THE ROMANCE OF A RING (1)
IN THREE CHAPTERS
TO begin this romance of mine I must retrace three weary decades of my autobiography, and call back to my memory the time of my early girlhood. I was sixteen years old when I lost my father, and was left alone in the world, for I was an only child, and my mother had died before I completed my fourteenth year. But I was by no means a poor orphan. My father, during his last illness, having no relatives to whose care he chose to entrust me, confided me to the guardianship of his particular friend, an old white-headed baronet, who had been Pythias to his Damon at Oxford, and whom I had always held in especial reverence and affection. Sir Lorrimer Rand all was the kindliest, delightfulest specimen of that rara avis in terris, a good old English gentleman, that the sun has ever seen. His consort, too, a kissable, rosy-faced matron of some fifty seasons’ standing, with white dimply hands of very diminutive size, and a quick mouse-like deportment, was the very ideal of a pretty old lady. I loved these dear ancient people with all my heart, and their two children, Vane and Alice, were always my special admiration. Very shortly after my settlement at Rand all Hall, Alice and I became bosom allies, and vowed an eternal fidelity and affection to one another, that neither lapse of years nor change of circumstance should be able to break. I have said that I was sixteen when I became an inmate of Sir Lorrimer’s house. Alice was two years younger, but her brother, Vane, had attained the dignity of majority. He was of a very peculiar temperament, and his physique was appropriately singular. During my forty-six years of experience, I have never come across a duplicate of Vane Randall, nor have I ever encountered again so strange an expression of face and manner as his. He had an extraordinary reserve of character, remarkable in so
young a man, and though I believe that his emotions were really stronger and more easily disturbed than most people’s, and his sense of honour was particularly keen, yet he was very rarely betrayed into any outward demonstration of feeling, and had an exceptional fondness for solitude. In person he was tall beyond the ordinary standard, olive-complexioned, and brown-haired, and his eyes, the most remarkable and attractive it has ever been my fortune to see in or out of a picture. When I first went to live at Rand all Hall, no longer as a casual guest for a few weeks’ visit, but to take my place there as a regular member of the family circle, I was rather afraid of Vane. His reticence and grave demeanour discomfited me, his unyouthful patience and quietude annoyed me, and gave me a continual sense of being at a disadvantage when in his presence; while yet his evident power of mind, and his easy flow of language when he spoke upon any subject of depth or learning, moved my admiration and compelled my homage. Alice positively adored her brother, and believed in him implicitly. I think it was principally all cc’s example upon this point, and the representations she so often made me of Vane’s unerring sagacity and surpassing goodness, that first induced me to seek his friendship also; for I thought that one whom Alice held so infallible and loved so dearly must needs be somewhat beyond the common standard of mortals, and as eminently worthy of my adoration as of hers. My first advances towards the coveted alliance were made one summer’s evening by the borders of an ornamental water upon the estate of my guardian. I had been gathering wild-flowers in the neighbouring copses and meadows, to adorn the chamber of my dear Alice, who lay at home indisposed with headache, and with whom these children of the hedge-rows were always greater favourites than the choicest exotics of hothouse or conservatory. Forcing my way through the brambles and underwood of the cover, parting the tangled branches with my hands., and threading a path in and out of the intricate labyrinth of hazel and birch, I came suddenly upon a little quiet piece of open, a sloping mound, green and soft with the verdure of delicate mosses and ferns, and espied Vane reclining in an attitude suggestive of meditation, upon the bank of the lake that bounded the charming spot. Vane leaned against a mound of tasselled grasses, with his hands clasped beneath his head, and an open book upon his knees, his deep, wonderful eyes fastened upon the tiny rippling waves that broke drowsily on the shore at his feet, and the whole expression of his face like that of a man lost in reverie. For a moment the excessive brightness of the spot, all bathed in the splendour of the summer sunset, dazzled and bewildered
me after the subdued shadows of the wood. I paused, pushing aside the bracken, and shading my eyes with my hand, when the rustle of the branches caught his attention, and he turned his head and spoke to me.
“Why, Kate! So you’ve been wandering, have you? And you look tired, too. Come and rest yourself – this is an Eden worthy of your observation, I assure you; the loveliest bit of landscape for forty miles round!” I came forward, a little shyly, and sat down by his side in the full glow of the rosy light, but my heart fluttered uncomfortably, and I was still afraid to look him in the face. So, to avoid that necessity, and to divert his attention from myself, I took from his, knees the book he had been reading, and found it to be Spenser’s “Faerie Queene.”
“Can you read this easily?” said I. “I never can understand it, the old English is so difficult to make out.”
“Would you like to understand it, Kate?” he asked me, smiling a little. The question confused me – why, I don’t know; I suppose I had not expected such a reply, or else the tone of his voice was embarrassing.
“Of course I should, Vane,” I stammered, conscious of a blush. He took the book from my hands, and sitting closer beside me, translated a part of the poem with so much fluency and grace, that I forgot my timidity of his presence, and lost my self-consciousness in newly-awakened admiration of the metrical treasures he unfolded to me. I was charmed – enraptured; and Vane, looking in my face as he closed the volume, no doubt perceived the emotion I had not sought to conceal, and said gravely:
“I always sit here, Kate, every evening, with some one of my books. If you will come with me now and then, I think you would like to hear others of my favourite poets. Let me see – do you know German well?”
I confessed with burning cheeks that I was totally ignorant of it.
“Well, then,” said he, kindly, “I will teach it you. Is it a compact, Kate? Shall we read Schiller and Doctor Faustus together?”
Of course it was a compact, and so also from that day was the friendship between my tutor and me. And Alice, when she recovered from her indisposition, and found that I went every evening with her brother to learn German upon the banks of the mere, was very merry at my expense, and playfully assured me that she was rapidly becoming a prey to insupportable jealousy. Ah, I look back now upon that fond tranquil time of my life with bitterness in my soul, that bitterness of regret which is sorrow’s crown of sorrow, – the remembrance of happier things. How swiftly the years
went by! How devotedly I grew to love Vane Rand all! How proud I was to believe – alas, poor mistaken child that I was – that I, and only I, possessed his unbounded confidence; that to me alone he was content to shew his hopes, his aspirations, his hidden labours; that in my presence only he laid aside his reserve, and’ spoke out of the very fulness and depth of his thoughts, hiding nothing from me, making me proprietor of every desire, and idea, and passion that occupied his mind! But there came at last a time when this pleasant delusion was to be done away, and I was to learn, oh, by what a bitter experience! – how far I had been from sharing the real secret of Vane’s heart and life. Five years of happiness that was almost uninterrupted, of peace that was almost untroubled, passed away from me at Rand all Hall; and I awoke one sunshiny morning in the early spring to the consciousness that I that day attained the dignity of twenty-one, and that the auspicious event was to be duly signalized by a gayer and grander b all than had been celebrated in the old country-house for half-a-century. There were to be a great many people present that evening, to honour me with their congratulations, whom I had never seen, some whose names I had scarcely heard twice in my life, others who were not known to me at all; but of one expected guest I had heard Alice often speak with awe, not unmingled with some touch of dislike, as I found by the disapprobation she openly expressed when her father made known his desire that Mr. Moreton’s name should be included in the list of the invited for my birthday night.
“Mr. Moreton, papa?” she said, with a little mane of surprise, “what is he to do at a ball? Clergymen don’t dance. He’ll only stand in the doorways, and help to block up the entrances!”
But Sir Lorrimer insisted upon the despatch of the invitation in question, and Mr. Moreton, to Alice’s profound astonishment, wrote an acceptation in reply. I was flushed with excitement and expectancy when I entered the brilliantly-lighted drawing-rooms that night. And the know-ledge of my own beauty, though it was none of the rarest, was unutterably delightful to me. I floated through the night in a sort of dreamy ecstatic gladness; I danced, as it seemed to me, upon clouds of lightness, my heart beat joyously with a sense of something akin to triumph. Vane never danced much, but he waltzed twice that evening with me, and I said to myself that if it had not been with me he would not have danced at all. There was infinite gratification in the thought, and the colour burned brighter in my cheeks as I rested my hand on his shoulder, and
plunged for the second time under his piloting into the sweet reckless delirium of my favourite deux temps. I saw Mr. Moreton several times during the evening, and I learned from Alice that her father had made arrangements for him to sleep at the Hall, as he was going in a few days to his rectory near London, and Sir Lorrimer and he were old friends, and had not met for some years.
“But, ally,” I remonstrated, “is he going to stay in this house till he starts for London? Won’t that be rather a nuisance?” Alice pouted and shook her pretty head in self-exculpation, “I know nothing about it,” she said; “don’t ask me! Oh, what a tiresome thing, though, Katie?” Then she gave her hand to the gentleman who came to claim her for the next dance, and they went whirling away together down the long bright room.
But the Reverend Charles Moreton did stay at Lorrimer Hall for more than a week; and though I could not quite make up my mind to like him – it seemed somehow disloyal to Alice to admire any one she depreciated – I could not but admit to my own conscience that his manner was gentle and pleasant; and though I daresay Alice would have indignantly repudiated the notion that he had any pretensions to beauty of person, he was at least agreeable to look at, and the tones of his voice were incontrovertibly soft and melodious. He was a much older man than Vane, probably by some fourteen or sixteen years, but I thought he assumed too much of the patron towards my cher ami, and I was proportionately indignant, and should no doubt have taken some method of openly expressing my ire on the subject, if Vane himself had only betrayed the least resentment towards the man, whom, with some strange unaccountable feeling of presentiment, I could not help regarding in the light of an intruder and supplanter.
We saw a great deal of Mr. Moreton after the ball. He held too livings, one near London, and one in the midland counties, which had recently fallen into his possession; and on his journeys to and fro he frequently rested two or three days at Rand all Hall.
He was with us once in the early autumn, just as the leaves began to change their summer brightness for more sober shades, and I remember that the season was an unusually hot and sultry one. This time he had stayed longer at the Hall than on any previous visit – almost a fortnight, and on the evening before the day fixed for his departure, Alice and he and I had spent a good half-hour beneath a big cedar-tree on the lawn, discussing church polities and parochial management. But Vane, finding himself unbearably bored, sauntered away with an excuse, and Alice herself was soon
after summoned by the housekeeper to lend the light of her countenance to some domestic arrangement indoors. It came to pass, therefore, that my guardian’s guest and I were left alone, and I, possessing very few conversational powers, and being aware of my deficiency on that head, was fain to propose a tour through the garden alleys and the shrubbery. Suddenly, when we were in the very midst of the shrubbery, Mr. Moreton stood still and faced me.
“Miss Brandiscombe,” he said, with strange abruptness, “you know that I am not a young man?”
I was taken horribly aback by this embarrassing piece of intelligence, pointed as it was with an interrogatory emphasis; but I did my best in the emergency of the moment to unite the principle of abstract truth with my own sense of personal politeness.
“I don’t think you are very old,” I said, with an airy laugh. But he corrected that levity on the instant.
“Nor a poor man?” he added, in the same tone of inquiry. I lifted my eyes to his in alarmed silence, and mutely gave the affirmation he desired. “I have known Sir Lorrimer Vane Rand all almost all my Life,” said he, taking both my hands into his, “and there are few things connected with my circumstances and career which are unfamiliar to him. I believe he has an esteem and attachment for me. Certainly I regard him with feelings of the sincerest friendship.” There lie paused, and seemed to be again expecting some pertinent observation, but nothing at all appropriate suggested itself to me. So I coloured high, and still preserved a sagacious silence.
“Perhaps you guess already,” he continued, looking earnestly at me, “my motives for reminding you of these things. It is that you may not think I deal unfairly with you, or dishonourably towards the gentleman who has so long been your guardian and our mutual friend, by preferring the request I have resolved upon. Miss Brandiscombe – Kate – I am sure that I ask you to do nothing likely to displease Sir Lorrimer in entreating you to make me happy – to give me the title to protect and adore you – to be my wife.”
He was actually in earnest! I dropped my eyes, and felt the crimson blood flaming hotly from my throat to my temples. In a moment a hundred swift-winged thoughts, reminiscences, and anticipations crowded into my mind, over-whelming and confusing the voice of my heart. Vanity, self-conceit, the desire of glorification – these were the baneful demons busiest with the shaping of my future at that terrible instant. I reflected that I was now past twenty-one, that, being very pretty, I ought no longer to remain boxed up in this country domicile of my ex-guardian’s, surrounded only by gamekeepers and serving-men, and exhibited occasionally
only at a county dinner or a hunt ball. I knew that this man who now desired to marry me, after having passed forty years in the world unconquered by any woman, was looked upon as invulnerable, indomitable, and yet he had confessed himself my captive I What would be said of such a splendid conquest? Little Kate Brandiscombe leading the erudite, the savant, the cynical, the magnificent Charles Moreton in fetters! How the affair would astonish Sir Lorrimer! and please him, too, no doubt, as Mr. Moreton had said it would. Perhaps, already Sir Lorrimer knew of his friend’s intention. And Alice – what would she say? Vane –
There a cold shiver seized me, my heart recoiled in my bosom, and I felt as though the soft August atmosphere had suddenly become an icy wind. I stood silent, unable to speak the words that would tear me asunder so irreparably from him, that would destroy so utterly a hope of whose existence in my soul I had been unconscious till that very moment. It is not until we stand on the point of losing for ever the possible fulfilment of our desire, that we comprehend how much the desire itself was part of our being.
Charles Moreton’s musical voice broke in upon the thought that tore my heart so sorely.
“Dear Kate, is it to be ‘Yes’ or ‘No?’ Will you let me be your husband?”
Vane! Vane! The dear familiar name ran through my soul, like the death-cry of that terrible Hope dying in its birth. Ought I not to be ashamed of myself – ashamed of my weakness – ashamed of such unmaidenly, unsolicited, unrequited love? I had been taught that “Women should be wooed, and not unsought be won; “and I believed it to be decenter and better for a girl to marry where she could fed little affection, than so to forget herself as to love where she could not marry. And so I accepted the escape that Providence seemed to be offering me; I crushed the natural morality born within me under the iron of the artificial morality I had learned in the world; I sacrificed the first-fruits of my heart to the idol of a false idea; – other women have done the same things since, often and over again. I gave the promise that Charles Moreton had asked of me, and I thought that in doing it I did well, since I could never be the wife of Vane Rand all. Never!
But from the hour I pledged myself and my honour thus, there seemed to come a change over the still quiet eventide, and all the shrubbery about us was astir with an awakened sobbing wind. Bough on bough swirled and sighed around, and here and there some light crispy leaf, withered by the touch of autumn, fell quivering from the rusting canopy
overhead, and lay motionless and deathlike upon the gravel at my feet. I passed out into another world, out into another life, with the man to whom I had promised all my future, the man who was my chosen husband, henceforth to be my sole guide and closest companion till the end.
Hardly had we quitted the shadow of the grove, when I perceived Alice hastening towards us. I could not meet her smiling happy face at that moment, and I felt that her merry laughter and light talk would break my heart. So I made a hasty excuse for deserting Mr. Moreton, and, promising a speedy return, I turned away from him and sped back into the shrubbery. But the next minute I heard Alice calling me, and fearing that I should be followed and captured either by her or by Charles Moreton himself, I ran breathlessly down a narrow cross-path leading to the banks of the mere, whither I did not think it likely any one would be at the trouble to pursue me. But the intricate maze of small winding byways and my own discomfiture of mind bewrayed my steps, and I plunged by mistake into the coppice below the lake where I had gathered the wild flowers for Alice on the day of my first tête-à-tête with her brother. I remembered the spot – I remembered the whole circumstances of that by-gone evening, the brightness of the sunlight, the feelings of my heart, the beauty of the poem lie made me understand then for the first time! Mechanically I sought and found the opening in the love brushwood and bracken that led to the mere. But when I stepped out of the coppice on to the open rising ground, and fronted the full glory of the swooning westward sun, my heart leapt with a great leap into my throat, and the turf seemed unsteady beneath me, for there – as though that lost day of the Past were indeed restored – there, by that identical knoll of tufted grasses, his book lying open upon his knees, and his dear grave face turned towards the sunset, sat my darling, my friend Vane Rand all! And when he saw me he rose and made me welcome, as he always did, laying his book aside, and as I drew near I looked down at it and saw that it was indeed the “Faerie Queene.” “Katie, dear, you are trembling – what is the matter? – what has happened?” Then I laid my arms about his neck, and buried my head upon them, and told him that I was engaged to be married to Charles Moreton, that he loved me and that I loved him, and that he was gone to tell my guardian about it now. And after I had told him I fell to crying like the child that I was, my face still resting upon his shoulder, hiding and nesting there where I had so often fled to seek sympathy and comfort before in far lighter cares than this. All me! how much lighter and more evanescent!
But after a little while, when I found that my friend let me sob on in silence, and said not a word to this great piece of news, I turned myself slowly in his embrace and looked at him, wondering why he did not speak. God pity me! even now I seem to see it all again as I saw it then – the white quivering lips, the eyes benumbed as in a dream, the dear terrible face that looked no longer like the face of Vane, but like an image of it carven in marble! My sobs died suddenly, choked to silence by the new horror that seized me, and a fierce unwonted pain like the touch of fire caught my breath midway in my throat, and sopped up the tears that had been ready to f all from my eyes.
“Forgive me, Kate!” said he, at last. “I wish you to be very happy, dear, – but – I had thought you loved me more than him, and I hoped to have made you my wife this year. But it’s over now, Katie; and though I can’t help telling you, don’t let any one else know about it; – we’ve been playing a game of cross-questions together, dear, and I’ve got my crooked answer – that’s all.”
Through the dreadful silence his words, sharp and distinct in their low measured utterance, fell upon my heart, – words that I have heard through more than twenty-five years since that autumn evening, reviving, like a constant haunting presence, a ghostly regret for the life they blighted, – the life that might have been; and filling me with a weary unsatisfied yearning over the glory of youth and womanhood that perished at that bitter going down of the sun.
And as I looked up again I saw that the sun had gone down, and the gold of my life had gone with it. For me, henceforth, the grey had begun.
(279:1) The leading incidents of this Story are true, but the writer is not at liberty to mention how she became acquainted with them.
THAT evening seemed to me to have no end. While I was dressing for dinner, Alice came into my room and sat down by the toilette-table, as it was her custom to do; but I felt that it would be impossible to support any sort of conversation with her then, and I could not conceal my swollen eye-lids and the disorder of my mind. But Alice did not seem at all surprised. She looked at me kindly, and drawing down my face to hers, told me, with a kiss, that she knew all about it, for Mr. Moreton had already told her and my guardian; that she hoped I should be very very happy, and that I mustn’t cry. “But, Katie,” she added, with one of
her discontented little grimaces, “do you know I’m not quite sure that I shan’t cry. I had no idea it was Charles Moreton you liked! Shall I tell you what I thought and hoped? – and now you’ve spoilt it all!”
I could not speak, for at the moment that strange sensation which most people seem to experience at certain seasons pervaded my mina, and I felt with a curious certainty that I already knew the words she was going to say, and that I could not hinder her from saying them.
“Well, then,” said Alice, after a little pause of hesitation, “I thought it was Vane that you liked, and I said to myself and to papa that you two would marry in the end; and papa believed the same, I know; for when I first told him what I fancied about it he pinched my cheek and laughed, and said he didn’t think me a very remarkable prophet, for he was clever enough to see as much as I did in that particular direction! And, of course, now that you are really engaged to somebody else, you won’t mind my saying that I am a little disappointed – will you? Because I always promised myself that you were going to be my sister in good earnest some day.”
Again I could not answer her. I only had sown my own misery then, and I had to reap my harvest of bitterness in silence. To think that, after all, that very Hope had been the hope of my guardian and of Alice, and of Vane himself, and that I – I had destroyed and ruined it in my fatal haste to be married! To think that happiness – such happiness would have come so easily to me if I had only waited for it perhaps a few days longer, and that everybody was ready to rejoice at my gladness! To think that the sweet fruit had been so near to my lips, and that I, in my blindness and folly, had voluntarily thrust it away! And then to hear Alice’s qualified felicitations on my terrible blunder, and to be told that she was disappointed in my choice! Disappointed! SHE!
How I wept that night! How I sobbed and moaned and sighed out the dull creeping hours from midnight until dawn! How I hated the returning light and my own life, and the pitiless, heartless sun that would rise again and make a new day!
But I never breathed a word of my distress to Alice; I never betrayed myself to Vane; I never resented a kiss nor a word of caress from Charles Moreton. My guardian plainly was a little surprised at the engagement, but he made no allusion to his son, nor hinted at the existence of the disappointment Alice had expressed so openly. Then came the eve of my wedding-day, and with it, Vane, who had been in London for some weeks, returned to the Hall. It was very
late when he arrived, and Alice had already bidden me good-night and was preparing to retire to bed. But when I heard Vane come into the house, I was seized with so strong a desire to see and speak to him, that instead of going directly to my bedroom, I ran down the stairs and encountered him in the dim-lighted hall.
At the sound of my footstep he looked up and greeted me with a smile.
“Ah, Katie!” said he, “I’m glad you’re there – I have something to shew you. And you’ll be in such general requisition in the morning that I shan’t be able to get near you; so I’ll take the chance that Providence gives me, and make the most of the present. Smithers, where is there a lamp burning?”
“In the dining-room, if you please, sir.” I followed Vane into the great empty room, with its grim oaken wainscoting and faded ancestral portraits hanging on the walls.
Vane took a tiny velvet étui from his vest and opened it before me. It contained a gold ring of three separate circles, made in the semblance of a snake, and upon the crest of the head was set one large diamond of the first water, an amazing gem both for size and lustre.
“This is my present to you for tomorrow, Katie. You must wear it as a guard above your wedding ring. There is something written inside, you see, so that you mayn’t forget me by-and-by.”
He held the jewel beneath the lamp as he spoke, and the light fell full upon the inside of the coils. I read this inscription graven there:
“Vane Randall gives this, with himself, to Kate Brandiscombe.”
I could not read it twice for the tears that blinded me. I could only hold the dear giver to my heart, and let him take my thanks in the passionate silence of a last embrace. Oh, if even then he could have known how I suffered for his sake! If even then he could have guessed how wildly I loved him! That night I was nearer to telling him the truth than I had ever been before, for I saw that his love was not abated towards me, I knew that I was his darling still. Would it have been better for us, better for him, if I had spoken then, I wonder?
As I laid the jewel in its velvet case I looked again at the inscription within it, and noticed that it was not my married name that was engraven there, though the ring itself vas a wedding gift.
“Why did you not,” said I, “write Kate Moreton instead of the maiden name I shall forego tomorrow?”
“I have never known Kate Moreton,” he answered, in a low, sorrowful voice. “It is Kate Brandiscombe that I have loved, it is Kate Brandiscombe that I shall carry about in my heart all my life. And whenever she thinks of me I want her to be Kate Brandiscombe again, that my ring may be to her not only a ‘goodly ornament but an ‘endlesse moniment’ of the past.”
He too, then, must have been thinking of the “Epithalamion.”
* * * * * * * * * *
I was married to Charles Moreton upon the twenty-fifth of October, eighteen hundred and forty-five. And upon that day, after I had returned from the church with my new-made husband, Vane himself added his golden serpent to the single coil of the wedding-ring already upon my finger. For I would wear no other guard than this gift of Vane’s, and I would suffer no hand but his to put it on. And he, bending over me as I gazed at the shining circles, murmured,
“There are three coils, Katie – that is the magic number, you know, and the full elaboration and perfect complement of three is nine; three ones of threes, trinity infinity thrice demonstrated. Let the diamond on the serpent’s crest stand for the adamant of our friendship – the indissoluble bond between us – and the allegory is complete!”
“Ah, Vane,” said I, “what result may not nine years bring to that precious friendship?”
No one was attending to us – we stood apart from the guests, and the chiffonier, groaning beneath the weight of my costly wedding-gifts, was the centre of the general attraction. Vane glanced rapidly across the room, and then, fixing his wonderful scintillating eyes upon my face; “Katie,” said he, with unwonted earnestness, “something impresses me to make you a very foolish request. Keep this ring untouched where I have put it. I shall like to think when we are parted that you have never moved it from your finger since this day, and that where I left it, there it remains.”
“Vane,” I answered, all my heart upon my lips, “it shall never be moved from my finger until you draw it off yourself.” Then a sudden thought struck upon my mind, and I added hastily, “But oh, Vane, suppose I lose the diamond – the symbol of our friendship? What shall I do then?”
And he answered me, “If you lose that, Katie, I will send you another gift to replace it.”
VERY shortly after the return of my husband and myself from the Continent, where we had spent our honeymoon, and just as I was beginning to settle down in my new home, I heard from Alice that Vane had entered the army.
“After your marriage, Katie,” wrote my naïve correspondent, “Vane seemed to grow quite different. He became more speculative than ever, but instead of being tranquil and serene over his speculations, as he used to be, he turned excitable and restless. You may think how surprised we were to hear him say one day that he was tired of his quiet life, and must have some active profession, something that would stir up his energy, and take him into adventure and commotion, if possible – into danger. Papa laughed at him, and suggested that the season for fox-hunting had set in already; but I knew what Vane was hinting at, and what he meant to do. So I was not surprised when he told us very calmly last Saturday that the preliminaries were concluded, and that he had ‘got a mount for her Majesty’s pack.’ I think it’s in the Lancers. Write to him, Katie; I know he would like to hear from you.”
I wrote as she suggested, and Vane would have come to see me, but I feared that if he did I might betray myself before my husband. So I sent Vane an excuse, and with the letter went also a gage d’amitié I had prepared for him, and which I was sure he would appreciate and value as dearly as I did his ring. My present was a double locket of plain dead gold, containing in the interior of one fold my own portrait, enamelled upon ivory, and bearing on the inner part of the fold, opposite the picture, this single line, traced in the tiniest of seed pearls:
“For short time an endlesse moniment.”
Time went on very calmly and placidly with me at the rectory, and Charles and I were as happy together as any one could reasonably have expected, considering the disparity of our ages: certainly we were much happier than I had believed it possible for such a marriage to make us. I did not see so much of Alice as I had hoped to do, for Rand all Hall was quite in the midst of England, but we often exchanged epistolary greetings, and our friendship remained as warm and unalterable as ever. Alice would not marry. Three years after my marriage, Lady Randall, whose feeble health had long before made her a nonentity
in the household affairs, died, and my friend loved Sir Lorrimer too dearly to be able to leave him alone, now that Vane no longer resided in the old place. It was Alice’s mission to be a good daughter, and she performed her duty with earnest devotion and willing love.
Time is a wonderfully skilful healer of mental disorders, and he was a good doctor to me. But I was sorry for my husband’s sake that we had no child. More than eight years of my grey married life had passed away, and no baby came to gladden the house and wake the mother’s heart in my bosom; no tiny voice babbled in the great luxurious rooms where I sat day after day entertaining my visitors or presiding at my husband’s table; no little pattering footsteps disturbed the aching silence of heavy-carpeted staircase and the long marble corridors.
I taught myself to believe at last that the blessing women covet and prize so much was denied to me, and that in this crowning joy of happy wives and solace of sad ones, I should not be suffered to partake. But Providence meant more kindly, and decreed that though it was not for me to have a child upon earth, I should have one in heaven.
Early in the summer of 1854, a little son was born to me, but he was a weakly, tiny infant, and we all saw from the first that he could not live long. Three days after his birth we gave him the names of Charles Vane, and when the quiet ceremony of baptism was over, my husband carried him to the couch where I lay, and put him gently into my arms. He opened his blue eyes, and -looked at me wistfully, as though, poor baby, he dimly understood I was some one he might have learned to love if he could have lived a little while longer, then he dropped his wee tired head upon my breast with a little sigh, and died. I do not think I was very sorry, for I knew that I had a baby still, and that a some quiet corner of Paradise I should find, by-and-by, u tiny smiling face that I should know, and hear a childish voice that the angels would have taught to call me “mother!”
My husband’s rectory was a very short distance from the Norwood Cemetery, in which my father had been buried; and at my request they laid the little coffin beside his grave, for I liked to think that they were so close together, and that when I was able to go out again, I might sit beside them both as they slept so quietly there and still, in their low green beds, whereon the grass waved, and the roses bloomed, and the sunshine and the rain of heaven came day after day to bless the peaceful rest of the dead.
That practice of burying one’s friends in vaults is very horrible! It is so much better to think that those we have loved lie out beneath God’s wide, open sky, under the clear-eyed
shining stars and the warmth of the golden summertime, and the soft, beautiful snow that the angels spread so reverently over the long graves like a white p all to keep the frost and the cold of winter from those who lie below, than to know we have put away the bodies of our dead upon shelves in a clamp cupboard underground, with great iron doors and heavy bars shutting them in like the gates of a dungeon!
But it was very long before I was able to go to the cemetery. After little Charlie’s death I lay a long time so ill that it was believed I should die, and I almost hoped so myself, for I had grown terribly weary of the world. But little by little my strength came back to me, and at length I used to walk up and down the garden-paths, leaning on my husband’s arm, and watching the companies of swallows that congregated and wheeled and darted round the gabled roof of the rectory, already assembling for their southward journey. At last, one morning about a quarter before nine, I crept alone out of my husband’s domains and found my way to the cemetery. I took with me the latest blooms our parterres had yielded, some golden pompones and lobelias, and a few hothouse rarities of fern. Kneeling by the two green mounds I had come to visit, I laid my flowers. across my father’s grave with unsteady fingers, and hung a wreath of maidenhair and feathery exotics over the white stone cross that marked the resting-place of my baby-boy. But, not daring to remain too long upon a first expedition after so severe an illness as mine had been, and fearing to be overtaken by the rain – for the sky was gloomy with gathering clouds, and the wind blew sharply and keen from the north-east – I hastened home as quickly as my weakness permitted, and retired to my own boudoir. As I entered the room, the tiny French clock upon the mantelpiece chimed for the quarter to ten. Raising my hand to draw aside the muslin curtain that shaded the window, my glance was suddenly attracted to some unwonted appearance connected with my wedding-finger. The next instant I perceived the nature. of this peculiarity, and uttered a cry. I had lost my serpent-ring! And straight-way with the knowledge of that loss a flood of long-slumbering memories awakened within me, and the whole tide of my old passionate love poured back upon my heart. Only a few weeks ago I had heard from Alice that Vane was in the Crimea, and expecting soon to send us the account of some brilliant engagement in which – he had gaily written home – he should certainly distinguish himself and earn the most splendid laurels imaginable. Where was he now? what had become of him? And the ring!
the ring he gave me! the ring I had promised never to move from my hand!
Not heeding the shower, which now began to f all in good earnest, I snatched my bonnet and mantle from the table and fled back to the cemetery as fast as my faltering steps would carry me. I scattered the flowers upon the two graves, I tore asunder the wreath of maidenhair, and suddenly, from a hanging spray of the delicate fern, shook out the gleaming jewel. It dropped upon the grave, and then rolled downwards to my feet. The matter was soon explained. My fingers were wasted and attenuated with long sickness, and the ring, being weighty, had slipped from my hand as I weaved the garland.
On returning to the rectory I met my maid. “Please, ma’am, I didn’t think you were out, because of the rain coming, but I couldn’t find you indoors, so I went down the garden to look for you. The postman’s just brought this.” I took the letter she offered me – a mere ordinary petition for a charity-school vote – but the date of the post-mark upon the envelope struck me like a sudden, staggering blow. “Phoebe!” cried I, almost choked with the awful horror of the idea, “is this October the twenty-fifth?” She looked back, and answered me glibly in the affirmative. The anniversary of my wedding-day!
So on October the twenty-fifth, eighteen hundred and fifty-four, precisely nine years from the day on which Vane had put the serpent-ring upon my finger, I had dropped it upon the grave of my dead child! What if, after all, my lost love had drawn his gift off my hand himself?
A short time after this curious loss and recovery of my ring I sat again one morning in my boudoir, very early after breakfast. A copy of the day’s “Times,” new and damp from the press, lay ready for my perusal upon a little inlaid console before the window, and I drew my arm-chair towards it and sat down with the opened paper I n my hand. There, under the heading of “Crimean Intelligence,” I read the first account of that splendid act of military madness, that gallant deed of modern chivalry, which crowned the lustre of the victory at Balaclava, and wrote with the best of English blood the worthiest record of English daring – the-charge of the Light Brigade. My heart burned as I read the story of that doomed Six Hundred who rode so bravely and devotedly to their fate in the very teeth of the Russian musketry, asking no reason for the wild command, seeking to find no excuse, only sweeping down straight upon the hostile ranks of glittering steel, with the courage of lions and the calm nobility of Englishmen who knew that they were riding to their death.
Lives lost? What was this – this – here beneath my eyes, here in my trembling hand – this well-known name looking so strange and awful in the midst of the common, black-printed columns? What was this terrible line that forced itself upon my sight, and burnt its way into my heart, as though every letter of it had been a stroke of fire? It was here, under the list of killed and wounded.
“On the 25th October, in the charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade at Balaclava, Captain Vane Randall, 17th Lancers – shot through the heart.”
Ah! lovers and sisters and mothers, who have suddenly come upon such another dear familiar name in the obituaries of war, you and such as you only can understand the dull stupor of agony, the incredulous horror that sickened and smote me in that awful moment. I pressed my two palms to my tem pies with a vague consciousness of darkness and pain. Then a new thought flashed upon my mind, and I lowered my left hand and held it out before me. I could distinctly fed that Vane’s ring was still upon it; but for some instinctive reason I cannot explain, I dared not look at it for a moment, but turned my head aside and began to glance round again slowly, as though I had expected to see some spectral thing, some dreadful apparition.
O strange and awful wonder that riveted my eyes at last! O terrible inexplicable accident, more ghastly and expressly significant than the first! There was no longer a diamond upon the serpent’s crest, and I looked only into the empty cavity wherein the stone had been set!
My lost diamond was never found, though every possible search was instituted on its account. I reiterated my positive conviction that it must have been in the ring when I entered my boudoir that morning; and that as I had not stirred from the room until after my discovery of the accident, the jewel must have dropped somewhere between the door and the window. But in vain; the maids were incredulous, and I did not care to trouble my husband with the relation of so singular a disappearance.
So I put away the object of this extraordinary history in my cabinet, neither daring nor desiring to wear it any longer; and it is needless to say that I regarded as sacrilege the idea of replacing the lost gem, believing that Vane himself would yet redeem his last promise, and complete the chain of these strange and unparalleled adventures.
He would send me another gift in the stead of my lost jewel. In this expectation I was not disappointed.
One afternoon, not many days after the announcement in England of the Balaclava victory, and the disappearance of the fateful diamond, Phoebe informed me that a gentleman
waited to see me in my husband’s study. She brought me his card, but the name upon it was unknown to me – “Colonel Somers, Scots Greys.” I found him a man of stately presence and peculiarly gentle voice, but of so haggard and melancholy an expression of face, that the very sight of him filled me with pity and sympathetic interest.
“Madam,” said he, rising and bowing low as I entered the room, “such an utter stranger to you as I have the misfortune to be, ought certainly to excuse himself for the suddenness of an intrusion like this. But I am’ – he hesitated a little, and his voice slightly dropped and faltered – ‘I have been, – a friend of Captain Rand all; and being brought unexpectedly to England upon some very urgent private affairs, impossible even in the present state of the war to neglect, I have come here to deliver to you with my own hands a packet, the contents of which, I am told, must certainly be more rightfully yours than any one else’s.”
He placed on the table, as he spoke, a small leathern jewel-case, worn and stained, which I did not recognise. My thanks rose to my lips, but the tears were ready behind them, and could scarcely trust myself to speak. Colonel Somers took pity upon me, seeing me so distressed, and dropping his eyes from my face, he added, in his slow, musical tones:
“No doubt you know, Mrs. Moreton, the history of the disastrous Light Cavalry charge at Balaclava a month ago. It was a dreadful business – the result, probably, of some misapprehension between Lord Raglan and Captain Nolan – who fell, poor fellow, doing his mistaken duty so admirably in the front of the Russian batteries. I did not myself take part in the charge, for I belong to the Heavy; but I saw the devoted brigade ride to its destruction, and I never shall forget the splendid sight. Cavalry ought on no account to act without support; infantry should always be close at hand to back them up; but we were the only reserve behind these men, guns and infantry being far in the rear. The brigade advanced in two lines, quickening their pace as they went – trot – canter – galop – then a splendid burst! We heard them cheer as they flew into the smoke of the Russian batteries; we saw their lines thinned and broken – saw them join again – saw them r ally, We could catch the flash of their sabres as they dashed among the guns, scattering the enemy’s columns right and left, and striking down the gunners. I do not believe one man in the whole brigade flinched from the desperate encounter. But gods could not have done what those brave fellows failed to do. They will settle these things at home, I suppose. I am a soldier, and
I must pay my tribute where it is due. I never saw such magnificent riding, such undaunted courage in my life before I saw this, and I have been many years in the Queen’s ser-vice, so that I speak with some experience of battle-fields and military enthusiasm. Those Muscovite wretches should have reverenced the unparalleled valour of this Six Hundred; but they could neither understand nor appreciate it, and they opened their cursed volleys of grape and canister upon the returning remnants of the band, and shot the brave fellows down as though they had been dogs!”
Colonel Somers paused a moment, and presently resumed in altered and calmer tones:
“After the whole thing was over, some of our men found Captain Rand all lying across his dead horse, among the foremost of those who had fallen, with his face turned towards the guns he had ridden out to capture. They brought him to me, because they knew he had been my friend. When I opened his vest I saw that he had been shot in the heart, and the bullet that had brought him his death had passed on its way through a little gold pendant which I found tied about his neck with a silk thread. I hesitated at first to remove it, perceiving how much he must have valued it; but when I reflected that he was now no longer able to estimate that value, and that his father and sister would dearly prize the little treasure as a memorial of him whom they had lost, I altered my mind, and laid the trinket aside in a small leather stud-box of my own, until I should have an opportunity of restoring it to my friend’s family. Coming to England so soon after the battle, I brought it with me, and yesterday took it to Miss Rand all at Rand all Hall, but she told me it could belong only to you; and I begged your address of her, that I might have the satisfaction of giving it myself into your hands.”
I was weeping now unrestrainedly, for I could no longer conceal my emotion, and I knew from the tone of the voice that spoke to me that Vane’s friend himself was scarcely less moved.
“Colonel Somers,” said I, “you have done me a kindness that no words can repay; and if I fail to thank you sufficiently, it is because I fed so deeply the goodness and delicacy that prompted your visit. But I want to know one thing more: the hour at which that disastrous charge of the twenty-fifth of October took place. Can you remember?”
“The Light Cavalry Brigade” he answered, “charged at ten minutes past eleven. By twenty-five minutes to noon, only the dead and dying were left in front of the Russian guns.”
I had no need to ask further. Exactly at that time, allowing for the difference of longitude between London and the Crimea, the ring which Vane Rand all had given me fell from my finger upon the grave of the child who vas called after his name. But I longed to set my last doubt at rest, and I took the morocco étui in my hand.
“You will excuse me?” I said, pressing the spring, as I looked up at Colonel Somers.
He bowed his head in acquiescence.
Alas! alas! It was the gold locket I had given Vane nine years ago, all riddled and crushed by the bullet that had pierced his heart.