Minor punctuation errors have been corrected without note. Inconsistent hyphenation has been retained as it appears in the original.
LOVER OR FRIEND
ROSA NOUCHETTE CAREY
Author of 'Nellie's Memories,' 'Not Like Other Girls,' Etc.
MacMillan and Co., Limited St. Martin's Street, London 1915
* * * * *
THE NOVELS OF
ROSA NOUCHETTE CAREY
Crown 8vo. Cloth extra. 3s. 6d. each.
NELLIE'S MEMORIES. WEE WIFIE. BARBARA HEATHCOTE'S TRIAL. ROBERT ORD'S ATONEMENT. WOOED AND MARRIED. HERIOT'S CHOICE. QUEENIE'S WHIM. MARY ST. JOHN. NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS. FOR LILIAS. UNCLE MAX. ONLY THE GOVERNESS. LOVER OR FRIEND? BASIL LYNDHURST. SIR GODFREY'S GRAND-DAUGHTERS. THE OLD, OLD STORY. THE MISTRESS OF BRAE FARM. MRS. ROMNEY AND "BUT MEN MUST WORK." OTHER PEOPLE'S LIVES. HERB OF GRACE. THE HIGHWAY OF FATE. RUE WITH A DIFFERENCE. A PASSAGE PERILOUS. AT THE MOORINGS. THE HOUSEHOLD OF PETER. NO FRIEND LIKE A SISTER. THE ANGEL OF FORGIVENESS. THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE HILL. THE KEY OF THE UNKNOWN.
MACMILLAN AND CO., LTD., LONDON.
* * * * *
LOVER OR FRIEND
MacMillan and Co., Limited London . Bombay . Calcutta Melbourne
The MacMillan Company New York . Boston . Chicago Dallas . San Francisco
The MacMillan Co. of Canada, Ltd. Toronto
Copyright First Edition 1890 Reprinted 1893, 1894, 1898, 1899, 1901, 1902, 1904, 1906, 1910, 1915
1. THE BLAKE FAMILY ARE DISCUSSED 1
2. AUDREY INTRODUCES HERSELF 9
3. THE BLAKE FAMILY AT HOME 18
4. MICHAEL 28
5. THE NEW MASTER 36
6. THE GRAY COTTAGE 47
7. KESTER'S HERO 56
8. 'I HOPE BETTER THINGS OF AUDREY' 67
9. MAT 78
10. PRISCILLA BAXTER 88
11. 'A GIRL AFTER MY OWN HEART' 97
12. MOLLIE GOES TO DEEP-WATER CHINE 107
13. GERALDINE GIVES HER OPINION 117
14. 'I AM SORRY YOU ASKED THE QUESTION' 126
15. MRS. BLAKE HAS HER NEW GOWN 137
16. MOLLIE LETS THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG 146
17. AMONG THE BRAIL LANES 155
18. ON A SCOTCH MOOR 165
19. YELLOW STOCKINGS ON THE TAPIS 174
20. 'THE LITTLE RIFT' 183
21. 'HE IS VERY BRAVE' 192
22. 'NO, YOU HAVE NOT SPARED ME' 202
23. 'DADDY, I WANT TO SPEAK TO YOU' 210
24. 'I FELT SUCH A CULPRIT, YOU SEE' 222
25. MR. HARCOURT SPEAKS HIS MIND 232
26. HOW GERALDINE TOOK IT TO HEART 242
27. WHAT MICHAEL THOUGHT OF IT 252
28. MICHAEL TURNS OVER A NEW LEAF 261
29. TWO FAMILY EVENTS 269
30. 'I COULD NOT STAND IT ANY LONGER, TOM' 278
31. 'WILL YOU CALL THE GUARD?' 286
32. 'I DID NOT LOVE HIM' 295
33. 'SHALL YOU TELL HIM TO-NIGHT?' 305
34. 'I MUST THINK OF MY CHILD, MIKE' 313
35. 'OLIVE WILL ACKNOWLEDGE ANYTHING' 323
36. 'HOW CAN I BEAR IT?' 332
37. 'I SHALL NEVER BE FREE' 341
38. 'WHO WILL COMFORT HIM?' 351
39. 'YOU WILL LIVE IT DOWN' 360
40. MICHAEL ACCEPTS HIS CHARGE 368
41. 'THERE SHALL BE PEACE BETWEEN US' 378
42. 'WILL YOU SHAKE HANDS WITH YOUR FATHER?' 389
43. MICHAEL'S LETTER 399
44. MOLLIE GOES INTO EXILE 409
45. AUDREY RECEIVES A TELEGRAM 418
46. 'INASMUCH' 426
47. A STRANGE EXPIATION 435
48. ON MICHAEL'S BENCH 445
49. 'LET YOUR HEART PLEAD FOR ME' 456
50. BOOTY'S MASTER 464
51. 'LOVE'S AFTERMATH' 472
LOVER OR FRIEND?
THE BLAKE FAMILY ARE DISCUSSED
'There is nothing, sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.'—DR. JOHNSON.
Everyone in Rutherford knew that Mrs. Ross was ruled by her eldest daughter; it was an acknowledged fact, obvious not only to a keen-witted person like Mrs. Charrington, the head-master's wife, but even to the minor intelligence of Johnnie Deans, the youngest boy at Woodcote. It was not that Mrs. Ross was a feeble-minded woman; in her own way she was sensible, clear-sighted, with plenty of common-sense; but she was a little disposed to lean on a stronger nature, and even when Geraldine was in the schoolroom, her energy and youthful vigour began to assert themselves, her opinions insensibly influenced her mother's, until at last they swayed her entirely.
If this were the case when Geraldine was a mere girl, it was certainly not altered when the crowning glories of matronhood were added to her other perfections. Six months ago Geraldine Ross had left her father's house to become the wife of Mr. Harcourt, of Hillside; and in becoming the mistress of one of the coveted Hill houses, Geraldine had not yet consented to lay down the sceptre of her home rule.
Mrs. Ross had acquiesced cheerfully in this arrangement. She had lost her right hand in losing Geraldine; and during the brief honeymoon both she and her younger daughter Audrey felt as though the home machinery were somewhat out of gear. No arrangement could be effected without a good deal of wondering on Mrs. Ross's part as to what Geraldine might think of it, and without a lengthy letter being written on the subject.
It was a relief, at least to her mother's mind, when young Mrs. Harcourt returned, and without a word took up the reins again. No one disputed her claims. Now and then there would be a lazy protest from Audrey—a concealed sarcasm that fell blunted beneath the calm amiability of the elder sister. Geraldine was always perfectly good-tempered; the sense of propriety that guided all her actions never permitted her to grow hot in argument; and when a person is always in the right, as young Mrs. Harcourt believed herself to be, the small irritations of daily life fall very harmlessly. It is possible for a man to be so cased in armour that even a pin-prick of annoyance will not find ingress. It is true the armour may be a little stifling and somewhat inconvenient for work-a-day use, but it is a grand thing to be saved from pricks.
Mrs. Harcourt was presiding at the little tea-table in the Woodcote drawing-room; there were only two other persons in the room. It was quite an understood thing that the young mistress of Hillside should walk over to Woodcote two or three afternoons in the week, to give her mother the benefit of her society, and also to discuss any little matter that might have arisen during her brief absence.
Mrs. Harcourt was an exceedingly handsome young woman; in fact, many people thought her lovely. She had well-cut features, a good complexion—with the soft, delicate colouring that only perfect health ever gives—and a figure that was at once graceful and dignified. To add to all these attractions, she understood the art of dressing herself; her gowns always fitted her to perfection. She was always attired suitably, and though vanity and self-consciousness were not her natural foibles, she had a feminine love of pretty things, and considered it a wifely duty to please the eyes of her lord and master.
Mrs. Harcourt had the old-fashioned sugar-tongs in her hand, and was balancing them lightly for a moment. 'It is quite true, mother,' she said decisively, as she dropped the sugar into the shallow teacup.
Mrs. Ross looked up from her knitting.
'My dear Geraldine, I do hope you are mistaken,' she returned anxiously.
Mrs. Ross had also been a very pretty woman, and even now she retained a good deal of pleasant middle-aged comeliness. She was somewhat stout, and had grown a little inactive in consequence; but her expression was soft and motherly, and she had the unmistakable air of a gentlewoman. In her husband's eyes she was still handsomer than her daughters; and Dr. Ross flattered himself that he had made the all-important choice of his life more wisely than other men.
'My dear mother, how is it possible to be mistaken?' returned her daughter, with a shade of reproof in her voice. 'I told you that I had a long talk with Edith. Michael, I have made your tea; I think it is just as you like it—with no infusion of tannin, as you call it'; and she turned her head slowly, so as to bring into view the person she was addressing, and who, seated at a little distance, had taken no part in the conversation.
He was a thin, pale man, of about five or six and thirty, with a reddish moustache. As he crossed the room in response to this invitation, he moved with an air of languor that amounted to lassitude, and a slight limp was discernible. His features were plain; only a pair of clear blue eyes, with a peculiarly searching expression, distinguished him from a hundred men of the same type.
These eyes were not always pleasant to meet. Certain people felt disagreeably in their inner consciousness that Captain Burnett could read them too accurately—'No fellow has a right to look you through and through,' as one young staff officer observed; 'it is taking a liberty with a man. Burnett always seems as though he is trying to turn a fellow inside out, to get at the other side of him'—not a very eloquent description of a would-be philosopher who loved to dabble a little in human foibles.
'I have been listening to the Blake discussion,' he said coolly, as he took the offered cup. 'What a wonderful woman you are, Gage! you have a splendid talent for organisation; and even a thorough-paced scandal has to be organised.'
'Scandal!—what are you talking about, Michael?'
'Your talent for organisation, even in trifles,' he returned promptly. 'I am using the word advisedly. I have just been reading De Quincey's definition of talent and genius. He says—now pray listen, Gage—that "talent is intellectual power of every kind which acts and manifests itself by and through the will and the active forces. Genius, as the verbal origin implies, is that much rarer species of intellectual power which is derived from the genial nature, from the spirit of suffering and enjoying, from the spirit of pleasure and pain, as organised more or less perfectly; and this is independent of the will. It is a function of the passive nature. Talent is conversant with the adaptation of means to ends; but genius is conversant only with ends."'
'My dear Michael, I have no doubt that all this is exceedingly clever, and that your memory is excellent, but why are we to be crushed beneath all this analysis?'
'I was only drawing a comparison between you and Audrey,' he replied tranquilly. 'I have been much struck by the idea involved in the word "genial"; I had no conception we could evolve "genius" out of it. Audrey is a very genial person; she also, in De Quincey's words, "moves in headlong sympathy and concurrence with spontaneous power." This is his definition, mark you; I lay no claim to it: "Genius works under a rapture of necessity and spontaneity." I do love that expression, "headlong sympathy"; it so well expresses the way Audrey works.'
Mrs. Harcourt gave a little assenting shrug. She was not quite pleased with the turn the conversation had taken; abstract ideas were not to her taste; the play of words in which Captain Burnett delighted bored her excessively. She detected, too, a spice of irony. The comparison between her and Audrey was not a flattering one: she was far cleverer than Audrey; her masters and governesses would have acknowledged that fact. And yet her cousin Michael was giving the divine gift of genius to her more scantily endowed sister; genius! but, of course, it was only Michael's nonsense: he would say anything when he was in the humour for disputation. Even her own Percival had these contentious moods. The masculine mind liked to play with moral ninepins, to send all kinds of exploded theories rolling with their little ball of wit; it sharpened their argumentative faculties, and kept them bright and ready for use.
'Mother and I were talking about these tiresome Blakes—not of Audrey,' she said in a calm, matter-of-fact tone. 'If you were listening, Michael, you must have heard the whole account of my conversation with Mrs. Bryce.'
'Oh, you mean Harcourt's sister, with whom you have been staying. Did I not tell you that I had heard every word, and was admiring your admirable tactics? The way in which you marshalled your forces of half-truths and implied verities and small mounted theories was grand—absolutely grand!'
Mrs. Harcourt was silent for a moment. Michael was very trying; he often exercised her patience most severely. But there was a threefold reason for her forbearance; first, he was her father's cousin, and beloved by him as his own son would have been if he had ever had one; secondly, his ill-health entitled him to a good deal of consideration from any kind-hearted woman; and thirdly, and perhaps principally, he had the reputation for saying and doing odd, out-of-the-way things; and a man who moves in an eccentric circle of his own is never on other people's plane, and therefore some allowance must be made for him.
Mrs. Harcourt could, however, have heartily endorsed Mrs. Carlyle's opinion of her gifted son, and applied it to her cousin—'He was ill to live with.' Somehow one loves this honest, shrewd criticism of the old North-Country woman, the homely body who smoked short black pipes in the chimney-corner, but whom Carlyle loved and venerated from the bottom of his big heart. 'Ill to live with'—perhaps Michael Burnett, with his injured health and Victoria Cross, and the purpose of his life all marred and frustrated, was not the easiest person in the world.
Mrs. Harcourt was silent for an instant; but she never permitted herself to be ruffled, so she went on in her smooth voice:
'I felt it was my duty to repeat to mother all that Edith—I mean Mrs. Bryce—told me about the Blakes.'
'Please do not be so formal. I infinitely prefer that fine, princess-like name of Edith,' remarked Michael, with a lazy twinkle in his eyes; but Mrs. Harcourt would not condescend even to notice the interruption.
'Mrs. Bryce,' with a pointed emphasis on the name, 'was much concerned when she heard that my father had engaged Mr. Blake for his classical master.'
'And why so?' demanded Captain Burnett a little sharply. 'He has taken a good degree; Dr. Ross seems perfectly satisfied with him.'
'Oh, there is nothing against the young man; he is clever and pleasant, and very good-looking. It is only the mother who is so objectionable. Perhaps I am putting it too strongly—only Mrs. Bryce and her husband did not like her. They say she is a very unsatisfactory person, and so difficult to understand.'
'Poor Mrs. Blake,' ejaculated her cousin, 'to be judged before the Bryce tribunal and found wanting!'
'Don't be ridiculous, Michael!' replied Mrs. Harcourt, in her good-tempered way; 'of course you take her part simply because she is accused: you are like Audrey in that.'
'You see we are both genial persons; but, seriously, Mrs. Blake's list of misdemeanours seems absurdly trifling. She is very handsome; that is misdemeanour number one, I believe.'
'My dear,' observed Mrs. Ross placidly at this point, for she had been too busy counting her stitches to concern herself with the strife of words, 'Geraldine only mentioned that as a fact: she remarked that Mrs. Blake was a very prepossessing person, that she had rather an uncommon type of beauty.'
'That makes her all the more interesting,' murmured Captain Burnett, with his eyes half closed. 'I begin to feel quite excited about this Mrs. Blake. I do delight in anything out of the common.'
'Oh, Edith never denied that she was fascinating. She is a clever woman, too; only there were certain little solecisms committed that made her think Mrs. Blake was not a thorough gentlewoman. They are undoubtedly very poor; and though, of course, that is no objection, it is so absurd for people in such a position to try and ignore their little shifts and contrivances. Honest poverty is to be respected, but not when it is allied to pretension.'
'My dear Gage, was it you or Mrs. Bryce who made that exceedingly clever speech! It was really worthy of Dr. Johnson; it only wanted a "Sir" to point the Doctor's style. "Sir, honest poverty is to be respected, but not when it is allied to pretension"—a good, thorough Johnsonian speech! And so the poor woman is poor?'
'Yes, but no one minds that,' returned Mrs. Harcourt, somewhat hastily. 'I hope you do not think that anything in her outward circumstances has prejudiced my sister-in-law against her. As far as that goes, Mrs. Blake deserves credit; she has denied herself comforts even to give her son a good education. No, it is something contradictory in the woman herself that made the Bryces say they would never get on with her. She is impulsive, absurdly impulsive; and yet at the same time she is reserved. She has a bad temper—at least, Edith declares she has heard her scolding her servant in no measured terms; and then she is so injudicious with her children. She absolutely adores her eldest son, Cyril; but Edith will have it that she neglects her daughter. And there is an invalid boy, too—a very interesting little fellow; at least, I don't know how old he is—and she is not too attentive to him. Housekeeping worries her, and she is fond of society; and I know the Bryces think that she would marry again if she got the chance.'
'Let the younger widows marry. I hope you do not mean to contradict St. Paul. Have we quite finished the indictment, Gage? Be it known unto the inhabitants of Rutherford that a certain seditious and dangerous person of the name of Blake is about to take up her residence in the town—the list of her misdemeanours being as follows, to wit, as they say in old chronicles: an uncommon style of beauty, an inclination to replace the deceased Mr. Blake, imperfect temper, impulsiveness tempered with reserve, unconventionality of habit, poverty combined with pretentiousness, and a disposition to slight her maternal duties—really a most interesting person!'
'Michael, of course you say that to provoke me; please don't listen to him, mother. You understand me if no one else does; you know it is Audrey of whom I am thinking. Yes,' turning to her cousin, 'you may amuse yourself with turning all my speeches into ridicule, but in your heart you agree with me. I have often heard you lecturing Audrey on her impulsiveness and want of common-sense. It will be just like her to strike up a violent friendship with Mrs. Blake—you know how she takes these sudden fancies; and father is quite as bad. I daresay they will both discover she is charming before twenty-four hours are over; that is why I am begging mother to be very prudent, and keep the Blakes at a distance.'
'You agree, of course, Cousin Emmeline?'
'Well, my dear, I don't quite like the account Geraldine gives me. Mrs. Bryce is a very shrewd person; she is not likely to make mistakes. I think I shall give Audrey a hint, unless you prefer to do so, Geraldine.'
'I think it will come better from me, mother; you see, I shall just retail Edith's words. Audrey is a little difficult to manage sometimes; she likes to form her own notions of people. There is no time to be lost if they are coming in to-morrow.'
'I thought your father said it was to-day that they were expected?'
'No; I am positive Percival said to-morrow. I know the old servant and some of the furniture arrived at the Gray Cottage two days ago.'
Captain Burnett looked up quickly, as though he were about to speak, and then changed his mind, and went on with his occupation, which was teaching a small brown Dachs-hund the Gladstone trick.
'Now, Booty, when I say "Lord Salisbury," you are to eat the sugar, but not before. Ah, here comes the bone of contention!' he went on in a purposely loud tone, as a shadow darkened the window; and the next minute a tall young lady stepped over the low sill into the room.
'Were you talking about me?' she asked in a clear voice, as she looked round at them. 'How do you do, Gage? Have you been here all the afternoon? How is Percival? No more tea, thank you; I have just had some—at the Blakes'.'
'At the Blakes'?' exclaimed her sister, in a horror-stricken tone, unable to believe her ears.
'Yes. I heard they had come in last night, so I thought it would be only neighbourly to call and see if one could do anything for them. I met father on the Hill, and he quite approved. Mrs. Blake sends her compliments to you, mother;' and as only an awful silence answered her, she continued innocently: 'I am sure you and Gage will like her. She is charming—perfectly charming! the nicest person I have seen for a long time!' finished Audrey, with delightful unconsciousness of the sensation she was creating.
AUDREY INTRODUCES HERSELF
'Indeed, all faults, had they been ten times more and greater, would have been neutralised by that supreme expression of her features, to the unity of which every lineament in the fixed parts, and every undulation in the moving parts of her countenance, concurred, viz., a sunny benignity, a radiant graciousness, such as in this world I never saw surpassed.'
In this innocent fashion had Audrey Ross solved the Gordian knot of family difficulty, leaving her mother and sister eyeing each other with the aghast looks of defeated conspirators; and it must be owned that many a tangled skein, that would have been patiently and laboriously unravelled by the skilled fingers of Geraldine, was spoilt in this manner by the quick impulsiveness of Audrey.
No two sisters could be greater contrasts to each other. While young Mrs. Harcourt laid an undue stress on what may be termed the minor morals, the small proprieties, and lesser virtues that lie on the surface of things and give life its polish, Audrey was for ever riding full-tilt against prejudices or raising a crusade against what she chose to term 'the bugbear of feminine existence—conventionality.'
Not that Audrey was a strong-minded person or a stickler for woman's rights. She had no advanced notions, no crude theories, on the subject of emancipation; it was only, to borrow Captain Burnett's words, that her headlong sympathies carried her away; a passionate instinct of pity always made her range herself on the losing side. Her virtues were unequally balanced, and her generosity threatened to degenerate into weakness. Most women love to feel the support of a stronger nature; Audrey loved to support others; any form of suffering, mental or physical, appealed to her irresistibly. Her sympathy was often misplaced and excessive, and her power of self-effacement, under some circumstances, was even more remarkable, the word 'self-effacement' being rightly used here, as 'self-sacrifice' presupposes some consciousness of action. It was this last trait that caused genuine anxiety to those who knew and loved Audrey best; for who can tell to what lengths a generous nature may go, to whom any form of pain is intolerable, and every beggar, worthy or unworthy, a human brother or sister, with claims to consideration?
If Audrey were not as clever as her elder sister, she had more originality; she was also far more independent in her modes of action and thought, and went on her own way without reference to others.
'It is not that I think myself wiser than other people,' she said once to her cousin, who had just been delivering her a lecture on this subject. 'Of course I am always making mistakes—everyone does; but you see, Michael, I have lived so long with myself—exactly two-and-twenty years—and so I must know most about myself, and what is best for this young person,' tapping herself playfully.
Audrey was certainly not so handsome as her sister. She had neither Geraldine's perfection of feature nor her exquisite colouring; but she had her good points, like other people.
Her hair was soft and brown, and there was a golden tinge in it that was greatly admired. There was also a depth and expression in her gray eyes that Geraldine lacked. But the charm of Audrey's face was her smile. It was no facial contortion, no mere lip service; it was a heart illumination—a sudden radiance that seemed to light up every feature, and which brought a certain lovely dimple into play.
And there was one other thing noticeable in Audrey, and which brought the sisters into still sharper contrast. She was lamentably deficient in taste, and, though personally neat, was rather careless on the subject of dress. She liked an old gown better than a new one, was never quite sure which colour suited her best, and felt just as happy paying a round of calls in an old cambric as in the best tailor-made gown. It was on this subject that she and Geraldine differed most. No amount of spoken wisdom could make Audrey see that she was neglecting her opportunities to a culpable degree; that while other forms of eccentricity might be forgiven, the one unpardonable sin in Geraldine's code was Audrey's refusal to make the best of herself.
'And you do look so nice when you are well dressed,' she observed with mournful affection on one occasion when Audrey had specially disappointed her. 'You have a beautiful figure—Madame Latouche said so herself—and yet you would wear that hideous gown Miss Sewell has made, and at Mrs. Charrington's "at home," too.'
'How many people were affected by this sad occurrence?' asked Audrey scornfully. 'My dear Gage, your tone is truly tragical. Was it my clothes or me—poor little me!—that Mrs. Charrington invited and wanted to see? Do you know, Michael,' for that young man was present, 'I have such a grand idea for the future; a fashion to come in with Wagner's music, and aesthetics, and female lawyers—in fact, an advanced theory worthy of the nineteenth century. You know how people hate "at homes," and how bored they are, and how they grumble at the crush and the crowd.'
'Well, I do believe they are hideous products of civilisation,' he returned with an air of candour.
'Just so; well, now for my idea. Oh, I must send it to Punch, I really must. My proposition is that people should send their card by their lady's-maid, and also the toilette intended for that afternoon, to be inspected by the hostess. Can you not imagine the scene? First comes the announcement by the butler: "Lady Fitzmaurice's clothes." Enter smiling lady's-maid, bearing a wondrously braided skirt with plush mantle and bonnet with pheasant's wing. Hostess bows, smiles, and inspects garments through her eyeglasses. "Charming! everything Lady Fitzmaurice wears is in such perfect taste. My dear Cecilia, that bonnet would just suit me—make a note of it, please. My compliments to her ladyship." Now then for Mrs. Grenville, and so on. Crowds still, you see, but no hand-shaking, no confusion of voices; and then, the wonderful economy: no tea and coffee, no ices, no professional artistes, only a little refreshment perhaps in the servants' hall.'
'Audrey, how can you talk such nonsense?' returned her sister severely.
But Captain Burnett gave his low laugh of amusement. He revelled in the girl's odd speeches; he thought Audrey's nonsense worth more than all Geraldine's sense, he even enjoyed with a man's insouciance her daring disregard of conventionality.
How difficult it is for a person thoroughly to know him or her self, unless he or she be morbidly addicted to incessant self-examination! Audrey thought that it was mere neighbourliness that induced her to call on the Blakes that afternoon; she had no idea that a strong curiosity made her wish to interview the new-comers.
Rutherford was far too confined an area for a liberal mind like Audrey's. Her large and intense nature demanded fuller scope for its energies. With the exception of boys—who certainly preponderated in Rutherford—there were far too few human beings to satisfy Audrey. Every fresh face was therefore hailed by her with joy, and though perhaps she hardly went to Dr. Johnson's length when he complained that he considered that day lost on which he had not made a new acquaintance, still, her social instincts were not sufficiently nourished. The few people were busy people; they had a tiresome habit, too, of forming cliques, and in many ways they disappointed her. With her richer neighbours, especially among the Hill houses, Geraldine was the reigning favourite; Mrs. Charrington was devoted to her. Only little Mrs. Stanfield, of Rosendale, thought there was no one in the world like dear Audrey Ross.
Audrey would not have mentioned her little scheme to her mother for worlds. Her mother was not a safe agent. She had long ago made Geraldine her conscience-keeper, but she had no objection to tell her father when she met him walking down the hill with his hands behind him, and evidently revolving his next Sunday's sermon.
Dr. Ross was rather a fine-looking man. He had grown gray early, and his near-sight obliged him to wear spectacles; but his keen, clever face, and the benevolent and kindly air that distinguished him, always attracted people to him. At times he was a little absent and whimsical; and those who knew them both well declared that Audrey had got all her original ideas and unconventional ways from the Doctor.
'Father, I am going to call on the Blakes,' she observed, as he was about to pass her as he would a stranger.
'Dear me, Audrey, how you startled me! I was deep in original sin, I believe. The Blakes? Oh, I told young Blake to come up to dinner to-night; I want Michael to see him. Very well. Give my respects to Mrs. Blake; and if there be any service we can render her, be sure you offer it;' and Dr. Ross walked on, quite unconscious that his daughter had retraced her steps, and was following him towards the town. 'For I won't disturb him with my chatter,' she thought, 'and I may as well go to Gage to-morrow; she is sure to keep me, and then it would be rather awkward if she should take it into her head to talk about the Blakes. She might want to go with me, or perhaps, which is more likely, she would make a fuss about my going so soon. If you want to do a thing, do it quickly, and without telling anyone, is my motto. Father is no one. If I were going to run away from home, or do anything equally ridiculous, I should be sure to tell father first; he would only recommend me to go first class, and be sure to take a cab at the other end, bless him!'
Dr. Ross walked on in a leisurely, thoughtful fashion, not too abstracted, however, to wave his hand slightly as knots of boys saluted him in passing. Audrey had a nod and smile for them all. At the Hill houses and at the school-house Geraldine might be the acknowledged favourite; but every boy in the upper and the lower school was Audrey's sworn adherent. She was their liege lady, for whom they were proud to do service; and more than one of the prefects cherished a tremulous passion for the Doctor's daughter together with his budding moustache, and, strange to say, was none the worse for the mild disease.
A pleasant lane led from the Hill to the town, with sloping meadows on one side. It was a lovely afternoon in June, and groups of boys were racing down the field path on their way to the cricket ground. Audrey looked after them with a vivid interest. 'How happy they all look!' she said to herself. 'I do believe a boy—a real honest, healthy English boy—is one of the finest things in the creation. They are far happier than girls; they have more freedom, more zest, in their lives. If they work hard, they play well; every faculty of mind and body is trained to perfection. Look at Willie Darner running down that path! he is just crazy with the summer wind and the frolic of an afternoon's holiday. There is nothing to match with his enjoyment, unless it be a kitten sporting with the flying leaves, or a butterfly floating in the sunshine. He has not a care, that boy, except how he is to get over the ground fast enough.'
Audrey had only a little bit of the town to traverse, but her progress was almost as slow and stately as a queen's. She had so many friends to greet, so many smiles and nods and how-d'ye-do's to execute; but at last she arrived at her destination. The Gray Cottage was a small stone house, placed between Dr. Ross's house and the school-house, with two windows overlooking the street. The living-rooms were at the back, and the view from them was far pleasanter, as Audrey well knew. From the drawing-room one looked down on the rugged court of the school-house, and on the gray old arches, through which one passed to the chapel and library. The quaint old buildings, with the stone facade, hoary with age, was the one feature of interest that always made Audrey think the Gray Cottage one of the pleasantest houses in Rutherford. Audrey knew every room. She had looked out on the old school-house often and often; she knew exactly how it looked in the moonlight, or on a winter's day when the snow lay on the ground, and the ruddy light of a December sunset tinged the windows and threw a halo over the old buildings. But she liked to see it best in the dim starlight, when all sorts of shadows seemed to lurk between the arches, and a strange, solemn light invested it with a legendary and imaginative interest.
A heavy green gate shut off the Gray Cottage from the road. Audrey opened it, and walked up to the door, which had always stood open in the old days when her friends, the Powers, had lived there. It was open now; a profusion of packing-cases blocked up the spacious courtyard, and a black retriever was lying on some loose straw—evidently keeping watch and ward over them. He shook himself lazily as Audrey spoke to him, and then wagged his tail in a friendly fashion, and finally uttered a short bark of welcome.
Audrey stooped down and stroked his glossy head. She always made friends with every animal—she had a large four-footed acquaintance with whom she was on excellent terms—from Jenny, the cobbler's donkey, down to Tim, the little white terrier that belonged to the sweep. She had just lost her own companion and follower, a splendid St. Bernard puppy, and had not yet replaced him. As she fondled the dog, she heard a slight sound near her, and, looking up, met the inquiring gaze of a pair of wide-open brown eyes. They belonged to a girl of fourteen, a slight, thin slip of a girl in a shabby dress that she had outgrown, and thick dark hair tied loosely with a ribbon, and falling in a wavy mass over her shoulders, and a small sallow face, looking at the present moment very shy and uncomfortable.
'If you please,' she began timidly, and twisting her hands awkwardly as she spoke, 'mamma is very tired and has gone to lie down. We only moved in yesterday, and the place is in such a muddle.'
'Of course it is in a muddle,' replied Audrey in her pleasant, easy fashion. 'That is exactly why I called—to see if I could be of any assistance. I am Miss Ross, from the lower school—will you let me come in and speak to you? You are Miss Blake, are you not?'
'Yes; I am Mollie,' returned the girl, reddening and looking still more uncomfortable. 'I am very sorry, Miss Ross—and it is very good of you to call so soon—but there is no place fit to ask you to sit down. Biddy is such a bad manager. She ought to have got things far more comfortable for us, but she is old—and——'
'Miss Mollie, where am I to find the teapot?' called out a voice belonging to some invisible body—a voice with the unmistakable brogue. 'There's the mistress just dying for a cup of tea, and how will I be giving it to her without the teapot? and it may be in any of those dozen hampers—bad luck to it!'
'I am coming, Biddy,' sighed the girl wearily, and the flush of annoyance deepened in her cheek.
Somehow, that tired young face, burdened with some secret care, appealed to Audrey's quick sympathies. She put out her hand and gave her a light push as she stood blocking up the entry.
'My dear, I will help you look for the teapot,' she said in the kindest voice possible. 'You are just tired to death, and of course it is natural that your mother should want her tea. If we cannot find it, I will run round and borrow one from the Wrights. Everyone knows what moving is—one has to undergo all sorts of discomforts. Let me put down my sunshade and lace scarf, and then you will see how useful I can be'; and Audrey walked into the house, leaving Mollie tongue-tied with astonishment, and marched into the dining-room, which certainly looked a chaos—with dusty chairs, tables, half-emptied hampers, books, pictures, all jumbled up together with no sort of arrangement, just as the men had deposited them from the vans. Here, however, she paused, slightly taken aback by the sight of another dark head, which raised itself over the sofa-cushions, while another pair of brown eyes regarded her with equal astonishment.
'It is only Kester,' whispered Mollie. 'I think he was asleep. Kester, Miss Ross kindly wishes to help us a little—but—did you ever see such a place?' speaking in a tone of disgust and shrugging her shoulders.
'Mollie can't be everywhere,' rejoined the boy, trying to drag himself off the sofa as he spoke, and then Audrey saw he was a cripple.
He looked about fifteen, but his long, melancholy face had nothing boyish about it. The poor lad was evidently a chronic sufferer; there was a permanent look of ill-health stamped on his features, and the beautiful dark eyes had a plaintive look in them.
'Mollie does her best,' he went on almost irritably; 'but she and Cyril have been busy upstairs getting up the beds and that sort of thing, so they could not turn their hand to all this lumber,' kicking over some books as he spoke.
'Mollie is very young,' returned Audrey, feeling she must take them under her protection at once, and, as usual, acting on her impulse. 'Is your name Kester? What an uncommon name! but I like it somehow. I am so sorry to see you are an invalid, but you can get about a little on crutches?'
'Sometimes, not always, when my hip is bad,' was the brief response.
'Has it always been so?' in a pitying voice.
'Well, ever since I was a little chap, and Cyril dropped me. I don't know how it happened; he was not very big, either. It is so long ago that I never remember feeling like other fellows'; and Kester sighed impatiently and kicked over some more books. 'There I go, upsetting everything; but there is no room to move. We had our dinner, such as it was, in the kitchen—not that I could eat it, eh, Mollie?'
Mollie shook her head sadly.
'You have not eaten a bit to-day. Cyril promised to bring in some buns for tea; but I daresay he will forget all about it.'
A sudden thought struck Audrey: these two poor children did look so disconsolate. Mollie's tired face was quite dust-begrimed; she had been crying, too, probably with worry and over-fatigue, for the reddened eyelids betrayed her.
'I have a bright idea,' she said in her pleasant, friendly way, 'why should you not have tea in the garden? You have a nice little lawn, and it will not be too sunny near the house. If Biddy will only be good enough to boil the kettle I will run and fetch a teapot. It is no use hunting in those hampers, you are far too tired, Mollie. We will just lift out this little table. I see it has flaps, so it will be large enough; and if you can find a few teacups and plates, I will be back in a quarter of an hour with the other things.'
Audrey did not specify what other things she meant; she left that a pleasing mystery, to be unravelled by and by; she only waited to lift out the table, and then started off on her quest.
The Wrights could not give her half she wanted; but Audrey in her own erratic fashion was a woman of resources: she made her way quickly to Woodcote, and entering it through the back premises, just as her sister was walking leisurely up to the front door, she went straight to the kitchen to make her raid.
Cooper was evidently accustomed to her young mistress's eccentric demands. She fetched one article after another, as Audrey named them: a teapot, a clean cloth, a quarter of a pound of the best tea, a little tin of cream from the dairy, half a dozen new-laid eggs, a freshly-baked loaf hot from the oven, and some crisp, delicious-looking cakes, finally a pat of firm yellow butter; and with this last article Audrey pronounced herself satisfied.
'You had better let Joe carry some of the things, Miss Audrey,' suggested Cooper, as she packed a large basket; 'he is round about somewhere.' And Audrey assented to this.
Geraldine was just beginning her Blake story, and Mrs. Ross was listening to her with a troubled face, as Audrey, armed with the teapot, and followed by Joe with the basket, turned in again at the green gate of the Gray Cottage.
THE BLAKE FAMILY AT HOME
'Her manner was warm, and even ardent; her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burnt within her.'—DE QUINCEY.
There was certainly a tinge of Bohemianism in Audrey's nature. She delighted in any short-cut that took her out of the beaten track. A sudden and unexpected pleasure was far more welcome to her than any festivity to which she was bidden beforehand.
'I am very unlike Gage,' she said once to her usual confidant, Captain Burnett. 'No one would take us for sisters; even in our cradles we were dissimilar. Gage was a pattern baby, never cried for anything, and delighted everyone with her pretty ways; and I was always grabbing at father's spectacles with my podgy little fingers, and screaming for the carving-knife or any such incongruous thing. Do you know my first babyish name for father?'
'I believe it was Daddy Glass-Eyes, was it not?' was the ready response, for somehow this young man had a strangely retentive memory, and seldom forgot anything that interested him.
'I had no idea you would have remembered that. How I loved to snatch off those spectacles! "You can't see me now, Daddy Glass-Eyes," I can hear myself saying that; "daddy can't see with only two eyes."'
'You were a queer little being even then,' he returned, somewhat dryly. 'But I believe, as usual, we are wandering from our subject. You are a most erratic talker, Audrey. What made you burst out just now into this sisterly tirade?'
'Ah, to be sure! I was contrasting myself with Gage; it always amuses me to do that. It only proceeded from a speech the Countess made this afternoon'; for in certain naughty moods Audrey would term her elder sister the Countess. 'She declared half the pleasure of a thing consisted in preparation and anticipation; but I disagree with her entirely. I like all my pleasures served up to me hot and spiced—without any flavour reaching me beforehand. That is why I am so charmed with the idea of surprise parties and impromptu picnics, and all that kind of thing.'
Audrey felt as though she were assisting at some such surprise party as she turned in at the green gate, and relieved Joe of the basket. Mollie came running round the side of the house to meet her. She had washed her face, and brushed out her tangled hair and tied it afresh.
'Oh, what have you there?' she asked in some little excitement. 'Miss Ross, have you really carried all these things? The kettle is boiling, and I have some clean cups and saucers. Kester has been helping me. I think mamma is awake, for I heard her open her window just now.'
'What a nice, intelligent face she has!' thought Audrey, as she unpacked her basket and displayed the hidden dainties before the girl's delighted eyes. 'I am sure I shall like Mollie. She is not a bit pretty—I daresay Gage and Michael would call her plain; but she has an honest look in her brown eyes.' 'Mollie,' speaking aloud, 'if your mother has awakened from her nap, she will be quite ready for her tea. May I go into the kitchen a moment? I want Biddy to boil these eggs—they are new-laid; and perhaps you could find me a plate for the butter'; and as Mollie ran off Audrey turned coolly into the kitchen—a pleasant apartment, overlooking the street—where she found a little old woman, with a wrinkled face and dark, hawk-like eyes, standing by the hearth watching the boiling kettle.
The kitchen was in the same state of chaos as the dining-room—the table covered with unwashed dishes, and crates half unpacked littering the floor. It was evident Biddy was no manager. As she stood there in her dirty cotton gown, with her thin gray hair twisted into a rough knot, and a black handkerchief tied loosely over her head, she was the image of Fairy Disorder; her bent little figure and the blackened poker in her hand carried out the resemblance, as she looked up with her bright, peering eyes at the tall young lady who confronted her.
'Do you think I could find a saucepan, Biddy?'
'I suppose there is one about somewhere,' was the encouraging answer. 'Perhaps Miss Mollie will be knowing; she boiled some potatoes for dinner.'
'Do you mean this?' regarding the article with some disfavour. 'Would it trouble you very much to wash it while I make the tea? I have some nice fresh eggs, which I think they will all enjoy.'
But Biddy only returned a snapping answer that was somewhat unintelligible, and carried out the saucepan with rather a sour face.
'Disagreeable old thing!' thought Audrey, as she made the tea, but she afterwards retracted this hasty judgment.
Biddy was a bad manager, certainly, but she was not without her virtues. She was faithful, and would slave herself to death for those she loved; but she was old for work, and the 'ache,' as she called it, had got into her bones. She had slept on the floor for two nights, and her poor old back was tired, and her head muddled with the confusion and her mistress's fretful fussiness. Biddy could have worked well if any one had told her exactly what to do, but between one order and another—between Mr. Cyril's impatience and Miss Mollie's incapable, youthful zeal—she was just 'moithered,' as she would have said herself.
She brought back the saucepan after a minute, and Audrey boiled the eggs. As she looked down at the hissing, bubbling water, an amused smile stole over her features.
'If only Gage could see me now!' she thought; and then Mollie came in and rummaged in a big basket for teaspoons.
Audrey carried out her teapot in triumph. Mollie had done her work well and tastefully: the snowy cloth was on the table; there were cups and saucers and plates; the butter was ornamented with green leaves, the cakes were in a china basket. Kester was dusting some chairs.
'Doesn't it look nice!' exclaimed Mollie, quite forgetting her shyness. 'How I wish Cyril would come in! He does so love things to be nice—he and Kester are so particular. Mamma!' glancing up at a window above them, 'won't you please to hurry down? May I sit there, Miss Ross? I always pour out the tea, because mamma does not like the trouble, and Kester always sits next to me.'
'Is your mother an invalid, my dear?' asked Audrey, feeling that this must be the case.
'Mamma? Oh no! She has a headache sometimes, but so do I—and Cyril often says the same. I think mamma is strong, really. She can take long walks, and she often sits up late reading or talking to Cyril; but it tries her to do things in the house, she has never been accustomed to it, and putting things to rights in Cyril's room has quite knocked her up.'
'What are you talking about, you little chatterbox?' interrupted a gay, good-humoured voice; and Audrey, turning round, saw a lady in black coming quickly towards them: the next moment two hands were held out in very friendly fashion. 'I need not ask who our kind visitor is,' went on Mrs. Blake. 'I know it must be Miss Ross—no one else could have heard of our arrival. Have you ever experienced the delights of a move? I think I have never passed a more miserable four-and-twenty hours. I am utterly done up, as I daresay my little girl has told you; but the sight of that delicious tea-table is a restorative in itself. I had no idea Rutherford held such kind neighbours. Mollie, I hope you have thanked Miss Ross for her goodness. Dear me, what a figure the child looks!'
'Yes, mamma,' replied Mollie, with a return of her shyness; and she slunk behind the tea-tray.
Audrey had apparently no answer ready. The oddest idea had come into her mind: Supposing Michael were to fall in love with Mrs. Blake? He was a great admirer of beauty, though he was a little fastidious on the subject, and certainly, with the exception of Geraldine, Audrey thought she had never seen a handsomer woman.
Mrs. Blake's beauty was certainly of no ordinary type: her features were small and delicate, and her face had the fine oval that one sees in the portraits of Mary Queen of Scots; her complexion was pale and somewhat creamy in tint, and set off the dark hazel eyes and dark smooth coils of hair to perfection.
The long black dress and widow-like collar and cuffs suited the tall, graceful figure; and as Audrey noticed the quick changes of expression, the bright smile, and listened to the smooth, harmonious voice, she thought that never before had she seen so fascinating a woman.
'Gage will rave about her,' was her mental critique. 'She will say at once that she has never seen a more lady-like person—"lady-like," that is Gage's favourite expression. And as to Michael—well, it is never Michael's way to rave; but he will certainly take a great deal of pleasure in looking at Mrs. Blake.'
'Will you sit by me, Miss Ross?' asked her hostess in a winning voice; and Audrey woke up from her abstraction, colouring and smiling.
'I have taken a great liberty with your house,' she said, feeling for the first time as though some apology were due; for the queenly beneficence of Mrs. Blake's manner seemed to imply some condescension on her part in accepting such favours. 'I called to see if you needed any assistance from a neighbour, and I found poor Mollie looking so tired and perplexed that I stayed to help her.'
'Mollie does her best,' replied Mrs. Blake gently; 'but she is a sad manager, and so is Biddy. They nearly worry me to death between them. If they put a thing straight, it is sure to be crooked again the next moment.'
'I am sure Mollie works hard enough,' grumbled Kester; but his mother did not appear to hear him.
'I am a wretched manager myself,' she went on. 'If it were not for Cyril, I do not know what would become of us. Poor Kester is no use to anyone. Would you believe it, Miss Ross, that, when we arrived last night, not a bedstead was up? That was Biddy's fault; she forgot to remind the men. We all slept on the floor except Kester. Cyril would put up his bed for him, though I told him that just for once, and on a summer's night, it would not hurt him.'
Mollie and Kester glanced at each other; and then Kester bit his lip, and looked down at his plate.
'Oh, mamma,' began Mollie eagerly; but Mrs. Blake gave her a quick, reproving look.
'Please don't interrupt, Mollie. I want Miss Ross to understand; she must be quite shocked to see such confusion. Cyril said this morning we should be all ill if we passed another night in that way; so he and Biddy have been putting up the beds, and getting the upstairs rooms in order, and Mollie was sent down to make the dining-room a little tidy.'
'But, mamma——' pleaded Molly, turning very red.
'My dear little girl,' observed her mother sweetly, 'Miss Ross can see for herself the room has not been touched.'
'Because Kester was asleep, and Cyril told me I must not wake him,' persisted Molly, looking ready to cry again; 'and whenever I began, either you or Cyril called me;' and here, though Mollie dashed away a tear bravely, another followed, and would splash down on her frock, for the poor little soul was tired and dispirited, and Miss Ross would think she had been idle, instead of having worked like a slave since early morning.
'Don't be a goose, Mollie!' retorted Mrs. Blake, with the ready good-humour that seemed natural to her; 'you are too old to cry at a word. Miss Ross, may I have one of those delicious cakes? I shall feel a different woman after my tea. Children, what can have become of your brother? I thought he was only going out for half an hour.'
'He is to dine at Woodcote to-night, I believe, Mrs. Blake.'
'Yes; Dr. Ross kindly asked him this morning. I must not begin to talk about Cyril; that must be a tabooed subject. Of course, a mother has a right to be proud of her son—and such a son, too!—but it is not necessary for her to bore other people. If you were to ask me'—with a low laugh of amusement at her own expense—'if I thought any other mother's son could be as handsome and clever and affectionate as my Cyril, I should probably say no; but I will be prudent for once: I will not try to prejudice you in his favour. Cyril shall stand on his own merits to-night; he will not need his mother's recommendation.'
Mrs. Blake made this speech with such a pretty air of assurance, such a conviction that there was something pardonable in her egotism, with such winning frankness, that Audrey forgave the thoughtless insinuation against poor overtasked Mollie. It was evident that Mrs. Blake idolised her eldest son; her eyes softened as she mentioned his name.
'Ah, there is his step!' she added hastily. 'No one walks in the same way as Cyril does; isn't it a light, springy tread? But,' checking herself with another laugh, 'I must really hold my tongue, or you will think me a very silly woman.'
'No; I like you all the better for it,' replied Audrey bluntly. She had no time to say more, for a gay whistle heralded the new-comer; and the next moment a young man vaulted lightly over the low window-sill.
He seemed a little taken aback at the sight of a stranger, shook hands rather gravely with Audrey, and then sat down silently beside his mother.
Audrey's first thought was that Mrs. Blake had not said a word too much. Cyril Blake was certainly a very striking-looking young man. 'He is like his mother,' she said to herself; 'he is as handsome in his way as she is in hers. There is something foreign in his complexion, and in those very dark eyes; it looks as though there were Spanish or Italian blood in their veins. She hardly looks old enough to be his mother. Father said he was two-and-twenty. What an interesting family they seem! I am sure I shall see a great deal of them.'
Cyril was a little silent at first. He was afflicted with the Englishman's mauvaise honte with strangers, and was a little young for his age, in spite of his cleverness. But Mrs. Blake was not disposed to leave him in quiet. She knew that he could talk fluently enough when his tongue was once loosened; so she proceeded to tell him of Audrey's neighbourly kindness, treating it with an airy grace; and, of course, Cyril responded with a brief compliment or two. She then drew him out by skilful questions on Rutherford and its inhabitants, to which Audrey duly replied.
'And you like the place, Miss Ross?'
'Oh, of course one likes the place where one lives,' she returned brightly. 'I was only a little girl when father came to Woodcote, so all my happiest associations are with Rutherford. I grumble sometimes because the town is so small and there are not enough human beings.'
'There are over three hundred boys, are there not?' asked Cyril, looking up quickly.
'Oh, boys! I was not thinking of them. Yes, there are more than three hundred. I delight in boys, but one wants men and women as well. We have too few types. There are the masters and the masters' wives, and the doctors and the vicar, and a curate or two, but that is all. A public school is nice, but its society is limited.'
'Limited, but choice.'
'Decidedly choice. Now, in my opinion, people ought not to be too exclusive. I am sociable by nature. "The world forgetting, by the world forgot" is not to my mind. I like variety even in character.'
'I think we are kindred spirits, my dear Miss Ross. How often have you heard me say the same thing, Cyril! That is why I took such a dislike to Headingly—the people there were so terribly exclusive and purse-proud.'
'Not purse-proud, mother. You are wrong there.'
'Well, they were very stiff and inhospitable; there was no getting on with them at all. I think the Bryces were the worst. Mrs. Bryce is the proudest woman I know.'
'Mother,' observed Cyril warningly, 'it is never safe to mention names. I think—that is, I am sure I have heard that Mrs. Bryce is a connection of Miss Ross.'
'Oh, I hope not!' in an alarmed voice. 'Do—do forgive me my very plain speaking.'
'There is no harm done,' returned Audrey lightly. 'Mrs. Bryce is only a connection of my sister's by marriage. She is Mr. Harcourt's sister. I am afraid I sympathise with you there. I have no special liking for Mrs. Bryce myself; she is clever, an excellent manager, but she is a little too proper—too fond of laying down the law for my taste.'
'Oh, I am so glad!' clapping her hands. 'Cyril is always keeping me in order; he is so afraid what I may say next.'
'You certainly are a most incautious person, mother.'
'See how my children keep me in order,' with an air of much humility. 'Mrs. Harcourt is your sister, and lives at Rutherford. I do hope she is like you, Miss Ross.'
'No, indeed,' shaking her head and laughing. 'We are very different persons. Geraldine is far better than I am. She is exceedingly clever, most accomplished, and so handsome that everyone falls in love with her at first sight. She is quite a little queen here, and no one disputes her sway.'
Mrs. Blake gave an eloquent shrug, but she did not venture on a more direct answer; and Audrey sat and smiled to herself as she thought that Geraldine and Edith Bryce were certainly pattern women.
How pleasant it all was! Audrey had never enjoyed herself more; she was making herself quite at home with these Blakes. But surely there was no need to hurry home; Gage was with her mother. She might indulge herself a little longer. She longed to talk more to Kester and Mollie, but she found it impossible to draw them into the conversation. They sat quite silent, only every now and then Audrey's quick eyes saw an intelligent look flash between them—a sort of telegraphic communication.
'I hope those two poor children are not left out in the cold,' she thought uneasily. 'Their brother does not seem to notice them; he and his mother are wrapped up in each other. It is hardly fair.'
Again Audrey was forming a hasty judgment.
'The country is not very pretty, is it?' asked Cyril at this moment, and she woke up from her reverie.
'It is a little flat, but it has its good points; it is a splendid hunting country, as you know. Oh yes, I think it pretty. There are nice walks. I am very partial to the grass lanes we have about here. In fine weather they are delicious.'
'And you are a good walker?'
'Oh yes. I am strong, and there is nothing I enjoy so much. One is such splendid company for one's self. Leo and I used to have such expeditions! Leo was a St. Bernard puppy, only he died three weeks ago of distemper. I cannot bear to speak of him yet. He was my playfellow, and so handsome and intelligent! My cousin, Captain Burnett, has promised to find me another dog. He has a Dachs-hund himself—such a loving, faithful little creature. He is obliged to take Booty wherever he goes, or the poor thing would fret himself to skin and bone. Is that retriever your special property?' and Audrey looked at Cyril as she spoke.
'No; he belongs to Kester,' he returned carelessly. Then, with a quick change of tone: 'Are you tired, old fellow? Would you like me to help you indoors?' and, as Kester languidly assented, he picked up his crutches, and taking possession of one, substituted his arm, while Mollie ran before them with a couple of cushions.
Mrs. Blake looked after them, and a cloud came over her face.
'Is it not sad?' she said, in a melancholy tone. 'That poor boy—he will be a drag on Cyril all his life. He will never be able to gain his own living. He is fifteen now.'
'It was the result of an accident, was it not?'
But Audrey regretted her abrupt question, as a troubled expression came into the mother's eyes.
'Who told you that?' she asked impatiently. 'Of course it was Mollie. She is a sad chatterbox. And I suppose she mentioned, too, that it was Cyril's fault?'
'Indeed it was not Mollie,' returned Audrey eagerly. 'Kester spoke of it himself. He did not enter into particulars. He just said his brother had let him fall when he was a child.'
'Yes, it was a sad business,' with a sigh. 'I wonder if anyone has ever had so many troubles as I have. Life has been one long struggle to me, Miss Ross. But for Cyril I should have succumbed again and again. No widowed mother has ever been more blessed in a son;' then, dropping her voice: 'Please do not mention the subject before Cyril; he is dreadfully sore about it. It was a pure accident: they were all lads together, and he and his schoolfellows were racing each other. I think they were steeplechasing, and he had Kester on his back. There was a fence and a stony ditch, and the foolish child tried to clear it; they might both have been killed, it was such a nasty place, but Kester was the only one hurt. He was always a delicate little fellow, and hip-disease came on. He does not suffer so much now, but he will always be a cripple, and he has bad times now and then. Cyril is so good to him; he has never forgiven himself for the accident.'
'I can understand that,' returned Audrey in a moved voice; and then Cyril came back and she rose to go. 'I shall see you again,' she said smiling, as he accompanied her to the gate. 'I hear my father has asked you up to Woodcote this evening to meet the Harcourts.'
'Yes,' he returned briefly, looking as though the prospect were a formidable one. 'I could not very well refuse Dr. Ross under the circumstances.'
'Did you wish to refuse?' rather mischievously.
'No, of course not,' but smiling too; 'I feel as though it were a neglect of duty. Look at the muddle in there! and those poor children. I have been working like a horse to-day, but there was too much to do upstairs; I left the living-rooms for this evening.'
'You can work all the harder to-morrow.'
He shook his head.
'To-morrow I have to begin lessons. I suppose the muddle must just go on, and we must live as we can. Biddy is old and worn out, and Mollie is too young to direct her.'
'I will come round and help her,' was Audrey's impulsive answer. 'This is just the sort of thing I love. I do so enjoy putting a place to rights.'
'But, Miss Ross, we have no right to trespass on your kindness,' replied Cyril, flushing slightly as he spoke.
But Audrey only smiled and showed her dimple.
'Tell Mollie I shall come,' was her only answer. 'Au revoir, Mr. Blake.'
And Audrey walked on rapidly to Woodcote, feeling that she had spent a very amusing afternoon, and quite unaware of the commotion she would raise in her mother's and sister's breasts by those few innocently spoken words, 'I have been having tea at the Blakes'.'
'And when God found in the hollow of His hand This ball of Earth among His other balls, And set it in His shining firmament, Between the greater and the lesser lights, He chose it for the Star of Suffering.'
It is better to draw a veil over the scene that followed Audrey's abrupt announcement. As Captain Burnett said afterwards, 'Geraldine's attitude was superb; she was grand, absolutely grand.'
Mrs. Ross was, as usual, a little plaintive.
'If you had only mentioned where you were going, Audrey,' she said quietly; 'but you are so impulsive, my dear. Geraldine would have accompanied you with pleasure a little later, and you could have left my card, and a civil message for Mrs. Blake; that would have been far nicer, would it not, my love?' with an appealing look at her young adviser.
'You can send the message by Mr. Blake this evening,' replied Audrey.
She never argued with her mother if she could possibly help it. In the first place, it was not filial, and in the second, it was perfectly useless, as there was always a mental reservation in Mrs. Ross's mind, and she could seldom be induced to decide any question without reference to Geraldine.
'I think father might have consulted Percival before he asked another guest,' observed Mrs. Harcourt in rather a dubious tone, for she was exceedingly jealous of her husband's dignity. 'Percival was told that we were to be quite alone. I was not going home to change my dress. But if this young man be invited——'
'My darling,' interrupted her mother, 'you must not think of walking back all that way—that gown is lovely, is it not, Audrey?—and one more person does not signify. No doubt your father was anxious that Percival should see Mr. Blake and give him his opinion; he thinks so much of Percival's judgment, does he not, Audrey?'
Now here was the opportunity for a douceur, for a nicely-adjusted compliment, to smooth her sister's ruffled brow; but Audrey was far too blunt and truthful for such finesse.
'Father told me that he wanted Michael to see Mr. Blake—I don't believe he was thinking of Percival—because of course the lower school has nothing to do with Hillside. There is not the least need of changing your gown, Gage, for of course we are only a family party. Will you come up with me to my room now, or will you go with mother presently?'
'I will come with you,' returned Mrs. Harcourt.
Audrey was inclined to be contumacious, but she would not yield the matter so meekly. Audrey was always more contradictory when Michael was in the background; they seemed to play into each other's hand somehow, and more than once Geraldine was positive she had heard a softly-uttered 'Bravo!' at some of Audrey's ridiculous speeches.
'Come along, then,' returned Audrey good-humouredly; and as they left the room together, Captain Burnett laid down his book.
'I am afraid she is going to catch it, Cousin Emmeline; it will be a case of survival of the fittest—Geraldine is strong, but Audrey can hold her own. I back Audrey.'
'My dear,' remonstrated Mrs. Ross, as she put away her knitting, 'you talk as though my girls were likely to quarrel. Geraldine is far too sweet-tempered to quarrel with anyone; she will only give Audrey a little advice—dear Audrey is dreadfully careless, she takes after her father in that; John is always doing imprudent things. Geraldine has made me most uncomfortable this afternoon; I am quite sure that Mrs. Blake will be an undesirable friend for Audrey.'
'Do you always see through other people's spectacles?' he asked quietly. 'I have a habit of judging things for myself—I never take anything second-hand; it is such an unpleasant idea, airing other people's opinions. Fancy a sensible human being turning himself into a sort of peg or receptacle for other folks' theories! No, thank you, my dear cousin; my opinions are all stamped with "Michael Burnett, his mark."'
'Men are different,' she replied tranquilly; and then she left him to go in search of her husband.
'What a world we live in, Booty!' observed Captain Burnett, as he walked to the window and his four-footed favourite followed him. 'Oh, you want a run, do you?' as the little animal looked at him wistfully. 'You think your master uncommonly lazy this afternoon—you don't happen to have a pain in your leg, do you, old fellow—a nasty gnawing, grumbling sort of pain?—there is nothing like neuralgia for making a man lazy. Well, I'll make an effort to oblige you, my friend—so off you go'; and Captain Burnett threw a stone, and there was a delighted bark and an excited patter of the short legs, and Booty vanished round a corner, while his master followed him more slowly.
The garden of Woodcote was the best in Rutherford; even the Hill houses could not compete with it: an extensive lawn lay before the house, with a shrubbery on one side, and the trees and shrubs were exceedingly rare; a little below the house the ground sloped rather steeply, and a succession of terraces and flower-beds led down to a miniature lake with a tiny island; here there were some swans and a punt, and the tall trees that bordered the water were the favourite haunt of blackbirds and thrushes.
Captain Burnett sat down on a bench facing the water, and Booty stood and barked at the swans. How sweet and peaceful everything looked this evening! The water was golden in the evening sunshine; a blue tit was flashing from one tree to another; some thrushes were singing a melodious duet; the swans arched their snowy necks and looked proudly at him; some children's voices were audible in the distance. There was a thoughtful expression in Captain Burnett's eyes, a concentrated melancholy that was often there when he found himself utterly alone.
Captain Burnett had one confidant—his cousin John. Not that he often called him by that name, their ages were too dissimilar to permit such easy familiarity; but he had once owned to Dr. Ross, to the man who loved him as a father, that his life had been a failure.
'Only a failure in the sense that you are no longer fit for active duty,' had been the reply. 'You must not forget the Victoria Cross, Michael.'
'Oh, that was nothing; any other man would have done the same in my place,' Michael had retorted with some heat, for he hated to be reminded of his good deeds.
Perhaps he was right: hundreds of brave young Englishmen would have acted in the same way had they been placed in the same circumstances. The English army is full of heroes, thank God! Nevertheless, Michael Burnett had earned his Victoria Cross dearly.
It was in one of the Zulu skirmishes. A detachment of the enemy had surprised them at night; but the little handful of men had repulsed them bravely. Captain Burnett knew help was at hand; they had only to hold out until a larger contingent should join them. He hoped things were going well. They had just driven the Zulus backwards, when, in the dim light of the flickering watch-fires, he saw dusky figures moving in the direction of a hut where a few sick and wounded men had been placed. There was not a second to lose; in another moment the poor fellows would have been butchered. Calling out to some of his men to follow him, and not perceiving that he was alone, he tore through the scrub, and entered the hut by a hole that served as a window. Michael once owned that he fought like a demon that night; but the thought of the few helpless wretches writhing in terror on their pallet beds behind him seemed to give him the force of ten men. 'They shall pass only over my body! God save my poor fellows!' was his inward cry, as he blocked up the narrow doorway and struck at his dusky foes like a madman.
More than one poor lad lived to look back on that day, and to bless their gallant deliverer. 'No one else could have done it, sir,' observed one of them; 'but the Captain never knew how to give in. I was watching them, and I thought the devils would have finished him. He staggered back once, and Bob Jaggers gave a groan, for we thought it was all up with us; and though I would have made shift to fight before I would be killed like a rat in a hole, one could not do much with a broken arm. When our men rushed in, he was pretty nearly finished; one of the savages had him by the knees. Of course they gave him the Cross. For the matter of that, he ought to have had it before.
'Did you ever hear how he saved little Tom Blatchley's life? Well, I will tell you'; and hereupon followed one of those touching incidents which are so frequent, and which gild with glory even the bloody annals of war.
Yes, they gave him the Victoria Cross; but as he lay on his bed of suffering, disabled by cruel wounds, Michael knew that he had won it at the expense of all that men count dear. 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' There were times when, in his anguish, Michael could have prayed that his life—his useless, broken life—might have been taken too. How gladly, how thankfully would he have yielded it! how willingly would he have turned his face to the wall, and ended the conflict, sooner than endure the far bitterer ordeal that lay before him! for he was young, and he knew his career was ended, and that, brave soldier as he was, he could no longer follow the profession that he loved. It was doubtful for a long time how far he would recover from the effects of that terrible night; his wounds were long in healing. The principal injuries were in the head and thigh. One or two of his physicians feared that he would never walk again; the limb seemed to contract, and neuralgic pains made his life a misery. To add to his troubles, his nerves were seriously affected, and though he was no coward, depression held him at times in its fell grip, and mocked him with delusive pictures of other men's happiness. Like Bunyan's poor tempted Christian, he, too, at times espied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him, and had to wage a deadly combat with many a doubt and hard, despairing thought. 'You are a wreck, Michael Burnett!' the grim tempter seemed to say to him. 'Better be quit of it all! Before you are thirty your work is over; what will you do with the remainder of your life? You are poor—perhaps crippled; no woman will look at you. You have your Cross—a little bit of rusty iron—but does such empty glory avail? You have aches and pains in plenty; your future looks promising, my fine fellow! A hero! In truth those ten minutes have cost you dearly! no wonder you repent of your rash gallantry!'
'I repent of nothing,' Michael would rejoin, in that dumb inward argument so often renewed. 'If it were to come over again, I would do just the same. "Greater love hath no man than this";' for in his semi-delirious hours those Divine words seemed to set themselves to solemn music, and to echo in his brain with ceaseless repetition. 'A life given, a life laid down, a life spent in suffering—is it not all the same—a soldier's duty? Shall I shirk my fate? Would it not be better to bear it like a man?' and Michael would set his teeth hard, and with an inward prayer for patience—for in the struggle the man was learning to pray—girded himself up again to the daily fight.
Once, when there had been a fresh outbreak of mischief, and they had brought him down to Woodcote, that he might be more carefully nursed than in the town lodgings which was all Michael Burnett called home, Audrey, who, after her usual pitiful fashion, wore herself out in her efforts to soothe and comfort the invalid, once read to him some beautiful lines out of a poem entitled 'The Disciples.'
Michael, who was in one of his dark moods, made no comment on the passage which she had read in a trembling voice of deep feeling; but when she left the room on some errand, he stretched out his hand, and read it over again:
'But if, impatient, thou let slip thy cross, Thou wilt not find it in this world again, Nor in another; here, and here alone, Is given thee to suffer for God's sake.'
When Audrey returned the book was in its place, and Michael was lying with his eyes closed, and the frown of pain still knitting his temples. He was not asleep, but she dare not disturb him by offering to go on with the poem. She sat down at a little distance and looked out of the window, rather sorrowfully. How strong she was! how full of health and enjoyment! and this poor Michael, who had acted so nobly——Audrey's eyes were full of tears. And all the time Michael was saying to himself, 'After all, I am a coward. What if I must suffer? Life will not last for ever.'
By and by Michael owned that even his hard lot had compensations. He became used to his semi-invalid existence. Active work of any sort was impossible—that is, continuous work. He had tried it when his friends had found an easy post for him, and had been obliged to give it up. He still suffered severely from neuralgic headaches that left him worn and exhausted. His maimed leg often troubled him; he could not walk far, and riding was impossible.
'You must make up your mind to be an idle man—at least, for the present, Captain Burnett,' one of his doctors had said to him, and Michael had languidly acquiesced. To be a soldier had been his one ambition, and he cared for little else. He had enough to keep him in moderate comfort as a bachelor, and he had faint expectations from an uncle who lived in Calcutta; but when questioned on this point, Michael owned he was not sanguine.
'My Uncle Selkirk is by no means an old man,' he would say. 'Any insurance office would consider his the better life of the two. Besides, he might marry—he is not sixty yet; even old men make fools of themselves by taking young wives. It is ill waiting for dead men's shoes at the best of times. In this case it would be rank stupidity.'
'Then you will never be able to marry, Michael;' for it was to Mrs. Ross that this last speech was addressed.
'My dear cousin, do you think any girl would look at a sickly, ill-tempered fellow like me?' was the somewhat bitter reply; and Mrs. Ross's kind heart was troubled at the tone.
'You should not call yourself names, my dear. You are not ill-tempered. No one minds a little crossness now and then. Even John can say a sharp word when he is put out. I think you are wrong, Michael. You are rather morbid on this point. They say pity is akin to love.'
'But I object to be pitied,' he returned somewhat haughtily; 'and what is more, I will commend myself to no woman's toleration. I will not be dominated by any weaker vessel. If I should ever have the happiness of having a wife—but there will be no Mrs. Michael Burnett, Cousin Emmeline—I should love her as well as other men love their wives, but I should distinctly insist on her keeping her proper place. Just imagine'—working himself up to nervous irritation—'being at the mercy of some healthy, high-spirited young creature, who will insult me every day with her overplus of pure animal enjoyment. The effect on me would be crushing—absolutely crushing.'
'Audrey is very high-spirited, Michael, but I am sure she sympathises with you as nicely as possible.'
'We were not speaking of Audrey, were we?' he replied, with a slight change of expression. 'I think it is the Ross idiosyncrasy to wander hopelessly from any given subject; I imagined that we were suggesting an impossible wife for your humble servant. Far be it from me to deny myself comfort in the shape of feminine cousins or friends.'
'Yes, of course; and Geraldine and Audrey are just like your sisters, Michael.'
'Are they?' a little dryly. 'Well, as I never had a sister, I cannot be a good judge; but from what other fellows tell me, I imagine Audrey bullies me enough to be one. Anyhow, I take the brotherly prerogative of bullying her in return.'
And with this remarkable statement the conversation dropped.
Captain Burnett spent half his time with his cousins, oscillating between Woodcote and his lodgings in town. Dr. Ross wished him to live with them entirely; he had a great respect and affection for his young kinsman, and, as he often told his wife, Michael helped him in a hundred ways.
'He has the clearest head and the best common-sense I ever knew in any man. I would trust Mike's judgment before my own. Poor fellow! he has gone through so much himself, that I think he sees deeper into things than most people. It is wonderful what knowledge of character he has. The boys always say there is no cheating the Captain.'
Michael owned himself grateful for his cousin's kindness, but he declined to call Woodcote his home.
'I must have my own diggings,' was his answer—'a burrow where I can run to earth when my pet fiend tries to have a fling at me. Seriously, there are times when I am best alone—and, then, in town one sees one's friends. For a sick man, or whatever you like to call me, my taste is decidedly gregarious. "I would not shut me from my kind." Oh dear no! There is no study so interesting as human nature, and I am avowedly a student of anthropology; London is the place for a man with a hobby like mine.'
Nevertheless, the chief part of Captain Burnett's time had been spent latterly at Woodcote.
THE NEW MASTER
'We agree pretty well in our tastes and habits—yet so as "with a difference." We are generally in harmony, with occasional bickerings, as it should be among near relatives.'—ESSAYS OF 'ELIA.'
Booty grew tired of barking at the swans long before his master had roused from his abstraction; it was doubtful how much longer Captain Burnett would have sat with his eyes fixed dreamily on the water, if a tall figure in white had not suddenly appeared under the arching trees, and Audrey stood before him.
'I knew where I should find you,' she said, as he rose rather slowly from his seat. 'I have christened this bench Michael's Seat. How sweet the lake looks this evening! I wish I could stay to enjoy it, but I must go back to the drawing-room. Percival has come, and, do you know, the dressing-gong sounded ten minutes ago, and you have taken no notice of it.'
'I will go at once,' was the answer, but to his surprise she stopped him.
'Wait one moment, Michael; I have to ask you a favour. I want you to be kind, and to take a great deal of notice of Mr. Blake. He is very young and shy, and though his mother says he is so clever—and, indeed, father says so, too—one would not find it out, because he is so quiet, and you know how formidable Percival must be to a shy person.'
'And you want me to take your new protege under my wing?' he returned, dissembling his surprise.
She had put her hands on his arm, and was speaking with unusual earnestness, and he knew, by a certain look in her eyes, that something had vexed her.
'He is not my protege,' she answered quickly. 'You talk as though he were a boy, a mere child, instead of being what he is—an exceedingly clever and gentlemanly young man. Michael, you generally understand me—you are always my ally when Percival is on his high horse—and I want you to stand Mr. Blake's friend to-night.'
'And I am not even to form my own opinion? Supposing the moment I shake hands with your pro—I mean your visitor—I become conscious of an inward antagonism? You see, Audrey, I am subject to likes and dislikes, in common with other people.'
'Oh, you must try to like him,' she returned impatiently. 'I am very much interested in the whole family. We always like the same people, Michael—do we not?' in a coaxing voice. 'I know the Marquis will wear his most judicial aspect to-night; he will perfectly annihilate poor Mr. Blake;' for this was another sobriquet which Audrey applied to her brother-in-law.
They were walking towards the house, but at this point Captain Burnett thought fit to stand still and shake his head, with a grieved expression of face.
'My dear Audrey, I should like to see you on more sisterly terms with Gage's husband.'
'Don't be silly,' was the only response; 'one cannot choose one's brother-in-law. The Marquis makes Gage a splendid husband—no one else could have mastered her—but I never could get on with a man who always thinks he is right about everything. Percival is too immaculate in his own and his wife's eyes to be in harmony with a sinner like myself; and I don't mind confessing to you, Michael, that he never opens his mouth without my longing to contradict him.'
Audrey said this with such perfect naivete and candour that Captain Burnett could only smile, though sheer honesty made him say a moment afterwards:
'I think, indeed I have always thought, that you undervalue Harcourt. He is a fine fellow in his way. I like a man to be strong, and Harcourt is strong—he has no pettiness in his nature. He is rather a severe critic, perhaps—and demands a little too much from other people—but you will find that he always practises what he preaches.'
'I wish he understood me better,' was the rueful response. 'Unhappily, he and Gage think their mission is to reform me. Now, Michael, do be quick, or the dinner-bell will ring;' and Audrey waved her hand gaily, and turned into the house, while Michael and his faithful Booty followed her more slowly.
When Audrey entered the drawing-room she found her brother-in-law standing in his favourite attitude before the fireplace—he was evidently holding forth on some interesting topic, for Dr. Ross was listening to him with an amused expression of face, and Geraldine was watching him with admiring wifely eyes. He broke off, however, to greet Audrey, and there was brotherly warmth in his manner as he shook hands with her and asked after her health—a mere civility on his part, as Audrey was never ill.
Mr. Harcourt was a good-looking man of about forty—perhaps he was a year or two more, but he was young-looking for his age, and the absence of beard and moustache gave him a still more youthful aspect; the slight tinge of gray in his hair seemed to harmonise with the well-cut features. The mouth was especially handsome, though a sarcastic expression at times distinguished it. His figure was good, and without being tall, he carried himself with so much dignity as to give the impression of height. He was a man who would always be noticed among other men on account of his strong individuality and sheer force of character.
Audrey was right when she owned that he made a splendid husband for Geraldine. Mr. Harcourt was exceedingly proud of his beautiful wife; but from the first hour of her married life he had made her understand that though she managed other people, including her own mother, her husband was to be the one exception—that, in other words, he fully intended to be Geraldine's master.
Geraldine had to learn this lesson even on her wedding-day. There was some little confusion at the last—a small hitch in the domestic arrangements—and someone, Dr. Ross probably, proposed that the happy couple should wait for a later train; they could telegraph, and dinner could be put back for an hour. Geraldine endorsed her father's opinion; perhaps, at the last minute, the young bride would fain have lingered lovingly in the home that had sheltered her so happily.
'It is a good idea. We should have to drive so dreadfully fast,' she said with some eagerness. 'Yes, we will stay, Percival.'
'My darling, there is someone else to consult,' he returned, taking her hand; 'and someone else votes differently. Dr. Ross, will you ask them to send round the carriage. Geraldine has had excitement enough; it will be far better for us to go.' Geraldine did not like her husband any the worse for showing her that he meant to manage for both for the future. She was clever enough to take the hint, and to refer to him on all occasions. Before many weeks were over, young Mrs. Harcourt had so fully identified herself with her husband's interests, was so strangely impregnated with his opinions, that she insensibly reproduced them—'and Percival thinks so and so' now replaced the old decided 'that is my opinion,' which had hitherto leavened her conversation.
'Who would have thought that Geraldine, who snubbed all her lovers so unmercifully, and who never would listen to one until Percival "came, saw, and conquered"—who would have imagined that this very exacting young woman would have turned out a submissive and pattern wife?' was Audrey's remark when she returned from her first visit to Hillside.
But in her heart she respected her brother-in-law for the change he had effected.
'Well, Audrey,' observed Mr. Harcourt, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, 'so I hear you have been enacting the part of Good Samaritan to the widow Blake and her children. What do you think of the bewitching widow and her Mary Queen of Scots beauty? Did she make an impression, eh?'
'She is very handsome,' returned Audrey curtly; for she was not pleased with her brother-in-law's quizzical tone.
How long had she stopped out with Michael? Barely ten minutes; and yet Percival was in possession of the whole story.
'I shall be writing to Edith to-night, and I must tell her all about it,' he went on, for if there was one thing in which he delighted, it was teasing Audrey, and getting a rise out of her. In reality he was very fond of her; he admired her simplicity and the grand earnestness of her character; but he took the brotherly liberty of disagreeing with her upon some things. He told his wife privately that his one desire was to see Audrey married to the right man.
'She is a fine creature, but she wants training and keeping in order; and I know the man who would just do for her,' he said once.
But though Geraldine implored him to say whom he meant, and mentioned a dozen names in her womanly curiosity, Mr. Harcourt could not be induced to say more. He was no matchmaker, he thanked Heaven; he would be ashamed to meddle with such sacred mysteries. If there were one thing on which no human opinion ought to rashly intrude, it was when two people elected to enter the holy state of matrimony. It was enough that he knew the man, though he never intended to take a step to bring them together.
'I think we had better drop the subject, as Mr. Blake will be here directly,' retorted Audrey, in her most repressive tones. 'Father, do you know you have forgotten to wind up the drawing-room clock? I think it must be nearly seven.'
'It is past seven,' answered her brother-in-law, producing his watch. 'Mr. Blake is keeping the dinner waiting. No one but a very young man would venture to commit such a solecism. Under the circumstances, it is really a breach of good manners. Don't you agree with me, Dr. Ross?'
But Dr. Ross hesitated; he rarely agreed with such sweeping assertions. Geraldine murmured 'Very true,' which her mother echoed.
'That is too bad!' exclaimed Audrey, who never could hold her tongue. 'If you had only seen the state of muddle they are in at the Gray Cottage! I daresay Mr. Blake has been unable to find anything; his mother does not seem a good manager. Hush! I hear a bell!'—interrupting herself. 'Now you will not be kept any longer from your dinner, Percival.'
'I was not thinking of myself,' he returned, with rather an annoyed air; for he was a quick-tempered man, and he was really very hungry. Thanks to his wife's splendid management, the meals were always punctual at Hillside. A deviation of five minutes would have boded woe to the best cook. Mr. Harcourt was no domestic tyrant; the boys, the servants, always looked upon him as a kind friend; but he was an exact disciplinarian, and the wheels of the domestic machinery at Hillside went smoothly. If Geraldine complained that one of the servants did not do her duty, his answer was always prompt: 'Send her away and get another. A servant without a conscience will never do for me.' But, as a matter of fact, no master was better served.
To Audrey's relief, Michael appeared with Mr. Blake. He came in looking a little pale from the exertion of dressing so hurriedly, and Audrey's conscience pricked her for want of consideration as she saw that he limped more than usual, always a sign with him of over-fatigue. Mr. Blake looked handsomer than ever in evening dress, and Audrey noticed that Geraldine looked at him more than once, as though his appearance struck her. He certainly seemed very shy, and made his excuses to his hostess in a low voice.
'I ought not to have accepted Dr. Ross's kind invitation,' he said, starting a little as the dinner-bell immediately followed his entrance; 'everything is in such confusion at home.'
'I suppose it was like hunting for a needle in a truss of hay,' observed Michael, in a genial voice. 'I can imagine the difficulties of making a toilet under such moving circumstances. No pun intended, I assure you. Don't look as though you want to hit me, Harcourt. I would not be guilty of a real pun for the world.'
Mr. Harcourt was unable to reply at that moment, as he had to offer Audrey his arm and follow Dr. Ross into the dining-room; but as soon as they were seated and grace had been said, he addressed Michael.
'I need not ask an omnivorous reader as you are, Burnett, if you remember "Elia's" remarks about puns.'
'I suppose you mean that "a pun is a pistol let off at the ear, not a feather to tickle the intellect." Poor old "Elia"! what a man he was! With all his frailties he was adorable.'
'Humph! I should be sorry to go as far as that; but I own I like his quaint, racy style. Dr. Ross is a fervent admirer of "St. Charles," as Thackeray once called him.'
'Indeed, I am. I agree with Ainger in regarding him as the last of the Elizabethans. I love his fine humour and homely fantastic grandeur of style,' returned Dr. Ross warmly. 'The man's whole life, too, is so wonderfully pathetic. Few scenes in fiction are so touching as that sad scene where the unhappy Mary Lamb feels the dreaded attack of insanity coming on, and brother and sister, hand-in-hand, and weeping as they go, perform that sorrowful journey across the fields to the house where Mary is to be sheltered. I used to cry over that story as a boy.'
Audrey drew a long breath of relief. Her father had started on one of his hobbies. All would be well now.
For one moment she had been anxious, very anxious. Like other men, Michael had his weaknesses. Nothing would annoy him more than to be supposed guilty of a premeditated pun. He always expressed a great deal of scorn for what he called a low form of wit—'and which is as far removed from wit,' he would add, 'as the slums of the Seven Dials are from Buckingham Palace.'
Mr. Harcourt was quite aware of this fastidious dislike on Michael's part. It was, therefore, in pure malice that he had asked that question about 'Elia'; but Michael's matter-of-fact answer had baffled him, and the sole result had been to start a delightful discussion on the writings of Charles Lamb and his contemporaries—a subject on which all three men talked exceedingly well.
Audrey listened to them with delight. She was aware that Mr. Blake, who sat next her, was silent too. When a pause in the conversation occurred, she turned round to address him, and found him regarding her with an air of intelligent curiosity.
'You seem to take a great deal of interest in all this,' he said, with a smile. 'Most ladies would consider it dry. I suppose you read a great deal.'
'I am afraid not. I love reading, but one finds so much else to do. But it is always a pleasure to me to hear my father talk. My brother-in-law, too, is a very clever man.'
'So I should imagine. And Captain Burnett—is he also a relative?'
'Only a sort of cousin. But he has no nearer ties, and he spends half his time at Woodcote. My sister and I look upon him as a brother—in fact, he has supplied a great want in my life. From a child I have so longed to have a brother of my own.'
Mr. Blake looked down at his plate.
'A brother is not always an undivided blessing,' he said in a low voice, 'especially when he is a daily and hourly reproach to one. Oh, you know what I mean,' throwing back his head with a quick, nervous gesture. 'My mother says she has told you. I saw you looking at Kester this afternoon, but you are aware it was all my fault.'
'But it was only an accident,' she returned gently. 'I hope that you are not morbid on the subject, Mr. Blake. Boys are terribly venturesome. I wonder more of them are not hurt. I am quite sure Kester does not blame you.'
'No, you are right there; but somehow it is difficult for me to forget that my unlucky slip has spoiled the poor fellow's life. He is very good and patient, and we do all we can for him; but one dare not glance at the future. Excuse my bothering you with such a personal matter, but I cannot forget the way you looked at Kester; and then my mother said she had told you the whole story.'
'I was very much interested,' she began, but just then Mr. Harcourt interrupted them by a remark pointedly addressed to Mr. Blake, so that he was obliged to break off his conversation with Audrey. This time the ladies were decidedly bored—none of them could follow the discussion; the conversation at Woodcote was rarely pedantic, but this evening Mr. Harcourt chose to argue a purely scholastic question—some translation from the Greek, which he declared to be full of gross errors.
Audrey felt convinced that the subject had been chosen with the express purpose of crushing the new master; on this topic Michael would be unable to afford him the slightest help. True, he had been studying Greek for his own pleasure the last two years at her father's suggestion, and had made very fair progress, but only a finished scholar could have pronounced with any degree of certainty on such a knotty point.
She was, therefore, all the more surprised and pleased when she found that Mr. Blake proved himself equal to the occasion. He had kept modestly in the background while the elder men were speaking, but when Mr. Harcourt appealed to him he took his part in the conversation quite readily, and expressed himself with the greatest ease and fluency; indeed, he not only ventured to contradict Mr. Harcourt, but he brought quite a respectable array of authorities to back his opinions.
Audrey felt so interested in watching the changes of expression on her brother-in-law's face that she was quite reconciled to the insuperable difficulties that such a topic offered to her understanding. The sarcastic curve round Mr. Harcourt's mouth relaxed; he grew less dry and didactic in speech; each moment his manner showed more earnestness and interest. The silent young master was by no means annihilated; on the contrary, he proved himself a worthy antagonist. Audrey was quite sorry when Geraldine, stifling a yawn, gave her mother an imploring glance. Mrs. Ross willingly took the hint, and as Michael opened the door for them he whispered in Audrey's ear: 'He is quite capable of taking care of himself.' And Audrey nodded assent.