Ellie; a story of a boy and girl
When I came home from Eton one vacation, I found a new inmate at Abbot's Calvert: one whom at first I was very much surprised at, and afterwards very much delighted with. This was a little girl, of about fifteen, the daughter of a very distant cousin of my father's, who, having lived a life of privation, partly, I believe, caused by errors of his own, had died prematurely, without either choosing or being able, I do not know which, to interest his noble relatives in his behalf. When he died, and his little daughter was left alone and helpless in the world, my mother had caused inquiries to be made about her, which resulted in her being sent for into the country. The moment she arrived at Abbot's Calvert it was plain that she was permanently established there. It was impossible for any creature to be with her for five minutes without loving her. My mother, who had no daughters of her own, adopted her altogether as one; and the Marquis himself, who rarely spoke to any one except my mother and his eldest son, condescended to pet her. She was even then a remarkably graceful girl, tall, and giving great promise of that extraordinary loveliness which two years afterwards she possessed. It was not astonishing, then, that I, a boy of seventeen, used to ladies' society and fond of it, fell desperately in love (with the desperation of seventeen) with this charming little creature; or, on the other hand, that she, transferred from the narrow poverty of her father's life to a stately old mansion with 'parks and ordered gardens great,' with ponies to ride, and boats upon the river, with carriage drives, and picnics, was very happy, and thought a good deal of her young companion, who, whenever he arrived, took the greatest trouble and felt the greatest pleasure in pleasing her. In spite of all these pleasures, it was rather dull most of the year at Abbot's Calvert, for my mother did not take Ellie to London, but left her nominally in the schoolroom, under the care of her governess, a lady recommended by the single but invaluable characteristic of never being in the way. It was not astonishing, then, that in this new life of hers the girl was very happy, or that she was very fond of 'Fred.'
'Fred' is very different now, so it is not conceited to say that I was then a good specimen of an English lad, such as you may see scores of in the public schools, with well cut features, and auburn hair, tall, but not too tall, well built, active, holding my place in all games, used to society, just bashful enough to be well mannered, and no more. If I am to tell my story at all, I must be allowed to say thus much, so that it may be understood.
I do not want it to be a long story, so it will be enough to say things went on in this way for two years, till I left Eton finally in June, and came down home for the vacation, looking forward to going up to Cambridge to Trinity at the beginning of the term. I had not seen Ellie for nearly six months, for I had not been in the country at Easter, 'having spent the holidays in London. It was my brother Lord Canham's first session in Parliament, and the family had been in London longer than usual. When I got into the hail, then, and found her there waiting for me, I scarcely knew her, such a perfectly lovely creature had she grown. She was standing beneath the picture of the last Abbot, with the sunlight falling on her coloured by the old armorial bearings of the Abbey which still remain in the windows (for the Calverts had been tenants of the old monks for centuries, and have always preserved a kindly feeling towards their memory, as indeed was not unreasonable, seeing that they had come in for by far the largest part of their lands). She was tall, and very slightly formed, her features and complexion perfectly faultless, her eyes large and dreamy, what some people thought heavy and expressionless (though they lighted up enough many times that I knew of), her hair of the palest auburn, wavy all over and very abundant. I felt shy and bashful for a moment, but, fortunately for myself, I crushed down this feeling and kissed her, as I should have done a year ago.
That year's summer was a glorious one, day after day of lovely skies, soft showers, warm quivering air, sultry 'all-golden' afternoons, short wonderful nights, like dreams of day, full of perfume, of cool zephyrs, of rustling voices in the trees. Parliament sat late, and the house was almost deserted the most part of the time; we were not without neighbours, and formed parties of pleasure every few days, but these only served to point and intensify the zest with which Ellie and I spent the intervening days alone. In the gardens, on the croquet-lawn, on the river, riding or wandering in the lanes, galloping over the grassy slopes of the Chase (I had taught Ellie to ride myself, and she did my instruction the greatest credit), driving a miniature basket phaeton into the neighbouring town to the Cathedral service and to the shops, day after day of this delightful summer flew by unheeded. I imagine, from the novels I have read, that it will be thought by some people very wrong that we should have been left together in this way, and that they will say that it is highly improbable and absurd to suppose that my mother should have permitted this intimacy to go on in so unchecked a way. All I can say is, that these ideas never entered into any phase of society with which I was acquainted; a perfect absence of any feeling of the kind, of any approach to what I have seen described as a restless meddling propensity to match-making, or to an equally restless fear of it, characterised, or would have characterised, if any one had ever thought of it, the people among whom I lived, and no one more so than my mother. The Marquis and Marchioness were down for a few days in the middle of summer, and Canham also for a week. I know that my father spoke to Canham about us, but that he pooh-poohed the whole affair, called Ellie a charming little thing, whom he had a great mind to fall in love with himself, and that my father thought no more, or little more about us. I do Canham the justice to say he never did interfere with us, being wholly occupied with preparing a speech on the tenant-right of Ireland, a subject about which he knew nothing and cared less, only, as the family had large estates in that island, it was thought well for him to make a speech, which, while not embarrassing the Government, might rouse great enthusiasm in his favour among the Irish: and this he found was quite sufficient to occupy him while at Abbot's Calvert.
When I first came home in June Ellie had told me something which had not affected us much at the time, when we had all the holidays before us, but which, as time passed by, assumed a more formidable appearance.
This was that my mother had decided that she should spend a year at least at a ladies' school, of which great things had been told her, in a little village in the northern counties, called Southam, which boasted of a fine old minster or collegiate church, and aped in all its arrangements a small cathedral city. Ellie did not object to this arrangement. My father and mother were going to Italy at the end of October, and the house would be very dull all the autumn. She looked forward to this school life with expectation of amusement.
September arrived, and the day when Ellie was to leave was very near, when my other, one morning at breakfast, expressed eat annoyance at the illness of Allen, her favourite maid, who, she informed us, had en selected as Ellie's escort.
'Who was to take Ellie now,' 'she said, she did not know?'
I struck in with the happy audacity of my age and class.
'It was absurd to talk in that way; who should take Ellie except myself? I had never thought of anything else.'
My mother immediately acquiesced, with that outward indifference with which she received most things, and with that unconscious and undemonstrative but profound conviction, that everything that her family did, or proposed to do, was right.
'Oh very well,' she said; 'if you think of doing so that will be very nice; that will settle everything pleasantly. Ellie will be very willing, no doubt.'
I looked across at Ellie; no one could have found fault with her eyes for dulness at that moment.
'Yes, she was very willing.'
At this moment my father, who rarely took any notice of our conversation, raised his eyes from his newspapers and letters, and asked what we were talking of.
'Oh nothing,' my mother said, 'only Allen is so unwell that she cannot take Ellie to school, and Fred very kindly says he will go with her.'
'Hum,' said my father.
As he went out of the breakfast-room he told me to follow him into the library, and seating himself in his favourite chair, in the great oriel window, he turned to me with the air of a man who is saying a good thing--'I have not the least objection, of course, sir, to your making a fool of yourself; you will do so with great success, doubtless, many times during the next few years, but you will please to remember that a man of your name ought not to make a fool of any one else.'
I had not the faintest idea what to say, so I said--
'Certainly not, my Lord.'
I very seldom called my father 'My Lord,' perhaps because he very seldom spoke to me; but this seemed to be one of those rare occasions when it was dramatically consistent, at least, to do so.
I went back into the morning-room, which was also the music room, where Ellie was practising at the grand piano. I half lay on a couch watching her, a ray of sunlight piercing the drawn blinds and lighting up her hair, and beyond a Choir of Angels by Sabbatini that hung over the piano.
Both my brother and myself had, when quite little boys, been trained by my mother, who was a very clever woman, to watch our own motives and feelings, and to look events as they occurred in the face, and to trace, as far as we could, the succession of cause and effect in them, relatively to ourselves; not very much, however, with a view to arranging our own future, but as a matter of pure philosophy. It was, therefore, impossible for me to act in any circumstances perfectly thoughtlessly or without reflection; but, as I lay watching Ellie, I was conscious that I was acting, and should go on acting, under the influence of a sort of instinct, which told me I was safe and right. Looking back on those days now, with no possible motive for self-deception, I believe I was right; I believe that, even had things happened very differently to what, alas! they did, both Ellie and I were safe.
When the morning came for us to set out, we were driven down to the cathedral town, and travelled to Southam by express.
'Look here,' I said to the guard, as we got into the carriage, 'I will give you a sovereign at Southam if no one gets in here beside ourselves.'
No one attempted to get into that compartment between Bishopstone and Southam. We had a delightful and comfortable ride, wrapped up in a corner of the carriage like the babes in the wood, and the only fault we found with the journey was that it was too short.
At Southam we were expected, and found a fly waiting to take us up to the school. We passed the grand old minster, with its Norman towers, sleeping in the evening sunshine, and reached the school, a pleasant country house surrounded with gardens, and fields planted with rows of beeches, in which the rooks were cawing.
Ellie was taken away upstairs, and the servant, telling me that some ladies were at tea with her mistress, suggested that I should join them. I had sent in my card 'Lord Frederick Staines Calvert,' on which I had added, rather patronisingly, 'Miss Elinor Calvert, for Ellie had no cards. I entered a large pleasant room, where several ladies and one or two clergymen were at tea at a long table. I fancy they had expected an older and more imposing person from my card, for they seemed uncertain as to who I was, as I came in, and no one rose to welcome me.
A pretty and clever looking young lady, whom I took to be the chief manager in the school, held out her hand to me without rising as I came up the room, and, as I bowed over it, showed me a chair which had been placed next to her. At the top of the table was a severe looking old lady, to whom I was introduced, evidently the mistress of the school; and just opposite me was a little pleasant looking bright old lady, who took the greatest interest in everything, and began to talk to me at once.
'We expected a much older gentleman from your card, Lord Frederick,' she said, looking very sharply at me; 'Miss Calvert cannot be your sister?'
'It is all the same,' I said; 'we have been brought up together.' Which was a fib.
'You are a very good brother,' she said, still looking at me very hard; 'I know many who would think it a great "bore," as they call it, to bring their sisters to school.'
Her eyes were so sharp and full of meaning that I could not help wincing, and am not even sure that I did not blush, especially as the clever looking young lady by me seemed amused.
At this moment the door opened, and Ellie was shown in. She had changed her dress, and was looking fresh and beautiful. I had never before been so conscious of her really extraordinary loveliness, nor so proud of it, as when I saw the effect it produced on these people as she came up the room.
Room was made for her by the austere old lady herself, whose face softened and quite beamed with kindness as she turned to her.
'We were just saying, my dear,' she said, 'how good it was of your brother--cousin, I believe he is, but he says it is all the same--to bring you here. That was before we saw you; we do not wonder at all now that he was glad to do so.'
'No,' said the little old lady; 'I was going to ask you, Lord Frederick, what you travelled down together for; I have no need to ask anything of the kind now.'
We sat some time at tea, and talked pleasantly. The pretty young lady was very intelligent and amusing. Canham's tenant-right speech had after all turned out a very good one, and one of the clergymen spoke to me about it. They were all quiet intelligent people, and I enjoyed myself. After tea we went into a drawing room, which opened into the room where we were, and stood about, still talking. Ellie sat rather apart upon an ottoman. I went to her, and, sitting down by her side, said mischievously, alluding to the cosy way in which we had travelled--'What did we travel down together for, Ellie?'
She was shy and sad now, and could scarcely smile. I sat some time by her, talking of what we should do at Christmas, and how pleasant it would be, and she cheered up a little to remind me of a sort of interlude I had promised to write, and to insist on my not forgetting some little playful hit, which we had concocted against one of the family. I was conscious that we were the object of great interest to the people in the room. The clever young lady told me afterwards in that very room (ah me, on what a different day!) that they had all taken it as a settled thing--a match desired by the family.
At last I rose to go away. Ellie came out with me to the door. She hung about my neck for a moment--one, two kisses--and then a third, and she was taken upstairs, and I drove away, under the beech-trees, where the rooks were gone to rest, and by the great old towers of the minster, upon which the moon was just risen, as I looked back.
I went down to Ryde, to Canham, who had his yacht there. We cruised about the Channel for a few days, and took part in a regatta, and then he took me round the east coast to Cromer, and I came up to Cambridge, and entered at Trinity at the beginning of the term.
The excitement of yachting, and of the new life at Trinity (and especially the boating, into which I entered with great zest, having been in the first boat at Eton), put Ellie almost entirely out of my head, so that for many days I scarcely thought of her at all.
The splendid summer of that year was prolonged into a superb, but moist and unhealthy, autumn, with a luxuriant vegetation, caused by the sultry and showery summer, and causing, in its turn, fever, and in some places cholera. Cambridge was lovely during day after day of golden misty sunlight on the gorgeous foliage of the 'Backs.' Of course I had many friends already among the Eton men, and had plenty of company, but I did not altogether forget Ellie, and had even begun to work upon the interlude for Christmas, having found a man who had a taste for such things. But for two or three days our boating coach had been working us very hard, and I think that I had scarcely thought of Ellie once, when one evening I came down from my rooms (which were on the staircase which turns up opposite the Hall, looking into the Neville Court), and stood on the steps, looking down into the great quadrangle, a little before Hall. A cloudless blue sky was overhead, the sun was just setting on the quaint buildings, the grass-plots, the fountain--on that beautiful court, in short, on which, that he might look once more from his death-bed, a late master made them draw up the blinds of his sick-room. The evening was close and sultry, and the court was very quiet, though the men were all standing about, waiting for Hall. As I stood upon the steps, some one came across from the porter's lodge with a paper in his hand. It was handed about among the men, 'Lord Frederick Calvert,' and with a joke or two, was passed on to me. I see as plainly as I shall ever see anything in life the scene before me, as I stood with it, a moment, unopened in my hand, the old buildings, the chapel, the blue sky, the grass, the fountain, the men in their blue gowns standing about, the next moment it was rolled away like a scroll altogether out of sight. ' Ellie is dying,' the message from my mother said; 'come down to Southam at once. She says nothing but "Fred."'
I got to the station a few minutes before the train started; I caught the express at Huntingdon, and came on all night; I heard nothing but Ellie's voice calling me by name. My father was well known on the Great Northern, and they stopped the express for me at the nearest station on that line to Southam, and I got a carriage and two horses, and came on as fast as I could bribe the man to go. As we got near our journey's end the dawn broke, and the sun, true to the character of that year, rose upon a splendid autumn morning. The few birds that were left sang gaily, the moist trees and grass and brambles were covered with a thousand glittering drops, the blue sky was streaked with varied colour, everything sang of new life, new hope, new beauty, the resurrection from the night. Only in my heart I felt a chill hatred of this beautiful nature, of this lovely, unsympathising companion which mocks our grief; in my heart I felt, as I have felt since at calmer and more solemn times, that this beauty of nature has little in common with our deepest sorrows and our highest hopes.
The grand old minster towers, with their Norman tracery, were shining in the slanting glory of the rising sun; the rooks were wheeling above the beeches. We had come rather slowly the last few miles, but we swept through the village and up the drive at a gallop. The house was ghastly with the white blinds. The maid who opened the door was the same who had waited upon us at tea that evening, and knew me at once before I spoke. Ellie was gone. From the first moment the plague had struck her down she had said but one word, at first continually, then at longer and longer intervals, but always the same--'Fred.'
'Why did we travel down together, Ellie? Such a little way through life.
In the far-off spaces of Eternity--.in the Light which no man can approach unto--we shall know.