Troubles her sleeping image in the tide

Still as a moonlight ruin is thy power,
Or meekness of carved marble, that hath prayed
For ages on a tomb; serenely laid
As some fair vessel that hath braved the storm,
And passed into her haven, when the noise
That cheered her home hath all to silence died,
Her crew have shoreward parted, and no voice
Troubles her sleeping image in the tide.
ALFORD.

My mind was a prey to great inquietude—shall I term it undefined
jealousy?—as I galloped back to my hotel. I had left directions with
Pitblado that, if any letters came for me during the two days I was to
be absent from barracks, he was to mount my spare horse, and bring them
on the spur direct to Canterbury; but none had come, for he had not
appeared.

I lingered over my wine alone, in my solitary room at the Royal,
reflecting on the evening’s adventures.

Was the horseman who had passed me really Berkeley?

If so, he was riding to Chillingham Park, and would just be in time for
dinner—a fact that, if he was uninvited, argued considerable familiarity
with that proud and exclusive family.

Then there was the girl whom I had rescued at the stile. What a puzzle
she was! I reviewed all her conversation with me, and her strange
bearing. Her literary information and education seemed to be of a very
superior kind, and her manner was unexceptionable. She seemed gentle,
too, and to have been on an errand of charity or mercy. Why was she so
agitated when our corps was mentioned! Her love for a red coat might be
natural enough; but who was “the captain” to whom the ruffian referred
when threatening her? Then there was undisguised anxiety for a letter.
That was natural also; and it was an emotion in which I could fully
share.

Those yokels in frocks and hobnailed shoes had called her wife, and even
widow; but the servant, or nurse, only named her as “miss.”

What if she and her nurse, the old spider-brusher, were but a delusion
and a snare? What if her modesty and trepidation, and the old woman’s
love and anxiety, were but a specious piece of acting!

Prudence suggested that such things were not uncommon in this good land
of Britain.

Next morning I was up and breakfasted betimes, and the sunny hours of
the forenoon saw me mounted, and, after passing the gate of Chillingham
Park at a quick canter, I know not why, unless to soothe my mental
irritation, slowly walking my horse in the neighbourhood of the
Reculvers, and inhaling the pleasant breeze that came from the sea,
whilom, as my companion of last night said, ploughed by the galleys of
Cæsar, and along the same shore where the Kentish barbarians gathered,
in their war paint, to oppose him.

The sunshine fell redly on the quaint spires of the old church and
picturesque cottages of the secluded village. I passed the sign of King
Ethelbert, and hovered for a moment at the gate of the cottage ornée,
where I had been overnight. Its blinds were closely drawn; but a bird
was singing gayly in a gilt wire cage that hung in the porch, which was
covered with climbing trailers, already in full flower.

I passed on, and soon reached the rustic stile—the scene of last night’s
encounter with that interesting individual who had solicited alms with
the aid of a black beard and a cudgel. It led to a narrow pathway
through the fields and coppice to the sea. The birds were chirping, and
some of the trees were already budding. The yellow blaze of noon
streamed between their stems upon the green grass, and I could see the
blue waves of the sea glittering in the glory of the sunshine far away.

On the summit of the moss-grown stile fancy conjured up the figure of
the young girl; and I had a vague, undefined longing to meet her again,
and learn something of her history, if she had one.

What was this girl to me, or I to her? Yet I had the desire to see her
once more, and, as luck or fate would have it, something glittering
among the grass caught my eye, and, on dismounting, I found it to be a
little gold locket, containing a lock of brown hair, attached to a black
velvet ribbon. It bore the initials “J.D.B.” and the date, “1st June.”

It had, no doubt, fallen, or been torn from the young lady’s neck in the
struggle of the night before. I resolved at once to restore it, and
turned my horse’s head towards the cottage, not without the unpleasant
reflection that this was the 1st of April—All Fools’ Day—and I might
simply be courting a scrape of some kind.

Leaving my horse at the gate, I rang the bell, and the door was promptly
opened by the old woman (whose face expressed such evident
disappointment that I saw some one else had been expected), and whom I
may as well introduce by name as Mrs. Goldsworthy.

She curtseyed very low, and eyed me doubtfully, as if the words of the
mess-room song occurred to her—

The scarlet coats! the scarlet coats!
They are a graceless set,
From shoulder-strap of worsted lace
To bullion epaulette.

The deuce is in those soldiers’ tongues;
What specious fibs they tell!
And what is worse, ’tis so perverse,
The women list as well.

If such were her speculations, I remembered that the lancers wore blue,
and the alleged seductions of the scarlet were inapplicable to one who
was in mufti.

“My dear madam,” said I, in my most insinuating tone, “passing by the
stile this morning, where, last night, I had the pleasure of rescuing
your young lady, I found this trinket, which, perhaps, belongs to her?”

“It do, indeed, sir, it do. Lawkamercy! she has well nigh cried her
poor eyes out about it, the dear soul! Ah, me, don’t you hear her a
coughing now?” said the worthy woman, sinking her voice. “’Ow ’appy she
will be to get it back again! ay, main ’appy! For whether it was lost
by the seashore, or in the fields, or whether the thief had taken it,
she never could ha’ guessed by no means. Oh, sir, ’ow she would be a
thankin’ you!”

“I hope she has not suffered from her alarm last night?”

“No, sir,” said the woman, eyeing me earnestly through a great pair of
spectacles, which she carefully wiped with her apron, and put on for
that purpose; “but she do have such a terrible cough, poor thing!
Please, sir, just to wait a minute.”

She hurried away, and returning almost immediately, invited me to enter,
saying—

“My young missus will see you, Mr. Hossifer.”

I was ushered into a prettily-papered and airy little parlour, the open
windows of which looked seaward over the green fields. Another bird in
a gilt wire cage hung chirping at the open sash, where the spotless
white muslin blinds swayed to and fro in the soft breeze of the April
morning.

Everything was scrupulously neat and clean, though plain. There were a
number of books, chiefly novels, on the side-table; a few landscapes in
water-colour, in gilt frames, evinced the taste of the proprietor; an
open workbox of elegant design stood on the centre table; and very tiny
kid gloves with a few shreds of ribbon, showed that a worker had
recently been busy there.

On the wall a garland of artificial flowers encircled the miniature of a
lovely little golden-haired boy, whose face, somehow, seemed familiar to
me.

On a small pianette, which was open, lay a pile of music. The two upper
pieces were “La Forza del Destine,” and “La Pluie de Perles,” which were
inscribed “To Agnes. From her dear Papa.”

Everything bespoke the presence of a neat, brisk, and tidy female
resident of elegant tastes; but in one corner I detected a cavalry
forage cap, pretty well worn, and on the end of the mantelpiece, where
it had evidently eluded Mrs. Goldsworthy’s duster, the fag-end of a
cigar.

I had just made this alarming discovery, when my friend of the last
evening entered, and frankly presented me with her hand, half-smiling,
and thanking me for the locket, which she at once proceeded to suspend
at her neck, saying, as she kissed and hid it in her bosom, that for
worlds she would not have lost it!

Ungloved now, I could perceive the delicate beauty of her small hands,
and, moreover, that on the third finger of the left there was no
marriage ring. Her face was very pale, but singularly beautiful, and
her tightly-fitting dress revealed the full symmetry of her arms, waist,
and bosom. Her eyes expressed extreme gentleness and sadness, and
consorted well with the delicacy of her pure complexion. The extreme
redness of her lips seemed rather unnatural, or at least unhealthy; but
she coughed frequently, and the consumption, under which I greatly
feared she was labouring, made her delicate loveliness still more
alluring, and the earnest and searching gaze of her dark blue eyes more
interesting and touching.

The common phrases incident to first introductions and everyday
conversations were rapidly despatched, and, while I lingered, hat and
whip in hand, I repeated that, but for the purpose of returning her
locket, I, as a total stranger, would not have ventured to intrude upon
a lady. I begged her to be assured of that.

“Be certain, sir,” said she, nervously smoothing the braids of her rich,
thick hair, and adjusting the neat white collar that encircled her
delicate throat, and edged the neck of her plain grey dress; “be certain
that it is no intrusion, but a great kindness, though I do live here
almost alone, and—and——”

She paused, and coloured deeply.

“You were anxious about letters last night. I hope this morning has
relieved your mind?”

“Alas, no, sir,” said she, shaking her pretty head sadly. “The postman
has always letters for every one but me. I have been forgotten by those
who should have remembered me.”

“I can fully share your feelings,” said I, with a made-up smile. “I,
too, am most anxious for letters that seem never likely to come.”

“I am sorry to hear this; but I thought that you gay young men of the
world had no sorrows—no troubles, save your debts, and your occasional
headaches in the morning; the first to be cured by post-obits, and the
second by brandy and seltzer-water.”

“Is such your idea?” said I, smiling.

“Yes.”

“Well, I have other and more heartfelt sorrows than these.”

“How often have I wished that I were a man—a strong one, to fight with
the world in all its wiles and strength; to wrestle and grapple with it,
and to feel that I was powerful, great—greater than even destiny—instead
of being the poor and feeble thing I am! Then could I show mankind——”

What she was about to say I know not. Her eyes were sparkling, and her
cheek flushing, as she spoke; but a violent fit of coughing came on.
She put her handkerchief to her lips, and when she took it away it was
stained with blood.

“Permit me,” said I, with kindness, and handed her to a chair.

This access of coughing so promptly brought Mrs. Goldsworthy in that I
think she must have been listening outside the door. Her caresses and
care soothed the young lady, though she lapsed into a flood of nervous
tears, and, for a minute or so, withdrew.

“Your mistress seems extremely delicate?” I observed.

“Yes, poor thing! She will never again be the girl she was.”

“Are you, may I ask, her mother?”

“Her mother? Lawkamercy, no! I ain’t worthy to be more than what I
am.”

“And what is that, my friend?”

“Her servant, poor angel! Her mother is, I am sure, in Heaven.”

“Pardon me. I remember that she told me last night that she was an
orphan.”

“Ay, poor child, a orphan indeed—a orphan of the ’eart,” she added,
shaking her head, as she became unintentionally poetic.

“I fear my visit excites you,” said I, moving towards the door, as the
young girl reappeared, and seemed to have quite recovered her composure.
“Your cough requires the greatest care, and those open windows——”

“Oh, I should die without air,” she exclaimed, while her eyes sparkled;
“for there are times when even my own thoughts seem to stifle me.”

“La, miss!” said her attendant, warningly, and glancing impatiently at
me.

“A strange girl,” thought I; “but can she be subject to flights of
fancy—insane?”

“If I can at any time be of service, pray command me, though we shall
not be long in Britain now, as we soon start for the Crimea.”

“Very soon?” she asked, with her eyes and voice full of earnest inquiry.

“I cannot say exactly when; but soon, certainly.”

She pressed her left hand upon her breast, as if to restrain her cough,
and cast down her eyelashes. At that moment she seemed remarkably
bewitching, soft, modest, and Madonna-like.

I was again about to go, and yet stayed, for I longed to learn, at
least, her name.

“And you go cheerfully forth to face danger and death?” she asked,
looking up with a mournful smile in her pleading eyes.

“Not cheerfully, for my path is not without its thorns; but for all that
I don’t dread death, I hope.”

“Death!” she said, musingly, as if to herself, while looking at the
blood spot on her handkerchief. “Daily I feel myself face to face with
him, and shall bid him welcome when he comes nearer, for death has no
terrors for me.”

“Don’t ’ee talk so, darling,” said her follower, with a mixture of
sorrow and irritation in her manner; “though he you weeps for is a bad
’un at ’art, and I knows it.”

“Oh, don’t break mine by saying so, nurse.”

“I trust that you only fancy yourself worse than you really are,” said
I, with genuine sympathy in my tone and manner. “Remember, the long and
sweet season of summer is before us. You are so young, and life must
still be full of hope to you.”

“Hope! oh, no, not of hope! My destiny has already been fulfilled!” she
replied, with a strong bitterness of manner; “so hope has done with me.”

“Pardon me; but may I ask your name—I told you mine,” said I, laying my
hand on hers.

She coloured deeply, almost painfully. It was but the hectic flush of a
moment, and when it passed away she became pale as marble.

“Captain Norcliff, I think you said?”

“Yes; Newton Calderwood Norcliff—and yours?”

“Agnes Auriol.”

“Good heavens!” I almost exclaimed, as the whole mystery of her life and
manner burst with a new light upon me.

So my mysterious incognita was that poor girl of whom the mess had
whispered. Berkeley’s mistress—Agnes Auriol—the girl whose letter—a
heart-breaking one, likely—he had dropped at Calderwood, and which he
had burned so carefully when I restored it to him. So _his_ were the
initials that were on the gold locket at her neck, and _his_ were the
forage cap and cigar which had attracted my attention on first entering
the cottage parlour.

It was certainly an awkward situation for me, this self-introduction and
visit. If discovered there, I knew not how far it might compromise me
with him, and still more with others whose opinion I valued.

And as thoughts of the Chillinghams and of the mess flashed upon me, I
felt that I would gladly have changed places with Sinbad on the whale’s
back, or Daniel in the lion’s den.

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