2. Imparadis'd In One Another's Arms
Eleanor is busy in the morning sunlight, brightening the pewter dinner service, the pride of the Grebby family, passed down from generation to generation, and priceless in her eyes. She can hear the preparations without for an early start to the neighbouring market. Her mother is loading a cart of vegetables, while her father "shoos" the cackling geese into wicker pens, and harnesses "Black Bess" the steady old mare, who is almost one of themselves. And Eleanor is glad that the market (a weekly centre of attraction to the old village) will leave her in peaceful solitude.
She breaks out into a glad song, which mingles with the twittering of birds:
"There was a jolly miller once,
Lived on the River Dee."
"Eleanor, Eleanor, give me a hand with these vegetables," cries her mother's voice. There is a thud, and a whole sack of potatoes fall pell-mell into the yard, still muddy from yesterday's rain.
Eleanor gathers them up, indulging the same tuneful mood:
"He worked and sang from morn till night. No lark more blithe than he!"
She has a strong, sweet-toned voice, and "Black Bess" turns her head sleepily at the sound, whisking the tiresome flies with her tail. So often Eleanor's tread at the door of her shed has meant apples and carrots and sugar.
She wipes the potatoes clean with her apron, replacing them carefully at the back of the cart.
Mrs. Grebby takes the reins, while Mr. Grebby follows on foot, driving a few specially honoured sheep, who frequently serve him for conversation throughout an entire evening spent smoking with neighbouring farmers.
Eleanor watches them out of sight, her hand over her brow to shade the dazzling sunlight from her eyes. A group of chickens congregate around her with mute inquiry in their beaky faces. She fetches a handful of grain from the barn, flings it into their midst, and returns singing to her pewter polishing:
"And this the burden of his song
For ever used to be:
"How dull this soup tureen is, to be sure!" pausing in her verse to rub it with extra vigour:
"I care for nobody, no not I,
If no one cares for me!"
The delinquencies of the dimmed soup tureen are forgotten as these last words ring out in the quiet parlour. "Surely," thinks Eleanor, "there is hidden pathos in the Jolly Miller of Dee's reckless assertion! To care for nobody! What a horrible thought--a whole life's tragedy lies in the closing verse. If no one cares for me!"
Eleanor sighs and leans her chin on her hands, kneeling before the wooden table on which the dinner service is spread. What if nobody cared for her! How vast and miserable a wilderness this world would be! Why, even the dumb animals love her.
The little goat she called Nelly, who fell ill the week before, and gasped out its breath in her arms on a dry heap of hay, gave all the love of its disputed soul to Eleanor. Of course, it had a soul; she made up her mind long ago on this point. How can a creature with such mysteriously human eyes as Nelly possessed be less human than the great plodding, loose-mouthed ploughboy, who only gapes when he is spoken to, and contains what Mr. Grebby is pleased to call, "only half a intellec'!"
Eleanor glances at the old-fashioned clock in the corner, decorated by grotesque pottery dogs and four-legged creatures with horns, and faces resembling tigers or cats. She has been up since five, for besides market day it is churning morning, and she and her mother have worked for hours in the dairy.
"It is time," she says at last, washing her small hands under the scullery tap, and then reaching for a hat hanging on the kitchen dresser.
"I wish I had something pretty to wear," she sighs, glancing at her reflection in a cracked glass. "Laces and ribbons, beautiful blue ribbons with pink spots, like the Squire's nieces wore last Sunday. The tall girl was dreadfully plain, and I should have looked so well in her silk gown, with the shorter sister's chiffon fichu."
Eleanor's face brightens at the recollection of those costumes in the Manor House pew, which appeared so lovely in her eyes while she played the Magnificat. Dreams of dainty dresses are dear to her heart as the occasional thoughts of love which steal over her at times. "If the two could be combined," she thinks, "love and wealth."
It is amazing this new and sudden desire for something better, which all but stops the beating of Eleanor's heart.
"If he loved me," she gasps "if--" she staggers back against the half-closed door, her fingers clenched and pressed to her temples, throbbing with intense excitement. All the thoughts that crowd to her brain are offsprings of that improbable "if," each moment growing more dazzling!
She hastens with light footsteps to an old cupboard in which her mother has treasured some hand-made lace left in her aunt's will to the Grebbys of Copthorne Farm.
She turns down her collar to reveal a shapely throat, pearly white, and hidden usually from the sun's scorching power, round which the soft folds of lace fall entrancingly.
What would Eleanor's mother say could she see her precious heirloom donned hastily on this busy market morning, to adorn her daughter's neck for a stroll through the fields! It is sacrilege surely, but the prize!
The girl closes the cupboard noiselessly, creeping away like a criminal out into the glaring day. Her eyes dance, her cheeks are flushed, and her hair escaping (as if by accident) from its neat braids, waves in dainty tendrils round her ears.
"I am beautiful," she murmurs to herself, "why not? Stranger things have happened--Eleanor Roche, the wife of a rich man--oh!"
The last is a gasp of hitherto unexpressed surprise at the audacity of her day dreams.
Philip is waiting by the barley field, watching for her. As she sees him she slackens her steps, not wishing to appear over anxious for the rendezvous. He advances eagerly, grasps her hands, and devours her with his eyes.
"So we meet again, Eleanor," he whispers. "I must call you Eleanor; you don't mind?"
A bold answer that inwardly makes her tremble enters the girl's head. Why not place herself on an equality with him at once? She nerves herself to reply:
"Not if I may call you Philip?"
A look of amused surprise flits over Mr. Roche's features. What a naïve, childlike manner Eleanor possesses!
"Of course," he replies, pulling the small hand through his arm, and turning out of the public thoroughfare.
"I wonder what you think of me?" asks Eleanor unhesitatingly.
The great sparkling eyes are raised to his with genuine curiosity in their depths. She is not seeking a compliment; far from it, she really wants to know, and is waiting for the truth.
He looks from the blue eyes of the girl to the little blue bird's-eye growing on a bank of clover. She pauses while he stoops to gather the tiny flower.
"You see this," he says.
"It is only a field blossom blooming unnoticed in this sweet country atmosphere, yet to me a thousand times fairer than the exotics and hot-house plants which naturally demand admiration. I love this little flower," pressing the tender blue to his lips, "because it is wild and untrained. It appeals to me. It is like you, Eleanor!"
A flush of offence arises to her cheeks.
"Wild!" "Untrained!" the words sting Miss Grebby's pride.
"I did not think you would compare me to a weed;" she retorts, tossing her head proudly.
But Philip will not see he has offended, and continues in the same strain.
"Don't despise the weeds, Eleanor; they were placed in their uncultivated beds by Nature's hand, and have as much right to be called beautiful as any other creation."
He speaks to her authoritatively, and she looks at his strong, masterful expression with a gradual sense of awe.
"I should not have thought you would care for flowers."
"Why not? Does it seem childish in your eyes to soliloquise over a wayside 'weed,' as you call it?"
His questions perplex her. She is silent.
"You do not appreciate your beautiful country," he continues, "from living in it always. Wait till you have tasted the deadly dust of the town before you curl your lip at a blue bird's-eye, or pass judgment on the unbroken quiet of sinless Copthorne. Since I came here for rest and holiday leisure I seem to have grasped the whole history and charm of the place. It contains endless interest in its Godlike simplicity to the recluse or the reader. Look what fields for the naturalist or botanist! Think, too, of an artist here for the first time--what sketches to be made at sunrise and sunset! You may call your little world dull, monotonous, uneventful, since, reared in the green landscape with farmlands and woods around, you are bound through custom to neglect the pleasures of imagination, and see it only without observing."
"I am glad you are so enthusiastic over Copthorne," replies Eleanor, catching at the meadow-sweet, and crumbling it between her fingers. "I suppose you have been living a very different life in London?"
"It is a great change," he replies, "from the bustle of fashion to the unbroken quiet. But I must own I didn't enjoy so completely all the beauty of this glad country scene till you came, Eleanor, happy in the rich possession of youth and lightheartedness."
Now his conversation grows interesting, the perfect smile with which she is naturally blessed creeps through her lips to her eyes, illuminating her whole countenance. In the distance the regular click of a reaping machine falls on the breeze.
"You must see more of our life," she says impetuously. "Next week all our labourers will be reaping, and our barns are ready for the first loads of harvest. Do not go till it is gathered in!"
"Shall I promise? Would it give you pleasure?"
A pause, during which an old horse puts his nose over the gate of an adjacent field, regarding Philip and Eleanor complacently.
"Then it's a bargain! If you will be pleased, I will stay; but not unless."
A little gasp escapes her lips.
"Can you doubt it, Philip?" she murmurs.
He is satisfied by the earnest tone, gratified by her humility and undisguised devotion.
"Would you like to see my home?" she asks, for their steps are nearing the quaint farmhouse.
"Indeed, I should."
She takes him from the sloping cornfield, topped by a windmill, to where the path joins a kitchen garden--a perfect holiday ground for bees. The vegetables seem in perfect harmony with yellow marigolds and calceolaria. The house is divided from the road by palings richly covered by Virginia creepers, and as they approach Philip pauses to lean on the wicket gate and view the peaceful homestead silently. The drone of bees and busy presence of insect toil is soothing and melodious. He takes Eleanor's hand and kisses it in the full glare of the mid-day sun under the heavily laden fruit trees. Then they pass by the brilliant flower-beds to the rustic porch, through which is visible the Grebbys' twelve o'clock repast spread on a clean white linen cloth, a vase of wild flowers for simple decoration. There are bright-coloured texts on the walls, and an old Family Bible under a glass case.
"My mother will be back from the market directly," says Eleanor; "would you do us the honour of stopping to dinner?"
The tone became a supplication, mingled with smiles.
"You are too kind," declares Philip, touched by the unostentatious hospitality of his newly found friend. "I shall be most delighted."
"Come and let us watch for the return of Black Bess," she cries, leading the way out into the garden again. Philip thinks he has never spent a more delightful morning.
To have missed it would have been to lose one of the sweetest episodes of his life. The intense restfulness of Copthorne Farm, the fragrance of the air, the softness of the carpet beneath his feet, the cattle browsing in verdant pastures, and the murmur of those winged and drowsy honey-laden workers from the meadows, make a picture which will never pass from his mind. For the moment, while basking in the harvest sun, a scene which must some day be only a faded pleasure left to recollection, is Paradise!
Then the Grebbys' return from their marketing, to welcome the stranger whom Eleanor proudly introduces. Hospitality is a creed with them, and renewing their daughter's invitation, they place the choicest their home affords before the unexpected guest. Thus it is that Philip Roche finds himself in Eleanor's family circle, discussing the crops and weather with her father, a rubicund, hale old man, whose life is centred in bucolic pursuits.
The harvest is over, the wheat and barley are garnered, but still Philip lingers, chained by that mysterious agent the world calls--Love!
He sees the embodiment of all he most admires in Eleanor, the sweet domesticated country maiden, pure as the health-laden breezes sighing through the trees. His love ennobles his being, he is surprised at this inexplicable and unfathomable passion.
"Eleanor," he says, "I am going away--I want to take you with me. Will you be my wife?"
It is more a command than a question. He cannot do without her. She must consent.
The girl's breath comes and goes swiftly; for a moment he fears she will faint.
The future dances before her swimming brain, the alluring prospect of money, position, pleasure, whisper like fiends in Eleanor's ears. Love is forgotten; she only remembers the vague unsatisfied ambitions of her young dreams. She lets him kiss her lips again and again, she is clasped in his arms, yet feels them not; her mind fixed on the dazzling picture of "what is to be!"
"Your answer, Eleanor, darling--love!" he gasps, watching the glorious colour mount to her face, the marvellous radiance fill her eyes.
"Yes, Philip, your wife always!" Her head is on his shoulder, he has gathered her hands about his neck. The brief midday hours fly as she yields to the tender wooing.
"Soon," he whispers, "autumn's fingers of decay will creep over Copthorne, while leaves must fall damp and dead in the country lanes. Marry me, Eleanor, now the summer is here."
She starts back, a deadly fear knocking at her heart. She laughs, apparently frivolous and light-hearted.
"Yes, in the summer, sometime next year."
"Next year!" his face falling. "But when? Next year has three hundred and sixty-five long days!"
She smiles entrancingly, shrugging her shoulders.
"Oh! well--when the birds begin to sing."
"No," he cries, drawing her to him, "before they are silent, Eleanor, before the light of summer goes out of the heavens, and the blue sky fades to grey!"
Her eyes droop, her cheek is pale.