A CONFESSION OVERHEARD

It was the afternoon of Morgan’s last day in Warwickshire. He sat by
his mother’s couch, holding her thin hand in his, and wishing, with all
his heart, that she were the only woman in the world who had any claim
upon him. She looked at him with a long earnest look; once or twice her
lips opened, but some moments went by before she spoke.

They were alone. Mr. Foster had pattered off to the railway station, to
seek for information about the train by which Morgan was to travel. As
he sat there, with the dear old woman who had shared all his early joys
and sorrows, he could not help longing to tell her of his new trouble.
But he knew not how to begin. And then her gentle voice broke the
silence.

“Morgan,” she said, “maybe I am going to do a foolish thing. I never
was a match-maker, for I’ve always thought that God alone ought to
bring people together. But when I see two who seem to be made for each
other, and one of them so near to me, how can I help saying a word?”

“Speak on, mother,” he answered, drawing a long breath. He knew what
was coming. Well, at any rate it would give him the opportunity of
unburdening his heart.

“I should like to see you engaged to Eve Hazleburn,” she continued,
gaining courage. “She is as good as a daughter to me; but that isn’t
the reason that I want her for my son’s wife. I want her, because
there’s a sort of likeness between you that makes me sure you ought
to be made one. And I’ve seen your eyes follow her, Morgan, as if you
thought so too.”

“It cannot be, mother,” said the curate, almost passionately. “It
cannot be, and yet I know it ought to be! I am already engaged to
another woman; but I love Eve Hazleburn as I shall never love again!”

“God help us all!” sighed Mrs. Foster, suddenly pressing his hand to
enjoin silence. It was too late. His voice had been raised above its
usual tone; and there stood Eve at the open door.

He did not care–he was almost glad that she knew all. There had come
upon him the recklessness that often arises out of hopelessness. If he
must wear his chain, she should know what a heavy weight it was!

“Come in, Miss Hazleburn,” he said, rising excitedly; “I am not sorry
that you have overheard me. Perhaps you will pity me a little. Surely
you can spare a grain of compassion for the poor fool who has spoiled
his own life! I think you will, for you are a good woman. Some women
would glory in a conquest of this sort, but you are not of that number.
Ah, I am talking nonsense, I suppose.”

Eve went straight up to him and laid her hand upon his arm. She could
not pretend to have heard nothing, and she would not have told a lie
if she could. Her light touch stopped him in his impatient walk up and
down the little room.

“Think of your mother, Mr. Foster,” she said, softly. “She is not
strong enough to bear a scene.”

He sat down again by the couch, and buried his face in the cushion on
which Mrs. Foster’s head rested. It was a boyish action; but Eve knew
that the best men in the world generally keep a touch of boyishness
about them. Her heart ached for him as she stood looking down upon the
bowed head. And then the mother’s glance met hers, and both women began
to weep silently.

“I’m a foolish old body,” said poor Mrs. Foster. “It’s a mistake to go
knocking at the door of any heart, even if it’s that of one’s child. I
had better have held my tongue, and left all to God.”

“It is better as it is,” Morgan answered raising his head, and
speaking more quietly. “I am less miserable than I was before. And
Miss Hazleburn will understand,” he added, with a little pride, “that
although I am an unhappy man, I don’t mean to be a traitor. I do not
wish to recall anything I have said. Every word was true; and now that
she knows all, she will pray for me.”

Eve stood before him and held out her hand.

“I am going now,” she said. “God bless you, Mr. Foster. You shall have
all the blessings that my prayers can win for you; and the truest
respect and friendship that a woman can give. Perhaps we shall never
meet again. If we do, I think this scene will seem like a dream to us
both.”

She went her way out of the shabby little house into the narrow
street. Had God nothing better to give her than this? Had He shown
her the beautiful land of Might-have-been only to send her back,
doubly desolate, into the wilderness? These were the first rebellious
questions that arose in Eve’s heart, and it was some time before they
were answered.

Early on the following morning she went to the window of her room,
and looked between the slats of the Venetian blind. It was chill and
grey out-of-doors. The sun had not yet fully risen, and only a faint
pallor was to be seen in the eastern sky. Presently a fly stopped at
the door of that shabby little house which she knew so well. Then the
flyman knocked; the door opened, and he entered, soon reappearing with
a portmanteau. Another figure followed, tall and black-coated. At the
sight of it poor Eve uttered a low cry, and pressed her hands tightly
together. A moment more, and the fly had rattled off down the street,
and had turned the corner on its way to the railway station.

Was that to be the end of it all? Shivering and forlorn, she went back
to her bed, and lay there for a time, mutely praying for strength and
peace.

Afterwards, she knew all that Morgan’s mother could tell her about his
engagement. And she knew, too, that Nelly Channell was the lady to whom
Mr. Myrtle had left the three thousand pounds. It seemed to her just
then, poor girl, as if Nelly were taking all the things that ought to
have been hers. But this mood did not last long, and she was sorry that
such bitter thoughts should have found their way into her heart. The
Golds came back from the seaside early in March, and the ordinary way
of life began again.

Morgan, too, had gone back to his work, but it was harder for him than
for Eve. She had no part to sustain–no love to simulate. And she had
the consolation of his mother’s friendship, and the sad delight of
reading his letters. In those letters no mention was ever made of her;
but they told of a life of daily struggles–a life whose best comfort
was found in labour. Eve and Mrs. Foster wept over them together, and
clung to each other with a new tenderness. The mother had faith, and
she believed that her son would be set free. She ventured, once or
twice, to say this to Eve, but the girl shook her head.

“No,” she said, “we must not look for that. We ought rather to pray
that the ties may grow pleasant instead of irksome.”

“I don’t know,” replied Mrs. Foster, thoughtfully. “I almost think it
is best to pray for the freedom. It was not the right kind of feeling,
Eve, that led him to propose to Miss Channell. He was startled into it,
and it really seemed at first as if that were the way that God meant
him to go.”




“He should have stood still, and just have waited for guidance,” Eve
remarked, sadly.

“Yes, I know that,” admitted the mother. “But do not most of our
troubles come to us because we will not wait? We all find it easier to
run than to stand still.”

While these other hearts were throbbing with restless pain, Nelly
Channell was serenely happy. She complained at times that Morgan was
working too hard, and wearing himself out, but she never thought of
attributing his wan looks to any cause save that of over-exertion.

But Robert Channell had a keener sight; and he began to ask himself,
uneasily, if he had been right in letting this engagement come to pass?
In his heart of hearts he owned that he had been secretly anxious to
secure the curate for his daughter. It was the desire of his life that
Nelly should marry a good man, and Morgan Foster was the best man that
had as yet come in her way. Perhaps he, too, had been running when he
ought to have stood still. He began to think that this was the case.

But how could he undo what was done? In his perplexity he talked the
matter over with his wife. And she admitted that the curate did not
seem to be quite at ease in Nelly’s company. There was a shadow upon
him. It might be a consciousness of failing health, or—-

“Or of failing love,” said Mr. Channell, finishing her sentence. “If
that is it, Rhoda, it is a miserable affair indeed! We ought to have
made them wait before we sanctioned the engagement. But you know I
wanted to keep her safe from those selfish, worldly men who have been
seeking her.”

“We are always afraid to trust God with anything dear to us,” answered
Mrs. Channell, sadly. “But if Morgan Foster has mistaken his own
feelings, Robert, it will be hard to condemn him, and equally hard to
forgive him.”

Summer came. And early in July all the gossips in Huntsdean were
talking of the rich family who had taken Laurel House. Mr. Gold, they
said, was a retired merchant from Warwickshire, who was as wealthy
as a nabob. His household consisted of a wife and six children, a
governess, and menservants and maidservants. And when Nelly heard that
the governess was a Miss Hazleburn, the name awoke no recollections.
She had quite forgotten the little poem in the _Monthly Guest_.

The Channells called on the new-comers, and were received by Miss
Hazleburn. Illness kept Mrs. Gold in her own room for some weeks
after her arrival in Huntsdean, and on Eve devolved the unwelcome task
of seeing visitors. The one whom she most dreaded and most longed to
see did not come. She saw him in church, and that was all. She had
determined that her stay in Huntsdean should be as short as possible.
Already she was answering advertisements, and doing her utmost to get
away from the place. It was hard upon her, she thought, that among the
earliest callers should be Nelly Channell.

Yet when she saw the girl she felt a thrill of secret satisfaction.
This, then, was the woman before whom she was preferred; and Eve’s eyes
told her that she could no more be compared with Nelly than a daisy
can be compared with a rose! But the poor daisy, growing in life’s
highway, unsheltered from the storms of the world, was loved better
than the beautiful garden flower. She was human, and she could not help
rejoicing in her unsuspected triumph.

Nelly took a girl’s sudden and unreasonable liking to the governess.
She wanted Miss Hazleburn to be her friend; she talked of her to
everybody, including Morgan Foster.

“Have you seen her, Morgan?” she asked.

“I have seen her in church,” he answered.

“Then you haven’t called on the Golds yet,” said Nelly. “Why don’t you
go there?”

“The rector has called,” Morgan replied, “and there really is no need
for a curate to be thrusting himself into rich folks’ houses unless
they are ill.”

“You didn’t mind coming to our house,” rejoined Nelly, “and I daresay
we are as rich as the Golds. But you can’t judge of Miss Hazleburn
by seeing her in church, Morgan. It is in conversation that you find
out how charming she is. And actually there is something in her that
reminds me of you! I can’t tell where the resemblance lies–it may
be in the voice, or it may be in the face, but I am certain that it
exists.”

“It exists only in your imagination,” said Morgan, bent upon changing
the subject.

Before Mrs. Gold had entirely recovered, Nelly had got into a habit
of running in and out of the house. It was about three-quarters of a
mile from her home, and stood on the summit of the green downs which
she had loved in her childhood. The garden slanted down from the back
of the house to these open downs: it was raised above the slopes and
terminated in a gravelled terrace; and so low was this terrace that
Nelly could easily climb upon it and go straying into the shrubbery.
She had done this dozens of times while Laurel House was empty, for the
old garden, with its thick hedges of laurel and yew, had always been
a favourite haunt of hers. Finding that the Golds were free-and-easy
people, who gladly welcomed the pretty trespasser, she chose to keep up
her old custom.

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EVE HAZLEBURN, POET AND FRIEND

A very humble home it was; but his love had stinted self to obtain
comforts for them. The light of the February day was fading when he
entered the little house, and found his father eagerly watching for him.

“You are a good son,–a good son,” said the old man, in a broken voice.
“She is no worse; and Miss Hazleburn is with her.”

Hazleburn! The name had a familiar sound; but Morgan was too weary and
agitated to remember where he had heard it before. He took his way at
once to his mother’s chamber.

As he went in, a small, slight figure rose from a chair by the bedside,
and quietly glided away. He scarcely looked at it in the gathering
dusk; moreover he had no thoughts, just then, for anybody but the
mother who lay there yearning for a sight of him.

His coming seemed to do Mrs. Foster good, and give her a new hold upon
life. It was a low nervous fever that had seized upon her, taking away
her strength by slow degrees, until she had grown almost as helpless as
an infant. But God had sent her a friend in Eve Hazleburn. And before
he slept that night, Morgan had heard from his father’s lips the story
of Miss Hazleburn’s unselfish kindness.

Eve was one of those friendless beings who are thrown entirely on their
own resources, and often get on better than the more favoured children
of fortune. She had an easy post as governess in the family of Mr.
Gold, a rich Warwickshire merchant;–too easy, as she sometimes said.
For the little Golds had holiday two or three times a week, and were
not on any account to be burdened with long study hours. The house was
in a perpetual bustle; visitors constantly coming and going. But if her
employers were unjust to themselves, they were far from ungenerous
to Eve. They would fain have had her share in all their feastings and
merry-makings, and laughed and wondered at her liking for retirement
and peace.

There had been sickness in their household. Soon after Christmas the
whole family had gone away to a sheltered watering-place, leaving Miss
Hazleburn in charge of the house, and of the two servants who remained
in it.

She had not made many friends in the city of C—-. Her Sundays were
her own, and her services in the Sunday-school had won gratitude and
approval from the vicar of the parish. She went occasionally, but not
often, to the vicarage.

The acquaintance between Morgan’s parents and herself was nearly a year
old. Their quiet street ran along at the back of the merchant’s great
house, and Eve had watched the pair sometimes from her chamber window.
Then there was a chance meeting, a slight service rendered, and the
governess became their friend and frequent visitor.

The absence of the Golds left her at liberty to nurse Mrs. Foster
in her illness. The servants, being sober and trustworthy, required
little watching, and Eve’s time was her own. None ever knew what it
cost her to give up all her leisure to the sick woman; none guessed
that a cherished plan was quietly laid aside for Mrs. Foster’s sake.
The manuscript which Eve had hoped to complete in these holidays of
hers was put by. An inner voice told her that God meant her to use
her leisure in another way; and Eve’s life was so still, so free from
turmoil and passion, that she could always hear the voices that spoke
to her soul.

Days went and came. The old rector of Huntsdean wrote kindly to his
curate, bidding him stay in Warwickshire as long as his mother needed
him. Nelly wrote too; such simple loving letters that every word went
like a stab to Morgan’s heart. She also begged him not to hasten his
return for her sake. It was good for her, her father told her, to have
this slight dash of bitterness in a cup that had been over-sweet. And
poor Nelly made so great a show of heroism over this little trial of
hers, that those of her own household smiled.

Meanwhile Eve and Morgan met every day; and he talked to her about
her poem, which was the only production of hers that had as yet found
its way into print. The poem was the starting-point from whence they
travelled on into each other’s experiences. Ah, how easily and quickly
people glide into familiar intercourse when there is a spiritual
kinship between them! Poor Morgan’s heart opened to Eve as naturally as
a flower uncloses to the sun. Yet he never suspected that this was the
beginning of love.

The curate had not told his parents of his engagement. He had been
morbidly afraid that it would put a sense of distance between the old
people and himself. Therefore he had said nothing about it in his
letters, but had waited till he should see them face to face. But
now that the time had come, he feared to make the disclosure. His
mother was in no condition to bear any startling news. And as to Miss
Hazleburn–of what consequence could his affairs be to her? So the
intimacy went on. He was too blind to see the injustice that he was
doing Nelly and Eve herself.




“We are really not very new friends,” he said to the governess one day.
“I knew you through your poem. We met in the spirit before we met in
the flesh.”

“Nobody need be solitary nowadays,” answered Eve, brightly. “I have
many such spiritual friends, whom I shall probably never see with my
bodily eyes. Don’t you think that one of the joys of eternity will be
in finding out what we have done for each other unconsciously? I am
often unspeakably grateful for the printed words that have helped me
on.”

“Do you find many companions in Mr. Gold’s house?” he asked.

“No,” she said, frankly. “You know what it is to like people, and
yet have no affinity with them. The Golds’ life is a perpetual
pleasure-hunt. Parents and children join in the chase from morning till
night; there is little rest or stillness in the house. I should be
scarcely sorry to leave it.”

“Are you thinking of leaving it?” Morgan inquired.

“Not yet. Indeed, I have no other home,” she answered. “I had a hope,
last year, that one might be provided for me; but that is over now.”

They were sitting together in the Fosters’ little parlour while this
talk went on. It was Sunday afternoon; Mrs. Foster, now steadily making
progress towards recovery, was asleep upstairs, and her husband had
ventured out to church. The sun was getting low; a yellow light came
stealing over the roofs of the opposite houses, and shone full upon
Eve’s face. Her last words had been spoken in a sad tone; her eyes
looked dreamily out into the narrow street.

She was very far from realizing the interpretation that Morgan had
put upon her remark. Nor did she dream of the sudden turmoil that was
working within him, as he sat watching her face.

She was not a pretty woman. She had the charms that belong to symmetry
of form, and grace of manner and movement. But few of those who were
struck at once by Nelly Channell’s beauty would have noticed Eve. They
would have failed to see the noble shape of that small head, and the
play of light and shade on the careworn young face. Yet as Morgan sat
watching her, he was stung by the sharpness of jealous agony. Had some
man wooed this girl, and been an accepted lover?

He could not endure the idea that those chance words of hers had
conjured up. The grand passion of his life was revealed to him in a
moment. He knew what he felt towards Eve, and knew, too, that this was
what he ought to have felt towards another. This was love. It was but a
poor counterfeit thereof that he had given to Nelly.

“Some people think nothing of breaking a promise,” she continued, still
looking out into the street. “Years ago, when I was a child, and my
father was a prosperous man, his friend Mr. Myrtle came to him in sore
need of money. My father lent him three thousand pounds. The sum was
lent without security, and it was never repaid.”

Morgan breathed more freely; but he thought of Nelly’s legacy.

“When my father felt himself to be dying,” Eve went on, “he wrote to
Mr. Myrtle, reminding him once more of the debt. It was for my sake
that he did this, knowing that I should be left quite friendless, and
almost penniless. And Mr. Myrtle promised to leave me three thousand
pounds in his will. He died last year, Mr. Foster, but there was no
legacy for me.”

Morgan’s words of sympathy sounded flat and commonplace. He was too
much overcome with shame to be conscious of what he was saying. It was
almost a relief when his old father returned from church and broke up
the _tête-à-tête_.

When Mrs. Foster was well enough to move from her bed to a couch, the
curate bethought him of returning to Huntsdean. He did not dare to
think much of all that awaited him there. He had lived a lifetime in
the space of a few weeks, and the village and its associations looked
unreal and far away. At this time shame was his dominant feeling. He
forgot to pity himself for the blunder that he had made–he thought
only of his involuntary treachery.

He did not dream of making any confession to Nelly; she should be no
sufferer through this dreadful mistake of his. And he wrote her as
lover-like a letter as he could frame, telling her that he was coming
home in a few days.

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WHAT A LITTLE POEM REVEALED

Lovers, like sinners, are nearly always found out; and in a very short
time everybody knew that Nelly Channell was engaged. It is not worth
while to record all the remarks that this affair drew forth. They were
comments of the usual kind; the curate was called a schemer, and the
father was said to have cruelly neglected the interests of his child.
But as none of these observations reached the ears of those whom they
chiefly concerned, nobody was any the worse for them.

Meanwhile, Morgan took his good fortune in a very tranquil way. He saw
Nelly nearly every day, and she did most of the talking that went on
between them. Her conversation, like herself, was always simple and
bright; it did not weary the listener, and yet it sometimes set him
wondering at the ease with which she opened her heart, and let out
its inmost thoughts. He was conscious that he had never let her get
beyond the vestibule of his inner self; but he would fain have had it
otherwise. It pained him, even while it comforted him, to see that she
was quite unaware of his involuntary reserve. Had she known that he
kept any locked-up chambers, she would have striven to find the keys,
and would most likely have succeeded. But she did not know it. She
possessed no instinct keen enough to tell her that she might live with
this man for years without once getting close to his soul.

“Read this, Nelly,” he said, one February afternoon. He had called
to take her out walking, and they were standing together at the
drawing-room window. All the snow was gone, and in its stead there were
clusters of snowdrops scattered over the brown mould. Here and there
was a group of the golden-eyed polyanthus; a little yellow-hammer,
perched on the garden-wall, piped its small, sweet song. There was
sunlight out of doors, and Nelly, looking bright and picturesque in her
velvet and sable, was impatient to leave the house.

Morgan had taken a copy of the _Monthly Guest_ from his pocket and was
pointing to a little poem on one of its pages.

“I can read it when we have had our walk,” Nelly answered. Then
catching a slight shade of disappointment on his face, she gave her
whole attention to the verses at once.

“How pretty!” she said, having conscientiously travelled through the
thirty lines. “How strange it seems that some people should have
the power of putting their ideas into rhyme! The writer has a nice
name,–Eve Hazleburn.”

“Perhaps it is merely a _nom-de-plume_,” replied Morgan, returning the
journal to his pocket.

Nelly thought within herself that she had never found her lover a
pleasanter companion than he was that day. He amused her with little
stories of his college life, and even went back to his grammar-school
days in search of incidents. It was a delightful walk; twilight was
creeping on when they found themselves at the house-door again, but
Morgan came no farther than the threshold.

“No, thank you,” he said; “I cannot dine with you to-night; I must go
home and write letters. Good-night, Nelly dear.”




He went his way through the leafless lanes, past the cottages and
gardens, to the old sexton’s ivy-covered dwelling. Then he lifted the
latch and went straight to the little parlour that had been given up
to his use. It was a very small room, so low that the beam across the
ceiling was blackened and blistered by the heat from the curate’s
reading lamp. Six rush-bottomed chairs stood with their backs against
the wall, and a carpet-covered hassock was the sole pretension to
luxury that the apartment contained. But a cheerful fire was blazing in
the grate, and on a little red tray stood a homely black teapot.

“I saw you a-comin’ through the lane, sir, and I’ve boiled an egg for
you,” said his good landlady, bustling in. “It’s bitter cold still. My
good man hopes you’ll keep your fire up.”

She went back to her own quarters with a troubled look on her kindly
old face. Somehow, her lodger did not seem quite so bright as he ought
to have been after taking a walk with his sweetheart. She thought they
must have had a lovers’ quarrel; and, woman-like, was disposed to lay
the blame thereof on her own sex.

“All girls is fond of worritin’ men; high or low, rich or poor, they’re
all alike,” she said, to her husband. “They don’t like going on too
peaceable. Nothin’ pleases ’em so well as a bit of a tiff now and then.
But if Miss Channell don’t know when she’s well off, she’s a foolish
body;–women are a’most as bad as the children of Israel, a-quarrelling
with their blessings!”

While the sexton’s wife was misjudging poor unconscious Nelly, the
curate sat lingering over his tea-cup. He was thoroughly realizing,
for the first time, that he had made a mistake in asking Miss Channell
to be his wife. It was a little thing that had opened his eyes to the
blunder,–merely her way of reading the little poem in the _Monthly
Guest_. He had been always vaguely hoping that something would bring
them nearer together, and make it possible for him to give all that he
ought to give; and he had thought that the poem would do it. The verses
seemed to have proceeded straight from some human heart, whose feelings
and aspirations were identical with his own. They expressed the same
sense of failure and hope which every earnest worker for God must feel.
They described the peace which always grows out of hearty effort, even
if that effort be not a success.

Just one word or look of comprehension would have led him on to speak
out of his interior self. But poor Nelly saw nothing in the poem beyond
its rhymes. She was like one who misses the diamond in gazing at its
setting.

“Thank God!” he said, half aloud, “that I can hide my sense of
disappointment from her! She shall never know that I want anything but
her sweetness and goodness, poor child! What a happy man I ought to be,
and yet what an ungrateful wretch I seem in my own eyes!”

He sat looking sadly into the red hollow of the neglected fire and
sighed heavily.

“I am like old Bunyan’s pilgrims,” he continued. “I remember that they
came to a place where they saw a way put itself into their way, and
seemed withal to lie as straight as the way which they should go. And
now I fear that I have gone out of my right path without knowing it.
Well, so long as the penalty falls upon me only, I can bear it!”

But his spirit was still disquieted when he went to his little chamber
that night. He lay awake for hours thinking of Nelly, and of the future
which lay before them both.

Next morning came a letter, in his father’s handwriting, which was full
of sad tidings. His mother was dangerously ill;–could he not come to
her at once?

Morgan went straightway to the rectory, and laid his case before the
rector. The old man had his son, a young deacon, staying in his house,
and readily consented to spare his curate. Then there was a letter to
Nelly to be written, explaining the cause of his sudden departure.
Before noon the train was bearing him far away from the vales and woods
of Huntsdean, straight to the great world of London. And from Euston
Square he travelled to the ancient Warwickshire city where his parents
had made their home.

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