sophy.

'We think you worth our anxiety,' said Albinia, tenderly.

'I will not make it worse for you,' meekly replied Sophy. 'I don't think I'm cross now, I could not be--'

'No, indeed you are not, my dear. We have leant on each other, and when we come home, you will make our welcome.'

'The children will.'

The Young Step-Mother - 100/124

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