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" for Percival. "
ENGAGEMENTS—HOSTILE AND OTHERWISE.
HE fairest season of the year, the
debatable ground between spring and summer, had come round once more, There were leaves on the trees, and flowers in the grass. The sunshine was golden and full, not like the bleak brightness of March. The winds were warm, the showers soft. Percival, always keenly affected by such influences, felt as if a new life had come to him with the spring. Now that the evenings had grown long and light, he could escape into the country, breathe a purer air, and wander in fields and lanes. And as he wandered, musing, it seemed to him that he had awakened from a dream.
He looked back upon the past year, and he was more than half inclined to call himself a fool. He had taken up work for which he was not fit. He could see that now. He knew very well that his life was almost intolerable, and that it would never be more tolerable unless help came from without. VOL. XXXVIII.—NO. 227.
He could never grow accustomed to his drudgery. He could work honestly, but he could never put his heart into it. And even if he could have displayed ten times as much energy, if his aptitude for business had been ten times as great, if Mr. Ferguson had estimated him so highly as to take him as articled clerk, if he had passed all his examinations, and been duly admitted, if the brightest possibilities in such a life as his had become realities, and he had attained at last to a small share in the business,—what would be the end of this most improbable success ? Merely that he would have to spend his whole life in Brenthill, absorbed in law. Now the law was a weariness to him, and he loathed Brenthill. Yet he had voluntarily accepted a life which could offer him no higher prize than such a fate as this, when Godfrey Hammond, or Mrs. Middleton, or even old Hardwicke, would no doubt have helped him to something better,
Certainly he had been a fool ! and yet, while he realised this truth, he sincerely respected—I might almost say he admired-his own folly. He had been sick of dependence, and he had gone down at once to the bottom of everything, taken his stand on firm ground, and conquered independence for himself. He had gained the precious knowledge that he could earn his own living by the labour of his hands. He might have been a fool to reject the help that would have opened some higher and less distasteful career to him; yet, if he had accepted it, he would never have known the extent of his own powers. He would have been a hermit-crab still, fitted with another shell by the kindness of his friends. Had he clearly understood what he was doing when he went to Brenthill, it was very likely that he might never have gone. He was almost glad that he had not understood.
And now, having conquered in the race, could he go back and ask for the help which he had once refused? Hardly. The life in which we first gain independence may be stern and ugly, the independence itselfwhen we gather in our harvest—may have a rough and bitter taste, yet it will spoil the palate for all other flavours. They will seem sickly sweet after its wholesome austerity. Neither did Percival feel any greater desire for a career of any kind, than he had felt a year earlier, when he talked over his future life with Godfrey Hammond. If he were asked what was his day-dream, his castle in the air, the utmost limit of his earthly wishes, he would answer now as he would have answered then, “ Brackenhill,” dismissing the impossible idea with a smile, even as he uttered it. Asked what would content him-since we can hardly hope to draw the highest prize in our life's lottery—he would answer now as then: to have an assured income sufficient to allow him to wander on the continent, to see pictures, old towns, Alps, rivers, blue sky; wandering, to remain a foreigner all his life, so that there might always be something a little novel and curious about his food and his manner of living (things which are apt to grow so hideously commonplace in the land where one is born); to drink the wine of the country, to read many
poems in verse, in prose, in the scenery around; and through it all, from first to last, to "dream deliciously."
And yet, even while he felt that his desire was unchanged, he knew that there was a fresh obstacle between him and its fulfilment. Heaven help him! had there not been enough before ? Was it needful that it should become clear to him that nowhere on earth could he find the warmth and the sunlight for which he pined, while a certain pair of sad eyes grew ever sadder and sadder, looking out on the murky sky, the smoke, the dust, the busy industry of Brenthill? How could he go away? Even these quiet walks of his had pain mixed with their pleasure, when he thought that there was no such liberty for Judith Lisle. Not for her the cowslips in the upland pastures, the hawthorn in the hedges, the elm-boughs high against the breezy sky, the first dog-roses pink upon the briers. Percival turned from them to look at the cloud which hung ever like a dingy smear above Brenthill, and the more he felt their loveliness, the more he felt her loss.
He had no walk on Sunday mornings. A few months earlier Mr. Clifton of St. Sylvester's would have claimed him as a convert. Now he was equally devout, but it was the Evangelical minister, Mr. Bradbury of Christ Church, who saw him week after week, a regular attendant, undaunted and sleepless, though the sermon should be divided into seven heads. Mr. Bradbury preached terribly, in a voice which sometimes died mournfully away, or hissed in a melodramatic whisper, and then rose suddenly in a threatening cry. Miss Macgregor sat in front of a gallery, and looked down on the top of her pastor's head. The double row of little boys, who were marshalled at her side, grew drowsy in the hot weather, blinked feebly as the discourse progressed, and nodded at the congregation. Now and then Mr. Bradbury, who was only, as it were, at arm's length, turned a little, looked up, and flung a red-hot denunciation into the front seats of the gallery. The little boys woke up, heard what was most likely in store for them on the last day, and sat with eyes wide open, dismally surveying the prospect. But presently the next boy fidgeted, or a spider let himself down from the roof, or a bird flew past the window, or a slanting ray of sunlight revealed a multitude of dusty dancing motes, and the little lads forgot Mr. Bradbury, who had for gotten them, and was busy with somebody else. It might be with the Pope. Mr. Bradbury was fond of providing for the Pope. Or perhaps he was wasting his energy on Percival Thorne, who sat with his head thrown back, and his upward glance just missing the preacher, and was quite undisturbed by his appeals.
Judith Lisle had accepted the offer of a situation at Miss Macgregor's with the expectation of being worked to death, only hoping, as she told Mrs. Barton, that the process would be slow. The hope would not have been at all an unreasonable one, if she had undertaken her task in the days when she had Bertie to work for. She could have lived through much when she lived for Bertie. But, losing her brother, the main
spring of her life seemed broken. One would have said that she had leaned on him, not he on her, she drooped so pitifully now he was gone. Even Miss Macgregor perceived that Miss Lisle was delicate, and expressed her strong disapprobation of such a state of affairs. Mrs. Barton thought Judith looking very far from well, suggested tonics, and began to consider whether she might ask her to go to them for her summer holidays. But to Percival's eyes there was a change from week to week, and he watched her with terror in his heart. Judith had
grown curiously younger during the last few months. There had been something of a mother's tenderness in her love for Bertie, which made her appear more than her real age, and gave decision and stateliness to her manner. Now that she was alone, she was only a girl, silent and shrinking, needing all her strength to suffer, and hide her sorrow. Percival knew that each Sunday, as soon as she had taken her place, she would look downward to the pew where he always sat, to ascertain if he were there. For a moment he would meet that quiet gaze, lucid, uncomplaining, but very sad. Then her eyes would be turned to her book, or to the little boys who sat near her, or it might even be to Mr. Bradbury. The long service would begin, go on, come to an end. But before she left her place, her glance would meet his once more, as if in gentle farewell, until another Sunday should come round. Percival would not for worlds have failed at that trysting-place, but he cursed his helplessness, Could he do nothing for Judith but cheer her through Mr. Bradbury's sermons ?
About this time he used deliberately to indulge in an impossible fancy. His imagination dwelt on their two lives, cramped, dwarfed, and fettered. He had lost his freedom, but it seemed to him that Jndith, burdened once with riches, and later with poverty, never had been free. He looked forward, and saw nothing in the future but a struggle for existence, which might be prolonged through years of labour and sordid care. Why were they bound to endure this?
Why could they not give up all for just a few days of happiness ? Percival longed intensely for a glimpse of beauty, for a little space of warmth and love, of wealth and liberty. Let their life thus blossom together into joy, and he would be content that it should be like the flowering of the aloe, followed by swift and inevitable death. Only let the death be shared like the life! It would be bitter and terrible to be struck down in their gladness, but if they had truly lived, they might be satisfied to die. Percival used to fancy what they might do in one glorious, golden, sunlit week, brilliant against a black background of death. How free they would be to spend all they possessed, without a thought for the future! Nothing could pall upon them, and he pictured to himself how every sense would be quickened, how passion would gather strength and tenderness, during those brief days, and rise to its noblest height to meet the end. His imagination revelled in the minute details of the picture, adding one by one a thousand touches of beauty and joy, till the dream was life-like in
its loveliness. He could pass in a moment from his commonplace world to this enchanted life with Judith. Living alone, and half starving himself in the attempt to pay his debts, he was in a fit state to see visions, and dream dreams. But they only made his present life more distasteful to him, and the more he dreamed of Judith, the more he felt that he had nothing to offer her.
He was summoned abruptly from his fairyland one night by the arrival of Mrs. Bryant. She made her appearance rather suddenly, and sat down on a chair by the door, to have a little chat with her lodger.
“I came back this afternoon," she said. “I didn't tell Lydia—where was the use of bothering about writing to her? Besides I could just have a look round, and see how Emma 'd done the work while I was away, and how things had gone on altogether.” She nodded her rusty black cap confidentially at Percival. It was sprinkled with bugles, which caught the light of his solitary candle.
“I hope you found all right,” he said.
“Pretty well,” Mrs. Bryant allowed. “It's a mercy when there's no illness, nor anything of that kind-though, if you'll excuse my saying it, Mr. Thorne, you ain't looking as well yourself as I should have liked to see you."
Oh, I am all right, thank you,” said Percival.
Mrs. Bryant shook her head. The different movement brought out quite a different effect of glancing bugles. “Young people should be careful of their health," was her profound remark.
“I assure you there's nothing the matter with me."
Well, well-we'll hope not,” she answered, “though you certainly do look altered, Mr. Thorne, through being thinner in the face, and darker under the eyes.”
Percival smiled impatiently.
“What was I saying?” Mrs. Bryant continued. “Oh, yes—that there was a many mercies to be thankful for. To find the house all right, and the times and times I've dreamed of fire, and the engines not to be had, and woke up shaking so as you'd hardly believe it—and I don't really think that I've gone to bed hardly one night without wondering whether Lydia had fastened the door, and the little window into the yard, which is not safe if left open. As regular as clockwork, when the time came round, I'd mention it to my sister
Percival sighed briefly, probably pitying the sister. "I think Miss Bryant has been very careful in fastening everything," he said.
“Well, it does seem so, and very thankful I am. And as I always say when I go out, “Waste I must expect, and waste I do expect,' but it's a mercy when there's no thieving."
“ Things will hardly go on quite the same when you are not here to look after them, Mrs. Bryant."
“No-how should they ?” the landlady acquiesced. “Young heads