By G. P.
PART II. THE CHANGE.
Thursday came, and I stood at the entrance gate to bid my new friends welcome to Beaumont. At the first sound of my voice Leslie Barrington uttered my name; and “How kind!” — “How pleasant to be welcomed by a friend!” — Mrs. Barrington laying great stress on the last word — followed immediately. While the trunks were being taken from the carriages, Leslie said:
”Walk me round, Terese.”
“This way, then,” she said.
She then, as people do with the blind, walked round the green in front, describing it to him, always using the word that sounded to me so sadly:
“See, see, dear Leslie, there on the right is the gate by which we entered — a handsome-looking iron gate; there is a low wall on each side of this gate with iron railings on the top. It joins the house, see, on one side of the gate, and it is met at the other angle by a high wall — the high wall opposite to us. How pretty it looks! — a vine, a Virginia creeper, and such a climbing rose! A high wall, just like the opposite one, on our left, too. I wonder why that side is bare of trees and plants! Close to the house there is a narrow doorway, a doorway in the wall — let us go through it.”
I opened the door, and she exclaimed:
“Oh, such a sight! Leslie, this is what you are supposed to know nothing about. There is a gable standing: how melancholy those exposed walls look, with their green and brown paper! The timbers in the roof are pretty, forming lines and triangles.”
We walked through the large square at the back of the house, which had been made tolerably free of rubbish for the convenience of the tenants, I and we stood on the open down, with the skylark singing above us and busy insect life all around. Mr. Barrington enjoyed it greatly.
“You will grow stronger here,” she said, nestling closer to his side, and clasping his arm.
She looked up at him, and he looked at the fair evening sky with a face of worship. She watched him: her eyes dwelling on his face, all her strong woman’s love in that smiling contemplation. It was evident that they were all things to each other. Would he have been made happier by the sight of her marvellous beauty? I thought not. He fell it — lived in it; had the vision of it for ever present to that mysterious interior sense which still he called seeing.
I walked home thoughtful. They were standing on the short sweet turf when I last looked back. He was stooping towards her now, she still looking up to him. I recollect the fondness of the face that freely poured forth its love upon his blindness, and felt that this woman had taught me much.
The week passed. My sister had spent several days with me, bringing my nephews, two frolicsome, handsome schoolboys. She and Mrs. Barrington had talked over many things. Our friendship had grown rapidly. We had shown her many of my uncle’s letters, in which he had talked to our father of her mother. We had together destroyed what other eyes were not to see. Leslie Barrington was always present at these meetings, and we had learnt to love him. There was a peculiar elevation about his thoughts, and a singular tenderness in all his feelings. It was impossible not to rejoice in his wife’s devotion to him, neither could we think her beauty thrown away.
It was at the close of the second week that I returned from a visit to my sister. When I reached my lodgings my landlady told me that Mr. and Mrs. Barrington had called in the afternoon to ask if I was at home, as they wished me to dine with them. She said they had looked quite disappointed on being told that I was not expected until late. Pleased with this little attention I determined to call on them early the following morning, and so went to bed.
I was waked from a sound sleep by a horrible noise — sound of loud voices and wailings and violent blows at my door. The first words that caine to me with a full consciousness of their meaning were, ”Fire! fire! O, sir, the blind gentleman! — fire! fire!”
Afterwards, on looking back as calmly as I could through the events as they had followed each other, I could never tell how I got to the house — with whom, or by what way. But I was there, in that front between the enclosing walls, and I can see myself now standing— just come I suppose — standing where the Virginia creeper clung to the masonry, and hung its luxuriant green above my head.
I can see now, as I think of it, masses of flame and smoke issuing with a strange sound from the windows of the lower part of the house. I do not know how long it took me to be in the throng that half filled the hall. But I know that I was foremost among them, crying, “Mr. Barrington in the blue chamber to the right — a hundred pounds to the man who brings out Mr. Barrington!”
Alas! the clumsy attempts to assist them that had been made before I got to the spot had only increased their danger. The case was already desperate. The heated atmosphere forced people back — again and again I was thrust with that close mass of persons back from the house to the green in front.
Again all memory fails; but I know that I was at the back of the house, and in it. I never thought of Terese. Her husband — perhaps because I had learnt how truly he was her life, how utterly he was its all-absorbing joy — her husband was in my thoughts: it was her husband that I was going to save. I was up the staircase, the sea-breeze coming across that open land fed the flames, but sent them forward towards the front that I had left.
I got into the passage, opened a red baize door, and saw Leslie standing, pale as a statue, by himself. At that moment the floor split just beyond where he stood with the sound of an explosion. I seized him. He knew me. The flames burst up — he knew that too. He was praying aloud.
“Thy gift, O God!” I heard him say, his sightless eyes fixed as upon something far away. “Thy gift — Thy best, greatest, purest gift — token of immeasurable bounty — mark of immutable love —”
He was speaking of Terese. I lifted him from the ground, got him on my back, and turned round — turned round to see the staircase I had come up in a cloud of smoke, striped by bright flashes of flame.
There was but one thing to be done. Death was by us, and must be fled from. Death was before us, but with speed, courage, a rapid foot, and a strong will, the resolution was scarcely formed before it was acted on, the danger was breasted — I rushed down upon my foe. It was not more than a minute’s work, but the flames licked our faces, and took the skin off at each stroke; we were both of us on fire, but both safe, welcomed by hundreds of extended arms.
That square at the back of the house was full of men all looking to one point, all breathless with one fear. I saw that some great emotion swayed them. As if impelled by a common instinct they parted down the centre of the space; that dense body of living men seemed to dissolve away till, rapidly, almost a clearance was made in the immediate neighbourhood of the house. I saw this, and I heard a voice, “She was at the window a moment ago.” Then I perceived that every eye was turned upward among the watchers, and that some one idea animated a busy knot of men, to give space to whose operations the crowd had receded to the open down, and fenced round the scene as with a dark wall of life.
I knew no more about Leslie Barrington: I was among those men in an instant. No one told me — words were not wanted — everything, as if by magnetism, was instantaneously comprehended. No one told me, but I knew that the only way to get Terese from the burning house was to raise supports high enough to enable a way to be made from the upstanding gable of the ruined house to the window where, time after time, she appeared. It was already impossible to reach her from below.
Beneath her was a gulf of flame. The fire-escapes had only just come, and only now had the engines been got into efficient work. They played away round the window where, enveloped in a blanket, she had last shown herself. Had the fire-escapes and ladders been three-quarters of an hour sooner, she might have been got out with comparative ease; now, no one could approach the lower part of the house. How she still was safe was wonderful. And the only chance left was to build a bridge across the angle to where she was, and bring her along it. Still the fire-engines played on the wall — still she appeared and disappeared.
She had never spoken a word, never given a single cry for help. We all knew why — how, to spare her husband, she had borne herself thus heroically. She lost nothing by this great forbearance. The supports rose, the bridge-way was half across. It was not very far, yet it was a height and a way that not six men in that multitude could venture to tread with any hope of success. Suddenly flames burst forth from the ends of the house nearest to the bridge-way. It must be done quickly now. Old casements had been used by the builder at the back of the house, and through one she was now leaning, clinging to the centre mullion for support.
A youth — the steadiest head and quickest hand among the workmen—had succeeded in so nearly reaching her, as to thrust before him on the plank a light ladder with a rope fastened to the end. She comprehended in an instant, broke the glass out of the casement that did not open, pulled the ladder into the open window, tied it to the mullion; and, thrusting herself through tho opening, she stood on the window-sill, reaching forward for help.
Who could walk that plank and ladder and lead her on? Boldly, steadily, the youth moved forward. As she stepped on the ladder he faltered; another step and it swayed; he recovered his balance, lost it again, and fell — fell towards the house. A sudden rush was made towards him, and he was safe, but with a broken arm. Still she never uttered a sound, but I saw her clinging to the middle mullion, looking down among the crowd; and I knew for whom she looked.
In an instant another man was on that plank; but he was too anxious—too quick: he dropt before he had gone half the way.
And now there was a pause. I was among the rafters of the ruined house, and near the place from which the bridge-way started. I knew I could not do it. The misery of my weakness! would no one else attempt it?
I looked down — I saw, believe me, reader, it is true, as truly as you see these words — I saw among the blocks of wood and litter of bricks and beams, sheltered by the same roof that sheltered me, and surrounded by a strange white shimmering light, a woman, clad in a greyish-coloured robe — it might have been her burial-dress, so it looked to me — like a statue, pale and immovable, yet with dark waving locks, in large masses, on her shoulders.
But the sea-breeze never moved a hair of its long length; and, but that it was darker than Mrs. Barrington’s, being nearly black, and the whole figure taller, I might have mistaken them. Now I had never believed in ghosts, I had never thought much about them; but no doubt of that form being her mother’s ever crossed my mind. It was her — taller, sadder, in a strange pale light of unearthly whiteness — standing as a sculptor might make an angel stand, with her eyes fixed on the figure who was holding by the mullion, and gazing among the crowd below.
I say, I never doubted that the grave had given up its dead, and that He to whom all things were possible had for some great purpose sent her there. So I spoke under this strong sense of the supernatural which kept all fear away. I said, ”For the love of God, what is to be done?” And I had the answer, how I cannot tell you, for I do not remember any voice; but in another moment I was standing below. I looked toward the place where the apparition had been, and it was not there. I went on quickly, for I had to do its bidding.
The clergyman of Beachly, and other good men, had taken charge of Mr. Barrington. They were telling him what was doing, not truly, but with such omissions as made it easy for him to hope and even feel secure of his wife’s safety. I stood before them.
“Mr Barrington,” I said, “you are wanted. The bridge-way to your wife is so high, and sways so rmich, that two men have fallen in trying to reach her. She is standing on the sill of the bed-room window opposite the drawing-room. It is the only way of getting her out.”
There was no need for more. He had got up, and had said “Lead me on.”
Horror was painted on every face. They brought hope on mine. We advanced to where she could see. She stretched forth her arms. I said, “She sees and welcomes you.” He replied, “Thank God.”
He was soon up to the gable, and stood still.
“You must remember,” I said, “that the way is safe, though it does sway. It is of planks on to within ten feet of her — though a ladder reaches from the plank to her. That is a difficult place. And take care when you reach her — the narrowness, the double weight.”
“Keep close together!” called a man from the crowd.
Leslie Barrington waved his hand towards the voice, and stepped with a cautious foot upon the plank. He took three or four steps very slowly, then walked on bravely, getting slower again as he reached the place of greatest vibration. What a silence reigned below. Only the rushing of the water, the cracking of timbers and hoarse whisper of the flames. Then came her voice so calm and sweet, and tenderly low.
“My husband — my darling — I am coming to you!”
She stepped on the trembling ladder, held up her hands once as she nearly lost her balance, and where the ladder and the plank met — just where poles from below made steady the ends of each — they stood together; she had gone across those bars like a bird. She stood not trusting herself to look on anything but his sightless eyes. The silence below was unbroken; women dropped upon their knees; many prayed in their hearts, as I did. To our unutterable surprise, in stooping he lifted her in his arms, and leaned her on his shoulder across his breast. He turned round and walked back to where, on a temporary sort of flooring, I stood, and gently touching his arm as I had learnt to do, I guided him to the plank, where he set her down in safety.
The gazing world below made amends for silence then. How they cheered! They woke the seagulls from their nest, and the rocks and cavernous cliffs echoed the cheer. Amidst it all I saw them into a carriage, and found that the clergyman had arranged for them to go into a house close to his own, where they could be quiet in lodgings for a time.
“Anybody else can come into our house,” he said, “the carriage and horses, and men-servants are gone to the doctor’s. He waits for him at 5, Cliff Terrace.”
So I ran by the carriage and helped them out; saw Nugent at the door of the new residence; shook hands with Dr. Bennet; told Terese I should come in the morning, and went home to thank God, and get some refreshment as I might.
The next day, and many days following, I went to see them. In a week’s time they had recovered from the effects of their danger and fright. They gave God thanks publicly, and distributed a large sum of money among those who helped them.
Terese could talk of it now. And I had often thought that I would tell her of the apparition. But so solemn was the remembrance that I could not, for some weeks, get strength enough to speak of it.
At last, just before the day fixed for my departure, when I was sitting with her alone in the drawing-room of their lodgings, I began to tell her. At first she heard me, with a strange half frightened face; but, as I went on, she looked intensely interested, now and then asking me a question in her sweet voice, and regarding mo with a gentleness which had something sisterly in it.
I ceased speaking, and she answered me—answered with a question put with a downcast face, and the least possible smile trembling on her lips.
“Why have you never married?”
I was vexed. I said, suddenly:
“Perhaps because I have never seen a woman I could love.”
“Yes, you have!” she answered quickly.
And if the spirit of mischief ever dwelt in woman, and looked out of woman’s eyes, it looked out of those that now most unscrupulously sought my somewhat agitated face, “Yes, you have” She rose, opened a door that led into another room, and said, “Ethel!”
There came forth a lady, younger, taller, darker-haired, and as beautiful as Terese.
“Ethel Barrington. Mr. Deane, my husband’s sister. She is younger than I am — (don’t stare at me, Ethel) — but very like — very like my beautiful mother, and your picture of her; is she not? Of course we thought you knew everything. But Ethel had come to us, the night of the fire, from Sir Frederick Worth’s. She and the servants had all time to be helped out somehow. I could not leave Leslie. He went to a room to secure papers; there you found him, and you know the rest. Ethel was fetched again the next morning by Lady Worth. It was Ethel who told you that Leslie could tread that terrible plank. She only returned to us yesterday. Do you understand it now?”
I did understand it. I understood, too, the bright exulting glance that would follow me and find me out, and tell me again and again, without the trouble of words, till I was shame-faced and cowardly, and struck with tremor and chicken heartedness, that I had — yes, I had, and that I knew I had seen the woman I could marry, and that Ethel Barrington was she. And so I became a hero! — a hero? Do you doubt it; question it? Fair doubter, cease. I am Ethel Barrington’s hero. I am hers.