Margaret L. Woods
New York and London
Harper & Brothers Publishers
Copyright, 1907, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
Published May, 1907.
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AND THE DUMB COMPANIONS OF TAN-YR-ALLT THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED BY THEIR GRATEFUL AND AFFECTIONATE FRIEND
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Dinner was over and the ladies had just risen, when the Professor had begged to introduce them to the new-comer on his walls. The Invader, it might almost have been called, this full-length, life-size portrait, which, in the illumination of a lamp turned full upon it, seemed to take possession of the small room, to dominate at the end of the polished-oak table, where the light of shaded candles fell on old blue plates, old Venetian glass, a bit of old Italian brocade, and chrysanthemums in a china bowl coveted by collectors. Every detail spoke of the connoisseurship, the refined and personal taste characteristic of Oxford in the eighties. The authority on art put up his eye-glasses and fingered his tiny forked beard uneasily.
"There's no doubt it's a good thing, Fletcher," he said, presently—"really quite good. But it's too like Romney to be Raeburn, and too like Raeburn to be Romney. You ought to be able to find out the painter, if, as you say, it's a portrait of your own great-grandmother—"
"He did say so!" broke in Sanderson, exultantly. "He said it was an ancestress. Fletcher, you're a vulgar fraud. You've got no ancestress. You bought her. There's a sale-ticket still on the frame under the projection at the right-hand lower corner. I saw it."
Sanderson was a small man and walked about perpetually, except when taking food: sometimes then. He was a licensed insulter of his friends, and now stood before the picture in a belligerent attitude. The Professor stroked his amber beard and smiled down on Sanderson.
"True, O Sanderson; and at the same time untrue. I did buy the picture, and the lady was my great-grandmother once, but she did not like the position and soon gave it up. This picture must have been done after she had given it up."
"Is this a conundrum or blather, invented to hide your ignominy in a cloud of words?" asked Sanderson.
"It's a hors d'oeuvre before the story," interposed Ian Stewart, throwing back his tall dark head and looking up at the picture through his eye-glasses, his handsome face alive with interest. "'Tak' awa' the kickshaws,' Fletcher, 'and bring us the cauf.'"
The Professor gathered his full beard in one hand and smiled deprecatingly.
"I don't know how the ladies will like my ex-great-grandmother's story. It was a bit of a scandal at the time."
"Never mind, Mr. Fletcher," cried a young married woman, with a face like a seraph, "we're all educated now, and scandal about a lady with her waist under her arms becomes simply classical."
"Not so bad as that, Mrs. Shaw, I assure you," returned the Professor; "but I dare say you all know as much as I do about my great-grandmother, for she was the well-known Lady Hammerton."
There were sounds of interest and surprise, for most of the party knew her name, and were curious to learn how she came to be Professor Fletcher's great-grandmother. Mr. Fletcher explained:
"My great-grandfather was a distinguished professor in Edinburgh a hundred years ago. When he was a widower of forty with a family, he was silly enough to fall in love with a little miss of sixteen. He taught her Latin and Greek—which was all very well—and married her, which was distinctly unwise. She had one son—my grandfather—and then ran away with an actor from London. After that she made a certain sensation on the stage, but I suspect she was clever enough to see that her real successes were personal ones; at all events, she made a good marriage as soon as ever she got the chance. The Hammerton family naturally objected. You'll find all about it in those papers which have come out lately. I believe, ladies, they were almost as much scandalized by her learning as by her morals."
"She told Sydney Smith years after, I think," observed Stewart, "that she had to be a wit lest people should find out she was a blue. There's a good deal about her in the Englefield Memoirs. She travelled extraordinarily for a woman in those days, and most of the real treasures at Hammerton House come from her collections."
"I thought they were nearly all burned in a great fire, and she was burned trying to save them," said Mrs. Shaw.
"A good many were saved," returned Fletcher; "she had rushed back to fetch a favorite bronze, was seen hurling it out of the window—and was never seen again."
"She must have been a very remarkable woman," commented Stewart, meditatively, his eyes still fixed on the picture.
"Know nothing about her myself," remarked Sanderson; "Stewart knows something about everybody. It's sickening the way he spends his time reading gossip and calling it history."
"Gossip's like many common things, interesting when fossilized," squeaked a little, white-haired, pink-faced old gentleman, like an elderly cherub in dress-clothes. He had remained at the other end of the room because he did not care for pictures. Now he toddled a little nearer and every one made way for him with a peculiar respect, for he was the Master of Durham, whose name was great in Oxford and also in the world outside it. He looked up first at the pictured face and then at Milly Flaxman, a young cousin of Fletcher's and a scholar of Ascham Hall, who had taken her First in Mods, and was hoping to get one in Greats. The Master liked young girls, but they had to be clever as well as pleasing in appearance to attract his attention.
"It's very like Miss Flaxman," he squeaked.
Every one turned their eyes from the picture to Milly, whose pale cheeks blushed a bright pink. The blush emphasized her resemblance to her ancestress, whose brilliant complexion, however, hinted at rouge. Milly's soft hair was amber-colored, like that of the lady in the picture, but it was strained back from her face and twisted in a minute knot on the nape of her neck. That was the way in which her aunt Lady Thomson, whose example she desired to follow in all things, did her hair. The long, clearly drawn eyebrows, dark in comparison with the amber hair, the turquoise blue eyes, the mouth of the pictured lady were curiously reproduced in Milly Flaxman. Possibly her figure may have been designed by nature to be as slight and supple, yet rounded, as that of the white-robed, gray-scarfed lady above there. But something or some one had intervened, and Milly looked stiff and shapeless in a green velveteen frock, scooped out vaguely around her white young throat and gathered in clumsy folds under a liberty silk sash.
Mrs. Shaw cried out enraptured at the interesting resemblance which had escaped them all, to be instantly caught by the elderly cherub in the background, who did not care about art, while the Professor explained that both Milly's parents were, like himself, great-grandchildren of Lady Hammerton. The seraph now fell upon Milly, too shy to resist, had out her hair-pins in a trice and fingered the fluffy hair till it made an aureole around her face. Then by some conjuring trick producing a gauzy white scarf, Mrs. Shaw twisted it about the girl's head, in imitation of the lady on the wall, who had just such a scarf, but with a tiny embroidered border of scarlet, twisted turban-wise and floating behind.
"There!" she cried, pushing the feebly protesting Milly into the full light of the lamp the Professor was holding, "allow me to present to you the new Lady Hammerton!"
There was a moment of wondering silence. Milly's pulses beat, for she felt Ian Stewart's eyes upon her. Neither he nor any one else there had ever quite realized before what capacities for beauty lay hid in the subdued young face of Milly Flaxman. She had nothing indeed of the charm, at once subtle and challenging, of the lady above there. She, with one hand on the gold head of a tall cane, looking back, seemed to dare unseen adorers to follow her into a magic, perhaps a fatal fairyland of mountain and waterfall and cloud; a land whose dim mists and silver gleams seemed to echo the gray and the white of her floating garments, its autumn leaves to catch a faint reflection from her hair, while far off its sky showed a thin line of sunset, red like the border of her veil. Milly's soft cheeks and lips were flushed, her eyes bright with a mixture of very innocent emotions, as she stood with every one's eyes, including Ian Stewart's, upon her.
But in a minute the Master took up Mrs. Shaw's remark.
"No," he said, emphatically; "not a new Lady Hammerton; only a rather new Miss Flaxman; and that, I assure you, is something very preferable."
"I'm quite sure the Master knows something dreadful about your great-grandmother, Mr. Fletcher," laughed Mrs. Shaw.
"I think we'd better go before he tells it," interposed Mrs. Fletcher, who saw that Milly was feeling shy.
When the ladies had left, the men reseated themselves at the table and there was a pause. Everyone waited for the Master, who seemed meditating speech.
"My mother," he said—and somehow they all felt startled to learn the fact that the Master had had a mother—"my mother knew Lady Hammerton in the twenties. She was often at Bath."
The thin, staccato voice broke off abruptly, and three out of the five other men present being the Master's pupils, remained silent, knowing he had not finished. But Mr. Toovey, a young don overflowing with mild intelligence, exclaimed, deferentially:
"Really, Master! Really! How extremely interesting! Now do please tell us a great deal about Lady Hammerton."
The Master took no notice whatever of Toovey. He sat about a minute longer in his familiar posture, looking before him, his little round hands on his little round knees. Then he said:
"She was a raddled woman."
And his pupils knew he had finished speaking. What he had said was disappointingly little, but uttered in that strange high voice of his, it contained an infinite deal more than appeared on the face of it. A whole discreditable past seemed to emerge from that one word "raddled." Ian Stewart, to whose imagination the woman in the picture made a strange appeal, now broke a lance with the Master on her account.
"She may have been raddled, Master," he said, "but she must have been very remarkable and charming too. Hammerton himself was no fool, yet he adored her to the last."
The Master seemed to hope some one else would speak; but finding that no one did, he uttered again:
"Men often adore bad wives. That does not make them good ones."
Stewart tossed a rebel lock of raven black hair back from his forehead.
"Pardon me, Master, it does make them good wives for those men."
"Oh, surely not good for their higher natures!" protested Toovey, fervently.
The Master took three deliberate sips of port wine.
"I think, Stewart, we are discussing matters we know very little about," he said, in a particularly high, dry voice; and every one felt that the discussion was closed. Then he turned to Sanderson and made some remark about a house which Sanderson's College, of which he was junior bursar, was selling to Durham.
Fletcher, the only married man present, mourned inwardly over his own masculine stupidity. He felt sure that if his wife had been there she would have gently led Stewart's mind through these paradoxical matrimonial fancies, to dwell on another picture; a picture of marriage with a nice girl almost as pretty as Lady Hammerton, a good girl who shared his tastes, and, above all, who adored him. David Fletcher felt himself pitiably unequal to the task, although he was as anxious as his wife was that Stewart should marry Milly. Did not all their friends wish it? It seemed to them that there could not be a more suitable couple. If Milly was working so terribly hard to get her First in Greats, it was largely because Mr. Stewart was one of her tutors and she knew he thought a good deal of success in the Schools.
There could be no doubt about Milly Flaxman's goodness; in fact, some of the girls at Ascham complained that it "slopped over." Her clothes were made on hygienic principles which she treated as a branch of morals, and she often refused to offer the small change of polite society because it weighed somewhat light in the scales of truth. But these were foibles that the young people's friends were sure Ian Stewart would never notice. As to him, although only four and thirty, he was already a distinguished man. A scholar, a philosopher, and an archaeologist, he had also imagination and a sense of style. He had written a brilliant book on Greek life at a particular period, which had brought him a reputation among the learned and also found readers in the educated public. His disposition was sweet, his character unusually high, judged even by the standard of the academic world, which has a higher standard than most. Obviously he would make an excellent husband; and equally obviously, as he had no near relations and his health was delicate, it would be a capital thing for him to have a home of his own and a devoted wife to look after him. Their income would be small, but not smaller than that of most young couples in Oxford, who contrived, nevertheless, to live refined and pleasant lives and to be well-considered in a society where money positively did not count.
But if Fletcher did not succeed in forwarding this matrimonial scheme in the dining-room, his wife succeeded no better when the gentlemen came into the drawing-room. She rose from a sofa in the corner, leaving Milly seated there; but Mr. Toovey made his way straight to Miss Flaxman, without a glance to right or left, and bending over her before he seated himself at her side, fixed upon her a patronizing, a possessive smile which would have made some girls long for a barbarous freedom in the matter of face-slapping. But Milly Flaxman was meek. She took Archibald Toovey's seriousness for depth, and as his attentions had become unmistakable, had several times lain awake at night tormenting herself as to whether her behavior towards him was or was not right. Accordingly she submitted to being monopolized by Mr. Toovey, while Ian Stewart turned away and made himself pleasant to an unattractive lady-visitor of the Fletchers', who looked shy and left-alone. When Mrs. Fletcher tried to effect a change of partners, Ian explained that he found himself unexpectedly obliged to attend a College meeting at ten o'clock. In a place where there are no offices to close and business engagements are liable to crop up at any time in the evening, there was no need for extravagance of apology for this early departure.
He changed his shoes in the narrow hall and put on his seedy-looking dark overcoat, quite unconscious that Mrs. Fletcher had had the collar mended since he had taken it off. Then he went out into the damp November night, unlit by moon or star. But to Stewart the darkness of night, on whatever corner of earth he might chance to find it descended, remained always a romantic, mysterious thing, setting his imagination free among visionary possibilities, without form, but not for that void. The road between the railing of the parks and the row of old lopped elms, was ill-lighted by the meagre flame of a few gas-lamps and hardly cheered by the smothered glow of the small prison-like windows of Keble, glimmering through the bare trees. There was not a sound near, except the occasional drip of slow-collecting dews from the branches of the old elms. Afar, too, many would have said there was not a sound; but there was, and Ian's ear was attuned to catch it. The immense inarticulate whisper of night came to him. It came to him from the deserted parks, from the distant Cherwell flowing through its willow-roots and osier-islands, from the flat meadow-country beyond, stretching away to the coppices of the low boundary hills. It was a voice made up of many whispers, each imperceptible, or almost imperceptible in itself; whisper of water and dry reeds, of broken twigs and dry leaves fluttering to the ground, of heaped dead leaves or coarse winter grass, stirring in some slight movement of the air. It seemed to his imagination as though under the darkness, in the loneliness of night, the man-mastered world must be secretly transformed, returned to its primal freedom; and that could he go forth into it alone, he would find it quite different from anything familiar to him, and might meet with something, he knew not what, secret, strange, and perhaps terrible.
Such fancies, though less crystallized than they must needs be by words, floated in the penumbra of his mind, coming to him perhaps with the blood of remote Highland ancestors, children of mountains and mist. His reasonable self was perfectly aware that should he go, he would find nothing in the open fields at that hour except a sleeping cow or two, and would return wet as to the legs, and developing a severe cold for the morning. But he heard these far-off whisperings of the night playing, as it were, a mysterious "ground" to his thoughts of Milly Flaxman. The least fatuous of men, he had yet been obliged to see that his friends in general and the Fletchers in particular, wished him to marry Milly, and that the girl herself hung upon his words with a tremulous sensitivity even greater than the enthusiastic female student usually exhibits towards those of her lecturer. In the abstract he intended to marry; for he did not desire to be left an old bachelor in college. He had been waiting for the great experience of falling in love, and somehow it had never come to him. There were probably numbers of people to whom it never did come. Should he now give up all hope of it, and make a marriage of reason and of obligingness, such as his marriage with Miss Flaxman would assuredly be? Thank Heaven! as her tutor he could not possibly propose to her till she had got through the Schools, so there were more than six months in which to consider the question.
And while he communed thus with himself, the mysterious whispers of the night came nearer to him, in the blackness of garden trees, ancient trees of College gardens brooding alone, whispering alone through the dark hours, of that current of young life which is still flowing past them; how for hundreds of years it has always been flowing, and always passing, passing, passing so quickly to the great silent sea of death and oblivion, to the dark night whose silence is only sometimes stirred by vague whispers, anxious yet faint, dying upon the ear before the sense can seize them.
Parties in Oxford always break up early, and Milly had a good excuse for carrying her aching, disappointed heart back to Ascham at ten o'clock, for every one knew she was working hard. Too hard, Mr. Fletcher said, looking concernedly at her heavy eyes, mottled complexion, and the little crumples which were beginning to come in her low white forehead. Her cousins, however, had more than a suspicion that these marks of care and woe were not altogether due to her work, but that Ian Stewart was accountable for most of them.
The Professor escorted her to the gates of the Ladies' College; but she walked down the dark drive alone, mindful of familiar puddles, and hearing nothing of those mysterious whispers of night which in Ian Stewart's ears had breathed a "ground" to his troubled thoughts of her.
She mounted the stairs to her room at the top of the house. It was an extremely neat room, and by day, when the bed was disguised as a sofa, and the washstand closed, there was nothing to reveal that it served as a bedroom, although a tarnished old mirror hung in a dark corner. The oak table and pair of brass candlesticks upon it were kept in shining order by Milly's own zealous hands.
Milly found her books open at the right place and her writing materials ready to hand. In a very few minutes her outer garments and simple ornaments were put away, and clothed in a clean but shrunk and faded blue dressing-gown, she sat down to work. The work was Aristotle's Ethics, and she was going through it for the second time, amplifying her notes. But this second time the Greek seemed more difficult, the philosophic argument more intricate than ever. She had had very little sleep for weeks, and her head ached in a queer way as though something inside it were strained very tight. It was plain that she had come to the end of her powers of work for the present—and she had calculated that only by not wasting a day, except for a week's holiday at Easter, could she get through all that had to be done before the Schools!
She put Aristotle away and opened Mommsen, but even to that she could not give her attention. Her thoughts returned to the bitter disappointment which the evening had brought. Ian Stewart had been next her at dinner, but even then he had talked to her rather less than to Mrs. Shaw. Afterwards—well, perhaps it was only what she deserved for not making it plain to poor Mr. Toovey that she could never return his feelings. And now the First, which she had looked to as a thing that would set her nearer the level of her idol, was dropping below the horizon of the possible. Aunt Beatrice always said—and she was right—that tears were not, as people pretended, a help and solace in trouble. They merely took the starch out of you and left you a poor soaked, limp creature, unfit to face the hard facts of life. But sometimes tears will lie heavy and scalding as molten lead in the brain, until at length they force their way through to the light. And Milly after blowing her nose a good deal, as she mechanically turned the pages of Mommsen, at length laid her arms on the book and transferred her handkerchief to her eyes. But she tried to look as though she were reading when Flora Timson came in.
"At it again, M.! You know you're simply working yourself stupid."
Thus speaking, Miss Timson, known to her intimates at Ascham as "Tims," wagged sagely her very peculiar head. A crimson silk handkerchief was tied around it, turban-wise, and no vestige of hair escaped from beneath. There was in fact none to escape. Tims's sallow, comic little face had neither eyebrows nor eyelashes on it, and her small figure was not of a quality to triumph over the obvious disadvantages of a tight black cloth dress with bright buttons, reminiscent of a page's suit.
Milly pushed the candles farther away and looked up.
"I was wanting to see you, Tims. Do tell me whether you managed to get out of Miss Walker what Mr. Stewart said about my chances of a First."
Tims pushed her silk turban still higher up on her forehead.
"I can always humbug Miss Walker and make her say lots of indiscreet things," Tims returned, with labored diplomacy. "But I don't repeat them—at least, not invariably."
There was a further argument on the point, which ended by Milly shedding tears and imploring to be told the worst.
"Stewart said your scholarship was A 1, but he was afraid you wouldn't get your First in Greats. He said you had a lot of difficulty in expressing yourself and didn't seem to get the lead of their philosophy and stuff—and—and generally wanted cleverness."
"He said that?" asked Milly, in a low, sombre voice, speaking as though to herself. "Well, I suppose it's better for me to know—not to go on hoping, and hoping, and hoping. It means less misery in the end, no doubt."
There was such a depth of despair in her face and voice that Tims was appalled at the consequence of her own revelation. She paced the room in agitation, alternately uttering incoherent abuse of her friend's folly and suggesting that she should at once abandon the ungrateful School of Literae Humaniores and devote herself like Tims, to the joys of experimental chemistry and the pleasures of practical anatomy.
Meantime, Milly sat silent, one hand supporting her chin, the other playing with a pencil.
At length Tims, taking hold of Milly under the arms, advised her to "go to bed and sleep it off."
Milly rose dully and sat on the edge of her bed, while Tims awkwardly removed the hair-pins which Mrs. Shaw had so deftly put in. But as she was laying them on the little dressing-table, Milly suddenly flung herself down on the bed and lay there a twisted heap of blue flannel, her face buried in the pillows, her whole body shaken by a paroxysm of sobs. Tims supposed that this might be a good thing for Milly; but for herself it created an awkward situation. Her soothing remarks fell flat, while to go away and leave her friend in this condition would seem brutal. She sat down to "wait till the clouds rolled by," as she phrased it. But twenty minutes passed and still the clouds did not roll by.
"Look here, M." she said, argumentatively, standing by the bed. "You're in hysterics. That's what's the matter with you."
"I know I am," came in tones of muffled despair from the pillow.
"Well!" Tims was very stern and accented her words heavily, "then—pull—yourself—together—dear girl. Sit up!"
Milly sat up, pressed her handkerchief over her face, and held her breath. For a minute all was quiet; then another violent sob forced a passage.
"It's no use, Tims," she gasped. "I cannot—cannot—stop. Oh, what would—!" She was going to say, "What would Aunt Beatrice think of me if she knew how I was giving way!" but a fresh flood of tears suppressed her speech. "My head's so bad! Such a splitting headache!"
Tims tried scolding, slapping, a cold sponge, every remedy inexperience could suggest, but the hysterical weeping could not be checked.
"Look here, old girl," she said at length, "I know how I can stop you, but I don't believe you'll let me do it."
"No, not that, Tims! You know Miss Burt doesn't—"
"Doesn't approve. Of course not. Perhaps you think old B. would approve of the way you're going on now. Ha! Would she!"
The sarcasm caused a new and alarming outburst. But finally, past all respect for Miss Burt, and even for Lady Thomson herself, Milly consented to submit to any remedy that Tims might choose to try.
She was assisted hurriedly to undress and put to bed. Tims knew the whereabouts of the prize-medal which Milly had won at school, and placing the bright silver disk in her hand, directed her to fix her eyes upon it. Seated on her heels on the patient's bed, her crimson turban low on her forehead, her face screwed into intent wrinkles, Tims began passing her slight hands slowly before Milly's face.
The long slender fingers played about the girl's fair head, sometimes pressed lightly upon her forehead, sometimes passed through her fluffy hair, as it lay spread on the pillow about her like an amber cloud.
"Don't cry, M.," Tims began repeating in a soft, monotonous voice. "You've got nothing to cry about; your head doesn't ache now. Don't cry."
At first it was only by a strong effort that Milly could keep her tear-blinded eyes fixed on the bright medal before her; but soon they became chained to it, as by some attractive force. The shining disk seemed to grow smaller, brighter, to recede imperceptibly till it was a point of light somewhere a long way off, and with it all the sorrows and agitations of her mind seemed also to recede into a dim distance, where she was still aware of them, yet as though they were some one else's sorrows and agitations, hardly at all concerning her. The aching tension of her brain was relaxed and she felt as though she were drowning without pain or struggle, gently floating down, down through a green abyss of water, always seeing that distant light, showing as the sun might show, seen from the depths of the sea.
Before a quarter of an hour had passed, her sobs ceased in sighing breaths, the breaths became regular and normal, the whole face slackened and smoothed itself out. Tims changed the burden of her song.
"Go to sleep, Milly. What you want is a good long sleep. Go to sleep, Milly."
Milly was sinking down upon the pillow, breathing the calm breath of deep, refreshing slumber. Tims still crouched upon the bed, chanting her monotonous song and contemplating her work. At length she slipped off, conscious of pins-and-needles in her legs, and as she withdrew, Milly with a sudden motion stretched her body out in the white bed, as straight and still almost as that of the dead. The movement was mechanical, but it gave a momentary check to Tims's triumph. She leaned over her patient and began once more the crooning song.
"Go to sleep, M.! What you want is a good long sleep. Go to sleep, Milly!"
But presently she ceased her song, for it was evident that Milly Flaxman had indeed gone very sound asleep.
Tims was proud of the combined style and economy of her dress. She was constantly discovering and revealing to an unappreciative world the existence of superb tailors who made amazingly cheap dresses. For two years she had been vainly advising her friends to go to the man who had made her the frock she still wore for morning; a skirt and coat of tweed with a large green check in it, a green waistcoat with gilt buttons, and green gaiters to match. In this costume and coiffed with a man's wig, of the vague color peculiar to such articles, Tims came down at her usual hour, prepared to ask Milly what she thought of hypnotism now. But there was no Milly over whom to enjoy this petty triumph. She climbed to the top story as soon as breakfast was over, and entering Milly's room, found her patient still sleeping soundly, low and straight in the bed, just as she had been the preceding night. She was breathing regularly and her face looked peaceful, although her eyes were still stained with tears. The servant came in as Tims was looking at her.
"I've tried to wake Miss Flaxman, miss," she said. "She's always very particular as I should wake her, but she was that sound asleep this morning, I 'adn't the 'eart to go on talking. Poor young lady! I expect she's pretty well wore out, working away at her books, early and late, the way she does."
"Better leave her alone, Emma," agreed Tims. "I'll let Miss Burt know about it."
Miss Burt was glad to hear Milly Flaxman was oversleeping herself. She had not been satisfied with the girl's appearance of late, and feared Milly worked too hard and had bad nights.
Tims had to go out at ten o'clock and did not return until luncheon-time. She went up to Milly's room and knocked at the door. As before, there was no answer. She went in and saw the girl still sound asleep, straight and motionless in the bed. Her appearance was so healthy and natural that it was absurd to feel uneasy at the length of her slumber, yet remembering the triumph of hypnotism, Tims did feel a little uneasy. She spoke to Miss Burt again about Milly's prolonged sleep, but Miss Burt was not inclined to be anxious. She had strictly forbidden Tims to hypnotize—or as she called it, mesmerize—any one in the house, so that Tims said no more on the subject. She was working at the Museum in the early part of the afternoon, only leaving it when the light began to fail. But after work she went straight back to Ascham. Milly was still asleep, but she had slightly shifted her position, and altogether there was something about her aspect which suggested a slumber less profound than before. Tims leaned over her and spoke softly:
"Wake up, M., wake up! You've been asleep quite long enough."
Milly's body twitched a little. A responsive flicker which was almost a convulsion, passed over her face; but she did not awake. It was evident, however, that her spirit was gradually floating up to the surface from the depths of oblivion in which it had been submerged. Tims took off her Tam-o'-Shanter and ulster, and revealed in the simple elegance of the tweed frock with green waistcoat and gaiters, put the kettle on the fire. Then she went down-stairs to fetch some bread and butter and an egg, wherewith to feed the patient when she awoke.
She had not long left the room when the slumberer's eyes opened gradually and stared with the fixity of semi-consciousness at a stem of blossoming jessamine in the wall-paper. Then she slowly stretched her arms above her head until some inches of wrist, slight and round and white, emerged from the strictly plain night-gown sleeve. So she lay, till suddenly, almost with a start, she pulled herself up and looked about her. The gaze of her wide-open eyes travelled questioningly around the quiet-toned room which two windows at right angles to each other still kept light with the reflection of a yellow winter sunset. She pushed the bedclothes down, dropped first one bare white foot, then the other to the ground and looked doubtfully at a pair of worn felt slippers which were placed beside the bed, before slipping her feet into them. With the same air as of one assuming garments which do not belong to her, she put on the faded blue flannel dressing-gown. Then she walked to the southern window. None of the glories of Oxford were visible from it; only the bare branches of trees through which appeared a huddle of somewhat sordid looking roofs and the unimposing spire of St. Aloysius. With the same air, questioning yet as in a dream, she turned to the western window, which was open. Below, in its wintry dulness, lay the garden of the College, bounded by an old gray wall which divided it from the straggling street; beyond that, a mass of slate roofs. But a certain glory was on the slate roofs and all the garden that was not in shadow. For away over Wytham, where the blue vapor floated in the folds of the hills, blending imperceptibly with the deep brown of the leafless woods, sunset had lifted a wide curtain of cloud and showed between the gloom of heaven and earth, a long straight pool of yellow light.
She leaned out of the window. A mild fresh air which seemed to be pouring over the earth through that rift in heaven which the sunset had made, breathed freshly on her face and the yellow light shone on her amber hair, which lay on her shoulders about the length of the hair of an angel in some old Florentine picture.
Miss Burt in galoshes and with a wrap over her head was coming up the garden. She caught sight of that vision of gold and pale blue in the window and smiled and waved her hand to Milly Flaxman. The vision withdrew, trembling slightly as though with cold, and closed the window.
Tims came in, carrying a boiled egg and a plate of bread and butter. Tims put down the egg-cup and the plate on the table before she relaxed the wrinkle of carefulness and grinned triumphantly at her patient.
"Well, old girl," she asked; "what do you say to hypnotism now? Put you to sleep, right enough, anyhow. Know what time it is?"
The awakened sleeper made a few steps forward, leaned her hands on the table, on the other side of which Tims stood, and gazed upon her with startling intentness. Then she began to speak in a rapid, urgent voice. Her words were in themselves ordinary and distinct, yet what she said was entirely incomprehensible, a nightmare of speech, as though some talking-machine had gone wrong and was pouring out a miscellaneous stock of verbs, nouns, adjectives and the rest without meaning or cohesion. Certain words reappeared with frequency, but Tims had a feeling that the speaker did not attach their usual meaning to them. This travesty of language went on for what appeared to the transfixed and terrified listener quite a long time. At length the serious, almost tragic, babbler, meeting with no response save the staring horror of Tims's too expressive countenance, ended with a supplicating smile and a glance which contrived to be charged at once with pathos and coquetry. This smile, this look, were so totally unlike any expression which Tims had ever seen on Milly's countenance that they heightened her feeling of nightmare. But she pulled herself together and determined to show presence of mind. She had already placed a basket-chair by the fire ready for her patient, and now gently but firmly led Milly to it.
"Sit down, Milly," she said—and the use of her friend's proper name showed that she felt the occasion to be serious—"and don't speak again till you've had some tea. Your head will be clearer presently, it's a bit confused now, you know."
The stranger Milly, still so unlike the Milly of Tims's intimacy, far from exerting the unnatural strength of a maniac, passively permitted herself to be placed in the chair and listened to what Tims was saying with the puzzled intentness of a child or a foreigner, trying to understand. She laid her head back in its little cloud of amber hair, and looked up at Tims, who, frowning portentously, once more with lifted finger enjoined silence. Tims then concealing her agitation behind a cupboard-door, reached down the tea-things. By some strange accident the methodical Milly's teapot was absent from its place; a phenomenon for which Tims was thankful, as it imposed upon her the necessity of leaving her patient for a few minutes. Shaking her finger again at Milly still more emphatically, she went out, and locked the door behind her. After a moment's thought, she reluctantly decided to report the matter to Miss Burt. But Miss Burt was closeted with the treasurer and an architect from London, and was on no account to be disturbed. So Tims went up to her own room and rapidly revolved the situation. She was certain that Milly was not physically ill; on the contrary, she looked much better than she had looked on the previous day. This curious affection of the speech-memory might be hysterical, as her sobbing the night before had been, or it might be connected with some little failure of circulation in the brain; an explanation, perhaps, pointed to by the extraordinary length of her sleep. Anyhow, Tims felt sceptical as to a doctor being of any use.
She went to her cupboard to take out her own teapot, and her eye fell upon a small medicine bottle marked "Brandy." Milly was a convinced teetotaller; all the more reason, thought Tims, why a dose of alcohol should give her nerves and circulation a fillip, only she must not know of it, or she would certainly refuse the remedy.
Pocketing the bottle and flourishing the teapot, Tims mounted again to Milly's room. Her patient, who had spent the time wandering about the room and examining everything in it, as well as she could in the fast-falling twilight, resumed her position in the chair as soon as she heard a step in the passage, and greeted her returning keeper with an attractive smile. Tims uttering words of commendation, slyly poured some brandy into one of the large teacups before lighting the candles.
"Now, my girl," she said, when she had made the tea, "drink this, and you'll feel better."
Milly leaned forward, her round chin on her hand, and looked intently at the tea-service and at the proffered cup. Then she suddenly raised her head, clapped her hands softly, and cried in a tone of delighted discovery, "Tea!"
"Excuse me," she added, taking the cup with a little bow; and in two seconds had helped herself to three lumps of sugar. Tims was surprised, for Milly never took sugar in her tea.
"That's right, M., you're going along well!" cried Tims, standing on the hearth-rug, with one hand under her short coat-tails, while she gulped her own tea, and ate two pieces of bread and butter put together. Milly ate hers and drank her tea daintily, looking meanwhile at her companion with wonder which gradually gave way to amusement. At length leaning forward with a dimpling smile, she interrogated very politely and quite lucidly.
"Pardon me, sir, you are—? Ah, the doctor, no doubt! My poor head, you see!" and she drew her fingers across her forehead.
Tims started, and grabbed her wig, as was her wont in moments of agitation. She stood transfixed, the teacup at a dangerous angle in her extended hand.
"Good God!" she ejaculated. "You are mad and no mistake, my poor old girl."
The "old girl" made a supreme effort to contain herself, and then burst into a pretty, rippling laugh in which there was nothing familiar to Tims's ear. She rose from her chair vivaciously and took the cup from Tims's hand, to deposit it in safety on the chimney piece.
"How silly I was!" she cried, regarding Tims sparklingly. "Do you know I was not quite sure whether you were a man or a woman. Of course I see now, and I'm so glad. I do like men, you know, so much better than women."
"Milly," retorted Tims, sternly, settling her wig. "You are mad, you need not be bad as well. But it's my own fault for giving you that brandy. You know as well as I do that I hate men—nasty, selfish, guzzling, conceited, guffawing brutes! I never wanted to speak to a man in my life, except in the way of business."
Milly waved her amber head gracefully for a moment as though at a loss, then returned playfully, "That must be because the women spoil you so."
Tims smiled sardonically; but regaining her sense of the situation, out of which she had been momentarily shocked, applied herself to the problem of calling back poor Milly's wandering mind.
"Sit down, my girl," she said, abruptly, putting her arm around Milly's body, so soft and slender in the scanty folds of the blue dressing-gown. Milly obeyed precipitately. Then drawing a small chair close to her, Tims said in gentle tones which could hardly have been recognized as hers:
"M., darling, do you know where you are?"
Milly turned on her a face from which the unnatural vivacity had fallen like a mask; the appealing face of a poor lost child.
"Am I—am I—in a maison de sante?" she asked tremulously, fixing her blue eyes on Tims, full of piteous anxiety.
"A lunatic asylum? Certainly not," replied Tims. "Now don't begin crying again, old girl. That's how the trouble began."
"Was it?" asked Milly, dreamily. "I thought it was—" she paused, frowning before her in the air, as though trying to pursue with her bodily vision some recollection which had flickered across her consciousness only to disappear.
"Well, never mind that now," said Tims, hastily; "get your bearings right first. You're in Ascham College."
"A College!" repeated Milly vaguely, but in a moment her face brightened, "I know. A place of learning where they have professors and things. Are you a professor?"
"No, I'm a student. So are you."
Milly looked fixedly at Tims, then smiled a melancholy smile. "I see," she said, "we're both studying—medicine—medicine for the mind." She stood up, locked her hands behind her head in her soft hair and wailed miserably. "Oh, why won't some kind person come and tell me where I am, and what I was before I came here?"
Tears of wounded feelings sprang to Tims's eyes. "Milly, my beauty!" she cried despairingly, "I'm trying to be kind to you and tell you everything you want to know. Your name is Mildred Flaxman and you used to live in Oxford here, but now all your people have gone to Australia because your father's got a deanery there."
"Have they left me here, mad and by myself?" asked Milly; "have I no one to look after me, no one to give me a home?"
"I suppose Lady Thomson or the Fletchers would," returned Tims, "but you haven't wanted one. You've been quite happy at Ascham. Do try and remember. Can't you remember getting your First in Mods. and how you've been working to get one in Greats? Your brain's been right enough until to-day, old girl, and it will be again. I expect it's a case of collapse of memory from overwork. Things will come back to you soon and I'll help you all I can. Do try and recollect me—Tims." There was an unmistakable choke in Tims's voice. "We have been such chums. The others are all pretty nasty to me sometimes—they seem to think I'm a grinning, wooden Aunt Sally, stuck up for them to shy jokes at. But you've never once been nasty to me, M., and there's precious few things I wouldn't do to help you. So don't go talking to me as though there weren't any one in the world who cared a brass farthing about you."
"I'm sure I'm most thankful to find I have got some one here who cares about me," returned Milly, meekly, passing her hand across her eyes for lack of a handkerchief. "You see, it's dreadful for me to be like this. I seem to know what things are, and yet I don't know. A little while ago it seemed to me I was just going to remember something—something different from what you've told me. But now it's all gone again. Oh, please give me a handkerchief!"
Tims opened one of Milly's tidy drawers and sought for a handkerchief. When she had found it, Milly was standing before the high chimney-piece, over which hung a long, low mirror about a foot wide and divided into three parts by miniature pilasters of tarnished gilt. The mirror, too, was tarnished here and there, but it had been a good glass and showed undistorted the blue Delft jars on the mantel-shelf, glimpses of flickering firelight in the room, amber hair and the tear-bedewed roses of a flushed young face. Suddenly Milly thrust the jars aside, seized the candle from the table, and, holding it near her face, looked intently, anxiously in the glass. The anxiety vanished in a moment, but not the intentness. She went on looking. Tims had always perceived Milly's beauty—which had an odd way of slipping through the world unobserved—but had never seen her look so lovely as now, her eyes wide and brilliant, and her upper lip curved rosily over a shining glimpse of her white teeth.
Beauty had an extraordinary fascination for Tims, poor step-child of nature! Now she stood looking at the reflection of Milly without noticing how in the background her own strange, wizened face peered dim and grotesque from the tarnished mirror, like the picture of a witch or a goblin behind the fair semblance of some princess in a fairy tale.
"I do remember myself partly," said Milly, doubtfully; "and yet—somehow not quite. I suppose I shall remember you and this queer place soon, if they don't put me into a mad-house at once."
"They sha'n't," said Tims, decisively. "Trust to me, M., and I'll see you through. But I'm afraid you'll have to give up all thought of your First."
"My what," asked Milly, turning round inquiringly.
"Your First Class, your place, you know, in the Final Honors School, Lit. Hum., the biggest examination of the lot."
"Do I want it very much, my First?"
"Want it? I should just think you do want it!"
Milly stared at the fire for a minute, warming one foot before she spoke again. Then:
"How funny of me!" she observed, meditatively.
Tims's programme happened to be full on the following day, so that it was half-past twelve before she knocked at Milly's door and was admitted. Milly stood in the middle of the room in an attitude of energy, with her small wardrobe lying about her on the floor in ignominious heaps.
"Tell me, Tims," said Milly, after the first inquiries, "are those positively all the clothes I possess?"
"Of course they are, M. What do you want with more?"
"Are they in the fashion?" asked Milly, anxiously.
"Fashion! Good Lord, M.! What does it matter whether you look the same as every fool in the street or not?"
"Oh, Tims!" cried Milly, laughing that pretty rippling laugh so strange in Tims's ears. "I was quite right when I made a mistake, you're just like a man. All the better. But you can't expect me not to care a bit about my clothes like you, you really can't."
Tims drew herself up.
"You're wrong, my girl, I'm a deal fonder of frocks than you are. I always think," she added, looking before her dreamily, "that I was meant to be a very good dresser, only I was brought up too economical." Generally speaking, when Tims had uttered one of her deepest and truest feelings, she would glance around, suddenly alert and suspicious to surprise the twinkle in her auditor's eye. But in the clear blue of Milly Flaxman's quiet eyes, she had ceased to look for that tormenting twinkle, that spark which seemed destined to dance about her from the cradle to the grave.
Presently she found herself hanging up Milly's clothes while Milly paid no attention; for she alternately stood before the glass in the dark corner, and kneeled on the hearth-rug, curling-tongs in hand. And the hair, the silky soft amber hair, which could be twisted into a tiny ball or fluffed into a golden fleece at will, was being tossed up and pulled down, combed here and brushed there, altogether handled with a zeal and patience to which it had been a stranger since the days when it had been the pride of the nursery. Tims the untidy, as one in a dream, went on tidying the room she was accustomed to see so immaculate.
"There!" cried Milly, turning, "that's how I wear it, isn't it?"
"Good Lord, no!" exclaimed Tims, contemplating the transformed Milly. "It suits you, M., in a way, but it looks queer too. The others will all be hooting if you go down-stairs like that."
Milly plumped into a chair irritably.
"How ever am I to know how I did my hair if I can't remember? Please do it for me."
Tims smiled sardonically.
"I'll lend you my hair," she said; "the second best. But do your hair! You really are as mad as a hatter."
Milly shrugged her shoulders.
"You can't? Then I keep it like this," she said.
An argument ensued. Tims left the room to try and find a photograph of Milly as she had been.
When she returned she found her friend standing in absorbed contemplation of a book in her hand.
"This is Greek, isn't it?" she asked, holding it up. Her face wore a little frown as of strained attention.
"Right you are," shrieked Tims in accents of relief. "Greek it is. Can you read it?"
"Not yet," replied Milly, flushing with excitement, "but I shall soon, I know I shall. Last night I couldn't make head or tail of the books. Now I understand right enough what they are, and I know some are in Greek and some in English. I can't read either yet, but it's all coming back gradually, like the daylight coming in at the window this morning."
"Hooray! Hooray!" shouted Tims. "You'll be reading as hard as ever in a week if I don't look after you. But see here, my girl, you've given me a nasty jar, and I'm not going to let you break your heart or crack your brain in a wild-goose chase. You can't get that First, you know; you're on a fairly good Second Class level, and you'd better make up your mind to stay there."
"A fairly good Second Class level!" repeated Milly, still turning the leaves of the book. "That doesn't sound very exhilarating—and I rather think I shall do as I like about staying there."
Tims began to heat.
"Well, that's what Stewart said about you. I don't believe I told you half plain enough what Stewart did say, for fear of hurting your feelings. He said you are a good scholar, but barring that, you weren't at all clever."
Milly looked up from her book; but she was not tearful. There was a curl in her lip and the light of battle in her eye.
"Stewart said that, did he? Now if I were a gentleman I should say—'damn his impudence'—and 'who the devil is Stewart'; but then I'm not. You can say it."
Tims stared. "Oh, come, I say!" she exclaimed. "I don't swear, I only quote. But my goodness, when you remember who Stewart is, you'll be—well, pained to think of the language you're using about him."
"Why?" asked Milly, her head riding disdainfully on her slender neck.
"Because he's your tutor and lecturer—and a regular tiptop man at Greek and all that—and you—you respect him most awfully."
"Do I?" cried Milly—"did perhaps in my salad days. I've no respect whatever for professors now, my good Tims. I know what they're like. Here's Stewart for you."
She took up a pen and a scrap of paper and dashed off a clever ludicrous sketch of a man with long hair, an immense brow, and spectacles.
"Nonsense!" said Tims; "that's not a bit like him."
She held the paper in her hand and looked fixedly at it. Milly had been wont seriously to grieve over her hopeless lack of artistic talent and she had never attempted to caricature. Tims was thinking of a young fellow of a college who had lately died of brain disease. In the earlier stages of his insanity, it had been remarked that he had an originality which had not been his when in a normal state. What if her friend were developing the same terrible disease? If it were so, it was no use fussing, since there was no remedy. Still, she felt a desperate need to take some sort of precaution.
"If I were you, M.," she said, "I'd go to bed and keep very quiet for a day or two. You're so—so odd, and excited, they'd notice it if you went down-stairs."
"Would they?" asked Milly, suddenly sobered. "Would they say I was mad?" An expression of fear came into her face, and its strangely luminous eyes travelled around the room with a look as of some trapped creature seeking escape.
There was an awkward pause.
"I'm not mad," affirmed Milly, swallowing with a dry throat. "I'm perfectly sensible, but any one would be odd and excited too who was—was as I am—with a number of words and ideas floating in my mind without my having the least idea where they spring from. Please, Tims dear, tell me how I am to behave. I should so hate to be thought queer, wanting in any way."
"For one thing, you mustn't talk such a lot. You never have been one for chattering; and lately, of course, with your overwork, you've been particularly quiet. Don't talk, M., that's my advice."
"Very well," replied Milly, gloomily.
Tims hesitated and went on:
"But I don't see how you're going to hide up this business about your memory. I wish you'd let me tell old B., anyhow."
"I won't have any one told," cried Milly. "Not a creature. If only you'll help me, dear, dear Tims—you will help me, won't you?—I shall soon be all right, and no one except you will ever know. No one will be able to shrug their shoulders and say, whatever I do, 'Of course she's crazy.' I should hate it so! I know I can get on if I try. I'm much cleverer than you and that silly old Stewart think. Promise me, promise me, darling Tims, you won't betray me!"
Tims was not weak-minded, but she was very tender-hearted and exceedingly susceptible to personal charms. She ought not, she knew she ought not, to have yielded, but she did. She promised. Yet in her friend's own interest, she contended that Milly must confess to a certain failure of memory from over-fatigue, if only as a pretext for dropping her work for a while. It was agreed that Milly should remain in bed for several days, and she did so; less bored than might have been expected, because she had the constant excitement of this or that bit of knowledge filtering back into her mind. But this knowledge was purely intellectual. With Tims's help she had recovered her reading powers, and although she felt at first only a vague recognition of something familiar in the sense of what she read, it was evident that she was fast regaining the use of the treasures stored in her brain by years of dogged and methodical work. But the facts and personalities which had made her own life seemed to have vanished, leaving "not a wrack behind."
Tims, having primed her well beforehand, brought in the more important girls to see her, and by dint of a cautious reserve she passed very well with them, as with Miss Burt and Miss Walker. Tims seemed to feel much more nervous than Milly herself did when she joined the other students as usual.
There were moments when Tims gasped with the certainty that the revelation of her friend's blank ignorance of the place and people was about to be made. Then Mildred—for so, despising the soft diminutive, she now desired to be called—by some extraordinary exertion of tact and ingenuity, would evade the inevitable and appear on the other side of it, a little elated, but otherwise serene. It was generally marked that Miss Flaxman was a different creature since she had given up worrying about her Schools, and that no one would have believed how much prettier she could make herself by doing her hair a different way.
Miss Burt, however, was somewhat puzzled and uneasy. Although Milly was looking unusually well, it was evident that all was not quite right with her, for she complained of a failure of memory, a mental fatigue which made it impossible for her to go to lectures, and she seemed to have lost all interest in the Schools, which had so lately been for her the "be-all" as well as the "end-all here." Miss Burt knew Milly's only near relation in England, Lady Thomson, intimately; and for that reason hesitated to write to her. She knew that Beatrice Thomson had no patience with the talk—often silly enough—about girls overworking their brains. She herself had never been laid up in her life, except when her leg was broken, and her views on the subject of ill-health were marked. She regarded the catching of scarlet-fever or influenza as an act of cowardice, consumption or any organic disease as scarcely, if at all, less disgraceful than drunkenness or fraud, while the countless little ailments to which feminine flesh seems more particularly heir she condemned as the most deplorable of female failings, except the love of dress.
Eventually Miss Burt did write to Lady Thomson, cautiously. Lady Thomson replied that she was coming up to town on Thursday, and could so arrange her journey as to have an hour and a half in Oxford. She would be at Ascham at three-thirty. Mildred rushed to Tims with the agitating news and both were greatly upset by it. However, Aunt Beatrice had got to be faced sometime or other and Mildred's spirit rose to the encounter.
She had by this time provided herself with another dress, encouraged to do so by the money in hand left by the frugal Milly the First. She had got a plain tailor-made coat and skirt, in a becoming shade of brown; and with the unbecoming hard collar de rigueur in those days, she wore a turquoise blue tie, which seemed to reflect the color of her eyes. And in spite of Tims's dissuasions, she put on the new dress on Thursday, and declined to screw her hair up in the old way, as advised.
Accordingly on Thursday at twenty-five minutes to four, Mildred appeared, in answer to a summons, in the quiet-colored, pleasant drawing-room at Ascham, with its French windows giving on to the lawn, where some of the girls were playing hockey, not without cries. Her first view of Aunt Beatrice was a pleasant surprise. A tall, upstanding figure, draped in a long, soft cloak trimmed with fur, a handsome face with marked features, marked eyebrows, a fine complexion and bright brown eyes under a wide-brimmed felt hat.
Having exchanged the customary peck, she waited in silence till Mildred had seated herself. Then surveying her niece with satisfaction:
"Come, Milly," said she, in a full, pleasant voice; "I don't see much signs of the nervous invalid about you. Really, Polly," turning to Miss Burt, "she has not looked so well for a long time."
"She's been much better since she dropped her work," replied Miss Burt.
"Taking plenty of fresh air and exercise, I suppose"—Aunt Beatrice smiled kindly on her niece—"I'm afraid I've kept you from your hockey this afternoon, Milly."
"Oh no, Aunt Beatrice, certainly not," replied Milly, with the extreme courtesy of nervousness. "I never play hockey now."
Lady Thomson turned to the Head with a shade of triumph in her satisfaction.
"There, Polly! What did I tell you? I was sure there was something else at the bottom of it. Steady work, methodically done, never hurt anybody. But of course if she's given up exercise, her liver or something was bound to get out of order."
"No, really, I take lots of exercise," interposed Milly; "only I don't care for hockey, it's such a horrid, rough, dirty game; don't you think so? And Miss Walker got a front tooth broken last winter."
Lady Thomson looked at her in a surprised way.
"Well, if you've not been playing hockey, what exercise have you been taking?"
"Walks," replied Milly, feebly, feeling herself on the wrong track; "I go walks with Ti—with Flora Timson when she has time."
Aunt Beatrice looked at the matter judicially.
"Of course, games are best for the physique. Look at men. Still, walking will do, if one takes proper walks. I hope Flora Timson takes you good long walks."
"Indeed she does!" cried Milly. "Immense! She walks a dreadful pace, and we get over stiles and things."
"Immense is a little vague. How far do you go on an average?"
Mildred's notions of distance were vague. "Quite two miles, I'm sure," she responded, cheerfully.
Aunt Beatrice made no comment. She looked steadily and scrutinizingly at her niece, and in a kind but deepened voice told her to go up to her room, whither she, Lady Thomson, would follow in a few minutes, just to see how the Mantegnas looked now they were framed.
As soon as the door had closed behind Mildred, she turned to Miss Burt. "You're right, in a way, Polly, after all. There is something odd about Milly, but I think it's affectation. Did you hear her answer? Two miles! When to my knowledge she can easily walk ten."
Meantime, Mildred mounted slowly to her room. She had tidied it under Tims's instructions and had nothing to do but to sit down and think until Lady Thomson's masculine step was heard outside her door.
Aunt Beatrice came in and laid aside her hat and cloak, showing a dress of rough gray tweed, and short—so far a tribute to the practical—but otherwise made on some awkward artistic or hygienic principle. Her glossy brown hair was brushed back and twisted tight, as Milly's used to be, but with different effect, because of its heaviness and length.
"Why have you crammed up one of your windows with a dressing-glass?" asked Aunt Beatrice, putting a picture straight.
"Because I can't see myself in that dark corner," returned Mildred, demurely meek, but waiting her opportunity.
"See yourself! My dear child, you hardly ever want to see yourself, if you are habitually neat and dressed sensibly. I see you've adopted the mannish style. That's a phase of vanity. You'll come back to the beautiful and natural before long."
Mildred leaned back in her chair and clasped her hands behind her head.
"I don't think so, Aunt Beatrice. I've settled the dress question once and for all. I've found a clean, tidy, convenient style of dress and I can't waste time thinking about altering it again."
"You don't seem to mind wasting it on doing your hair," returned Aunt Beatrice, smiling, but not grimly, for she enjoyed logical fencing, even to her opponent's fair hits.
"If I had beautiful hair like yours, I shouldn't need to," replied Mildred. "But you know how endy and untidy mine always was."
Aunt Beatrice, embarrassed by the compliment, looked at her watch. "It seems as if we women can't escape our fate," she said. "Here we are gabbling about dress when we've plenty of important things to talk over. Miss Burt wrote to me that you were overworked, run down, nerves out of order, and all the usual nonsense. I'm thankful to find you looking remarkably well. I should like to know what this humbug about not being able to work means."
"It means that—well, I simply can't," returned Mildred, earnestly this time. "I can't remember things."
"You must be able to remember; unless your brain's diseased, which is most improbable. But I ought to take you to a brain specialist, I suppose."
Milly changed color. "Please, oh please, Aunt Beatrice, don't do that!"
Lady Thomson, in fact, hardly meant it; for her niece's appearance was unmistakably healthy. However, the threat told.
"I shall if you don't improve. I can't understand you. Either you're hysterical or you've got one of those abominable fits of frivolity which come on women like drink on men, and destroy their careers. I thought we had both set our hearts on your getting another First."
"But, Aunt Beatrice, they say I can't. They say I'm not clever enough."
"Oh, that's what they say, is it?" Lady Thomson smiled in calm but deep contempt. "How do they explain the idiots who have got Firsts? Archibald Toovey, for instance?" Her eyes met her niece's, and both smiled.
"Ah, yes! Mr. Toovey," returned Milly, who had met Archibald Toovey at the Fletchers', and converted his patronizing courtship into imbecile raptures.
"But that quite explains your losing an interest in your work. Just for once, I should like to take you away before the end of term. We would go straight to Rome next Monday. We shall meet the Breretons there, and go fully over the new excavations and discoveries, besides the old things, which will be new, of course, to you. Then we will go on to Naples, do the galleries and Pompeii, and come back by Florence and Paris before Christmas. By that time you will be ready to settle down to your work steadily again and forget all this nonsense."
Mildred's face had lighted up momentarily at the word "Rome." Then she sucked her under lip and looked at the fire. When Lady Thomson's programme was ended, she made a pause before she said, slowly:
"Thank you so much, dear Aunt Beatrice. I should love to go, but—I don't think—no, I don't think I'd better. You see, there's the expense."
"Of course I don't expect you to pay for yourself. I take you."
"How very kind and sweet of you! But—well, do you know, you've encouraged me so about that. First, I feel now as though I could sit down and get it straight away. I will get it, Aunt Beatrice, if only to make that old Professor look foolish."
Lady Thomson, though disappointed in a way, felt that Milly Flaxman was doing credit to her principles, showing a spirit worthy of her family. She did not urge the Roman plan; but content with a victory over "nerves and the usual nonsense," withdrew triumphant to the railway station.
Tims came in when she was gone and heard about the Roman offer.
"You refused, when Aunt Beatrice was going to plank down the dollars? M., you are a fool!"
"No, Tims," Mildred answered, deliberately; "you see, I don't feel sure yet whether I can manage Aunt Beatrice."
Oxford is beautiful at all times, beautiful even now, in spite of the cruel disfigurement inflicted upon her by the march of modern vulgarity, but she has three high festivals which clothe her with a special glory and crown her with their several crowns. One is the Festival of May, when her hoary walls and ancient enclosures overflow with emerald and white, rose-color and purple and gold, a foam of leafage and blossom, breaking spray-like over edges of stone, gray as sea-worn rocks. And all about the city the green meadows and groves burn with many tones of color, brilliant as enamels or as precious stones, yet of a texture softer and richer, more full of delicate shadows than any velvet mantle that ever was woven for a queen.
Another Festival comes with that strayed bacchanal October, who hangs her scarlet and wine-colored garlands on cloister and pinnacle, on wall and tower. And gradually the foliage of grove and garden, turns through shade of bluish metallic green, to the mingled splendor of pale gold and beaten bronze and deepest copper, half glowing and half drowned in the low, mellow sunlight, and purple mist of autumn.
Last comes the Festival of Mid-winter, the Festival of the Frost. The rime comes, or the snow, and the long lines of the buildings, the fret-work of stone, the battlements, carved pinnacles and images of saints or devils, stand up with clear glittering outlines, or clustered about and overhung with fantasies of ice and snow. Behind, the deep-blue sky itself seems to glitter too. The frozen floods glitter in the meadows, and every little twig on the bare trees. There is no color in the earth, but the atmosphere of the river valley clothes distant hills and trees and hedges with ultramarine vapor. Towards evening the mist climbs, faintly veiling the tall groves of elms and the piled masses of the city itself. The sunset begins to burn red behind Magdalen Tower, all the towers and aery pinnacles rise blue yet distinct against it. And this festival is not only one of nature. The glittering ice is spread over the meadows, and, everywhere from morning till moonlight, the rhythmical ring of the skate and the sound of voices sonorous with the joy of living, travel far on the frosty air. Sometimes the very rivers are frozen, and the broad, bare highway of the Thames and the tree-sheltered path of the Cherwell are alive with black figures, heel-winged like Mercury, flying swiftly on no errand, but for the mere delight of flying.
It was early on such a shining festival morning that Mildred, a willowy, brown-clad figure, came down to a piece of ice in an outlying meadow. Her shadow moved beside her in the sunshine, blue on the whiteness of the snow, which crunched crisp and thin under her feet. She carried a black bag in her hand—sign of the serious skater, and her face was serious, even apprehensive. She saw with relief that except the sweepers there was no one on the ice. A row of shivering men, buttoned up to the chin in seedy coats, rose from the chairs where they awaited their appointed prey, and all yelled to her at once. She crowned the hopes of one by occupying his seat, but the important task of putting on the bladed boots she could depute to none. Tims, whom no appeal of friendship could induce to shiver on the ice, had told her that Milly was an expert skater. She was, in fact, correct and accomplished, but there was a stiffness and sense of effort about her style, a want of that appearance of free and daring abandonment to the stroke of the blade once launched, that makes the beauty of skating. Mildred knew only that she had to live up to the reputation of a mighty skater, and was not sure whether she could even stand on these knifelike edges. She laced one boot, happy in the belief that at any rate there would be no witness to her voyage of discovery. But a renewed yelling among the men made her lift her head, and there, striding swiftly over the crisp snow, came a tall, handsome young man, with a pointed, silky black beard and fine, short-sighted black eyes, aglow with the pleasure of the frosty sun.
It was Ian Stewart. The young lady whom he discovered to be Miss Flaxman just as he reached the chairs, was much more annoyed than he at the encounter. Here was an acquaintance, it seemed, and one provided with the bag and orange which Tims had warned her was the mark of the serious skater. They exchanged remarks on the weather and she went on lacing her other boot in great trepidation. The moment was come. She did not recoil from the insult of being seized under her elbows by two men and carefully planted on her feet as though she were most likely to tumble down. So far as she knew, she was likely to. But, lo! no sooner was she up than muscles and nerves, recking nothing of the brain's blind denial, asserted their own acquaintance with the art of balance and motion. Wondering, and for a few minutes still apprehensive, but presently lost in the pleasure of the thing, Mildred began to fly over the ice. And the dark, handsome man who had taken off his cap to her became supremely unimportant. Unluckily the piece of flood-ice was not endless and she had to come back. He was circling around an orange, and she, throwing herself instinctively on to the outside edge, came down towards him in great, sweeping curves, absorbed in the delight of this motion, so new yet so perfectly under her control. Ian Stewart, perceiving that the girl was absolutely unconscious of his presence, blushed in his soul to think that he had been induced to believe himself to be of importance in her eyes.
"Miss Flaxman," he said, skating up to her, "I see you have no orange. Can't we skate a figure together around mine?"
"I've forgotten all about figures," replied Mildred, with truth.
"Try some simple turns," he urged. "There are plenty here," and he held up a book in his hand like the one she had found in her own black bag. But it had "Ian Stewart, Durham College," written clearly on the outside.
"So that's Stewart!" thought Milly; and she could not help laughing at her own thoughts, which had created him in a different image.
Stewart did not know why she laughed, but he found the sound and sight of the laugh new and charming.
"It's awfully kind of you to undertake my education in another branch, Mr. Stewart," she answered, pouting, "in spite of having found out that I'm not at all clever."
She smiled at him mutinously, sweeping towards the orange with head thrown back over her left shoulder. Momentarily the poise of her head recalled the attitude of the portrait of Lady Hammerton, beckoning her unseen companions to that far-off mysterious mountain country, where the torrents shine so whitely through the mist and the red line of sunset speaks of coming night.
Stewart colored, slightly confused. This brutal statement did not seem to him to represent the just and candid account he had given Miss Walker of Miss Flaxman's abilities.
"Some one's been misreporting me, I see," he returned. "But anyhow, on the ice, Miss Flaxman, it's you who are the Professor; I who am the pupil. So I offer you a fair revenge."
Accordingly, Mildred soon found herself placed at a due distance from the orange, with Stewart equally distant from it on the other side. After a few minutes of extreme uneasiness, she discovered that although she had to halt at each fresh call, she had a kind of mechanical familiarity with the simple figures which he gave her.
Stewart, though learned, was human; and to sweep now at the opposite pole to his companion, now with a swing of clasping hands at the centre of their delightful dance, his eyes always perforce on his charming partner, and her eyes on him, undeniably raised the pleasure of skating to a higher power than if he had circled the orange in company with mere man.
So they fleeted the too-short time in the sparkling blue and white world, drinking the air like celestial wine.
The Festival of the Frost had fallen in the Christmas Vacation, and Oxford society in vacation is essentially different from that of Term-time, when it is overflowed by men who are but birds of passage, coming no one inquires whence, and flitting few know whither. The party that picnicked, played hockey, danced and figured on their skates through the weeks of the frost, was in those days almost like a family party. So it happened that Ian Stewart met the new Miss Flaxman in an atmosphere of friendly ease that years of term-time society would not have afforded him. How new she was he did not guess, but supposed the change to be in his own eyes. Other people, however, saw it. Her very skating was different. It had gained in grace and vigor, but she was seldom seen wooing the serious and lonely orange around which Milly had acquired the skill that Mildred now enjoyed. On the contrary, she initiated an epidemic of frivolity on the ice in the shape of waltzing and hand-in-hand figures in general.
Ian Stewart, too, neglected the orange and went in for hand-in-hand figures that season. Other things, too, he neglected; work, which he had never before allowed to suffer measurably from causes within his control; and far from blushing for his idleness, he rejoiced in it, as the surest sign of all that for him the Festival of Spring had come in the time of nature's frost.
It was not only the crisp air, the frequent sun, the joyous flights over the ringing ice that made his blood run faster through his veins and laughter come more easily to his lips; that aroused him in the morning with a strange sense of delight, as though some spirit had awakened him with a glad reveille at the window of his soul. He, too, was in Arcady. That in itself should be sufficient joy; he knew he must restrain his impatience for more. Not till the summer, when the lady of his heart had ceased to be also his pupil, must he make avowal of his love.
Mildred on her part found Stewart the most attractive of the men with whom she was acquainted. As yet in this new existence of hers, she had not moved outside the Oxford circle—a circle exceptional in England, because in it intellectual eminence, not always recognized, when recognized receives as much honor as is accorded to a great fortune or a great name in ordinary society. Stewart's abilities were of a kind to be recognized by the Academic world. He was already known in the Universities of the Continent and America. Oxford was proud of him; and although Mildred had no desire to marry as yet, it gratified her taste and her vanity to win him for a lover.
Mildred had had no desire to spend her vacations with Lady Thomson, and on the ground of her reading for the Schools, had been allowed to spend them in Oxford. Tims, who had no relations, remained with her. She had for Mildred a sentiment almost like that of a parent, besides an admiration for which she was slightly ashamed, feeling it to be something of a slur on the memory of Milly, her first and kindest friend.
Mildred had recovered her memory for most things, but the facts of her former life were still a blank to her. She had begun to work for her First in order to evade Aunt Beatrice; but the fever of it grew upon her, either from the ambient air of the University or from a native passion to excel in all she did. Her teachers were bewildered by the mental change in Miss Flaxman. The qualities of intellectual swiftness, vigor, pliancy, whose absence they had once noted in her, became, on the contrary, conspicuously hers. Once initiated into the tricks of the "Great Essay" style, she could use it with a dexterity strangely in contrast with the flat and fumbling manner in which poor Milly had been wont to express her ideas. But in the region of actual knowledge, she now and again perpetrated some immense and childish blunder, which made the teachers, who nursed and trained her like a jockey or a race-horse, tremble for the results of the Greats Examination.
All too swiftly the date of the Schools loomed on the horizon; drew near; was come. The June weather was glorious on the river, but in the town, above all in the Examination Schools, it was very hot. The sun glared pitilessly in through the great windows of the big T-shaped room, till the temperature was that of a greenhouse. The young men in their black coats and white ties looked enviously at the girl candidate, the only one, in her white waist and light skirt. They envied her, too, her apparent indifference to a crisis that paled the masculine cheek. In fact, Mildred was nervous, but her nerves were strung up to so high a pitch that she was sensitive neither to temperature nor to fatigue, nor to want of sleep. And at the service of her quick intelligence and ready pen lay all the stored knowledge of Milly the First.
On the last day, when the last paper was over, Tims came and found her in the big hall, planting the pins in her hat with an almost feverish energy. Although it was five o'clock, she said she wanted air, not tea. The last men had trooped listlessly down the steps of the Schools and the two girls stood there while Mildred drew on her gloves. The sun wearing to the northwest, shone down that curve of the High Street which all Europe cannot match. The slanting gold illumined the gray face of the University and the wide pavement, where the black-gowned victims of the Schools threaded their sombre way through groups of joyous youths in flannels and ladies in summer attire. On the opposite side cool shadows were beginning to invade the sunshine, to slant across the old houses, straight-roofed or gabled, the paladian pile of Queen's, the mediaeval front of All Souls, with its single and perfect green tree, leading up to the consummation of the great spire of St. Mary's.
Already, from the tall bulk of the nave, a shadow fell broad across the pavement. But still the heat of the day reverberated from the stones about them. They turned down to the Botanical Gardens and paced that gray enclosure, full of the pride of branches and the glory of flowers and overhung by the soaring vision of Magdalen Tower. Mildred was walking fast and talking volubly about the Examination and everything else.
"Look here, old girl," said Tims at last, when they reached for the second time the seat under the willow trellis, "I'm going to sit down here, unless you'll come to tea at Boffin's."
"I don't want to sit down," returned Mildred, seating herself; "or to have tea or anything. I want to be just going, going, going. I feel as though if I stop for a minute something horrid will happen."
Tims wrinkled her whole face anxiously.
"Don't do that, Tims," cried Mildred, sharply. "You look hideous."
Tims colored, rose and walked away. She suddenly thought, with tears in her eyes, of the old Milly who would never have spoken to her like that. By the time she had reached the little basin in the middle of the garden, where the irises grew, Mildred had caught her up.
"Tims, dear old Tims! What a wretch I am! I couldn't help letting off steam on something—you don't know what I feel like."
Tims allowed herself to be pacified, but in her heart there remained a yearning for her earlier and gentler friend—that Milly Flaxman who was certainly not dead, yet as certainly gone out of existence.
It was towards the end of the last week of Term, and the gayeties of Commemoration had already begun. Mildred threw herself into them with feverish enjoyment. She seemed to grudge even the hours that must be lost in the unconsciousness of sleep. The Iretons, cousins from India, who had never known the former Milly, took a house in Oxford for a week. She went with them to three College balls and a Masonic, and spent the days in a carnival of luncheon and boating-parties. She attracted plenty of admiration, and enjoyed herself wildly, yet also purposefully; because she was trying to get rid of that haunting feeling that if she stopped a minute "something horrid would happen."
Stewart meantime was finding love not so entirely beautiful and delightful a thing as he had at first imagined it. In his dreamy way he had overlooked the fact of Commemoration, and planned when Term was over to find Mildred constantly at the Fletchers' and to be able to arrange quiet days on the river. But if he found her there, she was always in company, and though she made herself as charming to him as usual, she showed no disposition to forsake all others and cleave only to him. He was not a dancing man, and suffered cruelly on the evenings when he knew her to be at balls, and fancied all her partners in love with her.
But on the Thursday after Commemoration, the Fletchers gave a strawberry tea at Wytham, as a farewell festivity to their cousins. And Ian Stewart was there. With Mrs. Fletcher's connivance, he took Mildred home alone in a canoe, by the deep and devious stream which runs under Wytham woods. She went on talking with a vivacious gayety which was almost foolish. He saw that it was unreal and that her nerves were at high tension. His own were also. He did not intend to propose to her that day; but he could no longer restrain himself, and he began to speak to her of his love.
"Hush!" she cried, with a vehement gesture. "Not to-day! oh, not to-day! I can't bear it!" She put her head on her knee and moaned again, "Not to-day, I'm too tired, I really am. I can't bear it."
This was all the answer he could get, and her manner left him in complete uncertainty as to whether she meant to accept or to refuse him.
Tims had been at the strawberry tea too, and came into Mildred's room in the evening, curious to know what had happened. She found Mildred without a light, sitting, or rather lying in a wicker chair. When the candle was lighted she saw that Mildred was very pale and shivering.
"You're overtired, my girl," she said. "That's what's the matter with you."
"Oh, Tims," moaned Mildred. "I feel so ill and so frightened. I know something horrid's going to happen—I know it is."
"Don't be a donkey," returned Tims. "I'll help you undress and then you turn in. You'll be as jolly as a sandboy to-morrow."
But Mildred was crying tremulously. "Oh, Tims, how dreadful it would be to die!"
"Idiot!" cried Tims, and shook Mildred with all her might. Mildred's tiny sobs turned into a shriek of laughter.
"My goodness!" ejaculated Tims; "you're in hysterics!"
"I know I am," gasped Mildred. "I was laughing to think of what Aunt Beatrice would say." And she giggled amid her tears.
Tims insisted on her rising from the chair, undressing, and getting into bed. Then she sat by her in the half-dark, waiting for the miserable tears to leave off.
"Don't cry, old girl, don't cry. Go to sleep and forget all about it," she kept repeating, almost mechanically.
At length leaning over the bed she saw that Mildred was asleep, lying straight on her bed with her feet crossed and her hands laid on her bosom.
About noon on Friday Milly Flaxman awoke. She lay very quiet, sleepy and comfortable, her eyes fixed idly on a curve in the jessamine-pattern paper opposite her bed. The windows were wide open, the blinds down and every now and again flapping softly, as a capricious little breeze went by, whispering through the leafy trees outside. There seemed nothing unusual in that; she always slept with her windows open. But as her senses emerged from those mists which lie on the surface of the river of sleep, she was conscious of a balmy warmth in the room, of an impression of bright sunshine behind the dark blinds, and of noises from the streets reaching her with a kind of sharpness associated with sunshine. She sat up, looked at her watch, and was shocked to find how late she had slept. She must have missed a lecture. Then the recollection of the dinner-party at the Fletchers', the verdict of Mr. Stewart on her chance of a First, and her own hysterical outburst returned to her, overpowering all outward impressions. She felt calm and well now, but unhappy and ashamed of herself. She put her feet out of bed and looked round mechanically for her dressing-gown and slippers. Their absence was unimportant, for no sense of chill struck through her thin night-gown to her warm body, and going to the window, she drew up the blind.
The high June sun struck full upon her, hot and dazzling, but not so dazzling that she could not see the row of garden trees through whose bare branches she had yesterday descried the squalid roofs of the town. They were spreading now in a thick screen of fresh green leaves. She leaned out, as though further investigation might explain the phenomenon, and saw a red standard rose in full flower under her window. The thing was exactly like a dream, and she tried to wake up but could not. She was panic-stricken and trembling. Had she been very, very ill? Was it possible to be unconscious for six months? She looked at herself in a dressing-glass near the window, which she had never placed there, and saw that she was pale and had dark marks under her eyes, but not more so than had been the case in that yesterday so strangely and mysteriously removed in time. Her slender white arms and throat were as rounded as usual. And if she had been ill, why was she left alone like this? She found a dressing-gown not her own, and went on a voyage of discovery. But the other rooms on her floor were dismantled and tenantless. The girls were gone and the servants were "cleaning" in a distant part of the College. She felt incapable of getting into bed again and waiting for some one to come, so she began dressing herself with trembling hands. Every detail increased the sense of strangeness. There were a number of strange clothes, ball-dresses and others, hanging in her cupboard, strange odds and ends thrust confusedly into her bureau. She found at length a blue cotton frock of her own, which seemed just home from the wash. She had twisted up her hair and was putting on the blue frock, when she heard a step on the stairs, and paused with beating heart. Who was coming? How would the mystery be resolved? The door opened and Tims came in—the old Tims, wrinkled face, wig, and old straw hat on one side as usual.
"Tims!" cried Milly, flying towards her and speaking with pale lips. "Please, please tell me—what has happened? Have I been very ill?" And she stared in Tims's face with a tragic mask of terror and anxiety.
"Now take it easy—take it easy, M., my girl!" cried Tims, giving her a great squeeze and a clap on the shoulder. "I'm jolly glad to see you back. But don't let's have any more of your hysterics. No, never no more!"
"Have I been away?" asked Milly, her lips still trembling.
"I should think you had!" exclaimed Tims. "But nobody knows it except me. Don't forget that. Here's a note for you from old B. Read it first or we shall both forget all about it. She had to go away early this morning."
Milly opened the note and read:
"DEAR MILLY,—I am sorry not to say good-bye, but glad you are sleeping off your fatigue. I want to tell you, between ourselves, not to go on worrying about the results of the Schools, as I think you are doing, in spite of your pretences to the contrary. I hear you have done at least one brilliant paper, and although I, of course, know nothing certain, I believe you and the College will have reason to rejoice when the list comes out.
"What does it mean?—oh, what can it mean?" faltered Milly, holding out the missive to Tims.
"It means you've been in for Greats, my girl, and done first-rate. But the strain's been a bit too much for you, and you've had another collapse of memory. You had one in the end of November. You've been uncommonly well ever since, and worked like a Trojan, but you've not been quite your usual self, and I'm glad you've come right again, old girl. Let me tell you the whole business."
Tims did so. She wanted social tact, but she had the tact of the heart which made her hide from Milly how very different, how much more brilliant and attractive Milly the Second had been than her normal self. She only made her friend feel that the curious episode had entailed no disgrace, but that somehow in her abnormal condition she had done well in the Schools, and probably touched the top of her ambition.
"But I don't feel as though it had been quite straightforward to hide it up so," said Milly. "I shall write and tell Miss Burt and Aunt Beatrice, and tell the Fletchers when I go to them."
"You'll do nothing of the kind, you stupid," snapped Tims. "You'll be simply giving me away if you do. What is the good? It won't happen again unless you're idiot enough to overwork yourself again. Very likely not then; for, as an open-minded, scientific woman, I believe it to have been a case of hypnotism, and in France and the United States they'd have thought it a very interesting one. But in England people are so prejudiced they'd say you'd simply been out of your mind; although that wouldn't prevent them from blaming me for hypnotizing you."
While Tims spoke thus, there was a knocking without, and a maid delivered a note for Miss Flaxman. Milly held it in her hands and studied it musingly before opening the envelope. Her pale, troubled face colored and grew more serious. Tims had not mentioned Ian Stewart, but Milly had not forgotten him or his handwriting. Tims knew it too. She restrained her excitement while Milly turned her back and stood by the window reading the note. She must have read them several times over, the two sides of the sheet inscribed with Stewart's small, scholarly handwriting, before she turned her transfigured face towards the anxiously expectant Tims.
"Tims, dear," she said at length, smiling tremulously, and laying tremulous hands on Tims's two thin shoulders—"dear old Tims, why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?" asked Tims, grinning delightedly. Milly threw her arms round her friend's neck and hid her happy tears and blushes between Tims's ear and shoulder.
"Mr. Stewart—it seems too good to be true—he loves me, he really does. He wants me to be his wife."
Most girls would have hugged and kissed Milly, and Tims did hug her, but instead of kissing her, she banged and slapped her back and shoulders hard all over, shaking the while with deep internal chuckles. It hurt, but Milly did not mind, for it was sympathy. Presently she drew herself away, and wiping her damp eyes, said, smiling shyly:
"He's never guessed how much I care about him. I'm so glad. He says he doesn't wonder at my hesitation and talks about others more worthy to love me. But you know there isn't any one except Mr. Toovey. Poor Mr. Toovey! I do hope I haven't behaved very badly to him."
"Never mind Toovey," chuckled Tims. "Anyhow, Milly, I've got a good load off my mind. I didn't half like having put that other girl into your boots. However, you've come back, and everything's going to be all right."
"All right!" breathed Milly. "Why, Tims, darling, I never thought any one in the world could be half so happy as I am."
And Tims left Milly to write the answer for which Ian Stewart was so anxiously waiting.
* * * * *
The engagement proceeded after the manner of engagements. No one was surprised at it and every one was pleased. The little whirlpool of talk that it created prevented Milly's ignorance of the events of the past six or seven months from coming to the surface. She lay awake at night, devising means of telling Ian about this strange blank in her life. But she shrank from saying things that might make him suspect her of an unsound mind. She had plainly been sane enough in her abnormal state, and there was no doubt of her sanity now. She told him she had had since the autumn, and still had, strange collapses of memory; and he said that quite explained some peculiarities of her work. She tried to talk to him about French experiments in hypnotism, and how it was said sometimes to bring to light unsuspected sides of a personality. But he laughed at hypnotism as a mixture of fraud and hysteria. So with many searchings of heart, she dropped the subject.
She was staying at the Fletchers' and saw Ian every day. He was all that she could wish as a lover, and it never occurred to her to ask whether he felt all that he himself could have wished as such. He was very fond of Milly and quite content with her, but not perfectly content with himself. He supposed he must at bottom be one of those ordinary and rather contemptible men who care more for the excitement of the chase than for the object of it. But he felt sure he was really a very lucky fellow, and determined not to give way to the self-analysis which is always said to be the worst enemy of happiness.
Miss Flaxman had been the only woman in for Greats, and as a favor she was taken first in viva voce. The questions were directed to probing her actual knowledge in places where she had made one or two amazing blunders. But she emerged triumphant, and went in good spirits to Clewes, Aunt Beatrice's country home in the North, whither Ian Stewart shortly followed her. Beyond the fact that she wore perforce and with shame, not having money to buy others, frocks which Lady Thomson disapproved, she was once more the adoring niece to whom her aunt was accustomed. And Lady Thomson liked Ian. She never expected men to share her fads.