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The Second Time of Asking.
The rays of the afternoon sun, slanting in at the second-floor window of a dull London house, fell with a jaundiced stare on the figure of Janet Reeve seated before her easel, palette, mahl-stick, and brushes in hand, painting away, very hard at work indeed. There were two windows in the room; but from one the light was entirely excluded, while it was only partially admitted at the other, the lower half of the shutters being closed and barred. The day was fading. Dusky shadows were huddling together in the corners of the room; outlines were losing edge and crispness; even the square of light pouring in at the half-window was becoming more and more blurred as to shape. Evening was sponging out the demarcations between light and shade. Upon Janet's head, which met them in full career, the rays fell less and less intensely. Not so clearly to be seen now was the half-halo on the left side of her head, weaving such golden threads into the plaiting of her hair ; less distinctly marked now was the brightness on her neck, and the streak of light which, falling on her shoulder, ran down her arm on to the pink-tipped thumb as it came through the hole in the palette. She had been some time painting, to judge by the confusion into which her semicircle of colours was growing.
A faint voice in the adjoining apartment called, “Janet." Instantly she put down her brushes, and moved quickly and lightly to the door leading into the next room. A small fire was glowing in the grate; opposite to the fire a faded, feeble, sickly-looking woman, with many wrappings of dressing-gowns and shawls about her, reclined on a sofa.
“How are you now, mother dear ?" asked Janet in her sweet soft voice, and she bent down and kissed the poor woman tenderly.
The invalid did not speak, but her loving glance thanked the inquirer.
“How cold your hands are !” she said presently; and rubbed Janet's taper fingers between her own thin, white, transparent hands. “Are you not tired, Janet ?"
“No, not very.” But the voice sounded a little wearied, and the look which accompanied it was rather worn and sad.
“You will overwork yourself, my child. Leave off for to-night, dear. Come and sit by the fire, and rest; and presently we'll have candles lighted, and then tea, and a little reading from the new book.”
There was all the customary paraphernalia of a sick room: the table with its numerous bottles and glasses ; pillows and wrappings and books strewed about here and there with the carelessness of languor and sickness.
“A little longer, mother, and then I'll stop-only a very little; but I have something I want very much to finish, if the light will only hold out. Try and sleep, it will rest you before tea, and then you'll be quite ready for a chat and a read by and by."
against the desertim u something of a reproachelet pale thoughtful fi
With her careful tender hand she smoothed the shawls about the invalid, readjusted her pillow, kissed her again, and then passed into the outer room to resume her work. But the light had dimmed very much since she had quitted her easel. She turned her pale thoughtful face towards the sky with something of a reproachful look,-a silent protest against the desertion of day and the usurpation of night,—and she pressed her hands upon her forehead. Then she resolutely took up her brush, and for a few minutes, in spite of the waning light, continued to paint.
There was a slight tap at the door; not the door of the invalid's room, but another door leading on to the staircase.
“Come in,” said Janet.
The door was opened slowly, as though by some one in doubt, and a man entered.
“Come in. What is it?” said Janet, without looking up from her work.
The man approached her slowly, shading his eyes with his hand, as though blinded by the change from the dark staircase to the comparatively high light of the room. He was tall, sunburnt, bearded, rather rough in dress. His eyes wandered round the room, searching for the voice for a second or two before he discovered Janet, half hidden by her easel. Then he moved towards her.
Roused probably by the sound of a footstep different to that she had expected, Janet rose up suddenly. Her glance fell at once upon the man standing full in the yellow light. A look of amazement, of pain, almost of fear, crossed her face; her breath became short, and, aghast, she stretched forth her hand.
“ Hugh !" she murmured.
He hurried to her with a nervous anxiety. He took her outstretched hand, and clasped it fondly in his own.
“Dear Janet !” he said.
And for a few moments they remained so. Then, very white, and trembling very much, Janet would have fallen if he had not caught her in his arms and supported her. She did not faint, but she was very weak and greatly agitated.
“I was wrong to come so suddenly,” he said. “I have frightened
“No, it is nothing. I get so abstracted over my work, that a very little startles and unnerves me.”
“Let me unbar the shutter and open the window; the fresh air will revive you."
“No. My mother is asleep; the noise might waken her. Her health is much shaken, and I should be sorry if she were to be disturbed.”
“Is she ill-seriously ill ?”
“Oh, indeed, I hope not; but she is not strong, and the changes that have come upon us,”
Her voice faltered, and she stopped. Hugh glanced at her pale face, her frail pliant form, her white fingers twisting and plaiting themselves together with a nervous unconsciousness.
“And you yourself, Janet,—are you well ?”
“ You little thought to see me, Janet ?” he said. “I am sure I must have been quite the last person in your thoughts."
“We have often thought of you," she said, “often, very often ; but I own I did not think to see you here, nono."
“ You have thought of me often,—and kindly?” "Oh, yes, Hugh, always kindly.”
“God bless you for it, Janet,” he said in a low moved voice, and he turned towards the picture on the easel.
“I am but a poor judge; still I think a good thing must strike home to every one, and tell its goodness. This seems to me especially beautiful.”
“ It is too dark now to see it fairly, Hugh. You must come and look at it by daylight.”
But he took the chair and sat down determinedly before the painting. He gave it a long, earnest, admiring examination, with Janet standing by him, now and then nervously pointing out her intentions, or timidly qualifying his strong praise of the work.
It was a sea-coast scene. The cliffs struck with a ghostly whiteness against the swarthy, tumbled sky. The waves rose erect, curved down, and in an angry somersault broke into foam. On the shingle lay a lifeless figure, flung ashore by the tide. It was a sailor-boy, quite dead, with tangled sea-weed gathered about his hair and hands, and the water streaming from his clothes. Over him bent a simple peasant woman, a sick anguish quivering in her face. She had recognised her only son in the washed-up corpse, and the religion of grief was sanctifying her homeliness.
“It is very beautiful;” and he took her hand kindly. “You were always clever with your pencil, Janet."
“ It was as well,” she answered. “I studied carefully during my father's lifetime, and now, by working hard, I can earn enough to support myself and aid my mother.” She said this hesitatingly, as though desirous to inform him of her real circumstances, and yet unwilling to linger on the subject. But she could not continue. She turned to something else.
“When did you arrive, Hugh ?”
“Only yesterday. You are the first person I have seen. Why should I not plainly tell you so? We parted sadly enough ; but there need be no sadness in our meeting now. There is none, Janet ?”
“No, no, dear,” she said hurriedly, giving a nervous pressure to his hand, and bending down her head.
How tenderly he gazed upon her; how he watched the trembling of her eyelids as a tear severed itself into a diamond garland upon the lashes! “You heard of our trouble, and came home to see if you could aid us?"
“No, Janet,” he replied mournfully, with a glance at the crape trimming of her dress. “I did not know of it, or I should have come home sooner-long since. I read of your father's death in the newspapers. I burned to write to you a few lines about it, if only to assure you—but I couldn't do it. I did not know," —he looked round the room,,plain, unfurnished, whitewashed. He hesitated to allude to the only too apparent poverty of the place. The pause and the action were as good as words.
“We are poor,” said Janet nervously, “but we are not unhappy, not discontented. I work hard, but then I like work,—it distracts my mind; and work is pleasant if one has an object to gain by it, and it is a real joy to me to assist my mother as much as ever I can. And I am successful too. I have four pupils; my paintings readily find purchasers. I can sell all I finish, although I have not much time for work; I have even had commissions."
“O Janet, is this indeed so,—you have to toil for your bread? And your father”
“He was not himself, Hugh, when he died,” Janet broke in warmly and abruptly. “Mind that. Trouble, or rather the expectation of trouble, had turned his brain, or he never would have raised his hand against his own life; never else. Don't think harshly of him; don't wrong him by one unjust suspicion. He was all goodness and kindness. He was a fond, loving father. Pity him that he sunk down before the misfortune he should have risen against and fought through. But ill success followed ill success. Things became hopelessly entangled. His pride was cruelly stricken. His reason gave way, and one fatal night—God forgive him! he was not himself, and he did not, could not, know what he did !"
She covered her face with her hands. A look of extreme pain crossed Hugh's face, as he brushed the hair from bis damp forehead, and strode up and down the room. Suddenly he came to her again, and took her hand.
“Janet, it is five years since I went away. I quitted you upon what seemed a strange impulse,—a sudden outburst of temper. I have come back now, changed in some things, not in all,— bettered, I hope. I have a confession to make, which I have come back purposely to make. All may as well be said now, at our first meeting, as at any other time. Will you hear me?"
She answered only by a timid bow of assent. He paused a moment, as though uncertain how to commence. There was a forced calm about his manner and words, but his voice was low, now and then breaking and failing altogether.
“Our dead fathers long ago planned our union, it was their pet project. My father died, breathing into the ear of yours a fond hope that still the thing would be. We were brought up together, and soon learned the future projected for us. This moved us little at the time, perhaps ; the present was so happy, and the hereafter seemed so far off. A great affection bound us together; at least it always seemed so to me, though we never stayed to appraise and weigh and count it, but took it all for granted ; never soiled it with words, or exposed it to the air, but wrapped it up well in our hearts. A change came, however. Children's gambols cannot last for ever. I was sent abroad to finish my education. My own father dead, yours took his place. I was to travel; to learn life; acquire manners, polish, fashion. I was not a very apt student, and in due time came back home again, not much improved, I take it, by my absence.
“You remember, Janet, the pretty country-house your father occupied five years ago; the flat Hertfordshire country dying out in the distance in a straight blue streak,—the white house, with its trellis-work mask, the wooden porch leading on to the velvet lawn, which not a daisy was allowed to speck, though the seven-sister roses would ever snow their scented leaves over it. You remember how one summer evening I came to you, sitting in the porch ; broke in upon your tranquillity, took the book from your hand, and, while the twilight was fainting into night, asked you to carry out our fathers' project. And you—".
“Yes, yes, Hugh! I know. No more—no more !"
“How in a rage I Alung myself from you, walked fiercely up the lawn, lashing at the poor flower-beds with my whip. I was an insolent suitor,-negligent, cold, imperious in manner; not paying the homage I should have paid to your beauty, Janet; not appreciating by one half your worth; no, not even doing justice to the true love I had for you, Janet. I asked you to become my wife,-as though in a dull, mechanical way it behoved us to fulfil our fathers' plan; said little of my love,not a word of your happiness; sought your heart, yet seemed to give you nothing in return.”
“Oh, Hugh, it is better to forget all this.”
“ It is better to remember. I cannot tell you how your rejection wounded me,—not merely in my pride, but in my love. For I did love you, Janet, heartily, fervently, though my manner was rude, and my words sounded vain and cold. A great rage possessed me; my disappointment took me out of myself. My heart seemed suddenly changed and hardened against you, every body, every thing. I abandoned myself to a frenzied bitterness. I determined to quit England, vowing I would never, never return. I took a passage for Sydney in a ship sailing from Plymouth, writing merely a brief note to your father, informing him of what I had done. To you I wrote no word,-sent no message,-never said good by, even. It seems now scarcely credible that I could have so parted from you ; but I hardly knew what I did. Don't let me tire you. You know already how the ship was wrecked within sight of shore,it made noise enough at the time, both here and there,-outside the Sydney Heads, close on to the Gap. We had made a rapid run-had been out eighty days only. There is a sort of sailor's pride about making a
et, heartily, ferveold. A great rage seemed suddenly ched my