« AnteriorContinuar »
Squire Percy was his father's lawful successor, heir, and eldest son; but the "ould Squire," a name spoken in the district with somewhat similar feelings to those which animate the world in general on pronouncing familiar abbreviations of another name to which is always affixed the same adjective, had been much disposed on various occasions, as rumour and family tradition went, to disinherit his most uncongenial and unbeloved heir. "Thould Squire " was still the familiar demon of the scared peasant imagination of Briarford, and many a child awoke with a cold shudder, or ran trembling along the lanes at night, in dread of the visionary enemy who bore this name. Stories of him were current everywhere, and, told on dreary nights when the winds were louder than their wont, and the trees were tossing wildly in the stormy moonlight round the exposed and out-standing Grange, which every villager could see from his cottage door; there was something very eerie and ghostly in these tales, the more especially as they were not tales of ordinary license or riot-the vulgar vices to which the vulgar mind is indulgent-but of fierce ungovernable passions wild furious hates and frenzies, which awed and oppressed as much as they horrified the common understanding. Rage, that brought temporary madness upon the unhappy old man, who drove children and friends far from his fierce old age, and held the attendants, bribed by high wages to remain with him, in terror for their very lives, with pride so haughty, and resentment so bitter, that to oppose his capricious will in the slightest particular was like provoking a remorseless fate. How Squire Percy managed to succeed so peaceably to the ancestral lands at last, no one of his humble neighbours very well knew; but everybody knew and rejoiced in the unspeakable ease and freedom of the new reign-and Squire Percy, who would have been popular anywhere, became doubly popular in the perpetual contrast instituted between himself and "th' ould Squire."
"Thould Squire" had but one other son, a gay young scapegrace, who wandered from the Grange at
nineteen and never returned more. People said he went abroad, and became a great traveller, that he even wrote books, and was in his day a famous man; but all that was certain of his history was, that he married a foreign lady and never came home. Some bits of wonderful embroidery in gold and silver and coloured silks were sometimes shown at the Grange, said to be sent home, pretty offerings of wistful kindness from young Frank's foreign wife; but nobody knew anything of young Frank during his father's lifetime, nor until many years after Squire Percy's peaceful accession, when foreign letters came to the Grange, black-sealed and bordered, on receipt of which good Squire Percy mournfully went upon a journey, from which he returned, bringing home with him a very little, mournful, wistful, wondering child. Then it was told that Frank had died abroad; that his poor broken-hearted wife had travelled to England to bring her child to her father's friends, but that not even Squire Percy's brotherly warmth and sympathy could keep the sad widow from sinking. She, too, was dead; and the poor little maiden, who never cried and seldom spoke, but looked such a strange small monumental image of childish grief and solitude, was alone in the world.
This was Zaidee Vivian, now fourteen years old; a quick - growing, strange, out-of-the-way girl, whom everybody wondered at. Nothing like her startling alertness of motion, her perfectly simple and unconscious abstraction of mind and manners, her quick, keen, vivid perceptions, and those wild visionary moods which were still so entirely sincere and girlish -the unrestrained imagination which people called romantic-were known within the horizon of Briarford. Her very name was a wonder; no one had ever heard it before, and Zaidee herself was half-ashamed and halfproud of the outlandish syllables; not much wonder that all the parish set her down as the oddest and least comprehensible of young ladies. Not a known relative in all the world had Zaidee out of the walls of the Grange. Her world and absolute boundary was this one family and their warm and
kindly home. "Zaidee would never do to go among strangers, her heart is so tender, her feelings so keen," said lively little Mrs Vivian, who has been so good to the desolate motherless child, whose loneliness touched her heart. Going among strangers is a horror and dismay which has never presented itself to the thoughts of Zaidee, who lives a very independent life much after her own pleasure, and has hitherto escaped many inflictions common to "properly eduted" girls. Zaidee could not play you a bar of music for all Briarford. Zaidee's shy voice durst not hear itself singing save in the most obscure recesses of her own private retirement. If Zaidee is able to dance at all at this famous ball, over which Sophy grows wild, the instruction has been acquired most involuntarily by the sheer exercise of Sophy's superior strength; and though Margaret can produce extraordinary landscapes, and Elizabeth has a natural taste for pretty groups of flowers, and paints
them very well, Zaidee, armed with a school-room rule and cramping her fingers horribly, has never yet succeeded in making a tolerable straight line in the manuscript book where she sometimes copies her favourite bits of verse. Even the very handwriting of these extracts is no better than it should be-poor Zaidee cannot boast a single morsel of accomplishment. To run through a new book, every line of it, before a soberer reader has got over the preface-to have a general knowledge of every volume in the library, barring the facts contained in the same, and to be capable of any amount of reading however constant or long-continued-if these are tokens of intellectual aptitude, Zaidee Vivian has them all, but of ordinary education nothing more; and such is the strange, fanciful, abstracted girl, who taxes her wild imagination with vain efforts to think of something which shall please Philip on his one-andtwentieth birthday.
CHAPTER IV. ZAIDEE'S CHAMBER.
Like the nests of quaint little drawers in an old bureau, up steps and down steps, and piercing into all manner of odd corners, are the bedchambers of the Grange. True, there are a few solemn great ones, in the most sheltered end of the house, but these are kept for company and solemn occasions, and it is through a thickly-populated quarter, intersected with multitudinous narrow passages and morsels of stair, and quaint outof-the-way windows, that, if you have any right to go there, you must seek the chamber of Zaidee. Still more like the internal arrangements of a bureau, with concave roofs and glimmering oaken panels full of reflections from two or three cross lights,
are these rooms in the interior-and not all the snowy draperies and pretty decorations, proper to the bower of young ladies, can make the apartments of even Elizabeth and Margaret like anything but the little hiding-places, cosy and shining, which they are. Sophy's room is a miracle of good order and tidiness; for Sophy is the most active and brisk little
woman in the world, with the truest Saxon horror of litter; but opening out of Sophy's room, a little elf-like cavern, with a small rounded window
a slender tall bed, extremely narrow and very long, a ghostly great old chair of faded velvet, richly embroi dered, a single small shelf hung against the wall, a square of ancient fringed carpet spread upon the floor and leaving a polished margin, a strange dark eldritch old looking-glass with transverse lines in it, which seem to blink and twinkle upon you, merry-eyed, with the truest satisfaction in those grotesque distortions they make of everything reflected by them is the special retirement, study, and sleeping-chamber of Zaidee
The round window needs no curtains, for nothing but a bird on the wing could look in upon the maiden meditations of Zaidee in this faraway enclosure. Instead of pretty draperies, however, there shine between these thick stone mullions some fragments of old stained glass; neither Zaidee nor any one else can interpret
the mystic signs which fall in rich hues of red and purple upon the snowy coverlet and faded carpet when the sun shines into Zaidee's room; nor could the wisest of antiquaries make much of these little patches of heraldry, features of griffins and plumes of party-coloured eagles unceremoniously wedded together. Though the Vicar might be somewhat shocked to know a monogram of Mary, or a chipped and disfigured crucifix, among these remnants of the ancient art, such things do not disturb the mind of Zaidee Vivian. A hundred dreams of hers are woven about the vermilion and the azure of her panes of coloured glass, but the wild significations which the fanciful girl assigns to them are as far as entire ignorance can be from the meaning that they bear in fact-if fact or meaning have not evaporated from them many a year ago, as comprehension and intelligence have assuredly done.
Outside this turreted pinnacle is the stormiest spot in all the Grange; and Zaidee, looking out through her uncoloured panes, has such a world of shifting clouds to watch and ponder as never dreaming girl possessed before. If there is little either beautiful or grand in the scenery about, as is very certain, it is wonderful the perpetual charm and interest of this great domain of sky. The wild freedom of so great a stretch of atmosphere, the tumultuous masses of vapour tossing upon that clear and luminous arch above, and the perpetual turmoil of the winds, give character to everything here. These very ribs of rock in Briarford Hill, the dark colour and solitary looks of the houses, each of them holding its garments about it, and standing firm, as if a sudden gust or a moment of incaution might carry it away; the gnarled, defiant, and resisting trees, with their foliage always blown towards a point, like travellers caught in a storm; and those delicious harbours of shelter under high overhanging banks or in deep lanes, where you can hear the wind rushing overhead while not a blade of grass is stirred below-all alike evidence the atmospheric influences prevailing in this corner of English soil. And no one unac
quainted with them can tell the peculiar delight of this wild windy weather and exposed district, its flush of spirit, of resistance and exhilaration, or the interest of its ceaseless changes. Those fierce buffets of wind, those stormy flashes of rain, those glimmering vicissitudes of light and shadow passing over the whole breadth of country like some giant's breath upon a fairy mirror-if nature looks her homeliest in this quarter, her struggling life and energy make amends; and not the sweetest of landscapes could charm the wild imagination of Zaidee Vivian like this wind-swept level country-this great waste and wilderness of cloudy firmament, and the low-lying, fierce, and warlike hill.
The masonry of the Grange is wisely adapted to its climate; and however wild the tumult without, Mrs Vivian has well ascertained that no fugitive draught can enter within to wither her home flowers, so that Zaidee's treasures are in perfect safety here, established upon the low sill of the window, which forms a deep small round recess, and is lined with polished oak. These treasures are, first, the worn Bible which once belonged to Zaidee's father-a homely well-used volume-written over in its fly-leaves with mysterious Greek characters, which Žaidee many a day dreams over and would give the world to understand; and, in the second place, a small box bound with decayed gilding and once rich in ornament, which Zaidee calls a casket. It has been some kind of jewel-case in its day, and now it contains the sole valuable in Zaidee Vivian's repositories-the strange little gold chain, just long enough to circle her throat, which her aunt says she must soon begin to wear now, a mark of her maturing age and coming womanhood. Nothing else lies within this treasured and sacred casket-too honourable a place for common trinkets-nothing else except a book, or Zaidee's leaning arms as she bends over the same, ever shares with the casket and the Bible this polished window-sill; but Zaidee, with a whole day's work and a bit of an ancient hanging, has manufactured for herself a enshion, which lies upon the floor immediate
under the window, and on which it is Zaidee's own use and wont to lie in all her stolen readings, half kneeling, half reclining, with her book upon the window-ledge.
It is here the morning light finds Zaidee Vivian kneeling in her simple girlish prayers, all unwitting of the red mark of the cross, broken and indistinct, which the early sunshine throws on her brow. There is no cross, emblem of agony, of struggle and hope, and might that cannot die, in all the line of Zaidee's life, or the prospect of Zaidee's fortune. Humble enough these fortunes may come to be by-and-by, but, warm in the heart of so loving a household, the orphan knows no fear. Yet strangely it falls
upon her young forehead morning and evening; strangely it reddens over her in the light of noon, and wanes into pearly colour with the twilight. The sign of salvation-yes-the type of love invincible, and sacrifice divine-but no less the badge of all human self-denials and agonies, the mark of suffering and sorrow upon a mortal brow.
This is Zaidee's room-where there is not a curve or corner, not a line of panel, or a fold of curtain, which is not peopled with Zaidee's fancies. However much of her may go down stairs into the family occupations or apartments, Zaidee's heart stays in this quaint little solitude-it is the scene of her visionary life.
CHAPTER V.—ZAIDEE'S FRIENDS.
Perhaps the dearest intimate of Zaidee's life is Sermo, Squire Percy's favourite hound. Sermo has known more than one name in his day, and had no better an appellation in his youth than any other of his sporting race, a common huntsman and no more. But growing age, which gave to Sermo his wise and reverend face, conferred upon him a more becoming name. "Ne'er was such a dog, Squire. I say 'tis as good as a sermon any day but to look at him," said Squire Percy's groom to his master. Squire Percy was a pleasant man, and loved a jest, so he carried this saying to his household circle, where Elizabeth, Margaret, and Philip were halfgrown youngsters, and little Percy an imp of a boy. It was not quite certain which of this merry youthful party was the godfather or godmother of Sermonicus, but it was sufficiently certain that, in the dignified flow of these longer syllables, the common name of Rover was lost from that day, and a double favourite henceforward was the patriarch of the kennel, whom all his youthful friends were calling all day long to acquaint him with his change of name. When the Squire died, a kindlier affection still came to poor Sermo; the drawing-room, where his very entry was an unwarranted and guilty intrusion of old, became free soil to the faithful
Sner of the father dead. His mis
tress's very footstool pillowed Sermo's sententious face, and nobody could find anything in those grave decorous manners of his to call for exclusion, after the softening sentiment of grief had given him admittance. The days of mourning for Squire Percy were over, and the household heart had sprung again into the returning lightsomeness of nature and youth, but the drawing-room was still free to Sermonicus, and still he sat with stately gravity by the side of his mistress, or looked up with his vigilant and serious eye from his rest by her footstool, holding in the very sanctuary of household authority an unreproved and dignified place.
But of all his friends none were so close and loving as Zaidee, whose affection for her good uncle seemed all to have flowed in as an increase to the private tenderness which all her life she had cherished towards Sermo. Sermo's stately pace of sobriety alone had ever been known to tempt Zaidee into quiet regularity of walking. Sermo stalked by Zaidee's side, through hall and passage, and faced the blast with her, unwilling but resigned, sniffing it resentfully with his disdainful nostril when Zaidee would go forth into a dusky twilight for the sole pleasure of feeling in her face the wild familiar wind. Sermo sat upright by Zaidee's side when she brought an ancient volume from the library, fix
ing upon it thoughtfully his wise unwinking eyes; but Sermo was a dog of discretion, and disliked the damp odour of new printing and uncut pages. When his young friend possessed herself of the contents of the library-box, which came at long periodical intervals from very London, to the admiration of all the country round, Sermo, with dignified contempt, withdrew himself to Mrs Vivian's footstool. So trifling a study as that of modern literature was beneath the attention of the solemn faculties of Sermonicus-it was almost the only occupation which Zaidee pursued alone.
The stout, common, everyday affection, which is your strongest texture for constant wear, the house-love which is not critical, nor thinks it has any call to criticise, which neither doubts the tenderness of others nor its own, was the common family-bond of this little company of kindred. Gratitude and helplessness gave it a greater delicacy with Zaidee than with any of the others; but the girl was so warmly cherished, and so thoroughly received among them, that she scarcely did know in reality how much ground for gratitude she had. A most admiring and devoted younger sister to Philip, whom she thought the very type of manliness, and full of the tenderest enthusiasm for Elizabeth in her stately beauty and majestic simpleness, of respect for Margaret in her pensive moods, Zaidee loved Sophy very dearly too, and was provoked with reasonable good-humour by Percy's pranks, as sisters are wont to be by wicked brothers. They were her own, every one of them, yet nobody in the Grange was Zaidee's chosen and confidential friend.
It was very hard, indeed, to find any properly qualified candidate for this office. It was much the easiest plan to fill it with some imaginary Blanche or Gertrude, pale, gracefnl, refined, and sympathetic. Yet Zaidee kept her eyes open, prompt to discover any proper living representative of her ideal friend. It was an astonishing mental faculty in its way, Zaidee's power of observation. From under the covert of her book, and with a mind really occupied with that in the first instance, not a scrap of any
thing important or interesting in the conversation then in progress escaped Zaidee. She read with all her might too, but she could not close up all the other channels of information-could not dull her quick senses, or deaden her natural aptitude; and a very wonderful thing it was to Sophy to find how little of the news of the household needed to be repeated to one who was never seen listening on its first discussion. "I am quite sure, if I cared about a book, I should never hear a word any one said," was the wondering remark of Sophy; "and I am sure I would never waste my time over a book I did not care about; yet Zay knows what she reads, and knows what we are saying at the same moment. I can't tell how she does it, for my part; I can only do one thing at a time!"
But, notwithstanding the wonder of Sophy, Zaidee continued to read and to hear, and, still more strange, to see, simultaneously. There was a tolerable amount of visitors at the Grange, considering its lonely situation. Behind the hill, towards the richer side of the country, were various families of sufficient note to be on familiar terms with the Vivians. Nobody much noticed Zaidee in her corner. Zaidee read on undisturbed — unconsciously noticing everybody; but there was not a Gertrude nor a Blanche among all these Cheshire young ladies, nor a chance of one, so far as Zaidee could perceive.
About this time it happened that the curate of Briarford married a wife -an event which, humble as the individuals were, was by no means uninteresting to the ladies of the Grange. The reverend vicaress was fat, and scant of breath-scarcely to be calculated upon for the simplest teadrinking, and very much afraid of the steep road to the Grange; and Mr Green, first acknowledged to be a very good young man, having turned out of late an extremely sensible one, universal consent declared his wife a person to be paid some attention to, and received on a neighbourly footing, if that were possible. Everybody but Zaidee, whose opinion no one thought of asking, was dismayed to find Mr Green's wife turn out a very tall, very young lady, in fair ringlets and