BY RHODA BROUGHTON.
AUTHOR OF "'GOOD-BYE, SWEETHEART!'" "RED AS A ROSE IS SHE," ETC., ETC.
NEW YORK: D. APPLETON & COMPANY, 549 & 551 BROADWAY. 1874.
"As through the land at eve we went, And plucked the ripened ears, We fell out, my wife and I, Oh, we fell out, I know not why, And kissed again with tears."
"Put into a small preserving pan three ounces of fresh butter, and, as soon as it is just melted, add one pound of brown sugar of moderate quality—"
"Not moderate; the browner the better," interpolates Algy.
"Cannot say I agree with you. I hate brown sugar—filthy stuff!" says Bobby, contradictiously.
"Not half so filthy as white, if you come to that," retorts Algy, loftily, looking up from the lemon he is grating to extinguish his brother. "They clear white sugar with but—"
"Keep these stirred gently over a clear fire for about fifteen minutes," interrupt I, beginning to read again very fast, in a loud, dull recitative, to hinder further argument, "or until a little of the mixture dipped into cold water breaks clear between the teeth without sticking to them. When it is boiled to this point, it must be poured out immediately or it will burn."
Having galloped jovially along, scorning stops, I here pause out of breath. We are a large family, we Greys, and we are all making taffy. Yes, every one of us. It would take all the fingers of one hand, and the thumb of the other, to count us, O reader. Six! Yes, six. A Frenchman might well hold up his hands in astonished horror at the insane prolificness—the foolhardy fertility—of British householders. We come very improbably close together, except Tou Tou, who was an after-thought. There are no two of us, I am proud to say, exactly simultaneous, but we have come tumbling on each other's heels into the world in so hot a hurry that we evidently expect to find it a pleasant place when we get there. Perhaps we do—perhaps we do not; friends, you will hear and judge for yourselves.
A few years ago when we were little, people used to say that we were quite a pretty sight, like little steps one above another. We are big steps now, and no one any longer hazards the suggestion of our being pretty. On the other hand, nobody denies that we are each as well furnished with legs, arms, and other etceteras, as our neighbors, nor can affirm that we are notably more deficient in wits than those of our friends who have arrived in twos and threes.
We are in the school-room, the big bare school-room, that has seen us all—that is still seeing some of us—unwillingly dragged, and painfully goaded up the steep slopes of book-learning. Outside, the March wind is roughly hustling the dry, brown trees and pinching the diffident green shoots, while the round and rayless sun of late afternoon is staring, from behind the elm-twigs in at the long maps on the wall, in at the high chairs—tall of back, cruelly tiny of seat, off whose rungs we have kicked all the paint—in at the green baize table, richly freaked with splashes. Hardly less red than the sun's, are our burnt faces gathered about the fire.
This fire has no flame—only a glowing, ruddy heart, on which the bright brass saucepan sits; and kneeling before it, stirring the mess with a long iron spoon, is Barbara. Algy, as I have before remarked, is grating a lemon. Bobby is buttering soup-plates. The Brat—the Brat always takes his ease if he can—is peeling almonds, fishing delicately for them in a cup of hot water with his finger and thumb; and I, Nancy, am reading aloud the receipt at the top of my voice, out of a greasy, dog's-eared cookery-book, which, since it came into our hands, has been the innocent father of many a hideous compound. Tou Tou alone, in consideration of her youth, is allowed to be a spectator. She sits on the edge of the table, swinging her thin legs, and kicking her feet together.
Certainly we deteriorate in looks as we go downward. In Barbara we made an excellent start: few families a better one, though we say it that should not. Although in Algy there was a slight falling off, it was not much to complain of. But I am sensibly uglier than Algy (as indeed he has, on several occasions, dispassionately remarked to me); the Brat than me; Bobby than the Brat; and so steadily on, till we reach our nadir of unhandsomeness in Tou Tou. Tou Tou is our climax, and we certainly defy our neighbors and acquaintances to outdo her.
Hapless young Tou Tou! made up of the thinnest legs, the widest mouth, the invisiblest nose, and over-visiblest ears, that ever went to the composition of a child of twelve years.
"Keep stirring always! You must take care that it does not stick to the bottom!" say I, closing the receipt-book, and speaking on my own account, but still as one having authority.
"All very well to say 'Keep stirring always,'" answers Barbara, turning round a face unavoidably pretty, even though at the present moment deeply flame-colored; eyes still sweetly laughing with gay good-humor, even though half burnt out of her head, to answer me; "but if you had been stirring as long as I have, you would wonder that you had any arm left to stir with, however feebly. Here, one of you boys, take a turn! You Brat, you never do any thing for your living!"
The Brat complies, though not with eagerness. They change occupations: the Brat stirs, and she fishes for almonds. Ten minutes pass: the taffy is done, and what is more it really is taffy. The upshot of our cookery is in general so startlingly indifferent from what we had intended, that the result in the present case takes us by surprise. We all prove practically that, in the words of the receipt-book, it "breaks clear between the teeth without sticking to them." It is poured into Bobby's soup-plate, and we have thrown up the window-sashes, and set it on the ledge to cool. The searching wind blows in dry and biting. Now it is rushing in a violent current through the room, for the door has opened. Mother enters.
"To what may we attribute the honor of this visit?" says Algy, turning away from the window to meet her, and setting her a chair. Bobby gives her a kiss, and the Brat a lump of taffy, concerning which it would be invidious to predicate which were the stickier; so exceedingly adhesive are both.
"Your father says," begins she, sitting down. She is interrupted by a loud and universal groan.
"Says what? Something unpleasant of course, who is it now? Who has done any thing now? I do hope it is the Brat," cries Bobby, viciously; "it is quite his turn; he has been good boy of the family for the last week."
"I dare say it is," replies the Brat, resignedly; "one can't expect such prosperity as mine to last forever."
"Of course it is I," says Algy, rather bitterly, "it is always I. I have never been good boy since I was ploughed; and, please God, I never will be again."
"But what is it? what is it? About how bad is it? Is it to be one of our worst rows?"
We are all speaking together at the top of our voices; indeed, we rarely employ a lower key.
"It is no one; no one has done any thing," replies mother, when, at last, we allow her to make herself heard, "only your father sends you a message that, as Sir Roger Tempest is coming here to-day, he hopes you will make less noise this evening in here than you did last night: he says he could hardly hear the sound of his own voice."
"Ahem!" "Very likely!" "I dare say!" in different tones of angry incredulity.
"He begs you to see that the swing-door is shut, as he does not wish his friend to imagine that he keeps a private lunatic asylum."
A universal snort of indignation.
"If we are bedlamites, we know who made us so. We will tell old Roger if he asks," etc.
"For my part," say I, resolutely pinching my lips together as I kneel on the carpet, and violently hammer the now cold and hard taffy with the handle of the poker, which in its day has been put to many uses vile, "I can tell you that I shall not dine with you to-night: I should infallibly say something to father—something unfortunate—I feel it rising; and it would be unseemly to have one of our emeutes before this old gentleman, would not it?"
"They are nice breezy things when you are used to them," says Barbara, laughing; "but one requires to be brought up to them."
"Do not you dine either, Brat," say I, looking up, and waving the poker with suave command at him, "and we will broil bones for tea, and roast potatoes on the shovel."
"Some of you must dine," says poor mother, rather wearily, "or your father—"
"He cannot complain if we send our two specimen ones," say I, again looking up, and indicating Barbara and Algy with my weapon, "our sample figs: if Sir Robert—Sir Robin—Sir Roger—what is he?—does not see the rest of us, he may perhaps imagine that we are all equally presentable, which would be more to your credit, mother, than if Bobby and Tou Tou and I were to be submitted to the poor old thing's notice."
Mother looks rather at sea.
"What are you talking about? What poor old thing? Oh! I understand."
"He will have to see us," says Tou Tou, rather lugubriously, "he cannot help it—at prayers."
Tou Tou has descended from the table, and is standing propped against mother's knee, twisting one leg with ingenious grace round the other.
"Bless your heart," says the Brat, comfortingly, "he will never find out that we are there: do you suppose that his blear old eyes will see all across that big room, economically lit up by one pair of candles?"
"Wait till you see whether he has blear eyes!"
"He must be very ancient," says Algy, in all the insolence of twenty, leaning his flat back against the mantel-shelf, "as he was at school with father."
"Father has not blear eyes," remarks Bobby, dryly. "Would God he had! For then perhaps he would not see our little vices quite so clearly with them as he does."
"But then father has not been in India," retorts Algy, stretching. "India plays the deuce with one's organs and appurtenances."
"I wish you joy of him," say I, rising flushed and untidy from my knees, having successfully smashed the taffy into little bits; "from soup to walnuts, you will have to undergo a ceaseless tyranny of tales about hitmaghars and dak bungalows and Choto Lazery: which of us has not suffered in our day from the horrible monotony of ideas of an old Indian?"
"Never you mind, Barbara!" cries the Brat, giving her a sounding brotherly pat on the back. "Pay no attention to her."
"'What great events from trivial causes spring!' as the poet says: you may live to bless the day that old Roger crossed our doors."
"As how?" says Barbara, laughing, and rocking herself backward and forward in a veteran American rocking-chair which, at different periods of our history, has served most of us the dirty turn of tipping us over, and presenting us reversed to the eyes of our family.
"Never you mind," repeats the Brat, oracularly; "truth is stranger than fiction! odd things happen: I read in the paper the other day of a man who pulled up the window for an old woman in the train, and she died at once—I do not mean on the spot, but very soon after, and when she died—listen, please, all of you—" (speaking very slowly and impressively)—"she left him two thousand pounds a year."
"I wish I saw the application," answers Barbara, still rocking and sighing.
"Mind that you set a stool for his gouty foot," says Algy, feeling for his faint mustache, "and run and search for his spectacle-case, when he has mislaid it."
"Seriously," say I, "what a grand thing it would be for the family if he were to adopt you, Barbara!"
"Or me," suggests the Brat, standing before the fire with his coat-tails under his arm. "Why not me? My manners to the aged are always considered particularly happy."
"Here he is!" cries Tou Tou from the window, whither she has retired, and now stands, like a heron, on one leg, leaning her elbow on the sill. "Here is the dog-cart turning the corner!"
We all make a rush to the casement.
"Yes, there he is! sure enough! our future benefactor!" says Algy, looking over the rest of our heads, and making a counterfeit greeting.—"Welcome, welcome, good old man!"
"And father, all affability, pointing out the house," supplements Bobby.
We laugh grimly.
"But who is it he has in the fly?" say I, as the second vehicle follows the first. "His harem, I suppose! half a dozen old Wampoos."
"His valet, to be sure," replies the Brat, chidingly, "with his stays, and his evening wig, and the calves of his legs."
The wind is even colder than it was, stronger and more withering now that the sun's faint warmth is withdrawn, and that the small and chilly stars possess the sky. Nevertheless, both the school-room windows are open. We are all huddled shivering round the hearth, yet no one talks of closing them. The fact is, that amateur cooking, though a graceful accomplishment, has its penalties, and that at the present moment the smell of broiled bones and fried potatoes that fills our place of learning is something appalling. Why may not it penetrate beneath the swing-door, through the passages, and reach the drawing-room? Such a thing has happened once or twice before. At the bare thought we all quake. I am in the pleasant situation, just at present, of owning a chilled body and a blazing face.
Chiefest among the cooks have I been, and now I am sitting trying to fan my red cheeks and redder nose, with the back of an old atlas, gutted in some ancient broil, trying, in deference to Sir Roger, to cool down my appearance a little against prayer-time. Alas! that epoch is nearer than I think. Ting! tang! the loud bell is ringing through the house. My hair is loosened and tumbled with stooping over the fire, and I have burnt a hole right in the fore front of my gown, by letting a hot cinder fall from the grate upon it. There is, however, now no time to repair these dilapidations. We issue from our lair, and en route meet the long string of servants filing from their distant regions. How is it that the cook's face is so much, much less red than mine? Prayers are held in the justicing-room, and thither we are all repairing. The accustomed scene bursts on my eye. At one end the long, straight row of the servants, immovably devout, staring at the wall, with their backs to us. In the middle of the room, facing them, father, kneeling upon a chair with his hands clutched, and his eyes closed, repeating the church prayers, as if he were rather angry with them than otherwise. Mother, kneeling on the carpet beside him, like the faithful, ruffed, and farthingaled wife on a fifteenth-century tomb. Behind them, again, at some little distance, we and our visitor. With the best will in the world to do so, I can get but a meagre view of the latter. The room is altogether rather dark, it being one of our manners and customs not to throw much light on prayers, and he has chosen the darkest corner of it. I only vaguely see the outline of a kneeling figure, evidently neither bulky nor obese, of a flat back and vigorous shoulders. His face is generally hidden in his hands, but once or twice he lifts it to scan the proportions of my late grandfather's preposterously fat cob, whose portrait hangs on the wall above his head.
There is no doubt that on some days the devil reigns with a more potent sway over people than on others. To-night he has certainly entered into the boys. He often does a little, but this evening he is holding a great and mighty carnival among them. While father's strong, hard voice vibrates in a loud, dull monotone through the silent room, they are engaged in a hundred dumb yet ungodly antics behind his back.
Algernon has thrust his head far out between the rungs of his chair-back, and affects to be unable to withdraw it again, making movements of simulated suffocation. The Brat is stealthily walking on his knees across the space that intervenes between them to Barbara, with intent, as I too well know, of unseemly pinchings. If father unbutton his eyes, or move his head one barley-corn, we are all dead men. I hold my breath in a nervous agony. Thank Heaven! the harsh recitation still flows on with equable loud slowness. In happy ignorance of his offspring's antics, father is still asking, or rather ordering, the Almighty (for there is more of command than entreaty in his tone) to prosper the High Court of Parliament. Also the Brat is now returning to his place, travelling with surprising noiseless rapidity over the Turkey carpet, dragging his shins and his feet after him. I draw a long breath of relief, and drop my hot face into my spread hands. My peace, however, is not of long duration. I am aroused again by a sort of choking snort from Tou Tou, who is beside me—a snort that seems compounded of mingled laughter and pain, and, looking up, detect Bobby in the act of deftly puncturing one of her long bare legs with a long brass pin, which he has found straying, after the vagabond manner of pins, over the carpet.
I raise myself, and lean over Tou Tou, to give the offender a silent buffet of admonition, and, lifting my eyes apprehensively to see if I am noticed, I meet the blear eyes of Sir Roger fixed upon mine. He has turned his face quite toward me, and a ray from the candles falls full upon it. Blear! Well, if his eyes are blear, then henceforth blear must bear a different signification from the unhandsome one it has hitherto worn. Henceforth it must mean blue as steel: it must mean clear as a glass of spring water; keen as a well-tempered knife; kindly as the early sunshine.
I am so astonished at my discovery, that I remain for full two minutes staring blankly at the object of it, while he also looks stealthily at me; then, recollecting my manners, I burrow my face into my chair-bottom, and so remain until mother's gentle Amen, and a noise of shuffling and scrambling to their feet on the part of the congregation, tell me that the end has come.
We all go up to father, and coldly and stiffly kiss him. While I am waiting for my turn to receive our parent's chilly salute, I steal a second glance at our guest. Yes, he is old certainly. Despite the youth of his eyes, despite the uprightness, the utter freedom from superfluous flesh—from the ugly shaky bulkiness of age—in his tall and stalwart figure, still he is old—old in the eyes of nineteen—as old as father, perhaps—though in much better preservation—forty-eight or forty-nine; for is not his hair iron-gray, and his heavy mustache, and the thick and silky beard that falls on his broad breast, are they not iron-gray too? I have dropped my small and unwilling kiss on father's forehead—and said "good-night" in a tone as suppressedly hostile as his own. Now I may go. We may all go. I am the last, or I think I am, to pass through the swing-door. I hurry along the passage to join the rest in the school-room. I upbraid the boys for the rash impiety of their demeanor. I feel a foot on my garments behind, and hear a long cracking sound that I too, too well know to mean gathers.
"You beast!" cried I, in good nervous English, turning sharply round with my hand raised in act to strike, "that is the third time this week that you have torn out my—"
I stop dumfounded. If I mean to box the offender's ears, I must raise my hand considerably higher than it is at present. Angels and ministers of grace! what has happened? I have called General Sir Roger Tempest a beast, and offered to cuff him. For a moment, I am dumfounded. Then, for shyness has never been my besetting sin, and something in the genial laughter of his eyes reassures me.
I hold out the injured portion of my raiment, and say:
"Look! when you see what you have done, I am sure you will forgive me; but of course I meant it for Bobby. I never dreamt it was you."
He takes hold of one end of the rent, I of the other, and we both examine it.
"How exceedingly clumsy of me! how could it have happened? I beg your pardon ten thousand times."
In his words there is polite remorse and solicitude; in his face only a friendly mirth. He is old, that is clear. Had he been young, he would have said, with that variety and suitability of epithets so characteristic of this generation:
"I am awfully sorry! how awfully stupid of me! what an awful duffer I am!"
The gas is shining in its garish yellow brightness full down upon us, as we stand together, illuminating my plain, scorched face, the slatternly looseness of my hair, and the burnt hole in my gown.
"You will have to give me another," I say, looking up at him and smiling. I should not have thought of saying it if he had been a young man, but with a vieux papa one may be at one's ease.
"There is nothing in the world I should like better," he says, with a sort of hurry and eagerness, not very suggestive of a vieux papa; "but really—" (seeing me look rather ashamed of my proposition)—"is it quite hopeless? the damage quite irremediable?"
"On the contrary," reply I, tucking my gathers in, with a graceful movement, at the band of my gown, "five minutes will make it as good as new—at least" (casting a disparaging eye over its frayed and taffy-marked surface), "as good as it ever will be in this world."
A little pause.
"I suppose I have lost my way," he says, thinking, I fancy, that I look rather eager to be gone. "I am never very good at the geography of a strange house."
"Yes," say I, promptly; "you came through our door, instead of your own; shall I show you the way back?"
"Since I have come so far, may not I come a little farther?" he asks, glancing rather longingly at the half-open school-room door, whence sounds of pious mirth are again beginning to reissue.
"Do you mean really?" ask I, with a highly-dissuasive inflection of voice. "Please not to-night; we are all higgledy-piggledy—at sixes and sevens! To tell you the truth, we have been cooking. I wonder you did not smell it in the drawing-room."
Again he looks amused.
"May not I cook too? I can, though you look disbelieving; there are few people that can beat me at an Irish stew when I set my mind to it."
A head (Bobby's) appears round the school-room door.
"I say, Nancy, who are you colloquing with out there? I believe you have got hold of our future benefact—"
An "oh!" of utter discomfiture, and the head is withdrawn.
"I am keeping you," Sir Roger says. "Well, I will say good-night. You will shake hands, won't you, to show that you bear no malice?"
"That I will," reply I, heartily stretching out my right hand, and giving his a cordial shake. For was not he at school with father?
Day has followed night. The broiled smell has at length evacuated the school-room, but a good deal of taffy, spilt in the pouring out, still adheres to the carpet, making it nice and sticky. The wind is still running roughly about over the earth, and the yellow crocuses, in the dark-brown garden-borders, opened to their widest extent, are staring up at the sun. How can they stare so straight up at him without blinking? I have been trying to emulate them—trying to stare, too, up at him, through the pane, as he rides laughing, aloft in the faint far sky; and my presumptuous eyes have rained down tears in consequence. I am trying now to read; but a hundred thousand things distract me: the sun shining warm on my shoulder, as I lean against the window; the divine morning clamor of the birds; their invitations to come out that will take no nay; and last, but oh! not, not least, the importunate voices of Barbara and Tou Tou. Every morning at this hour they have a weary tussle with the verb "aimer," "to love." It is hard that they should have pitched upon so tender-hearted a verb for the battle-field of so grim a struggle:
J'aime, I love.
Tu aimes, Thou lovest.
Il aime, He loves.
Nous aimons, We love.
Vous aimez, You love.
Ils aiment, They love.
This, with endless variations of ingenious and hideous inaccuracies—this, interspersed with foolish laughter and bitter tears, is what I have daily been audience to, for the last two months. The day before yesterday a great stride was taken; the present tense was pronounced vanquished, and Barbara and her pupil passed on in triumph to the imperfect, "j'aimais, I loved, or was loving." To-day, in order to be quite on the safe side, a return has been made to "j'aime," and it has been discovered that it has utterly disappeared from our young sister's memory. "J'aimais, I loved, or was loving," has entirely routed and dispersed his elder brother, "j'aime, I love." The old strain is, therefore, desperately resumed:
J'aime, I love.
Tu aimes, Thou lovest.
Il aime, He loves, etc.
It is making me drowsy. Ten minutes more, and I shall be asleep in the sun, with my head down-dropped on the window-sill. I get up, and, putting on my out-door garments, stray out into the sun, leaving Barbara—her pretty forehead puckered with ineffectual wrath, and Tou Tou blurred with grimy tears, to their death-struggle with the restive verb "to love." It is the end of March, and when one can hide round a corner from the wind, one has a foretaste of summer, in the sun's warm strength. I gaze lovingly at the rich brown earth, so lately freed from the frost's grasp, through which the blunt green buds are gently forcing themselves. I look down the flaming crocus throats—the imperial purple goblets with powdery gold stamens—and at the modest little pink faces of the hepaticas. All over our wood there is a faint yet certain purply shade, forerunner of the summer green, and the loud and sweet-voiced birds are abroad. O Spring! Spring! with all your searching east winds, with your late, shriveling frosts, with your occasional untimely sleets and snows, you are yet as much better than summer as hope is better than fruition.
J'aime, I love.
Tu aimes, Thou lovest.
Il aime, He loves.
It runs in my head like some silly refrain. I meet Bobby. I also meet Vick, my little shivering, smooth, white terrier. They both join me. The one wriggles herself into the shape of a trembling comma, and, foolishly chasing herself, rolls over on her back, to demonstrate her joy at my advent. The other says:
"Come into the kitchen-garden, and see whether the apricot-flowers are out on the south wall."
We pace along the broad and even gravel walk among the red cabbages and the sea-kale, basking in the sun, whose heat we feel undiminished by the influence of any bitter blast, in the prison of these four high walls, against which the long tree-branches are pinioned. In one place, the pinioning has failed. A long, flower-laden arm has burst from its bonds, and is dangling loosely down. There is a ladder against the wall, set for the gardener to replace it.
"Is it difficult to get up a ladder, Bobby?" ask I, standing still.
"Difficult! Bless your heart, no! Why?"
"One can see nothing here," I answer. "I should like to climb up and sit on the top of the wall, where one can look about one."
My wish is easy of gratification. Bobby holds the ladder, and I climb cautiously, rung by rung. Having reached the summit, I sit at ease, with my legs loosely dangling. There is no broken glass, there are no painful bottoms of bottles to disturb my ruminant quiet. The air bites a little, but I am warmly clad, and young. Bobby sits beside me, whistling and kicking the bricks with his heels. There is the indistinctness of fine weather over the chain of low round hills that bound our horizon, giving them a dignity that, on clearer days, they lack. As I sit, many small and pleasant noises visit my ears, sometimes distinct, sometimes mixed together; the brook's noise, as it runs, quick and brown, between the flat, dry March fields; the gray geese's noise, as they screech all together from the farm-yard; the church-bells' noise, as they ring out from the distant town, whose roofs and vanes are shining and glinting in the morning sun.
"Do you hear the bells?" say I. "Some one has been married this morning."
"Do not you wish it was you?" asks Bobby, with a brotherly grin.
"I should not mind," reply I, picking out a morsel of mortar with my finger and thumb. "It is about time for one of us to move off, is not it? And Barbara has made such a signal failure hitherto, that I think it is but fair that I should try my little possible."
"All I ask of you is," says Bobby, gravely, "not to take a fellow who has not got any shooting."
"I will make it a sine qua non," I answer, seriously.
A louder screech than ever from the geese, accompanied with wing-flappings. How unanimous they are! There is not a voice wanting.
"I wonder how long Sir Roger will stay?" I say presently.
"What connection of ideas made you think of him?" asks Bobby, curiously. "Do you suppose that he has any shooting?"
I break into a laugh.
"I do not know, I am sure. I do not think it matters much whether he has or not."
"I dare say that there are a good many women—old ones, you know—who would take him, old as he is," says Bobby, with liberality.
"I dare say," I answer. "I do not know. I am not old, but I am not sure that I would not rather marry him than be an old maid."
A pause. Again I laugh—this time a laugh of recollection.
"What a fool you did look last night!" I say with sisterly candor, "when you put your head round the school-room door, and found that you had been witty about him to his face!"
Bobby reddens, and aims a bit of mortar at a round-eyed robin that has perched near us.
"At all events, I did not call him a beast."
"Well, never mind; do not get angry! What did it matter?" say I, comfortingly. "You did not mention his name. How could he tell that he was our benefactor? He did not even know that he was to be; and I begin to have misgivings about it myself."
"I cannot say that I see much sign of his putting his hand into his breeches-pocket," says Bobby, vulgarly.
There is the click of a lifted latch. We both look in the direction whence comes the sound. He of whom we speak is entering the garden by a distant door.
"Get down, Bobby!" cry I, hurriedly, "and help me down. Make haste! quick! I would not have him find me perched up here for worlds."
Bobby gets down as nimbly as a monkey. I prepare to do likewise.
"Hold it steady!" I cry nervously, and, so saying, begin to turn round and to stretch out one leg, with the intention of making a graceful descent backward.
"Stop!" cries Bobby from the bottom, with a diabolical chuckle. "I think you observed just now that I looked a fool last night! perhaps you will not mind trying how it feels!"
So saying, he seizes the ladder—a light and short one—and makes off with it. I cry, "Bobby! Bobby!" suppressedly, several times, but I need hardly say that my appeal is addressed to deaf ears. I remain sitting on the wall-top, trying to look as if I did not mind, while grave misgivings possess my soul as to the extent of strong boot and ankle that my unusual situation leaves visible. Once the desperate idea of jumping presents itself to my mind, but the ground looks so distant, and the height so great, that my heart fails me.
From my watch-tower I trace the progress of Sir Roger between the fruit-trees. As yet, he has not seen me. Perhaps he will turn into another walk, and leave the garden by an opposite door, I remaining undiscovered. No! he is coming toward me. He is walking slowly along, a cigar in his mouth, and his eyes on the ground, evidently in deep meditation. Perhaps he will pass me without looking up. Nearer and nearer he comes, I hold my breath, and sit as still as stone, when, as ill-luck will have it, just as he is approaching quite close to me, utterly innocent of my proximity, a nasty, teasing tickle visits my nose, and I sneeze loudly and irrepressibly. Atcha! atcha! He starts, and not perceiving at first whence comes the unexpected sound, looks about him in a bewildered way. Then his eyes turn toward the wall. Hope and fear are alike at an end. I am discovered. Like Angelina, I—
.... "stand confessed, A maid in all my charms."
"How—on—earth—did you get up there?" he asks, in an accent of slow and marked astonishment, not unmixed with admiration.
As he speaks, he throws away his cigar, and takes his hat off.
"How on earth am I to get down again? is more to the purpose," I answer, bluntly.
"I could not have believed that any thing but a cat could have been so agile," he says, beginning to laugh. "Would you mind telling me how did you get up?"
"By the ladder," reply I, laconically, reddening, and, under the influence of that same insupportable doubt concerning my ankles, trying to tuck away my legs under me, a manoeuvre which all but succeeds in toppling me over.
"The ladder!" (looking round). "Are you quite sure? Then where has it disappeared to?"
"I said something that vexed Bobby," reply I, driven to the humiliating explanation, "and he went off with it. Never mind! once I am down, I will be even with him!"
He looks entertained.
"What will you do? What will you say? Will you make use of the same excellently terse expression that you applied to me last night?"
"I should not wonder," reply I, bursting out into uncomfortable laughter; "but it is no use talking of what I shall do when I am down: I am not down yet; I wish I were."
"It is no great distance from the ground," he says, coming nearer the wall, standing close to where the apricot is showering down her white and pinky petals. "Are you afraid to jump? Surely not! Try! If you will, I will promise that you shall come to no hurt."
"But supposing that I knock you down?" say I, doubtfully. "I really am a good weight—heavier than you would think to look at me—and coming from such a height, I shall come with great force."
"I am willing to risk it; if you do knock me down, I can but get up again."
I require no warmer invitation. With arms extended, like the sails of a windmill, I hurl myself into the embrace of Sir Roger Tempest. The next moment I am standing beside him on the gravel-walk, red and breathless, but safe.
"I hope I did not hurt you much," I say with concern, turning toward him to make my acknowledgments, "but I really am very much obliged to you; I believe that, if you had not come by, I should have been left there till bedtime."
"It must have been a very unpleasant speech that you made to deserve so severe a punishment," he says, looking back at me, with a kindly and amused curiosity.
I do not gratify his inquisitiveness.
"It was something not quite polite," I answer, shortly.
We walk on in silence, side by side. My temper is ruffled. I am planning five distinct and lengthy vengeances against Bobby.
"I dare say," says my companion presently, "that you are wondering what brought me in here now—what attraction a kitchen-garden could have for me, at a time of year when not the most sanguine mind could expect to find any thing good to eat in it."
"At least, it is sheltered," I answer, shivering, thrusting my hands a little farther into the warm depths of my muff.
"I was thinking of old days," he says, with a hazy, wistful smile. "Ah! you have not come to the time of life for doing that yet. Do you know, I have not been here since your father and I were lads of eleven and twelve together?"
"You were eleven, and he was twelve, I am sure," say I, emphatically.
"You look so much younger than he," I answer, looking frankly and unembarrassedly up into his face.
"Do I?" (with a pleased smile). "It is clear, then, that one cannot judge of one's self; on the rare occasions when I look in the glass it seems to me that, in the course of the last five years, I have grown into a very old fogy."
"He looks as if he had been so much oftener vexed, and so much seldomer pleased than you do," continued I, mentally comparing the smooth though weather-beaten benignity of the straight-cut features beside me, with the austere and frown-puckered gravity of my father's.
"Does he?" he answers, with an air of half-surprised interest, as if the subject had never struck him in that light before. "Poor fellow! I am sorry if it is so. Ah, you see"—with a smile—"he has six more reasons for wrinkles than I have."
"You mean us, I suppose," I answer matter-of-factly. "As to that, I think he draws quite as many wrinkles on our faces as we do on his." Then, rather ashamed of my over-candor, I add, with hurried bluntness, "You have never been married, I suppose?"
He half turns away his head.
"No—not yet! I have not yet had that good fortune."
I am inwardly amused at the power of his denial. Surely, surely he might say in the words of Lancelot:
"Had I chosen to wed, I had been wedded earlier, sweet Elaine."
"And you?" he asks, turning with an accent of playfulness toward me.
"Not yet," I answer, laughing, "and most likely I shall have to answer 'not yet' to that question as often as it is put to me till the end of the chapter."
I shrug my shoulders.
"In moments of depression it strikes Barbara and me, that me and Tou Tou shall end by being three old cats together."
"Are you so anxious to be married?" he asks with an air of wonder, "in such a hurry to leave so happy a home?"
"Every one knows best where his own shoe pinches," I answer vernacularly. "I am afraid that it does not sound very lady-like, but since you ask me the question, I am rather anxious. Barbara is not: I am."
A shade of I cannot exactly say what emotion—it looks like disappointment, but surely it cannot be that—passes across the sunshine of his face.
"All my plans hinge on my marrying," I continue, feeling drawn, I do not know how or why, into confidential communication to this almost total stranger, "and what is more, on my marrying a rich man."
"And what are your plans?" he asks, with an air of benevolent interest, but that unexplained shade is still there.
"Their name is Legion," I answer; "you will be very tired before I get to the end of them."
"Firstly then," say I, narratively, "my husband must have a great deal of interest in several professions—the army, the navy, the bar—so as to give the boys a helping hand; then he must have some shooting—good shooting for them; for them all, that is, except Bobby! never shall he fire a gun in my preserves!"
My mind again wanders away to my vengeances, and I break off.
"He must also keep two or three horses for them to hunt: Algy loves hunting, but he hardly ever gets a day. He is so big, poor dear old boy, that nobody ever gives him a mount—"
"Well, then, I should like to be able to have some nice parties—dancing and theatricals, and that sort of thing, for Barbara—father will never hardly let us have a soul here—and to buy her some pretty dresses to set off her beauty—"
"And then I should like to have a nice, large, cheerful house, where mother could come and stay with me, for two or three months at a time, and get clear away from the worries of house-keeping and—" the tyranny of father, I am about to add, but pull myself up with a jerk, and substitute lamely and stammeringly "and—and—others."
"Any thing else?"
"I should not at all mind a donkey-carriage for Tou Tou, but I shall not insist upon that."
He is smiling broadly now. The shade has fled away, and only sunshine remains.
"And what for yourself? you seem to have forgotten yourself!"
"For myself!" I echo, in surprise, "I have been telling you—you cannot have been listening—all these things are for myself."
Again he has turned his face half away.
"I hope you will get your wish," he says shortly and yet heartily.
I laugh. "That is so probable, is not it? I am so likely to fall in with a rich young man of weak intellect who is willing to marry all the whole six of us, for that is what he would have to do, and so I should explain to him."
Sir Roger is looking at me again with an odd smile—not disagreeable in any way—not at all hold-cheap, or as if he were sneering at me for a simpleton, but merely odd.
"And you think," he says, "that when he hears what is expected of him he will withdraw?"
Again I laugh heartily and rather loudly, for the idea tickles me, and, in a large family, one gets into the habit of raising one's voice, else one is not heard.
"I am so sadly sure that he will never come forward, that I have never taken the trouble to speculate as to whether, if he did, my greediness would make him retire again."
"Now that I come to think of it, though," continue I, after a pause, "I have no manner of doubt that he would."
Apparently Sir Roger is tired of the subject of my future prospects, for he drops it. We have left the kitchen-garden—have passed through the flower-garden—have reached the hall-door. I am irresolutely walking up the stone steps that mount to it, not being able to make up my mind as to whether or no I should make some sort of farewell observation to my companion, when his voice follows me. It seems to me to have a dissuasive inflection.
"Are you going in?"
"Well, yes," I answer uncertainly, "I suppose so."
He looks at his watch.
"It is quite early yet—not near luncheon-time—would it bore you very much to take a turn in the park? I think" (with a smile) "that you are quite honest enough to say so if it would: or, if you did not, I should read it on your face."
"Would you?" say I, a little piqued. "I do not think you would: I assure you that my face can tell stories, at a pinch, as well as its neighbor."
"Well, would it bore you?"
"Not at all! not at all!" reply I briskly, beginning to descend again; "but one thing is very certain, and that is that it will bore you."
"Why should it?"
"If I say what I was going to say you will think that it is on purpose to be contradicted," I answer, unlatching the gate in the fence, and entering the park.
"And if I do, much you will mind," he answers, smiling.
"Well, then," say I, candidly, looking down at my feet as they trip quickly along through the limp winter grass, "there is no use blinking the fact that I have no conversation—none of us have. We can gabble away among ourselves like a lot of young rooks, about all sorts of silly home jokes, that nobody but us would see any fun in; but when it comes to real talk—"
I pause expressively.
"I do not care for real talk," he says, looking amused; "I like gabble far, far better. I wish you would gabble a little now."
But the request naturally ties my tongue tight up.
"This is the tree that they planted when father was born," I say, presently, in a stiff, cicerone manner, pointing to a straight and strong young oak, which is lifting its branchy head, and the fine net-work of its brown twigs, to the cold, pale sky.
Sir Roger leans his arms on the top of the palings that surround the tree.
"Ah! eight-and-forty years ago! eight-and-forty years ago!" he repeats to himself with musing slowness. "Hard upon half a century!"
I turn over in my own mind whether I should do well to make some observation of a trite and copy-book nature on the much greater duration of trees than men, but reflecting that the application of the remark may be painful to a person so elderly as the gentleman beside me, I abstain. However, he does something of the kind himself.
"To think that it should be such a stripling," he says, looking with a half-pensive smile at the straight young trunk, "hardly out of the petticoat age, and we—he and I—such a couple of old wrecks!"
It never occurs to me that it would be polite, and even natural, to contradict him. Why should not he call himself an old wreck, if it amuses him? I suppose he only means to express a gentleman decidedly in the decline of life, which, in my eyes, he is; so I say kindly and acquiescingly—
"Yes, it is rather hard, is it not?"
"Forty-one—forty-two—yes, forty-two years since I first saw him," he continues, reflectively, "running about in short, stiff, white petticoats and bare legs, and going bawling to his mother, because he tumbled up those steps to the hall-door, and cut his nose open."
I lift my face out of my muff, in which, for the sake of warmth, I have been hiding it, and, opening my mouth, give vent to a hearty and undutiful roar of laughter.
"Cut his nose open!" repeat I, indistinctly. "How pleased he must have been, and what sort of a nose was it? already hooked? It never could have been the conventional button, that I am sure of; yours was, I dare say, but his—never. Good Heavens!" (with a sudden change of tone, and disappearance of mirth) "here he is! Come to look for you, no doubt! I—I—think I may go now, may not I?"
"Go!" repeats he, looking at me with unfeigned wonder. "Why? It is more likely you that he has missed, you, who are no doubt his daily companion."
"Not quite daily," I answer, with a fine shake of irony, which, by reason of his small acquaintance with me, is lost on my friend. "Two, you know, is company, and three none. Yes, if you do not mind, I think it must be getting near luncheon-time. I will go."
So I disappear through the dry, knotted tussocks of the park grass.
"Friends, Romans, and countrymen!" say I, on that same afternoon, strutting into the school-room, with my left hand thrust oratorically into the breast of my frock, and my right loftily waving, "I wish to collect your suffrages on a certain subject. Tell me," sitting down on a hard chair, and suddenly declining into a familiar and colloquial tone, "have you seen any signs of derangement in father lately?"
"None more than usual," answers Algy, sarcastically, lifting his pretty, disdainful nose out of his novel. "If, as the Eton Latin Grammar says, ira is a brevis furor you, will agree with me that he is pretty often out of his mind, in fact, a good deal oftener than he is in it."
"No, but really?"
"Of course not. What do you mean?"
"Put down all your books!" say I, impressively. "Listen attentively. Bobby, stop see-sawing that chair, it makes me feel deadly sick. Ah! my young friend, you will rue the day when you kept me sitting on the top of that wall—"
I break off.
"Go on! go on!" in five different voices of impatience.
"Well, then, father has sent a message by mother to the effect that I am to dine with them to-night—I, if you please—I!—you must own" (lengthening my neck as I speak, and throwing up my untidy flax head) "that sweet Nancies are looking up in the world."
A silence of stupefaction falls on the assembly. After a pause—
"And how do you account for it?"
"I believe," reply I, simpering, "that our future benefac—, no! I really must give up calling him that, or I shall come out with it to his face, as Bobby did last night. Well, then, Sir Roger asked me why I did not appear yesterday. I suppose he thought that I looked so very grown up, that they must be keeping me in pinafores by force."
Algy has risen. He is coming toward me. He has pulled me off my chair. He has taken me by the shoulders, and is turning me round to face the others.
"Allow me!" he says, bowing, and making me bow, too, "to introduce you to the future legatee!—Barbara, my child, you and I are nowhere. This depraved old man has clearly no feeling for symmetry of form or face; a long career of Begums has utterly vitiated his taste. To-morrow he will probably be clamoring for Tou Tou's company."
"Brat!" says Barbara, laughing, "where has the analogy between me and the man who pulled up the window in the train for the old woman gone to?"
"Mother said I was to look as nice as I could," say I, casting a rueful glance at the tea-board, at the large plum loaf, at the preparations for temperate conviviality. I have sat down on the threadbare blue-and-red hearth-rug, and am shading my face with a pair of cold pink hands, from the clear, quick blaze. "What am I to wear?" I say, gloomily. "None of my frocks are ironed, and there is no time now. I shall look as if I came out of the dirty clothes-basket! Barbara, dear, will you lend me your blue sash? Last time I wore mine the Brat upset the gum-bottle over my ends."
"Let us each have the melancholy pleasure of contributing something toward the decking of our victim," says Algy, with a grin; "have my mess-jacket!"
"Have as many beads as you can about you," puts in Bobby. "Begums always have plenty of beads."
A little pause, while the shifting flame-light makes small pictures of us on the deep-bodied teapot's sides, and throws shadowy profiles of us on the wall.
"Mother said, too, that I was to try and not say any of my unlucky things!" I remark, presently.
"Do not tell him," says Bobby, ill-naturedly, "as you told poor Captain Saunders the other day, that 'they always put the fool of the family into the army.'"
"I did not say so of myself," cry I, angrily. "I only told it him as a quotation."
"Abstain from quotations, then," retorts Bobby, dryly; "for you know in conversation one does not see the inverted commas."
"What shall I talk about?" say I, dropping my shielding hand into my lap, and letting the full fire-warmth blaze on eyes, nose, and cheeks. "Barbara, what did you talk about?"
"Whatever I talked about," replies Barbara, gayly, "they clearly were not successful topics, so I will not reveal what they were."
Barbara is standing by the tea-table, thin and willowy, a tea-caddy in one hand, and a spoon in the other, ladling tea into the deep-bodied pot—a spoonful for each person and one for the pot.
"I will draw you up a list of subjects to be avoided," says Algy, drawing his chair to the table, and pulling a pencil out of his waistcoat-pocket. "Here, Tou Tou, tear a leaf out of your copy-book—imprimis, old age."
"You are wrong there," cry I, triumphantly, "quite wrong; he is rather fond of talking of his age, harps upon it a good deal. He said to-day that he was an old wreck!"
"Of course he meant you to contradict him!" says Bobby, cackling, "and, from the little I know of you, I am morally certain that you did not—did you, now?"
"Well, no!" reply I, rather crestfallen; "I certainly did not. I would, though, in a minute, if I had thought that he wanted it."
"I wish," says Barbara, shutting the caddy with a snap, "that Providence had willed to send the dear old fellow into the world twenty years later than it did. In that case I should not at all have minded trying to be a comfort to him."
"He must have been very good-looking, must not he?" say I, pensively, staring at the red fire-caverns. "Very—before his hair turned gray. I wonder what color it was?"
Visions of gold yellow, of sunshiny brown, of warm chestnut locks, travel in succession before my mind's eye, and try in turn to adjust themselves to the good and goodly weather-worn face, and wide blue eyes of my new old friend.
"It is so nice and curly even now," I go on, "twice as curly as Algy's."
"Tongs," replies Algy, with short contempt, looking up from his list of prohibitions.
"Very good-looking!" repeat I, dogmatically, entirely ignoring the last suggestion.
"Perhaps when this planet was young!" retorts he, with the superb impertinence of twenty.
"You talk as if he were eighty years old," cry I, with an unaccountably personal feeling of annoyance. "He is only forty-seven!"
And they all laugh.
"Well, I must be going, I suppose," cry I, leisurely rising, stretching, sighing, and beginning to collect the various articles of my wardrobe, scattered over the furniture. "Good-by, dear teapot! good-by, dear plum loaf! how I wish I was going to stay with you! It really is ten minutes past dressing-time, and father is always so pleased when one keeps him waiting for his soup."
"He would not say any thing to you to-day if you were late," says Bobby, astutely. "You might tumble over his gouty foot, and he would smile! Are we not the most united family in Christendom—when we have company?"
After all, I need not have disquieted myself; I am in very good time. When I open the drawing-room door, and make my entrance in the borrowed splendor of Barbara's broad blue-sash tails, and the white virginity of my own muslin frock, I find that neither of my parents have as yet made their appearance. Sir Roger has the hearth-rug to himself; at least he only shares it with Vick, and she is asleep; sitting very upright, it is true, with her thin tail round her toes, like a cat's, her head and whole body swaying from side to side in indisputable slumber. At sight of the chaste and modest apparition that the opened door yields to his gaze, an exclamation of pleasure escapes him—at least it sounds like pleasure.
"Ah! this is all right! You are here to-night at all events; but, by-the-by, what became of you yesterday?"
"What always becomes of me?" reply I, bluntly, lifting my grave gray eyes to his face, and to the hair which sweeps thick and waved above his broad brown forehead. (Tongs indeed!)
"I remember that you told me you had been cooking, but you cannot cook every night."
"Not quite," reply I, with a short smile, stretching my hands to the blaze.
"But do not you dine generally?"
"Never when I can possibly help it," I reply, with emphasis. And no sooner are the words out of my mouth than I see that I have already transgressed my mother's commands, and given vent to one of "my unlucky things." I stand silent and ashamed, reflecting that no after-tinkering will mend my unfortunate speech.
"And to-night you could not help it?" he asks, after a slight, hardly perceptible pause.
I look up to answer him. He is forty-seven years old. He is a general, and a sir, and has been in every known land; has killed big and little beasts, and known big and little people, and I am nineteen and nobody, and have rarely been beyond our own park and parish, and my acquaintance is confined to half a dozen turnipy squires and their wives; and yet he is looking snubbed, and it is I that have snubbed him. Well, I cannot help it. Truth is truth; and so I answer, in a low voice:
"No, father said I was to."
"And you look upon it as a great penance?" he says, still with that half-disappointed accent.
"To be sure I do," reply I, briskly. "So does Barbara. Ask her if she does not. So would you, if you were I."
"Hush!" say I, hearing a certain heavy, well-known, slow footfall. "He is coming! I will tell you by-and-by—when we are by ourselves."
After all, how convenient an elderly man is! I could not have said that to any of the young squires!
His blue eyes are smiling in the fire-light, as, leaning one strong shoulder against the mantel-piece, he turns to face me more fully.
"And when are we likely to be by ourselves?"
"Oh, I do not know," reply I, indifferently. "Any time."
And then father enters, and I am dumb. Presently, dinner is announced, and we walk in; I on father's arm. He addresses me several times with great bonhomie and I respond with nervous monosyllables. Father is always suavity itself to us, when we have guests; but, when one is not in the habit of being treated with affability, it is difficult to enter into the spirit of the joke. Several times I catch our guest's frank eyes, watching me with inquiring wonder, as I respond with brief and low-voiced hurry to some of my parent's friendly and fatherly queries as to the disposition of my day. And I sit tongue-tied and hungry—for, thank God, I have always had a large appetite—dumb as the butler and footman—dumb as the racing-cups on the sideboard—dumber than Vick, who, being a privileged person, is standing—very tall—on her hind-legs, and pawing Sir Roger's coat-sleeve, with a small, impatient whine.
"Why, Nancy, child!" says father, helping himself to sweetbread, and smiling, "what made you in such a hurry to get away this morning out of the park?"
(Why can't he always speak in that voice? always smile?—even his nose looks a different shape.)
"Near—luncheon-time," reply I, indistinctly, with my head bent so low that my nose nearly touches the little square of bare neck that my muslin frock leaves exposed.
"Not a bit of it—half an hour off.—Why, Roger, I am afraid you had not been making yourself agreeable! eh, Nancy?"
"No," say I, mumbling, "that is—yes—quite so."
"I was very agreeable, as it happened—rather more brilliant than usual, if possible, was not I? And, to clear my character, and prove that you thought so, you will take me out for another walk, some day, will not you?"
At the sound of his voice so evidently addressing me, I look up—look at him.
"Yes! with pleasure! when you like!" I answer heartily, and I neither mumble nor stutter, nor do I feel any disposition to drop my eyes. I like to look at him. For the rest of dinner I am absolutely mute, I make only one other remark, and that is a request to one of the footmen to give me some water. The evening passes. It is but a short one—at least, as regards the company of the gentlemen, for they sit late; father's port, I am told, not being to be lightly left for any female frippery. I retire to the school-room, and regale my brethren with lively representations of father's unexampled benignity. I also resume with Algy the argument about tongs, at the very point where I had dropped it. It lasts till prayer-time; and its monotony is relieved by personalities. The devil in the boys is fairly quiescent to-night, and our evening devotions pass over with tolerable peace; the only contretemps being that the Brat, having fallen asleep, remains on his knees when "Amen" raises the rest of the company from theirs, and has to be privily and heavily kicked to save him from discovery and ruin. Having administered the regulation embrace to father, and heartily kissed mother—not but what I shall see her again; she always comes, as she came when we were little, to kiss us in bed—I turn to find Sir Roger holding open the swing-door for us.
"Are you quite sure about it to-night?" I say, stretching out my hand to him to bid him good-night. "Ours on the right—yours on the left—do you see?"
"Yours on the right—mine on the left," he repeats, "Yes—I see—I shall make no more mistakes—unless I make one on purpose."
"Do not come without telling us beforehand!" I cry, earnestly. "I mean really: if you hold a vague threat of paying us a visit over our heads, you will keep us in a state of unnatural tidiness for days."
I make a move toward retiring, but he still has hold of my hand.
"And about our walk?"
The others—boys and girls—have passed us: the servants have melted out of sight; so has mother; father is speaking to the butler in the passage—we are alone.
"Yes? what about it?" I ask, my eyes calmly resting on his.
"You will not forget it?"
"Not I!" reply I, lightly. "I want to hear the end of the anecdote about father's nose! I cannot get over the idea of him in a stiff white petticoat: I thought of it at dinner, whenever I looked at him!"
At the mention of father, his face falls a little.
"Nancy," he says, abruptly, taking possession of my other hand also, "why did you answer your father so shortly to-day? Why did you look so scared when he tried to joke with you?"
"Ah, why?" reply I, laughing awkwardly.
"You are not afraid of him, surely?"
"Oh, no—not at all!"
"Why do you speak in that sneering voice? It is not your own voice; I have known you only twenty-four hours, and yet I can tell that."
"I will not answer any more questions," reply I, recovering both hands with a sudden snatch: "and if you ask me any more, I will not take you out walking! there!"
So I make off, laughing.
"A peck of March dust is worth a king's ransom," say I slowly next morning, as I stand by the window, trying to see clearly through the dimmed and tearful pane. "The king would have to do without his ransom to-day."
It is raining mightily; strong, straight, earnest rain, that harshly lashes the meek earth, that sends angry runlets down the gravel walks, that muddies the gold goblets of the closed crocuses.
"And you without your walk!" says Barbara, lifting her face from her stitching. "Poor Miss Nancy!"
"There is not enough blue sky to make a cat a pair of breeches!" cries Bobby, despondently, and with his usual vulgarity.
Sometimes I am tempted to fear that Bobby is hopelessly ungenteel—ungenteel for life. He has now taken possession of another window, and is consulting the eastern sky.
"A ransomless king, and a trouserless cat! That is about the state of the case!" say I, turning away from the window with a grin.
After all, now I come to think of it, I am nearly as vulgar as Bobby. But I am right. Through the day, through the long, light, cold evening, the posture of the weather changes not. To-day, Barbara, Algy, and I, are all constrained to dine; for have not we a dinner-party, or rather a mild simulation of one?—a squire or two, a squiress or two, a curate or two—such odd-come-shorts as can be got together in a scattered country neighborhood at briefest notice. Barbara and I, as it happens, are both late. It is five minutes past eight, when with the minor details of our toilets a good deal slurred, with a paucity of bracelets and lack of necessary pins, we hurriedly and sneakingly enter the drawing-room, and find all our guests already come together. Mother gives us an almost imperceptible glance of gentle reproach, but father is so occupied in bantering a strange miss—banter in which the gallant and the fatherly happily join to make that manner which is the envy and admiration of the neighborhood—that he seems unconscious of our entrance. An intuition, however, tells us that this is not the case, but that he is making a note of it. This depresses us so much that, until song and sherry have comforted and emboldened us, we have not spirits to make any effort toward the entertainment of our neighbors. We have been paired with a couple of curates. Mine is a strong-handed, ingenuous Ishmael, who tells everybody that he hates his trade, and that he thinks it is very hard that he may not get out of it, now that his elder brother is dead. I am thankful to say that his appetite is as vast as his shoulders; so, after I have told him that I love raw oysters, and that Barbara cannot sit in the room with a roast hare; and have heard in return that he does not care about brill, but worships John Dory, we slide into a gluttonous silence, and abide in it. Barbara's man of God is in a wholly different pattern to mine. He is a macerated little saint, with the eyes of a ferret and the heart of a mouse. As the courses pass by, in savory order, I, myself unemployed, watch my sister gradually reassuring, comforting, heartening him, as is her way with all weakly, maimed, and unhandsome creatures. She has succeeded in thawing him into a thin trickle of parochial talk, when mother bends her laced and feathered head in distant signal from the table-top, and off we go. We drink coffee, we drink tea, we pick clever little holes in our absent neighbors, in brisk duet and tortuous solo we hammer the blameless spinnet, we sing affecting songs about "fair doves," and "cleansing fires," and people "far away," and still our deliverers come not. They must hear our appealing melodies clearly through the walls and doors, but still they come not. Sunk in sloth and old port, still they come not. I seem to have said every possible thing that is to be said on every known subject to the young woman beside me, and now I am falling asleep. I feel it. Lulled by the warm glow diffused through the room, by the smell of the jonquils, lilies of the valley and daphnes, by the low even talk, I am slipping into slumber. The door opens, and I jump into wakefulness; Sir Roger to the rescue. I am afraid that I look at him with something not unlike invitation in my eyes, for he makes straight toward me.
"Wish me good-morning," say I, rubbing my eyes, "for I have been sweetly asleep. I fell asleep wondering which of you would come first—somehow I thought it would be you. Are you going to sit here? Oh! that is all right!" as he subsides into the next division of the ottoman to mine. "What have you been talking about?" I continue, with a contented, chatty feeling, leaning my elbow on the blue-satin ottoman-top; "any thing pleasant? Did not you hear our screams for help through the wall?"
"Have not we come in answer to them?"
Yes; they are all here now, at last; all, from father down to the curates; some sitting resolutely down, some standing uncertainly up. Barbara's protege, with frightened stealth, is edging round the furniture to where she sits on a little chair alone. Barbara is locketless, braceletless, chainless, head-dressless! such was our unparalleled haste to abscond. Ornaments has she none but those that God has given her: a sweep of blond hair, a long, cool throat, and two smooth arms that lie bare and white as any milk on her lap. As he nervously draws near, she lifts her eyes with a lovely friendliness to his face. He is poor, slightly thought of, sickly, not over-clever; probably she will talk to him all the evening.
"Look at Barbara!" say I, with deep admiration, familiarly laying my hand on Sir Roger's coat-sleeve, to make sure of engaging his attention, "that is always her way! Did you ever see any thing so cruelly shy as that poor little man is? See! he is wriggling all over like an eel! He came to call the other day, and while he was talking to mother I watched him. He tore a pair of quite new tea-green gloves into thin strips, like little thongs! He must find it rather expensive work, if he makes many morning calls, must he not?"
"I am sure that you and Barbara would get on," continue I, loquaciously, leaning my head on my hand, and talking in that low, comfortable voice that our proximity warrants; "I cannot understand how it was that you did not make great friends that first night! I suppose that you are not poor and ugly and depressed enough for her to make much of you! Shall I make a sign to her to come over and talk to us?"
Sir Roger does not accept my proposal with the alacrity I had expected.
"Do not you think that she looks very comfortable where she is?" he asks, rather doubtfully.
I am a little disappointed.
"I am sure she would like you," I say, with a dogmatic shake of the head. "I told her that you were—well, that I got on with you, and we always like the same people."
"That must be awkward sometimes?"
"What do you mean? Oh! not in that way—" (with an unblushing heart-whole laugh). "Lucky for me that we do not."
"Lucky for you?" (interrogatively).
"Why will you make me say things that sound mock-modest?" cry I, reddening a little this time. "You know perfectly well what I mean—it is not likely that any one would look at me when Barbara was by—you can have no notion," continue I, speaking very fast to avoid contradiction, "how well she looks when she is dancing—never gets hot, or flushed, or mottled, as so many people do."
"And you? how do you look?"
"I grow purple," I answer, laughing—"a rich imperial purple, all over. If you had once seen me, you would never forget me."
"Go on: tell me something more about Barbara!"
He has settled himself with an air of extreme repose and enjoyment. We really are very comfortable.
"Well," say I, nothing loath, for I have always dearly loved the sound of my own voice, "do you see that man on the hearth-rug?—do not look at him this very minute, or he will know that we are speaking of him. I cannot imagine why father has asked him here to-night—he wants to marry Barbara; he has never said it, but I know he does: the boys—we all, indeed—call him Toothless Jack! he is not old really, I suppose—not more than fifty, that is; but for Barbara!—"
I think that Sir Roger is beginning to find me rather tiresome: evidently he is not listening: he has even turned away his head.
There is a movement among the guests, the first detachment are bidding good-night, the rest speedily do the like. Father follows his favorite miss into the hall, cloaks her with gallant care, and through the door I hear him playfully firing off parting jests at her as she drives away. Then he returns to the drawing-room. Sir Roger has gone to put on his smoking-coat, I suppose. Father is alone with his wife and his two lovely daughters. We make a faint movement toward effacing ourselves, but our steps are speedily checked.
"Yes, father" (in a couple of very small voices).
"May I ask what induced you to keep my guests waiting half an hour for their dinner to-night?"
No manner of answer. How hooked his nose looks! how fearfully like a hawk he has grown all in a minute!
"When you have houses of your own," he continues with iced politeness, "you may of course treat your visitors to what vagaries you please, but as long as you deign to honor my roof with your presence, you will be good enough to behave to my guests with decent civility, do you hear?"
"Well, Roger, how is the glass? up or down? What is it doing? Are we to have a fine day to-morrow?"
For Roger apparently has got quickly into his smoking-coat: at least he is here: he has heard all. Barbara and I crawl away with no more spring or backbone in us than a couple of torpid, wintery flies.
Five minutes later, "Do you wonder that we hate him?" cry I, with flaming cheeks, holding a japanned candlestick in one hand, and Sir Roger's right hand in the other.
"I do not care if he does hear me!—yes, I do, though" (giving a great jump as a door bangs close to me).
Sir Roger is looking down at me with an expression of most thorough discomfiture and silent pain in his face.
"He did not mean it, Nancy!" he says, hesitatingly, and with a sort of look of shamed wonder in his friendly eyes.
"Did not he?" (ironically).
A little pause, the position of the japanned candlestick and of Sir Roger's hand still remaining the same. "How I wish that you were my father instead!" I say with a sort of sob. He does not, as I fully expect, say, "So do I!" and I go to bed, feeling rather small, as one who has gushed, and whose gush has not been welcome to the recipient.
A fortnight has passed. Two Sundays, two Mondays, two Tuesdays, etc. Fourteen times have I sleepily laid head on pillow. Fourteen times have I yawningly raised it from my pillow. Fourteen times have I hungrily eaten my dinner, since the night when I stood in the hall with Sir Roger's hand in mine, raging against my parent. And Sir Roger is here still. After all, there is nothing like the tenacity of boyish friendship, is there?
I suppose that, to Sir Roger, father is still the manly, debonair youth that he remembers thirty years ago. In happy ignorance he slurs over the thirty intervening years of moroseness, and goes back to that blest epoch in which I have so much difficulty in believing, and about which he, walking beside me now and again through the tender, springing grass of the meadows, has told me many a tale. For our promised walk has come off, and so has many others like it.
He must be dotingly fond of father. It is the 15th of April. I dare say, O reader, that it seems to you much like any other date, but to me, through every back-coming year, it seems to gain fresh significance—the date that marks the most important day—take it for all in all—of my life, though, whether for good or ill, who shall say, until I am dead, and my life's sum reckoned up. I awake on that morning with no forecast of what is coming? I tear myself from my morning dreams with as sleepy unwillingness as usual. I eat my bread-and-butter with as stolidly healthy an appetite. I run with as scampering feet, as evenly-beating a heart as is my wont, with little Vick along the garden-walks, in the royal morning sun. For one of God's own days has come—one that must have lost his way, and strayed from paradise.
It has the steady heat of June, though we are only in mid-April, and the freshness of the prune. The leaves on the trees are but tender and tiny, and through them the sun sends his might. The tulips are all a-blaze and a-stare, making one blink with the dazzle of their odorless beauty: the frolicsome young wind is shaking out their balm from the hyacinth-bells, and the sweet Nancies—my flowers—blowing all together, are swaying and congeeing to the morning airs.
O wise men, who know all things, do you know this? Can you tell it me? Where does the flower hide her scent? From what full cup of hidden sweets does one suck it?
It is one of those days when one feels most convinced of being immortal—when the spirits of men stretch out longing arms toward the All-Good, the Altogether Beautiful—when souls thirst for God, yearn most deeply for the well of his unfathomed truth—when, to those who have lost, their dead come back in most pleasant, gentle guise. As for me, I have lost nothing and no one as yet. All my treasures are still about me; I can stretch out live hands, and touch them alive; none of my dear names are yet to be spoken sparingly with bated breath, as too holy for common talk. And yet I, too, as I walk and bask, and bend to smell the hyacinth-blooms, feel that same vague and most unnamed yearning—a delicate pain that he who has it would barter for no boisterous joy. The clocks tick out the scented hours, and with loud singing of happy birds, with pomp of flowers and bees, and freaked butterflies, God's day treads royally past.
It is afternoon, and the morning wind, heaving with too much fragrance, has lain down to sleep. A great warm stillness is on the garden and house. The sweet Nancies no longer bow. They stand straight up, all a-row, making the whole place honeyed. The school-room is one great nosegay. Every vase and jug, and cup, and pot and pan and pipkin that we can command, is crammed with heavy-headed daffodils, with pale-cheeked primroses, with wine-colored gilly-flowers, every thing that spring has thrust most plentifully into our eager hands.
The boys have been out fishing.
Algy and Bobby have been humorously trying to drown the Brat.
He looks small and cold in consequence, and his little pert nose is tinged with a chilly pink. Half an hour ago, mother called me away to a private conference, exciting thereby a mighty curiosity not unmixed with envy in my brethren.
Our colloquy is ended now, and I am reentering the school-room.
"Well, what was it? out with it," cries Algy, almost before I am inside the door again. Algy is sitting more than half—more than three-quarters out of the window, balancing himself with great nicety on the sill. He is in the elegant neglige of a decrepit shooting-jacket, no waistcoat, and no collar.
"What have you been doing to your face?" says Bobby, drawing nigh, and peering with artless interest into the details of my appearance; "it is the color of this" (pointing to a branch of red rhibes, which is hanging its drooped flowers, and joining its potent spice to the other flower-scents).
"Is it?" I answer, putting both hands to my cheeks, to feel their temperature. "I dare say! so would yours be, perhaps, if you had, like me, been having a—" I stop suddenly.
"Having a what?"
"I will not say what I was going to say," I cry, emphatically, "it was nonsensical!"
"But what has she told you, Nancy?" asks Barbara, who, enervated by the first hot day, is languishing in the rocking-chair, slowly see-sawing. "What could it have been that she might not as well have said before us all?"
"You had better try and guess," I reply, darkly.
"I will not, for one," says Bobby, doggedly, "I never made out a conundrum in my life, except, 'What is most like a hen stealing?'"
"It is not much like that," say I, demurely, "and, in fact, when one comes to think of it, it can hardly be called a conundrum at all!"
"I do not believe it is any thing worth hearing," remarks the Brat, skeptically, "or you would have come out with it long ago! you never could have kept in to yourself!"
"Not worth hearing!" cry I, triumphantly raising my voice, "is not it? That is all you know about it!"
"Do not wrangle, children," says Algy from the window; "but, Nancy, if you have not told us before the clock gets to the quarter" (looking impressively at the slowly-traveling hands), "I shall think it right to—"
What awful threats would have followed will never now be certainly known, for I interrupt.
"I will tell you! I mean to tell you!" I cry, excitedly, covering my face with my hands, and turning my back to them all; "only do not look at me! look the other way, or I cannot tell you."
A little pause.
"You have only three minutes, Nancy."
"Will you promise," cry I, with indistinct emphasis from under my hands, "none of you to laugh—none, even Bobby!"
"Will you swear?"
"What is the use of swearing?—you have only half a minute now. Well, I dare say it is nothing very funny. Yes, we will swear!"
"Well, then, Sir Roger—I hear Bobby laughing!"
"He is not!"—"He is not!"—"I am not!—I am only beginning to sneeze!"
"Well, then, Sir Roger—"
I come to a dead stop.
"Sir Roger? What about him? There is not a smile on one of our faces: if you do not believe, look for yourself!—What about our future benefactor?"
"He is not our future benefactor," cry I, energetically, whisking swiftly round to face them again, and dropping my hands, "he never will be!—he does not want to be! He wants to—to—to MARRY ME! there!"
The murder is out. The match is set to the gunpowder train. Now for the explosion!
The clock-hand reaches the quarter—passes it; but in all the assembly there is no sound. The westering sun shines in on four open mouths (the youthful Tou Tou is absent), on four pairs of stupidly-staring eyes. The rocking-chair has ceased rocking. Bobby's sneeze has stopped half-way. There is a petrified silence.
At length, "Marry you!" says the Brat, in a deeply-accented tone of low and awed disbelief. "Why, he was at school with father!"
"I wish to heavens that he had never been at school anywhere!" cry I, in a fury. "I am sick to death of hearing that he was at school with father. Will no one ever forget it?"
"He is for-ty-sev-en!" says Algy, at last closing his mouth, and speaking with slow impressiveness. "Nineteen from forty-seven! how many years older than you?"
"Do not count!" cry I, pettishly; "what is the use? not all the counting in the world will make him any younger."
"It is not true!" cries Bobby, with boisterous skepticism, jumping up from his seat, and making a plunge at me; "it is a hoax! she has been taking us all in! Really, Nancy, for a beginner, you did not do it badly!"
"It is not a hoax!" cry I, scornfully, standing scarlet and deeply ashamed, facing them all; "it is real, plain, downright, simple truth."
Another pause. No sound but the monotonous, unemotional clock, and the woodpecker's fluty laugh from the orchard.
"And so you really have a lover at last, Nancy?" says Algy, the corners of his mouth beginning to twitch in a way which looks badly for the keeping of his oath.
"Yes!" say I, beginning to laugh violently, but quite uncomfortably; "are you surprised? you know I always told you that if you half shut your eyes, and looked at me from a great way off, I really was not so bad-looking."
"You have distanced the Begums!" cries the young fellow, joining in my mirth, but with a good deal more enjoyment than I can boast.
"So I have!" I answer; and my sense of the ludicrous overcoming all other considerations, I begin to giggle with a good-will.
"Let us look at you, Nancy!" says the Brat, taking hold of me by both arms, and bringing the minute impertinence of his face into close neighborhood to mine. "I begin to think that there must be more in you than we have yet discovered! we never looked upon you as one of our most favorable specimens, did we?"
"Do not you remember old Aunt Williams?" reply I, merrily; "how she used to say 'I was not pretty, my dears, but I was a pleasant little devil!' perhaps I am a pleasant little devil!"
"Poor—dear—old fellow!" says Barbara, in an accent of the profoundest, delicatest, womanliest pity, "how sorry I am for him! Nancy, how will you break it to him most kindly? I am afraid he will be sadly hurt! will you speak to him, or do it by letter?"
Barbara has risen. We are all standing up, more or less; it is impossible to sit through such news; Barbara's garden-hat is in her hand. The warm and mellow sun that is making Africa's dreary expanse in the map on the wall, one broad fine sheet, is enkindling, too, the silk of her hair, the flower-petals of her cheeks, the blue compassion of her eyes. My pretty, tall Barbara! Let them say what they like, I am sure that somewhere—somewhere—you are pretty now!
"If you write," says Algy, still laughing, but with more moderation, "I should advise you to depute me to make a fair copy of the letter; else, from the extreme ambiguity of your handwriting, he will most likely mistake your drift, and imagine that you are saying yes."
"How do you know that I am not going to say yes?" I ask, abruptly.
Rivers of additional scarlet are racing to my cheeks, over my forehead—in among the roots of my hair—all around and about my throat, but I stand, looking the assembled multitude full in the face, fairly, well, and boldly.
"Listen!" I continue, holding up my right hand in deprecation, "let me speak!—do not interrupt me!—Bobby, I know that he was at school with father—Algy, I know that he is forty-seven—all of you, I know that his hair is gray, and that there are crows'-feet about his eyes—but still—but still—"
"Do you mean to say that you are in love with him?" breaks in Bobby, impressively.
Instances of enamored humanity have been rare in Bobby's experience. With the exception of Toothless Jack, he has never had a near and familiar view of an authentic specimen. I therefore see him now regarding me with a reverent interest, not unmixed with awe.
"I mean nothing so silly!" I answer, with lofty petulance. "I am a great deal too old for any such nonsense!"
"There I go with you," says Algy, not without grandeur. "I believe that it is the greatest humbug out, and that it rarely occurs between the ages of sixteen and sixty."
"Father's and mother's was a love-match," says Bobby, gravely. "Did not Aunt Williams tell us that they used always to sit hand-in-hand before they were married?"
A shout of laughter at our parents' expense greets this piece of information.
"All married people grow to hate one another after a bit," say I, comprehensively; "it is only a question of time."
"But if you do not love him now, and if you are sure that you will hate him by-and-by," says Barbara, looking rather puzzled, "what makes you think of taking him?"
"It would be such a fine thing for all the family: I could give all the boys such a shove," say I, with homely shrewdness.
"They killed seven hundred head of game on his big day last year; I heard him tell father so," says Bobby, with his mouth watering.
"He has a moor in Scotland," throws in the Brat.
"He must ride a stone heavier than I do," says Algy, thoughtfully, "his horses would certainly carry me: I wonder would he give me a mount now and then?"
"I would have you all staying with me always," I cry, warming with my theme, and beginning to dance, "all except father: he should come once a year for a week, if he was good, and not at all, if he was not."
"What will you call him, Nancy?" asks the Brat, inquisitively. "What shall we call him?"
"He will be Tou Tou's brother," cries Bobby, with a yell of delight.
"Hush!" says Barbara, apprehensively, "he will hear you."
"No he will not," I answer, composedly. "A person would have to bawl even louder than Bobby does, to make him hear: he has gone away for a week; he said he did not wish me to decide in a hurry: he has given me till this day week; I wish it were this day ten years—"
"This day week, then," says Algy, walking about with his hands in his pockets, and smiling to himself, "we may hope to see him return in triumph in a blue frock-coat, with the ring and the parson: at that age one has no time to lose."
"Haste to the wedding!" cries the Brat at the top of his voice, seizing me by both hands, and forcing me to execute an uncouth war-dance, in unwilling celebration of my approaching nuptials.
"I hope that there will be lots of almonds in the cake!" says Bobby, gluttonously.
The week's reprieve has ended; my Judgment Day has come. Never, never, surely, did seven days race so madly past, tumbling over each other's heels. Even Sunday—Sunday, which mostly contains at least forty-eight hours—has gone like a flash. Morning service, afternoon service, good looks, sermon to the servants, supper, they all run into one another like dissolving views. For the first time in my life, my sleep is broken. I fall asleep in a fever of irresolution. I awake in one. I walk about in one. I feed the jackdaw in one. I box Bobby's ears in one. My appetite (oh, portent!) flags. In intense excitement, who can eat yards of bread-and-butter, pounds of oatmeal-porridge, as has ever been my bucolic habit? Shall I marry Sir Roger, or shall I not? The birds, the crowing cocks, the church-bells, the gong for dinner, the old pony whinnying in the park, they all seem to say this. It seems written on the sailing clouds, on the pages of every book that I open. Armies of pros wage battle against legions of cons, and every day the issue of the fight seems even more and more doubtful.
The morning of the day has arrived, and I am still undecided. I dress in a perfect storm of doubts and questionings. I put on my gown, without the faintest idea of whether it is inside out, or the reverse. I go slowly down-stairs, every banister marked by a fresh decision. I open the dining-room door. Father's voice is the first thing that I hear; father's voice, raised and rasping. He is standing up, and has a letter in his hand; from the engaging blue of its color, and the harmony of its shape, too evidently a bill.
"I regret to have to hurt your feelings," he is saying, in that awful civil voice, at which we all—small and great—quake, "but the next time that this occurs" (pointing to the bill), "I must request you to find accommodation for yourself elsewhere, as really my poor house is not a fit place for a young gentleman with such princely views on the subject of expenditure."
The object of this pleasant harangue is Algy, who, also standing, with his face very white, his lips very much compressed, and his eyes flashing with a furious light, is fronting his parent on the hearth-rug.
Behind the tea-urn, mother is mingling her drink with tears, and making little covert signs to Algy, at all rates to hold his tongue.
My mind is made up, never to be unmade again. I will marry Sir Roger. He shall pay all Algy's debts, and forever dry mother's sad, wet eyes.
* * * * *
The weather of paradise is gone back to paradise. This day is very earthly. There has been a sharp, cold shower, and there is still a strong rain-wind, which has snapped a score of tulip-heads. Poor, brave Jour ne sols! Prone they lie on the garden-beds, defiled, dispetalled. Even the survivors are stained and dashed, and the sweet Nancies look pinched and small. If you were to go down on your knees to them, they could not give you any scent. I am walking up and down the room, in a state of the utmost agitation. My heart is beating so as to make me feel quite sick. My fingers are very hot, but hardly so hot as my face.
"For Heaven's sake do not make me laugh! do not!" cry I, nervously, "it would be too dreadful if I were to receive his overtures with a broad grin, would not it? There! is it gone? Do I look quite grave?"
I take half a dozen hurried turns along the floor, and try to think of all our most depressing family themes—father; Algy's college-bills; Tou Tou's shrunk face and thin legs; nothing will do. When I stop before the glass and consult it, that hysterical smile is there still.
"Do you remember the day, when we were children, that we all went to the dentist?" says the Brat, chuckling, "and father gave Bobby a New Testament because he had his eye-tooth out? Does to-day at all remind you of it, Nancy?"
"I had far rather have both my eye-teeth out, and several of my double ones, too," reply I, sincerely.
A little pause.
"I must not keep him waiting any longer," cry I, desperately. "Tell me!" (appealing piteously to them all), "do I look all right? do I look pretty natural?"