The Heart of Una Sackville
by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey This book is not really in the same league as Pixie, but it certainly is a well-written story about the inner life of a young woman in search of a wooer and future husband in the months and years after she leaves school. All the characters, men and women, boys and girls, are well-drawn, and the book is an enjoyable read, which we would recommend, particularly to the fairer sex. Dated in 1895, it contains contains a good deal of local and historical colour, and is worth reading for the insight into the social background of girls of the professional middle classes of those days. "THE HEART OF UNA SACKVILLE" A TALE OF A YOUNG WOMAN'S SEARCH FOR THE FUTURE LOVE OF HER LIFE
BY MRS. GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
May 13th, 1895. Lena Streatham gave me this diary. I can't think what possessed her, for she has been simply hateful to me sometimes this last term. Perhaps it was remorse, because it's awfully handsome, with just the sort of back I like—soft Russia leather, with my initials in the corner, and a clasp with a dear little key, so that you can leave it about without other people seeing what is inside. I always intended to keep a diary when I left school and things began to happen, and I suppose I must have said so some day; I generally do blurt out what is in my mind, and Lena heard and remembered. She's not a bad girl, except for her temper, but I've noticed the hasty ones are generally the most generous. There are hundreds and hundreds of leaves in it, and I expect it will be years before it's finished. I'm not going to write things every day—that's silly! I'll just keep it for times when I want to talk, and Lorna is not near to confide in. It's quite exciting to think all that will be written in these empty pages! What fun it would be if I could read them now and see what is going to happen! About half way through I shall be engaged, and in the last page of all I'll scribble a few words in my wedding-dress before I go on to church, for that will be the end of Una Sackville, and there will be nothing more to write after that. It's very nice to be married, of course, but stodgy—there's no more excitement.
There has been plenty of excitement to-day, at any rate. I always thought it would be lovely when the time came for leaving school, and having nothing to do but enjoy oneself, but I've cried simply bucketfuls, and my head aches like fury. All the girls were so fearfully nice. I'd no idea they liked me so much. Irene May began crying at breakfast-time, and one or another of them has been at it the whole day long. Maddie made me walk with her in the crocodile, and said, "Croyez bien, ma cherie, que votre Maddie ne vous oubliera jamais." It's all very well, but she's been a perfect pig to me many times over about the irregular verbs! She gave me her photograph in a gilt frame—not half bad; you would think she was quite nice-looking.
The kiddies joined together and gave me a purse—awfully decent of the poor little souls—and I've got simply dozens of books and ornaments and little picture things for my room. We had cake for tea, but half the girls wouldn't touch it. Florence said it was sickening to gorge when your heart was breaking. She is going to ask her mother to let her leave next term, for she says she simply cannot stand our bedroom after I'm gone. She and Lorna don't get on a bit, and I was always having to keep the peace. I promised faithfully I would write sheets upon sheets to them every single week, because my leaving at half term makes it harder for them than if they were going home too.
"We shall be so flat and dull without you, Circle!" Myra said. She calls me "Circle" because I'm fat—not awfully, you know, but just a little bit, and she's so thin herself. "I think I'll turn over a new leaf and go in for work. I don't seem to have any heart for getting into scrapes by myself!"
"Well, we have kept them going, haven't we!" I said. "Do you remember," and then we talked over the hairbreadth escapes we had had, and groaned to think that the good times were passed.
"I will say this for Una," said Florence, "however stupid she may be at lessons, I never met a girl who was cleverer at scenting a joke!"
When Florence says a thing, she means it, so it was an awful compliment, and I was just trying to look humble when Mary came in to say Miss Martin wanted me in the drawing-room. I did feel bad, because I knew it would be our last real talk, and she looked simply sweet in her new blue dress and her Sunday afternoon expression. She can look as fierce as anything and snap your head off if you vex her, but she's a darling all the same, and I adore her. She's been perfectly sweet to me these three years, and we have had lovely talks sometimes—serious talks, I mean—when I was going to be confirmed, and when father was ill, and when I've been homesick. She's so good, but not a bit goody, and she makes you long to be good too. She's just the right person to have a girls' school, for she understands how girls feel, and that it isn't natural for them to be solemn, unless of course they are prigs, and they don't count.
I sat down beside her and we talked for an hour. I wish I could remember all the things she said, and put them down here to be my rules for life, but it's so difficult to remember.
She said my gaiety and lightness of heart had been a great help to them all, and like sunshine in the school. Of course, it had led me into scrapes at times, but they had been innocent and kindly, and so she had not been hard upon me. But now I was grown up and going out into the battle of life, and everything was different.
"You know, dear, the gifts which God gives us are our equipments for that fight, and I feel sure your bright, happy disposition has been given to you to help you in some special needs of life."
I didn't quite like her saying that! It made me feel creepy, as if horrid things were going to happen, and I should need my spirit to help me through. I want to be happy and have a good time. I never can understand how people can bear troubles, and illnesses, and being poor, and all those awful things. I should die at once if they happened to me.
She went on to say that I must make up my mind from the first not to live for myself; that it was often a very trying time when a girl first left school and found little or nothing to occupy her energies at home, but that there were so many sad and lonely people in the world that no one need ever feel any lack of a purpose in life, and she advised me not to look at charity from a general standpoint, but to narrow it down till it came within my own grasp.
"Don't think vaguely of the poor all over the world; think of one person at your own gate, and brighten that life. I once heard a very good man say that the only way he could reconcile himself to the seeming injustice between the lots of the poor and the rich was by believing that each of the latter was deputed by God to look after his poorer brother, and was responsible for his welfare. Find someone whom you can take to your heart as your poor sister in God's great family, and help her in every way you can. It will keep you from growing selfish and worldly. In your parents' position you will, of course, go a great deal into society and be admired and made much of, as a bright, pretty girl. It is only natural that you should enjoy the experience, but don't let it turn your head. Try to keep your frank, unaffected manners, and be honest in words and actions. Be especially careful not to be led away by greed of power and admiration. It is the best thing that can happen to any woman to win the love of a good, true man, but it is cruel to wreck his happiness to gratify a foolish vanity. I hope that none of my girls may be so forgetful of all that is true and womanly."
She looked awfully solemn. I wonder if she flirted when she was young, and he was furious and went away and left her! We always wondered why she didn't marry. There's a photograph of a man on her writing-table, and Florence said she is sure that was him, for he is in such a lovely frame, and she puts the best flowers beside him like a shrine.
Florence is awfully clever at making up tales. She used to tell us them in bed, (like that creature with the name in the Arabian Nights). We used to say:
"Now then, Florence, go on—tell us Fraulein's love-story!" and she would clear her throat, and cough, and say—"It was a glorious summer afternoon in the little village of Eisenach, and the sunshine peering down through the leaves turned to gold the tresses of young Elsa Behrend as she sat knitting under the trees."
It was just like a book, and so true too, for Fraulein is always knitting! The Romance de Mademoiselle was awfully exciting. There was a duel in it, and one man was killed and the other had to run away, so she got neither of them, and it was that that soured her temper.
I really must go to bed—Lorna keeps calling and calling—and Florence is crying still—I can hear her sniffing beneath the clothes. We shall be perfect wrecks in the morning, and mother won't like it if I go home a fright. Heigho! the very last night in this dear old room! I hate the last of anything—even nasty things—and except when we've quarrelled we've had jolly times. It's awful to think I shall never be a school-girl any more! I don't believe I shall sleep a wink all night. I feel wretched.
PS—Fancy calling me pretty! I'm so pleased. I shall look nicer still in my new home clothes.
Bed-time; my own room. May 14th. It is different from school! My room is simply sweet, all newly done up as a surprise for me on my return. White paint and blue walls, and little bookcases in the corners, and comfy chairs and cushions, and a writing-table, and such lovely artistic curtains—dragons making faces at fleur-de-lys on a dull blue background. I'm awfully well off, and they are all so good to me, I ought to be the happiest girl in the world, but I feel sort of achey and strange, and a little bit lonely, though I wouldn't say so for the world. I miss the girls.
It was awful this morning—positively awful. I should think there was a flood after I left—all the girls howled so, and I was sticking my head out of the carriage window all the journey to get my face cool before I arrived. Father met me at the station, and we spanked up together in the dog-cart. That was scrumptious. I do love rushing through the air behind a horse like Firefly, and father is such an old love, and always understands how you feel. He is very quiet and shy, and when anyone else is there he hardly speaks a word, but we chatter like anything when we are together. I have a kind of idea that he likes me best, though Spencer and Vere are the show members of the family. Spencer is the heir, and is almost always away because he is a soldier, and Vere is away a lot too, because she hates the country, and likes visiting about and having a good time. She's awfully pretty, but—No! I won't say it. I hereby solemnly vow and declare that I shall never say nasty things of anyone in this book, only, of course, if they do nasty things, I shall have to tell, or it won't be true. She isn't much with father, anyway, and he likes to be made a fuss of, because he's so quiet himself. Isn't it funny how people are like that! You'd think they'd like you to be prim and quiet too, but they don't a bit, and the more you plague them the better they're pleased.
"Back again, my girl, are you? A finished young lady, eh?" said father, flicking his whip.
"Very glad of it, I can tell you. I'm getting old, and need someone to look after me a bit." He looked me up and down, with a sort of anxious look, as if he wanted to see if I were changed. "We had good times together when you were a youngster and used to trot round with me every morning to see the dogs and the horses, but I suppose you won't care for that sort of thing now. It will be all dresses and running about from one excitement to another. You won't care for tramping about in thick boots with the old father!"
I laughed, and pinched him in his arm. "Don't fish! You know very well I'll like it better than anything else. Of course, I shall like pretty dresses too, and as much fun as I can get, but I don't think I shall ever grow up properly, father—enough to walk instead of run, and smile sweetly instead of shrieking with laughter as we do at school. It will be a delightful way of letting off steam to go off with you for some long country rambles, and have some of our nice old talks."
He turned and stared at me quite hard, and for a long time. He has such a lot of wrinkles round his eyes, and they look so tired. I never noticed it before. He looked sort of sad, and as if he wanted something. I wonder if he has been lonely while I was away. Poor old dad! I'll be a perfect angel to him. I'll never neglect him for my own amusement like Resolution number one! Sentence can't be finished.
"How old are you, child?" father said at last, turning away with a sigh and flicking Firefly gently with the whip, and I sat up straight and said proudly—
"Nearly nineteen. I begged to stay on another half year, you know, because of the exam, but I failed again in that hateful arithmetic: I'm a perfect dunce over figures, father; I hope you don't mind. I can sing very well; my voice was better than any of the other girls, and that will give you more pleasure than if I could do all the sums in the world. They tried to teach me algebra, too. Such a joke; I once got an equation right. The teacher nearly had a fit. It was the most awful fluke."
"I don't seem to care much about your arithmetical prowess," father said, smiling. "I shall not ask you to help me with my accounts, but it will be a pleasure to hear you sing, especially if you will indulge me with a ballad now and then which I can really enjoy. You are older than I thought; but keep as young as you can, child. I don't want to lose my little playfellow yet awhile. I've missed her very badly these last years."
I liked to hear that. It was sad for him, of course, but I simply love people to love me and feel bad when I'm gone. I was far and away the most popular girl at school, but it wasn't all chance as they seemed to think. I'm sure I worked hard enough for the position. If a girl didn't like me I was so fearfully nice to her that she was simply forced to come round. I said something like that to Lorna once, and she was quite shocked, and called it self-seeking and greed for admiration, and all sorts of horrid names. I don't see it at all; I call it a most amiable weakness. It makes you pleasant and kind even if you feel horrid, and that must be nice. I felt all bubbling over with good resolutions when father said that, and begged him to let me be not only his playmate but his helper also, and to tell me at once what I could do.
He smiled again in that sad sort of way grown-up people have, which seems to say that they know such a lot more than you, and are sorry for your ignorance.
"Nothing definite, darling," he said; "an infinite variety of things indefinite! Love me, and remember me sometimes among the new distractions—that's about the best you can do;" and I laughed, and pinched him again.
"You silly old dear! As if I could ever forget!" and just at that moment we drove up to the porch.
If it had been another girl's mother, she would have been waiting at the door to receive me. I've been home with friends, so I know; but my mother is different. I don't think I should like it if she did come! It doesn't fit into my idea of her, some way. Mother is like a queen— everyone waits upon her, and goes up to her presence like a throne-room. I peeped into the mirror in the hall as I passed, and tucked back some ends of hair, and straightened my tie, and then the door opened, and there she stood—the darling!—holding out her arms to welcome me, with her eyes all soft and tender, as they used to be when she came to say "good night." Mother is not demonstrative as a rule, so you simply love it when she is. She looks quite young, and she was the beauty of the county when she was a girl, and I never did see in all my life anybody so immaculately perfect in appearance! Her dresses fit as if she had been melted into them; her skirts stand out, and go crinkling in and out into folds just exactly like the fashion-plates; her hair looks as if it had been done a minute before—I don't believe she would have a single loose end if she were out in a tornado. It's the same, morning, noon and night; if she were wrecked on a desert island she would be a vision of elegance. It's the way she was born. I can't think how I came to be her daughter, and I know I'm a trial to her with my untidiness.
We hugged each other, and she put her hands on each side of my face, and we kissed and kissed again. She is taller than I am, and very dark, with beautiful aquiline features, and deep brown eyes. She is very slight—I'm sure my waist is about twice as big—and her hands look so pretty with the flashing rings. I'm awfully proud of my mother!
"My darling girl! How rejoiced I am to have you back. Sit down here and let me see you. How well you look, dear—not any thinner yet, I see! It will be delightful to have you at home for good, for Vere is away so much that I have felt quite bereft. Sit up, darling—don't stoop! It will be so interesting to have another girl to bring out! There are plenty of young people about here now, so you need not be dull, and I hope we shall be great companions. You were a sad little hoyden in the old days, but now that you have passed eighteen you will be glad to settle down, won't you, dear, and behave like the woman you are. Have you no little brooch, darling, to keep that collar straight at the neck? It is all adrift, and looks so untidy. Those little things are of such importance. I had such a charming letter from Miss Martin, full of nice speeches about you. She says you sing so sweetly. You must have some good lessons, for nothing is more taking than a young voice properly trained, and I hope you have no foolish nervousness about singing in public. You must get over it, if you have, for I rely on you to help me when we have visitors."
"I want to help you, mother. I will truly try," I said wistfully. I don't know why exactly, but I felt depressed all of a sudden. I wanted her to be so pleased at my return that she didn't notice anything but just me, and it hurt to be called to order so soon. I looked across the room, and caught a glimpse of our two figures reflected in a glass—such a big, fair, tousled creature as I looked beside her, and my heart went down lower then ever. I shall disappoint her, I know I shall! She expects me to be an elegant, accomplished young lady like Vere, and I feel a hoyden still, and not a bit a grown-up woman; besides, father said I was to keep young. How am I to please them both, and have time left over to remember Miss Martin's lessons? It strikes me, Una Sackville, you have got your work cut out.
Mother brought me up to see my room. She has looked after it all herself, and taken no end of trouble making the shades. It looked sweet in the sunshine, and I shall love sitting in the little round window writing my adventures in this book; but now that it's dark I miss the girls: I wonder what Lorna and Florence are doing now? Talking of me, I expect, and crying into their pillows. It seems years since we parted, and already I feel such miles apart. It seems almost impossible to believe that last night I was eating thick bread-and-butter for supper and lying down in the middle bed in the bare old dormitory. Now already I feel quite grown up and responsible. Oh, if I live to be a hundred years old, I shall never, never be at school again! I've been so happy. I wonder, I wonder shall I ever be as happy again?
June 20th. I've been home a month. I've got tails to my dresses and silk linings, and my hair done up like the people in advertisements, and parasols with frills, and a pearl necklace to wear at nights with real evening dresses. I wear white veils, too, and such sweet hats—I don't mind saying it here where no one will see, but I really do look most awfully nice. I should just simply love to be lolling back in the victoria, all frills and feathers, and the crocodiles to march by. Wouldn't they stare! It was always so interesting to see how the girls looked grown up.
The weather has been lovely, and I do think ours is the very dearest old house in the world. It is described in the guide-books as "a fine old Jacobean mansion," and all sorts of foreign royal creatures have stayed here as a place of refuge in olden days before father's people bought it. It is red brick covered with ivy, and at the right side the walls go out in a great semicircle, with windows all round giving the most lovely view. Opposite the door is a beautiful old cedar, which I used to love to climb as a child, and should now if I had my own way. Its lower branches dip down to the grass and make the most lovely bridge to the old trunk. On the opposite side of the lawn there's another huge tree; hardly anyone knows what it is, but it's a Spanish maple really— such a lovely thing, all shining silver leaves on dark stems. I used to look from one to the other and think that they looked like youth and age, and summer and winter, and all sorts of poetical things like that.
On the south side there is another entrance leading down to the terrace by a long flight of stone stairs, the balustrades of which are covered by a tangle of clematis and roses. When I come walking down those steps and see the peacock strutting about in the park, and the old sundial, and the row of beeches in the distance, I feel a thrill of something that makes me hot and cold and proud and weepy all at the same time. Father says he feels just the same, in a man-ey way, of course, and that it is much the same thing as patriotism—love of the soil that has come down to you from generations of ancestors, and that it's a right and natural feeling and ought to be encouraged. I know it is in him, for he will deny himself anything and everything to keep the place in order and give his tenants a good time, but—Resolution number two—I, Una Sackville, solemnly vow to speak the plain truth about my own feelings in this book, and not cover them up with a cloak of fine words—I think there's a big sprinkling of conceit in my feelings. I do like being the Squire's daughter, and having people stare at me as I go through the town, and rush about to attend to me when I enter a shop. Ours is only a little bit of a town, and there is so little going on that people take an extra special interest in us and our doings. I know some of the girls quite well—the vicar's daughter and the doctor's, and the Heywood girls at the Grange, and I am always very nice to them, but I feel all the time that I am being nice, and they feel it too, so we never seem to be real friends. Is that being a snob, I wonder? If it is, it's as much their fault as mine, because they are quite different to me from what they are to each other—so much more polite and well-behaved.
I spend the mornings with father, and the afternoons with mother. At first she had mapped out my whole day for me—practising, reading, driving, etcetera, but I just said straight out that I'd promised to go the rounds with father, and I think she was glad, though very much surprised.
"He will be so pleased to have you! It's nice of you, dear, to think of it, and after all it will be exercise, and there's not much going on in the morning."
She never seemed to think I should enjoy it, and I suppose it would bore her as much to walk round to the stables and kennels, and talk to the keepers about game, and the steward about new roofs to cottages, and cutting timber, as it does him to go to garden-parties and pay formal calls. It seems strange to live together so long and to be so different.
I have not met many strangers as yet, because Vere is bringing down a party of visitors for August, and mother is not in a hurry to take me about until I have got all my things; but one morning, when I was out with father, I met such a big, handsome man, quite young, with a brown face and laughing eyes, dressed in the nice country fashion which I love—Norfolk jacket, knickerbockers and leggings. Father hailed him at once, and they talked together for a moment without taking any notice of me, and then father remembered me suddenly, and said—
"This is my youngest daughter. Come home from school to play with me, haven't you, Babs?" and the strange man smiled and nodded, and said, "How do, Babs?" just as calmly and patronisingly as if I had been two. For a moment I was furious, until I remembered my hockey skirt and cloth cap, and hair done in a door-knocker, with no doubt ends flying about all round my face. I daresay I looked fourteen at the most, and he thought I was home for the holidays. I decided that it would be rather fun to foster the delusion, and behave just as I liked without thinking of what was proper all the time, and then some day he would find out his mistake, and feel properly abashed. His name is Will Dudley, and he is staying with Mr Lloyd, the agent for the property which adjoins father's, learning how to look after land, for some day he will inherit a big estate from an uncle, so he likes to get all the experience he can, and to talk to father, and go about with him whenever he has the chance, and father likes to have him—I could tell it by the way he looks and talks. We walked miles that morning, over gates and stiles, and across brooks without dreaming of waiting for the bridges, and I climbed and splashed with the best, and Mr Dudley twinkled his eyes at me, and said, "Well jumped, Babs!" and lifted me down from the stiles as if I had been a doll. He must be terrifically strong, for I am no light weight, and he didn't seem to feel me at all.
After that morning we were constantly meeting, and we grew to be quite friends. He has thick, crinkly eyebrows, and is clean-shaven, which I like in his case, as his mouth has such a nice expression. He went on treating me as a child, and father seemed to think it was quite natural. He likes to pretend I am young, poor dear, so that I may be his playmate as long as possible.
Yesterday father went in to see some cottagers, and Mr Dudley and I sat outside on a log of wood, and talked while we waited for him like this. He—patronisingly—
"I suppose it's a great treat for you to getaway from school for a time. Where is your school? Town or country? Brighton—ugh!" and he made a grimace of disgust. "Shops—piers—hotels—an awful place! Not a bit of Nature left unspoiled; the very sea looks artificial and unlike itself in such unnatural surroundings!"
"Plenty of crocodiles on the bank, however—that's natural enough!" I said pertly. I thought it was rather smart, too, but he smiled in a superior "I-will-because-I-must," sort of way, and said—
"How thankful you must be to get away from it all to this exquisite calm!"
I don't know much about young men, except what I've seen of Spencer and his friends, but they would call exquisite calm by a very different name, so I decided at once that Mr Will Dudley must have had a secret trouble which had made him hate the world and long for solitude. Perhaps it was a love affair! It would be interesting if he could confide in me, and I could comfort him, so I looked pensive, and said—
"You do get very tired of the glare and the dust! Some of the girls wear smoked glasses in summer, and you get so sick of marching up and down the front. Do you hate Brighton only, or every towny place?"
"I hate all towns, and can't understand how anyone can live in them who is not obliged. I have tried it for the last five years, but never again!" He stretched his big shoulders, and drew a long breath of determination. "I've said 'Good-bye' for ever to a life of trammelled civilisation, with its so-called amusements and artificial manners, and hollow friendships, and"—he put his hand to his flannel collar, and patted it with an air of blissful satisfaction—"and stiff, uncomfortable clothing! It's all over and done with now, thank goodness—a dream of the past!"
"And I am just beginning it! And I expect to like it very much," I thought to myself, but I didn't say so to him; and he went on muttering and grumbling all the time he was rolling his cigarette and preparing to smoke.
"You don't understand—a child like you. It's a pity you ever should, but in a few years' time you will be so bound round with conventions that you will not dare to follow your own wishes, unless you make a bold stroke for liberty, as I have done, and free yourself once for all; but not many people have the courage to do that—"
"I don't think it takes much courage to give up what one dislikes, and to do what one likes best," I said calmly; and he gave a little jump of surprise, and stared at me over the smoke of the match with amused eyes, just as you look at a child who has said a funny thing—rather precocious for its age.
"Pray, does that wise remark apply to me or to you?" he asked; and I put my chin in the air and said—
"It was a general statement. Of course, I can't judge of your actions, and, for myself, I can't tell as yet what I do like. I must try both lives before I can decide."
"Yes, yes. You must run the gauntlet. Poor little Babs!" he sighed; and after that we sat for quite an age without speaking a word. He was remembering his secret, no doubt, and I was thinking of myself and wondering if it was really true that I was going to have such a bad time. That reminded me of Miss Martin and her advice, and it came to me with a shock that I'd been home a whole month, and had been so taken up with my own affairs that I had had no time to think of my "sister." I was in a desperate hurry to find her at once. I always am in a hurry when I remember things, and the sight of the cottages put an idea into my head.
"Do you know the people who live in these cottages, Mr Dudley? I knew the old tenants, of course, but these are new people, and I have not seen them. Are they old or young, and have they any children?"
He puffed out words and smoke in turns.
"John Williams—puff—wife—puff—one baby, guaranteed to make as much noise as five—it's a marvel it's quiet now—puff. You can generally hear it a mile off—"
"Is it ill, then, the poor little thing?"
"Healthiest child in the world to judge from its appearance and the strength of its lungs! Natural depravity, nothing else"—puff!
"And in the next house?"
"Thompson—oldish man—widower. Maiden sister to keep the house in order—Thompson, too, I suspect by the look of him. Looks very sorry for himself, poor soul!"
"What's the matter with him—rheumatism? Is he quite crippled or able to get about?"
"Thompson? Splendid workman—agile as a boy. It was his mental condition to which I referred!"
"And in the end house of all?"
"Don't know the name. Middle-aged couple, singularly uninteresting, and two big hulking sons—"
Big—hulking! It was most disappointing! No one was delicate! I twisted about on my seat, and cried irritably—
"Are they all well, every one of them? Are you quite sure? Are there no invalid daughters, or crippled children, nor people like that?"
"Not that I know of, thank goodness! You don't mean to say you want them to be ill?" He stared at me as if I were mad, and then suddenly his face changed, and he said softly, "Oh, I see! You want to look after them! That's nice of you, and it would have been uncommonly nice for them, too; but, never fear, you will find plenty of people to help, if that's what you want. Their troubles may not take quite such an obvious form as crutches, but they are in just as much need of sympathy, nevertheless. In this immediate neighbourhood, for instance—" He paused for a moment, and I knew he was going to make fun by the twinkle in his eye and the solemn way he puffed out the smoke. "There's— myself!" So I just paid him back for his patronage, and led up to the mystery by saying straight out—
"Yes, I know! I guessed by what you said about town that you had had some disappointment. I'm dreadfully sorry, and if there's anything at all that I can do—"
He simply jumped with surprise and stared at me in dead silence for a moment, and then—horrid creature!—he began to laugh and chuckle as if it was the most amusing thing in the world.
"So you have been making up stories about me, eh? Am I a blighted creature? Am I hiding a broken heart beneath my Norfolk jacket? Has a lovely lady scorned me and left me in grief to pine—eh, Babs? I did not know you were harbouring such unkind thoughts of me. You can't accuse me of showing signs of melancholy this last week, I'm sure, and as to my remarks about town, they were founded on nothing more romantic than my rooted objection to smoke and dust, and bachelor diggings with careless landladies. I assure you I have no tragic secrets to disclose! I'm sorry, as I'm sure you would find me infinitely more interesting with a broken heart."
"Oh, I'm exceedingly glad, of course; but if you are so happy and contented I don't see how you need my help," I said disagreeably; and just then father came out of the cottage, and we started for home.
Mr Dudley talked to him about business in the most proper fashion, but if he caught my eye, even in the middle of a sentence, he would drop his head on his chest and put on the most absurd expression of misery, and then I would toss my head and smile a scornful smile. Some day, when he finds out how old I am, he will be ashamed of treating me like a child.
William Dudley is the first stranger mentioned in these pages. For that reason I shall always feel a kind of interest in him, but I am disappointed in his character.
July 10th. To-day I went a round of calls with mother, driving round the country for over twenty miles. It was rather dull in one way and interesting in another, for I do like to see other people's drawing-rooms and how they arrange the things. Some are all new and garish, and look as if they were never used except for an hour or two in the evening, and some are grand and stiff like a hotel, and others are all sweet and chintzy and home-like, with lots of plants and a scent of pot-pourri in china vases. That's the sort of room I like. I mean to marry a man who belongs to a very ancient family, so that I may have lots of beautiful old furniture.
Mother gave me histories of the various hostesses as we drove up to the houses.
"A dreadfully trying woman, I do hope she is out." "Rather amusing. I should like you to see her." "A most hopeless person—absolutely no conversation. Now, darling, take a lesson from her and never, never allow yourself to relapse into monosyllables. It is such a hopeless struggle if all one's remarks are greeted with a 'No' or a 'Yes,' and when girls first come out they are very apt to fall into this habit. Make a rule that you will never reply to a question in less than four words, and it is wonderful what a help you will find it.
"Twist the ends of your veil, dear, they are sticking out... Oh dear, dear, she is at home! I do have such shocking bad fortune."
She trailed out of the carriage sighing so deeply that I was terrified lest the servant should hear. I shall never call on people unless I want to see them. It does seem such a farce to grumble because they are at home, and then to be sweet and pleasant when you meet.
Mrs Greaves was certainly very silent, but I liked her. She looked worn and tired, but she had beautiful soft brown eyes which looked at you and seemed to say a great deal more than her lips. Do you know the kind of feeling when you like people and know they like you in return? I was perfectly certain Mrs Greaves had taken a fancy to me before she said, "I should like to introduce my daughter to you," and sent a message upstairs by the servant. I wondered what the girl would be like; a young edition of Mrs Greaves might be pretty, but there was an expression on mother's face which made me uncertain. Then she came in, a pale badly dressed girl, with a sweet face and shy awkward manners. Her name was Rachel, and she took me to see the conservatory, and I wondered what on earth we should find to say. Of course she asked first of all—
"Are you fond of flowers?" and I remembered mother's rule and replied, "Yes, I love them." That was four words, but it didn't seem to take us much further somehow, so I made a terrific effort and added, "But I don't know much about their names, do you?"
"Yes, I think I do. I feel as if it was a kind of courtesy we owe them for giving us so much pleasure. We take it as a slight if our own friends mispronounce or misspell our own names, and surely flowers deserve as much consideration from us," quoth she.
Goodness! how frightfully proper and correct. I felt so quelled that there was no more spirit left in me, and I followed her round listening to her learned descriptions and saying, "How pretty!" "Oh, really!" in the most feeble manner you can imagine.
All the while I was really looking at her more than the flowers, and discovering lots of things. Number one—sweet eyes just like her mother's; number two—sweet lips with tiny little white teeth like a child's; number three—a long white throat above that awful collar. Quotient—a girl who ought to be quite sweet, but who made herself a fright. I wondered why! Did she think it wrong to look nice—but then, if she did, why did she love the flowers just for that very reason? Rachel Greaves! I thought the name sounded like her somehow—old- fashioned, and prim, and grey; but the next moment I felt ashamed, for, as if she guessed what I was thinking, she turned to me and said suddenly—
"Will you tell me your name? I ought to know it to add to my collection, for you are like a flower yourself."
Wasn't it a pretty compliment? I blushed like anything, and said—
"It must be a wild one, I'm afraid. I look hot-housey this afternoon, for I'm dressed up to pay calls, but really I have just left school, and feel as wild as I can be. You mustn't be shocked if you meet me in a short frock some morning tearing about the fields."
She leant back against the stand, staring at me with such big eyes, and then she said the very last thing in the world which I expected to hear.
"May I come with you? Will you let me come too some day?"
Come with me! Rachel Greaves, with her solemn face, and dragged-back hair, and her proper conversation. To tear about the fields! I nearly had a fit.
"I suppose you want to botanise?" I asked feebly, and she shook her head and said—
"No; I want to talk to you—I want to do just what you do when you are alone."
"Scramble through the hedges, and jump the streams, and swing on the gates, and go bird's-nesting in the hedges?"
She gave a gulp of dismay, but stuck to her guns.
"Y-es! At least, I could try—you could teach me. I've learned such a number of things in my life, but I don't know how to play. That part of my education has been neglected."
"Wherever did you go to school? What a dreadful place it must have been!"
"I never went to school; I had governesses at home, and I have no brothers nor sisters; I am very much interested in girls of my own age, especially poor girls, and try to work among them, but I am not very successful. They are afraid of me, and I can't enter into their amusements; but if I could learn to romp and be lively, it might be different."
It was such a funny thing to ask, and she looked so terribly in earnest over it, that I was simply obliged to laugh.
"Do you mean to say you want to learn to be lively, as a lesson—that you are taking it up like wood-carving or poker-work—for the sake of your class and your influence there?"
She blinked at me like an owl, and said—
"I think, so far as I can judge of my own motives, that that is a truthful statement of the case! I have often wished I knew someone like you—full of life and spirit; but there are not many girls in this neighbourhood, and I met no one suitable until you came. It is a great deal to ask, but if you would spend a little time with me sometimes I should be infinitely grateful."
"Oh, don't be grateful, please, until you realise what you have to endure. Nothing worth having can be gained without suffering," I said solemnly. "I shall lead you a terrible dance, and you must promise implicit obedience. I'm a terrible bully when I get the chance."
I privately determined that I'd teach her other things besides play, and we agreed to meet next morning at eleven o'clock to take our first walk. Mother was much amused when I told her of our conversation.
"You'll soon grow tired of her, darling; she is impossibly dull, but a good creature who can do you no harm. You can easily drop her if she bores you too much."
But I don't expect to be bored, I expect it will be very amusing.
Next Day. It was! She was there to meet me with a mushroom hat over her face, looking as solemn as ever, and never in all my life did I see a poor creature work so hard at trying to enjoy herself. She runs like an elephant, and puffs like a grampus; says, "One, two, three," at the edge of the streams, then gives a convulsive leap, and lands right in the middle of the water. She was splashed from head to foot, and quite pink in the cheeks imagining she was going to be drowned, and in the next hedge her hat caught in a branch, and was literally torn from her head. Then we sat down to consider the situation, and to collect the fallen hairpins from the ground.
She has a great long rope of hair, and she twists and twists and twists it together like a nurse wringing out a fomentation, so I politely offered to fasten it for her, and loosened it out and pulled it up over her forehead, and you wouldn't believe the difference it made. We found some wild strawberries, and ate them for lunch, and I wreathed the leaves round her head, and when her fingers were nicely stained with the juice, and she looked thoroughly disreputable, I held out the little looking-glass on my chatelaine, and gave her a peep at herself, and said—
"That's the result of the first lesson! What do you think of the effect on your appearance?"
"I beg your pardon! I'm quite ashamed. What have I been doing?" she cried all in a breath, and up went both hands to drag her hair back, and tear out the leaves, but I caught them in time and held them down.
"Implicit obedience, remember! I like you better as you are. It's such pretty hair that it's a sin to hide it away in that tight little knot. Why shouldn't you look nice if you can?"
That began it, and we had quite a solemn discussion, something like this—
Rachel, solemnly: "It does not matter how we look, so long as our characters are beautiful!"
Una: "Then why was everything on the earth made so beautiful if we were not intended to be beautiful too? How would you like it if everything was just as useful, but looked ugly instead of pretty? When you have the choice of being one or the other it's very ungrateful to abuse your talent!"
"Beauty a talent! I have always looked upon it as a snare! How many a woman's life has been spoiled by a lovely face!"
"That's the abuse of beauty, not the use!" I said, and felt quite proud of myself, for it sounded so grand. "Of course, if you were silly and conceited, it would spoil everything; but if you were nice, you would have far more influence with people. I used to notice that with the pretty girls at school, and, of course, there's mother—everyone adores her, and feels repaid for any amount of trouble if she will just smile and look pleased."
"Ah, your mother! But there are not many like her. You spoke of having a choice, but in my own case, for instance, how could I—what could I do?"
"You could look fifty thousand times nicer if you took the trouble. I thought so the first time I saw you, and now I know it. Look in the glass again; would you know yourself for the same girl?"
She peered at herself, and gave a pleased little smirk just like a human being.
"It's the enjoyment lesson, and the red cheeks—but oh, I couldn't—I really couldn't wear my hair like that! It looks so terribly as if I—I wanted to look nice!"
"Well, so you do, don't you? I do, frightfully! I'd like to be perfectly lovely, and so charming that everyone adored me, and longed to be with me."
"Ah, that's different," she said softly, and her eyes went shiny and she stared straight ahead at nothing, in the way people do who are thinking nice thoughts of their own which they don't mean you to know. "To be loved is beautiful, but that is different from admiration. We love people for their gifts of mind and heart, not for their appearance." She meandered on for quite a long time, but I really forget all she said, for I was getting tired of moralising, and wondering what excuse I could make to leave her and fly off home across the fields. Then suddenly came the sound of footsteps at the other side of the stile, and who should come jumping over just before our very faces but Will Dudley himself on his way home to lunch. He stared for a moment, hardly recognising the two hat-less, dishevelled mortals squatted on the grass, and then came forward to shake hands. The funny thing was that he came to me first, and said, "How do you do?" and then just shook hands with Rachel without ever saying a word. She didn't say anything either, but I could see she was horribly embarrassed, thinking of her hair and the strawberry leaves, and he looked at her and looked again as if he could not understand what had happened.
I thought it would be fun to tell him all about it when we reached the cross-roads, and Rachel left us alone. I was glad she was going another way, because it's rather a nuisance having a stranger with you when you want to talk, and I knew Mr Dudley very well by this time. He would be so amused at the idea of the enjoyment lesson. I was looking forward to our talk; but oh, dear, what horrid shocks one does get sometimes! I shall never, never forget my feelings when we got to the corner, and he held out his hand to me—me—Una Sackville, and walked calmly off with Rachel Greaves.
It was not as if he had been going in her direction; his way home was with me, so why on earth should he choose to go off with her? Are they lovers, or friends, or what? Why did he take no notice of her at first, then suddenly become so anxious for her society? It's not that I care a scrap, but it seemed so rude! I've been as cross as two sticks all day. Nothing annoys me more than to be disappointed in my friends!
Eleven o'clock. I was comfortably settled in bed when I suddenly remembered resolution number two. The real reason that I am annoyed is that I am conceited enough to think I am nicer than Rachel, and to want Mr Dudley to think so too. How horrid it looks written down! I believe it will do me heaps of good to have to look at plain truths about myself in staring black and white. Perhaps Lorna is right after all, and I have a greed for admiration! I'll turn over a new leaf and be humble from this day.
July 15th. I was not in the least interested to know anything about what Will Dudley and Rachel Greaves talked about together, but I was anxious to find out if she had said anything to show him that I was really grown- up, instead of the child he thought me; so the next time we met I asked her plump and plain—
"What did you and Mr Dudley say about me the other morning?"
We were walking along a lane together, and she turned her head and stared at me in blank surprise.
"About you? The other morning? We—we never spoke of you at all!"
Then I suppose I looked angry, or red, or something, for she seemed in a tremendous hurry to appease me.
"We have a great many interests in common. When we lived in town we belonged to the same societies, and worked for the same charities. It is interesting to remember old days, and tell each other the latest news we have heard about the work and its progress."
"Then you knew him before he came here? He is not a new friend?"
"Oh, no—we have known him for years. It was father who got him his present position."
"And you like him very much?"
"Yes," she said quietly. "Isn't it lovely to see the hedges covered with the wild roses? I think they are almost my favourite flower—so dainty and delicate."
"Nasty, prickly things—I hate them!" I cried; for I do detest being snubbed, and she could not have told me more plainly in so many words that she did not choose to speak of Will Dudley. Why not? I wonder. Was there some mystery about their friendship? I should not mind talking about anyone I know, and it was really absurd of Rachel to be so silent and reserved. I determined not to ask her any more questions, but to tackle Mr Dudley himself.
Two days after there was the garden party, where I knew we should meet. He was bound to go, as it was on the estate where he was living, and I was to make my first formal appearance in society, in the prettiest dress and hat you can possibly imagine. Mother was quite pleased with me because I let her and Johnson fuss as much as they liked, and tie on my white veil three times over to get it in the right folds. Then I looked in the glass at my sweeping skirts, and hair all beautifully done up, and laughed to think how different I looked from Babs of the morning hours.
We drove off in state, and I was quite excited at the prospect of the fray; but I do think garden parties are dreadfully dull affairs! A band plays on the lawn, and people stroll about, and criticise one another's dresses, and look at the flowers. They are very greedy affairs, too, for really and truly we were eating all the time—tea and iced coffee when we arrived; ices, and fruits, and nice things to drink until the moment we came away. I don't mean to say that I ate straight on, of course, but waiters kept walking about with trays, and I noticed particularly what they were like, so as not to take two ices running from the same man. I had a strawberry, and a vanilla, and a lemon—but that was watery, and I didn't like it. I was talking to the hostess, when I saw Mr Dudley coming towards us, and he looked at me with such a blank, unrecognising stare that I saw at once he had no idea who I was. Mrs Darcy talked to him for a moment while I kept the brim of my hat tilted over my face, then she said—
"Don't you know Miss Sackville? Allow me to introduce Mr Dudley, dear. Do take her to have some refreshment, like a good man. I am sure she has had nothing to eat!"
I thought of the coffee, and the ices, and the lemonade and the sandwiches, but said nothing, and we sauntered across the lawn together talking in the usual ridiculous grown-up fashion.
"Lovely day, isn't it?"
"Quite charming. So fortunate for Mrs Darcy."
"Beautiful garden, isn't it?"
"Charming! Such lovely roses!"
"Beautiful band, isn't it?"
"Oh, charming! Quite charming!"
Then he seated me at a little table and provided me with an ice, (number four), and stared furtively at me from the opposite side. It was fun. I crinkled my veil up over my nose and tilted my hat over my forehead, and shot a glance at him every now and then, to find his eyes fixed on me—not recognising at all, but evidently so puzzled and mystified to think who I could be. Father had told him only a week before that Vere would not be home for a month—and now who was this third Miss Sackville who had suddenly appeared upon the scene?
"You have returned home rather sooner than you intended, haven't you?" he inquired, and I shook my head and said—
"Oh, no, I kept to the exact date. I always do! What makes you think otherwise?"
"I—er—I thought I heard you were not expected for some time to come. You have been staying with friends?"
"Oh, a number of friends! Quite a huge house party. I feel quite lost without them all."
He would have been rather surprised if I had explained that the party consisted of forty women and no man, but that was not his business, and it was perfectly true that I missed them badly. All the Rachel Greaveses in the world would never make up for Lorna and the rest!
"But you have your sister!" he said. "I have seen a good deal of your sister in her morning walks with Mr Sackville. She is a charming child, and most companionable; I am sure she will be a host in herself!"
"It's very good of you! I can't tell you how pleased I am to hear you say so!" I said suavely; but do what I would, I could not resist a giggle, and he stared at me harder than ever, and looked so confused. I was so afraid that he would find me out and spoil the fun that I determined not to try to keep up the delusion any longer. He was going to cross-question me, I could see it quite plainly, so I lay back in my chair, smoothed out my veil, and smiled at him in my most fascinating manner.
"I'm so pleased that you have formed such a good opinion of me, Mr Dudley! I was really afraid you had forgotten me altogether, for you seemed hardly to recognise me a few minutes ago."
He leant both arms on the table so that his face was quite near to mine. "Who are you?" he asked, and I laughed, and nodded in reply.
"I'm Babs—Una Sackville is my name—England is my nation, Branfield is my dwelling—"
"Don't joke, please. I want to understand. You—are—Babs! Have you been deliberately deceiving me, then? Pray, what has been your object in posing as a child all these weeks!"
That made me furious, and I cried hotly—
"I never posed at all—I never deceived you! Father treats me as a child, and you followed his example as a matter of course, and I was very pleased to be friends in a sensible manner without any nonsense. If I had said, 'Please, I'm nineteen—I've left school, and am coming out—this is a hockey skirt, but I wear tails in the evening,' you would have been proper, and stiff, and have talked about the weather, and we should have had no fun. If anyone is to blame, it is you, for not seeing how really old I was!"
He smiled at that, and went on staring, staring at my face, my hair, my long white gloves, the muslin flounces lying on the ground round my feet.
"So very old!" he said. "Nineteen, is it? And I put you down as— fourteen or fifteen, at the most! And so Babs has disappeared. Exit Babs! I'm sorry. She was a nice child; I enjoyed meeting her very much. I think we should have been real good friends."
"She has not disappeared at all. You will meet her to-morrow morning. There is nothing to prevent us being as good friends as ever," I declared, but he shook his head in a mysterious fashion.
"I think there is! There's a third person on the scene now who will make it difficult—for me, at least—to go back to the same footing. There's Una!" he said, and looked at me with his bright grey eyes, up and down, down and up again, in a grave, quiet sort of way which I had never seen before. It made me feel nice, but rather uncomfortable, and I was glad when he brightened up again, and said gaily—
"I owe a hundred apologies for my lack of ceremony to this fine, this very fine, this super-fine young lady! I'll turn over a new leaf for the future, and treat you with becoming ceremony. I can quite imagine the disgust of the budding debutante at my cavalier ways. Confess now that your dignity was sorely wounded?"
His eyes were twinkling again. They are grey, and his face is so brown that they look lighter than the skin. I never saw anyone's eyes look like that before, but it is awfully nice. I thought there was a splendid opening, so I said—
"No; I was never vexed but once. I like being treated sensibly, but that morning when you left me, and went out of your way with Rachel Greaves—I was sorry then that you did not know that I was grown up."
"You thought if I had I would have walked with you instead? Why?"
I blushed a little, and it seemed to me that he blushed too—his cheeks certainly looked hot. It was a horrid question to answer, and he must have known for himself what I meant. I really and truly don't think many men would go out of their way for Rachel Greaves. I answered by another question—it was the easiest way.
"I didn't know then that you were old friends. I suppose you get to like her better when you know her well?"
"Naturally. That is always the case with the best people."
"And she is—"
"The best woman I have ever met, and the most selfless!" he said solemnly. "Have you spoken to Rachel about me? What has she told you? I should like you to know the truth, though it is not yet general property. You can keep it to yourself for awhile?"
I nodded. I didn't want to speak, for I felt a big, hard lump swelling in my throat, and my heart thumped. I knew quite well what he was going to say, and I hated it beforehand.
"We are engaged to be married. It will probably be an engagement for years, for Rachel feels her present duty is at home, and I am content to wait her pleasure. I don't go up to the house very often, as the old gentleman is an invalid, and dislikes visitors, but we understand one another, and are too sensible to fret because we cannot always be together. Only when an opportunity occurs, as it did the other morning— Why—you understand?"
"Yes, I understand," I said slowly. I was thinking it over, and wondering, if I were ever engaged, if I should like my fiance to be content and sensible, and quite resigned to see me seldom, and to wait for years before we could be married. I think I would rather he were in a hurry!
Oh, I wish I were selfless, too! I wish I could be glad for them without thinking of myself; but I do feel so lonely and out in the cold. I'm thankful that Vere is coming home next week, and the house will be filled with visitors. Engaged people are no use—they are always thinking about each other!
July 20th. Rachel was surprised when I told her that I knew her secret, and I don't think she was pleased.
"Will told you! Will told you himself!" she repeated, and stared at me in a puzzled, curious fashion, as if she wondered why on earth he should have chosen to make a confidante of me. "It is hardly a regular engagement, for father will not hear of my leaving home, and the waiting may be so long that I have told Will it is not fair to bind him. He says he is content to wait, but we agreed to speak about it as little as possible for some time to come."
"Oh, well, I'll keep the secret. You need not be afraid that I shall gossip about you," I told her. She wears no ring on her engagement finger, but always, always—morning, noon and night—there is a little diamond anchor pinned in the front of her dress. I suppose he has given her that instead, as a symbol of hope—hope that in ten or a dozen years, when she is an old thing over thirty, they may possibly be married! Well, I can imagine Rachel waiting twenty years, if it comes to that, and keeping quite happy and serene meantime; but Will Dudley is different—so quick and energetic and keen. I could not have imagined him so patient.
Yesterday Vere came home, bringing her friends with her, and already Rachel and her love affair seems far away, and we live in such a bustle and confusion that there is no time to think. I'm rather glad, for I was getting quite dull and mopey. They arrived about five in the afternoon, and came trooping into the hall, where tea was waiting. Two girls and three men, and Vere herself, prettier than ever, but with just the old, aggravating, condescending way.
"Hallo, Babs! Is that you transformed into a young lady in long dresses, and your hair done up? You dear, fat thing, how ridiculous you look!" she cried, holding me out at arm's length, and laughing as if it were the funniest joke in the world, while those three strange men stood by staring, and I grew magenta with embarrassment.
One of the men was tall and handsome, with a long, narrow face, and small, narrow eyes; he laughed with her, and I hated him for it, and for having so little sympathy with a poor girl's feelings. Another was small, with a strong, square-set figure, and he looked sorry for me; and the third looked on the floor, and frowned as if something had hurt his feelings. He was the oldest and gravest-looking of the three, and I knew before he had been ten minutes in the room that he adored Vere with his heart, and disapproved of her with his conscience, and was miserable every time she did or said a thoughtless thing.
"I told you I had a smaller sister at home—here she is! Rather bigger than I expected, but not much changed in other respects. Don't be shy, Babs! Shake hands nicely, and be friends!" Vere cried laughingly, taking me by the shoulders and pushing me gently towards where the men stood; but, just as I was fuming with rage at being treated as if I were two, father came suddenly from behind, and said in his most grand seigneur manner—
"Allow me, Vere! If an introduction is made at all, it is best to make it properly. Captain Grantly, Mr Nash, Mr Carstairs, I have the honour of introducing you to my second daughter, Miss Una Sackville."
The change of expression on the men's faces was comical to behold. Captain Grantly, the narrow-faced one, bowed as if I had been the Queen, and the nice little man smiled at me as if he were pleased—he was Mr Nash, and poor Mr Carstairs flushed as if he had been snubbed himself; I was quite sorry for him.
The girls were very lively and bright, spoke in loud voices, and behaved as if they had lived in the house all their lives, which is supposed to be good manners nowadays. Margot Sanders is tall and fair, and wears eye-glasses, and Mary Eversley, who is "Lady Mary," would have been considered very unladylike indeed at our polite seminary.
It seems to be fashionable nowadays for a girl to behave as much like a man as possible, and to smoke and shout, and stand with her arms behind her back, and lounge about anyhow on her chair. Well, I won't! I don't care if it's fashionable or not! I'd rather have been a boy if I'd had the choice, but as I am a girl I'll make the best of it, and be as nice a specimen as I can. Lorna says a girl ought to be like a flower— sweet, modest and fragrant; she's a bit sentimental when you get her alone, but I agree with the idea, though I should not have expressed it in the same way. If I were a man I should hate to marry a girl who smelt of tobacco and shrieked like a steam whistle. I'd like a dear, dainty thing with a soft voice and pretty, womanly ways. I hereby vow and declare that I will stick to my colours, and set an example to those old things who ought to know better. Lady Mary must be twenty-five if she is a day. I don't expect she will ever be married now. With the clear-sighted gaze of youth, I can see that she is hiding a broken heart beneath the mask of mirth. Life is frightfully exciting when you have the gift of penetrating below the surface.
Will Dudley came to dinner; he was the only stranger, as he made the number even. I wore my new white chiffon, and thought I looked very fine till I went downstairs and saw the others. They were smart, and Vere looked lovely, and did the honours so charmingly that even mother seemed to make way for her. Poor mother! she looked so happy; she dotes on Vere, and is so proud of her; it does seem hard she doesn't have more of her society! I felt sad somehow, and sort of lonely as I watched them together—Vere fussing round and saying pretty, flattering little speeches, and mother smiling at her so tenderly. I feel nice things, too, but I can't say them to order; my lips seem all tight and horrid, as if they wouldn't move. I felt like the elder brother in the parable, because I really have denied myself, and been bored fearfully sometimes these last weeks doing fancy-work with mother, and driving about shut up in a horrid, close carriage, while Vere has been gadding about and enjoying herself; and then the moment she comes home I am nowhere beside her! Injustices like this sear the heart, and make one old before one's time.
I suppose I looked sad, for Will Dudley crossed over the room to talk to me.
"Aren't you well?" he asked, and his eyes looked so anxious and worried that it quite comforted me.
"I have rather a headache," I began, without thinking of what I was saying, and then, (somehow I never can help telling him exactly how I feel), I stopped, and contradicted myself flat. "I'm perfectly well, but I think I'm jealous. I have been the only child for so long, and now my poor little nose is out of joint, and I don't like it a bit. It aches."
I thought he would sympathise and protest that I could never be superseded, in his opinion at least, but he just sighed, and said slowly—
"Yes, she is very lovely! It must be a great responsibility to have a face as beautiful as hers, with all the influence over others that is its accompaniment!" and looked straight across the room to where Vere stood beneath the shaded lamp.
She was not looking in our direction; but, as if she felt his gaze without seeing it, she turned her head slowly round and raised her eyes to his, and so they stood while you could have counted ten, staring, staring, straight into each other's eyes, and I saw the colour fade gradually out of Vere's face, as though she were frightened by what she saw. That is the way people fall in love! I've read about it in books. They sort of recognise each other when they meet, even if they are perfect strangers, and Lorna says it is the soul recognising its mate. But I know well enough that Vere would never satisfy Will Dudley, and, besides, there is Rachel—poor patient Rachel, who trusts him so faithfully. I looked up quickly to see if he had turned pale also. He was rather white, but there was a curious little smile about the corners of his lips which quietened my fears. I should not have liked that smile if I had been Vere. There was something contemptuous in it despite its admiration, and a sort of defiance, too, as if he were quite, quite sure of himself and secure from all temptation; but then they do begin like that sometimes, and the siren weaves on them her spells, and they succumb. I wonder how it will end with Vere and Will Dudley!
It is rather jolly having a house full of people; and father and mother and Vere are so clever at entertaining. There is never any fuss nor effort, and people are allowed to go their own way, but there is always something to do if they choose to do it. I must say that, for grown-up people, these visitors are very frivolous, and play about together as if they were children. Mr Nash began showing me tricks with pennies after breakfast the first morning, and I was so interested learning how to do them that it was half-past ten before I thought of joining father at the stables. It was too late then, and I wasn't altogether sorry, for it was livelier going about with these new people, and it wasn't my fault, for I should have gone if I'd remembered. I was extra nice to father at lunch to make up, and he didn't seem a bit vexed, so I needn't trouble another day. Really, I think it is my duty to help Vere all I can. She questioned me about Will Dudley the first time we were alone. I knew she would, and decided to tell her of his engagement. I had been told not to speak of it generally; but to my own sister it was different, and I had a feeling that she ought to know.
"Who is that Mr Dudley?" she asked, and when I told her all I knew, she smiled and dropped her eyes in the slow, self-confident fashion which other people think so fascinating but which always make me long to shake her.
"Really, quite an acquisition!" she drawled. "A vast improvement on the native one generally meets in these wilds. We must cultivate him, Babs! He makes our number even, so we can afford to spoil him a little bit, as it is a convenience to ourselves at the same time. It will be a godsend for him to meet some decent people."
"As a matter of fact, he came to live in the country because he was sick of society and society people. He is not a country bumpkin, Vere, and won't be a bit grateful for your patronage. In fact, I don't believe he will come oftener than once or twice. When a man is engaged it's a bore to him to have to—"
"Engaged!" she cried. "Mr Dudley! Who told you he was engaged? I don't believe a word of it. Some stupid local gossip! Who told you that nonsense?"
"He told me himself!"
"He did? My dear Babs, he was having a joke! No man would confide such a thing to a child like you!"
"You are mistaken there. He has told me heaps of things besides this, and I know the girl, and have spoken to her about it. You know her, too. Rachel Greaves, who lives at 'The Clift'."
"Rach-el Greaves! Oh! oh!" cried Vere, and put her hands to her sides in peals of derisive laughter. "Oh, this is too killing! And you believed it? You dear, sweet innocent! That man and—Rachel Greaves! My dear, have you seen her hair? Have you seen her hat? Could you really imagine for one moment that any man could be engaged to a creature like that?"
"I don't imagine—I know! They have been engaged for years. It will be years more before they are married, for old Mr Greaves won't give his consent. And Rachel won't leave home without it; but Mr Dudley is quite willing to wait. He says she is the best woman in the world."
"Oh, I daresay! She is frumpy enough for anything; and you call that an engagement? My dear, he will no more marry her than he'll marry the moon. It's just a stupid platonic friendship, and as he has not known anything else he thinks it is love. Imagine being in love with that solemn creature! Imagine making pretty speeches and listening to her correct copy-book replies! Wait! I should think she may wait! She'll have a surprise one of these days when he meets the right girl, and bids Rachel Greaves a fond farewell!"
"He'll do nothing of the sort," I said hotly. "I do hate you, Vere, when you sneer like that, and make out that everyone is worldly and horrible, like yourself! Will Dudley is a good man, and he wants a good woman for his wife—not a doll. He'd rather have Rachel's little finger than a dozen empty-headed fashion-plates like the girls you admire. But you don't understand. Your friends are all so different that you cannot understand an honest man when you meet him."
"Can't I? What a pity! Don't get into a rage, dear, it's so unnecessary. I'm sorry I'm so obtuse; but at least I can learn. I'll make it my business to understand Mr Dudley thoroughly during the autumn. It will be quite an occupation," replied Vere, with her head in the air and her eyes glittering at me in a nasty, horrid, cold, calculating "You-wait-and-see" kind of way which made me ill! It was just like Tennyson's Lady Clara Vere de Vere, who "sought to break a country heart for pastime ere she went to town," for Vere would never be content to marry Will Dudley, even if she succeeded in winning him from Rachel. Poor Rachel! I felt so sorry for her; she has so little, and she's so sweet and content, and so innocent that a serpent has entered into her Eden. It sounds rather horrid to call your own sister a serpent, but circumstances alter cases, and it really is appropriate. I think Vere expected me to fly into another rage, but I didn't feel angry at all, only sorry and ashamed, and anxious to know what I could do to baulk her dark designs.
"I'm thankful I'm not a beauty!" I said at last, and she stared for a moment, and then laughed and said—
"Because of the terrible temptations which you escape? Dear little innocent! Don't be too modest, however; you really have improved marvellously these past few months. If you could hear what the men said about you last night—"
"I don't want to hear, thank you," I returned icily; and that was one temptation overcome, anyhow, for I just died to know every single remark! It's awful to care so much about what people think about you, as I do. After she went away I sat down and reviewed the situation, as they say in books, and mapped out a plan of action. I wanted to feel that I was doing some good to someone, so I decided then and there to be a guardian angel to Will and Rachel. It's wonderful what you can do, even if you are only nineteen and a girl, if you set your mind to it, and determine to succeed. They have both been kind to me, and I am their friend, and mean to help them. I'd rather be flayed alive than say so to a living soul, but I can now confess to these pages that I was jealous of Rachel myself when I first heard of the engagement, and I wondered, if Will had never seen her, if perhaps he—oh, a lot of silly, idiotic things; for he is so different from the other men you meet that you simply can't help liking him. So now it will be a discipline for me to have to forget myself, and try to keep them together. Perhaps when they are married they will know all, and bless my memory, and call one of their children after me, and I shall be content to witness their happiness from afar. I've read of things like that, but I always thought I'd be the married one, not the other. You do when you are young, but it's awful what sorrows there are in the world. I am not twenty yet, and already my life is blighted, and my fondest hopes laid in the dust...
Such ripping fun! We are all going for a moonlight party up the river, with hampers full of good things to eat at supper on the bank above the lock. We are taking rugs to spread on the grass, and Japanese lanterns to make it look festive, and not a single servant, so that we shall do everything ourselves. We girls are all delighted, but I think the men— Captain Grantly especially—think it's rather mad to go to so much trouble when you might have your dinner comfortably at home. Male creatures are like that, so practical and commonplace, not a bit enthusiastic and sensible like school-girls. We used to keep awake until one o'clock in the morning, and sit shivering in dressing-gowns, eating custard, tarts and sardines, and thought it was splendid fun. I think a picnic where servants make the fire and pack away the dishes is too contemptible for words.
Vere wanted Will Dudley to come with us, so I went round to the "The Clift" that very afternoon and invited Rachel to come too. I am as much at liberty to invite my friends as she is to ask hers, and this was meant to be a checkmate to her plans; but Rachel was too stupid for words, and wouldn't be induced to accept.
"I always play a game with father in the evening," she said. "He would miss it if I went out."
"But he can't expect you never to go out! He would appreciate you all the more if you did leave him alone sometimes," I said, talking to myself as much as to her, for it was four days since I had been a walk with my father, and my horrid old conscience was beginning to prick. "Do come, Rachel. I want you particularly," but she went on refusing, so then I thought I would try what jealousy would do. "We shall be such a merry party; Vere is prettier and livelier than ever, and her friends are very amusing. Lady Mary is very handsome, and she sings and plays on the mandoline. She is going to take it with her to-night. It will be so pretty, the sound of singing on the water, and she will look so picturesque under the Japanese lamps."
She looked wistful and longing, but not a bit perturbed.
"I wish I could come! It sounds charming. I've hardly ever been on the river, never in the evening; but I should be worrying about father all the time. He is old, you see, Una, and he has such bad pain, and his days seem so long. It must be so sad to be ill and know that you will never get any better, and to have nothing to look forward to." Her face lit up suddenly, and I knew she was thinking of the time, years ahead, when what she was looking forward to would come true. "I really could not neglect father for my own amusement."
"But you have someone else to think of!" I reminded her cunningly. "I told you who was coming. You ought to think of his pleasure."
"Oh, he will enjoy it in any case! He loves being on the water; I am so glad you asked him!" she cried, quite flushed with delight, if you please, at the thought that Will was coming without her. I did feel a worm! Never, no, never could I be like that. If I were engaged to a man and couldn't go anywhere, I should like him to stay at home too, and think of me, and not dare to enjoy himself with other girls; but Rachel is not like that. Sometimes I wish she were just a wee, tiny bit less sensible and composed. I could love her better if she were.
We all went down to the boat-house at eight o'clock, we girls with long coats over our light dresses, because it's silly to catch cold, and so unbecoming, and on the way I told Will about Rachel. He came at once and walked beside me, and gave me such a nice look as he thanked me for thinking of it.
"That was kind of you! She would be pleased to be remembered, but this sort of thing is out of her line. She will be happier at home!"
Poor Rachel! That's the worst of being chronically unselfish; in the end people cease to give you any credit for it, and virtue has to be its own reward, for you don't get any other. I did think it was hard that even Will should misjudge her so, and be so complacent about it into the bargain, but it was hardly my place to defend her to him, of all people in the world.
"You will come into my boat, of course," he said in his masterful way when we drew near the ferry; but I had seen Vere divide parties before now, and I knew very well I should not be allowed to go where I chose. It was as good as a play to see how she did it, seeming to ponder and consider, and change her mind half a dozen times, and to be so spontaneous and natural, when all the time her plans had been made from the very beginning. Finally, she and Will took possession of the first boat, with Lady Mary and Captain Grantly, who were always together, and were too much taken up with their own society to have eyes for anyone else. Miss Talbot, Mr Nash, Mr Carstairs and I went into the second boat—Miss Talbot furious because she felt it a slight to be put with a child like me—Mr Carstairs depressed as he generally was, poor man!—I with a heavy weight inside me, feeling all of a sudden as if I hated parties and everything about them, and dear little Mr Nash, happy and complacent, cracking jokes to which no one deigned to listen. Isn't it funny to think how miserable you can be when you are supposed to be enjoying yourself? I dare say if you only knew it, lots of people have aching hearts when you envy them for being so happy. The people on the banks looked longingly at us, but three out of the four in our boat were as cross and dissatisfied as they could be; and it made it worse to hear them enjoying themselves in the other boat; Vere's trills of laughter, and Lady Mary's gentlemanly "Ha, ha!" ringing out in response to the murmur of the men's voices. When you are on land with the wrong people there is always the chance of a change, but you do feel so "fixed" in a boat! I simply longed to reach the lock, and felt as cross as two sticks, until suddenly I met Mr Carstairs' eyes, looking, oh, so sad and hopeless, and I felt so sorry that I simply had to rouse up to cheer him. He must know perfectly well that Vere doesn't care for him, but he seems as if he could not help caring for her, and staying on and on, though he is miserable all the time, I like him! He has a good look in his face, and talks sensibly about interesting things, instead of everlastingly chaffing or paying compliments, which seems to be the fashion nowadays. I think I shall favour his suit, and try to help him.
I talked, and he looked first bored, and then amused, and in the end quite interested and happy, so that we drew up by the bank to join the others in quite a cheerful mood, much to my relief. It is humiliating to look left out in the cold, however much you may feel it.
Vere was flushed, and unlike herself somehow. She fussed over the laying out of the supper, and it wasn't like Vere to fuss, and whenever she wanted anything done she always turned first of all to Will Dudley, and half the time he was looking the other way and never noticed what she ask, when poor Mr Carstairs did it at once and got snubbed for his pains.
I was the youngest, and had to do all the uninteresting things, such as unpacking the spoons and forks, and taking the paper wrappings off the tumblers, while the others laid out the provisions and quarrelled over the best arrangement. But it was fun when we all sat down and began to eat. The Japanese lanterns were tied to the trees overhead, and made everything look bright and cheery, for the moon had hidden itself behind the clouds, and it had been just a wee bit cheerless the last half-hour. We heated the soup over a little spirit-lamp, and had lobster salad on dainty little paper plates, and cold chicken and cutlets, and all sorts of delicious sweets and fruit, and we all ate a lot, and groaned and said how ill we should be in the morning, and then ate some more and didn't care a bit. It was almost as good as a feast in the dormitory. Then we told funny stories, and asked riddles, and Lady Mary sang coon songs to her mandoline, and I was enjoying myself simply awfully when someone said—it was Mr Nash, and I shall never forgive him for it—
"Now it's your turn, Miss Una! Your father is always talking of your singing, yet we never seem to hear you. Too bad, you know! You can't refuse to-night, when we are all doing our best to amuse each other. Now, then, what is it to be?"
I was horrified! I love singing, but it seemed so formidable with no accompaniment, and no piano behind which to hide my blushes, but the more I protested, the more they implored, until Vere said quite sharply—
"For goodness' sake, child, do your best, and don't make a fuss! Nobody expects you to be a professional!"
"Start ahead, and I'll vamp an accompaniment. It will be better than nothing," said Lady Mary kindly, and Will whispered low in my ear: "Don't be nervous. Do your best. Astonish them, Babs!" And I did. That whisper inspired me somehow, and I sang "The Vale of Avoca," father's favourite ballad, pronouncing the words distinctly, as the singing mistress always made us do at school. I love the words, and the air is so sweet, and just suits my voice. I always feel quite worked up and choky when I come to the last verse, but I try not to show it, for it looks so silly to cry at yourself.
There was quite a burst of applause when I finished. The men clapped and called out "Bravo! Bravo!" Lady Mary said, "You little wretch! You do take the wind out of my sails. Fancy having to be bothered to sing with a voice like that! Gracious! I should never leave off!" and Vere laughed, and said in her sweetest tones, "But, for pity's sake, don't turn sentimental, Babs! It's so absurdly out of keeping! Stick to something lively and stirring—something from the comic operas! That would be far more in your line, don't you think so, Mr Dudley?"
Will was leaning back on his elbow, resting his head on his hand.
"It's a question of taste," he said lazily. "Some people are fond of comic operas. Personally, I detest them; but I don't profess to be a judge. I only know what I like."
"A sentimental ballad, for example?"
"Occasionally. Not always, by any means." He seemed determined not to give a straight-forward answer, and Vere turned aside with a shrug and began to talk to Mr Carstairs. She always takes refuge with him when other people fail her. I felt all hot and churned up with the excitement of singing, and then with rage at being snubbed in that public fashion. It spoiled all the pleasure and made me wonder if I had really made an exhibition of myself, and they were only pretending to be pleased.
The others were chattering like magpies; only Will Dudley and I were silent. I felt his eyes watching me, but I wouldn't look at him for quite a long time, till at last I simply had to turn round, when he smiled, such a kind nice smile, and said—
"Well, better now? Got the better of the little temper?"
"I don't know; partly, I suppose, but I do hate to be snubbed. I didn't want to sing. I did it to be polite; and it's horrid to think I made an idiot of myself."
Silence. It was no use. I had to ask him—
"Did I make an idiot of myself?"
"You know you didn't."
"Did you—did you think it was nice?"
That was all. Not another word could I get out of him, but I felt better, for it sounded as if he really meant it, and I cared for his opinion most of all.
August 15th. It is three weeks since the moonlight picnic, and so many things have happened since then, such awful, terrible things, that I don't know how to begin to tell them. I didn't think when I began this diary how thrilling it was going to be before I'd got half way through; but you never know what is going to happen in this world. It's awful how suddenly things come. I don't think I can ever again feel confident and easy-going, as I used to do. You read in books sometimes, "She was no longer a girl, she was a woman," and it is like that with me. Everything seems different and more solemn, and I don't think I can ever frivol again in quite the same whole-hearted way.
To begin at the beginning: we had a very lively time for the next week, and I grew quite fond of Vere's friends, even Lady Mary, whom I hated at first, and they all made a fuss of me, and made me sing every night till I felt quite proud. I invited Rachel over and over again, but she would never accept our invitations; but Will came often, either to dinner or lunch, or for an odd call, and Vere neglected everyone for him, and was so fascinating that I was in terror all the time. He admired her, of course; he would have been blind if he hadn't, but I could not decide if he liked her or not. Sometimes I saw him smiling to himself in the queer, half-scornful way he had done when they first met, and then I was sure he did not; but at other times he would watch her about the room, following every movement as if he couldn't help himself, and that's a bad sign. Lorna has a sister who is married, and she knew the man was going to propose, because he looked like that. Somehow I never had a chance of a quiet talk, when I could have given him a hint, and it was thinking about that and wondering how I could see him alone which made me suddenly remember that it was a whole week and more since I had been a walk with father. I went hot all over at the thought. It was ghastly to remember how I had planned and promised to be his companion, and to care for him first of all, and then to realise how I had forsaken him at the very first temptation! He was so sweet about it, too, never complaining or seeming a bit vexed. Parents are really angels. It must be awful to have a child, and take such trouble with it all its life, and then to be neglected for strangers. I hadn't the heart to write in my diary that night. I was too ashamed. I was worse than Vere, for I had posed as being so good and dutiful. I won't make any more vows, but I confess here with that I am a selfish pig, and I am ashamed of myself.
The next morning I could hardly wait until breakfast was over, I was so anxious to be off. I got my cap and ran down to the stable and slipped my arm in father's as he stood talking to Vixen. He gave a little start of surprise—it hurt me, that start!—looked down at me and said, smiling—
"Well, dear, what is it?"
"Nothing. I'm coming with you!" I said, and he squeezed my hand against his side.
"Thank you, dear, but I'm going a long round. I won't be back until lunch. Better not leave your friends for so long."
"Vere is with them, father. I want to come."
"What's the matter? Not had a quarrel, have you? Has Vere been—"
"No, no, she hasn't! Nothing is the matter, except that I want you, and nobody else. Oh, father, don't be so horribly kind! Scold me—call me a selfish wretch! I know I have neglected you, dear. There was always something to do, and I—forgot, but really and truly I remembered all the time. It isn't nonsense, father, it's true. Can you understand?"
"I've been nineteen myself, Babs; I understand. Don't worry, darling. I missed you, but I was glad that you were happy, and I knew your heart was in the right place. We won't say anything more about it, but have a jolly walk and enjoy ourselves."
Oh, it is good to have someone who understands! If he had scolded or been reproachful I should have felt inclined to make excuses, but when he was so sweet and good I just loved him with all my heart, and prayed to be a better daughter to him all my life.
We had lovely walks after that, and on the third morning we met Will Dudley, and once again he and I sat on a log waiting for father while he interviewed a tenant. My heart quite thumped with agitation as I thought that now was the time to lead the conversation skilfully round to Vere, and insinuate delicately that she had a mania for making people fall in love with her, and that it didn't always mean as much as it seemed when she was sweet and gushing. It wasn't exactly an easy thing to do, but you can't be a guardian angel without a little trouble.
"So you have torn yourself away from your friends this morning," he said at last. "How is it that you were allowed to escape? What is the special campaign for killing time to-day, if one may ask?"
"You may ask, but it's rude to be sarcastic. You are often lazy yourself, though in a different fashion. You love to lie on your back on the grass and do nothing but browse and stare up at the sky. You have told me so many times."
"Ah, but what of my thoughts? Under a semblance of ease I am in reality working out the most abstruse problems. I did not mean to be sarcastic; I inquired in all seriousness how your valuable company could be spared."
"For the best of all reasons—because nobody wanted it! Captain Grantly wants Lady Mary, Lady Mary wants Captain Grantly. Miss Talbot wants someone she can't get, but it doesn't happen to be me; the rest all want Vere, and have no thought for anyone else. Men always do want to be with Vere. Wherever she goes they fall in love with her and follow her about. She is so lovely, and she—she likes to be liked. Everyone says she is so charming and irresistible—they have told her so since she was a child—and she likes to prove that it was true. If—if anyone seems to like anyone else better it—sort of—worries her, and makes her feel neglected."