AN UNSOCIAL SOCIALIST
by George Bernard Shaw
In the dusk of an October evening, a sensible looking woman of forty came out through an oaken door to a broad landing on the first floor of an old English country-house. A braid of her hair had fallen forward as if she had been stooping over book or pen; and she stood for a moment to smooth it, and to gaze contemplatively—not in the least sentimentally—through the tall, narrow window. The sun was setting, but its glories were at the other side of the house; for this window looked eastward, where the landscape of sheepwalks and pasture land was sobering at the approach of darkness.
The lady, like one to whom silence and quiet were luxuries, lingered on the landing for some time. Then she turned towards another door, on which was inscribed, in white letters, Class Room No. 6. Arrested by a whispering above, she paused in the doorway, and looked up the stairs along a broad smooth handrail that swept round in an unbroken curve at each landing, forming an inclined plane from the top to the bottom of the house.
A young voice, apparently mimicking someone, now came from above, saying,
"We will take the Etudes de la Velocite next, if you please, ladies."
Immediately a girl in a holland dress shot down through space; whirled round the curve with a fearless centrifugal toss of her ankle; and vanished into the darkness beneath. She was followed by a stately girl in green, intently holding her breath as she flew; and also by a large young woman in black, with her lower lip grasped between her teeth, and her fine brown eyes protruding with excitement. Her passage created a miniature tempest which disarranged anew the hair of the lady on the landing, who waited in breathless alarm until two light shocks and a thump announced that the aerial voyagers had landed safely in the hall.
"Oh law!" exclaimed the voice that had spoken before. "Here's Susan."
"It's a mercy your neck ain't broken," replied some palpitating female. "I'll tell of you this time, Miss Wylie; indeed I will. And you, too, Miss Carpenter: I wonder at you not to have more sense at your age and with your size! Miss Wilson can't help hearing when you come down with a thump like that. You shake the whole house."
"Oh bother!" said Miss Wylie. "The Lady Abbess takes good care to shut out all the noise we make. Let us—"
"Girls," said the lady above, calling down quietly, but with ominous distinctness.
Silence and utter confusion ensued. Then came a reply, in a tone of honeyed sweetness, from Miss Wylie:
"Did you call us, DEAR Miss Wilson?"
"Yes. Come up here, if you please, all three."
There was some hesitation among them, each offering the other precedence. At last they went up slowly, in the order, though not at all in the manner, of their flying descent; followed Miss Wilson into the class-room; and stood in a row before her, illumined through three western windows with a glow of ruddy orange light. Miss Carpenter, the largest of the three, was red and confused. Her arms hung by her sides, her fingers twisting the folds of her dress. Miss Gertrude Lindsay, in pale sea-green, had a small head, delicate complexion, and pearly teeth. She stood erect, with an expression of cold distaste for reproof of any sort. The holland dress of the third offender had changed from yellow to white as she passed from the gray eastern twilight on the staircase into the warm western glow in the room. Her face had a bright olive tone, and seemed to have a golden mica in its composition. Her eyes and hair were hazel-nut color; and her teeth, the upper row of which she displayed freely, were like fine Portland stone, and sloped outward enough to have spoilt her mouth, had they not been supported by a rich under lip, and a finely curved, impudent chin. Her half cajoling, half mocking air, and her ready smile, were difficult to confront with severity; and Miss Wilson knew it; for she would not look at her even when attracted by a convulsive start and an angry side glance from Miss Lindsay, who had just been indented between the ribs by a finger tip.
"You are aware that you have broken the rules," said Miss Wilson quietly.
"We didn't intend to. We really did not," said the girl in holland, coaxingly.
"Pray what was your intention then, Miss Wylie?"
Miss Wylie unexpectedly treated this as a smart repartee instead of a rebuke. She sent up a strange little scream, which exploded in a cascade of laughter.
"Pray be silent, Agatha," said Miss Wilson severely. Agatha looked contrite. Miss Wilson turned hastily to the eldest of the three, and continued:
"I am especially surprised at you, Miss Carpenter. Since you have no desire to keep faith with me by upholding the rules, of which you are quite old enough to understand the necessity, I shall not trouble you with reproaches, or appeals to which I am now convinced that you would not respond," (here Miss Carpenter, with an inarticulate protest, burst into tears); "but you should at least think of the danger into which your juniors are led by your childishness. How should you feel if Agatha had broken her neck?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Agatha, putting her hand quickly to her neck.
"I didn't think there was any danger," said Miss Carpenter, struggling with her tears. "Agatha has done it so oft—oh dear! you have torn me." Miss Wylie had pulled at her schoolfellow's skirt, and pulled too hard.
"Miss Wylie," said Miss Wilson, flushing slightly, "I must ask you to leave the room."
"Oh, no," exclaimed Agatha, clasping her hands in distress. "Please don't, dear Miss Wilson. I am so sorry. I beg your pardon."
"Since you will not do what I ask, I must go myself," said Miss Wilson sternly. "Come with me to my study," she added to the two other girls. "If you attempt to follow, Miss Wylie, I shall regard it as an intrusion."
"But I will go away if you wish it. I didn't mean to diso—"
"I shall not trouble you now. Come, girls."
The three went out; and Miss Wylie, left behind in disgrace, made a surpassing grimace at Miss Lindsay, who glanced back at her. When she was alone, her vivacity subsided. She went slowly to the window, and gazed disparagingly at the landscape. Once, when a sound of voices above reached her, her eyes brightened, and her ready lip moved; but the next silent moment she relapsed into moody indifference, which was not relieved until her two companions, looking very serious, re-entered.
"Well," she said gaily, "has moral force been applied? Are you going to the Recording Angel?"
"Hush, Agatha," said Miss Carpenter. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"No, but you ought, you goose. A nice row you have got me into!"
"It was your own fault. You tore my dress."
"Yes, when you were blurting out that I sometimes slide down the banisters."
"Oh!" said Miss Carpenter slowly, as if this reason had not occurred to her before. "Was that why you pulled me?"
"Dear me! It has actually dawned upon you. You are a most awfully silly girl, Jane. What did the Lady Abbess say?"
Miss Carpenter again gave her tears way, and could not reply.
"She is disgusted with us, and no wonder," said Miss Lindsay.
"She said it was all your fault," sobbed Miss Carpenter.
"Well, never mind, dear," said Agatha soothingly. "Put it in the Recording Angel."
"I won't write a word in the Recording Angel unless you do so first," said Miss Lindsay angrily. "You are more in fault than we are."
"Certainly, my dear," replied Agatha. "A whole page, if you wish."
"I b-believe you LIKE writing in the Recording Angel," said Miss Carpenter spitefully.
"Yes, Jane. It is the best fun the place affords."
"It may be fun to you," said Miss Lindsay sharply; "but it is not very creditable to me, as Miss Wilson said just now, to take a prize in moral science and then have to write down that I don't know how to behave myself. Besides, I do not like to be told that I am ill-bred!"
Agatha laughed. "What a deep old thing she is! She knows all our weaknesses, and stabs at us through them. Catch her telling me, or Jane there, that we are ill-bred!"
"I don't understand you," said Miss Lindsay, haughtily.
"Of course not. That's because you don't know as much moral science as I, though I never took a prize in it."
"You never took a prize in anything," said Miss Carpenter.
"And I hope I never shall," said Agatha. "I would as soon scramble for hot pennies in the snow, like the street boys, as scramble to see who can answer most questions. Dr. Watts is enough moral science for me. Now for the Recording Angel."
She went to a shelf and took down a heavy quarto, bound in black leather, and inscribed, in red letters, MY FAULTS. This she threw irreverently on a desk, and tossed its pages over until she came to one only partly covered with manuscript confessions.
"For a wonder," she said, "here are two entries that are not mine. Sarah Gerram! What has she been confessing?"
"Don't read it," said Miss Lindsay quickly. "You know that it is the most dishonorable thing any of us can do."
"Poch! Our little sins are not worth making such a fuss about. I always like to have my entries read: it makes me feel like an author; and so in Christian duty I always read other people's. Listen to poor Sarah's tale of guilt. '1st October. I am very sorry that I slapped Miss Chambers in the lavatory this morning, and knocked out one of her teeth. This was very wicked; but it was coming out by itself; and she has forgiven me because a new one will come in its place; and she was only pretending when she said she swallowed it. Sarah Gerram."'
"Little fool!" said Miss Lindsay. "The idea of our having to record in the same book with brats like that!"
"Here is a touching revelation. '4th October. Helen Plantagenet is deeply grieved to have to confess that I took the first place in algebra yesterday unfairly. Miss Lindsay prompted me;' and—"
"Oh!" exclaimed Miss Lindsay, reddening. "That is how she thanks me for prompting her, is it? How dare she confess my faults in the Recording Angel?"
"Serves you right for prompting her," said Miss Carpenter. "She was always a double-faced cat; and you ought to have known better."
"Oh, I assure you it was not for her sake that I did it," replied Miss Lindsay. "It was to prevent that Jackson girl from getting first place. I don't like Helen Plantagenet; but at least she is a lady.'
"Stuff, Gertrude," said Agatha, with a touch of earnestness. "One would think, to hear you talk, that your grandmother was a cook. Don't be such a snob."
"Miss Wylie," said Gertrude, becoming scarlet: "you are very—oh! oh! Stop Ag—oh! I will tell Miss—oh!" Agatha had inserted a steely finger between her ribs, and was tickling her unendurably.
"Sh-sh-sh," whispered Miss Carpenter anxiously. "The door is open."
"Am I Miss Wylie?" demanded Agatha, relentlessly continuing the torture. "Am I very—whatever you were going to say? Am I? am I? am I?"
"No, no," gasped Gertrude, shrinking into a chair, almost in hysterics. "You are very unkind, Agatha. You have hurt me."
"You deserve it. If you ever get sulky with me again, or call me Miss Wylie, I will kill you. I will tickle the soles of your feet with a feather," (Miss Lindsay shuddered, and hid her feet beneath the chair) "until your hair turns white. And now, if you are truly repentant, come and record."
"You must record first. It was all your fault."
"But I am the youngest," said Agatha.
"Well, then," said Gertrude, afraid to press the point, but determined not to record first, "let Jane Carpenter begin. She is the eldest."
"Oh, of course," said Jane, with whimpering irony. "Let Jane do all the nasty things first. I think it's very hard. You fancy that Jane is a fool; but she isn't."
"You are certainly not such a fool as you look, Jane," said Agatha gravely. "But I will record first, if you like."
"No, you shan't," cried Jane, snatching the pen from her. "I arm the eldest; and I won't be put out of my place."
She dipped the pen in the ink resolutely, and prepared to write. Then she paused; considered; looked bewildered; and at last appealed piteously to Agatha.
"What shall I write?" she said. "You know how to write things down; and I don't."
"First put the date," said Agatha.
"To be sure," said Jane, writing it quickly. "I forgot that. Well?"
"Now write, 'I am very sorry that Miss Wilson saw me when I slid down the banisters this evening. Jane Carpenter.'"
"Is that all?"
"That's all: unless you wish to add something of your own composition."
"I hope it's all right," said Jane, looking suspiciously at Agatha. "However, there can't be any harm in it; for it's the simple truth. Anyhow, if you are playing one of your jokes on me, you are a nasty mean thing, and I don't care. Now, Gertrude, it's your turn. Please look at mine, and see whether the spelling is right."
"It is not my business to teach you to spell," said Gertrude, taking the pen. And, while Jane was murmuring at her churlishness, she wrote in a bold hand:
"I have broken the rules by sliding down the banisters to-day with Miss Carpenter and Miss Wylie. Miss Wylie went first."
"You wretch!" exclaimed Agatha, reading over her shoulder. "And your father is an admiral!"
"I think it is only fair," said Miss Lindsay, quailing, but assuming the tone of a moralist. "It is perfectly true."
"All my money was made in trade," said Agatha; "but I should be ashamed to save myself by shifting blame to your aristocratic shoulders. You pitiful thing! Here: give me the pen."
"I will strike it out if you wish; but I think—"
"No: it shall stay there to witness against you. How see how I confess my faults." And she wrote, in a fine, rapid hand:
"This evening Gertrude Lindsay and Jane Carpenter met me at the top of the stairs, and said they wanted to slide down the banisters and would do it if I went first. I told them that it was against the rules, but they said that did not matter; and as they are older than I am, I allowed myself to be persuaded, and did."
"What do you think of that?" said Agatha, displaying the page.
They read it, and protested clamorously.
"It is perfectly true," said Agatha, solemnly.
"It's beastly mean," said Jane energetically. "The idea of your finding fault with Gertrude, and then going and being twice as bad yourself! I never heard of such a thing in my life."
"'Thus bad begins; but worse remains behind,' as the Standard Elocutionist says," said Agatha, adding another sentence to her confession.
"But it was all my fault. Also I was rude to Miss Wilson, and refused to leave the room when she bade me. I was not wilfully wrong except in sliding down the banisters. I am so fond of a slide that I could not resist the temptation."
"Be warned by me, Agatha," said Jane impressively. "If you write cheeky things in that book, you will be expelled."
"Indeed!" replied Agatha significantly. "Wait until Miss Wilson sees what you have written."
"Gertrude," cried Jane, with sudden misgiving, "has she made me write anything improper? Agatha, do tell me if—"
Here a gong sounded; and the three girls simultaneously exclaimed "Grub!" and rushed from the room.
One sunny afternoon, a hansom drove at great speed along Belsize Avenue, St. John's Wood, and stopped before a large mansion. A young lady sprang out; ran up the steps, and rang the bell impatiently. She was of the olive complexion, with a sharp profile: dark eyes with long lashes; narrow mouth with delicately sensuous lips; small head, feet, and hands, with long taper fingers; lithe and very slender figure moving with serpent-like grace. Oriental taste was displayed in the colors of her costume, which consisted of a white dress, close-fitting, and printed with an elaborate china blue pattern; a yellow straw hat covered with artificial hawthorn and scarlet berries; and tan-colored gloves reaching beyond the elbow, and decorated with a profusion of gold bangles.
The door not being opened immediately, she rang again, violently, and w as presently admitted by a maid, who seemed surprised to see her. Without making any inquiry, she darted upstairs into a drawing-room, where a matron of good presence, with features of the finest Jewish type, sat reading. With her was a handsome boy in black velvet, who said:
"Mamma, here's Henrietta!"
"Arthur," said the young lady excitedly, "leave the room this instant; and don't dare to come back until you get leave."
The boy's countenance fell, and he sulkily went out without a word.
"Is anything wrong?" said the matron, putting away her book with the unconcerned resignation of an experienced person who foresees a storm in a teacup. "Where is Sidney?"
"Gone! Gone! Deserted me! I—" The young lady's utterance failed, and she threw herself upon an ottoman, sobbing with passionate spite.
"Nonsense! I thought Sidney had more sense. There, Henrietta, don't be silly. I suppose you have quarrelled."
"No! No!! No!!!" cried Henrietta, stamping on the carpet. "We had not a word. I have not lost my temper since we were married, mamma; I solemnly swear I have not. I will kill myself; there is no other way. There's a curse on me. I am marked out to be miserable. He—"
"Tut, tut! What has happened, Henrietta? As you have been married now nearly six weeks, you can hardly be surprised at a little tiff arising. You are so excitable! You cannot expect the sky to be always cloudless. Most likely you are to blame; for Sidney is far more reasonable than you. Stop crying, and behave like a woman of sense, and I will go to Sidney and make everything right."
"But he's gone, and I can't find out where. Oh, what shall I do?"
"What has happened?"
Henrietta writhed with impatience. Then, forcing herself to tell her story, she answered:
"We arranged on Monday that I should spend two days with Aunt Judith instead of going with him to Birmingham to that horrid Trade Congress. We parted on the best of terms. He couldn't have been more affectionate. I will kill myself; I don't care about anything or anybody. And when I came back on Wednesday he was gone, and there was this letter." She produced a letter, and wept more bitterly than before.
"Let me see it."
Henrietta hesitated, but her mother took the letter from her, sat down near the window, and composed herself to read without the least regard to her daughter's vehement distress. The letter ran thus:
"My Dearest: I am off—surfeited with endearment—to live my own life and do my own work. I could only have prepared you for this by coldness or neglect, which are wholly impossible to me when the spell of your presence is upon me. I find that I must fly if I am to save myself.
"I am afraid that I cannot give you satisfactory and intelligible reasons for this step. You are a beautiful and luxurious creature: life is to you full and complete only when it is a carnival of love. My case is just the reverse. Before three soft speeches have escaped me I rebuke myself for folly and insincerity. Before a caress has had time to cool, a strenuous revulsion seizes me: I long to return to my old lonely ascetic hermit life; to my dry books; my Socialist propagandism; my voyage of discovery through the wilderness of thought. I married in an insane fit of belief that I had a share of the natural affection which carries other men through lifetimes of matrimony. Already I am undeceived. You are to me the loveliest woman in the world. Well, for five weeks I have walked and tallied and dallied with the loveliest woman in the world, and the upshot is that I am flying from her, and am for a hermit's cave until I die. Love cannot keep possession of me: all my strongest powers rise up against it and will not endure it. Forgive me for writing nonsense that you won't understand, and do not think too hardly of me. I have been as good to you as my selfish nature allowed. Do not seek to disturb me in the obscurity which I desire and deserve. My solicitor will call on your father to arrange business matters, and you shall be as happy as wealth and liberty can make you. We shall meet again—some day.
"Adieu, my last love,
"Well?" cried Mrs. Trefusis, observing through her tears that her mother had read the letter and was contemplating it in a daze.
"Well, certainly!" said Mrs. Jansenius, with emphasis. "Do you think he is quite sane, Henrietta? Or have you been plaguing him for too much attention? Men are not willing to give up their whole existence to their wives, even during the honeymoon."
"He pretended that he was never happy out of my presence," sobbed Henrietta. "There never was anything so cruel. I often wanted to be by myself for a change, but I was afraid to hurt his feelings by saying so. And now he has no feelings. But he must come back to me. Mustn't he, mamma?"
"He ought to. I suppose he has not gone away with anyone?"
Henrietta sprang up, her cheeks vivid scarlet. "If I thought that I would pursue him to the end of the earth, and murder her. But no; he is not like anybody else. He hates me! Everybody hates me! You don't care whether I am deserted or not, nor papa, nor anyone in this house."
Mrs. Jansenius, still indifferent to her daughter's agitation, considered a moment, and then said placidly:
"You can do nothing until we hear from the solicitor. In the meantime you may stay with us, if you wish. I did not expect a visit from you so soon; but your room has not been used since you went away."
Mrs. Trefusis ceased crying, chilled by this first intimation that her father's house was no longer her home. A more real sense of desolation came upon her. Under its cold influence she began to collect herself, and to feel her pride rising like a barrier between her and her mother.
"I won't stay long," she said. "If his solicitor will not tell me where he is, I will hunt through England for him. I am sorry to trouble you."
"Oh, you will be no greater trouble than you have always been," said Mrs. Jansenius calmly, not displeased to see that her daughter had taken the hint. "You had better go and wash your face. People may call, and I presume you don't wish to receive them in that plight. If you meet Arthur on the stairs, please tell him he may come in."
Henrietta screwed her lips into a curious pout and withdrew. Arthur then came in and stood at the window in sullen silence, brooding over his recent expulsion. Suddenly he exclaimed: "Here's papa, and it's not five o'clock yet!" whereupon his mother sent him away again.
Mr. Jansenius was a man of imposing presence, not yet in his fiftieth year, but not far from it. He moved with dignity, bearing himself as if the contents of his massive brow were precious. His handsome aquiline nose and keen dark eyes proclaimed his Jewish origin, of which he was ashamed. Those who did not know this naturally believed that he was proud of it, and were at a loss to account for his permitting his children to be educated as Christians. Well instructed in business, and subject to no emotion outside the love of family, respectability, comfort, and money, he had maintained the capital inherited from his father, and made it breed new capital in the usual way. He was a banker, and his object as such was to intercept and appropriate the immense saving which the banking system effects, and so, as far as possible, to leave the rest of the world working just as hard as before banking was introduced. But as the world would not on these terms have banked at all, he had to give them some of the saving as an inducement. So they profited by the saving as well as he, and he had the satisfaction of being at once a wealthy citizen and a public benefactor, rich in comforts and easy in conscience.
He entered the room quickly, and his wife saw that something had vexed him.
"Do you know what has happened, Ruth?" he said.
"Yes. She is upstairs."
Mr. Jansenius stared. "Do you mean to say that she has left already?" he said. "What business has she to come here?"
"It is natural enough. Where else should she have gone?"
Mr. Jansenius, who mistrusted his own judgment when it differed from that of his wife, replied slowly, "Why did she not go to her mother?"
Mrs. Jansenius, puzzled in her turn, looked at him with cool wonder, and remarked, "I am her mother, am I not?"
"I was not aware of it. I am surprised to hear it, Ruth. Have you had a letter too. I have seen the letter. But what do you mean by telling me that you do not know I am Henrietta's mother? Are you trying to be funny?"
"Henrietta! Is she here? Is this some fresh trouble?"
"I don't know. What are you talking about?"
"I am talking about Agatha Wylie."
"Oh! I was talking about Henrietta."
"Well, what about Henrietta?"
"What about Agatha Wylie?"
At this Mr. Jansenius became exasperated, and he deemed it best to relate what Henrietta had told her. When she gave him Trefusis's letter, he said, more calmly: "Misfortunes never come singly. Read that," and handed her another letter, so that they both began reading at the same time.
Mrs. Jansenius read as follows:
"Alton College, Lyvern.
"To Mrs. Wylie, Acacia Lodge, Chiswick.
"Dear Madam: I write with great regret to request that you will at once withdraw Miss Wylie from Alton College. In an establishment like this, where restraint upon the liberty of the students is reduced to a minimum, it is necessary that the small degree of subordination which is absolutely indispensable be acquiesced in by all without complaint or delay. Miss Wylie has failed to comply with this condition. She has declared her wish to leave, and has assumed an attitude towards myself and my colleagues which we cannot, consistently with our duty to ourselves and her fellow students, pass over. If Miss Wylie has any cause to complain of her treatment here, or of the step which she has compelled us to take, she will doubtless make it known to you.
"Perhaps you will be so good as to communicate with Miss Wylie's guardian, Mr. Jansenius, with whom I shall be happy to make an equitable arrangement respecting the fees which have been paid in advance for the current term.
"I am, dear madam,
"A nice young lady, that!" said Mrs. Jansenius.
"I do not understand this," said Mr. Jansenius, reddening as he took in the purport of his son-in-law's letter. "I will not submit to it. What does it mean, Ruth?"
"I don't know. Sidney is mad, I think; and his honeymoon has brought his madness out. But you must not let him throw Henrietta on my hands again."
"Mad! Does he think he can shirk his responsibility to his wife because she is my daughter? Does he think, because his mother's father was a baronet, that he can put Henrietta aside the moment her society palls on him?"
"Oh, it's nothing of that sort. He never thought of us. But I will make him think of us," said Mr. Jansenius, raising his voice in great agitation. "He shall answer for it."
Just then Henrietta returned, and saw her father moving excitedly to and fro, repeating, "He shall answer to me for this. He shall answer for it."
Mrs. Jansenius frowned at her daughter to remain silent, and said soothingly, "Don't lose your temper, John."
"But I will lose my temper. Insolent hound! Damned scoundrel!"
"He is not," whimpered Henrietta, sitting down and taking out her handkerchief.
"Oh, come, come!" said Mrs. Jansenius peremptorily, "we have had enough crying. Let us have no more of it."
Henrietta sprang up in a passion. "I will say and do as I please," she exclaimed. "I am a married woman, and I will receive no orders. And I will have my husband back again, no matter what he does to hide himself. Papa, won't you make him come back to me? I am dying. Promise that you will make him come back."
And, throwing herself upon her father's bosom, she postponed further discussion by going into hysterics, and startling the household by her screams.
One of the professors at Alton College was a Mrs. Miller, an old-fashioned schoolmistress who did not believe in Miss Wilson's system of government by moral force, and carried it out under protest. Though not ill-natured, she was narrow-minded enough to be in some degree contemptible, and was consequently prone to suspect others of despising her. She suspected Agatha in particular, and treated her with disdainful curtness in such intercourse as they had—it was fortunately little. Agatha was not hurt by this, for Mrs. Miller was an unsympathetic woman, who made no friends among the girls, and satisfied her affectionate impulses by petting a large cat named Gracchus, but generally called Bacchus by an endearing modification of the harsh initial consonant.
One evening Mrs. Miller, seated with Miss Wilson in the study, correcting examination papers, heard in the distance a cry like that of a cat in distress. She ran to the door and listened. Presently there arose a prolonged wail, slurring up through two octaves, and subsiding again. It was a true feline screech, impossible to localize; but it was interrupted by a sob, a snarl, a fierce spitting, and a scuffling, coming unmistakably from a room on the floor beneath, in which, at that hour, the older girls assembled for study.
"My poor Gracchy!" exclaimed Mrs. Miller, running downstairs as fast as she could. She found the room unusually quiet. Every girl was deep in study except Miss Carpenter, who, pretending to pick up a fallen book, was purple with suppressed laughter and the congestion caused by stooping.
"Where is Miss Ward?" demanded Mrs. Miller.
"Miss Ward has gone for some astronomical diagrams in which we are interested," said Agatha, looking up gravely. Just then Miss Ward, diagrams in hand, entered.
"Has that cat been in here?" she said, not seeing Mrs. Miller, and speaking in a tone expressive of antipathy to Gracchus.
Agatha started and drew up her ankles, as if fearful of having them bitten. Then, looking apprehensively under the desk, she replied, "There is no cat here, Miss Ward."
"There is one somewhere; I heard it," said Miss Ward carelessly, unrolling her diagrams, which she began to explain without further parley. Mrs. Miller, anxious for her pet, hastened to seek it elsewhere. In the hall she met one of the housemaids.
"Susan," she said, "have you seen Gracchus?"
"He's asleep on the hearthrug in your room, ma'am. But I heard him crying down here a moment ago. I feel sure that another cat has got in, and that they are fighting."
Susan smiled compassionately. "Lor' bless you, ma'am," she said, "that was Miss Wylie. It's a sort of play-acting that she goes through. There is the bee on the window-pane, and the soldier up the chimley, and the cat under the dresser. She does them all like life."
"The soldier in the chimney!" repeated Mrs. Miller, shocked.
"Yes, ma'am. Like as it were a follower that had hid there when he heard the mistress coming."
Mrs. Miller's face set determinedly. She returned to the study and related what had just occurred, adding some sarcastic comments on the efficacy of moral force in maintaining collegiate discipline. Miss Wilson looked grave; considered for some time; and at last said: "I must think over this. Would you mind leaving it in my hands for the present?"
Mrs. Miller said that she did not care in whose hands it remained provided her own were washed of it, and resumed her work at the papers. Miss Wilson then, wishing to be alone, went into the empty classroom at the other side of the landing. She took the Fault Book from its shelf and sat down before it. Its record closed with the announcement, in Agatha's handwriting:
"Miss Wilson has called me impertinent, and has written to my uncle that I have refused to obey the rules. I was not impertinent; and I never refused to obey the rules. So much for Moral Force!"
Miss Wilson rose vigorously, exclaiming: "I will soon let her know whether—" She checked herself, and looked round hastily, superstitiously fancying that Agatha might have stolen into the room unobserved. Reassured that she was alone, she examined her conscience as to whether she had done wrong in calling Agatha impertinent, justifying herself by the reflection that Agatha had, in fact, been impertinent. Yet she recollected that she had refused to admit this plea on a recent occasion when Jane Carpenter had advanced it in extenuation of having called a fellow-student a liar. Had she then been unjust to Jane, or inconsiderate to Agatha?
Her casuistry was interrupted by some one softly whistling a theme from the overture to Masaniello, popular at the college in the form of an arrangement for six pianofortes and twelve hands. There was only one student unladylike and musical enough to whistle; and Miss Wilson was ashamed to find herself growing nervous at the prospect of an encounter with Agatha, who entered whistling sweetly, but with a lugubrious countenance. When she saw in whose presence she stood, she begged pardon politely, and was about to withdraw, when Miss Wilson, summoning all her Judgment and tact, and hoping that they would—contrary to their custom in emergencies—respond to the summons, said:
"Agatha, come here. I want to speak to you."
Agatha closed her lips, drew in a long breath through her nostrils, and marched to within a few feet of Miss Wilson, where she halted with her hands clasped before her.
Agatha sat down with a single movement, like a doll.
"I don't understand that, Agatha," said Miss Wilson, pointing to the entry in the Recording Angel. "What does it mean?"
"I am unfairly treated," said Agatha, with signs of agitation.
"In what way?"
"In every way. I am expected to be something more than mortal. Everyone else is encouraged to complain, and to be weak and silly. But I must have no feeling. I must be always in the right. Everyone else may be home-sick, or huffed, or in low spirits. I must have no nerves, and must keep others laughing all day long. Everyone else may sulk when a word of reproach is addressed to them, and may make the professors afraid to find fault with them. I have to bear with the insults of teachers who have less self-control than I, a girl of seventeen! and must coax them out of the difficulties they make for themselves by their own ill temper."
"Oh, I know I am talking nonsense, Miss Wilson; but can you expect me to be always sensible—to be infallible?"
"Yes, Agatha; I do not think it is too much to expect you to be always sensible; and—"
"Then you have neither sense nor sympathy yourself," said Agatha.
There was an awful pause. Neither could have told how long it lasted. Then Agatha, feeling that she must do or say something desperate, or else fly, made a distracted gesture and ran out of the room.
She rejoined her companions in the great hall of the mansion, where they were assembled after study for "recreation," a noisy process which always set in spontaneously when the professors withdrew. She usually sat with her two favorite associates on a high window seat near the hearth. That place was now occupied by a little girl with flaxen hair, whom Agatha, regardless of moral force, lifted by the shoulders and deposited on the floor. Then she sat down and said:
"Oh, such a piece of news!"
Miss Carpenter opened her eyes eagerly. Gertrude Lindsay affected indifference.
"Someone is going to be expelled," said Agatha.
"You will know soon enough, Jane," replied Agatha, suddenly grave. "It is someone who made an impudent entry in the Recording Angel."
Fear stole upon Jane, and she became very red. "Agatha," she said, "it was you who told me what to write. You know you did, and you can't deny it."
"I can't deny it, can't I? I am ready to swear that I never dictated a word to you in my life."
"Gertrude knows you did," exclaimed Jane, appalled, and almost in tears.
"There," said Agatha, petting her as if she were a vast baby. "It shall not be expelled, so it shan't. Have you seen the Recording Angel lately, either of you?"
"Not since our last entry," said Gertrude.
"Chips," said Agatha, calling to the flaxen-haired child, "go upstairs to No. 6, and, if Miss Wilson isn't there, fetch me the Recording Angel."
The little girl grumbled inarticulately and did not stir.
"Chips," resumed Agatha, "did you ever wish that you had never been born?"
"Why don't you go yourself?" said the child pettishly, but evidently alarmed.
"Because," continued Agatha, ignoring the question, "you shall wish yourself dead and buried under the blackest flag in the coal cellar if you don't bring me the book before I count sixteen. One—two—"
"Go at once and do as you are told, you disagreeable little thing," said Gertrude sharply. "How dare you be so disobliging?"
"—nine—ten—eleven—" pursued Agatha.
The child quailed, went out, and presently returned, hugging the Recording Angel in her arms.
"You are a good little darling—when your better qualities are brought out by a judicious application of moral force," said Agatha, good-humoredly. "Remind me to save the raisins out of my pudding for you to-morrow. Now, Jane, you shall see the entry for which the best-hearted girl in the college is to be expelled. Voila!"
The two girls read and were awestruck; Jane opening her mouth and gasping, Gertrude closing hers and looking very serious.
"Do you mean to say that you had the dreadful cheek to let the Lady Abbess see that?" said Jane.
"Pooh! she would have forgiven that. You should have heard what I said to her! She fainted three times."
"That's a story," said Gertrude gravely.
"I beg your pardon," said Agatha, swiftly grasping Gertrude's knee.
"Nothing," cried Gertrude, flinching hysterically. "Don't, Agatha."
"How many times did Miss Wilson faint?"
"Three times. I will scream, Agatha; I will indeed."
"Three times, as you say. And I wonder that a girl brought up as you have been, by moral force, should be capable of repeating such a falsehood. But we had an awful row, really and truly. She lost her temper. Fortunately, I never lose mine."
"Well, I'm browed!" exclaimed Jane incredulously. "I like that."
"For a girl of county family, you are inexcusably vulgar, Jane. I don't know what I said; but she will never forgive me for profaning her pet book. I shall be expelled as certainly as I am sitting here."
"And do you mean to say that you are going away?" said Jane, faltering as she began to realize the consequences.
"I do. And what is to become of you when I am not here to get you out of your scrapes, or of Gertrude without me to check her inveterate snobbishness, is more than I can foresee."
"I am not snobbish," said Gertrude, "although I do not choose to make friends with everyone. But I never objected to you, Agatha."
"No; I should like to catch you at it. Hallo, Jane!" (who had suddenly burst into tears): "what's the matter? I trust you are not permitting yourself to take the liberty of crying for me."
"Indeed," sobbed Jane indignantly, "I know that I am a f—fool for my pains. You have no heart."
"You certainly are a f—fool, as you aptly express it," said Agatha, passing her arm round Jane, and disregarding an angry attempt to shake it off; "but if I had any heart it would be touched by this proof of your attachment."
"I never said you had no heart," protested Jane; "but I hate when you speak like a book."
"You hate when I speak like a book, do you? My dear, silly old Jane! I shall miss you greatly."
"Yes, I dare say," said Jane, with tearful sarcasm. "At least my snoring will never keep you awake again."
"You don't snore, Jane. We have been in a conspiracy to make you believe that you do, that's all. Isn't it good of me to tell you?"
Jane was overcome by this revelation. After a long pause, she said with deep conviction, "I always knew that I didn't. Oh, the way you kept it up! I solemnly declare that from this time forth I will believe nobody."
"Well, and what do you think of it all?" said Agatha, transferring her attention to Gertrude, who was very grave.
"I think—I am now speaking seriously, Agatha—I think you are in the wrong."
"Why do you think that, pray?" demanded Agatha, a little roused.
"You must be, or Miss Wilson would not be angry with you. Of course, according to your own account, you are always in the right, and everyone else is always wrong; but you shouldn't have written that in the book. You know I speak as your friend."
"And pray what does your wretched little soul know of my motives and feelings?"
"It is easy enough to understand you," retorted Gertrude, nettled. "Self-conceit is not so uncommon that one need be at a loss to recognize it. And mind, Agatha Wylie," she continued, as if goaded by some unbearable reminiscence, "if you are really going, I don't care whether we part friends or not. I have not forgotten the day when you called me a spiteful cat."
"I have repented," said Agatha, unmoved. "One day I sat down and watched Bacchus seated on the hearthrug, with his moony eyes looking into space so thoughtfully and patiently that I apologized for comparing you to him. If I were to call him a spiteful cat he would only not believe me."
"Because he is a cat," said Jane, with the giggle which was seldom far behind her tears.
"No; but because he is not spiteful. Gertrude keeps a recording angel inside her little head, and it is so full of other people's faults, written in large hand and read through a magnifying glass, that there is no room to enter her own."
"You are very poetic," said Gertrude; "but I understand what you mean, and shall not forget it."
"You ungrateful wretch," exclaimed Agatha, turning upon her so suddenly and imperiously that she involuntarily shrank aside: "how often, when you have tried to be insolent and false with me, have I not driven away your bad angel—by tickling you? Had you a friend in the college, except half-a-dozen toadies, until I came? And now, because I have sometimes, for your own good, shown you your faults, you bear malice against me, and say that you don't care whether we part friends or not!"
"I didn't say so."
"Oh, Gertrude, you know you did," said Jane.
"You seem to think that I have no conscience," said Gertrude querulously.
"I wish you hadn't," said Agatha. "Look at me! I have no conscience, and see how much pleasanter I am!"
"You care for no one but yourself," said Gertrude. "You never think that other people have feelings too. No one ever considers me."
"Oh, I like to hear you talk," cried Jane ironically. "You are considered a great deal more than is good for you; and the more you are considered the more you want to be considered."
"As if," declaimed Agatha theatrically, "increase of appetite did grow by what it fed on. Shakespeare!"
"Bother Shakespeare," said Jane, impetuously, "—old fool that expects credit for saying things that everybody knows! But if you complain of not being considered, Gertrude, how would you like to be me, whom everybody sets down as a fool? But I am not such a fool as—"
"As you look," interposed Agatha. "I have told you so scores of times, Jane; and I am glad that you have adopted my opinion at last. Which would you rather be, a greater fool than y—"
"Oh, shut up," said Jane, impatiently; "you have asked me that twice this week already."
The three were silent for some seconds after this: Agatha meditating, Gertrude moody, Jane vacant and restless. At last Agatha said:
"And are you two also smarting under a sense of the inconsiderateness and selfishness of the rest of the world—both misunderstood—everything expected from you, and no allowances made for you?"
"I don't know what you mean by both of us," said Gertrude coldly.
"Neither do I," said Jane angrily. "That is just the way people treat me. You may laugh, Agatha; and she may turn up her nose as much as she likes; you know it's true. But the idea of Gertrude wanting to make out that she isn't considered is nothing but sentimentality, and vanity, and nonsense."
"You are exceedingly rude, Miss Carpenter," said Gertrude.
"My manners are as good as yours, and perhaps better," retorted Jane. "My family is as good, anyhow."
"Children, children," said Agatha, admonitorily, "do not forget that you are sworn friends."
"We didn't swear," said Jane. "We were to have been three sworn friends, and Gertrude and I were willing, but you wouldn't swear, and so the bargain was cried off."
"Just so," said Agatha; "and the result is that I spend all my time in keeping peace between you. And now, to go back to our subject, may I ask whether it has ever occurred to you that no one ever considers me?"
"I suppose you think that very funny. You take good care to make yourself considered," sneered Jane.
"You cannot say that I do not consider you," said Gertrude reproachfully.
"Not when I tickle you, dear."
"I consider you, and I am not ticklesome," said Jane tenderly.
"Indeed! Let me try," said Agatha, slipping her arm about Jane's ample waist, and eliciting a piercing combination of laugh and scream from her.
"Sh—sh," whispered Gertrude quickly. "Don't you see the Lady Abbess?"
Miss Wilson had just entered the room. Agatha, without appearing to be aware of her presence, stealthily withdrew her arm, and said aloud:
"How can you make such a noise, Jane? You will disturb the whole house."
Jane reddened with indignation, but had to remain silent, for the eyes of the principal were upon her. Miss Wilson had her bonnet on. She announced that she was going to walk to Lyvern, the nearest village. Did any of the sixth form young ladies wish to accompany her?
Agatha jumped from her seat at once, and Jane smothered a laugh.
"Miss Wilson said the sixth form, Miss Wylie," said Miss Ward, who had entered also. "You are not in the sixth form."
"No," said Agatha sweetly, "but I want to go, if I may."
Miss Wilson looked round. The sixth form consisted of four studious young ladies, whose goal in life for the present was an examination by one of the Universities, or, as the college phrase was, "the Cambridge Local." None of them responded.
"Fifth form, then," said Miss Wilson.
Jane, Gertrude, and four others rose and stood with Agatha.
"Very well," said Miss Wilson. "Do not be long dressing."
They left the room quietly, and dashed at the staircase the moment they were out of sight. Agatha, though void of emulation for the Cambridge Local, always competed with ardor for the honor of being first up or down stairs.
They soon returned, clad for walking, and left the college in procession, two by two, Jane and Agatha leading, Gertrude and Miss Wilson coming last. The road to Lyvern lay through acres of pasture land, formerly arable, now abandoned to cattle, which made more money for the landlord than the men whom they had displaced. Miss Wilson's young ladies, being instructed in economics, knew that this proved that the land was being used to produce what was most wanted from it; and if all the advantage went to the landlord, that was but natural, as he was the chief gentleman in the neighborhood. Still the arrangement had its disagreeable side; for it involved a great many cows, which made them afraid to cross the fields; a great many tramps, who made them afraid to walk the roads; and a scarcity of gentlemen subjects for the maiden art of fascination.
The sky was cloudy. Agatha, reckless of dusty stockings, waded through the heaps of fallen leaves with the delight of a child paddling in the sea; Gertrude picked her steps carefully, and the rest tramped along, chatting subduedly, occasionally making some scientific or philosophical remark in a louder tone, in order that Miss Wilson might overhear and give them due credit. Save a herdsman, who seemed to have caught something of the nature and expression of the beasts he tended, they met no one until they approached the village, where, on the brow of an acclivity, masculine humanity appeared in the shape of two curates: one tall, thin, close-shaven, with a book under his arm, and his neck craned forward; the other middle-sized, robust, upright, and aggressive, with short black whiskers, and an air of protest against such notions as that a clergyman may not marry, hunt, play cricket, or share the sports of honest laymen. The shaven one was Mr. Josephs, his companion Mr. Fairholme. Obvious scriptural perversions of this brace of names had been introduced by Agatha.
"Here come Pharaoh and Joseph," she said to Jane. "Joseph will blush when you look at him. Pharaoh won't blush until he passes Gertrude, so we shall lose that."
"Josephs, indeed!" said Jane scornfully.
"He loves you, Jane. Thin persons like a fine armful of a woman. Pharaoh, who is a cad, likes blue blood on the same principle of the attraction of opposites. That is why he is captivated by Gertrude's aristocratic air."
"If he only knew how she despises him!"
"He is too vain to suspect it. Besides, Gertrude despises everyone, even us. Or, rather, she doesn't despise anyone in particular, but is contemptuous by nature, just as you are stout."
"Me! I had rather be stout than stuck-up. Ought we to bow?"
"I will, certainly. I want to make Pharoah blush, if I can."
The two parsons had been simulating an interest in the cloudy firmament as an excuse for not looking at the girls until close at hand. Jane sent an eyeflash at Josephs with a skill which proved her favorite assertion that she was not so stupid as people thought. He blushed and took off his soft, low-crowned felt hat. Fairholme saluted very solemnly, for Agatha bowed to him with marked seriousness. But when his gravity and his stiff silk hat were at their highest point she darted a mocking smile at him, and he too blushed, all the deeper because he was enraged with himself for doing so.
"Did you ever see such a pair of fools?" whispered Jane, giggling.
"They cannot help their sex. They say women are fools, and so they are; but thank Heaven they are not quite so bad as men! I should like to look back and see Pharaoh passing Gertrude; but if he saw me he would think I was admiring him; and he is conceited enough already without that."
The two curates became redder and redder as they passed the column of young ladies. Miss Lindsay would not look to their side of the road, and Miss Wilson's nod and smile were not quite sincere. She never spoke to curates, and kept up no more intercourse with the vicar than she could not avoid. He suspected her of being an infidel, though neither he nor any other mortal in Lyvern had ever heard a word from her on the subject of her religious opinions. But he knew that "moral science" was taught secularly at the college; and he felt that where morals were made a department of science the demand for religion must fall off proportionately.
"What a life to lead and what a place to live in!" exclaimed Agatha. "We meet two creatures, more like suits of black than men; and that is an incident—a startling incident—in our existence!"
"I think they're awful fun," said Jane, "except that Josephs has such large ears."
The girls now came to a place where the road dipped through a plantation of sombre sycamore and horsechestnut trees. As they passed down into it, a little wind sprang up, the fallen leaves stirred, and the branches heaved a long, rustling sigh.
"I hate this bit of road," said Jane, hurrying on. "It's just the sort of place that people get robbed and murdered in."
"It is not such a bad place to shelter in if we get caught in the rain, as I expect we shall before we get back," said Agatha, feeling the fitful breeze strike ominously on her cheek. "A nice pickle I shall be in with these light shoes on! I wish I had put on my strong boots. If it rains much I will go into the old chalet."
"Miss Wilson won't let you. It's trespassing."
"What matter! Nobody lives in it, and the gate is off its hinges. I only want to stand under the veranda—not to break into the wretched place. Besides, the landlord knows Miss Wilson; he won't mind. There's a drop."
Miss Carpenter looked up, and immediately received a heavy raindrop in her eye.
"Oh!" she cried. "It's pouring. We shall be drenched."
Agatha stopped, and the column broke into a group about her.
"Miss Wilson," she said, "it is going to rain in torrents, and Jane and I have only our shoes on."
Miss Wilson paused to consider the situation. Someone suggested that if they hurried on they might reach Lyvern before the rain came down.
"More than a mile," said Agatha scornfully, "and the rain coming down already!"
Someone else suggested returning to the college.
"More than two miles," said Agatha. "We should be drowned."
"There is nothing for it but to wait here under the trees," said Miss Wilson.
"The branches are very bare," said Gertrude anxiously. "If it should come down heavily they will drip worse than the rain itself."
"Much worse," said Agatha. "I think we had better get under the veranda of the old chalet. It is not half a minute's walk from here."
"But we have no right—" Here the sky darkened threateningly. Miss Wilson checked herself and said, "I suppose it is still empty."
"Of course," replied Agatha, impatient to be moving. "It is almost a ruin."
"Then let us go there, by all means," said Miss Wilson, not disposed to stand on trifles at the risk of a bad cold.
They hurried on, and came presently to a green hill by the wayside. On the slope was a dilapidated Swiss cottage, surrounded by a veranda on slender wooden pillars, about which clung a few tendrils of withered creeper, their stray ends still swinging from the recent wind, now momentarily hushed as if listening for the coming of the rain. Access from the roadway was by a rough wooden gate in the hedge. To the surprise of Agatha, who had last seen this gate off its hinges and only attached to the post by a rusty chain and padlock, it was now rehung and fastened by a new hasp. The weather admitting of no delay to consider these repairs, she opened the gate and hastened up the slope, followed by the troop of girls. Their ascent ended with a rush, for the rain suddenly came down in torrents.
When they were safe under the veranda, panting, laughing, grumbling, or congratulating themselves on having been so close to a place of shelter, Miss Wilson observed, with some uneasiness, a spade—new, like the hasp of the gate—sticking upright in a patch of ground that someone had evidently been digging lately. She was about to comment on this sign of habitation, when the door of the chalet was flung open, and Jane screamed as a man darted out to the spade, which he was about to carry in out of the wet, when he perceived the company under the veranda, and stood still in amazement. He was a young laborer with a reddish-brown beard of a week's growth. He wore corduroy trousers and a linen-sleeved corduroy vest; both, like the hasp and spade, new. A coarse blue shirt, with a vulgar red-and-orange neckerchief, also new, completed his dress; and, to shield himself from the rain, he held up a silk umbrella with a silver-mounted ebony handle, which he seemed unlikely to have come by honestly. Miss Wilson felt like a boy caught robbing an orchard, but she put a bold face on the matter and said:
"Will you allow us to take shelter here until the rain is over?"
"For certain, your ladyship," he replied, respectfully applying the spade handle to his hair, which was combed down to his eyebrows. "Your ladyship does me proud to take refuge from the onclemency of the yallovrments beneath my 'umble rooftree." His accent was barbarous; and he, like a low comedian, seemed to relish its vulgarity. As he spoke he came in among them for shelter, and propped his spade against the wall of the chalet, kicking the soil from his hobnailed blucher boots, which were new.
"I came out, honored lady," he resumed, much at his ease, "to house my spade, whereby I earn my living. What the pen is to the poet, such is the spade to the working man." He took the kerchief from his neck, wiped his temples as if the sweat of honest toil were there, and calmly tied it on again.
"If you'll 'scuse a remark from a common man," he observed, "your ladyship has a fine family of daughters."
"They are not my daughters," said Miss Wilson, rather shortly.
"I thought they mout be, acause I have a sister myself. Not that I would make bold for to dror comparisons, even in my own mind, for she's only a common woman—as common a one as ever you see. But few women rise above the common. Last Sunday, in yon village church, I heard the minister read out that one man in a thousand had he found, 'but one woman in all these,' he says, 'have I not found,' and I thinks to myself, 'Right you are!' But I warrant he never met your ladyship."
A laugh, thinly disguised as a cough, escaped from Miss Carpenter.
"Young lady a-ketchin' cold, I'm afeerd," he said, with respectful solicitude.
"Do you think the rain will last long?" said Agatha politely.
The man examined the sky with a weather-wise air for some moments. Then he turned to Agatha, and replied humbly: "The Lord only knows, Miss. It is not for a common man like me to say."
Silence ensued, during which Agatha, furtively scrutinizing the tenant of the chalet, noticed that his face and neck were cleaner and less sunburnt than those of the ordinary toilers of Lyvern. His hands were hidden by large gardening gloves stained with coal dust. Lyvern laborers, as a rule, had little objection to soil their hands; they never wore gloves. Still, she thought, there was no reason why an eccentric workman, insufferably talkative, and capable of an allusion to the pen of the poet, should not indulge himself with cheap gloves. But then the silk, silvermounted umbrella—
"The young lady's hi," he said suddenly, holding out the umbrella, "is fixed on this here. I am well aware that it is not for the lowest of the low to carry a gentleman's brolly, and I ask your ladyship's pardon for the liberty. I come by it accidental-like, and should be glad of a reasonable offer from any gentleman in want of a honest article."
As he spoke two gentlemen, much in want of the article, as their clinging wet coats showed, ran through the gateway and made for the chalet. Fairholme arrived first, exclaiming: "Fearful shower!" and briskly turned his back to the ladies in order to stand at the edge of the veranda and shake the water out of his hat. Josephs came next, shrinking from the damp contact of his own garments. He cringed to Miss Wilson, and hoped that she had escaped a wetting.
"So far I have," she replied. "The question is, how are we to get home?"
"Oh, it's only a shower," said Josephs, looking up cheerfully at the unbroken curtain of cloud. "It will clear up presently."
"It ain't for a common man to set up his opinion again' a gentleman wot have profesh'nal knowledge of the heavens, as one may say," said the man, "but I would 'umbly offer to bet my umbrellar to his wideawake that it don't cease raining this side of seven o'clock."
"That man lives here," whispered Miss Wilson, "and I suppose he wants to get rid of us."
"H'm!" said Fairholme. Then, turning to the strange laborer with the air of a person not to be trifled with, he raised his voice, and said: "You live here, do you, my man?"
"I do, sir, by your good leave, if I may make so bold."
"What's your name?"
"Jeff Smilash, sir, at your service."
"Where do you come from?"
"Brixtonbury! Where's that?"
"Well, sir, I don't rightly know. If a gentleman like you, knowing jography and such, can't tell, how can I?"
"You ought to know where you were born, man. Haven't you got common sense?"
"Where could such a one as me get common sense, sir? Besides, I was only a foundling. Mebbe I warn's born at all."
"Did I see you at church last Sunday?"
"No, sir. I only come o' Wensday."
"Well, let me see you there next Sunday," said Fairholme shortly, turning away from him.
Miss Wilson looked at the weather, at Josephs, who was conversing with Jane, and finally at Smilash, who knuckled his forehead without waiting to be addressed.
"Have you a boy whom you can send to Lyvern to get us a conveyance—a carriage? I will give him a shilling for his trouble."
"A shilling!" said Smilash joyfully. "Your ladyship is a noble lady. Two four-wheeled cabs. There's eight on you."
"There is only one cab in Lyvern," said Miss Wilson. "Take this card to Mr. Marsh, the jotmaster, and tell him the predicament we are in. He will send vehicles."
Smilash took the card and read it at a glance. He then went into the chalet. Reappearing presently in a sou'wester and oilskins, he ran off through the rain and vaulted over the gate with ridiculous elegance. No sooner had he vanished than, as often happens to remarkable men, he became the subject of conversation.
"A decent workman," said Josephs. "A well-mannered man, considering his class."
"A born fool, though," said Fairholme.
"Or a rogue," said Agatha, emphasizing the suggestion by a glitter of her eyes and teeth, whilst her schoolfellows, rather disapproving of her freedom, stood stiffly dumb. "He told Miss Wilson that he had a sister, and that he had been to church last Sunday, and he has just told you that he is a foundling, and that he only came last Wednesday. His accent is put on, and he can read, and I don't believe he is a workman at all. Perhaps he is a burglar, come down to steal the college plate."
"Agatha," said Miss Wilson gravely, "you must be very careful how you say things of that kind."
"But it is so obvious. His explanation about the umbrella was made up to disarm suspicion. He handled it and leaned on it in a way that showed how much more familiar it was to him than that new spade he was so anxious about. And all his clothes are new."
"True," said Fairholme, "but there is not much in all that. Workmen nowadays ape gentlemen in everything. However, I will keep an eye on him."
"Oh, thank you so much," said Agatha. Fairholme, suspecting mockery, frowned, and Miss Wilson looked severely at the mocker. Little more was said, except as to the chances—manifestly small—of the rain ceasing, until the tops of a cab, a decayed mourning coach, and three dripping hats were seen over the hedge. Smilash sat on the box of the coach, beside the driver. When it stopped, he alighted, re-entered the chalet without speaking, came out with the umbrella, spread it above Miss Wilson's head, and said:
"Now, if your ladyship will come with me, I will see you dry into the stray, and then I'll bring your honored nieces one by one."
"I shall come last," said Miss Wilson, irritated by his assumption that the party was a family one. "Gertrude, you had better go first."
"Allow me," said Fairholme, stepping forward, and attempting to take the umbrella.
"Thank you, I shall not trouble you," she said frostily, and tripped away over the oozing field with Smilash, who held the umbrella over her with ostentatious solicitude. In the same manner he led the rest to the vehicles, in which they packed themselves with some difficulty. Agatha, who came last but one, gave him threepence.
"You have a noble 'art and an expressive hi, Miss," he said, apparently much moved. "Blessings on both! Blessings on both!"
He went back for Jane, who slipped on the wet grass and fell. He had to put forth his strength as he helped her to rise. "Hope you ain't sopped up much of the rainfall, Miss," he said. "You are a fine young lady for your age. Nigh on twelve stone, I should think."
She reddened and hurried to the cab, where Agatha was. But it was full; and Jane, much against her will, had to get into the coach, considerably diminishing the space left for Miss Wilson, to whom Smilash had returned.
"Now, dear lady," he said, "take care you don't slip. Come along."
Miss Wilson, ignoring the invitation, took a shilling from her purse.
"No, lady," said Smilash with a virtuous air. "I am an honest man and have never seen the inside of a jail except four times, and only twice for stealing. Your youngest daughter—her with the expressive hi—have paid me far beyond what is proper."
"I have told you that these young ladies are not my daughters," said Miss Wilson sharply. "Why do you not listen to what is said to you?"
"Don't be too hard on a common man, lady," said Smilash submissively. "The young lady have just given me three 'arf-crowns."
"Three half-crowns!" exclaimed Miss Wilson, angered at such extravagance.
"Bless her innocence, she don't know what is proper to give to a low sort like me! But I will not rob the young lady. 'Arf-a-crown is no more nor is fair for the job, and arf-a-crown will I keep, if agreeable to your noble ladyship. But I give you back the five bob in trust for her. Have you ever noticed her expressive hi?"
"Nonsense, sir. You had better keep the money now that you have got it."
"Wot! Sell for five bob the high opinion your ladyship has of me! No, dear lady; not likely. My father's very last words to me was—"
"You said just now that you were a foundling," said Fairholme. "What are we to believe? Eh?"
"So I were, sir; but by mother's side alone. Her ladyship will please to take back the money, for keep it I will not. I am of the lower orders, and therefore not a man of my word; but when I do stick to it, I stick like wax."
"Take it," said Fairholme to Miss Wilson. "Take it, of course. Seven and sixpence is a ridiculous sum to give him for what he has done. It would only set him drinking."
"His reverence says true, lady. The one 'arfcrown will keep me comfortably tight until Sunday morning; and more I do not desire."
"Just a little less of your tongue, my man," said Fairholme, taking the two coins from him and handing them to Miss Wilson, who bade the clergymen good afternoon, and went to the coach under the umbrella.
"If your ladyship should want a handy man to do an odd job up at the college I hope you will remember me," Smilash said as they went down the slope.
"Oh, you know who I am, do you?" said Miss Wilson drily.
"All the country knows you, Miss, and worships you. I have few equals as a coiner, and if you should require a medal struck to give away for good behavior or the like, I think I could strike one to your satisfaction. And if your ladyship should want a trifle of smuggled lace—"
"You had better be careful or you will get into trouble, I think," said Miss Wilson sternly. "Tell him to drive on."
The vehicles started, and Smilash took the liberty of waving his hat after them. Then he returned to the chalet, left the umbrella within, came out again, locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and walked off through the rain across the hill without taking the least notice of the astonished parsons.
In the meantime Miss Wilson, unable to contain her annoyance at Agatha's extravagance, spoke of it to the girls who shared the coach with her. But Jane declared that Agatha only possessed threepence in the world, and therefore could not possibly have given the man thirty times that sum. When they reached the college, Agatha, confronted with Miss Wilson, opened her eyes in wonder, and exclaimed, laughing: "I only gave him threepence. He has sent me a present of four and ninepence!"
Saturday at Alton College, nominally a half holiday, was really a whole one. Classes in gymnastics, dancing, elocution, and drawing were held in the morning. The afternoon was spent at lawn tennis, to which lady guests resident in the neighborhood were allowed to bring their husbands, brothers, and fathers—Miss Wilson being anxious to send her pupils forth into the world free from the uncouth stiffness of schoolgirls unaccustomed to society.
Late in October came a Saturday which proved anything but a holiday for Miss Wilson. At half-past one, luncheon being over, she went out of doors to a lawn that lay between the southern side of the college and a shrubbery. Here she found a group of girls watching Agatha and Jane, who were dragging a roller over the grass. One of them, tossing a ball about with her racket, happened to drive it into the shrubbery, whence, to the surprise of the company, Smilash presently emerged, carrying the ball, blinking, and proclaiming that, though a common man, he had his feelings like another, and that his eye was neither a stick nor a stone. He was dressed as before, but his garments, soiled with clay and lime, no longer looked new.
"What brings you here, pray?" demanded Miss Wilson.
"I was led into the belief that you sent for me, lady," he replied. "The baker's lad told me so as he passed my 'umble cot this morning. I thought he were incapable of deceit."
"That is quite right; I did send for you. But why did you not go round to the servants' hall?"
"I am at present in search of it, lady. I were looking for it when this ball cotch me here" (touching his eye). "A cruel blow on the hi' nat'rally spires its vision and expression and makes a honest man look like a thief."
"Agatha," said Miss Wilson, "come here."
"My dooty to you, Miss," said Smilash, pulling his forelock.
"This is the man from whom I had the five shillings, which he said you had just given him. Did you do so?"
"Certainly not. I only gave him threepence."
"But I showed the money to your ladyship," said Smilash, twisting his hat agitatedly. "I gev it you. Where would the like of me get five shillings except by the bounty of the rich and noble? If the young lady thinks I hadn't ort to have kep' the tother 'arfcrown, I would not object to its bein' stopped from my wages if I were given a job of work here. But—"
"But it's nonsense," said Agatha. "I never gave you three half-crowns."
"Perhaps you mout 'a' made a mistake. Pence is summat similar to 'arf-crowns, and the day were very dark."
"I couldn't have," said Agatha. "Jane had my purse all the earlier part of the week, Miss Wilson, and she can tell you that there was only threepence in it. You know that I get my money on the first of every month. It never lasts longer than a week. The idea of my having seven and sixpence on the sixteenth is ridiculous."
"But I put it to you, Miss, ain't it twice as ridiculous for me, a poor laborer, to give up money wot I never got?"
Vague alarm crept upon Agatha as the testimony of her senses was contradicted. "All I know is," she protested, "that I did not give it to you; so my pennies must have turned into half-crowns in your pocket."
"Mebbe so," said Smilash gravely. "I've heard, and I know it for a fact, that money grows in the pockets of the rich. Why not in the pockets of the poor as well? Why should you be su'prised at wot 'appens every day?"
"Had you any money of your own about you at the time?"
"Where could the like of me get money?—asking pardon for making so bold as to catechise your ladyship."
"I don't know where you could get it," said Miss Wilson testily; "I ask you, had you any?"
"Well, lady, I disremember. I will not impose upon you. I disremember."
"Then you've made a mistake," said Miss Wilson, handing him back his money. "Here. If it is not yours, it is not ours; so you had better keep it."
"Keep it! Oh, lady, but this is the heighth of nobility! And what shall I do to earn your bounty, lady?"
"It is not my bounty: I give it to you because it does not belong to me, and, I suppose, must belong to you. You seem to be a very simple man."
"I thank your ladyship; I hope I am. Respecting the day's work, now, lady; was you thinking of employing a poor man at all?"
"No, thank you; I have no occasion for your services. I have also to give you the shilling I promised you for getting the cabs. Here it is."
"Another shillin'!" cried Smilash, stupefied.
"Yes," said Miss Wilson, beginning to feel very angry. "Let me hear no more about it, please. Don't you understand that you have earned it?"
"I am a common man, and understand next to nothing," he replied reverently. "But if your ladyship would give me a day's work to keep me goin', I could put up all this money in a little wooden savings bank I have at home, and keep it to spend when sickness or odd age shall, in a manner of speaking, lay their 'ends upon me. I could smooth that grass beautiful; them young ladies 'll strain themselves with that heavy roller. If tennis is the word, I can put up nets fit to catch birds of paradise in. If the courts is to be chalked out in white, I can draw a line so straight that you could hardly keep yourself from erecting an equilateral triangle on it. I am honest when well watched, and I can wait at table equal to the Lord Mayor o' London's butler."
"I cannot employ you without a character," said Miss Wilson, amused by his scrap of Euclid, and wondering where he had picked it up.
"I bear the best of characters, lady. The reverend rector has known me from a boy."
"I was speaking to him about you yesterday," said Miss Wilson, looking hard at him, "and he says you are a perfect stranger to him."
"Gentlemen is so forgetful," said Smilash sadly. "But I alluded to my native rector—meaning the rector of my native village, Auburn. 'Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,' as the gentleman called it."
"That was not the name you mentioned to Mr. Fairholme. I do not recollect what name you gave, but it was not Auburn, nor have I ever heard of any such place."
"Never read of sweet Auburn!"
"Not in any geography or gazetteer. Do you recollect telling me that you have been in prison?"
"Only six times," pleaded Smilash, his features working convulsively. "Don't bear too hard on a common man. Only six times, and all through drink. But I have took the pledge, and kep' it faithful for eighteen months past."
Miss Wilson now set down the man as one of those keen, half-witted country fellows, contemptuously styled originals, who unintentionally make themselves popular by flattering the sense of sanity in those whose faculties are better adapted to circumstances.
"You have a bad memory, Mr. Smilash," she said good-humoredly. "You never give the same account of yourself twice."
"I am well aware that I do not express myself with exactability. Ladies and gentlemen have that power over words that they can always say what they mean, but a common man like me can't. Words don't come natural to him. He has more thoughts than words, and what words he has don't fit his thoughts. Might I take a turn with the roller, and make myself useful about the place until nightfall, for ninepence?"
Miss Wilson, who was expecting more than her usual Saturday visitors, considered the proposition and assented. "And remember," she said, "that as you are a stranger here, your character in Lyvern depends upon the use you make of this opportunity."
"I am grateful to your noble ladyship. May your ladyship's goodness sew up the hole which is in the pocket where I carry my character, and which has caused me to lose it so frequent. It's a bad place for men to keep their characters in; but such is the fashion. And so hurray for the glorious nineteenth century!"
He took off his coat, seized the roller, and began to pull it with an energy foreign to the measured millhorse manner of the accustomed laborer. Miss Wilson looked doubtfully at him, but, being in haste, went indoors without further comment. The girls mistrusting his eccentricity, kept aloof. Agatha determined to have another and better look at him. Racket in hand, she walked slowly across the grass and came close to him just as he, unaware of her approach, uttered a groan of exhaustion and sat down to rest.
"Tired already, Mr. Smilash?" she said mockingly.
He looked up deliberately, took off one of his washleather gloves, fanned himself with it, displaying a white and fine hand, and at last replied, in the tone and with the accent of a gentleman:
Agatha recoiled. He fanned himself without the least concern.
"You—you are not a laborer," she said at last.
"I thought not."
"Suppose I tell on you," she said, growing bolder as she recollected that she was not alone with him.
"If you do I shall get out of it just as I got out of the half-crowns, and Miss Wilson will begin to think that you are mad."
"Then I really did not give you the seven and sixpence," she said, relieved.
"What is your own opinion?" he answered, taking three pennies from his pocket, jingling them in his palm. "What is your name?"
"I shall not tell you," said Agatha with dignity.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps you are right," he said. "I would not tell you mine if you asked me."
"I have not the slightest intention of asking you."
"No? Then Smilash shall do for you, and Agatha will do for me."
"You had better take care."
"Of what you say, and—are you not afraid of being found out?"
"I am found out already—by you, and I am none the worse."
"Suppose the police find you out!"
"Not they. Besides, I am not hiding from the police. I have a right to wear corduroy if I prefer it to broadcloth. Consider the advantages of it! It has procured me admission to Alton College, and the pleasure of your acquaintance. Will you excuse me if I go on with my rolling, just to keep up appearances? I can talk as I roll."
"You may, if you are fond of soliloquizing," she said, turning away as he rose.
"Seriously, Agatha, you must not tell the others about me."
"Do not call me Agatha," she said impetuously. "What shall I call you, then?"
"You need not address me at all."
"I need, and will. Don't be ill-natured."
"But I don't know you. I wonder at your—" she hesitated at the word which occurred to her, but, being unable to think of a better one, used it—"at your cheek."
He laughed, and she watched him take a couple of turns with the roller. Presently, refreshing himself by a look at her, he caught her looking at him, and smiled. His smile was commonplace in comparison with the one she gave him in return, in which her eyes, her teeth, and the golden grain in her complexion seemed to flash simultaneously. He stopped rolling immediately, and rested his chin on the handle of the roller.
"If you neglect your work," said she maliciously, "you won't have the grass ready when the people come."
"What people?" he said, taken aback.
"Oh, lots of people. Most likely some who know you. There are visitors coming from London: my guardian, my guardianess, their daughter, my mother, and about a hundred more."
"Four in all. What are they coming for? To see you?"
"To take me away," she replied, watching for signs of disappointment on his part.
They were at once forthcoming. "What the deuce are they going to take you away for?" he said. "Is your education finished?"
"No. I have behaved badly, and I am going to be expelled."
He laughed again. "Come!" he said, "you are beginning to invent in the Smilash manner. What have you done?"
"I don't see why I should tell you. What have you done?"
"I! Oh, I have done nothing. I am only an unromantic gentleman, hiding from a romantic lady who is in love with me."
"Poor thing," said Agatha sarcastically. "Of course, she has proposed to you, and you have refused."
"On the contrary, I proposed, and she accepted. That is why I have to hide."
"You tell stories charmingly," said Agatha. "Good-bye. Here is Miss Carpenter coming to hear what we are taking about."
"Good-bye. That story of your being expelled beats—Might a common man make so bold as to inquire where the whitening machine is, Miss?"
This was addressed to Jane, who had come up with some of the others. Agatha expected to see Smilash presently discovered, for his disguise now seemed transparent; she wondered how the rest could be imposed on by it. Two o'clock, striking just then, reminded her of the impending interview with her guardian. A tremor shook her, and she felt a craving for some solitary hiding-place in which to await the summons. But it was a point of honor with her to appear perfectly indifferent to her trouble, so she stayed with the girls, laughing and chatting as they watched Smilash intently marking out the courts and setting up the nets. She made the others laugh too, for her hidden excitement, sharpened by irrepressible shootings of dread, stimulated her, and the romance of Smilash's disguise gave her a sensation of dreaming. Her imagination was already busy upon a drama, of which she was the heroine and Smilash the hero, though, with the real man before her, she could not indulge herself by attributing to him quite as much gloomy grandeur of character as to a wholly ideal personage. The plot was simple, and an old favorite with her. One of them was to love the other and to die broken-hearted because the loved one would not requite the passion. For Agatha, prompt to ridicule sentimentality in her companions, and gifted with an infectious spirit of farce, secretly turned for imaginative luxury to visions of despair and death; and often endured the mortification of the successful clown who believes, whilst the public roar with laughter at him, that he was born a tragedian. There was much in her nature, she felt, that did not find expression in her popular representation of the soldier in the chimney.
By three o'clock the local visitors had arrived, and tennis was proceeding in four courts, rolled and prepared by Smilash. The two curates were there, with a few lay gentlemen. Mrs. Miller, the vicar, and some mothers and other chaperons looked on and consumed light refreshments, which were brought out upon trays by Smilash, who had borrowed and put on a large white apron, and was making himself officiously busy.
At a quarter past the hour a message came from Miss Wilson, requesting Miss Wylie's attendance. The visitors were at a loss to account for the sudden distraction of the young ladies' attention which ensued. Jane almost burst into tears, and answered Josephs rudely when he innocently asked what the matter was. Agatha went away apparently unconcerned, though her hand shook as she put aside her racket.
In a spacious drawing-room at the north side of the college she found her mother, a slight woman in widow's weeds, with faded brown hair, and tearful eyes. With her were Mrs. Jansenius and her daughter. The two elder ladies kept severely silent whilst Agatha kissed them, and Mrs. Wylie sniffed. Henrietta embraced Agatha effusively.
"Where's Uncle John?" said Agatha. "Hasn't he come?"
"He is in the next room with Miss Wilson," said Mrs. Jansenius coldly. "They want you in there."
"I thought somebody was dead," said Agatha, "you all look so funereal. Now, mamma, put your handkerchief back again. If you cry I will give Miss Wilson a piece of my mind for worrying you."
"No, no," said Mrs. Wylie, alarmed. "She has been so nice!"
"So good!" said Henrietta.
"She has been perfectly reasonable and kind," said Mrs. Jansenius.
"She always is," said Agatha complacently. "You didn't expect to find her in hysterics, did you?"
"Agatha," pleaded Mrs. Wylie, "don't be headstrong and foolish."
"Oh, she won't; I know she won't," said Henrietta coaxingly. "Will you, dear Agatha?"
"You may do as you like, as far as I am concerned," said Mrs. Jansenius. "But I hope you have more sense than to throw away your education for nothing."
"Your aunt is quite right," said Mrs. Wylie. "And your Uncle John is very angry with you. He will never speak to you again if you quarrel with Miss Wilson."
"He is not angry," said Henrietta, "but he is so anxious that you should get on well."
"He will naturally be disappointed if you persist in making a fool of yourself," said Mrs. Jansenius.
"All Miss Wilson wants is an apology for the dreadful things you wrote in her book," said Mrs. Wylie. "You'll apologize, dear, won't you?"
"Of course she will," said Henrietta.
"I think you had better," said Mrs. Jansenius.
"Perhaps I will," said Agatha.
"That's my own darling," said Mrs. Wylie, catching her hand.
"And perhaps, again, I won't."
"You will, dear," urged Mrs. Wylie, trying to draw Agatha, who passively resisted, closer to her. "For my sake. To oblige your mother, Agatha. You won't refuse me, dearest?"
Agatha laughed indulgently at her parent, who had long ago worn out this form of appeal. Then she turned to Henrietta, and said, "How is your caro sposo? I think it was hard that I was not a bridesmaid."
The red in Henrietta's cheeks brightened. Mrs. Jansenius hastened to interpose a dry reminder that Miss Wilson was waiting.
"Oh, she does not mind waiting," said Agatha, "because she thinks you are all at work getting me into a proper frame of mind. That was the arrangement she made with you before she left the room. Mamma knows that I have a little bird that tells me these things. I must say that you have not made me feel any goody-goodier so far. However, as poor Uncle John must be dreadfully frightened and uncomfortable, it is only kind to put an end to his suspense. Good-bye!" And she went out leisurely. But she looked in again to say in a low voice: "Prepare for something thrilling. I feel just in the humor to say the most awful things." She vanished, and immediately they heard her tapping at the door of the next room.
Mr. Jansenius was indeed awaiting her with misgiving. Having discovered early in his career that his dignified person and fine voice caused people to stand in some awe of him, and to move him into the chair at public meetings, he had grown so accustomed to deference that any approach to familiarity or irreverence disconcerted him exceedingly. Agatha, on the other hand, having from her childhood heard Uncle John quoted as wisdom and authority incarnate, had begun in her tender years to scoff at him as a pompous and purseproud city merchant, whose sordid mind was unable to cope with her transcendental affairs. She had habitually terrified her mother by ridiculing him with an absolute contempt of which only childhood and extreme ignorance are capable. She had felt humiliated by his kindness to her (he was a generous giver of presents), and, with the instinct of an anarchist, had taken disparagement of his advice and defiance of his authority as the signs wherefrom she might infer surely that her face was turned to the light. The result was that he was a little tired of her without being quite conscious of it; and she not at all afraid of him, and a little too conscious of it.
When she entered with her brightest smile in full play, Miss Wilson and Mr. Jansenius, seated at the table, looked somewhat like two culprits about to be indicted. Miss Wilson waited for him to speak, deferring to his imposing presence. But he was not ready, so she invited Agatha to sit down.
"Thank you," said Agatha sweetly. "Well, Uncle John, don't you know me?"
"I have heard with regret from Miss Wilson that you have been very troublesome here," he said, ignoring her remark, though secretly put out by it.
"Yes," said Agatha contritely. "I am so very sorry."
Mr. Jansenius, who had been led by Miss Wilson to expect the utmost contumacy, looked to her in surprise.
"You seem to think," said Miss Wilson, conscious of Mr. Jansenius's movement, and annoyed by it, "that you may transgress over and over again, and then set yourself right with us," (Miss Wilson never spoke of offences as against her individual authority, but as against the school community) "by saying that you are sorry. You spoke in a very different tone at our last meeting."
"I was angry then, Miss Wilson. And I thought I had a grievance—everybody thinks they have the same one. Besides, we were quarrelling—at least I was; and I always behave badly when I quarrel. I am so very sorry."
"The book was a serious matter," said Miss Wilson gravely. "You do not seem to think so."
"I understand Agatha to say that she is now sensible of the folly of her conduct with regard to the book, and that she is sorry for it," said Mr. Jansenius, instinctively inclining to Agatha's party as the stronger one and the least dependent on him in a pecuniary sense.
"Have you seen the book?" said Agatha eagerly.
"No. Miss Wilson has described what has occurred."
"Oh, do let me get it," she cried, rising. "It will make Uncle John scream with laughing. May I, Miss Wilson?"
"There!" said Miss Wilson, indignantly. "It is this incorrigible flippancy of which I have to complain. Miss Wylie only varies it by downright insubordination."
Mr. Jansenius too was scandalized. His fine color mounted at the idea of his screaming. "Tut, tut!" he said, "you must be serious, and more respectful to Miss Wilson. You are old enough to know better now, Agatha—quite old enough."
Agatha's mirth vanished. "What have I said What have I done?" she asked, a faint purple spot appearing in her cheeks.
"You have spoken triflingly of—of the volume by which Miss Wilson sets great store, and properly so."
"If properly so, then why do you find fault with me?"
"Come, come," roared Mr. Jansenius, deliberately losing his temper as a last expedient to subdue her, "don't be impertinent, Miss."
Agatha's eyes dilated; evanescent flushes played upon her cheeks and neck; she stamped with her heel. "Uncle John," she cried, "if you dare to address me like that, I will never look at you, never speak to you, nor ever enter your house again. What do you know about good manners, that you should call me impertinent? I will not submit to intentional rudeness; that was the beginning of my quarrel with Miss Wilson. She told me I was impertinent, and I went away and told her that she was wrong by writing it in the fault book. She has been wrong all through, and I would have said so before but that I wanted to be reconciled to her and to let bygones be bygones. But if she insists on quarrelling, I cannot help it."
"I have already explained to you, Mr. Jansenius," said Miss Wilson, concentrating her resentment by an effort to suppress it, "that Miss Wylie has ignored all the opportunities that have been made for her to reinstate herself here. Mrs. Miller and I have waived merely personal considerations, and I have only required a simple acknowledgment of this offence against the college and its rules."
"I do not care that for Mrs. Miller," said Agatha, snapping her fingers. "And you are not half so good as I thought."
"Agatha," said Mr. Jansenius, "I desire you to hold your tongue."
Agatha drew a deep breath, sat down resignedly, and said: "There! I have done. I have lost my temper; so now we have all lost our tempers."
"You have no right to lose your temper, Miss," said Mr. Jansenius, following up a fancied advantage.
"I am the youngest, and the least to blame," she replied. "There is nothing further to be said, Mr. Jansenius," said Miss Wilson, determinedly. "I am sorry that Miss Wylie has chosen to break with us."
"But I have not chosen to break with you, and I think it very hard that I am to be sent away. Nobody here has the least quarrel with me except you and Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller is annoyed because she mistook me for her cat, as if that was my fault! And really, Miss Wilson, I don't know why you are so angry. All the girls will think I have done something infamous if I am expelled. I ought to be let stay until the end of the term; and as to the Rec—the fault book, you told me most particularly when I first came that I might write in it or not just as I pleased, and that you never dictated or interfered with what was written. And yet the very first time I write a word you disapprove of, you expel me. Nobody will ever believe now that the entries are voluntary."
Miss Wilson's conscience, already smitten by the coarseness and absence of moral force in the echo of her own "You are impertinent," from the mouth of Mr. Jansenius, took fresh alarm. "The fault book," she said, "is for the purpose of recording self-reproach alone, and is not a vehicle for accusations against others."
"I am quite sure that neither Jane nor Gertrude nor I reproached ourselves in the least for going downstairs as we did, and yet you did not blame us for entering that. Besides, the book represented moral force—at least you always said so, and when you gave up moral force, I thought an entry should be made of that. Of course I was in a rage at the time, but when I came to myself I thought I had done right, and I think so still, though it would perhaps have been better to have passed it over."
"Why do you say that I gave up moral force?"
"Telling people to leave the room is not moral force. Calling them impertinent is not moral force."
"You think then that I am bound to listen patiently to whatever you choose to say to me, however unbecoming it may be from one in your position to one in mine?"
"But I said nothing unbecoming," said Agatha. Then, breaking off restlessly, and smiling again, she said: "Oh, don't let us argue. I am very sorry, and very troublesome, and very fond of you and of the college; and I won't come back next term unless you like."
"Agatha," said Miss Wilson, shaken, "these expressions of regard cost you so little, and when they have effected their purpose, are so soon forgotten by you, that they have ceased to satisfy me. I am very reluctant to insist on your leaving us at once. But as your uncle has told you, you are old and sensible enough to know the difference between order and disorder. Hitherto you have been on the side of disorder, an element which was hardly known here until you came, as Mrs. Trefusis can tell you. Nevertheless, if you will promise to be more careful in future, I will waive all past cause of complaint, and at the end of the term I shall be able to judge as to your continuing among us."
Agatha rose, beaming. "Dear Miss Wilson," she said, "you are so good! I promise, of course. I will go and tell mamma."
Before they could add a word she had turned with a pirouette to the door, and fled, presenting herself a moment later in the drawing-room to the three ladies, whom she surveyed with a whimsical smile in silence.