It was not until he had dined the next day that the thought suddenly came to him:

“Why should not I solve in the simplest way the problem of meeting Betsy Linley, by seeking such a meeting myself? Why should not I go to her at her father’s house on the chance of finding her there?”

He wondered how it was that it had not occurred to him long ago to take such a step. Surely, since his aim was to show her and the rest of the world how little he was touched by the news of her having promised to marry Mr. Long, no more effective step than this could be taken by him!

Of course her father would be in the room when he should meet her—certainly Mr. Long would be there; perhaps Tom would be scraping away at his violin, and Polly would be squalling—that was the word which was in his mind when he thought of the likelihood of Mary Linley’s being engaged in practising some of her songs in the music-room—Polly would be squalling at the top of her voice. But any one, or all, of these incidents would only tend to make him more at home—more at ease when meeting Betsy for the first time under the changed conditions of her life. The Linleys’ house in Pierrepont Street would not seem like the same place to him if Polly’s voice were not ringing through it—if the children were not making a noise on the stairs—if Mrs. Linley was not bustling about with a kitchen apron on, or, in the moments of her leisure, with her knitting-needles clicking over half a yard of worsted hose. Yes, he felt that he would be quite at his ease under the usual conditions of the Linleys’ house; and that was why he took no pains to dress himself for the visit. With an instinct of what was dramatically appropriate—he never lost this instinct—he put on the old coat which he had been accustomed to wear when he had enjoyed what Mr. Linley called the “freedom of the Guild of Linley.” That would show Betsy and the rest of them—though it didn’t matter about the rest of them—that, whoever had changed, he was still the same.

He got his first surprise when the door was opened for him by Mrs. Linley. She had on her working-apron, and her hands were not free from a suspicion of flour. She beamed on Dick and wiped one of her hands on her apron to greet him.

“Come within, Dick,” she cried. “Come within, man; though there’s no one at home but Betsy and me. These are busy days with us, Dick, and this is the first quiet hour we have had since Tom returned from Italy. Of course you have heard the news—all Bath is talking of it, and I shouldn’t wonder if it had gone as far as the Wells! ’Tis great news, to be sure; but it means a deal of extra house-work, and more pastry. The children are all gone to Monsieur Badier’s assembly. The boys are taking part in the minuet, and Polly is to sing for the company between the dances. Mr. Linley and Mr. Long are at Lawyer Stott’s. These settlements are always a trouble, though I will say that Mr. Long is more than liberal in his views. Poor Betsy! What will the house be without her, Dick? You will find her in the music-room. She sings every day now, but not real singing—only for her own pleasure. There she goes. Oh lud! why am I standing talking like this when I should be turning my tartlets in the oven? Sniff, Dick, sniff! You have a fine nose. Do you smell the smell of burning paste, or is it only a bit over-crisp?”

Dick sniffed.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of those tartlets, madam,” said he. “But I don’t believe there is more than a brown sniff coming from the oven.”

“Oh lud! if you can sniff the brown, you may swear that the paste is black; you must make allowance for the distance the smell has to travel. Go upstairs; you’ll be able to track her by the sound.”

The good woman was already at the farther end of the passage to her kitchen before Dick had begun to mount the stairs.

The sound of Betsy’s singing went through the house. The song was one of Dr. Arne’s, which he had always loved. But had he ever loved the voice till now?

This was his thought while he stood outside the door of the music-room waiting for the song to come to an end.

It seemed to him that her singing of that song had the magical power of bringing before his eyes every day in the past that he had spent near her. The day when he first saw her she had sung that very song. It was at one of the entertainments given by his father in Bath, and he had just left Harrow. Every phrase of that song which now came from her lips renewed his boyish impressions of the girl, her beauty and the witchery of her voice. He could see himself standing before her, silent and shy, when she had come later in the day to have supper at his father’s house. He had been silent and shy, but she had been quite self-possessed. It was upon that occasion that Mr. Burke referred to the Linley family as a Nest of Linnets.

Dick remembered how he had wondered why it was that he himself had not said that about the Linleys: why should it be left to Mr. Burke to say it when it was exactly what was in his own mind?

He had loved her then. He recollected how he had struggled hard all the next day to write a poem about her—a song that her father might perhaps set to music to be sung by Betsy herself.

And then ... and then ... and then....

The ghosts of the sweet past days flitted before him while the sound of that song enveloped him, and every spectral day shone white and bright in his memory. For a time he failed to realise that they were merely shadows flitting across his memory. They seemed to him full of life—a heart beating in every one of them. Alas! it was only his own heart that throbbed with those sweet recollections; for when the song faded away and closed in silence, he felt that he was alone. The beautiful creature of those old days had passed away from him and had left him lonely. He had awakened from a dream.

He felt such a sadness come over him that he could not open the door that separated them. He turned silently away, and was about to go down the stairs, when suddenly the door opened and the girl took a step into the lobby. She started, and gave an exclamation of surprise.

“What! is’t you, Dick?” she cried. “Why, how was it that I failed to hear you come? How is it that you are going down the stairs?”

His self-possession had fled at the moment of her appearance. He faltered out something.

“You were singing, that was how you did not hear me come; and then—then—well, I thought that—that maybe I should disturb you by entering. Yes, you were singing.”

“Oh, Dick!” she said, and there was a note of reproach in her voice.

She turned and walked back into the room. He followed her.

“I knew you would come, Dick,” she cried, giving him both her hands. “Oh, I knew that you were not one who would stay away! I looked for you all yesterday, and I waited within the house all this morning. But you have come now, Dick, and I am glad—you know that I am glad to see you. Were we not always friends—the very best friends that could be, Dick?”

“Yes, I have come, dear Betsy,” he said. “I have come to wish you—to wish you happiness; indeed, I wish you all happiness—with all my heart—with all my heart and soul, dear Betsy.”

He saw her white figure before him through the mist of the tears that sprung to his eyes. And at that moment there was really no desire in his heart but that she should be entirely happy. Every selfish wish—every sense of disappointment—every sense of wounded vanity—every sense of self had dissolved in that mist of tears that came to his eyes, but did not fall.

She was looking into his face, but she did not see that there were tears in his eyes. Her own tears had sprung, and they did not remain in her eyes; they were running down her face.

She could not speak. She could only hold his hands, and all the time she was making a pitiful attempt to smile, only he could not see this.

They stood there silently for a long time. At last he felt her hold upon his hands slacken. Still, there was a suddenness in her act of letting them drop finally. With a sound like that of a little sob, she turned away from him and stood before one of the windows looking out upon the street.

He did not say a word. What word was there for him to say? He had no thought of the clever, cynical things he had meant to say to her on the subject of marriage. He did not at that moment even remember that it had been his intention to say such words to her, so that he did not loathe himself until he had gone home and remembered what his intentions had been the previous day.

He stood silent in the middle of the room. Quite a long space of time had elapsed before she turned to him, and now he could see the smile that was upon her face.

“I knew you would come to see me, Dick,” she said; “for I know that there is no one in the world who would be gladder to see me happy than you, Dick. And you—you will be happy too—you will give me a chance some day of seeing you happy, will you not? It would make me so happy, Dick.”

He shook his head—that was his first impulse; but immediately afterwards he said:

“Oh yes; why should not I be happy—one day, Betsy? Oh, don’t take any thought for me, dear; I dare say that I shall be able to—to—— What is it that makes people happy, Betsy? Is it love—is it loving—is it being loved?”

“Oh, Dick, there are surely plenty of things in the world besides love!” said she.

“There are, but none of them is worth working for,” said he. “There is fame; you have that—you have enjoyed it for years——”

“Enjoyed it? Enjoyed—— Ah, Dick, I have promised to marry Mr. Long in order to escape from it. Now you know why I have given him my promise. It is because I cannot live the life that is imposed on me—because I feel that if I were to continue leading this life I must one day throw myself into the Avon, seeking for rest. I hate the fame which has put my name into the mouth of every one. Oh, Dick, if you could know how all these years my heart has been singing that one anthem, ‘Oh for the wings of a dove—the wings of a dove, to fly away and be at rest!’ I have heard the boys in the Abbey sing it, but they did not know what the words meant. I know what they mean, and my heart has been singing them all these years. My soul has been so filled with that longing that there has been no room in it for any other thought—any other aspiration. You can understand me, Dick—I know that you can understand me. My father cannot. He loses patience with me; and Tom, from whom I hoped so much, he is worse than my father. He has no thought in life apart from his violin, and he is happy only when people are applauding him.”

“And Mr. Long—does he understand you?” asked Dick.

“Oh yes—yes; I feel that he does,” said the girl. “Mr. Long is so good—so kind—so considerate.”

“Oh yes; and you are still ready to do him the injustice of marrying him?” said Dick.

Her face flushed. She looked at him without speaking a word for some moments, then she turned away from him and faced the window, out of which she had been looking pensively.

He caught one of her hands from behind.

“Forgive me, dear Betsy, forgive me!” he cried passionately. “Oh, my Betsy, I did not come here to add to the burden which you have to bear; I did not mean to reproach you; only—you know—you know what is in my heart, dear—what has been in my heart all these years! I did not speak. What would have been the good of telling you? You knew it; you knew all that was in my heart!”

“I knew—I knew,” she said, and every word sounded like a sob.

He was still holding her hand, but she had not turned to him. He was behind her.

“And I knew that you knew, and that gave me hope,” he said. “I had hopes that one day—some day—— Oh, why did my father treat me as he did? Why did he take me from school and bring me here to spend my life in idleness? He would not consent to my learning anything that would be of use to me, that would have enabled me to earn bread for myself. Why could not he have given me at least a chance of doing something—the chances that other boys are given?”

He had flung her hand away from him and had gone passionately to the farther end of the room, his hands clenched.

“What was the good of my hoping—dreaming—longing?” he continued, speaking across the room. “It seemed that every one was to have a chance except myself. But still, that did not prevent my loving you, Betsy—loving you as none of the more fortunate ones could love you. It was the one solace left to me, and you knew it; you knew that I loved you always; you knew——”

“Oh, Dick, Dick, do not be cruel!” she cried. “Let me implore of you. Oh, Dick, let us be to each other to-day as we used to be long ago when we were children together. You remember how frank we used to be to each other, telling each other everything? How could we be otherwise? We had not learned any language but that of frankness. Dear Dick, I know what was in your heart. You hoped, and I, too, hoped and hoped, until my life became unendurable.... Ah, can you blame me because when my chance of freedom came I accepted it? I promised to marry Mr. Long; but listen to me, Dick: I give you my word that if you tell me that I was wrong I will go to him and take back my promise.”

He turned to her, and his hands instinctively clasped themselves.

“Oh, Betsy—my Betsy!” he cried; and then he was silent.

There was a long pause before she said, in a low but firm voice:

“Tell me what I am to do, Dick, and I will do it. I have given you my word.”

“Oh, my beloved!” he said. His hands were clasped. He was gazing at her standing there before him in all the pathos of her beauty. He knew that if he were to speak the word to her she would keep her promise to him, and the word was trembling on his lips. The temptation to speak it—to bring her back to him—almost overcame him. He looked at her—he faltered—then, with a cry, he put up his hands to his face, shutting her out from his sight, and flung himself into a chair with his head bent and his hands still upon his face.

“God help me! God help me!” he cried through his tears.

“And me too, Dick; God help me!” she said. “Oh, I knew that I could trust you, my Dick! I knew that you were noble—that you were equal to that act of self-sacrifice: a greater act of self-sacrifice than mine. You will not say the word; I knew that you would not say it.”

She was kneeling beside his chair, and she had put an arm across his shoulders—it was almost round his neck.

Still he sat there with his face down upon his hands.

“Dear Dick, the noblest life is that which is made up of self-sacrifice,” said she. “Yours is the strong and the noble life. But mine—— Oh, I feel that if I were strong I would be able to submit to my fate without murmuring. I would not seek to free myself from the life which I have led—the life which I abhor. But I am weak—I know it—I own it, and I feel that I cannot endure it any longer. The last time that I sang in public must be my last time to sing. I made up my mind that anything—death—would be preferable to such an ordeal. Oh, Dick, can you blame me greatly if, when Mr. Long came to me, I welcomed him as a slave welcomes the one who sets him free? I felt that he had come to stand between me and death.”

He put up his hand and took the hand which was resting on his shoulder, her arm crossing his neck. He held it in all tenderness for some time, his eyes looking into hers. Their faces were close together, but he did not kiss her face. Their breath came with the sound of a sigh.

“Dear child,” he said at last, “dear child—dear Betsy, I was selfish even to say so much as I did to you—to say so much as even suggested a reproach. But, thank God, I am strong enough to resist the temptation which you put before me. I dare not ask you to change anything that has happened. It has been decreed by Heaven that we are to walk in different ways, and I hope with all my heart that you will have happiness. I asked you just now whence happiness sprang to any one. Dear Betsy, that question has been answered since I heard you speak. Happiness comes by self-sacrifice. Happiness comes to those who seek not their own good, but the good of others. That is why I can hope that you will be happy, my dear one.”

“Indeed, that is what is in my heart, Dick,” she said. “I feel that I can now do something for the ones I love—for my sisters—for my brothers. Mr. Long is kind and generous. He will, I am assured, help us all. Poor father is obliged to work so hard, and mother is a drudge. I think that little Maria has a nature like mine, and I shall be able to save her from all that I have gone through. And then, and then—well, there is something else to take into account. You can guess what it is, Dick?”

“Yes, I think I know what is on your mind, Betsy,” he said. “You have been pestered by suitors, and now you hope that you will have at least a respite.”

“A respite!” she cried. “Oh, Dick, I shall be safe for evermore. You do not know what I have suffered. It would seem as if every man who ever heard me sing considered that he had a right to send letters to me—letters full of compliments—and every compliment was an insult to me.”

“Why did you not tell me?” he cried, starting up with clenched hands. “Why did you not give me a hint of this? You know that I would have made every rascal among them answer to me with his life for every insult offered to you.”

“I know that—that was why I kept everything a secret from you,” she said. “The thought that you would be in danger on my account—— Ah, I know that blood has been shed already, and even now I do not feel safe. Captain Mathews—he was the most persistent of my persecutors, and even yet ... he uttered the most terrible threats against me only yesterday. I do not feel secure.”

“I will kill him—I swear to you that you have only to hold up your finger, and I will kill him.”

“I know it, dear Dick—I know it. But do you think that I would consent to your running into danger for me? Oh, I would submit to anything sooner than that you should be put in jeopardy of your life. But I have told you all this that you may the more readily understand why I should be filled with longing to go away and hide myself in some place where there is calm and quiet—some place that has always been in my dreams. It must have come to me with the hearing of the anthem, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ Oh, the vision of the green pastures beside the still waters! Now you know all that there is to be known, and you will not judge me too harshly, Dick?”

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook