Chapter Twenty Four.

De Vayne’s Christmas Holidays.

“He that for love hath undergone
The worst that can befall,
Is happier thousandfold than one
Who never loved at all.
“A grace within his soul hath reigned,
Which nothing else can bring;
Thank God for all that I have gained
By that high suffering.”
                Moncton Manes.

For many days Lord De Vayne seemed to be hovering between life and death. The depression of his spirits weighed upon his frame, and greatly retarded his recovery. That he, unconscious as he was of ever having made an enemy—good and gentle to all—with no desire but to love his neighbour as himself, and to devote such talents and such opportunities as had been vouchsafed him to God’s glory and man’s benefit;—that he should have been made the subject of a disgraceful wager, and the butt of an infamous experiment; that in endeavouring to carry out this nefarious plan, any one should have been so wickedly reckless, so criminally thoughtless;—this knowledge lay on his imagination with a depression as of coming death. De Vayne had been but little in Saint Werner’s society, and had rarely seen any but his few chosen friends; and that such a calamity should have happened in the rooms and at the table of one of those friends,—that Kennedy, whom he so much loved and admired, should be suspected of being privy to it;—this fact was one which made De Vayne’s heart sink within him with anguish and horror, and a weariness of life.

And in those troubled waters of painful thought floated the broken gleams of a golden phantasy, the rainbow-coloured memories of a secret love. They came like a light upon the darkened waves, yet a light too feeble to dissipate the under gloom. Like the phosphorescent flashes in the sea at midnight, which the lonely voyager, watching with interest as they glow in the white wake of the keel, guesses that they may be the heralds of a storm,—so these bright reminiscences of happier days only gave a weird beauty to the tumult of the sick boy’s mind; and the mother, as she sat by him night and day during the crisis of his suffering, listened with a deeper anxiety for future trouble to the delirious revelations of his love.

For Lady De Vayne had come from Other Hall to nurse her sick son. She slept on a sofa in his sitting-room, and nursed him with such tenderness as only a mother can. There was no immediate possibility of removing him; deep, unbroken quiet was his only chance of life. The silence of his sick-room was undisturbed save by the softest whispers and the lightest footfalls, and the very undergraduates hushed their voices, and checked their hasty steps as they passed in the echoing cloisters underneath, and remembered that the flame of life was flickering low in the golden vase.

De Vayne was much beloved, and nothing could exceed the delicacy of the attention shown him. Choice conservatory flowers were left almost daily at his door, and men procured rare and rich fruits from home or from London, not because De Vayne needed any such luxuries, which were easily at his command, but that they might show him their sympathy and distress. Several ladies more or less connected with Saint Werner’s offered their services to Lady De Vayne, but she would not leave her son, in whose welfare and recovery her whole thoughts were absorbed.

And so, gloomily for the son and mother, the Christmas holidays came on, and Saint Werner’s was deserted. Scarcely even a stray undergraduate lingered in the courts, and the chapel was closed; no sound of choir or organ came sweetly across the lawns at morning or evening; the ceaseless melancholy plash of the great fountain was almost the only sound that broke the stillness. Julian, Lillyston, and Owen had all gone down for the holidays, full of grief at the thought of leaving their friend in such a precarious state, but as yet not permitted to see or serve him. Lady De Vayne promised to write to Julian regular accounts of Arthur’s health, and told him how often her son spoke of him, both in his wanderings, and in his clearer moments.

It was touching to see the stately and beautiful lady walking alone at evening about the deserted college, to gain a breath of the keen winter air, while her son had sunk for a few moments to fitful rest. She was pale with long watchings and deep anxiety, and in her whole countenance, and in her deep and often uplifted eyes, was that look of prayerfulness and holy communion with an unseen world which they acquire whose abode has long been in the house of mourning, and removed from the follies and frivolities of life.

Well-loved grounds of Saint Werner’s by the quiet waves of the sedgy Iscam, with smooth green grass sloping down to the edge, and trim quaint gardens, and long avenues of chestnut and ancient limes! Though winter had long whirled away the last red and golden leaf, there was pleasure in the air of quiet and repose, which is always to be found in those memory-hallowed walks; and while Lady De Vayne could pace among them in solitude, she needed no other change, nor any rest from thinking over her sick son.

She was surprised one evening, very soon after the men had gone down, to see an undergraduate slowly approaching her down the long and silent avenue. He was tall and well made, and his face would have been a pleasant one, but for the deep look of sadness which clouded it. He hesitated and took off his cap as she came near, and returning his salute, she would have passed him, but he stopped her and said:

“Lady De Vayne.”

Full of surprise she looked at him, and with his eyes fixed on the ground he continued, “You do not know my name; if I tell you, I fear you will hate me, because I fear you will have heard calumnies about me. But may I speak to you?”

“You are not Mr Bruce?” she said with a slight shudder.

“No; my name is Edward Kennedy. Ah, madam! do not look at me so reproachfully, I cannot endure it. Believe me, I would have died—I would indeed—rather than that this should have happened to Lord De Vayne.”

“Nay, Mr Kennedy, I cannot believe that you were more than thoughtless. I have very often heard Julian Home speak of you, and I cannot believe that his chosen friend could be so vile as some reports would make you.”

“They are false as calumny itself,” he said passionately. “Oh, Lady De Vayne, none could have honoured and loved your son more than I did; I cannot explain to you the long story of my exculpation, but I implore you to believe my innocence.”

“I forgive you, Mr Kennedy,” she said, touched with pity, “if there be anything to forgive; and so will Arthur. A more forgiving spirit than his never filled any one I think. Excuse me, it is time for me to return to him.”

“But will you not let me see him, and help you in nursing him? It was for this purpose alone that I stayed here when all the others went. Let me at least be near him, that I may feel myself to be making such poor reparation as my heedlessness requires.”

She could hardly resist his earnest entreaty, and besides, she was won by compassion for his evident distress.

“You may come, Mr Kennedy, as often as you like; whenever Arthur is capable of seeing you, you shall visit his sick-room.”

“Thank you,” he said, and she perceived the tremble of deep emotion in his voice.

He came the next morning, and she allowed him to see De Vayne. He entered noiselessly, and gazed for a moment as he stood at the door on the pale wasted face, looking still paler in contrast with the long dark hair that flowed over the pillow. He was awake, but there was no consciousness in his dark dreamy eyes.

As De Vayne murmured to himself in low sentences, Kennedy heard repeatedly the name of Violet, and once of Violet Home. He sat still as death, and soon gathered from the young lord’s broken words, his love, his deep love for Julian’s sister.

And when Kennedy first recognised this fact, which had hitherto been quite unknown to him, for a moment a flood of jealousy and bitter envy filled his heart. What if Violet should give up her troth in favour of a wealthier, perhaps worthier lover? What if her family should think his own poor claims no barrier to the hope that Violet should one day wear a coronet? The image of Julian and Violet rose in his fancy, and with one more pang of self-reproach, he grew ashamed of his unworthy suspicions.

Yet the thought that De Vayne, too, had fixed his affections on Violet filled him with uneasiness and foreboding, and he determined, on some future occasion, to save pain to all parties, by getting Julian to break to De Vayne the secret of his sister’s betrothal.

For several days he came to the sick-room, and a woman could hardly have been more thoughtful and tender than he was to his friend. It was on about the fourth evening that De Vayne awoke to complete consciousness. He became aware that some one besides his mother was seated in the room, and without asking he seemed slowly to recognise that it was Kennedy.

“Is that Kennedy?” he asked, in a weak voice.

“It is I,” said Kennedy, but the patient did not answer, and seemed restless and uneasy and complained of cold.

When Kennedy went, De Vayne whispered to his mother, “Mother, I am very weak and foolish, but it troubles me somehow to see Kennedy sitting there; it shocks my nerves, and fills me with images of something dreadful happening. I had rather not see him, mother, till I am well.”

“Very well, Arthur. Don’t talk so much, love; I alone will nurse you. Soon I hope you will be able to return to Other.”

“And leave this dreadful place,” he said, “for ever.”

“Hush, my boy; try to sleep again.”

He soon slept, and then Lady De Vayne wrote to Kennedy a short note, in which she explained as kindly and considerately as she could, that Arthur was not yet strong enough to allow of any more visits to his sick-room.

“He shuns me,” thought Kennedy, with a sigh, and packing up some books and clothes, he prepared to go home.

Of course he was to spend part of the vacation at Ildown. Violet wondered that he did not come at once; she was not exactly jealous of him, but she thought that he might have been more eager for her company than he seemed to be, and she would have liked it better had he come earlier. Poor Kennedy! his very self-denials turned against him for the sole reason why he kept away from Ildown was, that he feared to disturb the freedom of Frank and Cyril by the presence of a stranger all the time of their holidays, and he hesitated to intrude on the united happiness which always characterised the Ildown circle.

Eva, too, was invited, and the brother and sister arrived at Ildown by a late train, and drove to the house. What a glowing welcome they received! Julian introduced them to Mrs Home, and Kennedy kissed affectionately the hand of his future mother. Frank and Cyril had gone to bed, but Frank was so determined to see Violet’s lover that night, that he made Julian bring him into their bedroom, and he was more than satisfied with the first glimpse.

“And where is Violet?” asked Kennedy, in a matter-of-fact tone, for he well knew that she would not choose to meet him in the presence of others.

“In her own little room,” said Julian, smiling; “I will show you the way.” He led Kennedy up-stairs, and left him at the door; he well knew that her heart would be fluttering as much as his.

A light knock at the door, and a moment after they saw each other again.

She sat on the sofa, and the firelight flickered on the amethyst—his gift—which she wore on her white neck; and her bright eyes danced with tears and laughter, and her bosom heaved and fell as he clasped her to his breast and printed a long, long kiss upon her cheek.

In silence, more exquisite than speech, they gazed on each other; and as though her beauty were reflected on his own face, all trace of sorrow and shame fled like a cloud from his forehead; and who would not have said, looking upon the pair, that he was worthy of her, as she of him?

“My own Violet,” he said, “you are beautiful as a vision to-night.”

“Hush, flatterer!” and she placed her little hand upon his mouth:—no wonder that he seized and kissed it.

“And what a thrice-charming dress.”

“Ah, I meant you to admire it,” she said, laughing.

“‘And thinking, this will please him best,
She takes a ribbon or a rose,’”

he whispered to her.

“Come,” she replied, “no ill-omened words, Edward. You know the sad context of those lines.”

“No! no sadness to-night, my own Violet, my beautiful, beautiful Violet; you quite dazzle me, my child. I really can’t sit by your side; come, let me sit on your foot-stool here, and look up in your face.”

“Silly boy,” she said, “come along, we shall keep them all waiting for supper.”

While poor De Vayne languished on the bed of sickness, his sufferings were almost the only shadow which chequered the brightness of those weeks at Ildown. In the morning, Julian and Kennedy worked steadily; the afternoon and evening they devoted to amusement and social life. The Kennedys soon became great favourites among the Ildown people, and went out to many cheery Christmas parties; but they enjoyed more the quiet evenings at home when they all sat and talked after dinner round the dining-room fire, and while the two boys played at chess, and Violet and Eva worked or sketched, Julian and Kennedy would read aloud to them in turns. How often those evenings recurred to all their memories in future days.

Soon after the Kennedys had come, Julian received from Camford the Christmas college-list. He had again won a first class, but Kennedy’s name, much to his vexation, appeared only in the third.

“How is it that Edward is only in the third class?” asked Violet of Julian—for, of course, she had seen the list. “He is very clever—is he not?”

“Very; one of the cleverest fellows in Saint Werner’s.”

“Then is he idle?”

“I’m afraid so, Vi. You must get him to work more.”

So when he was seated by her on the sofa in her little boudoir, she said, “You must work more, Edward, at Camford, to please me.”

“Ah, do not talk to me of Camford,” he said, with a heavy sigh. “Let me enjoy unbroken happiness for a time, and leave the bitter future to itself.”

“Bitter, Edward? but why bitter? Julian always seems to me so happy at Camford.”

“Yes, Julian is, and so are all who deserve to be.”

“Then you must be happy too, Edward.”

His only answer was a sigh. “Ah, Violet, pray talk to me of anything but Camford.”

The visit came to an end, as all things, whether happy or unhappy, must; and Julian rejoiced that confidence seemed restored between him and Kennedy once more. Of course, he told Violet none of the follies which had cost poor Kennedy the loss both of popularity and self-respect. Soon afterwards Lord De Vayne was brought back to Other Hall, and Violet and Julian were invited, with their mother, to stay there till the Camford term commenced. The boys had returned to school, so that they all acceded to Lady De Vayne’s earnest request that they would come.

It was astonishing how rapidly the young viscount recovered when once Violet had come to Other Hall. Her presence seemed to fill him with fresh life, and he soon began to get down-stairs, and even to venture on a short walk in the park. His constitution had suffered a serious and permanent injury, but he was pronounced convalescent before the Homes finished their visit.

The last evening before their departure, he was seated with Violet on a rustic seat on the terrace, looking at the sun as it set behind the distant elms of the park, and at the deer as they grazed in lovely groups on the rich undulating slopes that swept down from the slight eminence on which his house was built. He felt that the time had come to speak his love.

“Violet,” he said, as he looked earnestly at her, and took her hand, “you have, doubtless, seen that I love you. Can you ever return my love? I am ready to live and die for you, and to give you my whole affection.” His voice was still low and weak through illness, and he could hardly speak the sentences which were to win for him a decision of his fate.

Violet was taken by surprise; she had known Lord De Vayne so long and so intimately, and their stations were so different, that the thought of his loving her had never entered her head. She regarded him familiarly as her brother’s friend.

“Dear De Vayne,” she said, “I shall always love you as a friend, as a brother. But did you not know that I have been for some months engaged?”

“Engaged?” he said, turning very pale.

“I am betrothed,” she answered, “to Edward Kennedy. Nay, Arthur, dear Arthur,” she continued, as he nearly fainted at her feet, “you must not suffer this disappointment to overcome you. Love me still as a sister; regard me as though I were married already, and let us enjoy a happy friendship for many years.”

He was too weak to bear up, too weak to talk; only the tears coursed each other fast down his cheeks as he murmured, “Oh, forgive me, forgive me, Violet.”

“Forgive you,” she said kindly; “nay, you honour me too much. Marry one of your own high rank, and not the orphan of a poor clergyman. I am sure you will not yield to this sorrow, and suffer it to make you ill. Bear up, Arthur, for your mother’s sake—for my sake; and let us be as if these words had never passed between us.”

She lent him her arm as he walked faintly to his room, and as he turned round and stooped to kiss her hand, she felt it wet with many tears.

They went home next day, and soon after received a note from Lady De Vayne, informing them that Arthur was worse, and that they intended removing for some time to a seat of his in Scotland; after which they meant to travel on the Continent for another year, if his health permitted it. “But,” she said, “I fear he has had a relapse, and his state is very precarious. Dear friends, think of us sometimes, and let us hope to meet again in happier days.”

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook