THE HOME AT HUNTSDEAN AND ITS NEW INMATES

It was the dreariest of November days. The only bright spot was a
crimson sumach, spreading its gorgeous foliage against the watery grey
of the sky, and misty back-ground of fog-hidden fields. It was a day
that made the burdens of life seem heavier than they really were, and
set the heart aching for the sunshine of the vanished summer.

The scene was as still as death. There was not wind enough to lift the
pale vapours that hung over the meadows. No kindly breezes came to the
poor brown leaves, heaped on the wayside, and carried them off to quiet
hollows where they might have decent burial. Better rain and tempest
than such a gloomy calm as this; and better the roar and rattle of the
train than the heavy jog-trot of the carrier’s horses, and the rumble
of his wagon.

“It will never be the same home again,” said Rhoda Farren to herself,
as the old grey cottage came in sight. There was the low, moss-grown
wall, built of flints–there were the splendid sumachs, brightening the
desolate garden. Rhoda and her cousin Helen had chased each other along
those grassy paths when they were children. But they were women now,
and had put away childish things. Rhoda loved her cousin reasonably
well, yet not well enough to give up her own bedroom to her and her
baby.

The baby was the principal grievance. Rhoda had had very little to
do with children; and being of a studious turn, she did not want to
improve her acquaintance with them. In reading her favourite books
she always skipped the parts that related their sayings and doings.
It was, therefore, no small cross to find an infant of two months old
introduced into the family circle. For there she had hoped to reign
supreme.

She had a presentiment that there would be rivalry between the baby and
herself–a struggle for mastery, in which her little opponent might
possibly be victor. “Baby lips would laugh her down,” if she attempted
remonstrance. Even parents and a fond brother might be won over to the
cause of the small usurper.

For three years Rhoda Farren had been living away from home, only
coming back for a fortnight at Christmas, and sometimes for a few days
in midsummer. Neighbours and friends had looked upon her as fortunate.
She had held the post of companion to the rich widow of a London
merchant, and had been well treated, and not ill remunerated.

The widow was lately dead, and Miss Farren was returning to her home
with an annuity of twenty pounds, to be paid regularly by Mrs. Elton’s
executors.

Mrs. Elton had not been difficult to live with; and her companion had
adapted herself to her ways more readily than most girls of twenty
would have done. The quiet house in Cavendish Square had been no
uncheerful home. But the mode of life there had strengthened Rhoda’s
habits of self-indulgence. She had had ample time for reading and
musing. No harsh words had chafed her temper, no small nuisances had
planted thorns in her path. They had few visitors. Weeks would pass
without their hearing other voices than those of the servants. It did
not matter to them that there were mighty things done in the great
world. It was an unwholesome life for two women to lead–a life of
cramped interests and narrow thoughts.

Helen had been living in Islington, while Rhoda was in Cavendish
Square. But in those days Miss Farren never went to see anybody; and
she excused herself for not visiting Helen by saying that Mrs. Elton
did not like her to be gadding about. Thus it came to pass that she had
not even once seen her cousin’s husband.

She knew that Robert Clarris had taken Helen from her situation of
nursery governess, and had married her after a brief acquaintance.
Rhoda’s parents were Helen’s only surviving relatives, and they had
given their full consent to the match. It was not a bad match for a
penniless girl to make; for Robert Clarris was a confidential clerk in
the office of Mr. Elton, son of the widow in Cavendish Square.

It was in July that Mrs. Elton’s health began to fail. Rhoda Farren saw
the change stealing over her day by day, and knew what it portended.
In a certain way she had been fond of the old woman; but it was an
attachment without love. There would be no great pain when the ties
between them were broken, and Rhoda was conscious of this. She was even
angry with herself for not being more sorry that Mrs. Elton was dying.

“The worry of life is wearing me out, Rhoda,” said the widow one day,
when Miss Farren had found her violently agitated, and in tears. It
surprised her not a little to hear that Mrs. Elton had any worries. But
when the wind shakes the full tree, there is always a great rustling
of the leaves. The bare bough does not quake; it has nothing to lose.
Mrs. Elton had been a rich woman from her youth upward, and she could
not bear that a single leaf should be torn from her green branches.

“I have had a dreadful loss, Rhoda,” she continued; “a loss in my
business. The business is mine, you know. I always said my son should
never have it while I was alive. But of course I have let him carry it
on for me, and very badly he has managed! That confidential clerk of
his–Clarris–has robbed me of three hundred pounds!”

“You surely don’t mean my cousin Helen’s husband, Mrs. Elton?” cried
Rhoda.

“How should I know anything about his being your cousin’s husband?”
said the old lady peevishly. “His wife is a very unlucky woman, whoever
she is. Three hundred pounds have been paid into Clarris’s hands for
me, and he has embezzled every shilling of it. My son always had a
ridiculous habit of petting the people he employed. This is what has
come of it.”

“Is he in prison?” faltered Rhoda.

“No; I am sorry to say that he isn’t. Those lazy idiots, the
detectives, have let him slip. He has had the impertinence to write
a canting letter to my son, telling him that every farthing shall be
restored.”

The fugitive was not captured. Perhaps Mr. Elton had a secret liking
for the _ci-devant_ clerk, and did not care to have him too hotly
pursued. Poor lonely Helen had travelled without delay to her uncle’s
house, and there her little girl had entered this troublesome world. At
the end of October Mrs. Elton had ceased to fret for the three hundred
pounds, and had gone where gold and silver are of small account. And on
this November afternoon Rhoda Farren had returned to her old home once
more.




Bond, the carrier, had picked up Miss Farren and her belongings when
the train had set her down at the rural railway station. Then came
the five mile drive to Huntsdean, over the roads that she had often
traversed in her girlhood. The pallid mist clung to every branch of the
familiar trees, and veiled the woodland alleys where she had watched
the rabbits and squirrels in bygone times. Not a gleam of sunshine
welcomed her back to the old haunts; not a brown hare leaped across her
path; not a bird sent forth a note of welcome. Nature and Rhoda were in
the same mood on that memorable day.

But if the whole scene had been radiant with flowers, Rhoda would
still have chosen to “sit down upon her little handful of thorns.” She
told herself again and again that her good days were done. Was she not
coming home to find the house invaded, and her own room occupied, by
the wife and child of a thief?

Yes, a thief. She called him that hard name a dozen times, and even
whispered it as she sat under the wagon-tilt. It is a humbling fact,
that humanity finds relief in calling names. Ay, it is a miserable
thing to know that we have fastened many a bitter epithet on some
whose names are written in the Book of Life.

“Wo!” cried Bond to his horses.

The ejaculation might have been applied to Rhoda; for it was a woful
visage that emerged from the tilt and met the gaze of John Farren as he
came out of the garden gate.

“You don’t look quite so young as you did, Rhoda,” he said when he had
lifted her from the wagon and set her on her feet.

There are birds that pluck the feathers from their own breasts.
For hours Rhoda had been silently graving lines upon her face, and
deliberately destroying the bloom and freshness that God meant her
to keep. But she did not like to be told of her handiwork. When Miss
So-and-so’s friends remark that she is getting _passé_, is it any
comfort to her to know that her own restless nature, and not Time,
has deprived her of her comeliness? Many a woman is lovelier in her
maturity than in her youth. But it is a kind of beauty that comes with
the knowledge of “the things that belong unto her peace.”

John looked after her boxes, and paid the carrier. The wagon rumbled
on through the village, the black retriever barking behind it, to the
exasperation of Bond’s dog, which was tethered under the wain. Then
the brother put his hands on his sister’s shoulders, glanced at her
earnestly for a moment, and kissed her.

“Mother’s waiting for you,” he said.

As he spoke, Mrs. Farren appeared in the porch, and at the sight of her
Rhoda’s ill-temper was ready to take flight. But Helen was behind her,
waiting too–waiting to weary her cousin with all the details of her
wretched story, and expecting her, perhaps, to pity Robert Clarris.

“It’s good to have you back again, my dear,” said the mother’s soft
voice and glistening eyes.

“Ah, Rhoda!” piped Helen’s treble, “we were children together, were we
not? Oh! what sorrows I’ve gone through, and how I have been longing to
talk to you!”

Before Miss Farren could reply, a feeble wail arose from the adjoining
room. The baby had lost no time in announcing its presence, and Helen
hurried in to the cradle. Dim as the light was, her mother must have
detected the annoyance on Rhoda’s face. Or perhaps her quick instinct
served her instead of sight, for she hastened to say–

“It doesn’t often cry, poor little mite! But it has been ailing to-day.”

There was only one flight of stairs in the house. As Rhoda slowly
ascended them, the loud, steady ticking of the old clock brought back
many a childish memory. Would the hours pass as swiftly and brightly as
they had done in earlier years? She sighed as she thought of all the
small miseries that would make time hang heavily on her hands. It never
even occurred to her then that

“No true life is long.”

A fretful spirit will spin hours out of minutes, and weeks out of days.

“I told you, Rhoda, my dear, that we had given your room to Helen. I
said so in a letter, didn’t I?” remarked Mrs. Farren, leading the
way into the chamber that she had prepared for her daughter. “This is
nearly as good. And I felt sure that you would not grudge the larger
room to that poor thing and her child.”

“What is to be, must be,” Rhoda replied.

“Don’t stop to unpack anything,” continued her mother, trying not to
notice the gloomy answer. “Come downstairs again as soon as you can.
There’s a good fire, and a bit of something nice for tea. It’s a kind
of day that takes the light and colour out of everything,” she added,
with a slight shiver. “I’ll never grumble at the weather that God
sends; yet I’m always glad when we’ve got through November.”

It was Rhoda who had brought the damp mist indoors. It was Rhoda–God
forgive her–who had taken the light and colour out of everything. In
looking back upon our lives, we must always see the dark spots where
we cast our shadow on another’s path–a path which, perhaps, ran very
close beside our own. It may be that our dear ones, enfolded in the
sunlight of Paradise, have forgotten the gloom that we once threw over
their earthly way. But we never can.

When Rhoda went down into the old parlour, she found it glowing with
fire and candle light. Her father had come in from the wet fields and
the sheepfolds, and was waiting to give her a welcome. Red curtains
shut out the foggy evening; red lights danced on the well-spread table.
The baby, lying open-eyed on Helen’s lap, had its thumb in its mouth,
and seemed disposed for quiet contemplation. The black retriever,
stretched upon the hearth-rug, had finished a hard day’s barking, and
was taking his well-earned repose.

They gave her the best chair and the warmest seat. All that household
love could do was done; and she began to thaw a little under its
influence.

Once or twice Helen tried to introduce the subject of her troubles, but
the farmer and his wife quietly put it aside. Rhoda had made no secret
of her resentment. There were many other things to be told; little
episodes in village lives; little stories of neighbours and friends.
The talk flowed on like a woodland stream that glides over this
obstacle and under that. It was threading a difficult and intricate
way, but it kept on flowing, till night broke up the family group.

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