By Mrs George de Horne Vaizey This book is a little different from most of the others from this author. The cast of the story are just a shade older than we are used to in Vaizey books, and there is no one who is afflicted with a disabling disease, such as the author herself suffered from. I suppose you could describe the setting as the upper-class Mayfair set.
The scene opens in the house of a tidy old spinster, living in a tidy little seaside town, in a row of large houses of similar people, sharing private access to a well-kept garden. A rather stable existence.
There is also a nice young American girl, over in England as part of her education, no doubt. Her father has become very rich in America, but he is the brother of the tidy old spinster, on whom, and to whose dismay, he has imposed Cornelia's visit. Cornelia is simply not used to the standards of English behaviour, for instance chaperones, and not gadding about with young men. Cornelia has quite enough pocket-money to do as she pleases. But her aunt is proved right in the end, for among all these nice well-brought-up people there is a baddy, which is revealed only towards the end. NH
BY MRS. GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
Somewhere on the West coast of England, about a hundred miles from the metropolis, there stands a sleepy little town, which possesses no special activity nor beauty to justify its existence. People live in it for reasons of their own. The people who do not live in it wonder for what reasons, but attain no better solution of the mystery than the statement that the air is very fine. "We have such bracing air!" says the resident, as proudly as if that said air were his special invention and property. Certain West-country doctors affect Norton-on-Sea for patients in need of restful change, and their melancholy advent justifies the existence of the great hotel on the esplanade, and the row of bath-chairs at the corner. There are ten bath-chairs in all, and on sunny days ten crumpled-looking old ladies can generally be seen sitting inside their canopies, trundling slowly along the esplanade, accompanied by a paid companion, dressed in black and looking sorry for herself. Occasionally on Saturdays and Sundays a pretty daughter, or a tall son takes the companion's place, but as sure as Monday arrives they disappear into space. One can imagine that one hears them bidding their farewells—"So glad to see you getting on so well, mother dear! I positively must rush back to town to attend to a hundred duties. It's a comfort to feel that you are so well placed. Miss Biggs is a treasure, and this air is so bracing!..."
The esplanade consists of four rows of lodging-houses and two hotels, in front of which is a strip of grass, on which a band plays twice a week during the summer months, and the school-children twice a day all the year long. The invalids in the hotel object to the children and make unsuccessful attempts to banish them from their pitch, and the children in their turn regard the invalids with frank disdain, and make audible and uncomplimentary surmises as to the nature of their complaints as the procession of chairs trundles by.
In front of the green, and separating it from the steep, pebbly shore, are a number of fishermen's shanties, bathing machines, and hulks of old vessels stretched in a long, straggling row, while one larger shed stands back from the rest, labelled "Lifeboat" in large white letters.
Parallel with the esplanade runs the High Street, a narrow thoroughfare showing shops crowded with the useless little articles which are supposed to prove irresistibly attractive to visitors to the seaside. At the bazaar a big white label proclaims that everything in the window is to be sold at the astounding price of "eleven-three," and the purchaser is free to make his choice from such treasures as work-boxes lined in crimson plush, and covered with a massed pattern in shells; desks fitted with all the implements for writing, scent bottles tied with blue ribbons; packets of stationery with local views, photograph frames in plush and gelatine, or to select more perishable trophies in glass and china, all solemnly guaranteed to be worth double the price.
At the photographer's, a few yards farther along, a visitor can have his portrait taken a yard square, the size of a postage stamp, or on a postcard to send to his friends. Ingenious backgrounds are on hand, representing appropriate seaside scenes in which the sitter has nothing to do but to press his face against a hole on the canvas, and these are extensively patronised, for what can be more convenient than to stand on solid earth, attired in sober, everyday clothing, yet be portrayed splashing in the waves in the spandiest of French bathing costumes, riding a donkey along the sands, or manfully hauling down the sails of a yacht!
Mr Photographer Sykes is a man of resource, and deserves the prosperity which is the envy of his neighbours. Mrs Sykes wears silk linings to her skirts on Sundays, and rustles like the highest in the land. She had three new hats in one summer, and the fishmonger's wife knows for a fact that not one of the number costs less than "twenty-five-six."
The High Street and the esplanade constitute the new Norton-on-Sea which has sprung into being within the last ten years, but the real, original, aristocratic Norton lies a couple of miles inland, and consists of a wide, sloping street, lined with alternate shops and houses, branching off from which are a number of sleepy roads, in which detached and semi- detached villas hide themselves behind trees and hedges, and barricade their windows with stiff, white curtains. The one great longing actuating the Norton householder seems to be to see nothing, and to be seen by none. "Is the house overlooked?" they ask the agent anxiously on the occasion of the first application. "Does it overlook any other house?"
"There is another house across the road, madam!" the agent is sometimes regretfully obliged to admit, "but it has been very cleverly planted out."
So it has! by means of a fir or an elm planted within a few yards of the windows, and blocking out something more important than another villa, but the Norton resident desires privacy above all things. The sun and the air have to creep in as best they may.
The more aristocratic the position of a family, the more secluded becomes their position. Fences are raised by an arrangement of lattice- work on the top of boards; shrubs are planted thickly inside the hedges; even the railings of the gates are backed by discreetly concealing boards. If there happens to be a rise in the road from which a passer- by can catch a glimpse of white figures darting to and fro on the tennis courts, the owner promptly throws up a bank, and plants on the top one or two quickly growing limes. It is so disagreeable to be overlooked!
At the date at which this history opens, there were several large places in the neighbourhood of Norton, foremost among them were the Manor House, occupied by the young squire, Geoffrey Greville, and Madame, his mother; Green Arbour, owned by Admiral Perry, who had married the widow of the late High Sheriff; and The Meads, the ofttime deserted seat of a rich London banker.
With these exceptions, quite the most aristocratic dwellings were situated in what was known as "The Park," though perhaps "The Crescent" would have been the more appropriate name, for the twelve houses were built on one side of a curving road, looking out on a charming stretch of land, dipping down to a miniature lake, and rising again to a soft green knoll, surmounted by a bank of trees. The carefully-mowed grass looked like softest velvet, and might be seen, but not touched, being surrounded by tiny wire arches, and protected by wooden boards, requesting visitors to keep to the paths, and not trespass on the "verges." Impressive title! Visitors were likewise requested not to touch the flowering shrubs; not to pick the flowers; not to throw rubbish into the lake, or to inscribe their initials on the seats. These rules being carefully observed, the twelve householders who paid for the upkeep of these decorous gardens were free to enjoy such relaxations as could be derived from gravel paths, and wooden benches.
The view from their windows the residents apparently did not wish to enjoy, for they planted their trees and heightened their fences as industriously as the owners of the fifty-pound villas in Hill Street. Mrs Garnett, at Buona Vista, having a garden deficient in foliage, had even erected a temporary trellis at the end of the lawn, and covered it with creepers, rather than face the indignity of an open view. It gave her such a "feeling of publicity" to see the neighbours pass to and fro!
It was only the residents themselves who enjoyed the proud privilege of pacing the Park unmolested, for at either entrance stood small eaved lodges in which were housed the two gardeners and their wives. To be lodge-keeper to the Park was as great a guarantee of respectability in Norton as to be vicar of the parish church itself. Only middle-aged, married, teetotal, childless churchmen could apply for the posts, and among their scant ranks the most searching inquiries were instituted before an appointment was finally arranged. It is safe to affirm that no working couples on earth were more clean, industrious, and alive to their duty towards their betters, than the occupants of the North and South Lodges of Norton Park!
All day long the two husbands mowed grass, clipped hedges, and swept up gravel paths; all day long the wives scrubbed and dusted their immaculate little houses, keeping a weather-eye on the door to see who passed to and fro. Their duty it was to pounce out on any stranger who dared attempt to force an entrance through the hallowed portals, and send them back discomfited.
"You can't come this way, madam! This road is private!"
"Can't I just walk straight through on the path? It is so much nearer than going all the way round!"
"The park is private, madam; there is no thoroughfare."
Occasionally some child of sin would endeavour to prevaricate.
"I wish to pay a call!"
"Which house did you wish to go to, madam?"
"Buona Vistas is away from home. They won't be back till the end of the month."
Foiled in her attempts the miscreant would have to retrace her steps, or make her way round by the narrow lane by means of which the tradesmen made their way to the back-doors of these secluded dwellings.
Perhaps the most unpromisingly decorous house in the Park was christened "The Nook," with that appalling lack of humour which is nowhere portrayed more strikingly than in the naming of suburban residences. It stood fair and square in the middle of the crescent; and from garret to cellar there was not a nooky corner on which the eye could light. Two drawing-room windows flanked the front door on the left; two dining-room windows on the right. There was not even a gable or a dormer to break the square solidity of the whole. Fourteen windows in all, each chastely shrouded in Nottingham lace curtains, looped back by yellow silk bands, fastened, to a fraction of an inch, at the same height from the sill, while Aspidistra plants, mounted on small tables, were artfully placed so as to fill up the space necessarily left in the centre. They were handsome plants of venerable age, which Mason, the parlourmaid, watered twice a week, sponging their leaves with milk before she replaced them in their pots.
It was a typical early Victorian residence, inhabited by a spinster lady of early Victorian type and her four henchwomen—Heap the cook, Mary the housemaid, Mason the parlourmaid, and Jane the tweeny. Four women, plus a boot-boy, to wait upon the wants of one solitary person, yet in conclave with the domestic at The Croft to the right, and The Holt to the left, Miss Briskett's maids were wont to assert that they were worked off their feet. It was, as has been said, an early Victorian household, conducted on early Victorian lines. Other people might be content to buy half their supplies ready-made from the stores, but Miss Briskett insisted on home-made bread, home-made jams and cakes; home- made pickles and sauces; home-cured tongues and hams, and home-made liqueurs. Cook kept the tweeny busy in the kitchen, while Mary grumbled at having to keep half a dozen unused bedrooms in spick and span perfection, and Mason spent her existence in polishing, and sweeping invisible grains of dust from out-of-the-way-corners.
As a rule the domestic wheel turned on oiled wheels and Miss Briskett's existence flowed on its even course, from one year's end to another, with little but the weather to differentiate one month from another, but on the day on which this history begins, a thunderbolt had fallen in the shape of a letter bearing a New York post-mark, which the postman handed in at the door of The Nook at the three o'clock delivery. Miss Briskett read its contents, and gasped; read them again, and trembled; read them a third time, and sat buried in thought for ten minutes by the clock, at the expiration of which time she opened her own desk, and penned a note to her friend and confidant, Mrs Ramsden, of The Holt—
"My dear Friend,—I have just received a communication from America which is causing me considerable perturbation. If your engagements will allow, I should be grateful if you will take tea with me this afternoon, and give me the benefit of your wise counsel. Pray send a verbal answer by bearer.—Yours sincerely,—
"Sophia A Briskett."
The trim Mason took the note to its destination, and waited in the hall while Mrs Ramsden wrote her reply. The reference to a verbal answer was only a matter of form. Miss Briskett would have been surprised and affronted to receive so unceremonious a reply to her invitation—
"My dear Friend,—It will give me pleasure to take tea with you this afternoon, as you so kindly suggest. I trust that the anxiety under which you are labouring may be of a temporary nature, and shall be thankful indeed if I can in any way assist to bring about its solution.—Most truly yours,—
"Ellen Bean Ramsden."
"The best china, Mason, and a teapot for two!" was Miss Briskett's order on receipt of this cordial response, and an hour later the two ladies sat in conclave over a daintily-spread table in the drawing-room of The Nook.
Miss Briskett was a tall, thin woman of fifty-eight or sixty, wearing a white cap perched upon her grey hair, and an expression of frosty propriety on her thin, pointed features. Frosty is the adjective which most accurately describes her appearance. One felt a moral conviction that she would suffer from chilblains in winter, that the long, thin fingers must be cold to the touch, even on this bright May day; that the tip of her nose was colder still, that she could not go to sleep at night without a hot bottle to her feet. She was addicted to grey dresses, composed of stiff and shiny silk, and to grey bonnets glittering with steely beads. She creaked, as she moved, and her thin figure was whale-boned into an unnatural rigidity.
Mrs Ramsden was, in appearance at least, a striking contrast to her friend, being a dumpy little woman, in whose demeanour good-nature vied with dignity. She was dressed in black, and affected an upright feather in front of her bonnets. "To give me height, my dear!"
In looking at her one was irresistibly reminded of a pouter pigeon strutting along on its short little legs, preening its sleek little head to and fro above its protuberant breast.
"Read that!" said Miss Briskett, tragically, handing the thin sheet of paper to her friend, and Mrs Ramsden put on her spectacles and read as follows—
"My dear Sister,—Business connected with mines makes it necessary for me to go out West for the next few months, and the question has arisen how to provide for Cornelia meantime. I had various notions, but she prefers her own (she generally does!), and reckons she can't fill in this gap better than by running over to pay you a visit in the Old Country. I can pick her up in the fall, and have a little trot round before returning. She has friends sailing in the Lucania on the 15th, and intends crossing with them. You will just have time to cable to put her off if you are dead, or otherwise incapacitated; but I take it you will be glad to have a look at my girl. She's worth looking at! I shall feel satisfied to know she is with you. She might get up to mischief over here.
"Looking forward to seeing you later on,—Your brother, Edward Briskett."
"P S—Dear Aunt Soph, don't you worry to prepare! I'll just chip in, and take you as you are. We'll have some high old times!—Your niece, Cornelia."
Letter and eye-glasses fell together upon Mrs Ramsden's knee. She raised startled eyes, and blinked dumbly at her friend.
Miss Briskett wagged her head from side to side, and heaved a sepulchral sigh.
The halcyon days of peace were over!
"My dear," said Mrs Ramsden, solemnly, "this is indeed great news. I don't wonder that you feel unnerved!"
"I do, indeed. The three o'clock post came in, and I was quite surprised when Mary came in with the salver. I was not expecting any letters. I have so few correspondents, and I am mostly in their debt, I am afraid. Still, of course, there are always the circulars. I looked for nothing more exciting, and then—this arrived! I really felt that I could not sit alone and think it out by myself all day long. I hope you will forgive me for asking you to come over on such short notice."
"Indeed, I am flattered that you should wish to have me. Do tell me all about this brother. He has lived abroad a long time, I think? It is the eldest, is it not? The rich one—in America?"
"I believe he is rich for the moment. Goodness knows how long it may last," sighed Miss Briskett, dolefully. "He speculates in mines, my dear, and you know what that means! Half the time he is a pauper, and the other half a millionaire, and so far as I can gather from his letters he seems just as well satisfied one way as another. He was always a flighty, irresponsible creature, and I fear Cornelia has taken after him."
"She is the only child?"
"Yes! She had an English mother, I'm thankful to say; but poor Sybil died at her birth, and Edward never married again. He was devoted to Sybil, and said he would never give another woman the charge of her child. Such nonsense! As if any man on earth could look after a growing girl, without a woman's help. Instead of a wise, judicious stepmother, she has been left to nurses and governesses, and from what I can hear, has ruled them, instead of the other way about. You can see by the tone of her father's letter that he is absurdly prejudiced."
"That is natural, perhaps, with an only child, left to him in such peculiarly sad circumstances. We must not judge him hardly for that," said little Mrs Ramsden, kindly. "Has the girl herself ever written to you before, may I ask, or is this her first communication?"
Miss Briskett's back stiffened, and her thin lips set in a straight line.
"She has addressed little notes to me from time to time; on birthdays, and Christmases, and so on; but to tell you the truth, my dear, I have not encouraged their continuance. They were unduly familiar, and I object to being addressed by abbreviations of my name. Ideas as to what is right and fitting seem to differ on different sides of the Atlantic!"
"They do, indeed. I have always understood that young people are brought into quite undue prominence in American households. And their manners, too! One sees in that postscript—you don't mind my saying so, just between ourselves—a—a broadness—"
"Quite so! I feel it myself. I am most grieved, about it. Cornelia is my niece, and Edward is the head of the family. Her position as his only child is one of importance, and I feel distressed that she is so little qualified to adorn it. She has been well educated, I believe; has 'graduated,' as they call it; but she has evidently none of our English polish. Quite in confidence, Mrs Ramsden, I feel that she may be somewhat of a shock to the neighbourhood!"
"You think of receiving her, then? Your brother leaves you the option of refusing, and I should think things over very seriously before incurring such a responsibility. A three-months' visit! I doubt you could not stand the strain! If you excused yourself on the ground of health, no offence could possibly be taken."
But at that Miss Briskett protested strongly.
"Oh, my dear, I could not refuse! Edward wishes to find a home for the girl, and says he would be relieved to have her with me. I could not possibly refuse! I think I may say that I have never yet shirked a duty, distasteful though it might be, and I must not do so now. I shall cable to say that I will be pleased to receive Cornelia, when it suits her to arrive."
Mrs Ramsden crumbled her seed-cake and wondered why—that being the case—she had been summoned to give advice, but being a good-natured soul, smiled assent, and deftly shifted the conversation to the consideration of details.
"Well, dear, I only trust you may be rewarded. Miss Cornelia is fortunate to have such a home waiting to receive her. What room do you propose to dedicate to her use?"
Miss Briskett's face clouded, and she drew a long, despairing sigh.
"That's another thing I am troubled about. I had the best spare room done up only this spring. The carpet had faded, and when I was renewing it I took the opportunity to have in the painters and paperhangers. It is all fresh, even the curtains and bed-hangings. They have not once been used."
Mrs Ramsden purred in sympathetic understanding.
"Poor dear! When one has just made a room all fresh and clean, it is most trying to have it taken into use! But why give her that room at all, dear? You have several others. A young, unmarried girl should be satisfied with a room at the back, or even on the third storey. You have a nice little guest room over your own bedroom, have you not?"
"No!" Miss Briskett again manifested a noble determination to do her duty. "I should like Edward to feel, when he comes over, that I have paid his daughter all due honour. She must have the spare room, and if she spills things over the new carpet, I must pray for grace to bear it. She has been accustomed to a very luxurious style of living for the last few years, and I daresay even my best room will not be as handsome as her own apartment. In the present state of Edward's finances, she is, I suppose, a very great heiress."
Little Mrs Ramsden stared into her cup with a kindly thoughtfulness.
"I should keep that fact secret, if I were you," she said earnestly. "Poor lassie! it's always a handicap to a girl to be received for what she has, rather than what she is. And there are two or three idle, worthless young men hanging about, who might be only too glad to pick up a rich wife. I should simply announce that I was expecting a niece from the United States of America, to pay me a visit of some months' duration, and offer no enlightenment as to her circumstances. You will have enough responsibility as it is, without embarrassing entanglements."
"Yes, indeed. Thank you so much. I feel sure that your advice is wise, and I shall certainly follow it. There's that soldier nephew of Mrs Mott's, who is constantly running down on short visits. I object intensely to that dashing style! He is just the type of man to run after a girl for her money. I shall take special care that they do not meet. One thing I am determined upon," said Miss Briskett, sternly, "and that is that there shall be no love-making, nor philandering of any kind under my roof. I could not be troubled with such nonsense, nor with the responsibility of it. I am accustomed to a quiet, regular life, and if Cornelia comes to me, she must conform to the regulations of the household. At my age I cannot be expected to alter my ways for the sake of a girl."
"Certainly not. She is a mere girl, I suppose! How old may she be?"
Miss Briskett considered.
"She was born in the winter! I distinctly remember coming in and seeing the cable, and taking off my fur gloves to open it.—It was the year I bought the dining-room carpet. It was just down, I remember, and as we drank the baby's health, the cork flew out of the bottle, and some of the champagne was spilt, and there was a great fuss wiping it up— Twenty-two years ago! Who would have thought it could be so long?"
"Ah, it always pays to get a good thing while you are about it. It costs a great deal at the start, but you have such satisfaction afterwards. It's not a bit faded!" Mrs Ramsden affirmed, alluding, be it understood, to the Turkey carpet, and not to Miss Cornelia Briskett. "Twenty-two. Just a year younger than my Elma! Elma will be glad to have a companion."
"It is kind of you to say so. Nothing would please me better than to see Cornelia become intimate with your daughter. Poor child, she has not had the advantages of an English upbringing; but we must hope that this visit will be productive of much good. She could not have a better example than Elma. She is a type of a sweet, guileless, English girl."
"Ye-es!" asserted the sweet girl's mother, doubtfully; "but you know, dear Miss Briskett, that at times even Elma..." She shook her head, sighed, and continued with a struggling smile: "We must remember—must we not—that we have been young ourselves, and try not to be too hard on little eccentricities!"
Mrs Ramsden spoke with feeling, for memory, though slumbering, was not dead. She had not always been a well-conducted widow lady, who expressed herself with decorum, and wore black cashmere and bugles. Thirty odd years ago she had been a plump little girl, with a lively capacity for mischief.
On one occasion she had danced two-thirds of the programme at a ball with an officer even more dashing than the objectionable nephew of Mrs Mott, and in a corner of the conservatory had given him a flower from her bouquet. He had kissed the flower before pressing it in his pocket- book, and had looked as if he would have liked to kiss something else into the bargain. ... After twenty-five years of life at Norton, it was astonishing how vividly the prim little widow recalled the guilty thrill of that moment! On yet another occasion she had carried on a clandestine correspondence with the brother of a friend, and had awakened to tardy pangs of conscience only when a more attractive suitor came upon the scene!
Mrs Ramsden blushed at the remembrance, and felt a kindly softening of the heart towards the absent Cornelia but Miss Briskett remained coldly unmoved. She had been an old maid in her cradle, and had gone on steadily growing old maidier ever since. Never had she so forgotten herself as to dally with the affections of any young man, which was perhaps the less to her credit, as no young man had exhibited any inclination to tempt her from the paths of single blessedness.
She looked down her nose at her friend's remark, and replied that she trusted she might be enabled to do her duty, without either prejudice or indulgence, and soon afterwards Mrs Ramsden took her leave, and returned to her own domain.
At one of the windows of the over-furnished sitting-room of The Holt, a girl was standing gazing dreamily through the spotted net curtains, with a weary little droop in the lines of the figure which bespoke fatigue, rather mental, than physical. She was badly dressed, in an ill-cut skirt, and an ill-cut blouse, and masses of light brown hair were twisted heavily together at the back of her head; but the face, which she turned to welcome her mother reminded one instinctively of a bunch of flowers—of white, smooth-leaved narcissi; of fragrant pink roses; of pansies—deep, purple-blue pansies, soft as velvet. Given the right circumstances and accessories, this might have been a beauty, an historical beauty, whose name would be handed down from one generation to another; a Georgina of Devonshire, a beautiful Miss Gunning, a witching Nell Gwynne; but alas! beauty is by no means independent of external aid! The poets who declaim to the contrary are men, poor things, who know no better; every woman in the world will plump for a good dressmaker, when she wishes to appear at her best.
Elma Ramsden, with the makings of a beauty, was just a pretty, dowdy girl, at whom a passer-by would hardly cast a second glance. She looked bored too, and a trifle discontented, and her voice had a flat, uninterested tone.
"Well, mother, back again! Have you enjoyed your call?"
"Thank you, dear, it was hardly a case of enjoyment. I was invited to give my opinion of a matter of importance."
"Yes, I know!—Should she have the sweep this week, or the week after next?—Should she have new covers for the drawing-room?—Would you advise slate-grey, or grey-slate for the new dress? ... I hope you brought the weight of your intellect to bear on the great problems, and solved them to your mutual satisfaction!"
Mrs Ramsden seated herself on a deeply-cushioned arm-chair, and began pulling off her tight kid gloves. A touch of offence was visible in her demeanour, and the feather in the front of her bonnet reared itself at an aggressive angle.
"It is not in good taste, my dear, to talk in that tone to your mother. Matters of domestic interest may not appeal to you in your present irresponsible position, but they are not without their own importance. The subject of to-day's discussion, however, was something quite different. You will be interested to hear that Miss Briskett is expecting a young American niece to pay her a visit at an early date."
"How young?" inquired Elma, tentatively. Her mother had a habit of alluding to "girls" of thirty-five, which did not commend itself to her youthful judgment. She reserved her interest until assured on this important point.
"About your own age or slightly younger. The only daughter of Mr Edward Briskett, the head of the family. His business takes him away from home for several months, and his daughter is anxious to avail herself of the opportunity of visiting her aunt."
"Oh!" said Elma; no more and no less, but as she turned her pansy-like eyes once more to the window, she grimaced expressively. She was sorry for the delusion of the American daughter who was willing to cross a whole ocean for the privilege of beholding Miss Sophia Briskett!
"What is she like?" she asked presently. "Did you hear anything about her?"
Mrs Ramsden shook her head dolefully.
"I fear, dear—strictly between ourselves—that she is not precisely what we should call a nice girl! The tone of her letter was decidedly flippant. Miss Briskett is hoping much from your influence. You two girls will naturally come a good deal into contact, and I hope you will do your utmost to set her an example of ladylike demeanour."
Elma stared steadily through the window. "Flippant" she repeated to herself in a breathless whisper. "Flippant!" The pansy eyes widened. She heaved a sigh of deep, incredulous delight.
The Lucania was due to arrive in the Mersey early on a Tuesday forenoon, and Miss Briskett expected to welcome her niece on the evening of the same day. The best spare room was already swept and garnished, and nothing remained but to take counsel with Heap the cook, and draw out a menu of a dinner which could most successfully combat the strain of waiting. The spinster's own appetite, though sparse, was fastidious, and Heap was a mistress of her art, so that between the two a dainty little meal was arranged, while Mason, not to be outdone, endeavoured to impart an extra polish to her already highly-burnished silver. In the seclusion of the pantry she hummed a joyful air. "Praise the pigs! we shall have something young in the house, at last," said she to herself. "I don't mind the extra work, if she'll only make a bit of a stir!"
By six o'clock the dinner-table was laid, and Miss Briskett was sitting in state, clad in her newest grey silk gown, though a reference to Bradshaw made it seem improbable that the traveller could arrive before seven o'clock. At half-past six hot water was carried up to the bedroom; ten minutes later Miss Briskett left her seat to move another few yards nearer the window. Streaks of colour showed in her cheeks, her fingers clasped and unclasped in nervous fashion. She was conscious of a quick thud-thud at the left side of the thickly-boned bodice, and realised with surprise that it came from that almost forgotten organ, her heart. She had never experienced this agitation before when awaiting the arrival of her own friends. The old adage was right after all—blood was thicker than water! What would the child be like? Edward was a big fair man, with no special beauty of feature. Sybil had been slight and dainty. It did not seem likely that Cornelia would be specially pretty, her aunt prayed above all things that she was unnoticeable—to be unnoticeable was regarded as the climax of elegance in Norton society!—then with a sudden softening of expression found herself hoping that there would be something of Edward in looks or manner! She was a lonely woman, living apart from her kin. To have someone of her own would be a new and delightful experience. She felt glad, actually glad that Cornelia was coming!
Seven o'clock! At any moment now a cab might appear bearing the expected guest from the station. Miss Briskett crossed the room to alter the arrangement of a vase of flowers, and as she did so, the door opened, and Mason entered carrying a telegram upon a silver salver. Miss Briskett tore it open, and read the following message:—
"Safe and sound. Staying night in London with friends. Sight-seeing to-morrow morning. Be with you at five. God save the Queen!— Cornelia."
Miss Briskett's lips tightened. She folded the orange-coloured paper and returned it to its envelope, cleared her throat and said coldly—
"Inform Heap that my niece will not arrive until to-morrow evening, and be good enough to serve dinner at once."
Mason's face clouded with disappointment. In the kitchen Heap banged the saucepan-lids, and wanted to know what was the use of doing your best in a despicable world where you never got nothing for your pains! Mary repaired dolefully upstairs to take away the hot water, and shroud the furniture in dust-sheets; even the tweeny felt a sudden dampening of spirits, while in the dining-room the mistress of her house sat at her solitary meal with anger smouldering in her heart!
A delay to the boat would, of course, have been inevitable; if Cornelia had been so fatigued that she felt it necessary to break her journey half-way, that would have been a disappointment pure and simple, but that the girl had chosen to delay her arrival for her own amusement and gratification, this was an offence indeed—a want of respect and consideration well-nigh unforgivable. Staying in town with friends!— Staying where?—With what friends? Doing the sights to-morrow morning! Miss Briskett's lip curled in disdain. Then that ridiculous ending! What would Miss Brewster, the telegraph clerk at the post- office, think of such frivolity! In this tiny township, everyone was as well acquainted with their neighbour's business as with their own, and while Emily Brewster at the post-office was keenly interested in the advent of the American visitor, Miss Briskett, in her turn, knew all about Emily's parentage and education, the nature and peculiarities of the diseases which she had enjoyed, and vouchsafed a patronising interest in her prospects. It was gall and wormwood to feel sure that Emily had laughed and made merry over a message addressed to a Briskett, from a member of her own house!
Everyone has experienced the flatness which ensues when an expected excitement is postponed at the last moment, leaving the hours to drag along a slow, uneventful course. It was long since Miss Briskett had felt so consciously lonely and depressed as at her solitary dinner that evening. In the drawing-room, even Patience lost its wonted charm, and she was thankful when the time arrived to sip her tumbler of hot water, and retire to bed.
Next day it seemed somewhat flat to make the same preparations a second time over, but as no contradictory message had been received, it did not appear possible that a second disappointment could supervene. The tea- table was set out with special care, and a supply of home-made cakes placed on the three-storied brass stand. Once more Miss Briskett donned her best gown, and sat gazing through the lace window curtains.
At last! A cab drove up to the gate; two cabs, laden with enough luggage for a family journeying to the seaside. The door of the first was thrown open and there jumped out—a man! a tall, alert young man clad in a suit of light-checked tweed, who turned and gave his hand to a girl in blue serge, carefully assisting her to alight. They sauntered up the path together, laughing and chattering in leisurely enjoyment; half-way to the house the girl turned round, and stood for a moment to stare at the view, pointing, as she did so, in frank, unabashed fashion. Then they approached the door, held hospitably open in Mason's hand.
"Why, Aunt Soph, is that you?" cried a high, clear voice, with a pronounced American accent, which rang strangely in the unaccustomed ears. "This is me, anyhow, and I'm real glad to see you. I've had a lovely ride! This is Mr Eustace C Ross, who crossed with us in the Lucania. He's brought me right here in case I got lost, or fell over the edge. England's sweet! I've been all over London this morning, and we did a theatre last night. ... Aunt Soph, you have a look of father about the nose! Makes me feel kinder homesick to see your nose. I'm going to kiss it right away?"
And kiss it she did, on its thin, chilly tip, with Mason sniggering with delight in the background, and the strange young man chuckling in the foreground. Miss Briskett retreated hastily into the drawing-room, and her niece followed, casting curious glances to right and to left.
"You've got a real cosy little house, Aunt Soph. It looks real English—not a mite like our place at home. Is that tea? I'm just about dying for a cup of tea, and so's Mr Ross. Don't you want a cup of tea more than anything in the world, Mr Ross? I see you do by the way you look!"
She sank into an easy chair, and flashed a mischievous glance at the young man by her side. He was a tall, well-built young fellow, with the square shoulders and aggressive chin which to the English eye are the leading characteristics of American men. He had the air of being exceedingly well able to look after himself, but even his self- possession wavered before the frosty nature of his reception. He stood irresolutely, hat in hand, waiting for a repetition of Cornelia's invitation, but none came, and with an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders, he resigned himself to the inevitable, and announced that it was imperative that he should hasten back to the station to catch a return train to town. He proceeded, therefore, to take leave of his travelling companion, a proceeding characterised on his side by transparent regret, on hers by an equally transparent indifference.
"You'll be sure to let me know when you come home!"
"Yes, indeed! I'll write when I start, and you shall come down to meet the boat. Good-bye! You've been real kind! I'm ever so much obliged!"
"Oh, I've enjoyed it enormously. You must be sure to let me know if there is anything I can do—at any time—anywhere!" repeated the young fellow, ardently.
He bowed to Miss Briskett, who extended her hand in patronising farewell, accompanying him to the door of the room, less, it appeared, from motives of kindliness, than to satisfy herself that he had really departed.
On her return she found that her niece had taken off her hat, and was leaning back in her chair, sticking hat-pins through the crown with smiling complacence. Miss Briskett surveyed her with not unnatural curiosity, and came to the swift conclusion that she was not at all pretty, but most objectionably remarkable in appearance. The sort of girl whom people would stare at in the street; the sort of girl whom Norton would emphatically disapprove! Her hair in itself was arresting. Miss Briskett had never seen such hair. It was not red, it was not gold, it was not brown; but rather a blending of all three colours. It was, moreover, extraordinarily thick, and stood out from the head in a crisp mass, rippling into big natural waves, while behind each ear was a broad streak of a lighter shade, almost flaxen in colour. No artificial means could have produced such an effect; it was obviously the work of nature. "American nature!" Miss Briskett told herself with a sniff. A respectably brought-up English girl could never have possessed such a head! Underneath this glorious mass of hair was a pale, little face, lighted up by a pair of golden-brown eyes. The eyebrows were well- marked and remarkably flexible; the nose was thin and pointed, a youthful replica of Miss Briskett's own. The only really good feature was the mouth, and that was adorable, with coral red lips curling up at the corners; tempting, kissable lips, made for love and laughter. For the rest, it was difficult to understand how a plain blue serge gown could possibly contrive to look so smart, or how those tiniest of tiny brown boots had managed to keep so dazzlingly free from dust throughout a railway journey.
Miss Briskett sat herself down by the tea-table, and cleared her throat ominously. Her niece had not been ten minutes in the house, yet already an occasion had arisen for a serious rebuke.
"Are you engaged to that young man, may I ask, Cornelia?"
Cornelia gave a little jump upon her seat, and opened her golden eyes in a stare of amazement.
"Mussy, no! What in the land put such an idea in your head?"
"Your tone and manner, my dear, and the fact of his accompanying you all the way from town. It is not usual for young men to put themselves to so much trouble for a mere acquaintance."
"He don't think it a trouble. He loves flying around! He's a sweet thing," said Miss Cornelia, with smiling recollection, "but he's not my Chubb! I'm sorry he couldn't stay to tea, for he's real amusing when he once gets started. He'd have made you screech with laughter."
Miss Briskett looked down her nose, in her most dignified and rebuking fashion.
"I am not accustomed to 'screech' about anything, and in this country, my dear, it is not considered convenable for young girls to accept the escort of a gentleman to whom they are not engaged. No English girl would think of doing such a thing!"
"They must have a middling dull time of it," retorted Cornelia, calmly, "I must teach them a thing or two while I'm over." She rose to take the teacup from her aunt's hand, and to help herself to a couple of sandwiches from a dainty heart-shaped dish. "Well—aren't you pleased to have me, Aunt Soph? I've wanted years to come over and see you. It seemed too bad that I knew none of Poppar's people. And now I'm here!" She wheeled round, teacup in hand, staring curiously around the handsome, over-furnished room; at the big ebony console table, ornamented with bunches of fruit manufactured out of coloured pebbles; at the grand piano in its walnut case; the piano which was never opened, but which served as a stand for innumerable photographs and ornaments; at the old-fashioned sofas and chairs in their glazey chintz covers; at the glass-shaded vases on the marble mantelshelf. "I'm here, and it's too quaint for words! Everything's—different! I suppose England is different, isn't it, Aunt Soph?"
"Very different!" Miss Briskett's tones fairly bubbled with innuendoes. She put down her rolled slice of bread and butter, and added frostily, "Before we go any further, Cornelia, I must really beg you to address me by my proper name. My name is Sophia. You have no intention of being disrespectful, I feel sure, but I am not accustomed to abbreviations. I have never had a nickname in my life, and I have no wish to begin at this late date."
"My! you poor sufferer, how lonesome for you! Nicknames are so homely and cosy. I have about as many as I have toes. One of my friends calls me 'Corney.' He's a bit of a wag—('He,' indeed!)—Another one calls me 'Nelia,'—'Neel-ya!'" She threw a lingering sentiment into the repetition, and chuckled reminiscently. "To most of my chums I'm just 'Neely.' Life's too short for three syllables every day of the week!"
"Over here in England we are not too hurried to address people in a proper manner. I shall call you by your full name, and expect you to do the same by me."
"All right, Aunt Sophia Ann, just as you please," cried Cornelia, naughtily. She was standing up, cup in hand, but even as she spoke she subsided on to a footstool by Miss Briskett's side, with a sudden lithe collapse of the body, which made that good lady gasp in dismay. She had never seen anybody but a professional acrobat move so quickly or unexpectedly, and felt convinced that the tea must have been spilt, and crumbs scattered wholesale over the carpet. But no! not even a drop had fallen into the saucer, and there sat Cornelia nibbling at an undamaged sandwich with little, strong, white teeth, as cool and composed as if such feats were of everyday occurrence.
"This is how I sit by Poppar at home; it's more sociable than right across the room. Poppar and I are just the greatest chums, and I hate it when he's away. There was a real nice woman wanted to come and keep house, and take me around—Mrs Van Dusen, widow of Henry P Van Dusen, who made a boom in cheese. Maybe you've heard of him. He made a pile, and lost it all, trying to do it again. Then he got tired of himself and took the grippe and died, and it was pretty dull for Mrs Van. She visits round, and puts in her time the best way she can. She'd have liked quite well to settle down at our place for three or four months, and I'd have liked it too, if it hadn't been for you. I wanted to see you Aunt Soph—ia Ann!"
She put up a thin little hand, and rubbed it ingratiatingly up and down the shiny silk lap, to the stupefaction of Mason, who came in at that moment bearing a plate of hot scones, and retired to give a faithful rendering of the position to her allies in the kitchen, sitting down on the fender stool, and stroking the cook's apron in dramatic imitation, while that good lady and her satellites went into helpless fits of laughter.
"I'd as soon stroke a nettle myself," said the cook, "but there's no accounting for taste! You take my word for it, if she goes on stroking much longer, she'll get a sting as she won't forget in a hurry!"
Upstairs in the drawing-room, Miss Briskett's fidgeting uncomfortably beneath that caressing hand. In her lonely, self-contained life, she was so unused to demonstrations of the kind that she was at a loss how to receive them when they came. Instinctively she drew herself away, shrinking into the corners of her chair and busying herself with the re- arrangement of the tray, while Cornelia asked one question after another in her high-pitched, slightly monotonous voice.
"It's mighty quiet out here, Aunt Soph—ia Ann! Does it always go on being just as still? Do you live all the year round, right here in this house by your lonesome, listening to the grass growing across the lane? What do you do, anyway? That's a real smart-looking maid! Will she be the one to wait upon me? Most all my shirt waists fasten up the back, and there's got to be someone round to fix them, or I'm all undone. I guess you're pretty tidy by the looks of you, Aunt Soph. I can't see after things myself, but I fidget the life out of everybody if I'm not just so. I've got the sweetest clothes.—Do you have gay times over here in Norton? Is there a good deal of young society? I love prancing round and having a good time. Poppar says the boys spoil me; there's always a crowd of them hanging round, ready to do everything I want, and to send me flowers and bon-bons. I'm just crazed on bonbons! My state-room was piled full of bouquets and chocolates coming over. I had more than any other girl on board!"
Miss Briskett's lips tightened ominously. "If by 'boys' you mean young men, Cornelia, I am surprised that your father allows you to receive indiscriminate gifts from strangers. I fear he hag become a thorough American, and forgotten his early training. In England no young man would venture to send a gift to a lady to whom he was not either related, or engaged to be married."
"My! how mean! Amurican men are for ever sending things, and the girls just love to have them do it. Seems to me, Aunt Soph, it's about time I came over to teach you how to do things in this benighted isle! Poppar says you're all pretty mouldy, but, short of an earthquake, he can't think of anything better calculated to shake you up, than a good spell of me waltzing around. I guess he's about right. I'm never quiet unless I'm sick. There's not much of the Sleeping Beauty about Cornelia E Briskett!"
Miss Briskett sat still, a pillar of outraged propriety. This was worse than anything she had expected! The girl appeared to have no modesty, no decorum, no sense of shame. She might straighten her back until it was as stiff as a poker, might arch her brows into semicircles, and purse her lips into an expression of disapproval which would have frightened Elma Ramsden out of her senses, but Cornelia never appeared to notice that anything was amiss, and continued her meal with bland enjoyment. When she had finished the sandwiches she rested her left arm more firmly on her aunt's knee, and raised her pointed chin until it rested, actually rested, upon the edge of the table, the while she carefully scrutinised the different varieties of cake, and selected the piece most to her taste. At this she proceeded to nibble with evident satisfaction, lifting it to her lips in one thin hand, while the other still rested caressingly on that shiny silk lap. Miss Briskett's dumb swellings of anger gradually subsided to the point when it became possible to put them into words. She cleared her throat with the usual preliminary grunt, whereupon the girl turned her stag-like head, to gaze questioningly upwards, her expression sweetly alert, her eyes—limpid, golden eyes—widely opened between the double line of lashes!
Miss Briskett looked, and the remonstrance died on her lips. The scene shifted, and in an instant she had travelled back through the years to a day long, long ago, when she sat, a girl in her teens, talking to the little boy brother who was the dearest of all created things, telling him stories, and watching the wonder in his eyes! Pert, self- sufficient, and presumptuous as she might be, by some contradictory freak of nature, that divine innocence still lingered in this young girl's eyes. The sight of it arrested the words on the spinster's lips. She realised with shame that almost every word which she had spoken to the girl since her arrival had been tinged with reproof, and blushed for her own lack of hospitality. The frown faded, and was replaced by a struggling smile. With a half-strained movement she advanced a chilly hand to meet the girl's warm grasp.
Cornelia drew a long, fluttering sigh; a sigh of utter contentment, and laid her russet head on the folds of the stiff grey silk.
"Oh, Aunt Soph—ia! you are just as sweet!" she murmured beneath her breath.
Perfect health, radiant spirits, supreme self-confidence, a sweetly smiling determination to have her own way, and go her own course, though the skies fell, and all creation conspired to prevent her—these were the characteristics of Miss Cornelia Briskett most apparent on a superficial acquaintance. On the morning after her arrival, when Mary the housemaid carried the cup of early morning tea to her bedside, she found the young lady leaning back against the pillows, enveloped in a garment which suggested a garden party, rather than a night-gown, wide awake, and ready for conversation. Really a most affable young lady, who instead of vouchsafing a cool good-morning, launched out into quite a confidential talk, inquiring after the different members of Mary's family, their names, ages, and occupations, and showing a most sympathetic interest in the girl's own future.
"I guess you are going to be married pretty soon! You've got a marrying face!" she said shrewdly, whereupon Mary, blushing, acknowledged that she had a friend, and that he did speak of early next spring.
"Told you so!" cried Cornelia, dimpling. "Well, Mury, see here, you nip round and wait upon me the best you know, and I'll give you an elegant present! I wear muslins most all the time in summer, and I can't endoor to have them mussed. You keep carrying them away and ironing them out nice and smooth, without bothering me to tell you. See! I need lots of attention; there's no getting away from that, but I'll make it worth your while. You just put your mind to it, and I guess you'll make a tip-top maid!"
Mary was at least prepared to perish in the attempt. She related the conversation downstairs, with the natural result that each of the other three maids registered a vow to be second to none in her attentions to the young visitor.
The breakfast-gong rang at eight o'clock, but it was a good ten minutes later before Cornelia came sauntering downstairs, singing an unknown ditty at the pitch of a sweet, if somewhat nasal voice. She was dressed in white of the most elaborate simplicity, and her shaded hair looked even more crisply conspicuous than on the night before. The last line of the song did not come to an end until she was half-way across the dining-room floor, and so far from being dismayed by her aunt's stare of disapproval, she only laughed, waved her hands, and threw an extra flourish into the rallentando. Then she swooped down upon the stiff figure, hugged it affectionately, and planted three kisses on the cold, grey face; one on the lips, one on the brow, a third—deliberately—on the tip of the nose.
"Cornelia, please! Recollect yourself, my dear! Have a little respect. You must never do that again!" cried Miss Briskett, irritably, but the girl showed not the faintest sign of being awed.
"It's the nose of my father, and I've just got to kiss it! It's not a mite of use promising that I won't. I've got to kiss it regularly every morning, and every night, until he comes over to be kissed himself!" she announced calmly, seating herself at the opposite side of the square dining-table, and peering curiously at the various dishes. "Poppar says you never have anything for breakfast in England but bacon and eggs, but I don't see any here. What's under this cover?—Fish?"
"If you wait a few minutes your bacon will be brought in. It had grown cold with waiting so long, so I sent it away to be kept hot. The breakfast hour is eight; not a quarter past."
"It's not a mite of use telling me the hours. I'm always late! I don't suppose I've ever been down in time in my life, unless by a mistake," returned Cornelia, cheerfully. "I like to stay in bed and let the day get sorter warmed up and comfortable, before I begin. What makes you want to get up so early, anyway? I should have thought nine would have been heaps early enough, when you have nothing to do."
It was not a promising beginning to the day. In her own household Miss Briskett was accustomed to an authority as complete as that of the general of an army. She was just, and she was generous; her servants were treated with kindness and consideration, but if they wished to retain their places, they had to learn the lesson of dumb, unquestioning obedience. She might be right, she might be wrong, she might remember, she might forget—no matter! it was not their business to enlighten her. "Theirs but to do, and die!" She would not brook a question as to her own authority. It was, therefore, a distinct blow to the good lady to find her decrees ignored by her young guest with a smiling good-nature, more baffling than the most determined opposition.
She remained stolidly silent throughout the meal, but Cornelia apparently regarded he attitude as a tactful abdication in her own favour, and kept up an incessant flow of conversation from start to finish. When the bell was rung for prayers, she seated herself in a low chair, directly facing the servants' seats, and smiled a dazzling greeting to each in turn. They sat down in their usual positions, heads bent, hands folded on the middle of their clean white aprons; feet tucked carefully out of sight; there was no outward sign of irreverence or inattention in their demeanour, but Miss Briskett felt, that every single woman of them was absorbed—utterly, consumedly absorbed—in casting sly glances at that distracting white vision in the easy chair; at the dully glowing hair, the floating folds of white, the tiny, extended feet. She might have read a page of the dictionary, and they would not have noticed; even Heap, who was old enough to know better, was edging sideways in her chair, to get a better view!
When the four stiffly-starched dresses had rustled out of the room, Cornelia yawned, and stretched herself like a sleepy, luxurious kitten, then snoodled down once more in her comfortable chair. Her eyes were fixed upon her aunt's face, while that good lady bustled about the room, folding the newspaper into an accurate square, and putting it away in a brass-bound cage; collecting scattered envelopes and putting them in the waste-paper basket, moving the flower-vases on the chimney-piece, so that they should stand at mathematically the same distance from the central clock. At every movement she waited to hear the expected, "Can I help you, Aunt Sophia?" which right feeling would surely prompt in any well-principled damsel, and though her reply would of a certainty have been in the negative, she felt aggrieved that the opportunity was not vouchsafed.
She was determined not to look in the girl's direction, nor to meet those watching eyes, but presently, in spite of herself, she felt a magnetic compulsion to turn her head to answer the bright, expectant glance.
"Well?" queried Cornelia, smiling.
"Well what, my dear?"
"How are you going to amuse me this forenoon?"
Miss Briskett sat down suddenly in the nearest chair, and suffered a mental collapse. Positively this view of the situation had never once dawned upon her unimaginative brain! Mrs Ramsden had dimly wrestled with the problem, solving it at last with an easy, "She can talk to Elma!" but the aunt and hostess had been too much occupied with consideration for her own comfort to think of anyone else. It had crossed her mind that the girl might tire her, bore her, worry her, or humiliate her before the neighbours; in an occasional giddy flight of fancy she had even supposed it possible that Cornelia might amuse her, and make life more agreeable, but never for the fraction of a second had she realised that she herself was fated either to bore, or to amuse Cornelia in return!
The discovery was a shock. Being a just woman, Miss Briskett was forced to the conclusion that she had been selfish and self-engrossed; but such self-revelations do not as a rule soften our hearts towards the fellow- creature who has been the means of our enlightenment. Miss Briskett was annoyed with herself, but she was much more annoyed with Cornelia, and considered that she had good reason to be so.
"I have no time to think of frivolities in the morning, my dear. I am too busy with household duties. I am now going to the kitchen to interview my cook, then to the store-room to give out what is needed for the day, and when that is accomplished I shall go to the shops to give my orders. If you wish, I shall be pleased to have your company!"
"Right oh!" cried Cornelia, nodding. "It will be a lesson in your silly old pounds and pence. What do you keep in your store-room, Aunt Soph? Nice things? Fruits? Candy? Cake? I wouldn't mind giving out the stores for a spell, now and again. Well! ... I'll just mouch round, and be ready for you when you set out for your walk."
Miss Briskett left the room, in blissful ignorance of what "mouch" might mean, and much too dignified to inquire, but by the time that ten o'clock had struck, she had learnt to connect the expression with all that was irritating and presumptuous. In the midst of her discussion with the cook, for instance, the sound of music burst upon her ears; the echo of that disused piano which had almost forgotten to be anything but a stand for ornaments and lamps. Bang went the bass, crash went the treble, the tune a well-known dance, played with a dash and a spirt, a rollicking marking of time irresistible to any human creature under forty, who did not suffer from corns on their toes. In the recesses of the scullery a subdued scuffling was heard. Tweeny was stepping it to and fro, saucepans in hand; from the dining-room overhead, where Mason was clearing away the breakfast dishes, came a succession of mysterious bumping sounds. Heap stood stolid as a rock, but her eyes—her small, pale, querulous eyes—danced a deliberate waltz round the table and back...
"I must request Cornelia not to play the piano in the morning!" said Miss Briskett to herself.
From the store-room upstairs a sound of talking and laughing was heard from within the visitor's bedroom, where sat that young lady in state, issuing orders to Mary, who was blissfully employed in unpacking the contents of one of the big dress boxes, and hanging up skirts in the mahogany wardrobe.
"I must beg Cornelia not to interfere with the servants' work in the morning!" said Miss Briskett once more. At half-past ten silence reigned, and she went downstairs, equipped in her black silk mantle and her third best bonnet, to announce her readiness to start on the usual morning round.
Cornelia was not in the morning-room; she was not in the drawing-room, though abundant signs of her recent presence were visible in the littered ornaments on the open piano.
"I must beg Cornelia to put things back in their proper places!" said Miss Briskett a third time as she crossed the hall to the dining-room. This room also was empty, but even as she grasped the fact, Miss Briskett started with dismay to behold a bareheaded figure leaning over the garden gate, elbows propped on the topmost bar, and chin supported on clasped hands. This time she did not pause to determine what commands she should issue in the future, but stepped hastily down the path to take immediate and peremptory measures.
"My dear! in the front garden—without a hat—leaning over the gate! What can you be thinking of? The neighbours might see you!"
Cornelia turned in lazy amusement. "Well, if it's going to be a shock to them, they might as well begin early, and get it over." She ran a surprised eye over her aunt's severe attire. "My, Aunt Soph, you look too good to live! I'm 'most frightened of you in that bonnet. If you'd given a hoot from the window I'd have hustled up, and not kept you waiting. Just hang on two shakes while I get my hat. I won't stay to prink!"
"I am not accustomed—" began Miss Briskett, automatically, but she spoke to thin air. Cornelia had flown up the path in a cloud of swirling skirts; cries of "Mury! Mury!" sounded from within, and the mistress of the house slowly retraced her steps and seated herself to await the next appearance of the whirlwind with what patience she could command.
It was long in coming. The clock ticked a slow quarter of an hour, and was approaching twenty minutes, when footsteps sounded once more, and Cornelia appeared in the doorway. She had not changed her dress, she had not donned her jacket; her long, white gloves dangled from her hand; to judge from appearances she had spent a solid twenty minutes in putting on a tip-tilted hat which had been trimmed with bows of dainty flowered ribbon, on the principle of the more the merrier. Miss Briskett disapproved of the hat. It dipped over the forehead, giving an obviously artificial air of demureness to the features; it tilted up at the back, revealing the objectionable hair in all its wanton profusion. It looked—odd, and if there was one thing more than another to which Norton objected, it was a garment which differentiated itself from its fellows.
Aunt and niece walked down the path together in the direction of the South Lodge, the latter putting innumerable questions, to which the former replied in shocked surprise. "What were those gardens across the road?"—They were private property of householders in the Park.—"Did they have fine jinks over there in summer time?"—The householders in the park never, under any circumstances, indulged in "jinks." They disapproved thoroughly, and on principle, of anything connected with jinks!—"Think of that now—the poor, deluded creatures! What did they use the gardens for, anyway?"—The gardens were used for an occasional promenade; and were also valuable as forming a screen between the Park and the houses on the Western Road.—"What was wrong with the houses on the Western Road?"—There was nothing wrong with the houses in question. The residents in the Park objected to see, or to be seen by, any houses, however desirable. They wished to ensure for themselves an unbroken and uninterrupted privacy.—"My gracious!"
Mrs Phipps, the dragon of the South Lodge, came out to the doorstep, and bobbed respectfully as Miss Briskett passed by, but curiosity was rampant upon her features. Cornelia smiled radiantly upon her; she smiled upon everyone she met, and threw bright, curious glances to right and to left.
"My! isn't it green? My! isn't it still? Where is everyone, anyway? Have they got a funeral in every house? Seems kind of unsociable, muffling themselves up behind these hedgerows! Over with us, if we've got a good thing, we're not so eager to hide it away. You can walk along the sidewalk and see everything that's going on. In the towns the families camp out on the doorsteps. It's real lively and sociable. ... Are these your stores? They look as if they'd been made in the year one."
They were, in truth, a quaint little row—butcher, grocer, greengrocer, and linen-draper, all nestled into a little angle between two long, outstanding buildings, which seemed threatening at every moment to fall down and crush them to atoms. The windows were small, and the space inside decidedly limited, and this morning there was an unusual rush of customers. It seemed as if every housewife in the neighbourhood had sallied forth to make her purchases at the exact hour when Miss Briskett was known to do her daily shopping. At the grocer's counter Cornelia was introduced to Mrs Beaumont, of The Croft.
"My niece, Miss Cornelia Briskett. Mrs Beaumont," murmured Miss Briskett.
"Mrs Beaumont!" repeated Cornelia, loudly, with a gracious, sidelong observance, at which unusual manner of receiving an introduction both ladies stared in surprise.
Presently Mrs Beaumont recovered herself sufficiently to put an all- important question.
"How do you like England?"
"I think it's lovely," said Cornelia.
In the fishmonger's shop Mrs Rhodes and Mrs Muir came up in their turn, and opened wide eyes of surprise as the strange girl again repeated their names in her high monotone. Evidently this was an American custom. Strange people, the Americans! The ladies simpered, and put the inevitable query: "How do you like England?"
"I think it's sweet," said Cornelia.
The draper's shop was a revelation of old-world methods. One anaemic- looking assistant endeavoured to attend to three counters and half a dozen customers, with an unruffled calm which they vainly strove to emulate. Miss Briskett produced a pattern of grey ribbon which she wished to match. Four different boxes were lifted down from the wall, and their contents ransacked in vain, while the patient waiters received small sops in the shape of cases and trays, shoved along to their corner of the counter. When persuasion failed to convince Miss Briskett that an elephant grey exactly matched her silvery fragment—"I'll see if we have it in stock!" cried the damsel, hopefully, and promptly disappeared into space. The minutes passed by; Cornelia frowned and fidgeted, was introduced to a fourth dame, and declared that England was "'cute." Weary waiters for flannel and small-wares looked at their watches, and fidgeted restlessly, but no one rebelled, nor showed any inclination to walk out of the shop in disgust. At length the assistant reappeared, flushed and panting, to regret that they were "sold out," and "What is your next pleasure, madam?"
Madam's next pleasure was a skein of wool, which investigation again failed to produce. "But we have a very nice line in kid gloves; can I show you something in that line this morning?" Miss Briskett refused to be tempted, and produced a coin from her purse in payment of a small account. Cornelia was interested to be introduced to "hef-a-crown," and tried to calculate what would be left after the subtraction of a mysterious "seven-three." She had abundant time to calculate, for, to the suspicious mind, it might really appear as if the assistant had emigrated to foreign climes with the half-crown as capital in hand. The little shop was dull and stuffy; an odour of flannel filled the air; the faces of the patient waiters were colourless and depressed. Cornelia flounced on her seat, and curled her beautiful lips.
"My stars and stripes!" she cried aloud. "I'll take root if I sit here much longer. Seems as that change won't be ready till the last trump!"
She sprang from her chair as she spoke, too much absorbed in her own impatience to note the petrifaction of horror on the faces of the waiters at the counter, and in the doorway came face to face with a plump, dignified little lady, accompanied by a girl in navy blue.
"How do you do, my dear? I am Mrs Ramsden," said the stoat lady, holding out her hand with a very pleasant friendliness. "As the niece of my dear friend and neighbour, allow me to give you a hearty welcome to our shores. This is my daughter, Elma, with whom I hope you will be great friends. I will leave you to talk together while I make my purchases. Young people always get on better alone!"
She smiled, a kind, motherly smile, nodding her head the while, until the upright feather quivered on its stem, then disappeared through the dingy portals, leaving the two girls on the narrow pavement staring at each other with bright, curious eyes.
"How—how do you like England?" queried Elma, shyly, and Cornelia answered with a happy laugh—
"I've been asked that question hef a dozen times already, and I only set foot on these shores day before yesterday. I think it seems a real good place for a nerve rest, but if you want to hustle!—" She shrugged expressively, and Elma smiled with quick understanding.
"Ah, you have been shopping at Willcox's! But Willcox's is not England—Norton is not England; it's just a sleepy little backwater, shut away from the great current of life. Don't judge England by what you see here. You'd like the real England—you couldn't help liking that!"
"I like you!" said Cornelia, bluntly. She held out her hand with a gesture of frank camaraderie, and Elma clasped it, thrilling with pleasure. A happy conviction assured her that she had found a friend after her own heart.
By the time that Cornelia had been a week in residence at The Nook, she had become the one absorbing topic of Norton conversation, and her aunt's attitude towards her was an odd mingling of shame and pride. On principle the spinster disapproved of almost everything that the girl did or said, and suffered every day a succession of electric shocks— but, as we all know, such shocks are guaranteed to exercise a bracing influence on the constitution, and Miss Briskett was conscious of feeling brighter and more alert than for many years past. She no longer reigned as monarch over all she surveyed. A Czar of Russia, suddenly confronted by a Duma of Radical principles and audacious energy, could not feel more proudly aggrieved and antagonistic, but it is conceivable that a Czar might cherish a secret affection for the leader of an opposition who showed himself honest, clever, and affectionate. In conclave with her own heart, Miss Briskett acknowledged that she cherished a distinct partiality for her niece, but in view of the said niece's tendency to conceit, the partiality was rigorously concealed.
As for Norton society, it welcomed Cornelia with open arms; that is to say, all the old ladies of Miss Briskett's acquaintance called upon her, inquired if she liked England, and sent their maids round the following day with neat little notes inviting aunt and niece to take tea on a certain afternoon at half-past four o'clock. These tea-drinkings soon became a daily occurrence, and Cornelia's attitude towards them was one of consecutive anticipation, amusement, and ennui. You dressed up in your best clothes; you sat in rows round a stuffy room; you drank stewed tea, and ate buttered cakes. You met every day the same—everlastingly the same ladies, dressed in the same garments, and listened every day to the same futile talk. From the older ladies, criticisms of last Sunday's sermon, and details of household grievances; from the younger, "Have you seen Miss Horby's new hat? Did you hear the latest about the Briggs? ... I'm going to have blue, with lace insertions..."
Cornelia bore it meekly for a week on end, and then she struck. Two notes were discovered lying upon the breakfast-table containing invitations to two more tea-parties. "So kind of them! You will like to go, won't you, my dear?" said Miss Briskett, pouring out coffee.
"No, I shan't, then!" answered Cornelia, ladling out bacon. Her curling lips were pressed together, her flexible eyebrows wrinkled towards the nose. If Edward B Briskett had been present he would have recognised signals of breakers ahead! "I guess I'm about full up of tea-parties. I'm not going to any more, this side Jordan!"
"Not going, my dear?" Miss Briskett choked with mingled amazement and dismay. "Why not, if you please? You have no other engagements. My friends pay you the honour of an invitation. It is my wish that you accept. You surely cannot mean what you are saying!"
She stared across the table in her most dignified and awe-inspiring fashion, but Cornelia refused to meet her eyes, devoting her entire attention to the consumption of her breakfast.
"You bet I do!"
"Cornelia, how often must I beg you not to use that exceedingly objectionable expression? I ask you a simple question; please answer it without exaggeration. Why do you object to accompany me to these two parties?"
"Because it's a waste of time. It's against my principles to have the same tooth drawn six times over. I know all I want to about tea-parties in England, and I'm ready to pass on to something fresh. I'd go clean crazed if I'd to sit through that performance again."
"I am sorry you have been so bored. I hoped you had enjoyed yourself," said Miss Briskett, stiffly, but with an underlying disappointment in her tone, which Cornelia was quick to recognise. The imps of temper and obstinacy which had peeped out of her golden eyes suddenly disappeared from view, and she nodded a cheery reassurement.
"I wasn't a mite bored at the start. I loved going round with you and seeing your friends, but I have seen them, and they've seen me, and we said all we want to, so that trick is played out. You can't go on drinking tea with the same old ladies all the days of your life? Why can't they hit on something fresh?"
Miss Briskett did not reply. She was indeed too much upset for words. Tea-drinking was the only form of dissipation in which she and her friends indulged, or had indulged for many years past. In more energetic days an occasional dinner had varied the monotony, but as time crept on there seemed a dozen reasons for dropping the more elaborate form of entertainment. A dinner-party upset the servants; it necessitated the resurrection of the best dinner-service from the china cupboard, and the best silver from the safe; it entailed late hours, a sense of responsibility, the exertion of entertaining. How much simpler to buy a sixpenny jar of cream and a few shillings worth of cake welcome your friends at half-past four, and be free at half-past five to lie down on the sofa, and have a nap before dressing for dinner!
Miss Briskett had counted on a protracted orgy of tea-parties in her niece's honour, and had already planned a return bout on her own accord, to set the ball rolling a second time. Her wildest flight of fancy had not soared beyond tea, and here was Cornelia showing signs of rebellion at the end of a fortnight! It said much for the impression which that young lady had made that there was a note of actual entreaty in the voice in which her aunt addressed her.
"I think you must reconsider your decision, Cornelia. I strongly wish you to accept these invitations, and my friends will be much disappointed if you refuse. When you understand the position, I feel sure you will put your own wishes on one side, and consent to do what is right and fitting."
But Miss Cornelia tossed her head, and the impish light flashed back into her golden eyes.
"I ken't break my word," she said bluntly. In moments of friction her American accent was even more strongly marked than usual, which fact was not calculated to soften her aunt's irritation, "Poppar had me taught to say a thing and stick to it, no matter how I suffered. I've said I won't go, and I won't—not if all the old ladies in Christendom were to come and howl at the door! You ken tell 'em I've come out in spots, and you reckon I'm going down with small-pox."
"That would not be true."
"Oh, shucks!" shrugged Cornelia. "Troth is a fine institootion, but, like most old things, it gives out at times, and then there's nothing for it but to fall back upon good, new-fashioned imagination."
Miss Briskett rose majestically from her seat and left the room.
Cornelia lifted the remnant of bread which lay beside her plate, raised it high above her head, and deliberately pitched it to the end of the room. It hit against the wall, and fell over the carpet in a shower of crumbs. She chuckled malevolently, gave the table a vicious shove on one side, and rose in her turn.
On one of the tables by the window stood a neat little pile of books; she lifted the topmost, and thrusting it under her arm, marched deliberately down the garden path to the front gate, and thence across the road towards the gate leading into the plantation. It was a hot, sunny day, and half-way up the green knoll stood an oak tree, whose spreading branches made delightful dapplings of shade. Here also a gentle breeze rustled the leaves to and fro, while in the stuffy paths below the air itself seemed exhausted and bereft of life. Cornelia lifted her white skirts, with a display of slim brown ankles which would have scandalised the Norton worthies, stepped neatly and cleanly over the wire arches, and made a bee-line across the grass for the forbidden spot. She was in the mood when it seemed an absolute necessity to defy somebody, and even a printed notice was better than nothing. She seated herself aggressively in the most conspicuous position, on the side of the tree facing the houses, spread wide her skirts on either side, folded her arms, and awaited developments.
"I hope they'll all look out and see me sitting on their old grass! I hope they'll come over, and stand in rows on the path, telling me that nice young girls never sat on the grass in England. ... Then I'll tell 'em what I think. ... I'm just in the mood to do it. Seems as if I hadn't drawn a free breath for weeks. 'Cornelia, don't! Cornelia, do!' 'In this country we always—' 'In this country we never—' My stars and stripes; why did I leave my happy home?"
Round the corner of the path there came into view the figure of Morris, keeper of the South Lodge, sweeping the gravel path, his head bent over his task. Cornelia's naughty eyes sent out a flash of delight. She cleared her throat in a deliberate "hem," cleared it again, and coughed in conclusion. Morris leant on his broom, surveyed the landscape o'er, and visibly reeled at the sight of such barefaced trespassing. The broom was hoisted against a tree, while he himself mounted the sloping path, shading his eyes from the sun. At the first glance he had recognised the "'Merican young lady," whose doings and clothings— particularly clothings—had formed the unvarying theme of his wife's conversation for the last fortnight. He had committed himself so far as to say that he rather fancied the looks of her, but in the depths of his heart the feeling lingered that for a born lady she was a trifle "free." Morris was a survival of the old feudal type who "knew his place," and enjoyed being trampled under foot by his "betters." If an employer addressed him in terms of kindly consideration, his gratitude was tinged with contempt. These were not the manners of the good old gentry in whose service he had been trained!
Opposite the oak tree he came to a stand, and assumed his official manner.
"Beg pardon, miss; visitors his not permitted on the graws."
"For the land's sake, why not?"
"It's against the rules, miss."
"Suppose it is! What will happen if I break 'em?"
Morris looked discomfited, pushed his hat from his forehead, and murmured vaguely that he 'sposed she'd be punished.
"Who by? Who does the grass belong to, anyhow?"
"To yer Rant, miss, and the hother ladies and gentlemen that owns the park."
"Well, and what could they do?"
Morris, still vague and uncomfortable, murmured concerning prosecution.
"What's prosecution?" queried Cornelia. "Sounds exciting, anyway. Much more exciting than sitting on the gravel paths. Guess I'll stay where I am, and find out. You get on with your work, and keep calm, and when the fun begins you can waltz in, and play your part. It's no use one officer trying to arrest me, though! You'll need a posse, for I'll fight to the death! You might give them the tip!"
Morris walked down hill in stunned surprise, leaving Cornelia to chuckle to herself in restored good humour. Her impulses towards rebellion and repentance were alike swift and speedy, but between the two lay a span of licence, when she revelled in revolt, and felt the tingling of riotous success. Such a moment was the present as she watched Morris's dumb retreat, and cast her dancing eyes around, in search of the next victim.
For the moment no living creature was in sight, but the scene was sufficiently entrancing to justify the statement that there is no country in the world so charming as England on a fine June day.
It was hot, but not too hot to be exhausting; little fleecy white clouds flecked the blue dome overhead; the air was sweet with the odour of flowering trees now in the height of their beauty. The gardener who had planted them had possessed a nice eye for colour, and much skill in gaining the desired effects. The golden rain of laburnum, and deep rich red of hawthorn, were thrown up against the dark lustre of copper-beech, or the misty green of a graceful fir tree; white and purple lilac were divided by a light pink thorn, and on the tall chestnuts the red and white blossoms shone like candles on a giant Christmas tree. It was the one, all-wonderful week, when everything seems in bloom at the same time; the week which presages the end of spring, more beautiful than summer, as promise is ever more perfect than fulfilment. Even the stiff crescent of houses looked picturesque, viewed through the softening screen of green. Cornelia scanned the row of upper windows with smiling curiosity. No one was visible; no one ever was visible at a window at Norton Park; but discreetly hidden by the lace curtains, half a dozen be-capped heads might even now be nodding in her direction.—"My dear, what is that white figure under the oak tree? I thought at first it must be a sheep, but it is evidently a female of some description. It looks exceedingly like—but it could not be, it could not possibly be, Miss Briskett's niece! ..."
Miss Briskett's niece chuckled, and turned her head to look up the sloping path. Her choice of position had been largely decided by the fact that Elma Ramsden was due to return by this route from a weekly music lesson somewhere about the present time. In the course of the past week the two girls had drunk tea in the same houses every afternoon, and exchanged sympathetic glances across a phalanx of elderly ladies, but the chances for tete-a-tete conversations had been disappointingly few, and this morning Cornelia had a craving for a companion young enough to encourage her in her rebellion, or at least to understand the pent-up vitality which had brought it to a head.
She watched eagerly for the advent of the tall, blue-robed figure. Elma always wore dark blue cambric on ordinary occasions. "So useful!" said her mother, "and such a saving in the washing bill." Mother and daughter ran up the plain breadths in the sewing machine, and the only fitting in the body was compassed by a draw-string at the waist. It did not seem a matter of moment to Mrs Ramsden whether the said string was an inch higher or lower, and Elma was economical in belts. Cornelia's expression was eloquent as she viewed the outline of the English girl's figure as she slowly approached down the narrow path. So far Elma had not noticed her presence. She was too much buried in her own dreams. Poor pretty thing! That was all that was left to her—to take it out in dreams. She had not yet begun to be awake!
Twenty yards farther Elma came to a halt, eyes and lips opened wide in gaping astonishment at the sight of the trespasser.
"Cornelia! You are sitting on the grass."
"That's so! Why shouldn't I, if I've a mind?"
"Oh, shucks!" cried Cornelia, impatiently. "Who by?"
Elma waved her hand vaguely towards the crescent of houses.
"Everybody—all of them! It's a rule. They all agreed."
"Suppose they did! I guess it would take more than ten old ladies to prevent me doing what I want. What's the good of grass, anyway, if you can't enjoy it? It's lovely up here. I'm as cool as an otter. You look pretty warm after your walk. Step over, and come right here by me." She patted the ground beside her, and smiled in her most irresistible fashion. "We'll have the loveliest talk—"
Elma hesitated, fascinated but dismayed.
"I daren't. It's breaking the rules. What would they say?"
"That's what we've got to find out. They can't kill us, anyway, and we'll have had a good time first. You've got to pay your bills in this wicked world. Now, then—hustle!"
"I can't!" faltered Elma, and lifted one foot over the wire arch, "I daren't!" and stepped completely over, lifting her skirt behind her. The deed was done! A tingle of excitement ran through her veins, she reared her head and laughed aloud, looking with bright, unashamed eyes at the curtained windows. The moment of revolt had come; a moment long desired in the depths of a meek, long-suffering heart, and prepared for by many a seething inward struggle. Cornelia had applied the match, and the tow blazed. Elma laughed again, and seated herself beneath the tree. Cornelia had tossed her hat on the ground and clasped her hands round her knees in comfortable, inelegant position. Elma did the same, and the American girl, watching her, was at a loss to account for the reckless radiance of her smile. The sunshine flickered down between the branches on the sweet pink and white face, the pansy blue eyes, and long slender throat; it shone alike on the ill-fitting gown, the clumsy shoes, the carelessly arranged hair. Cornelia's golden eyes travelled up and down, down and up, in earnest, scrutinising fashion. She met Elma's glance with a shake of the head, forbearing, yet reproachful.
"Say! You don't know how to prink, do you?"
"Prink?" Elma was doubtful even as to the meaning of the word. She arched her brows in inquiry, whereat Cornelia laughed aloud.
"You are real, genuine English! You make me think of roses, and cream, and honey, and mountain dew, and everything that's sweet and wholesome, and takes no thought of the morrow. If you lived over with us, we'd fix you up so your own mother wouldn't know you, and there'd be paragraphs about you in the papers every single day, saying what you did, and what you were wearing, and how you looked when you wore it."
"'Miss Elma Ramsden sat on the grass, attired in a blue rag, with freckles on her nose.'"
"My, no!" Cornelia chuckled. "They spread it pretty thick when they once begin. You'd have every adjective in the dictionary emptied over you. 'The irresistible Elma,' 'Radiant Miss Ramsden,' 'The beauteous English Rose.' Half the time it's only bluff, but with you it would be a true bill. You are beautiful. Do you know it?"
The pink flush deepened in Elma's delicate face.
"Am I?" she asked wistfully. "Really? Oh, I hope you are right. I should be so happy if it were true, but—but, I'm afraid it can't be. No one notices me; no one seems to think I am—nice! I'm only just Elma Ramsden—not radiant, nor irresistible, nor anything of the kind. Plain Elma Ramsden, as much a matter of course as the trees in the park. Since you came here, in one fortnight, you've had more attention than I've had in the whole course of my life."
"Attention?" echoed Cornelia, shrilly, and rolled her eyes to the firmament. "Attention? You ken sit there and look me in the face, and talk about the 'attention' that's been paid me the last two weeks! You're crazed! Where does the attention come in, I want to know? I haven't spoken to a single man since the day I arrived. You don't call a dozen old ladies clucking round attention, do you? Where are all the young men, anyhow? I have been used to a heap of men's society, and I'm kind of lost without it. I call attention having half a dozen nice boys to play about, and do whatever I want. Don't you ever have any nice young men to take you round?"
Elma's dissent was tinged with shocked surprise, for she had been educated in the theory that it was unmaidenly to think about the opposite sex. True, experience had proved that this was an impossibility, for thoughts took wing and flew where they would, and dreams grew of themselves—dreams of someone big, and strong, and tender; someone who would understand, and fill the void in one's heart which ached sometimes, and called for more, more; refusing to be satisfied with food and raiment. Sometimes the dream took a definite shape, insisted on the possession of grey eyes and wide square shoulders, associating itself with the personality of a certain young squire of racing, bridge-playing tendencies, at whom all Park dwellers glanced askance, refusing to him the honour of their hospitality!
There remained, however, certain functions at which this outlaw must annually be encountered; functions when one was thrillingly conscious of being signalled out for unusual attention. One remembered, for example, being escorted to eat ices, under the shade of an arbour of crimson ramblers; of talking with tongues about the weather, and the flowers, and the music; while grey eyes looked into blue, and said unutterable things. Oh, the beauty of the sky seen through those rosy branches! Oh, the glory of the sun! There had never been such a summer day before. ... Elma trembled at the remembrance, and then blushed at her own audacity. It was terrible to have to acknowledge such things to one's inmost heart, but to put them into words—! She pursed her lips, and looked demurely scandalised by her companion's plain speaking.
"Do you know, Cornelia,"—she had been commanded to use the Christian name, but it still came with a certain amount of hesitation—"if I were you I would not talk like that before your aunt. We—we don't do it over here! It is not considered—nice—for a girl to talk about young men."
Cornelia smiled slowly. Her beautiful lips curved upwards at the corner, giving an air of impish mischief to her face. She nodded her head three times over, and hitched a shoulder under the muslin gown.
"We-ell?" she drawled in her most pronounced accent, "if I've got to think of 'em, I might as well talk of 'em, and I'm bound to think of 'em!" She relaxed the grasp of her knees, and lay back against the trunk of a tree, chuckling softly in retrospective triumph. "I've had such heaps of fun! I just love to carry on, and have half-a-dozen boys quarrelling over me, and hustling to get the first chance. I've had as many as ten bouquets before a ball, and I wore an eleventh, which I'd gotten for myself, and they were all clean crazed to find out who'd sent it. Poppar says I'll be an old maid yet, but it won't be for want of asking. There's one young man who's just daft about me—he's young, and he's lovely, and he's got ten million and a hef dollars, and I've tried to love him." She sighed despairing. "I've tried hard, but I ken't!"
Elm a struggled between disapproval, curiosity, and a shocking mingling of something else, which was not, could not possibly be, envy of such adventures! The lingering doubt served to add severity to her indictment.
"It's very wicked to flirt!"
Once again Cornelia flashed her impish smile.
"It's vurry nice! I don't see a mite of use in being young if you ken't have some fun. You grow old fast enough, and then there's nothing else to it but to sit round and preach. Your mother and Aunt Soph have just got to preach, but I wouldn't start yet awhile if I were you. You'd be just the prettiest thing that was ever seen if you knew how to fix yourself up, but you don't, and you seem to me to mope along the whole blessed time, without a bit of fun to perk you up. Say! don't you feel a bit tired of it sometimes? Don't you ever have a kind of feeling that you want to do something for a change?"
"Sometimes! Do I ever!" Elma echoed the words with startling emphasis. "Always, always! It is here,"—she pressed her hands on her breast—"stifled up here all the time—a horrible, rebellious longing to get out; to be free, to do—I don't know what—really I don't—but something different! I've lived in Norton all my life, and hardly ever been away. Mother hates travelling in winter, and in the summer she hates to leave the garden, and I'm so strong that I don't need change. I never went to school like other girls. Mother disapproves of school influences, so I had governesses instead. It's awful to have a resident teacher in the house, and be an only pupil; you feel governessed out of your life. And now I have no friends to visit, or to visit me, only the Norton girls, for whom I don't care. It seems ungrateful when I have so much to be thankful for, but I feel pent! Sometimes I get such a wicked feeling that I just long to snap and snarl at everybody. I'm ashamed all the time, and can see how horrid I am, but—"
She broke off, sighing deeply, and Cornelia crouched forward, clasping her knees as before, and bending her chin to meet them, her eyes ashine with eagerness and curiosity.
"Yes, I know; I've been there myself. I was there this morning after just two weeks. I don't begin to have your endoorance, my dear, but you take a straight tip from me. When you feel the symptoms coming on, don't you go trying to be sweet and forbearing, and bottling up all the froth; it's not a mite of use, for it's bound to rise to the top, and keeping don't improve it. Just let yourself go, and be right-down ugly to somebody—anyone will do, the first that comes handy—and you'll feel a heap better!" She sighed, and turned a roguish glance towards the shrouded windows of The Nook. "I was ugly to Aunt Soph before I came out!"
Already Elma had mastered the subtleties of Americanese sufficiently to understand that the terms "lovely" and "ugly" had no bearing on outward appearance, but were descriptive of character only. Her eyes widened, partly in horrified surprise at listening to a doctrine so diametrically opposed to everything which she had previously heard, and partly in pure, unadulterated curiosity to know the cause of the rebellion.
"To Miss Briskett? Oh, how had you the courage? I should never have dared. What was it about?"
"Teas!" replied Cornelia, shortly. "I've attended tea-parties regularly for the last ten days, and met the same people every single time, and now I've struck. I've had about enough teas to last the rest of my natural life, but Aunt Soph seemed to think I was bound to go wherever I was asked. Two more old ladies sent invitations to-day."