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A Memorable Day by Sarah Doudney

 

Miss Tillotson's grey parrot had called “Clarissa” a dozen times at least, and was listening with his cunning head on one side for footsteps on the stairs. Breakfast was ready; an urn, shaped something like a sepulchral monument, was steaming on the table, and near it stood an old china jar filled with monthly roses. It was a warm, bright morning—that twenty-ninth of August in the year 1782. The windows at each end of the room were wide open, but scarcely a breath of air wandered in, or stirred the lilac bushes in the garden. For the Tillotsons' house could boast of a respectable strip of ground, although it stood in a street in Portsea.

At a quarter past eight Clarissa Tillotson came downstairs, and entered the room with a quick, firm step, taking no notice of the parrot's salutation. She was a tall, fair girl of nineteen; her hair, worn according to the fashion of that period, in short curls, was almost flaxen; her eyes were clear blue, her features regular, and, but for a certain hardness and sternness about the mouth, she might have been pronounced beautiful. She was dressed in a short-waisted gown of white muslin, with a blue girdle; her bodice was cut square, leaving her neck uncovered; her tight sleeves reached to the wrists. The gown was so scanty, and the skirt clung so closely to her figure, that it made her appear even taller than she really was. And at this day, on the wall of a modern London mansion, Clarissa's grandchildren and great-grandchildren behold her in a tarnished gilt frame, habited in the very costume which she wore on that memorable morning.

“Good-morning, Anthony,” she said stiffly, as a young man, two years older than herself, made his appearance.

“Good-morning, sister,” he answered in a cheery tone, drawing a step nearer as if he meant to give her a kiss. But Clarissa drew up her stately figure to its full height, and turned quickly to the table.

Her brother coloured with annoyance. There had been a quarrel between them on the preceding day, and Anthony was willing to make the first advance towards reconciliation. But he saw that Clarissa intended to keep him at a distance, and he knew the obstinacy of her nature too well to renew his attempt. He took his seat with a sigh, thinking how bright the home-life would be if the cloud of her unyielding temper did not too frequently darken the domestic sunshine.

“I find that father is not well enough to come down yet,” he said at last, breaking an awkward silence. “He means to leave his room this afternoon.”

“Dr. Vale charged him to be very cautious,” rejoined Clarissa.

These young people were motherless; the daughter reigned as mistress of her father's house, acknowledging no control save his, and that was of the mildest kind. Captain Tillotson was the most indulgent of parents; his wife had died while Clarissa was still too young to realize her loss, and the child had been entirely left to the care of an old servant, who allowed her to have her own way in all things. At school she had been forced to submit to discipline; but her strong will was never conquered, and she generally contrived to gain an ascendency over her companions. Having retired from long and honourable service in the Royal Navy, the captain settled himself at home, to pass his old age in peace; and Clarissa proved herself an affectionate daughter. But Anthony was scarcely so easy to manage as her father; to him, his sister's word was not always law, and she sometimes found herself good-humouredly contradicted.

“If I give in,” thought she, going over the before-mentioned quarrel, “he will think that he has got the mastery. No; I will treat him with marked coldness until he makes an apology.”

Thoroughly chilled by her frigid tone and manner, Anthony made few efforts to sustain the conversation. Breakfast was finished in silence, and he rose rather hastily from his seat at the table.

“I am going on board the Royal George this morning,” he said, moving towards the door. “If my father asks for me, Clarissa, please tell him that I wanted to say a few words to Lieutenant Holloway. He will have to sail again shortly.”

“Very well,” replied Clarissa, indifferently.

The hall-door closed behind him, and she rung the bell to have the breakfast-table cleared. Then the sunshine tempted her to saunter into the garden, and gather a bunch of sweet lavender, but from some unexplained cause her mind was ill at ease. She could take no pleasure in her flowers; no interest in the vine which had been her especial care; and she returned to the house, determined to spend the morning at her worsted-work. Seating herself near the open window, she drew her frame towards her, and arranged her crewels. The shining needle darted in and out, and she was soon deeply absorbed in her occupation.

Every piece of work has a history of its own; and this quaint representation of the woman of Samaria was fated to be of great interest to succeeding generations. But the busy worker little guessed what memories would hereafter cling to that morning's labour, nor dreamed that some day those very stitches would remind her of the darkest hours in her life.

She worked on until the old clock in the hall struck ten; and at the same moment a sudden gust of wind swept through the room, strewing the table with petals from the over-blown roses in the jar, and blowing Clarissa's curls about her head. It was a welcome breeze, coming as it did after the sultry stillness, and she stood up between the two windows to enjoy the draught. Then, after pacing the long room to and fro for awhile, she sat down to her frame again, and began to think about her brother Anthony.

Had she been quite right after all? Would it not have been well to have received that kiss of peace? Was it such a very meritorious thing to hold out until her adversary had humbled himself before her? Even if the apology were made, would it not be rather a poor victory—one of those conquests which degrade instead of exalting the conqueror? Anthony was a noble fellow, a brother of whom most girls would be proud. His only fault was that determination to maintain his own opinion; but was that indeed a fault? She worked faster, and almost decided that it was not.

So busy was her brain that time flew by unheeded, and she started to hear the clock striking one. Scarcely had the stroke died away, when a shrill cry came ringing through the quiet street, driving the colour out of her face in an instant. Springing up from her chair, she hurried to the window that overlooked the pavement, and saw that people had come to their doors with dismayed faces, for a woman was standing on the causeway, raising that terrible wail.

“It's all true—it's all true!” she shrieked. “The Royal George has gone down at Spithead.”

The two maid-servants rushed upstairs in affright, for the cry had reached their ears. The captain heard it in his room overhead, and came down in his dressing-gown and slippers; but his daughter scarcely stayed to exchange a word with him. Mechanically seizing the garden-hat and shawl that hung in the hall, she put them on, and ran out into the street, setting off at full speed for the dockyard gates. Could it be true? Alas! the news was confirmed before she reached her destination, and the first wail was but the herald of many others. Even in that hour of universal distress and consternation people took note of the tall, fair young lady whose face and lips were as white as the dress she wore.

The Royal George had lately arrived at Spithead after a cruise, and on that fatal morning she was undergoing the operation known as a “parliament heel.” The sea was smooth and the weather still, and the business was begun early in the morning, a number of men from Portsmouth dockyard going on board to assist the ship's carpenters. It was found necessary, it is said, to strip off more of the sheathing than had been intended; and the men, eager to reach the defect in the ship's bottom, were induced to heel her too much. Then indeed “the land-breeze shook her shrouds,” throwing her wholly on one side; the cannon rolled over to the side depressed; the water rushed in; and the gallant ship met her doom. Such was the story, told in hurried and broken words, that Clarissa heard from the pale lips of an old seaman; but he could give no other tidings. The boats of the fleet had put off to the rescue; that was all he could tell.

There was no hope in Clarissa's heart as she turned her steps homewards. Anthony had gone down—gone down with Admiral Kempenfeldt and his eight hundred. The same breeze that had scattered the rose-petals and played with her curls had a deadlier mission to perform. She remembered how she had stood rejoicing in that sudden gust of cool wind, and the thought turned her faint and sick as she reached her father's house.

“Clarissa,” cried the captain, meeting her at the door, “what is all this? Surely it can't be true. Where's Anthony?”

Ay, where was Anthony? She threw her arms round the old man's neck, and hid her eyes upon his shoulder that she might not see his face.

“Father—dear father! He said he was going to see Lieutenant Holloway on board——”

She could not finish her sentence, and there was no need of more words. Captain Tillotson was a brave man; he had faced death many a time without flinching, but this was a blow which he was wholly unprepared to meet. Putting his daughter gently aside, he sat down on a sofa, and looked straight before him with that terrible blank look that tells its own tale of a stroke that has crushed out all strength. The servants, glancing from the father to the daughter, saw that on both faces this sudden sorrow had done the work of years. What was time? Was it months or minutes ago that the first cry had sounded through the street?

“If I had only kissed him!” Clarissa did not know that she was saying the words aloud. To her, indeed, this cup was doubly bitter, for it was mingled with the gall of remorse. But for that hard nature of hers, she might have had the sweetness of a kind parting to think upon. Had he forgiven her, in his loving heart, while the great ship was going down, and the water was taking away his life? Ah, she might never know that, until the cruel sea gave up its dead.

There was a noise of wheels in the street; but what were noises to her? The sound drew nearer; the wheels stopped at the door, but it could be only some friend, who had come in haste to tell them the bad news which they knew already.

Battered, and bruised, and dripping with water, a man descended from the hackney coach, and Clarissa started up.

The face was so pale, the whole aspect so strange, that she could not receive the great truth all at once. It was not until he entered the room, and knelt down, wet and trembling as he was, at his father's feet, that she realized her brother's safety.

Anthony had been on the upper deck when the ship sank, and was among that small number who escaped death. All those who were between decks shared the fate of the great Admiral who went down with his sword in its sheath, and ended his threescore years and ten of hard service, in sight of shore. The many were taken, the few left; but although hundreds of homes were made desolate that day, there were some from whence the strain of thanksgiving ascended, tempered by the national woe.

People were wont to say afterwards that Clarissa never again looked so young and fair as she did before the blow fell. But if that day's agony robbed her of her bloom, it left with her the “meek and quiet spirit” which never comes to some of us until it is gained through a great sorrow.

 
 
 

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