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Sketch Book of the North
Till Death Us Part


"Is she better, Doctor?"

"No; worse. Can’t last through the night, I’m afraid."

The forester’s wife pauses a moment, looking after the physician’s carriage as it whirls out of sight in the gathering darkness along the road; then, exclaiming sadly "Poor, dear young lady!" she closes again the heavy iron gates, and retires to her own happy hearthside within the lodge.

Night has all but fallen, and though it is still only dusk upon the open road outside, within the avenue the gloaming is already deepening into mirk, and under the shadows of the limes it will soon be quite dark. A quiet spring night. When the wheels of the doctor’s carriage have retreated in the distance, no sound is to be heard amid the shadows but the twitter of a blackbird settling itself again to roost in its perfumed dreaming place among the spruce branches, and the silvery tinkle of a streamlet making its way at hand through the ferny under-tangle of the wood. The air is rich with the fresh sweetness of budding life—the breath of unseen primroses opening their creamy petals upon dewy moss-banks in the darkness. Born amid the stillness, new, vague hopes stir within the heart; everywhere seems the delicious promise of the time of blossom and leaf that is to be; and the motionless night itself seems conscious of the coming of desire. It is a night to inspire a poet or a lover; every faint wood-scent, the cool touch of the night-air itself upon the cheek, bringing with it some subtle suggestion, the more delightful that it is undefined, setting the pulse of youth a-beating with thoughts of a glad to-morrow.

Alas for those to whom no morrow will come!

At the upper end of the long avenue a faint light is shining yet in two windows of the many-gabled mansion-house. One of the windows is open, and within, at a small table, leaning his head upon his hand, can be seen the figure of a man. It is the master of the house. He has just received the last sentence of the physician, "I can be of no further service. The end will probably come before to-morrow"; and the words are still in his ears, beating like a leaden pendulum against his heart. Straight before him into the dark night he is gazing; but the eyes that look are tearless: only the drawn line about his mouth and the pitiful twitching of his lip bespeak the emotion that is working within. Yet he is not altogether left to himself. The air from the open window stirs his hair and fans his pale cheek— Nature, like a sweet and gentle friend, would offer him the soothing of her sympathy. Probably he is unconscious of it—drowning in the hopeless flood-tide of his grief; but, with the gentle air stealing in from the darkness outside, the influence of the great Reconciler, mother-heart of all mankind, is already touching him. While his ear takes in the soft movements of the nurse in the next room, tending all that is dearest to him on earth, his heart, stirred unconsciously by the subtle suggestions of the incoming night-scents, is travelling, torn with regret, through the tender avenues of the past. And strangely fresh in every detail reappear those scenes imprinted upon the pages of memory by the sunshine of love.

He is in a cottager’s garden, listening, amid the hum of the hives and the glory of old-fashioned wallflower borders, to the gossip of the simple old soul who is showing him her little domain. There is the quick trotting of a pony. A low phaeton drives past on the road beneath. And he has seen and shared the smiling glance of a gentle, lovely face—a sunny glimpse to be remembered. Again, he has been picnicking with friends, a family party, on the shore of a Highland loch, and has noticed with mingled admiration and resentment that while all others have been seeking their own enjoyment, one pair of frank and willing little hands has wrought the whole comfort of the group. They are in the shallops, rowing home, and as, pulling at his oar, he listens to the innocent freshness of a shy young voice singing some Highland boat-song, he becomes conscious for the first time of a vista before him of wondrous new and fair possibilities—of a path in life which is not to be trodden alone. Once more. It is a secluded spot. He has wandered in happy company, from his party. Clear as yesterday comes back the memory of the scene. In front some tented waggons, rust-brown with wandering years, trail down the woodland by-road. The gipsy woman has taken his silver coin, and, with a keen, shrewd glance, has wished the "lady and gentleman a happy bridal!" He has seized the moment, has whispered the secret which was no secret, and has read in shining eyes the answer of his hopes.

All that was a year ago, little more—woodland and lake and garden, with a hundred other scenes and episodes as tender, which, crowding back, fill his heart to bursting; and now—

He rises, closing the window, and passes into the adjoining room.

Treading softly on the thick carpet, a glance assures him that nothing has altered in the sick chamber since he left it with the physician. Only amid the momentous stillness, in the subdued light by the fire, the trim, white-aproned nurse is trying to read. A whisper to her—she will be called if required; and, closing the door noiselessly behind her, she leaves him to watch alone.

Alone, for the last time, with all that is dear to him, the flower that is fading out of his life so soon! He turns to the bed. There, pale with preternatural loveliness, her dark hair spread like a cloud upon the pillow, lies the sunny sweetheart, the shy bride of a year ago. A faint moan, the glistening of a tear between the closed eyelids, betrays the grief that is haunting that strange shadowland between this world and the next—grief for that which was not to be! He can look no more! Sinking into a chair by the fire, he buries his face in his hands: it is the hour of his despair.

Midnight has long passed; the fire is sinking unheeded in the grate; and he has not moved.

"Arthur!"

In a moment he is by the bed, that thin, hot hand in his, gazing heartbroken into the face of his wife. In those grey eyes of hers there is no second thought. Love, for the time is short, has dropped his last disguise, and looks forth from them with unutterable tenderness and regret. "Arthur!" She lingers fondly upon his name, and her fingers push the hair tenderly from his brow—"Arthur!"

But there is a sudden change. A look of terror springs to her eyes, and she clings wildly to his arm. Is this the end? She would have fallen back upon the pillow had not his arm been round her. With a despairing effort, her eyes filling with tears, she articulates, "We have—been—very—happy—my dear!" Their lips meet for the last time—a long, long farewell. Then a second shadow passes over her face. He lays her gently back upon the pillow. The wistful, eager look dies away out of her eyes. It is all over. He is alone, kneeling by the bed, his face pressed deep into his hands. A gust of wind, rising outside, shakes the sash of the window; the crow of chanticleer is heard far off at the stables: it is three o’clock, the coldest hour of the night.

And in the lodge at the foot of the avenue, at that hour, the young forester’s wife, stirring softly in her sleep, presses the month-old babe beside her closer to her heart.


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