Mrs. HUNGERFORD (Margaret Wolfe Hamilton) (1855?-1897),
A little Rebel (1890) Lovell edition
A LITTLE REBEL
Author of "Her Last Throw," "April's Lady," "Faith and Unfaith," etc. etc.
JOHN LOVELL & SON,
23 ST. NICHOLAS STREET.
Entered according to Act of Parliament in the year 1891, by John Lovell & Son, in the office of the Minister of Agriculture and Statistics at Ottawa.
A LITTLE REBEL.
"Perplex'd in the extreme."
"The memory of past favors is like a rainbow, bright, vivid and beautiful."
The professor, sitting before his untasted breakfast, is looking the very picture of dismay. Two letters lie before him; one is in his hand, the other is on the table-cloth. Both are open; but of one, the opening lines—that tell of the death of his old friend—are all he has read; whereas he has read the other from start to finish, already three times. It is from the old friend himself, written a week before his death, and very urgent and very pleading. The professor has mastered its contents with ever-increasing consternation.
Indeed so great a revolution has it created in his mind, that his face—(the index of that excellent part of him)—has, for the moment, undergone a complete change. Any ordinary acquaintance now entering the professor's rooms (and those acquaintances might be whittled down to quite a little few), would hardly have known him. For the abstraction that, as a rule, characterizes his features—the way he has of looking at you, as if he doesn't see you, that harasses the simple, and enrages the others—is all gone! Not a trace of it remains. It has given place to terror, open and unrestrained.
"A girl!" murmurs he in a feeble tone, falling back in his chair. And then again, in a louder tone of dismay—"A girl!" He pauses again, and now again gives way to the fear that is destroying him—"A grown girl!"
After this, he seems too overcome to continue his reflections, so goes back to the fatal letter. Every now and then a groan escapes him, mingled with mournful remarks, and extracts from the sheet in his hand—
"Poor old Wynter! Gone at last!" staring at the shaking signature at the end of the letter that speaks so plainly of the coming icy clutch that should prevent the poor hand from forming ever again even such sadly erratic characters as these. "At least," glancing at the half-read letter on the cloth—"this tells me so. His solicitor's, I suppose. Though what Wynter could want with a solicitor—— Poor old fellow! He was often very good to me in the old days. I don't believe I should have done even as much as I have done, without him... It must be fully ten years since he threw up his work here and went to Australia!... ten years. The girl must have been born before he went,"—glances at letter—"'My child, my beloved Perpetua, the one thing on earth I love, will be left entirely alone. Her mother died nine years ago. She is only seventeen, and the world lies before her, and never a soul in it to care how it goes with her. I entrust her to you—(a groan). To you I give her. Knowing that if you are living, dear fellow, you will not desert me in my great need, but will do what you can for my little one.'"
"But what is that?" demands the professor, distractedly. He pushes his spectacles up to the top of his head, and then drags them down again, and casts them wildly into a sugar-bowl. "What on earth am I to do with a girl of seventeen? If it had been a boy! even that would have been bad enough—but a girl! And, of course—I know Wynter—he has died without a penny. He was bound to do that, as he always lived without one. Poor old Wynter!"— as if a little ashamed of himself. "I don't see how I can afford to put her out to nurse." He pulls himself up with a start. "To nurse! a girl of seventeen! She'll want to be going out to balls and things—at her age."
As if smitten to the earth by this last awful idea, he picks his glasses out of the sugar and goes back to the letter.
"You will find her the dearest girl. Most loving, and tender-hearted; and full of life and spirits."
"Good heavens!" says the professor. He puts down the letter again, and begins to pace the room. "'Life and spirits.' A sort of young kangaroo, no doubt. What will the landlady say? I shall leave these rooms"—with a fond and lingering gaze round the dingy old apartment that hasn't an article in it worth ten sous—"and take a small house—somewhere—and— But—er—— It won't be respectable, I think. I—I've heard things said about—er—things like that. It's no good in looking an old fogey, if you aren't one; it's no earthly use,"—standing before a glass and ruefully examining his countenance—"in looking fifty, if you are only thirty-four. It will be a scandal," says the professor mournfully. "They'll cut her, and they'll cut me, and—what the deuce did Wynter mean by leaving me his daughter? A real live girl of seventeen! It'll be the death of me," says the professor, mopping his brow. "What"—wrathfully—"that determined spendthrift meant, by flinging his family on my shoulders, I—— Oh! Poor old Wynter!"
Here he grows remorseful again. Abuse a man dead and gone, and one, too, who had been good to him in many ways when he, the professor, was younger than he is now, and had just quarrelled with a father who was only too prone to quarrel with anyone who gave him the chance, seems but a poor thing. The professor's quarrel with his father had been caused by the young man's refusal to accept a Government appointment—obtained with some difficulty—for the very insufficient and, as it seemed to his father, iniquitous reason, that he had made up his mind to devote his life to science. Wynter, too, was a scientist of no mean order, and would, probably, have made his mark in the world, if the world and its pleasures had not made their mark on him. He had been young Curzon's coach at one time, and finding the lad a kindred spirit, had opened out to him his own large store of knowledge, and steeped him in that great sea of which no man yet has drank enough—for all begin, and leave it, athirst.
Poor Wynter! The professor, turning in his stride up and down the narrow, uncomfortable room, one of the many that lie off the Strand, finds his eyes resting on that other letter—carelessly opened, barely begun.
From Wynter's solicitor! It seems ridiculous that Wynter should have had a solicitor. With a sigh, he takes it up, opens it out and begins to read it. At the end of the second page, he starts, re-reads a sentence or two, and suddenly his face becomes illuminated. He throws up his head. He cackles a bit. He looks as if he wants to say something very badly—"Hurrah," probably—only he has forgotten how to do it, and finally goes back to the letter again, and this time—the third time—finishes it.
Yes. It is all right! Why on earth hadn't he read it first? So the girl is to be sent to live with her aunt after all—an old lady—maiden lady. Evidently living somewhere in Bloomsbury. Miss Jane Majendie. Mother's sister evidently. Wynter's sisters would never have been old maids, if they had resembled him, which probably they did—if he had any. What a handsome fellow he was! and such a good-natured fellow too.
The professor colors here in his queer sensitive way, and pushes his spectacles up and down his nose, in another nervous fashion of his. After all, it was only this minute he had been accusing old Wynter of anything but good nature. Well! He had wronged him there. He glances at the letter again.
He has only been appointed her guardian, it seems. Guardian of her fortune, rather than of her.
The old aunt will have the charge of her body, the—er—pleasure of her society—he, of the estate only.
Fancy Wynter, of all men, dying rich—actually rich. The professor pulls his beard, and involuntarily glances round the somewhat meagre apartment, that not all his learning, not all his success in the scientific world—and it has been not unnoteworthy, so far—has enabled him to improve upon. It has helped him to live, no doubt, and distinctly outside the line of want, a thing to be grateful for, as his family having in a measure abandoned him, he, on his part, had abandoned his family in a measure also (and with reservations), and it would have been impossible to him, of all men, to confess himself beaten, and return to them for assistance of any kind. He could never have enacted the part of the prodigal son. He knew this in earlier days, when husks were for the most part all he had to sustain him. But the mind requires not even the material husk, it lives on better food than that, and in his case mind had triumphed over body, and borne it triumphantly to a safe, if not as yet to a victorious, goal.
Yet Wynter, the spendthrift, the erstwhile master of him who now could be his master, has died, leaving behind him a fortune. What was the sum? He glances back to the sheet in his hand and verifies his thought. Yes—eighty thousand pounds! A good fortune even in these luxurious days. He has died worth 80,000, of which his daughter is sole heiress!
Before the professor's eyes rises a vision of old Wynter. They used to call him "old," those boys who attended his classes, though he was as light-hearted as the best of them, and as handsome as a dissipated Apollo. They had all loved him, if they had not revered him, and, indeed, he had been generally regarded as a sort of living and lasting joke amongst them.
Curzon, holding the letter in his hand, and bringing back to his memory the handsome face and devil-may-care expression of his tutor, remembers how the joke had widened, and reached its height when, at forty years of age, old Wynter had flung up his classes, leaving them all plant l as it were, and declared his intention of starting life anew and making a pile for himself in some new world.
Well! it had not been such a joke after all, if they had only known. Wynter had made that mythical "pile," and had left his daughter an heiress!
Not only an heiress, but a gift to Miss Jane Majendie, of somewhere in Bloomsbury.
The professor's disturbed face grows calm again. It even occurs to him that he has not eaten his breakfast. He so often remembers this, that it does not trouble him. To pore over his books (that are overflowing every table and chair in the uncomfortable room) until his eggs are India-rubber, and his rashers gutta-percha, is not a fresh experience. But though this morning both eggs and rasher have attained a high place in the leather department, he enters on his sorry repast with a glad heart.
Sweet are the rebounds from jeopardy to joy! And he has so much of joy! Not only has he been able to shake from his shoulders that awful incubus—and ever-present ward—but he can be sure that the absent ward is so well-off with regard to this world's goods, that he need never give her so much as a passing thought—dragged, torn as that thought would be from his beloved studies.
The aunt, of course, will see about her fortune. He has only a perfunctory duty—to see that the fortune is not squandered. But he is safe there. Maiden ladies never squander! And the girl, being only seventeen, can't possibly squander it herself for some time.
Perhaps he ought to call on her, however. Yes, of course, he must call. It is the usual thing to call on one's ward. It will be a terrible business no doubt. All girls belong to the genus nuisance. And this girl will be at the head of her class no doubt. "Lively, spirited," so far went the parent. A regular hoyden may be read between those kind parental lines.
The poor professor feels hot again with nervous agitation as he imagines an interview between him and the wild, laughing, noisy, perhaps horsey (they all ride in Australia) young woman to whom he is bound to make his bow.
How soon must this unpleasant interview take place? Once more he looks back to the solicitor's letter. Ah! On Jan. 3rd her father, poor old Wynter, had died, and on the 26th of May, she is to be "on view" at Bloomsbury! and it is now the 2nd of February. A respite! Perhaps, who knows? She may never arrive at Bloomsbury at all! There are young men in Australia, a hoyden, as far as the professor has read (and that is saying a good deal), would just suit the man in the bush.
"A maid so sweet that her mere sight made glad men sorrowing."
Nevertheless the man in the bush doesn't get her.
Time has run on a little bit since the professor suffered many agonies on a certain raw February morning, and now it is the 30th of May, and a glorious finish too to that sweet month.
Even into this dingy old room, where at a dingy old table the professor sits buried in piles of notes, and with sheets of manuscript knee-deep scattered around him, the warm glad sun is stealing; here and there, the little rays are darting, lighting up a dusty corner here, a hidden heap of books there. It is, as yet, early in the afternoon, and the riotous beams, who are no respecter of persons, and who honor the righteous and the ungodly alike, are playing merrily in this sombre chamber, given so entirely up to science and its prosy ways, daring even now to dance lightly on the professor's head, which has begun to grow a little bald.
"The golden sun, in splendor likest heav'n,"
is proving perhaps a little too much for the tired brain in the small room. Either that, or the incessant noises in the street outside, which have now been enriched by the strains of a broken-down street piano, causes him to lay aside his pen and lean back in a weary attitude in his chair.
What a day it is! How warm! An hour ago he had delivered a brilliant lecture on the everlasting Mammoth (a fresh specimen just arrived from Siberia), and is now paying the penalty of greatness. He had done well—he knew that—he had been interesting, that surest road to public favor—he had been applauded to the echo; and now, worn-out, tired in mind and body, he is living over again his honest joy in his success.
In this life, however, it is not given us to be happy for long. A knock at the professor's door brings him back to the present, and the knowledge that the landlady—a stout, somewhat erratic person of fifty—is standing on his threshold, a letter in her hand.
"For you, me dear," says she, very kindly, handing the letter to the professor.
She is perhaps the one person of his acquaintance who has been able to see through the professor's gravity and find him young.
"Thank you," says he. He takes the letter indifferently, opens it languidly, and—— Well, there isn't much languor after the perusal of it.
The professor sits up; literally this time slang is unknown to him; and re-reads it. That girl has come! There can't be any doubt of it. He had almost forgotten her existence during these past tranquil months, when no word or hint about her reached him, but now, here she is at last, descending upon him like a whirlwind.
A line in a stiff, uncompromising hand apprises the professor of the unwelcome fact. The "line" is signed by "Jane Majendie," therefore there can be no doubt of the genuineness of the news contained in it. Yes! that girl has come!
The professor never swears, or he might now perhaps have given way to reprehensible words.
Instead of that, he pulls himself together, and determines on immediate action. To call upon this ward of his is a thing that must be done sooner of later, then why not sooner? Why not at once? The more unpleasant the duty, the more necessity to get it off one's mind without delay.
He pulls the bell. The landlady appears again.
"I must go out," says the professor, staring a little helplessly at her.
"An' a good thing too," says she. "A saint's day ye might call it, wid the sun. An' where to, sir, dear? Not to thim rascally sthudents, I do thrust?"
"No, Mrs. Mulcahy. I—I am going to see a young lady," says the professor simply.
"The divil!" says Mrs. Mulcahy with a beaming smile. "Faix, that's a turn the right way anyhow. But have ye thought o' yer clothes, me dear?"
"Clothes?" repeats the professor vaguely.
"Arrah, wait," says she, and runs away lightly, in spite of her fifty years and her too, too solid flesh, and presently returns with the professor's best coat and a clothes brush that, from its appearance, might reasonably be supposed to have been left behind by Noah when he stepped out of the Ark. With this latter (having put the coat on him) she proceeds to belabor the professor with great spirit, and presently sends him forth shining—if not internally, at all events externally.
In truth the professor's mood is not a happy one. Sitting in the hansom that is taking him all too swiftly to his destination, he dwells with terror on the girl—the undesired ward—who has been thrust upon him. He has quite made up his mind about her. An Australian girl! One knows what to expect there! Health unlimited; strength tremendous; and noise—much noise.
Yes, she is sure to be a big girl. A girl with branching limbs, and a laugh you could hear a mile off. A young woman with no sense of the fitness of things, and a settled conviction that nothing could shake, that "'Strailia" is the finest country on earth! A bouncing creature who never sits down; to whom rest or calm is unknown, and whose highest ambition will be to see the Tower and the wax-works.
Her hair is sure to be untidy; hanging probably in straight, black locks over her forehead, and her frock will look as if it had been pitchforked on to her, and requires only the insubordination of one pin to leave her without it again.
The professor is looking pale, but has on him all the air of one prepared for anything as the maid shows him in the drawing-room of the house where Miss Jane Majendie lives.
His thoughts are still full her niece. Her niece, poor woman, and his ward—poor man! when the door opens and some one comes in.
The professor gets slowly on to his feet, and stares at the advancing apparition. Is it child or woman, this fair vision? A hard question to answer! It is quite easy to read, however, that "some one" is very lovely!
"It is you, Mr. Curzon, is it not?" says the vision.
Her voice is sweet and clear, a little petulant perhaps, but still very sweet. She is quite small—a little girl—and clad in deep mourning. There is something pathetic about the dense black surrounding such a radiant face, and such a childish figure. Her eyes are fixed on the professor, and there is evident anxiety in their hazel depths; her soft lips are parted; she seems hesitating as if not knowing whether she shall smile or sigh. She has raised both her hands as if unconsciously, and is holding them clasped against her breast. The pretty fingers are covered with costly rings. Altogether she makes a picture—this little girl, with her brilliant eyes, and mutinous mouth, and soft black clinging gown. Dainty-sweet she looks,
"Sweet as is the bramble-flower."
"Yes," says the professor, in a hesitating way, as if by no means certain of the fact. He is so vague about it, indeed, that "some one's" dark eyes take a mischievous gleam.
"Are you sure?" says she, and looks up at him suddenly, a little sideways perhaps, as if half frightened, and gives way to a naughty sort of little laugh. It rings through the room, this laugh, and has the effect of frightening her altogether this time. She checks herself, and looks first down at the carpet with the big roses on it, where one little foot is wriggling in a rather nervous way, and then up again at the professor, as if to see if he is thinking bad things of her. She sighs softly.
"Have you come to see me or Aunt Jane?" asks she; "because Aunt Jane is out—I'm glad to say"—this last pianissimo.
"To see you," says the professor, absently. He is thinking! He has taken her hand, and held it, and dropped it again, all in a state of high bewilderment.
"Is this the big, strong, noisy girl of his imaginings? The bouncing creature with untidy hair, and her clothes pitchforked on to her?"
"Well—I hoped so," says she, a little wistfully as it seems to him, every trace of late sauciness now gone, and with it the sudden shyness. After many days the professor grows accustomed to these sudden transitions that are so puzzling yet so enchanting, these rapid, inconsequent, but always lovely changes
"From grave to gay, from lively to severe."
"Won't you sit down?" says his small hostess, gently, touching a chair near her with her slim fingers.
"Thank you," says the professor, and then stops short.
"Your ward," says she, ever so gently still, yet emphatically. It is plain that she is now on her very best behavior. She smiles up at him in a very encouraging way. "And you are my guardian, aren't you?"
"Yes," says the professor, without enthusiasm. He has seated himself, not on the chair she has pointed out to him, but on a very distant lounge. He is conscious of a feeling of growing terror. This lovely child has created it, yet why, or how? Was ever guardian mastered by a ward before? A desire to escape is filling him, but he has got to do his duty to his dead friend, and this is part of it.
He has retired to the far-off lounge with a view to doing it as distantly as possible, but even this poor subterfuge fails him. Miss Wynter, picking up a milking-stool, advances leisurely towards him, and seating herself upon it just in front of him, crosses her hands over her knees and looks expectantly up at him with a charming smile.
"Now we can have a good talk," says she.
"And if you dreamed how a friend's smile And nearness soothe a heart that's sore, You might be moved to stay awhile Before my door."
"About?" begins the professor, and stammers, and ceases.
"Everything," says she, with a little nod. "It is impossible to talk to Aunt Jane. She doesn't talk, she only argues, and always wrongly. But you are different. I can see that. Now tell me,"—she leans even more forward and looks intently at the professor, her pretty brows wrinkled as if with extreme and troublous thought—"What are the duties of a guardian?"
"Eh?" says the professor. He moves his glasses up to his forehead and then pulls them down again. Did ever anxious student ask him question so difficult of answer as this one—that this small maiden has propounded?
"You can think it over," says she most graciously. "There is no hurry, and I am quite aware that one isn't made a guardian every day. Do you think you could make it out whilst I count forty?"
"I think I could make it out more quickly if you didn't count at all," says the professor, who is growing warm. "The duties of a guardian—are—er—to—er—to see that one's ward is comfortable and happy."
"Then there is a great deal of duty for you to do," says she solemnly, letting her chin slip into the hollow of her hand.
"I know—I'm sure of it," says the professor with a sigh that might be called a groan. "But your aunt, Miss Majendie—your mother's sister—can——"
"I don't believe she is my mother's sister," says Miss Wynter calmly. "I have seen my mother's picture. It is lovely! Aunt Jane was a changeling—I'm sure of it. But never mind her. You were going to say——?"
"That Miss Majendie, who is virtually your guardian—can explain it all to you much better than I can."
"Aunt Jane is not my guardian!" The mild look of enquiry changes to one of light anger. The white brown contracts. "And certainly she could never make one happy and comfortable. Well—what else?"
"She will look after——"
"I told you I don't care about Aunt Jane. Tell me what you can do——"
"See that your fortune is not——"
"I don't care about my fortune either," with a little petulant gesture. "But I do care about my happiness. Will you see to that?"
"Of course," says the professor gravely.
"Then you will take me away from Aunt Jane!" The small vivacious face is now all aglow. "I am not happy with Aunt Jane. I"—clasping her hands, and letting a quick, vindictive fire light her eyes—"I hate Aunt Jane. She says things about poor papa that—— Oh! how I hate her!"
"But—you shouldn't—you really should not. I feel certain you ought not," says the professor, growing vaguer every moment.
"Ought I not?" with a quick little laugh that is all anger and no mirth. "I do though, for all that! I"—pausing, and regarding him with a somewhat tragic air that sits most funnily upon her—"am not going to stay here much longer!"
"What!" says the professor aghast. "But my dear—— Miss Wynter, I'm afraid you must."
"Why? What is she to me?"
"That's nothing—nothing at all—even a guardian is better than that. And you are my guardian. Why," coming closer to him and pressing five soft little fingers in an almost feverish fashion upon his arm, "why can't you take me away?"
"Yes, yes, you." She comes even nearer to him, and the pressure of the small fingers grows more eager—there is something in them that might well be termed coaxing. "Do," says she.
"Oh! Impossible!" says the professor. The color mounts to his brow. He almost shakes off the little clinging fingers in his astonishment and agitation. Has she no common sense—no knowledge of the things that be?
She has drawn back from him and is regarding him somewhat strangely.
"Impossible to leave Aunt Jane?" questions she. It is evident she has not altogether understood, and yet is feeling puzzled. "Well," defiantly, "we shall see!"
"Why don't you like your Aunt Jane?" asks the professor distractedly. He doesn't feel nearly as fond of his dead friend as he did an hour ago.
"Because," lucidly, "she is Aunt Jane. If she were your Aunt Jane you would know."
"But my dear——"
"I really wish," interrupts Miss Wynter petulantly, "you wouldn't call me 'my dear.' Aunt Jane calls me that when she is going to say something horrid to me. Papa——" she pauses suddenly, and tears rush to her dark eyes.
"Yes. What of your father?" asks the professor hurriedly, the tears raising terror in his soul.
"You knew him—speak to me of him," says she, a little tremulously.
"I knew him well indeed. He was very good to me when—when I was younger. I was very fond of him."
"He was good to everyone," says Miss Wynter, staring hard at the professor. It is occurring to her that this grave sedate man with his glasses could never have been younger. He must always have been older than the gay, handsome, debonnaire father, who had been so dear to her.
"What were you going to tell me about him?" asks the professor gently.
"Only what he used to call me—Doatie! I suppose," wistfully, "you couldn't call me that?"
"I am afraid not," says the professor, coloring even deeper.
"I'm sorry," says she, her young mouth taking a sorrowful curve. "But don't call me Miss Wynter, at all events, or 'my dear.' I do so want someone to call me by my Christian name," says the poor child sadly.
"Perpetua—is it not?" says the professor, ever so kindly.
"No—'Pet,'" corrects she. "It's shorter, you know, and far easier to say."
"Oh!" says the professor. To him it seems very difficult to say. Is it possible she is going to ask him to call her by that familiar—almost affectionate—name? The girl must be mad.
"Yes—much easier," says Perpetua; "you will find that out, after a bit, when you have got used to calling me by it. Are you going now, Mr. Curzon? Going so soon?"
"I have classes," says the professor.
"Students?" says she. "You teach them? I wish I was a student. I shouldn't have been given over to Aunt Jane then, or," with a rather wilful laugh, "if I had been I should have led her, oh!" rapturously, "such a life!"
It suggests itself to the professor that she is quite capable of doing that now, though she is not of the sex male.
"Good-bye," says he, holding out his hand.
"You will come soon again?" demands she, laying her own in it.
"Not till then? I shall be dead then," says she, with a rather mirthless laugh this time. "Do you know that you and Aunt Jane are the only two people in all London whom I know?"
"That is terrible," says he, quite sincerely.
"Yes. Isn't it?"
"But soon you will know people. Your aunt has acquaintances. They—surely they will call; they will see you—they——"
"Will take an overwhelming fancy to me? just as you have done," says she, with a quick, rather curious light in her eyes, and a tilting of her pretty chin. "There! go," says she, "I have some work to do; and you have your classes. It would never do for you to miss them. And as for next week!—make it next month! I wouldn't for the world be a trouble to you in any way."
"I shall come next week," says the professor, troubled in somewise by the meaning in her eyes. What is it? Simple loneliness, or misery downright? How young she looks—what a child! That tragic air does not belong to her of right. She should be all laughter, and lightness, and mirth——
"As you will," says she; her tone has grown almost haughty; there is a sense of remorse in his breast as he goes down the stairs. Has he been kind to old Wynter's child? Has he been true to his trust? There has been an expression that might almost be termed despair in the young face as he left her. Her face, with that expression on it, haunts him all down the road.
Yes. He will call next week. What day is this? Friday. And Friday next he is bound to deliver a lecture somewhere—he is not sure where, but certainly somewhere. Well, Saturday then he might call. But that——
Why not call Thursday—or even Wednesday?
Wednesday let it be. He needn't call every week, but he had said something about calling next week, and—she wouldn't care, of course—but one should keep their word. What a strange little face she has—and strange manners, and—not able to get on evidently with her present surroundings.
What an old devil that aunt must be!
"Dear, if you knew what tears they shed, Who live apart from home and friend, To pass my house, by pity led, Your steps would tend."
He makes the acquaintance of the latter very shortly. But requires no spoon to sup with her, as Miss Majendie's invitations to supper, or indeed to luncheon, breakfast or dinner, are so few and rare that it might be rash for a hungry man to count on them.
The professor, who has felt it to be his duty to call on his ward regularly every week, has learned to know and (I regret to say) to loathe that estimable spinster christened Jane Majendie.
After every visit to her house he has sworn to himself that "this one" shall be his last, and every Wednesday following he has gone again. Indeed, to-day being Wednesday in the heart of June, he may be seen sitting bolt upright in a hansom on his way to the unlovely house that holds Miss Majendie.
As he enters the dismal drawing-room, where he finds Miss Majendie and her niece, it becomes plain, even to his inexperienced brain, that there has just been a row on, somewhere.
Perpetua is sitting on a distant lounge, her small vivacious face one thunder-cloud. Miss Majendie, sitting on the hardest chair this hideous room contains, is smiling. A terrible sign. The professor pales before it.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Curzon," says Miss Majendie, rising and extending a bony hand. "As Perpetua's guardian, you may perhaps have some influence over her. I say 'perhaps' advisedly, as I scarcely dare to hope anyone could influence a mind so distorted as hers."
"What is it?" asks the professor nervously—of Perpetua, not of Miss Majendie.
"I'm dull," says Perpetua sullenly.
The professor glances keenly at the girl's downcast face, and then at Miss Majendie. The latter glance is a question.
"You hear her," says Miss Majendie coldly—she draws her shawl round her meagre shoulders, and a breath through her lean nostrils that may be heard. "Perhaps you may be able to discover her meaning."
"What is it?" asks the professor, turning to the girl, his tone anxious, uncertain. Young women with "wrongs" are unknown to him, as are all other sorts of young women for the matter of that. And this particular young woman looks a little unsafe at the present moment.
"I have told you! I am tired of this life. I am dull—stupid. I want to go out." Her lovely eyes are flashing, her face is white—her lips trembling. "Take me out," says she suddenly.
"Perpetua!" exclaims Miss Majendie. "How unmaidenly! How immodest!"
Perpetua looks at her with large, surprised eyes.
"Why," says she.
"I really think," interrupts the professor hurriedly, who see breakers ahead, "if I were to take Perpetua for a walk—a drive—to—er—to some place or other—it might destroy this ennui of which she complains. If you will allow her to come out with me for an hour or so, I——"
"If you are waiting for my sanction, Mr. Curzon, to that extraordinary proposal, you will wait some time," says Miss Majendie slowly, frigidly. She draws the shawl still closer, and sniffs again.
"There is no 'But,' sir. The subject doesn't admit of argument. In my young days, and I should think"—scrutinising him exhaustively through her glasses—"in yours, it was not customary for a young gentlewoman to go out walking, alone, with 'a man'!!" If she had said with a famished tiger, she couldn't have thrown more horror into her tone.
The professor had shrunk a little from that classing of her age with his, but has now found matter for hope in it.
"Still—my age—as you suggest—so far exceeds Perpetua's—I am indeed so much older than she is, that I might be allowed to escort her wherever it may please her to go."
"The real age of a man nowadays, sir, is a thing impossible to know," says Miss Majendie. "You wear glasses—a capital disguise! I mean nothing offensive—so far—sir, but it behoves me to be careful, and behind those glasses, who can tell what demon lurks? Nay! No offence! An innocent man would feel no offence!"
"Really, Miss Majendie!" begins the poor professor, who is as red as though he were the guiltiest soul alive.
"Let me proceed, sir. We were talking of the ages of men."
"Certainly! It was you who suggested the idea that, being so much older than my niece, Miss Wynter, you could therefore escort her here and there—in fact everywhere—in fact"—with awful meaning—"any where!"
"I assure you, madam," begins the professor, springing to his feet—Perpetua puts out a white hand.
"Ah! let her talk," says she. "Then you will understand."
"But men's ages, sir, are a snare and a delusion!" continues Miss Majendie, who has now mounted her hobby, and will ride it to the death. "Who can tell the age of any man in this degenerate age? We look at their faces, and say he must be so and so, and he a few years younger, but looks are vain, they tell us nothing. Some look old, because they are old, some look old—through vice!"
The professor makes an impatient gesture. But Miss Majendie is equal to most things.
"'Who excuses himself accuses himself,'" quotes she with terrible readiness. "Why that gesture, Mr. Curzon? I made no mention of your name. And indeed, I trust your age would place you outside of any such suspicion, still, I am bound to be careful where my niece's interests are concerned. You, as her guardian if a faithful guardian" (with open doubt as to this, expressed in eye and pointed finger), "should be the first to applaud my caution."
"You take an extreme view," begins the professor, a little feebly, perhaps. That eye and that pointed finger have cowed him.
"One's views have to be extreme in these days if one would continue in the paths of virtue," said Miss Majendie. "Your views," with a piercing and condemnatory glance, "are evidently not extreme. One word for all, Mr. Curzon, and this argument is at an end. I shall not permit my niece, with my permission, to walk with you or any other man whilst under my protection."
"I daresay you are right—no doubt—no doubt" mumbles the professor, incoherently, now thoroughly frightened and demoralized. Good heavens! What an awful old woman! And to think that this poor child is under her care. He happens at this moment to look at the poor child, and the scorn for him that gleams in her large eyes perfects his rout. To say that she was right!
"If Perpetua wishes to go for a walk," says Miss Majendie, breaking through a mist of angry feeling that is only half on the surface, "I am here to accompany her."
"I don't want to go for a walk—with you," says Perpetua, rudely it must be confessed, though her tone is low and studiously reserved. "I don't want to go for a walk at all." She pauses, and her voice chokes a little, and then suddenly she breaks into a small passion of vehemence. "I want to go somewhere, to see something," she cries, gazing imploringly at Curzon.
"To see something!" says her aunt, "why it was only last Sunday I took you to Westminster Abbey, where you saw the grandest edifice in all the world."
"Most interesting place," says the professor, sotto voce, with a wild but mad hope of smoothing matters down for Perpetua's sake.
If it was for Perpetua's sake, she proves herself singularly ungrateful. She turns upon him a small vivid face, alight with indignation.
"You support her," cries she. "You! Well, I shall tell you! I"—defiantly—"I don't want to go to churches at all. I want to go to theatres! There!"
There is an awful silence. Miss Marjorie's face is a picture! If the girl had said she wanted to go to the devil instead of to the theatre, she could hardly have looked more horrified. She takes a step forward, closer to Perpetua.
"Go to your room! And pray—pray for a purer mind!" says she. "This is hereditary, all this! Only prayer can cast it out. And remember, this is the last word upon this subject. As long as you are under my roof you shall never go to a sinful place of amusement. I forbid you ever to speak of theatres again."
"I shall not be forbidden!" says Perpetua. She confronts her aunt with flaming eyes and crimson cheeks. "I do want to go to the theatre, and to balls, and dances, and everything. I"—passionately, and with a most cruel, despairing longing in her young voice, "want to dance, to laugh, to sing, to amuse myself—to be the gayest thing in all the world!"
She stops as if exhausted, surprised perhaps at her own daring, and there is silence for a moment, a little moment, and then Miss Majendie looks at her.
"'The gayest thing in all the world!' and your father only four months dead!" says she, slowly, remorselessly.
All in a moment, as it were, the little crimson angry face grows white—white as death itself. The professor, shocked beyond words, stands staring, and marking the sad changes in it. Perpetua is trembling from head to foot. A frightened look has come into her beautiful eyes—her breath comes quickly. She is as a thing at bay—hopeless, horrified. Her lips part as if she would say something. But no words come. She casts one anguished glance at the professor, and rushes from the room.
It was but a momentary glimpse into a heart, but it was terrible. The professor turns upon Miss Majendie in great wrath.
"That was cruel—uncalled for!" says he, a strange feeling in his heart that he has not time to stop and analyse then. "How could you hurt her so? Poor child! Poor girl! She loved him!"
"Then let her show respect to his memory," says Miss Majendie vindictively. She is unmoved—undaunted.
"She was not wanting in respect." His tone is hurried. This woman with the remorseless eye is too much for the gentle professor. "All she does want is change, amusement. She is young. Youth must enjoy."
"In moderation—and in proper ways," says Miss Majendie stonily. "In moderation," she repeats mechanically, almost unconsciously. And then suddenly her wrath gets the better of her, and she breaks out in a violent rage. That one should dare to question her actions! "Who are you?" demands she fiercely, "that you should presume to dictate right and wrong to me."
"I am Miss Wynter's guardian," says the professor, who begins to see visions—and all the lower regions let loose at once. Could an original Fury look more horrible than this old woman, with her grey nodding head, and blind vindictive passion. He hears his voice faltering, and knows that he is edging towards the door. After all, what can the bravest man do with an angry old woman, except to get away from her as quickly as possible? And the professor, through brave enough in the usual ways, is not brave where women are concerned.
"Guardian or no guardian, I will thank you to remember you are in my house!" cries Miss Majendie, in a shrill tone that runs through the professor's head.
"Certainly. Certainly," says he, confusedly, and then he slips out of the room, and having felt the door close behind him, runs tumultuously down the staircase. For years he has not gone down any staircase so swiftly. A vague, if unacknowledged, feeling that he is literally making his escape from a vital danger, is lending wings to his feet. Before him lies the hall-door, and that way safety lies, safety from that old gaunt, irate figure upstairs. He is not allowed to reach it, however—just yet.
A door on the right side of the hall is opened cautiously; a shapely little head is as cautiously pushed through it, and two anxious red lips whisper:—
"Mr. Curzon," first, and then, as he turns in answer to the whisper, "Sh—Sh!"
"My love is like the sea, As changeful and as free; Sometimes she's angry, sometimes rough, Yet oft she's smooth and calm enough— Ay, much too calm for me."
It is Perpetua. A sad-eyed, a tearful-eyed Perpetua, but a lovely Perpetua for all that.
"Well?" says he.
"Sh!" says she again, shaking her head ominously, and putting her forefinger against her lip. "Come in here," says she softly, under her breath.
"Here," when he does come in, is a most untidy place, made up of all things heterogeneous. Now that he is nearer to her, he can see that she has been crying vehemently, and that the tears still stand thick within her eyes.
"I felt I must see you," says she, "to tell you—to ask you. To—Oh! you heard what she said! Do—do you think——?"
"Not at all, not at all," declares the professor hurriedly. "Don't—don't cry, Perpetua! Look here," laying his hand nervously upon her shoulder and giving her a little angry shake. "Don't cry! Good heavens! Why should you mind that awful old woman?"
Nevertheless, he had minded that awful old woman himself very considerably.
"But—it is soon, isn't it?" says she. "I know that myself, and yet—" wistfully—"I can't help it. I do want to see things, and to amuse myself."
"Naturally," says the professor.
"And it isn't that I forget him," says she in an eager, intense tone, "I never forget him—never—never. Only I do want to laugh sometimes and to be happy, and to see Mr. Irving as Charles I."
The climax is irresistible. The professor is unable to suppress a smile.
"I'm afraid, from what I have heard, that won't make you laugh," says he.
"It will make me cry then. It is all the same," declares she, impartially. "I shall be enjoying myself, I shall be seeing things. You—" doubtfully, and mindful of his last speech—"Haven't you seen him?"
"Not for a long time, I regret to say. I—I'm always so busy," says the professor apologetically.
"Always studying?" questions she.
"For the most part," returns the professor, an odd sensation growing within him that he is feeling ashamed of himself.
"'All work and no play,'" begins Perpetua, and stops, and shakes her charming head at him. "You will be a dull boy if you don't take care," says she.
A ghost of a little smile warms her sad lips as she says this, and lights up her shining eyes like a ray of sunlight. Then it fades, and she grows sorrowful again.
"Well, I can't study," says she.
"Why not?" demands the professor quickly. Here he is on his own ground; and here he has a pupil to his hand—a strange, an enigmatical, but a lovely one. "Believe me knowledge is the one good thing that life contains worth having. Pleasures, riches, rank, all sink to insignificance beside it."
"How do you know?" says she. "You haven't tried the others."
"I know it, for all that. I feel it. Get knowledge—such knowledge as the short span of life allotted to us will allow you to get. I can lend you some books, easy ones at first, and——"
"I couldn't read your books," says she; "and—you haven't any novels, I suppose?"
"No," says he. "But——"
"I don't care for any books but novels," says she, sighing. "Have you read 'Alas?' I never have anything to read here, because Aunt Jane says novels are of the devil, and that if I read them I shall go to hell."
"Nonsense!" says the professor gruffly.
"You mustn't think I'm afraid about that," says Perpetua demurely; "I'm not. I know the same place could never contain Aunt Jane and me for long, so I'm all right."
The professor struggles with himself for a moment and then gives way to mirth.
"Ah! now you are on my side," cries his ward exultantly. She tucks her arm into his. "And as for all that talk about 'knowledge'—don't bother me about that any more. It's a little rude of you, do you know? One would think I was a dunce—that I knew nothing—whereas, I assure you," throwing out her other hand, "I know quite as much as most girls, and a great deal more than many. I daresay," putting her head to one side, and examining him thoughtfully, "I know more than you do, if it comes to that. I don't believe you know this moment who wrote 'The Master of Ballantrae.' Come now, who was it?"
She leans back from him, gazing at him mischievously, as if anticipating his defeat. As for the professor, he grows red—he draws his brows together. Truly this is a most impertinent pupil! 'The Master of Ballantrae.' It sounds like Sir Walter, and yet—The professor hesitates and is lost.
"Scott," says he, with as good an air as he can command.
"Wrong," cries she, clapping her hands softly, noiselessly. "Oh! you ignorant man! Go buy that book at once. It will do you more good and teach you a great deal more than any of your musty tomes."
She laughs gaily. It occurs to the professor, in a misty sort of way, that her laugh, at all events, would do anyone good.
She has been pulling a ring on and off her finger unconsciously, as if thinking, but now looks up at him.
"If you spoke to her again, when she was in a better temper, don't you think she would let you take me to the theatre some night?" She has come nearer, and has laid a light, appealing little hand upon his arm.
"I am sure it would be useless," says he, taking off his glasses and putting them on again in an anxious fashion. They are both speaking in whispers, and the professor is conscious of feeling a strange sort of pleasure in the thought that he is sharing a secret with her. "Besides," says he, "I couldn't very well come here again."
"Not come again? Why?"
"I'd be afraid," returns he simply. Whereon Miss Wynter, after a second's pause, gives way and laughs "consumedly," as they would have said long, long years before her pretty features saw the light.
"Ah! yes," murmurs she. "How she did frighten you. She brought you to your knees—you actually"—this with keen reproach—"took her part against me."
"I took her part to help you," says the professor, feeling absurdly miserable.
"Yes," sighing, "I daresay. But though I know I should have suffered for it afterwards, it would have done me a world of good to hear somebody tell her his real opinion of her for once. I should like," calmly, "to see her writhe; she makes me writhe very often."
"This is a bad school for you," says the professor hurriedly.
"Yes? Then why don't you take me away from it?"
"If I could——but—— Well, I shall see," says he vaguely.
"You will have to be very quick about it," says she. Her tone is quite ordinary; it never suggests itself to the professor that there is meaning beneath it.
"You have some friends surely?" says he.
"There is a Mrs. Constans who comes here sometimes to see Aunt Jane. She is a young woman, and her mother was a friend of Aunt Jane's, which accounts for it, I suppose. She seems kind. She said she would take me to a concert soon, but she has not been here for many days. I daresay she has forgotten all about it by this time."
She sighs. The charming face so near the professor's is looking sad again. The white brow is puckered, the soft lips droop. No, she cannot stay here, that is certain—and yet it was her father's wish, and who is he, the professor, that he should pretend to know how girls should be treated? What if he should make a mistake? And yet again, should a little brilliant face like that know sadness? It is a problem difficult to solve. All the professor's learning fails him now.
"I hope she will remember. Oh! she must," declares he, gazing at Perpetua. "You know I would do what I could for you, but your aunt—you heard her—she would not let you go anywhere with me."
"True," says Perpetua. Here she moves back, and folds her arms stiffly across her bosom, and pokes out her chin, in an aggressive fashion, that creates a likeness on the spot, in spite of the youthful eyes, and brow, and hair. "'Young gentlewomen in our time, Mr. Curzon, never went out walking, alone, with A Man!'"
The mimicry is perfect. The professor, after a faint struggle with his dignity, joins in her naughty mirth, and both laugh together.
"'Our' time! she thinks you are a hundred and fifty!" says Miss Wynter.
"Well, so I am, in a way," returns the professor, somewhat sadly.
"No, you're not," says she. "I know better than that, I" patting his arm reassuringly, "can guess your age better than she can. I can see at once, that you are not a day older than poor, darling papa. In fact you may be younger. I am perfectly certain you are not more than fifty."
The professor says nothing. He is staring at her. He is beginning to feel a little forlorn. He has forgotten youth for many days, has youth in revenge forgotten him?
"That is taking off a clear hundred at once," says she lightly. "No small account." Here, as if noticing his silence, she looks quickly at him, and perhaps something in his face strikes her, because she goes on hurriedly. "Oh! and what is age after all? I wish I were old, and then I should be able to get away from Aunt Jane—without—without any trouble."
"I am afraid you are indeed very unhappy here," says the professor gravely.
"I hate the place," cries she with a frown. "I shan't be able to stay here. Oh! why didn't poor papa send me to live with you?"
Why indeed? That is exactly what the professor finds great difficulty in explaining to her. An "old man" of "fifty" might very easily give a home to a young girl, without comment from the world. But then if an "old man of fifty" wasn't an old man of fifty—— The professor checks his thoughts, they are growing too mixed.
"We should have been so happy," Perpetua is going on, her tone regretful. "We could have gone everywhere together, you and I. I should have taken you to the theatre, to balls, to concerts, to afternoons. You would have been so happy, and so should I. You would—wouldn't you?"
The professor nods his head. The awful vista she has opened up to him has completely deprived him of speech.
"Ah! yes," sighs she, taking that deceitful nod in perfect good faith. "And you would have been good to me too, and let me look in at the shop windows. I should have taken such care of you, and made your tea for you, just" sadly, "as I used to do for poor papa, and——"
It is becoming too much for the professor.
"It is late. I must go," says he.
It is a week later when he meets her again. The season is now at its height, and some stray wave of life casting the professor into a fashionable thoroughfare, he there finds her.
Marching along, as usual, with his head in the air, and his thoughts in the ages when dates were unknown, a soft, eager voice calling his name brings him back to the fact that he is walking up Bond Street.
In a carriage, exceedingly well appointed, and with her face wreathed in smiles, and one hand impulsively extended, sits Perpetua. Evidently the owner of the carriage is in the shop making purchases, whilst Perpetua sits without, awaiting her.
"Were you going to cut me?" cries she. "What luck to meet you here. I am having such a lovely day. Mrs. Constans has taken me out with her, and I am to dine with her, and go with her to a concert in the evening."
She has poured it all out, all her good news in a breath, as though sure of a sympathetic listener.
He is too good a listener. He is listening so hard, he is looking so intensely, that he forgets to speak, and Perpetua's sudden gaiety forsakes her. Is he angry? Does he think——?
"It's only a concert," says she, flushing and hesitating. "Do you think that one should not go to a concert when——"
"Yes?" questions the professor abstractedly, as she comes to a full stop. He has never seen her dressed like this before. She is all in black to be sure, but such black, and her air! She looks quite the little heiress, like a little queen indeed—radiant, lovely.
"Well—when one is in mourning," says she somewhat impatiently, the color once again dyeing her cheek. Quick tears have sprung to her eyes. They seem to hurt the professor.
"One cannot be in mourning always," says he slowly. His manner is still unfortunate.
"You evade the question," says she frowning. "But a concert isn't like a ball, is it?"
"I don't know," says the professor, who indeed has had little knowledge of either for years, and whose unlucky answer arises solely from inability to give her an honest reply.
"You hesitate," says she, "you disapprove then. But," defiantly, "I don't care—a concert is not like a ball."
"No—I suppose not."
"I can see what you are thinking," returns she, struggling with her mortification. "And it is very hard of you. Just because you don't care to go anywhere, you think I oughtn't to care either. That is what is so selfish about people who are old. You," wilfully, "are just as bad as Aunt Jane."
The professor looks at her. His face is perplexed—distressed—and something more, but she cannot read that.
"Well, not quite perhaps," says she, relenting slightly. "But nearly. And if you don't care you will grow like her. I hate people who lecture me, and besides, I don't see why a guardian should control one's whole life, and thought, and action. A guardian," resentfully, "isn't one's conscience!"
"No. No. Thank Heaven!" says the professor, shocked. Perpetua stares at him a moment and then breaks into a queer little laugh.
"You evidently have no desire to be mixed up with my conscience," says she, a little angry in spite of her mirth. "Well, I don't want you to have anything to do with it. That's my affair. But, about this concert,"—she leans towards him, resting her hand on the edge of the carriage. "Do you think one should go nowhere when wearing black?"
"I think one should do just as one feels," says the professor nervously.
"I wonder if one should say just what one feels," says she. She draws back haughtily, then wrath gets the better of dignity, and she breaks out again. "What a horrid answer! You are unfeeling if you like!"
"Yes, yes! You would deny me this small gratification, you would lock me up for ever with Aunt Jane, you would debar me from everything! Oh!" her lips trembling, "how I wish—I wish—guardians had never been invented."
The professor almost begins to wish the same. Almost—perhaps not quite! That accusation about wishing to keep her locked up for ever with Miss Majendie is so manifestly unjust that he takes it hardly. Has he not spent all this past week striving to open a way of escape for her from the home she so detests! But, after all, how could she know that?
"You have misunderstood me," says he calmly, gravely. "Far from wishing you to deny yourself this concert, I am glad—glad from my heart—that you are going to it—that some small pleasure has fallen into your life. Your aunt's home is an unhappy one for you, I know, but you should remember that even if—if you have got to stay with her until you become your own mistress, still that will not be forever."
"No, I shall not stay there for ever," says she slowly. "And so—you really think——" she is looking very earnestly at him.
"I do, indeed. Go out—go everywhere—enjoy yourself, child, while you can."
He lifts his hat and walks away.
"Who was that, dear?" asks Mrs. Constans, a pretty pale woman, rushing out of the shop and into the carriage.
"My guardian—Mr. Curzon."
"Ah!" glancing carelessly after the professor's retreating figure. "A youngish man?"
"No, old," says Perpetua, "at least, I think—do you know," laughing, "when he's gone I sometimes think of him as being pretty young, but when he is with me, he is old—old and grave!"
"As a guardian should be, with such a pretty ward," says Mrs. Constans, smiling. "His back looks young, however."
"And his laugh sounds young."
"Ah! he can laugh then?"
"Very seldom. Too seldom. But when he does, it is a nice laugh. But he wears spectacles, you know—and—well—oh, yes, he is old, distinctly old!"
"He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper; but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to any circumstances."
"The idea of your having a ward! I could quite as soon imagine your having a wife," says Hardinge. He knocks the ash off his cigar, and after meditating for a moment, leans back in his chair and gives way to irrepressible mirth.
"I don't see why I shouldn't have a wife as well as another," says the professor, idly tapping his forefinger on the table near him. "She would bore me. But a great many fellows are bored."
"You have grasped one great truth if you never grasp another!" says Mr. Hardinge, who has now recovered. "Catch me marrying."
"It's unlucky to talk like that," says the professor. "It looks as though your time were near. In Sophocles' time there was a man who——"
"Oh, bother Sophocles, you know I never let you talk anything but wholesome nonsense when I drop in for a smoke with you," says the younger man. "You began very well, with that superstition of yours, but I won't have it spoiled by erudition. Tell me about your ward."
"Would that be nonsense?" says the professor, with a faint smile.
They are sitting in the professor's room with the windows thrown wide open to let in any chance gust of air that Heaven in its mercy may send them. It is night, and very late at night too—the clock indeed is on the stroke of twelve. It seems a long, long time to the professor since the afternoon—the afternoon of this very day—when he had seen Perpetua sitting in that open carriage. He had only been half glad when Harold Hardinge—a young man, and yet, strange to say, his most intimate friend—had dropped in to smoke a pipe with him. Hardinge was fonder of the professor than he knew, and was drawn to him by curious intricate webs. The professor suited him, and he suited the professor, though in truth Hardinge was nothing more than a gay young society man, with just the average amount of brains, but not an ounce beyond that.
A tall, handsome young man, with fair brown hair and hazel eyes, a dark moustache and a happy manner, Mr. Hardinge laughs his way through life, without money, or love, or any other troubles.
"Can you ask?" says he. "Go on, Curzon. What is she like?"
"It wouldn't interest you," says the professor.
"I beg your pardon, it is profoundly interesting; I've got to keep an eye on you, or else in a weak moment you will let her marry you."
The professor moves uneasily.
"May I ask how you knew I had a ward?"
"That should go without telling. I arrived here to-night, to find you absent and Mrs. Mulcahy in possession, pretending to dust the furniture. She asked me to sit down—I obeyed her."
"'How's the professor?'" said I.
"'Me dear!' said she, 'that's a bad story. He's that distracted over a young lady that his own mother wouldn't know him!'
"I acknowledge I blushed. I went even so far as to make a few pantomimic gestures suggestive of the horror I was experiencing, and finally I covered my face with my handkerchief. I regret to say that Mrs. Mulcahy took my modesty in bad part.
"'Arrah! git out wid ye!' says she, 'ye scamp o' the world. 'Tis a ward the masther has taken an' nothin' more.'
"I said I thought it was quite enough, and asked if you had taken it badly, and what the doctor thought of you. But she wouldn't listen to me.
"'Look here, Misther Hardinge,' said she. 'I've come to the conclusion that wards is bad for the professor. I haven't seen the young lady, I confess, but I'm cock-sure that she's got the divil's own temper!'" Hardinge pauses, and turns to the professor—"Has she?" says he.
"N—o," says the professor—a little frowning lovely crimson face rises before him—and then a laughing one. "No," says he more boldly, "she is a little impulsive, perhaps, but——"
"Just so. Just so," says Mr. Hardinge pleasantly, and then, after a kindly survey of his companion's features, "She is rather a trouble to you, old man, isn't she?"
"She? No," says the professor again, more quickly this time. "It is only this—she doesn't seem to get on with the aunt to whom her poor father sent her—he is dead—and I have to look out for some one else to take care of her, until she comes of age."
"I see. I should think you would have to hurry up a bit," says Mr. Hardinge, taking his cigar from his lips, and letting the smoke curl upwards slowly, thoughtfully. "Impulsive people have a trick of being impatient—of acting for themselves——"
"She cannot," says the professor, with anxious haste. "She knows nobody in town."
"Except me, and a woman who is a friend of her aunt's. If she were to go to her, she would be taken back again. Perpetua knows that."
"Perpetua! Is that her name? What a peculiar one? Perpetua——"
"Miss Wynter," sharply.
"Perpetua—Miss Wynter! Exactly so! It sounds like—Dorothea—Lady Highflown! Well, your Lady Highflown doesn't seem to have many friends here. What a pity you can't send her back to Australia!"
The professor is silent.
"It would suit all sides. I daresay the poor girl is pining for the freedom of her old home. And, I must say, it is hard lines for you. A girl with a temper, to be——"
"I did not say she had a temper."
Hardinge has risen to get himself some whisky and soda, but pauses to pat the professor affectionately on the back.
"Of course not! Don't I know you? You would die first! She might worry your life out, and still you would rise up to defend her at every corner. You should get her a satisfactory home as son as you can—it would ease your mind; and, after all, as she knows no one here, she is bound to behave herself until you can come to her help."
"She would behave herself, as you call it," says the professor angrily, "any and every where. She is a lady. She has been well brought up. I am her guardian, she will do nothing without my permission!"
A sound, outside the door, strikes on the ears of both men at this moment. It is a most peculiar sound, as it were the rattle of beads against wood.
"What's that?" says Hardinge. "Everett" (the man in the rooms below) "is out, I know."
"It's coming here," says the professor.
It is, indeed! The door is opened in a tumultuous fashion, there is a rustle of silken skirts, and there—there, where the gas-light falls full on her from both room and landing—stands Perpetua!
The professor has risen to his feet. His face is deadly white. Mr. Hardinge has risen too.
"Perpetua!" says the professor; it would be impossible to describe his tone.
"I've come!" says Perpetua, advancing into the room. "I have done with Aunt Jane for ever," casting wide her pretty naked arms, "and I have come to you!"
As if in confirmation of this decision, she flings from her on to a distant chair the white opera cloak around her, and stands revealed as charming a thing as ever eye fell upon. She is all in black, but black that sparkles and trembles and shines with every movement. She seems, indeed, to be hung in jet, and out of all this sombre gleaming her white neck rises, pure and fresh and sweet as a little child's. Her long slight arms are devoid of gloves—she had forgotten them, no doubt, but her slender fingers are covered with rings, and round her neck a diamond necklace clings as if in love with its resting place.
Diamonds indeed are everywhere. In her hair, in her breast, on her neck, her fingers. Her father, when luck came to him, had found his greatest joy in decking with these gems the delight of his heart.
The professor turns to Hardinge. That young man, who had risen with the intention of leaving the room on Perpetua's entrance, is now staring at her as if bewitched. His expression is half puzzled, half amused. Is this the professor's troublesome ward? This lovely, graceful——
"Leave us!" says the professor sharply. Hardinge, with a profound bow, quits the room, but not the house. It would be impossible to go without hearing the termination of this exciting episode. Everett's rooms being providentially empty, he steps into them, and, having turned up the gas, drops into a chair and gives way to mirth.
Meantime the professor is staring at Perpetua.
"What has happened?" says he.
"Take it to thy breast; Though thorns its stem invest, Gather them, with the rest!"
"She is unbearable. Unbearable!" returns Perpetua vehemently. "When I came back from the concert to-night, she—— But I won't speak of her. I won't. And, at all events, I have done with her; I have left her. I have come"—with decision—"to stay with you!"
"Eh?" says the professor. It is a mere sound, but it expresses a great deal.
"To stay with you. Yes," nodding her head, "it has come to that at last. I warned you it would. I couldn't stay with her any longer. I hate her! So I have come to stay with you—for ever!"
She has cuddled herself into an armchair, and, indeed, looks as if a life-long residence in this room is the plan she has laid out for herself.
"Good heavens! What can you mean?" asks the poor professor, who should have sworn by the heathen gods, but in a weak moment falls back upon the good old formula. He sinks upon the table next him, and makes ruin of the notes he had been scribbling—the ink is still wet—even whilst Hardinge was with him. Could he only have known it, there are first proofs of them now upon his trousers.
"I have told you," says she. "Good gracious, what a funny room this is! I told you she was abominable to me when I came home to-night. She said dreadful things to me, and I don't care whether she is my aunt or not, I shan't let her scold me for nothing; and—I'm afraid I wasn't nice to her. I'm sorry for that, but—one isn't a bit of stone, you know, and she said something—about my mother," her eyes grow very brilliant here, "and when I walked up to her she apologized for that, but afterwards she said something about poor, poor papa—and—well, that was the end. I told her—amongst other things—that I thought she was 'too old to be alive,' and she didn't seem to mind the 'other things' half as much as that, though they were awful. At all events," with a little wave of her hands, "she's lectured me now for good; I shall never see her again! I've run away to you! See?"
It must be acknowledged that the professor doesn't see. He is sitting on the edge of the table—dumb.
"Oh! I'm so glad I've left her," says Perpetua, with indeed heartfelt delight in look and tone. "But—do you know—I'm hungry. You—you couldn't let me make you a cup of tea, could you? I'm dreadfully thirsty! What's that in your glass?"
"Nothing," says the professor hastily. He removes the half-finished tumbler of whisky and soda, and places it in the open cupboard.
"It looked like something," says she. "But what about tea?"
"I'll see what I can do," says he, beginning to busy himself amongst many small contrivances in the same cupboard. It has gone to his heart to hear that she is hungry and thirsty, but even in the midst of his preparations for her comfort, a feeling of rage takes possession of him.
He pulls his head out of the cupboard and turns to her.
"You must be mad!" says he.
"Mad? Why?" asks she.
"To come here. Here! And at this hour!"
"There was no other place: and I wasn't going to live under her roof another second. I said to myself that she was my aunt, but you were my guardian. Both of you have been told to look after me, and I prefer to be looked after by you. It is so simple," says she, with a suspicion of contempt in her tone, "that I wonder why you wonder at it. As I preferred you—of course I have come to live with you."
"You can't!" gasps the professor, "you must go back to Miss Majendie at once!"
"To her! I'm not going back," steadily. "And even if I would," triumphantly, "I couldn't. As she sleeps at the top of the house (to get air, she says), and so does her maid, you might ring until you were black in the face, and she wouldn't hear you."
"Well! you can't stay here!" says the professor, getting off the table and addressing her with a truly noble attempt at sternness.
"Why can't I?" There is some indignation in her tone. "There's lots of room here, isn't there?"
"There is no room!" says the professor. This is the literal truth. "The house is full. And—and there are only men here."
"So much the better!" says Perpetua, with a little frown and a great deal of meaning. "I'm tired of women—they're horrid. You're always kind to me—at least," with a glance, "you always used to be, and you're a man! Tell one of your servants to make me up a room somewhere."
"There isn't one," says the professor.
"Oh! nonsense," says she, leaning back in her chair and yawning softly. "I'm not so big that you can't put me away somewhere. That woman says I'm so small that I'll never be a grown-up girl, because I can't grow up any more. Who'd live with a woman like that? And I shall grow more, isn't it?"
"I daresay," says the professor vaguely. "But that is not the question to be considered now. I must beg you to understand, Perpetua, that your staying here is out of the question!"
"Out of the—— Oh! I see," cries she, springing to her feet and turning a passionately reproachful face on his. "You mean that I shall be in your way here!"
"No, no, NO!" cries he, just as impulsively, and decidedly very foolishly; but the sight of her small mortified face has proved too much for him, "Only——"
"Only?" echoes the spoiled child, with a loving smile—the child who has been accustomed to have all things and all people give way to her during her short life. "Only you are afraid I shall not be comfortable. But I shall. And I shall be a great comfort to you too—a great help. I shall keep everything in order for you. Do you remember the talk we had that last day you came to Aunt Jane's? How I told you of the happy days we should have together, if we were together. Well, we are together now, aren't we? And when I'm twenty-one, we'll move into a big, big house, and ask people to dances and dinners and things. In the meantime——" she pauses and glances leisurely around her. The glance is very comprehensive. "To-morrow," says she with decision, "I shall settle this room!"
The professor's breath fails him. He grows pale. To "settle" his room!
"Perpetua!" exclaims he, almost inarticulately, "you don't understand."
"I do indeed," returns she brightly. "I've often settled papa's den. What! do you think me only a silly useless creature? You shall see! I'll settle you too, by and by." She smiles at him gaily, with the most charming innocence, but oh! what awful probabilities lie within her words. Settle him!
"Do you know I've heard people talking about you at Mrs. Constans'," says she. She smiles and nods at him. The professor groans. To be talked about! To be discussed! To be held up to vulgar comment! He writhes inwardly. The thought is actual torture to him.
"What?" demands the professor, almost fiercely. How dare a feeble feminine audience appreciate or condemn his honest efforts to enlighten his small section of mankind!
"That you ought to be married," says Perpetua, sympathetically. "And they said, too, that they supposed you wouldn't ever be now; but that it was a great pity you hadn't a daughter. I think that too. Not about your having a wife. That doesn't matter, but I really think you ought to have a daughter to look after you."
This extremely immoral advice she delivers with a beaming smile.
"I'll be your daughter," says she.
The professor goes rigid with horror. What has he done that the Fates should so visit him?
"They said something else too," goes on Perpetua, this time rather angrily. "They said you were so clever that you always looked unkempt. That?" thoughtfully, "means that you didn't brush your hair enough. Never mind, I'll brush it for you."
"Look here!" says the professor furiously, subdued fury no doubt, but very genuine. "You must go, you know. Go, at once! D'ye see? You can't stay in this house, d'ye hear? I can't permit it. What did your father mean by bringing you up like this!"
"Like what?" She is staring at him. She has leant forward as if surprised—and with a sigh the professor acknowledges the uselessness of a fight between them; right or wrong she is sure to win. He is bound to go to the wall. She is looking not only surprised, but unnerved. The ebullition of wrath on the part of her mild guardian has been a slight shock to her.
"Tell me?" persists she.
"Tell you! what is there to tell you? I should think the veriest infant would have known she oughtn't to come here."
"I should think an infant would know nothing," with dignity. "All your scientific researches have left you, I'm afraid, very ignorant. And I should think that the very first thing even an infant would do, if she could walk, would be to go straight to her guardian when in trouble."
"At this hour?"
"At any hour. What," throwing out her hands expressively, "is a guardian for, if it isn't to take care of people?"
The professor gives it up. The heat of battle has overcome him. With a deep breath he drops into a chair, and begins to wonder how long it will be before happy death will overtake him.
But in the meantime, whilst sitting on a milestone of life waiting for that grim friend, what is to be done with her? If—Good heavens! if anyone had seen her come in!
"Who opened the door for you?" demands he abruptly.
"A great big fat woman with a queer voice! Your Mrs. Mulcahy of course. I remember your telling me about her."
Mrs. Mulcahy undoubtedly. Well, the professor wishes now he had told his ward more about her. Mrs. Mulcahy he can trust, but she—awful thought— will she trust him? What is she thinking now?
"I said, 'Is Mr. Curzon at home?' and she said, 'Well I niver!' So I saw she was a kindly, foolish, poor creature with no sense, and I ran past her, and up the stairs, and I looked into one room where there were lights but you weren't there, and then I ran on again until I saw the light under your door, and, "brightening, "there you were!"
Here she is now, at all events, at half-past twelve at night!
"Wasn't it fortunate I found you?" says she. She is laughing a little, and looking so content that the professor hasn't the heart to contradict her—though where the fortune comes in——
"I'm starving," says she, gaily, "will that funny little kettle soon boil?" The professor has lit a spirit-lamp with a view to giving her some tea. "I haven't had anything to eat since dinner, and you know she dines at an ungodly hour. Two o'clock! I didn't know I wanted anything to eat until I escaped from her, but now that I have got you," triumphantly, "I feel as hungry as ever I can be."
"There is nothing," says the professor, blankly. His heart seems to stop beating. The most hospitable and kindly of men, it is terrible to him to have to say this. Of course Mrs. Mulcahy—who, no doubt, is still in the hall waiting for an explanation, could give him something. But Mrs. Mulcahy can be unpleasant at times, and this is safe to be a "time." Yet without her assistance he can think of no means by which this pretty, slender, troublesome little ward of his can be fed.
"Nothing!" repeats she faintly. "Oh, but surely in that cupboard over there, where you put the glass, there is something; even bread and butter I should like."
She gets up, and makes an impulsive step forward, and in doing so brushes against a small ricketty table, that totters feebly for an instant and then comes with a crash to the ground, flinging a whole heap of gruesome dry bones at her very feet.
With a little cry of horror she recoils from them. Perhaps her nerves are more out of order than she knows, perhaps the long fast and long drive here, and her reception from her guardian at the end of it—so different from what she had imagined—have all helped to undo her. Whatever be the cause, she suddenly covers her face with her hands and burst into tears.
"Take them away!" cries she frantically, and then—sobbing heavily between her broken words—"Oh, I see how it is. You don't want me here at all. You wish I hadn't come. And I have no one but you—and poor papa said you would be good to me. But you are sorry he made you my guardian. You would be glad if I were dead! When I come to you in my trouble you tell me to go away again, and though I tell you I am hungry, you won't give me even some bread and butter! Oh!" passionately, "if you came to me starving, I'd give you things, but—you——"
"Stop!" cries the professor. He uplifts his hands, and, as though in the act of tearing his hair, rushes from the room, and staggers downstairs to those other apartments where Hardinge had elected to sit, and see out the farce, comedy, or tragedy, whichever it may prove, to its bitter end.
The professor bursts in like a maniac!
"The house of everyone is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence as for his repose."
"She's upstairs still," cries he in a frenzied tone. "She says she has come for ever. That she will not go away. She doesn't understand. Great Heaven! what am I to do?"
"She?" says Hardinge, who really in turn grows petrified for the moment—only for the moment.
"That girl! My ward! All women are demons!" says the professor bitterly, with tragic force. He pauses as if exhausted.
"Your demon is a pretty specimen of her kind," says Hardinge, a little frivolously under the circumstances it must be confessed. "Where is she now?"
"Upstairs!" with a groan. "She says she's hungry, and I haven't a thing in the house! For goodness sake think of something, Hardinge."
"Mrs. Mulcahy!" suggests Hardinge, in anything but a hopeful tone.
"Yes—ye-es," says the professor. "You—you wouldn't ask her something, would you, Hardinge?"
"Not for a good deal," says Hardinge, promptly. "I say," rising, and going towards Everett's cupboard, "Everett's a Sybarite, you know, of the worst kind—sure to find something here, and we can square it with him afterwards. Beauty in distress, you know, appeals to all hearts. Here we are!" holding out at arm's length a pasty. "A 'weal and ammer!' Take it! The guilt be on my head! Bread—butter—pickled onions! Oh, not pickled onions, I think. Really, I had no idea even Everett had fallen so low. Cheese!—about to proceed on a walking tour! The young lady wouldn't care for that, thanks. Beer! No. No. Sherry-Woine!"
"Give me that pie, and the bread and butter," says the professor, in great wrath. "And let me tell you, Hardinge, that there are occasions when one's high spirits can degenerate into offensiveness and vulgarity!"
He marches out of the room and upstairs, leaving Hardinge, let us hope, a prey to remorse. It is true, at least of that young man, that he covers his face with his hands and sways from side to side, as if overcome by some secret emotion. Grief—no doubt.
Perpetua is graciously pleased to accept the frugal meal the professor brings her. She even goes so far as to ask him to share it with her—which invitation he declines. He is indeed sick at heart—not for himself—(the professor doesn't often think of himself)—but for her. And where is she to sleep? To turn her out now would be impossible! After all, it was a puerile trifling with the Inevitable, to shirk asking Mrs. Mulcahy for something to eat for his self-imposed guest—because the question of Bed is still to come! Mrs. Mulcahy, terrible, as she undoubtedly can be, is yet the only woman in the house, and it is imperative that Perpetua should be given up to her protection.
Whilst the professor is writhing in spirit over this ungetoutable fact, he becomes aware of a resounding knock at the door. Paralyzed, he gazes in the direction of the sound. It can't be Hardinge, he would never knock like that! The knock in itself, indeed, is of such force and volume as to strike terror into the bravest heart. It is—it must be—the Mulcahy!
And Mrs. Mulcahy it is! Without waiting for an answer, that virtuous Irishwoman, clad in righteous indignation and a snuff-colored gown, marches into the room.
"May I ask, Mr. Curzon," says she, with great dignity and more temper, "what may be the meanin' of all this?"
The professor's tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth, but Perpetua's tongue remains normal. She jumps up, and runs to Mrs. Mulcahy with a beaming face. She has had something to eat, and is once again her own buoyant, wayward, light-hearted little self.
"Oh! it is all right now, Mrs. Mulcahy," cries she, whilst the professor grows cold with horror at this audacious advance upon the militant Mulcahy. "But do you know, he said first he hadn't anything to give me, and I was starving. No, you mustn't scold him—he didn't mean anything. I suppose you have heard how unhappy I was with Aunt Jane?—he's told you, I daresay,"—with a little flinging of her hand towards the trembling professor—"because I know"—prettily—"he is very fond of you—he often speaks to me about you. Oh! Aunt Jane is horrid! I should have told you about how it was when I came, but I wanted so much to see my guardian, and tell him all about it, that I forgot to be nice to anybody. See?"
There is a little silence. The professor, who is looking as guilty as if the whole ten commandments have been broken by him at once, waits, shivering, for the outburst that is so sure to come.
It doesn't come, however! When the mists clear away a little, he finds that Perpetua has gone over to where Mrs. Mulcahy is standing, and is talking still to that good Irishwoman. It is a whispered talk this time, and the few words of it that he catches go to his very heart.
"I'm afraid he didn't want me here," Perpetua is saying, in a low distressed little voice—"I'm sorry I came now—but, you don't know how cruel Aunt Jane was to me, Mrs. Mulcahy, you don't indeed! She—she said such unkind things about—about——" Perpetua breaks down again—struggles with herself valiantly, and finally bursts out crying. "I'm tired, I'm sleepy," sobs she miserably.
Need I say what follows? The professor, stung to the quick by those forlorn sobs, lifts his eyes, and—behold! he sees Perpetua gathered to the ample bosom of the formidable, kindly Mulcahy.
"Come wid me, me lamb," says that excellent woman. "Bad scran to the one that made yer purty heart sore. Lave her to me now, Misther Curzon, dear, an' I'll take a mother's care of her." (This in an aside to the astounded professor.) "There now, alanna! Take courage now! Sure 'tis to the right shop ye've come, anyway, for 'tis daughthers I have meself, me dear—fine, sthrappin' girls as could put you in their pockits. Ye poor little crather! Oh! Murther! Who could harm the like of ye? Faix, I hope that ould divil of an aunt o' yours won't darken these doors, or she'll git what she won't like from Biddy Mulcahy. There now! There now! 'Tis into yer bed I'll tuck ye meself, for 'tis worn-out ye are—God help ye!"
She is gone, taking Perpetua with her. The professor rubs his eyes, and then suddenly an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards Mrs. Mulcahy takes possession of him. What a woman! He had never thought so much moral support could be got out of a landlady—but Mrs. Mulcahy has certainly tided him safely over one of his difficulties. Still, those that remain are formidable enough to quell any foolish present attempts at relief of mind. "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow!"
How many to-morrows is she going to remain here? Oh! Impossible! Not an hour must be wasted. By the morning light something must be put on foot to save the girl from her own foolhardiness, nay ignorance!
Once again, sunk in the meshes of depression, the persecuted professor descends to the room where Hardinge awaits him.
"Anything new?" demands the latter, springing to his feet.
"Yes! Mrs. Mulcahy came up." The professor's face is so gloomy, that Hardinge may be forgiven for saying to himself, "She has assaulted him!"
"I'm glad it isn't visible," says he, staring at the professor's nose, and then at his eye. Both are the usual size.
"Eh?" says the professor. "She was visible of course. She was kinder than I expected."
"So, I see. She might so easily have made it your lip—or your nose—or——"
"What is there in Everett's cupboard besides the beer?" demands the professor angrily. "For Heaven's sake! attend to me, and don't sit there grinning like a first-class chimpanzee!"
This is extremely rude, but Hardinge takes no notice of it.
"I tell you she was kind—kinder than one would expect," says the professor, rapping his knuckles on the table.
"Oh! I see. She? Miss Wynter?"
"No—Mrs. Mulcahy!" roars the professor frantically. "Where's your head, man? Mrs. Mulcahy came into the room, and took Miss Wynter into her charge in the—er—the most wonderful way, and carried her off to bed." The professor mops his brow.
"Oh, well, that's all right," says Hardinge. "Sit down, old chap, and let's talk it over."
"It is not all right," says the professor. "It is all wrong. Here she is, and here she apparently means to stay. The poor child doesn't understand. She thinks I'm older than Methusaleh, and that she can live here with me. I can't explain it to her—you—don't think you could, do you, Hardinge?"
"No, I don't, indeed," says Hardinge, in a hurry. "What on earth has brought her here at all?"
"To stay. Haven't I told you? To stay for ever. She says"—with a groan—"she is going to settle me! To—to brush my hair! To—make my tea. She says I'm her guardian, and insists on living with me. She doesn't understand! Hardinge," desperately, "what am I to do?"
"Marry her!" suggests Hardinge, who, I regret to say is choking with laughter.
"That is a jest!" says the professor haughtily. This unusual tone from the professor strikes surprise to the soul of Hardinge. He looks at him. But the professor's new humor is short-lived. He sinks upon a chair in a tired sort of way, letting his arms fall over the sides of it. As a type of utter despair he is a distinguished specimen.
"Why don't you take her home again, back to the old aunt?" says Hardinge, moved by his misery.
"I can't. She tells me it would be useless, that the house is locked up, and—and besides, Hardinge, her aunt—after this, you know— would be——"
"Naturally," says Hardinge, after which he falls back upon his cigar. "Light your pipe," says he, "and we'll think it over." The professor lights it, and both men draw nearer to each other.
"I'm afraid she won't go back to her aunt any way," says the professor, as a beginning to the "thinking it over." He pushes his glasses up to his forehead, and finally discards them altogether, flinging them on the table near.
"If she saw you now she might understand," says Hardinge—for, indeed, the professor without his glasses loses thirty per cent. of old Time.
"She wouldn't," says the professor. "And never mind that. Come back to the question. I say she will never go back to her aunt."