THIRD BRANCH—THE BILL
I had been snowed up a whole week. The time had hung so lightly on my hands, that I should have been in great doubt of the fact but for a piece of documentary evidence that lay upon my table.
The road had been dug out of the snow on the previous day, and the document in question was my bill. It testified emphatically to my having eaten and drunk, and warmed myself, and slept among the sheltering branches of the Holly-Tree, seven days and nights.
I had yesterday allowed the road twenty-four hours to improve itself, finding that I required that additional margin of time for the completion of my task. I had ordered my Bill to be upon the table, and a chaise to be at the door, “at eight o’clock to-morrow evening.” It was eight o’clock to-morrow evening when I buckled up my travelling writing-desk in its leather case, paid my Bill, and got on my warm coats and wrappers. Of course, no time now remained for my travelling on to add a frozen tear to the icicles which were doubtless hanging plentifully about the farmhouse where I had first seen Angela. What I had to do was to get across to Liverpool by the shortest open road, there to meet my heavy baggage and embark. It was quite enough to do, and I had not an hour too much time to do it in.
I had taken leave of all my Holly-Tree friends—almost, for the time being, of my bashfulness too—and was standing for half a minute at the Inn door watching the ostler as he took another turn at the cord which tied my portmanteau on the chaise, when I saw lamps coming down towards the Holly-Tree. The road was so padded with snow that no wheels were audible; but all of us who were standing at the Inn door saw lamps coming on, and at a lively rate too, between the walls of snow that had been heaped up on either side of the track. The chambermaid instantly divined how the case stood, and called to the ostler, “Tom, this is a Gretna job!” The ostler, knowing that her sex instinctively scented a marriage, or anything in that direction, rushed up the yard bawling, “Next four out!” and in a moment the whole establishment was thrown into commotion.
I had a melancholy interest in seeing the happy man who loved and was beloved; and therefore, instead of driving off at once, I remained at the Inn door when the fugitives drove up. A bright-eyed fellow, muffled in a mantle, jumped out so briskly that he almost overthrew me. He turned to apologise, and, by heaven, it was Edwin!
“Charley!” said he, recoiling. “Gracious powers, what do you do here?”
“Edwin,” said I, recoiling, “gracious powers, what do you do here?” I struck my forehead as I said it, and an insupportable blaze of light seemed to shoot before my eyes.
He hurried me into the little parlour (always kept with a slow fire in it and no poker), where posting company waited while their horses were putting to, and, shutting the door, said:
“Charley, forgive me!”
“Edwin!” I returned. “Was this well? When I loved her so dearly! When I had garnered up my heart so long!” I could say no more.
He was shocked when he saw how moved I was, and made the cruel observation, that he had not thought I should have taken it so much to heart.
I looked at him. I reproached him no more. But I looked at him. “My dear, dear Charley,” said he, “don’t think ill of me, I beseech you! I know you have a right to my utmost confidence, and, believe me, you have ever had it until now. I abhor secrecy. Its meanness is intolerable to me. But I and my dear girl have observed it for your sake.”
He and his dear girl! It steeled me.
“You have observed it for my sake, sir?” said I, wondering how his frank face could face it out so.
“Yes!—and Angela’s,” said he.
I found the room reeling round in an uncertain way, like a labouring, humming-top. “Explain yourself,” said I, holding on by one hand to an arm-chair.
“Dear old darling Charley!” returned Edwin, in his cordial manner, “consider! When you were going on so happily with Angela, why should I compromise you with the old gentleman by making you a party to our engagement, and (after he had declined my proposals) to our secret intention? Surely it was better that you should be able honourably to say, ‘He never took counsel with me, never told me, never breathed a word of it.’ If Angela suspected it, and showed me all the favour and support she could—God bless her for a precious creature and a priceless wife!—I couldn’t help that. Neither I nor Emmeline ever told her, any more than we told you. And for the same good reason, Charley; trust me, for the same good reason, and no other upon earth!”
Emmeline was Angela’s cousin. Lived with her. Had been brought up with her. Was her father’s ward. Had property.
“Emmeline is in the chaise, my dear Edwin!” said I, embracing him with the greatest affection.
“My good fellow!” said he, “do you suppose I should be going to Gretna Green without her?”
I ran out with Edwin, I opened the chaise door, I took Emmeline in my arms, I folded her to my heart. She was wrapped in soft white fur, like the snowy landscape: but was warm, and young, and lovely. I put their leaders to with my own hands, I gave the boys a five-pound note apiece, I cheered them as they drove away, I drove the other way myself as hard as I could pelt.
I never went to Liverpool, I never went to America, I went straight back to London, and I married Angela. I have never until this time, even to her, disclosed the secret of my character, and the mistrust and the mistaken journey into which it led me. When she, and they, and our eight children and their seven—I mean Edwin and Emmeline’s, whose oldest girl is old enough now to wear white for herself, and to look very like her mother in it—come to read these pages, as of course they will, I shall hardly fail to be found out at last. Never mind! I can bear it. I began at the Holly-Tree, by idle accident, to associate the Christmas time of year with human interest, and with some inquiry into, and some care for, the lives of those by whom I find myself surrounded. I hope that I am none the worse for it, and that no one near me or afar off is the worse for it. And I say, May the green Holly-Tree flourish, striking its roots deep into our English ground, and having its germinating qualities carried by the birds of Heaven all over the world!