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The Stranger, A Romance of Real Life by H. G. Bell

 

Hodnet is a village in Shropshire. Like all other villages in Shropshire, or anywhere else, it consists principally of one long street, with a good number of detached houses scattered here and there in its vicinity. The street is on a slight declivity, on the sunny side of what in England they call a hill. It contains the shops of three butchers, five grocers, two bakers, and one apothecary. On the right hand, as you go south, is that very excellent inn, the Blue Boar; and on the left, nearly opposite, is the public hall, in which all sorts of meetings are held, and which is alternately converted into a dancing-school, a theatre, a ball-room, an auction-room, an exhibition-room, or any other kind of room that may be wanted. The church is a little farther off, and the parsonage is, as usual, a white house surrounded with trees, at one end of the village. Hodnet is, moreover, the market-town of the shire, and stands in rather a populous district; so that, though of small dimensions itself, it is the rallying-place, on any extraordinary occasion, of a pretty numerous population.

One evening in February, the mail from London stopped at the Blue Boar, and a gentleman wrapped in a travelling cloak came out. The guard handed him a small portmanteau, and the mail drove on. The stranger entered the inn, was shown into a parlour, and desired that the landlord and a bottle of wine should be sent to him. The order was speedily obeyed; the wine was set upon the table, and Gilbert Cherryripe himself was the person who set it there. Gilbert next proceeded to rouse the slumbering fire, remarking, with a sort of comfortable look and tone, that it was a cold, raw night. His guest assented with a nod. “You call this village Hodnet, do you not?” said he inquiringly. “Yes, sir, this is the town of Hodnet” (Mr. Cherryripe did not like the term village), “and a prettier little place is not to be found in England.” “So I have heard; and as you are not upon any of the great roads, I believe you have the reputation of being a primitive and unsophisticated race.” “Privitive and sofiscated, did you say, sir? Why, as to that I cannot exactly speak; but, if there is no harm in it, I daresay we are. But you see, sir, I am a vintner, and don't trouble my head much about these matters.” “So much the better,” said the stranger, smiling. “You and I shall become better friends; I may stay with you for some weeks, perhaps months. In the meantime, get me something comfortable for supper, and desire your wife to look after my bedroom.”

Next day was Sunday. The bells of the village church had just finished ringing when the stranger walked up the aisle and entered, as if at random, a pew which happened to be vacant. Instantly every eye was turned towards him, for a new face was too important an object in Hodnet to be left unnoticed. “Who is he?” “When did he come?” “With whom does he stay?” “How long will he be here?” “How old may he be?” “Do you think he is handsome?” These and a thousand other questions flew about in whispers from tongue to tongue, whilst the unconscious object of all this interest cast his eyes calmly, and yet penetratingly, over the congregation. Nor was it altogether to be wondered at that his appearance had caused a sensation among the good people of Hodnet, for he was not the kind of person whom one meets with every day. There was something both in his face and figure that distinguished him from the crowd. You could not look upon him once and then turn away with indifference. When the service was over our hero walked out alone, and shut himself up for the rest of the day in his parlour at the Blue Boar. But speculation was busily at work, and at more than one tea-table that evening in Hodnet conjectures were poured out with the tea and swallowed with the toast.

A few days elapsed and the stranger was almost forgotten; for there was to be a subscription assembly in Hodnet, which engrossed entirely the minds of all. It was one of the most important events that had happened for at least a century. At length the great, the important night arrived. The three professional fiddlers of the village were elevated on a table at one end of the hall, and everybody pronounced it the very model of an orchestra. The candles were tastefully arranged and regularly snuffed. The floor was admirably chalked by a travelling sign-painter, engaged for the purpose; and the refreshments in an adjoining room, consisting of negus, apples, oranges, cold roast-beef, and biscuits, were under the immediate superintendence of our very excellent friend, Mr. Gilbert Cherryripe. At nine o'clock, which was considered a fashionable hour, the hall was nearly full, and the first country dance was commenced by the eldest son and presumptive heir of old Squire Thoroughbred, who conducted gracefully through its mazes the chosen divinity of his heart, Miss Wilhelmina Bouncer, only daughter of Tobias Bouncer, Esq., Justice of Peace in the county of Shropshire.

Enjoyment was at its height, and the three professional fiddlers had put a spirit of life into all things, when suddenly one might perceive that the merriment was for a moment checked, whilst a more than usual bustle pervaded the room. The stranger had entered it; and there was something so different in his looks and manner from those of any of the other male creatures, that everybody surveyed him with renewed curiosity, which was at first slightly tinctured with awe. “Who can he be?” was the question that instantaneously started up like a crocus in many a throbbing bosom. “He knows nobody, and nobody knows him; surely he will never think of asking anybody to dance.”

For a long time the stranger stood aloof from the dancers in a corner by himself.

At length, something like a change seemed to come over the spirit of his dreams. His eye fell on Emily Sommers, and appeared to rest where it fell with no small degree of pleasure. No wonder. Emily was not what is generally styled beautiful; but there was a sweetness, a modesty, a gentleness about her, that charmed the more the longer it was observed. She was the only child of a widowed mother. Her father had died many a year ago in battle; and the pension of an officer's widow was all the fortune he had left them. But nature had bestowed riches of a more valuable kind than those which fortune had denied. I wish I could describe Emily Sommers; but I shall not attempt it. She was one of those whose virtues are hid from the blaze of the world, only to be the more appreciated by those who can understand them.

It was to Emily Sommers that the stranger first spoke. He walked right across the room and asked her to dance with him. Emily had never seen him before; but concluding that he had come there with some of her friends, and little acquainted with the rules of etiquette, she immediately, with a frank artlessness, smiled an acceptance of his request.

It was the custom in Hodnet for the gentlemen to employ the morning of the succeeding day in paying their respects to the ladies with whom they had danced on the previous evening. Requesting permission to wait upon his partner and her mother next day, it was without much difficulty obtained. This was surely very imprudent in Mrs. Sommers, and everybody said it was very imprudent. “What! admit as a visitor in her family a person whom she had never seen in her life before, and who, for anything she knew, might be a swindler or a Jew! There was never anything so preposterous—a woman, too, of Mrs. Sommers's judgment and propriety! It was very—very strange.” But whether it was very strange or not, the fact is that the stranger soon spent most of his time at Violet Cottage; and what is perhaps no less wonderful, notwithstanding his apparent intimacy, he remained nearly as much a stranger to its inmates as ever. His name, they had ascertained, was Burleigh—Frederick Burleigh; that he was probably upwards of eight-and-twenty, and that, if he had ever belonged to any profession, it must have been that of arms. But farther they knew not. Mrs. Sommers, however, who to a well-cultivated mind added a considerable experience of the world, did not take long to discover that their new friend was, in every sense of the word, a man whose habits and manners entitled him to the name and rank of a gentleman; and she thought, too, that she saw in him, after a short intercourse, many of those nobler qualities which raise the individual to a high and well-merited rank among his species. As for Emily, she loved his society she scarcely knew why; yet, when she endeavoured to discover the cause, she found it no difficult matter to convince herself that there was something about him so infinitely superior to all the men she had ever seen that she was only obeying the dictates of reason in admiring and esteeming him.

Her admiration and esteem continued to increase in proportion as she became better acquainted with him, and the sentiments seemed to be mutual. He now spent his time almost continually in her society, and it never hung heavy on their hands. The stranger was fond of music, and Emily, besides being mistress of her instrument, possessed naturally a fine voice. Neither did she sing and play unrewarded; Burleigh taught her the most enchanting of all modern languages—the language of Petrarch and Tasso; and being well versed in the use of the pencil, showed her how to give to her landscapes a richer finish and a bolder effect. Then they read together; and as they looked with a smile into each other's countenances, the fascinating pages of fiction seemed to acquire a tenfold interest. These were evenings of calm but deep happiness—long, long to be remembered.

Spring flew rapidly on. March, with her winds and her clouds, passed away; April, with her showers and her sunshine, lingered no longer; and May came smiling up the blue sky, scattering her roses over the green surface of creation. The stranger entered one evening, before sunset, the little garden that surrounded Violet Cottage. Emily saw him from the window and came out to meet him. She held in her hand an open letter. “It is from my cousin Henry,” said she. “His regiment has returned from France, and he is to be with us to-morrow or next day. We shall be so glad to see him! You have often heard us talk of Henry?—he and I were playmates when we were children; and though it is a long time since we parted, I am sure I should know him again among a hundred.” “Indeed!” said the stranger, almost starting; “you must have loved him very much, and very constantly too.” “Oh, yes! I loved him as a brother. I am sure you will love him too,” Emily added. “Everybody whom you love, and who loves you, I also must love, Miss Sommers. But your cousin I shall not at present see. I must leave Hodnet to-morrow.” “To-morrow! Leave Hodnet to-morrow!” Emily grew very pale, and leaned for support upon a sun-dial, near which they were standing. “Can it be possible, Miss Sommers—Emily—that it is for me you are thus grieved?” “It is so sudden,” said Emily, “so unexpected; are you never to return again—are we never to see you more?” “Do you wish me to return, do you wish to see me again, Emily?” he asked. “Oh! how can you ask it?” “Emily, I have been known to you under a cloud of mystery, a solitary being, without a friend or acquaintance in the world, an outcast apparently from society—either sinned against or sinning—without fortune, without pretensions; and with all these disadvantages to contend with, how can I suppose that I am indebted to anything but your pity for the kindness which you have shown to me?” “Pity! pity you! Oh, do not wrong yourself thus. No! though you were a thousand times less worthy than I know you are, I should not pity, I should——” She stopped confused, a deep blush spread over her face, she burst into tears, and would have sunk to the ground had not her lover caught her in his arms. “Think of me thus,” he whispered, “till we meet again, and we may both be happy.” “Oh! I will think of you thus for ever!” They had reached the door of the cottage. “God bless you, Emily,” said the stranger; “I dare not see Mrs. Sommers; tell her of my departure, but tell her that ere autumn has faded into winter I shall again be here. Farewell, dearest, farewell.” She felt upon her cheek a hot and hurried kiss; and when she ventured to look round he was gone.

Henry arrived next day, but there was a gloom upon the spirits of both mother and daughter, which it took some time to dispel. Mrs. Sommers felt for Emily more than for herself. She now perceived that her child's future happiness depended more upon the honour of the stranger than she had hitherto been aware, and she trembled to think of the probability that in the busy world he might soon forget the very existence of such a place as Hodnet, or any of its inhabitants. Emily entertained better hopes, but they were the result of the sanguine and unsuspicious temperament of youth. Her cousin, meanwhile, exerted himself to the utmost to render himself agreeable. He was a young, frank, handsome soldier, who had leapt into the very middle of many a lady's heart—red coat, sword, epaulette-belt, cocked hat, feathers, and all. But he was not destined to leap into Emily's. She had enclosed it within too strong a line of circumvallation. After a three months' siege, it was impregnable. So Henry, who really loved his cousin, thinking it folly to endanger his peace and waste his time any longer, called for his horse one morning, shook Emily warmly by the hand, mounted, “and rode away.”

Autumn came; the leaves grew red, brown, yellow, and purple; then dropped from the high branches, and lay rustling in heaps upon the path below. The last roses withered. The last lingering wain conveyed from the fields their golden treasure. The days were bright, clear, calm, and chill; the nights were full of stars and dew, and the dew, ere morning, was changed into silver hoar-frost. The robin hopped across the garden walks, and candles were set upon the table before the tea-urn. But the stranger came not. Darker days and longer nights succeeded. Winter burst upon the earth. But still the stranger came not. Then the lustre of Emily's eye grew dim; but yet she smiled, and looked as if she would have made herself believe that there was hope.

And so there was; for the mail once more stopped at the Blue Boar; a gentleman wrapped in a travelling cloak once more came out of it; and Mr. Gilbert Cherryripe once more poked the fire for him in his best parlour. Burleigh had returned.

I shall not describe their meeting nor inquire whether Emily's eye was long without its lustre. But there was still another trial to be made. Would she marry him? “My family,” said he, “is respectable, and as it is not wealth we seek, I have an independence, at least equal, I should hope, to our wishes; but anything else which you may think mysterious about me I cannot unravel until you are indissolubly mine.” It was a point of no slight difficulty; Emily entrusted its decision entirely to her mother. Her mother saw that the stranger was inflexible in his purpose, and she saw also that her child's happiness was inextricably linked with him. What could she do? It had been better perhaps they had never known him; but knowing him, and thinking of him as they did, there was but one alternative—the risk must be run.

It was run. They were married in Hodnet; and immediately after the ceremony they stepped into a carriage and drove away, nobody knew whither. It is enough for us to mention that towards twilight they came in sight of a magnificent Gothic mansion, situated in the midst of extensive and noble parks. Emily expressed her admiration of its appearance; and her young husband, gazing on her with impassioned delight, exclaimed, “Emily, it is yours! My mind was imbued with erroneous impressions of women; I had been courted and deceived by them. I believed that their affections were to be won only by flattering their vanity or dazzling their ambition. I was resolved that unless I were loved for myself I would never be loved at all. I travelled through the country incognito; I came to Hodnet and saw you. I have tried you in every way, and found you true. It was I, and not my fortune, that you married; but both are yours. This is Burleigh House; your husband is Frederick Augustus Burleigh, Earl of Exeter, and you, my Emily, are his countess!”

 
 
 

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