IN a few days the house on the hill was abandoned, and a fair amount of comfort organised within the shelter of the hacienda. The remove was made with many regrets, especially on the part of Margaret and Noel, who promised themselves many an ascent to revisit the deserted home – scene of all that seemed to them to comprise their lives. Noel, however, soon ceased to feel any active regret when once established below; for not only was he thereby thrown into still closer contact with Margaret, but the little exigencies of the situation brought out to him yet more of the inexhaustible beauties of her nature. He knew not how charming a home-aspect she had imparted to the old dwelling until he beheld it stripped and empty. The desolate view of the new one made him shrink from it until he saw it in the warm light of her presence transformed into a scene of comfort and elegance as under the wand of a beneficent fairy.
The sitting-room was left to be arranged last; and whether by accident or design, or by that unconscious art which indicates the truest genius, its transformation was accomplished with a suddenness and completeness that enhanced the result with all the charm of unexpectedness and contrast. A wilderness and a chaos of confusion in the morning when Maynard and Noel left the house for the day to visit the lower farms, it
was a bower of beauty and a haven of repose on their return.
Certainly, if trifles make elegance, Margaret was a mistress of such trifles. And she sat in the centre of the fair apartment, quietly engaged with her usual tasks, showing no signs of the toil and fatigue with which she had been all day labouring in its arrangement; her piano open, and the music lying carelessly on it, as if she had just been playing as usual; fresh flowers and ferns in every nook where a vase could find a footing; pretty gauze-blinds on the windows, betraying, as nothing else could, a feminine presence; and, to crown all, one little fairy child asleep on the sofa, wearied with helping mamma, and the other playing with a picture-book at its mother’s feet.
Noel stood at the entrance amazed and enraptured with the loveliness of the unexpected picture. Maynard stood close behind him, and a gleam of delighted satisfaction lit up his face. But this lasted only for a moment. Bitter thoughts took possession of him, and he entered the room only to find innumerable faults with the details of its arrangement. Poor Margaret took his waywardness as a matter of course; but, though evidently pained and disappointed, defended her work with as much vivacity as she could muster. Noel was intensely annoyed, both at Maynard’s ungraciousness and at being made a witness of its exhibition; but feeling that the best way for him to act was to treat it as a trivial matter, and one more jocular than serious, he managed to put an end to the disagreeable scene by saying gaily to Margaret,
‘The next time you move I strongly recommend you to let him arrange everything himself, and then you will be able to criticise him in your turn.’
Margaret thanked him afterwards, when Maynard was absent at his office, for the way in which he had taken the matter, and said,
‘I often wish that I could answer James in such a manner as to show that I am not hurt. I think that if he thought I did not feel it, he would not care to appear unkind. But I know how deep-seated his bitterness is, and that his harshness is the expression of a pain which he reproaches me with being the cause of; so that I cannot help grieving for him even when he most hurts me.’
‘Ah, Margaret,’ replied Noel, ‘if only I could transfer to him your feeling for me, it would make you so happy that I
should die content in having served you so well, and glad to escape the envy of his delight.’
She shook her head sadly, and presently said,
‘You can give me your opinion now upon those lines I mentioned the other day.’ And taking the little packet from her pocket, she placed it in his hands, and asked him to read them to her.
He was sitting at the end of the sofa, and she, after giving him the paper, seated herself on a chair at a short distance from him, work in hand, ready to listen.
Glancing over the verses, as if to ascertain their character before reading them aloud, Noel presently let them sink with his hand into his lap, and pressing the other hand against his brow, was lost in thought.
‘Are they yours?’ he at length inquired.
She shook her head, saying,
‘Only the handwriting.’
‘They are not strange to me, but I certainly never wrote them, and I don’t think I have read them anywhere.’
‘Won’t you read them to me?’ she pleaded.
‘I cannot read them aloud. I can only whisper them. So you must come and sit very close beside me.’
Margaret started, and said,
‘That is how I got them. You whispered them while I was beside you in your fever, and I wrote them down.’
‘As you are the subject and occasion of them, they are as much yours as mine. James was right as to there being no exclusive ownership of ideas. We are the author; and thus, Siamese-twin like, we will read our own composition to ourself.’
And, placing his arm round her, he drew her still closer to him, until the glory of her hair intermingled with the darkness of his own, and, flowing downward, hid the paper from their view, so that reading was impossible.
It was a moment of bliss; and Margaret was the first to wake from it. Disengaging herself from his embrace, she seated herself again on her chair, saying playfully,
‘You can read better without my help.’
‘Ah, Margaret, what a thing it is to be troubled with a sense of much duty!’
‘What would you have me do?’ she exclaimed in a forlorn tone.
‘Dearest, you are always right. Come only a little nearer, and I will whisper our verses to you.’
She complied, and he read, in a low, intense voice, her record of the thoughts which had raged in his brain, and aided the elements in producing his fever; and which, assuming a rhythmical form, had been repeated by him unconsciously when Margaret was tending his sick bed. Irregular and disconnected, they yet were an irresistible proof to Margaret, had she needed one, of the completeness with which her idea had taken possession of Noel, and how acutely he felt leaving her. She had entitled them ‘Whispers.’
‘Well, but,’ said Noel, after the pause that followed the reading of this strange record of his semi-delirious ravings, ‘how came you to let any one but yourself enter my room when I was given to talking in such fashion?’
‘I observed that you never spoke but when I was close beside you,’ replied Margaret, ‘and that you were to a certain extent under my control. It seemed to me as if I had only to intensely desire you to be quiet, and you obeyed. Besides, you never uttered a name; so that your words, coming, as they did, in a low, moaning tone, would have been quite incoherent to another. I don’t know how many I lost before I discovered that they had a certain coherency, and began writing them down; and I was half afraid you would be vexed with me for doing that. But they were too precious to me to lose; and I did not know that I should ever hear your real voice speaking to me again.’
‘I really must forbid,’ he answered, ‘your ever talking or thinking of it as a possibility that I should be vexed with you. I might much more easily be vexed with myself; for, please understand, the feeling is always with me that regards you, not as another, but as a better, self to me. Wherefore, you are always to fulfil the part of that better self, act out your own nature, and tell me exactly your real thought.’
‘You have assigned me an onerous post,’ said Margaret, ‘but I will do my best to fulfil your wish.’