Caroline’s eyes asked her to proceed; they entreated her to break the thick cloud of despair which her previous words had seemed to spread over life.

‘And then, my dear, Mr.— that is, the gentleman I married, was, perhaps, rather an exceptional than an average character. I hope, at least, the experience of few has been such as mine was, or that few have felt their sufferings as I felt mine. They nearly shook my mind; relief was so hopeless, redress so unattainable. But, my dear, I do not wish to dishearten, I only wish to warn you, and to prove that the single should not be too anxious to change their state, as they may change for the worse.’

‘Thank you, my dear madam—I quite understand your kind intentions, but there is no fear of my falling into the error to which you allude. I, at least, have no thoughts of marriage, and, for that reason, I want to make myself a position by some other means.’

‘My dear, listen to me. On what I am going to say I have carefully deliberated, having, indeed, revolved the subject in my thoughts ever since you first mentioned your wish to obtain a situation. You know I at present reside with Miss Keeldar in the capacity of companion. Should she marry (and that she will marry ere long many circumstances induce me to conclude), I shall cease to be necessary to her in that capacity. I must tell you that I possess a small independency, arising partly from my own savings, and partly from a legacy left me some years since. Whenever I leave Fieldhead I shall take a house of my own. I could not endure to live in solitude. I have no relations whom I care to invite to close intimacy, for, as you must have observed, and as I have already avowed, my habits and tastes have their peculiarities. To you, my dear, I need not say I am attached; with you I am happier than I have ever been with any living thing’—this was said with marked emphasis. ‘Your society I should esteem a very dear privilege—an inestimable privilege—a comfort, a blessing. You shall come to me, then. Caroline, do you refuse me? I hope you can love me?’

And with these two abrupt questions she stopped.

‘Indeed, I do love you!’ was the reply. ‘I should like to live with you; but you are too kind.’

‘All I have,’ went on Mrs. Pryor, ‘I would leave to you—you should be provided for—but never again say I am too kind. You pierce my heart, child!’

‘But, my dear madam, this generosity—I have no claim—’

‘Hush! you must not talk about it—there are some things we cannot bear to hear. Oh! it is late to begin, but I may yet live a few years. I can never wipe out the past, but perhaps a brief space in the future may yet be mine.’

Mrs. Pryor seemed deeply agitated. Large tears trembled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Caroline kissed her in her gentle, caressing way, saying softly:

‘I love you dearly. Don’t cry.’

But the lady’s whole frame seemed shaken. She sat down, bent her head to her knee, and wept aloud. Nothing could console her till the inward storm had had its way. At last the agony subsided of itself.

‘Poor thing!’ she murmured, returning Caroline’s kiss; ‘poor lonely lamb! But come,’ she added abruptly—‘come, we must go home.’

For a short distance Mrs. Pryor walked very fast; by degrees, however, she calmed down to her wonted manner, fell into her usual characteristic pace—a peculiar one, like all her movements—and by the time they reached Fieldhead she had re-entered into herself; the outside was, as usual, still and shy.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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