The Novel on Blue Paper - Chapter 12
His father's house seemed dull and uninteresting as he stood before the doors of it; duller still as he let himself into the dark hall, for the house was not lit up yet; the servants mostly loitering about the back door, that lovely evening. He went into the dining-room and rang rather impatiently, and yet managed to swallow his feeling of disappointment and weariness before the light came, and went whistling upstairs to his brother's room, with his hand on Clara's letter in his pocket the while.
There was no light in his brother's room when he got there. Mrs Hadow was sitting there with him.
'Hilloa, old fellow!' he said, pulling his water-flowers out of the fishing basket. 'How are you getting on?'
'Very well,' said Arthur, rather faintly.
'He's been up, Master John,' said Mrs Hadow, 'and I think he's tired himself a bit.'
'Well, I won't stop here long with him, Mrs Hadow. He must make up his mind to sleep.'
'Don't go yet for a bit, John,' said the sick lad. 'I shall freshen up a bit presently, before I go to sleep.'
'How are the good folks up at Leaser Farm, Master John?' said the housekeeper; Arthur turned round to the wall a John answered:
'As well as well, Mrs Hadow. The whole place is like the kingdom of Heaven. It would be better to be a horse or a cow there, than a man in most other places.'
'Well,' she said, 'I hope all will go on well—but Mrs Mason has always spoilt that girl dreadfully; would ask her advice about things, when the child shouldn't have known there were such things in the world. Yes, Master John, I don't say but that she's a fine girl, and will marry well, too; but if you'd seen her mother ready to go down on her knees to her, when she ought to have had the rod across her back, you'd have been almost inclined to call the old lady a fool.'
'Well, she's not so very old,' said John, laughing, 'and is nearly as pretty as her daughter.'
'Ah!' said she, laughing in her turn, 'you'll be like all the men, Master John; and I don't say they're not a pretty pair, Widow Mason and her daughter; besides, I like them both very much—but the widow isn't one of the wise ones; Miss Clara, maybe. Well, I'll take myself off, and come up with Master Arthur's supper presently, and then you must take yourself off, Master John.'
John fell to stuffing a second white jug with the mouse-ear; but as soon as the door was fairly shut, Arthur raised himself on his pillows:
'And how was Clara, old fellow?'
‘I’d never seen her look so well. You remember saying in February, what boys we looked beside her. She's much more of a woman now, and I felt such a hobbledehoy, and such a lout, beside her. I don't think you would, though; you always had the grace of the family.'
'Nonsense'' said the other, visibly pleased, though. 'You don't suppose Clara notices things like that—I say, did she send any message to me?'
'Love, and hoped you were better—and a letter. Here it is.'
He stepped up to the bedside with it. Arthur took it eagerly, then lay back on the pillow with flushed cheeks, still holding it in his hand, then slowly put it under his pillow, not noticing how John was looking at him with a certain surprise at first, as though he had expected him to open and read it, then turned away suddenly; for once more the commonplace of his life was broken into by he knew not what pain, what wild hope. But presently Arthur began talking quite cheerfully about the farm, and his fishing, and what Dr Stoneman had said about him; and then John, speaking rather constrainedly at first, and happily enough afterwards, told his brother of the affair of the pleasure-party; and then fell to talking of his own prospects, and the London sojourn that was to be; so that they were both of them cheerful enough when the housekeeper came up with the supper.
So at last John said good-night and went his way, and the housekeeper was following, leaving only the ghostly, sick room-looking rushlight in the room, when Arthur called out:
'O, Mrs Hadow, please leave the candle by me—I may want to read.'
Hereon a short argument followed, the dame pleading fire and fever, the lad weariness and sleeplessness; and as he was obstinate, he had his way, and the departed having set the candlestick in a basin on a chair by the bedside, with a book or two, she was scarcely gone before Arthur's hand stole under the pillow, and forth came the previous letter that he opened with beating heart.
Though it was pretty much what he expected, it was little like what we should have thought, from what we have seen of Clara. It was partly childish, partly stiff; it began Dear Mr Arthur, and ended your sincere friend and well-wisher, Clara Mason. It was long enough, and began, and indeed went on nearly to the end, with talk about her mother, and the cows, and her pony, and the weather, and the garden, not forgetting the seldom-flowering aloe. Then it began, stiffly enough, with not a few long words, to talk of his illness, and the regrets for it; but at last came this:
Perhaps, Mr Arthur, you will think it strange for a girl of my age, and I am aware that I cannot put it into proper language, but I cannot help telling you about it—how I felt this morning as I lay awake, quite early. I was thinking about you and your brother, and wishing that I could see you, and hoping so much that you were better: then I began to wonder how our three lives would run on together, and then, all of a sudden, I felt so strange! as if I understood all about it—why we were alive and liked each other so, and it felt so sweet and delightful that I think I never felt so happy in all my life: and yet I was longing for something, but the longing didn't seem any pain to me; I can't tell you now what I thought of in that minute—though if you had been by, I think I could have then—but it had slipped away very fast, and left me wondering what it was that had made me so happy. And so I thought and thought on, till I grew quite tired, and got up and dressed; and it was quite early, only five o'clock then; and I went out and walked a long way down the river, and I got so tired that I had to sleep in the afternoon.
But I must ask your pardon for writing such a long letter and fatiguing you so with nonsense, when you are just recovering from so severe an illness. It will give me the greatest pleasure to meet you again, quite yourself. Meantime believe me as aforesaid—
Between weakness and transport the lad wept the sweetest tears over his letter, and kissed it over and over, and put it at last on his bosom, and so, with a happy face, turned round to sleep.
He dropped off pretty soon, and passed the night with faint vague dreams of pleasant things—walking the gardens, going to hear music, and the like; and woke in the earliest dawn, to hear the birds beginning their song, and a cow lowing a long way off. He felt about for his letter, and began in the happiest way to dream awake of the fields and stream by Clara's home, all grey and cold with the mist now. Then he thought of himself wandering about in these meadows, sick with the longing that he felt amid his happiness, and then the farmyard gate swinging open, and Clara running to meet him, her shoes all shining wet with the dew, and putting her arms round him, and kissing him less timidly than she did really, with something in her eyes that he had not seen there yet; and then the two of them turning together, and going into the little garden in front there, and spending the day as if there were no-one else in the world. And still he kept beginning over and over again the sort of things she would say to him, and the way in which she would kiss him, for still every sweetest way seemed not sweet enough, till, wearied out at last, he fell asleep again just as the eastern sky was beginning to redden.
His waking dream turned into a sleeping one, without changing much at first, except that it was suffused with a vague excitement and luxury and fear withal, that had been absent before. He was walking with Clara through meadows not at all like the Leaser meads, which yet they both agreed to think were none other than it seemed. They were thickly studded with apple-trees in bloom, and it was moonlight, yet the birds were in full chorus; and Clara herself was clad in light fluttering raiment, like what he had seen on angels in old pictures, instead of her usual dress, and she spoke to him in verse, in the rhythm of some fragment of old poetry that he had forgotten when he was awake. And so they passed on, till, as it happens in dreams, the landscape changed.
There were big blue mountains all about the mead, and a rushing stream through it, and suddenly his heart seemed to stop beating for fear; and she stopped him, and faced him, with fear in her eyes too. And as he tried to speak, and could not, she had turned into his brother, and they were both quite children again, and he thought that they had lost themselves, and were to die.
The rush of the stream seemed to get louder and louder, and the wind to rise and howl about the hollows of the mountainside; and presently a horse came galloping past, and then a herd of cows rushed up, and then a great flock of sheep seemed to fill up all the valley, their endless backs all moving like a sea, and the sounds of the bell-wether filling up all the air.
And then, with a sense of something dreadful going to happen, he woke, panting and gasping with an unuttered cry, and the horror of the dream was so strong on him that at first he seemed to wake into a world of white flame. But as he came fully to himself he saw the broad sun flooding the room, and smiled to himself with returning comfort as he heard the sound of a scythe being whetted outside for the mowing of the rough piece of grass called the drying-ground. Then came the sound of the musical church clock, as he counted seven, and the full memory of his happiness came on him as he felt the letter by his side, and lay listening to the sweep of the scythe in the swathe, the rattle of the gardener's barrow, and all the little noises that go to make up the music of a June morning. He soon grew drowsy again, and fell into a dreamless sleep, from which he was only roused by John and Mrs Hadow coming in with his breakfast.
The sick lad mended fast enough now, and wrote Clara little notes every day, telling her how he was. There was little else in them, though every night he pleased himself by imagining tender little sentences he would write the next day. But his heart always failed him when the paper lay before him, nor could he ever get further in his signature than your affectionate friend—though he tried hard. They were great pleasure to him, however, and the days passed happily for both the lads; and John went three times to Leaser Farm, and came back the third time with the pleasure-party day duly settled for the day after to-morrow.