Louis did not mention to his friend the feelings that had been germinating under his bosom. That he loved Shirley Keeldar, the bright star of Briarfield, would not have been a suitable subject for conversation - Mr Hall would kindly remonstrate him on his unattainable fancies and urge him to consider elsewhere. But it was no common fancy, he knew. Shirley was pretty, that was true, and her position far above his. Her manner was charming and yet not contrived - she needed no friend at all times, to gabble with about young-lady things. No conventional young lady was she, for she was not part of a defined set. She held herself aloof and yet she did not repel: Caroline Helstone was aloof and diffident, but charm she could not: her sway being limited to her young pupils at the Sunday-school and tender-hearted matrons in the likes of Hortense Moore and Miss Margaret Hall. These qualities alone would have been sufficient to drive an impressionable young man to ardour. But the nature of his attraction was something more, something less common yet refreshing in a man only thirty - he admired Shirley's visionary spirit - the wildness of her imagination, so often concealed from her admiring neighbours. One could converse with her on almost anything. Then she did not treat him as a cipher - as least, she used not to, back in those days at Sympson Grove. In these days of solitude, she became his muse, the subject of his poetic ruminations - things he would not commit to print, for fear of discovery.
There would be no opportunity, naturally. Had he been a man of fortune there might have been some hope, but what little he had saved could not support a wife in the style she was accustomed to. He could only hope that she would not marry another - and this part of his hopes were for the present promising, for she had refused several offers from eligible gentlemen.
Then his position was too degrading for her. What profession could he take up? He had no inclination for trade, being less shrewd than Robert, and his education had not equipped him for the commercial world. He had been a schoolmaster in earlier days, but his present employment paid him more than those years of drudgery - Henry Sympson requiring more attention and sensitivity than the average schoolboy. He liked his young pupil. too, though not as dearly as Shirley. Still, he yearned to become an independent personage - not to be a mere tutor, but one accustomed to deal with the world. Literary tastes he had - and so he had briefly contemplated making a living from poetry. That idea had soon been quashed, for poetry was not renumerative unless one was Walter Scott or Lord Byron. If he wrote poetry, it would be from feeling and an aim for reputation, not renumeration. He had some faculty for prose, and aspired to the heights of Hazlitt and Elia - which was one reason he had for coming to see Southey.
Mr Hall spoke to him, while he was at work with a new poem. "Louis, you ought to write an ode to our worthy Miss Ainley," he said, "if Miss Mann can command your literary exertions, why Miss Ainley certainly deserves them."
"Ah, but I lack material, Hall. One must choose one's subject sparingly."
"She is a very good woman - spends her time on charitable objects and nursing the poor. I wonder you do not commemorate her: you say you are short of inspiration."
"I shall do my best - though it was easier work with Miss Mann."
"Miss Mann's life has been tragic - and her character is sufficiently bitter to strike the reader as powerful. Miss Ainley's goodness is a difficult matter. Complex characters are the rage nowadays, you know. Miss Ainley is too good to be true."
Shortly afterwards, Mr Hall, who had gone out for a while, returned with news. "I have had a letter from my sister Margaret."
"What does Miss Hall say?"
"Caroline's condition is improving. Mrs Pryor wrote to her."
"Thank heavens for that!"
"You know I have a tender solicitude for your cousin, Louis. Are you no doubt have noticed, she is not very strong-spirited. I had noticed that she seemed to fade months ago, but it never occurred to me that she was ill."
Louis kept silent on this matter. He had guessed the extent of Caroline's feelings for Robert - saw it in her brightened eye when he spoke to her, her quietness giving way to liveliness, and her soft gaze at the mill-owner. No one else seemed to have discovered her secret - why should he disclose his suspicions?
"On a lighter note," said Mr Hall, chuckling, "Margaret sends news of Miss Mann's latest gossip. Miss Mann is convinced that an understanding subsists between you and Caroline."
"I and Caroline!"
"She is convinced that she is pining away for you. She claims that because you send her poetry it must mean that there is an understanding between you."
Louis burst into laughter.
"Sweeting has written as well," said Mr Hall. "I fear he has caught the influenza as well, from the cottagers."
"Has he procured a substitute?"
"He has - Donne and Malone will take over his duties while he is lying in bed. I am sorry to hear it."
Louis was surprised: Malone not being known for diligence, but then he and Sweeting were friends. He suspected that some bungling up would certainly happen, but did not voice his thoughts. "Donne will serve them differently," he observed. "The parish coffers will certainly be filled." For Mr Donne was known for his tendency to beg, even if he had procured a donation from you the day before.
"It is a pity Donne does not get along with the cottagers," said Mr Hall, "but hopefully these arrangements shall be temporary. Besides, I am not averse to more funds for the parish - that is what they need in these times. Not all are as fortunate as William Farren." It was perhaps a blessing that he had been dismissed from Robert Moore's mill when the manufacturer could not afford his services, but Mr Hall did not say this. "I hear he is doing tolerably well as a gardener - old James Booth (Shirley's gardener) has taken him under his wing. By the bye, Louis, how long have you known Mrs Pryor?"
"For four years - why?"
"My sister wondered if she was related to you, or to the Helstones."
"No, she is not."
"A very worthy woman. I believe she was to accompany Miss Keeldar on her tour, but Mrs Pryor insisted on taking care of Caroline, though she was much better in health. Let us go now - what are you doing?" for Louis had bent his head to his notebook.
"What are you writing, Louis? another poem?" asked Mr Hall.
"Yes," replied his friend, absent-mindedly.
"On what subject now?"
"Oh! a trifle," said Louis, and shut his notebook.