ROSA NOUCHETTE CAREY
Author of 'Nellie's Memories,' 'Wee Wifie,' 'Robert Ord's Atonement,' etc.
I. Out of the Mist
II. Behind the Bars
IV. Uncle Max Breaks The Ice
V. 'When The Cat Is Away'
VI. The White Cottage
VII. Giles Hamilton, Esq
VIII. New Brooms Sweep Clean
IX. The Flag of Truce
X. A Difficult Patient
XI. One of God's Heroines
XII. A Missed Vocation
XIII. Lady Betty
XIV. Lady Betty Leaves Her Muff
XV. Up At Gladwyn
XVII. 'Why Not Trust Me, Max?'
XVIII. Miss Hamilton's Little Scholar
XIX. The Picture In Gladys's Room
XXI. 'I Ran Away, Then!'
XXII. 'They Have Blackened His Memory Falsely'
XXIII. The Mystery at Gladwyn
XXIV. 'Weeping may endure for a Night'
XXV. 'There is no one like Donald'
XXVI. I hear about Captain Hamilton
XXVII. Max opens his Heart
XXVIII. Crossing the River
XXIX. Miss Darrell has a Headache
XXX. With Timbrels and Dances
XXXII. A Fiery Ordeal
XXXIII. Jack Poynter
XXXIV. I communicate with Joe Muggins
XXXV. Nightingales and Roses
XXXVI. Breakers Ahead
XXXVII. 'I claim that Promise, Ursula'
XXXVIII. In the Turret-Room
XXXIX. Whitefoot is saddled
XL. The Talk in the Gloaming
XLI. 'At five o'clock in the Morning'
XLII. Down the Pemberley Road
XLIII. 'Conspiracy Corner'
XLIV. Leah's Confession
XLV. 'This Home is yours no longer'
XLVI. Nap barks in the Stable-yard
XLVII. At last, Ursula, at last!'
XLVIII. 'What o' the Way to the End?'
OUT OF THE MIST
It appears to me, looking back over a past experience, that certain days in one's life stand out prominently as landmarks, when we arrive at some finger-post pointing out the road that we should follow.
We come out of some deep, rutty lane, where the hedgerows obscure the prospect, and where the footsteps of some unknown passenger have left tracks in the moist red clay. The confused tracery of green leaves overhead seems to weave fanciful patterns against the dim blue of the sky; the very air is low-pitched and oppressive. All at once we find ourselves in an open space; the free winds of heaven are blowing over us; there are four roads meeting; the finger-post points silently, 'This way to such a place'; we can take our choice, counting the mile-stones rather wearily as we pass them. The road may be a little tedious, the stones may hurt our feet; but if it be the right road it will bring us to our destination.
In looking back it always seems to me as though I came to a fresh landmark in my experience that November afternoon when I saw Uncle Max standing in the twilight, waiting for me.
There had been the waste of a great trouble in my young life,—sorrow, confusion, then utter chaos. I had struggled on somehow after my twin brother's death, trying to fight against despair with all my youthful vitality; creating new duties for myself, throwing out fresh feelers everywhere; now and then crying out in my undisciplined way that the task was too hard for me; that I loathed my life; that it was impossible to live any longer without love and appreciation and sympathy; that so uncongenial an atmosphere could be no home to me; that the world was an utter negation and a mockery.
That was before I went to the hospital, at the time when my trouble was fresh and I was breaking my heart with the longing to see Charlie's face again. Most people who have lived long in the world, and have parted with their beloved, know what that sort of hopeless ache means.
My work was over at the hospital, and I had come home again,—to rest, so they said, but in reality to work out plans for my future life, in a sort of sullen silence, that seemed to shut me out from all sympathy.
It had wrapped me in a sort of mantle of reserve all the afternoon, during which I had been driving with Aunt Philippa and Sara. The air would do me good. I was moped, hipped, with all that dreary hospital work, so they said. It would distract and amuse me to watch Sara making her purchases. Reluctance, silent opposition, only whetted their charitable mood.
'Don't be disagreeable, Ursula. You might as well help me choose my new mantle,' Sara had said, quite pleasantly, and I had given in with a bad grace.
Another time I might have been amused by Aunt Philippa's majestic deportment and Sara's brisk importance, her girlish airs and graces; but I was too sad at heart to indulge in my usual satire. Everything seemed stupid and tiresome; the hum of voices wearied me; the showroom at Marshall and Snelgrove's seemed a confused Babel,—everywhere strange voices, a hubbub of sound, tall figures in black passing and repassing, strange faces reflected in endless pier-glasses,—faces of puckered anxiety repeating themselves in ludicrous vrai-semblance.
I saw our own little group reproduced in one. There was Aunt Philippa, tall and portly, with her well-preserved beauty, a little full-blown perhaps, but still 'marvellously' good-looking for her age, if she could only have not been so conscious of the fact.
Then, Sara, standing there slim and straight, with the furred mantle just slipping over her smooth shoulders, radiant with good health, good looks, perfectly contented with herself and the whole world, as it behooves a handsome, high-spirited young woman to be with her surroundings, looking bright, unconcerned, good-humoured, in spite of her mother's fussy criticisms: Aunt Philippa was always a little fussy about dress.
Between the two I could just catch a glimpse of myself,—a tall girl, dressed very plainly in black, with a dark complexion, large, anxious-looking eyes, that seemed appealing for relief from all this dulness,—a shadowy sort of image of discontent and protest in the background, hovering behind Aunt Philippa's velvet mantle and Sara's slim supple figure.
'Well, Ursula,' said Sara, still good-humouredly, 'will you not give us your opinion? Does this dolman suit me, or would you prefer a long jacket trimmed with skunk?'
I remember I decided in favour of the jacket, only Aunt Philippa interposed, a little contemptuously,—
'What does Ursula know about the present fashion? She has spent the last year in the wards of St. Thomas's, my dear,' dropping her voice, and taking up her gold-rimmed eye-glasses to inspect me more critically,—a mere habit, for I had reason to know Aunt Philippa was not the least near-sighted. 'I cannot see any occasion for you to dress so dowdily, with three hundred a year to spend absolutely on yourself; for of course poor Charlie's little share has come to you. You could surely make yourself presentable, especially as you know we are going to Hyde Park Mansions to see Lesbia.'
This was too much for my equanimity. 'What does it matter? I am not coming with you, Aunt Philippa,' I retorted, somewhat vexed at this personality; but Sara overheard us, and strove to pour oil on the troubled waters.
'Leave Ursula alone, mother: she looks tolerably well this afternoon; only mourning never suits a dark complexion—' But I did not wait to hear any more. I wandered about the place disconsolately, pretending to examine things with passing curiosity, but my eyes were throbbing and my heart beating angrily at Sara's thoughtless speech. A sudden remembrance seemed to steal before me vividly: Charlie's pale face, with its sad, sweet smile, haunted me. 'Courage, Ursula; it will be over soon.' Those were his last words, poor boy, and he was looking at me and not at Lesbia as he spoke. I always wondered what he meant by them. Was it his long pain, which he had borne so patiently, that would soon be over? or was it that cruel parting to which he alluded? or did he strive to comfort me at the last with the assurance—alas! for our mortal nature, so sadly true—that pain cannot last for ever, that even faithful sorrow is short-lived and comforts itself in time, that I was young enough to outlive more than one trouble, and that I might take courage from this thought?
I looked down at the black dress, such as I had worn nearly two years for him, and raged as I remembered Sara's flippant words. 'My darling, I would wear mourning for you all my life gladly,' I said, with an inward sob that was more anger than sorrow, 'if I thought you would care for me to do it. Oh, what a world this is, Charlie! surely vanity and vexation of spirit!'
I did not mean to be cross with Sara, but my thoughts had taken a gloomy turn, and I could not recover my spirits: indeed, as we drove down Bond Street, where Sara had some glittering little toy to purchase, I reiterated my intention of not calling at Hyde Park Mansions.
'I do not want any tea,' I said wearily, 'and I would rather go home. Give my love to Lesbia; I will see her another day.'
'Lesbia will be hurt,' remonstrated Sara. 'What a little misanthrope you are, Ursula! St. Thomas's has injured you socially; you have become a hermit-crab all at once, and it is such nonsense at your age.'
'Oh, let me be, Sara!' I pleaded; 'I am tired, and Lesbia always chatters so; and Mrs. Fullerton is worse. Besides, did you not tell me she was coming to dine with us this evening?'
'Yes, to be sure; but she wanted us to meet the Percy Glyns. Mirrel and Winifred Glyn are to be there this afternoon. Never mind, Lesbia will understand when I say you are in one of your ridiculous moods.' And Sara hummed a little tune gaily, as though she meant no offence by her words and was disposed to let me go my own way.
'The carriage can take you home, Ursula; we can walk those few yards,' observed Aunt Philippa, as she descended leisurely, and Sara tripped after her, still humming. But I took no notice of her words: I had had enough dulness and decorum to last me for some time, and the Black Prince and his consort Bay might find their way to their own stables without depositing me at the front door of the house at Hyde Park Gate. I told Clarence so, to his great astonishment, and walked across the road in an opposite direction to home, as though my feet were winged with quicksilver.
For the Park in that dim November light seemed to allure me; there was a red glow of sunset in the distance; a faint, climbing mist between the trees; the gas-lamps were twinkling everywhere. I could hear the ringing of some church bell; there was space, freedom for thought, a vague, uncertain prospect, out of which figures were looming curiously,—a delightful sense that I was sinning against conventionality and Aunt Philippa.
'Halloo, Ursula!' exclaimed a voice in great astonishment; and there, out of the mist, was a kind face looking at me,—a face with a brown beard, and dark eyes with a touch of amusement in them; and the eyes and the beard and the bright, welcoming smile belonged to Uncle Max.
As I caught at his outstretched hand with a half-stifled exclamation of delight, a policeman turned round and looked at us with an air of interest. No doubt he thought the tall brown-bearded clergyman in the shabby coat—it was one of Uncle Max's peculiarities to wear a shabby coat occasionally—was the sweetheart of the young lady in black. Uncle Max—I am afraid I oftener called him Max—was only a few years older than myself, and had occupied the position of an elder brother to me.
He was my poor mother's only brother, and had been dearly loved by her,—not as I had loved Charlie, perhaps; but they had been much to each other, and he had always seemed nearer to me than Aunt Philippa, who was my father's sister; perhaps because there was nothing in common between us, and I had always been devoted to Uncle Max.
'Well, Ursula,' he said, pretending to look grave, but evidently far too pleased to see me to give me a very severe lecture, 'what is the meaning of this? Does Mrs. Garston allow young ladies under her charge to stroll about Hyde Park in the twilight? or have you stolen a march on her, naughty little she-bear?'
I drew my hand away with an offended air: when Uncle Max wished to tease or punish me he always reminded me that the name of Ursula signified she-bear, and would sometimes call me 'the little black growler'; and at such times it was provoking to think that Sara signified princess. I have always wondered how far and how strongly our baptismal names influence us. Of course he would not let me walk beside him in that dignified manner: the next instant I heard his clear hearty laugh, and then I laughed too.
'What an absurd child you are! I was thinking over your letter as I walked along. It did not bring me to London, certainly; I had business of my own; but, all the same, I have walked across the Park this evening to talk to you about this extraordinary scheme.'
But I would not let him go on. He was about to cross the road, so I took his arm and turned him back. And there was the gray mist creeping up between the trees, and the lamps glimmering in the distance, and the faint pink glow had not yet died away.
'It is so quiet here,' I pleaded, 'and I could not get you alone for a moment if we went in. Uncle Brian will be there, and Jill, and we could not say a word. Aunt Philippa and Sara have gone to see Lesbia. I have been driving with them all the afternoon. Sara has been shopping, and how bored I was!'
'You uncivilised little heathen!' Then, very gravely, 'Well, how is poor Lesbia?'
'Do not waste your pity on her,' I returned impatiently. 'She is as well and cheerful as possible. Even Sara says so. She is not breaking her heart about Charlie. She has left off mourning, and is as gay as ever.'
'You are always hard on Lesbia,' he returned gently. 'She is young, my dear, you forget that, and a pretty girl, and very much admired. It always seems to me she was very fond of the poor fellow.'
'She was good to him in his illness, but she never cared for Charlie as he did for her. He worshipped the very ground she walked on. He thought her perfection. Uncle Max, it was pitiful to hear him sometimes. He would tell me how sweet and unselfish she was, and all the time I knew she was but an ordinary, commonplace girl. If he had lived to marry her he would have been disappointed in her. He was so large-hearted, and Lesbia has such little aims.'
'So you always say, Ursula. But you women are so severe in your judgment of each other. I doubt myself if the girl lives whom you would have considered good enough for Charlie. Yes, yes, my dear,'—as I uttered a dissenting protest to this,—'he was a fine fellow, and his was a most lovable character; but it was his last illness that ripened him.'
'He was always perfect in my eyes,' I returned, in a choked voice.
'That was because you loved him; and no doubt Lesbia possessed the same ideal goodness for him. Love throws its own glamour,' he went on, and his voice was unusually grave; 'it does not believe in commonplace mediocrity; it lifts up its idol to some fanciful pedestal, where the poor thing feels very uncomfortable and out of its element, and then persists in falling down and worshipping it. We humans are very droll, Ursula: we will create our own divinities.'
'Lesbia would have disappointed him,' I persisted obstinately; but I might as well have talked to the wind. Uncle Max could not find it in his heart to be hard to a pretty girl.
'That is open to doubt, my dear. Lesbia is amiable and charming, and I daresay she would have made a nice little wife. Poor Charlie hated clever women, and in that respect she would have suited him.'
After this I knew it was no good in trying to change his opinion. Uncle Max held his own views with remarkable tenacity; he had old-fashioned notions with respect to women, rather singular in so young a man,—for he was only thirty; he preferred to believe in their goodness, in spite of any amount of demonstration to the contrary; it vexed him to be reminded of the shortcomings of his friends; by nature he was an optimist, and had a large amount of faith in people's good intentions. 'He meant well, poor fellow, in spite of his failures,' was a speech I have heard more than once from his lips. He was always ready to condone a fault or heal a breach; indeed, his sweet nature found it difficult to bear a grudge against any one; he was only hard to himself, and on no one else did he strive to impose so heavy a yoke. I was only silent for a minute, and then I turned the conversation into another channel.
'But my letter, Uncle Max!'
'Ah, true, your letter; but I have not forgotten it. How old are you, Ursula? I always forget.'
'Five-and-twenty this month.'
'To be sure; I ought to have remembered. And you have three hundred a year of your own.'
'And your present home is distasteful to you?' in an inquiring tone.
'It is no home to me,' I returned passionately. 'Oh, Uncle Max, how can one call it home after the dear old rectory, where we were so happy, father, and mother, and Charlie—and—'
'Yes, I know, poor child; and you have had heavy troubles. It cannot be like the old home, I am well aware of that, Ursula; but your aunt is a good woman. I have always found her strictly just. She was your father's only sister: when she offered you a home she promised to treat you with every indulgence, as though you were her own daughter.'
'Aunt Philippa means to be kind,' I said, struggling to repress my tears,—tears always troubled Uncle Max: 'she is kind in her way, and so is Sara. I have every comfort, every luxury; they want me to be gay and enjoy myself, to lead their life; but it only makes me miserable; they do not understand me; they see I do not think with them, and then they laugh at me and call me morbid. No one really wants me but poor Jill: I am so fond of Jill.'
'Why cannot you lead their life, Ursula?'
'Because it is not life at all,' was my resolute answer: 'to me it is the most wearisome existence possible. Listen to me, Uncle Max. Do you think I could possibly spend my days as Sara does,—writing a few notes, doing a little fancy-work, shopping and paying visits, and dancing half the night? Do you think you could transform such a poor little Cinderella into a fairy princess, like Sara or Lesbia? No; the drudgery of such a life would kill me with ennui and discontent.'
'It is not the life I would choose for you, certainly,' he said, pulling his beard in some perplexity: 'it is far too worldly to suit my taste; if Charlie had lived you would have made your home with him. He often talked to me about that, poor fellow. I thought a year or two at Hyde Park Gate would do you no harm, and might be wholesome training; but it has proved a failure, I see that.'
'They would be happier without me,' I went on, more quietly, for he was evidently coming round to my view of the case. 'Aunt Philippa does not mean to be unkind, but she often lets me see that I am in the way, that she is not proud of me. She would have taken more interest in me if I had been handsome, like Sara; but a plain, dowdy niece is not to her taste. No, let me finish, Uncle Max,'—for he wanted to interrupt me here. 'They made a great fuss about my training at the hospital last year, but I am sure they did not miss me; Sara spoke yesterday as though she thought I was going back to St. Thomas's, and Aunt Philippa made no objection. I heard her tell Mrs. Fullerton once "that really Ursula was so strong-minded and different from other girls that she was prepared for anything, even for her being a female doctor."'
'Well, my dear, you are certainly rather peculiar, you know.'
'Oh, Uncle Max,' I said mournfully, 'are you going to misunderstand me too? Providence has deprived me of my parents and my only brother: is it strong-minded or peculiar to be so lonely and sad at heart that gaiety only jars on me? Can I forget my mother's teaching when she said, "Ursula, if you live for the world you will be miserable. Try to do your duty and benefit your fellow-creatures, and happiness must follow"?'
'Yes, poor Emmie, she was a good woman: you might do worse than take after her.'
'She would not approve of the life I am leading at Hyde Park Gate,' I went on. 'She and Aunt Philippa never cared for each other. I often think that if she had known she would not have liked me to be there. Sundays are wretched. We go to church?—yes, because it is respectable to do so; but there is a sort of reunion every Sunday evening.'
'I wish I could offer you a home, Ursula; but—' here Uncle Max hesitated.
'That would not do at all,' I returned promptly. 'Your bachelor home would not do for me; besides, you might marry—of course you will,' but he flushed rather uncomfortably at that, and said, 'Pshaw! what nonsense!' We had paused under a lamp-post, and I could see him plainly: perhaps he knew this, for he hurried me on, this time in the direction of home.
'I am five-and-twenty,' I continued, trying to collect the salient points of my argument. 'I am indebted to none for my maintenance; I am free, and my own mistress; I neglect no duty by refusing to live under Uncle Brian's roof; no one wants me; I contribute to no one's happiness.'
'Except to Jill's,' observed Uncle Max.
'Jill! but she is only a child, barely sixteen, and Sara is becoming jealous of my influence. I shall only breed dissension in the household if I remain. Uncle Max, you are a good man,—a clergyman; you cannot conscientiously tell me that I am not free to lead my own life, to choose my own work in the world.'
'Perhaps not,' he replied, in a hesitating voice. 'But the scheme is a peculiar one. You wish me to find respectable lodgings in my parish, where you will be independent and free from supervision, and to place your superfluous health and strength—you are a muscular Christian, Ursula—at the service of my sick poor, and for this post you have previously trained yourself.'
'I think it will be a good sort of life,' I returned carelessly, but how my heart was beating! 'I like it so much, and I should like to be near you, Uncle Max, and work under you as my vicar. I have thought about this for years. Charlie and I often talked of it. I was to live with him and Lesbia and devote my time to this work. He thought it such a nice idea to go and nurse poor people in their homes. And he promised that he would come and sing to them. But now I must carry out my plan alone, for Charlie cannot help me now.' And as I thought of the sympathy that had never failed me my voice quivered and I could say no more.
'I wish we were all in heaven,' growled Uncle Max,—but his tone was a little husky,—'for this world is a most uncomfortable place for good people, or people with a craze. I think Charlie is well out of it.'
'Under which category do you mean to place me?' I asked, trying to laugh.
'My dear, there is a craze in most women. They have such an obstinate faith in their own good intentions. If they find half a dozen fools to believe in them, they will start a crusade to found a new Utopia. Women are the most meddlesome things in creation: they never let well alone. Their pretty little fingers are in every human pie. That is why we get so much unwholesome crust and so little meat, and, of course, our digestion is ruined.'
'Uncle Max—' But he would not be serious any longer.
'Ursula, I utterly refuse to inhale any more of this mist. I think a comfortable arm-chair by the fire would be far more conducive to comfort. You have given me plenty of food for thought, and I mean to sleep on it. Now, not another word. I am going to ring the bell.' And Uncle Max was as good as his word.
BEHIND THE BARS
It was quite true, as I had told Uncle Max, that the scheme had been no new one; it was no sudden emanation from a girl's brain, morbid with discontent and fruitless longings; it had grown with my youth and had become part of my environment. As a child the thought had come to me as I followed my father into one cottage after another in his house-to-house visitation. He had been a conscientious, hard-working clergyman; in fact, his work killed him, for he overtasked a constitution that was not naturally strong. I accompanied my mother, too, in her errands of mercy, and saw a great deal of the misery engendered by drink, ignorance, and want of forethought. In the case of the sick poor, the gross mismanagement and want of cleanly and thrifty habits led to an amount of discomfort and suffering that even now makes me shudder. The parish was overgrown and insufficiently worked; the greater part of the population belonged to the working-classes; dissenting chapels and gin-palaces flourished. Often did my childish heart ache at the surroundings of some squalid home, where the parents toiled all day for worse than naught, just to satisfy their unhealthy cravings, while the children grew up riotous, half starved, and full of inherited vices. There was a little child I saw once, a cripple, dying slowly of some sad spinal disease, lying in a dark corner, on what seemed to me a heap of rags. Oh, God, I can see that child's face now! I remember when we heard of its death my mother burst into tears. They were tears of joy, she told me afterwards, that another suffering child's life was ended; 'and there are hundreds and hundreds of these little creatures, Ursula,' she said, 'growing up in sin and misery; and the world goes on, and people eat and drink and are merry, for it is none of their business, and yet it is not the will of the Father that one of these little ones should perish.'
I had learned much from my father, but still more from my mother. Uncle Max had called her a good woman, but she was more than that: she possessed one of those rare unselfish natures that cannot remain satisfied with their own personal happiness: they wish to include the whole world. She wanted to inculcate in me her own spirit of self-sacrifice. I can remember some of her short, trenchant sentences now.
'Never mind happiness: that is God's gift to a few: do your duty.'
'If you have loved your fellow-creatures sufficiently you will not be afraid to die. A good conscience will smooth your pillow.'
And once, in her last illness, when Charlie asked if she were comfortable, 'Not very, but I shall soon be quite comfortable, for I shall hope to forget in heaven how little I have done, after all, here; and yet I always wanted to help others.'
Oh, how good she was! And Charlie was good too, after the fashion of young men: not altogether thoughtless, full of the promptings of his kind heart; but Uncle Max was right when he said his last illness had ripened him: it was not the old careless Charlie who had wooed Lesbia who lay there: it was another and a better Charlie.
In the old days he had rallied me in a brotherly manner on my old-fashioned, grave ways. 'You are not a modern young lady, Ursie,' he would say; and he would often call me 'grandmother Ursula'; but all the same he would listen to my plans with the utmost tolerance and good nature.
Ah, those talks in the twilight, before the fatal disease developed itself, and he lay in idle fashion on the couch with his arms under his head, while I sat on the footstool or on the rug in the firelight! We were to live together,—yes, that was always the dream; even when Lesbia's fair face came between us, he would not hear of any difference. I was to live with him and Lesbia, Lesbia was rich, and, though Charlie had little, they were to marry soon.
I was to form a part of that luxurious household, but my time was to be my own, and I was to devote it to the sick poor of Rutherford. 'Mind, Ursula, you may work, but I will not have you overwork,' Charlie had once said, more decidedly than usual; 'you must come home for hours of rest and refreshment. You have a beautiful voice, and it shall be properly trained; you may sing to your invalids as much as you like, and sometimes I will come and sing too; but you must remember you have social duties, and I shall expect you to entertain our friends.' And it was the idea of this dual life of home sympathy and outside work that had so strongly seized upon my imagination.
When Charlie died I was too sick at heart to carry out my plan. 'How can one work alone?' I would say sorrowfully to myself; but after a time the emptiness of my life and dissatisfaction with my surroundings brought back the old thoughts.
I remembered the dear old rectory life, where every one was in earnest, and contrasted it with the trifling pursuits that my aunt and cousin called duties. My present existence seemed to shut me in like prison bars. Only to be free, to choose my own life! And then came emancipation in the shape of hard hospital work, when health and spirits returned to me; when, under the stimulus of useful employment and constant exercise of body and mind, I slept better, fretted less, and looked less mournfully out on the world. Uncle Max was right when he said a year at St. Thomas's would save me.
By and by the idea dawned upon me that I might still carry out my plan; there were poor people at Heathfield, where Uncle Max's parish was. What should hinder me from living there under Uncle Max's wing and trying to combine the two lives, as Charlie wished?
I was young, full of activity. I did not wish to shut myself out from my kind. I could discharge my duties to my own class and enjoy a moderate amount of pleasure. I was young enough to desire that; but the greater part of my time would be placed at the disposal of my poorer neighbours. People might think it singular at first, but they would not talk for ever, and the life would be a happy one to me.
All this had been said in that voluminous letter of mine to Uncle Max; he might argue and shake his head over it, thereby proving himself a wise man, but he could not but know that I was absolutely under my own control, as far as a woman could be. I need ask no one's advice in the disposal of my own life; his own and Uncle Brian's guardianship was merely nominal now. After five-and-twenty I was declared my own mistress in every sense of the word.
Uncle Brian came out to meet us as soon as he heard Uncle Max's voice in the hall; the two were very great friends, and they shook hands cordially.
'Glad to see you, Cunliffe; why did you not let us know that you were coming up to town? We could have put you up easily—eh, Ursula?'
'Yes, indeed, Uncle Brian'; and then I added coaxingly, 'Do please send for your portmanteau, Uncle Max; you know Lesbia is coming this evening, and you are such a favourite with her.' I knew this would be a strong inducement, for Uncle Max's soft heart would insist on treating Lesbia as though she were a widowed princess.
'All right,' he returned in his lazy way, and then I took the matter into my own hands by leaving the room at once to consult with Mrs. Martin, Aunt Philippa's housekeeper. As I closed the door I glanced back for another look at Uncle Max. He had thrown himself into an easy-chair, as though he were tired, and was leaning back with his hands under his head in Charlie's fashion, looking up at Uncle Brian, who was standing on the rug.
I always thought Uncle Brian a very handsome man. He had clear, well-cut features and a gray moustache, and he was quiet and dignified. He always looked to me, with his brown complexion, more like an Indian officer than a wealthy banker. There was nothing commercial in his appearance; but I should have admired him more if he had been less cold and repressive in manner; but he was an undemonstrative man, even to his own children.
I remember hinting this once to Uncle Max, and he had rebuked me more severely than he had ever done before.
'I do not like young girls like you, Ursula, to be so critical about their elders. Garston is an excellent fellow; he has plenty of brains, and always does the right thing, however difficult it may be. Men are not like women, my dear: they often hide their deepest feelings. Your poor uncle has never been quite the same man since Ralph's death, and just as he was getting over his boy's loss a little he had a fresh disappointment with Charlie: he always meant to put him in Ralph's place.'
I was a little ashamed of my criticism when Max said this. I felt I had not made sufficient allowance for Uncle Brian: the death of his only son must have been a dreadful blow. Ralph had died at Oxford; they said he had overworked himself in trying for honours and then had taken a chill. He was a fine, handsome young fellow, nearly two-and-twenty, and his father's idol: no wonder Uncle Brian had grown so much older and graver during the last few years.
And he had been fond of Charlie, and had meant to have him in Ralph's place; my poor boy would have been a rich one if he had lived. Uncle Brian had taken him into the bank, and Lesbia and her fortune were promised to him, but the goodly heritage was snatched away before his eyes, and he was called away in the fresh bloom of his youth.
I always thought Uncle Brian liked Max better than any other man: he was always less stiff and frigid in his presence. I could hear his low laugh—Uncle Brian never laughed loudly—as I closed the door; Max had said something that amused him. They would be quite happy without me, so I ran up to the schoolroom on the chance of getting a chat with Jill.
The schoolroom was on the second floor, where Jill, I, and Fraeulein all slept. Sara had a handsome room next to her mother's, and a little boudoir furnished most daintily for her special use. I do not believe she ever sat in it, unless she had a cold or was otherwise ailing; the drawing-room was always full of company, and Sara was the life of the house. I used to peep in at the pretty room sometimes as I went up to bed; there were few notes written at the inlaid escritoire, and the handsomely-bound books were never taken down from the shelves. Draper, Aunt Philippa's maid, fed the canaries and dusted the cabinets of china. Sometimes Sara would trip into the room with one of her cronies for a special chat; the ripple of their girlish laughter would reach us as Jill and I sat together. 'Whom has Sara got with her this afternoon?' Jill would say peevishly. 'Do listen to them; they do nothing but laugh. If Fraeulein had set her all these exercises she would not feel quite so merry,' Jill would finish, throwing the obnoxious book from her with a little burst of impatience.
I always pitied Jill for having to spend her days in such a dull room; the furniture was ugly, and the windows looked out on a dismal back-yard, with the high walls of the opposite building. Aunt Philippa, who was a rigid disciplinarian with her young daughter, always said that she had chosen the room 'because Jill would have nothing to distract her from her studies.' The poor child would put up her shoulders at this remark and draw down the corners of her lips in a way that would make Aunt Philippa scold her for her awkwardness. 'You need not make yourself plainer than you are, Jocelyn,' she would say severely; for Jill's awkward manners troubled her motherly vanity. 'What is the good of all the dancing and drilling and riding with Captain Cooper if you will persist in hunching your shoulders as though you were deformed? Fraeulein has been complaining of you this morning; she seems excessively displeased at your carelessness and want of application.' 'I know I shall get stupid, shut up in that dull hole with Fraeulein,' Jill would say passionately, after one of these maternal lectures. Aunt Philippa was really very fond of Jill; but she misunderstood the girl's nature. The system had answered so well with Sara that she could not be brought to comprehend why it should fail with her other child. Sara had grown up blooming and radiant in spite of the depressing influences of Fraeulein and the dull, narrow schoolroom. Her music and singing masters had come to her there. Little Madame Blanchard had chirped to her in Parisian accent for the hour together over les modes and le beau Paris. Sara had danced and drilled with the other young ladies at Miss Dugald's select establishment, and had joined them at the riding-school or in the cavalcade under Captain Cooper.
Sara had worn her bondage lightly, and had fascinated even grim old Herr Schliefer. Her tact and easy adaptability had kept Fraeulein Sonnenschein in a state of tepid good-humour. Every one, even cross old Draper, idolised Sara for her beauty and sprightly ways. When Aunt Philippa declared her education finished, she tripped out of the schoolroom as happily as possible to take possession of her grand new bedroom and the little boudoir, where all her girlish treasures were arranged. She had not been the least impatient for her day of freedom: it would all come in good time. When the sceptre was put into her hands and her sovereignty acknowledged by the whole household, the young princess was not a bit excited. She put on her court dress and made her courtesy to her majesty with the same charming unconsciousness and ease of manner. No wonder people were charmed with such good-humour and freshness. If the glossy hair did not cover a large amount of brains, no one found fault with her for that.
Jill raged and stormed fiercely under Sara's light-hearted philosophy; when her sister told her to be patient under Fraeulein's yoke, that a good time was coming for her also, when lesson-books would be shut up, and Herr Schliefer would cease to scatter snuff on the carpet as he sat drumming with his fingers on the keyboard and grunting out brief interjections of impatience.
'What does it matter about Herr Schliefer?' Jill would say, in a sort of fury. 'I like him a hundred times better than I do that mincing little poll-parrot of a Madame Blanchard: she is odious, and I hate her, and I hate Fraeulein too. It is not the lessons I mind; one has to learn lessons all one's life; it is being shut up like a bird in a cage when one's wings are ready for flight. I should like to fly away from this room, from Fraeulein, from the whole of the horrid set; it makes me cross, wicked, to live like this, and all your sugar-plums will do me no good. Go away, Sara; you do not understand as Ursula does, it makes me feel bad to see you standing there, looking so pretty and happy, and just laughing at me.'
'Of course I laugh at you, Jocelyn, when you behave like a baby,' returned Sara, trying to be severe, only her dimples betrayed her. 'Well, as you are so cross, I shall go away. There is the chocolate I promised you. Ta-ta.' And Sara put down the bonbonniere on the table and walked out of the room.
I was not surprised to see Jill push it away. No one understood the poor child but myself; she was precocious, womanly, for her age; she had twenty times the amount of brains that Sara possessed, and she was starving on the education provided for her.
To dance and drill and write dreary German exercises, when one is thirsting to drink deeply at the well of knowledge; to go round and round the narrow monotonous course that had sufficed for Sara's moderate abilities, like the blind horse at the mill, and never to advance an inch out of the beaten track, this was simply maddening to Jill's sturdy intellect. She often told me how she longed to attend classes, to hear lectures, to rub against full-grown minds.
'Now. Me-ess Jocelyn, we will do a little of ze Wallenstein, by the immortal Schiller. Hold up the head, and leave off striking the table with your elbows.' Jill would give a droll imitation of Fraeulein, and end with a groan.
'What does she know-about Schiller? She cannot even comprehend him. She is dense,—utterly dense and stupid; but because she knows her own language and has a correct deportment she is fit to teach me.' And Jill ground her little white teeth in impotent wrath. Jill always appeared to me like an infant Pegasus in harness; she wanted to soar,—to make use of her wings,—and they kept her down. She was not naturally gay, like Sara, though her health was good, and she was as powerful as a young Amazon. Her nature was more sombre and took colour from her surroundings.
She was like a child in the sunshine; plenty of life and movement distracted her from interior broodings and made her joyous; when she was riding with the young ladies from Miss Dugald's, she would be as merry as the others.
But her dreary schoolroom and Fraeulein's society chafed her nervous sensibilities dangerously; there were only a few brown sparrows, or a stray cat intent on game, to be seen from her window. From the drawing-room, from Sara's boudoir, from her mother's bedroom, there was a charming view of the Park. In the spring the fresh foliage of the trees, and the velvety softness of the grass, would be delicious; down in the broad white road, carriages were passing, horses cantering, happy-looking people in smart bonnets, in gorgeous mantles, driving about everywhere; children would be running up and down the paths in the Park, flower-sellers would stand offering their innocent wares to the passengers. Jill would sit entranced by her mother's window watching them; the sunshine, the glitter, the hubbub, intoxicated her; she made up stories by the dozen, as her dark eyes followed the gay equipages. When Fraeulein summoned her she went away reluctantly; the stories got into her head, and stopped there all the time she laboured through that long sonata.
'Why are your fingers all thumbs to-day, Fraeulein?' Herr Schliefer would demand gloomily. Jill, who was really fond of the stern old professor, hung her head and blushed guiltily. She had no excuse to offer: her girlish dreams were sacred to her; they came gliding to her through the most intricate passages of the sonata, now with a staccato movement,—brisk, lively,—with fitful energy, now andante, then crescendo, con passione. Jill's unformed girlish hands strike the chords wildly, angrily. 'Dolce, dolce,' screams the professor in her ears. The music softens, wanes, and the dreams seem to die away too. 'That will do, Fraeulein: you have not acquitted yourself so badly after all.' And Jill gets off her music-stool reluctant, absent, half awake, and her day-dream broken up into chaos.
As I opened the schoolroom door a half-forgotten picture of Cinderella came vividly before me.
The fire had burnt low; a heap of black ashes lay under the grate; and by the dull red glow I could see Jill's forlorn figure, very indistinctly, as she sat in her favourite attitude on the rug, her arms clasping her knees and her short black locks hanging loosely over her shoulders. She gave a little shrill exclamation of pleasure when she saw me.
'Ah, you dear darling bear, do come and hug me,' she cried, trying to get up in a hurry, but her dress entangled her.
'Where is Fraeulein?' I asked, pushing her back into her place, while I knelt down to manipulate the miserable fire. 'Jill, you look just like Cinderella when the proud sisters drove away to the ball. My dear, were you asleep? Why are you sitting in the dark, with the fire going out, and the lamp unlighted? There, it only wanted to be stirred; we shall have light by which to see other's faces directly,'
'Fraeulein has a headache and has gone to lie down,' returned Jill, and, though I could not see her clearly, I knew at once by her voice that she had been crying; only she would have been furious if I had noticed the fact. 'I hope I am not very wicked, but Fraeulein's headaches are the redeeming points in her character; she has them so often, and then she is obliged to lie down.'
'Of course you have offered to bathe her head?' I asked, a little mischievously, but Jill, who was unusually subdued, took the question in good part.
'Oh yes, and I spoke to her quite civilly; but I suppose she saw the savage gleam of delight in my eyes, for she was as cross as possible, and went away muttering that "Meess Jocelyn had the heart like the flint; if it had been Meess Sara, now—" and then she banged the door, so the pain could not have been so bad after all. It is my belief,' went on Jill, 'that Fraeulein always has a headache when she has a novel to finish. Mamma does not like her to set me an example of novel-reading, so she is obliged to lock herself in her own room.'
I took no notice of this statement, as I rather leaned to this view of the subject myself. Fraeulein's round placid face and excellent appetite showed no signs of suffering, and her constant plea of a bad headache was only received with any credulity by Aunt Philippa herself; neither Sara nor I had much respect for Fraeulein Sonnenschein, with her thick little figure, and big head covered with flimsy flaxen plaits. We were both aware of the smooth selfishness of her character, though Sara chose to ignore it for Jill's benefit. She was industrious, painstaking, and capable of a great deal of dull routine in the way of duties, but she was far too fond of her own comfort, and all the affection of which she was capable was lavished upon her own relatives; she had cared for Sara moderately, but her other pupil, Jill, was a thorn in her side. So I passed over Fraeulein's headache without comment, and took Jill to task somewhat sharply for the comfortless state of the room. A good scolding would rouse her from her dejection; the blinds were up and the curtains undrawn; the remains of a meal, the usual five-o'clock schoolroom tea, were still on the table. Jill's German books were heaped up beside her empty cup and the glass dish that contained marmalade; the kettle spluttered and hissed in the blaze; Jill's little black kitten, Sooty, was dragging a half-knitted stocking across the rug.
'I forgot to ring for Martha,' faltered Jill; 'she will come presently. Don't be cross, Ursula. I like the room as it is; it is deliciously untidy, just like Cinderella's kitchen; but there is no hope of the fairy godmother; and you are going away, and I shall be ten times more miserable.'
It was this that was troubling her, then; for I had told her my plans and all about my letter to Uncle Max. Perhaps she had heard his voice in the hall, for Jill's pretty little ears heard everything that went on in the house: she admitted her knowledge at once when I taxed her with it.
'Oh yes, I know Mr. Cunliffe is here. I heard papa go out and speak to him; his voice sounded quite cheerful; and now he has come and it will all be settled; and you will go away and be happy with your poor people, and forget that I am fretting myself to death in this horrid room.'
She had drawn me down on the rug forcibly,—for she had the strength of a young Titaness,—and was wrapping her arms around me with a sort of fierce impatience. Her big eyes looked troubled and affectionate. Few people admired Jill; she was undeveloped and awkward, full of angles, and a little brusque in manner; she had a way of thrusting out her big feet and squaring her shoulders that horrified Aunt Philippa. She was very big, certainly, and would never possess Sara's slim grace. Her hair had been cropped in some illness, and had not grown so fast as they expected, but hung in short thick lengths about her neck; it was always getting into her eyes, and was being pushed back impatiently, but she would much oftener throw her head back with a fling like an unbroken pony, for she was jerky as young things often are.
But, though, people found fault with Jill, and often said that she would never be as handsome as Sara, I liked her face. Perhaps it was a little irregular and her complexion slightly sallow, but when she was flushed or excited and she opened her big bright eyes, and one could see her little white teeth gleaming as she laughed, I have thought Jill could look almost beautiful; but her good looks depended on her expression.
'I suppose it will be settled,' I replied, with a quick catch at my breath, for the mere mention of the subject excited me; 'but you will be a good child and not fret if I do go away. No, I shall never forget you,' as a close hug answered me; 'I love you too dearly for that; but I want you to be brave about it, dear, for I cannot be happy wasting my time and doing nothing. You know how ill I was before I went to St. Thomas's, so that Uncle Max was obliged to tell Aunt Philippa that I must have change and hard work, or I should follow Charlie.'
'Oh yes, and we were all so frightened about you, you poor thing; you looked so pinched and miserable. Well, I suppose I must let you go, as you are so wicked as to disobey the proverb that "Charity begins at home."'
'Listen to me, dear,' I returned, quite pleased to find her so reasonable. 'I am very glad to know that I have been a comfort to you, but I shall hope to be so still. I will write long letters to you, Jill, and tell you all about my work, and you shall answer them, and talk to me on paper about the books you have read, and the queer thoughts you have, and how patient and strong you have grown, and how you have learned to put up with Fraeulein's little ways and not aggravate her with your untidiness.' And here Jill's hand—and it was by no means a small hand—closed my lips rather abruptly. But I was used to this sort of sledge-hammer form of argument.
'Oh, it is all very fine for you to sit there and moralise, Ursula, like a sort of sucking Diogenes,' grumbled Jill, 'when you know you are going to have your own way and live a deliciously sort of three-volume-novel life, not like any one else's, unless it were Don Quixote, or one of the Knights of the Round Table, poking about among a lot of strange people, doing wonderful things for them, until they are all ready to worship you. It is all very well for you, I say; but what would you do if you were me?' cried Jill, in her shrill treble, and quite oblivious of grammatical niceties; 'how would you like to be poor me, shut up here with that old dragon?'
This was a grand opportunity for airing my philosophy, and I rushed at it. To Jill's amazement, I shook my hair back in the way she usually shook her rough black mane, and, opening my eyes very widely, tried to copy Jill's falsetto.
'How thankful I am Jocelyn Garston and not Ursula Garston,' I said, with rapid staccato. 'Poor Ursula! I am fond of her, but I would not change places with her for the world. She has known such a lot of trouble in her life, more than most girls, I believe; she has lost her lovely home,—such a sweet old place,—and her mother and father and Charlie, all her nearest and her most beloved, and she is so sad that she wants to work hard and forget her troubles.'
'Oh dear!' sighed Jill at this.
'How happy I am compared with her!' I went on, relapsing unconsciously into my own voice. 'I am young and strong; I have all my life before me. True, poor Ralph has gone, but I was only a child, and did not miss him. I have a good father and an indulgent mother' ('Humph!' observed Jill at this point, only she turned it into a cough); 'if my present schoolroom life is not to my taste, I am sensible enough to know that the drudgery and restraint will not last for long; in another year, or a year and a half, Fraeulein, whom I certainly do not love, will go back to her own country. I shall be free to read the books I like, to study what I choose, or to be idle. I shall have Sara's cheerful companionship instead of Fraeulein's heavy company; I shall ride; I shall walk in the sunshine; I shall be a butterfly instead of a chrysalis; and if I care to be useful, all sorts of paths will be open to me.'
'There, hold your tongue,' interrupted Jill, with a rough kiss; 'of course I know I am a wicked, ungrateful wretch, and that I ought to be more patient. Yes, you shall go, Ursula; you are a darling, but I will not want to keep you; you are too good to be wasted on me; it would be like pouring gold into a sieve. Well, I did cry about it this afternoon, but I won't be such a goose any more. I will live my life the same way, in spite of all of them, you will see if I don't, Ursula. Who is it who says, "The thoughts of youth are long long thoughts"? I have such big thoughts sometimes, especially when I sit in the dark. I send them out like strange birds, all over the world,—up, up, everywhere,—but they never come back to me again,' finished Jill mournfully; 'if they build nests I never know it: I just sit and puzzle out things, like poor little grimy Cinderella.'
Jill's eloquence did not surprise me. I knew she was very clever, and full of unfledged poetry, and I had often heard her talk in that way; but I had no time to answer her, for just then the first gong sounded, and I could hear Sara running up to her room to dress for dinner. Jill jumped up, and tugged at the bell-rope rather fiercely.
'Martha must have forgotten all about the tea-things; very likely the lamp is smoky and will have to be trimmed. I must not come and help you, Ursie dear, for I have to learn my German poetry before I dress.' And Jill pulled down the blinds and drew the curtains with a vigorous hand. Martha looked quite frightened at the sight of Jill's energy and her own remissness.
'Why did you not ring before, Miss Jocelyn?' she said, plaintively, and in rather an injured voice, as she carried away the tea-tray.
Uncle Max passed me in the passage; Clarence was following with his portmanteau; he looked surprised to see me still in my bonnet with my fur cape trailing over one arm; but I nodded to him cheerfully and went quickly into my room.
My life at St. Thomas's had inured me to hardness; it had contrasted strangely with my luxurious surroundings at Hyde Park Gate. Aunt Philippa certainly treated me well in her way. I had a full share of the loaves and the fishes of the household; my room was as prettily furnished as Jill's; a bright fire burnt in the grate; there were pink candles on the dressing-table. Martha, who waited upon us both, had put out my black evening dress on the bed, and had warmed my dressing-gown; she would come to me by and by with a civil offer of help.
I was rather puzzled at the sight of a little breast-knot of white chrysanthemums that lay on the table, until I remembered Uncle Max; no one had ever brought me flowers since Charlie's death; he had gathered the last that I ever wore—some white violets that grew in a little hollow in the ground of Rutherford Lodge. I hesitated painfully before I pinned the modest little bouquet in my black dress, but I feared Uncle Max would be hurt if I failed to appear in it. I wore mother's pearl necklace as usual, and the little locket with her hair; somehow I took more pleasure in dressing myself this evening, when I knew Uncle Max's kind eyes would be on me.
I had not hurried myself, and the second gong sounded before I reached the drawing-room, so I came face to face with Lesbia, who was coming out on Uncle Brian's arm. She kissed me in her quiet way, and said, 'How do you do, Ursula?' just as though we had met yesterday, and passed on.
I thought she looked prettier than ever that evening—like a snow princess, in her white gown, with a little fleecy shawl drawn round her shoulders, for she took cold easily. She had a soft creamy complexion, and fair hair that she wore piled up in smooth plaits on her head; she had plaintive blue eyes that could be brilliant at times, and a lovely mouth, and she was tall and graceful like Sara.
They made splendid foils to each other; but in my opinion Sara carried the palm: she was more piquant and animated; her colouring was brighter, and she had more expression; but Charlie's Lily, as he called her, was quite as much admired, and indeed they were both striking-looking girls.
I saw that Uncle Max took a great deal of notice of Lesbia, who sat next to him. I could not hear their conversation, but a pretty pink colour tinged Lesbia's face, and her eyes grew dark and bright as she listened, and I saw her glance at her left hand where the half-hoop of diamonds glistened that Charlie had placed there; she had not quite forgotten the dear boy then, for I am sure she sighed, but the next moment she had turned from Uncle Max, and was engaged in an eager discussion with Sara about some private theatricals in which Sara was to take a part.
When we went back to the drawing-room we found Fraeulein in her favourite red silk dress, trying to repair the damage that Sooty had wrought in her half-knitted stocking, and Jill, looking very bored and uncomfortable, turning over the photograph album in a corner. She looked awkward and sallow in her Indian muslin gown: the flimsy stuff did not suit her any more than the pink coral beads she wore round her neck. Her black locks bobbed uneasily over the book. She looked bigger than ever when she stood up to speak to Lesbia.
'How that child is growing!' observed Aunt Philippa behind her fan to Fraeulein, whose round face was beaming with smiles at the entrance of the ladies. 'That gown was made only a few weeks ago, and she is growing out of it already. Jocelyn, my love, why do you hunch your shoulders so when, you talk to Lesbia? I am always telling you of this awkward habit.'
Poor Jill frowned and reddened a little under this maternal admonition; her eyes looked black and fierce as she sat down again with her photographs. This hour was always a penance to her; she could not speak or move easily, for fear of some remark from Aunt Philippa. When her mother and Fraeulein interchanged confidences behind the big spangled fan, the poor child always thought they were talking about her.
Her bigness, her awkwardness, troubled Jill excessively. Her clumsy hands and feet seemed always in her way.
'I know I am the ugly duckling,' she would say, with tears in her eyes; 'but I shall never turn into a swan like Sara and Lesbia,—not that I want to be like them!'—with a little scorn in her voice. 'Lesbia is too tame, too namby-pamby, for my taste; and Sara is stupid. She laughs and talks, but she never says anything that people have not said a hundred times before. Oh, I am so tired of it all! I grow more cross and disagreeable every day,' finished Jill, who was very frank on the subject of her shortcoming.
I would have stopped and talked to Jill, only Lesbia tapped me on the arm rather peremptorily.
'Come into the back drawing-room,' she said, in a low voice. 'I want to speak to you.—Jill, why do you not practise your new duet with Sara? She will play nothing but valses all the evening, unless you prevent it'
But Jill shook her head sulkily; she felt safer in her corner. Sara was strumming on the grand pianoforte as we passed her; her slim fingers were running lazily over the keys in the 'Verliebt und Verloren' valse. Clarence was lighting the candles; William was bringing in the coffee; and Colonel Ferguson was following rather unceremoniously. People were always dropping in at Hyde Park Gate: perhaps Sara's bright eyes magnetised them. We had colonels and majors and captains at our will, for there was a martial craze in the house: to-night it was grave, handsome Colonel Ferguson.
He was rather a favourite with Uncle Brian and Aunt Philippa, perhaps because his troubles interested them; he had buried his young wife and child in an Indian grave, and some people said that he had come to England to look out for a second wife.
He was a very handsome man, and still young enough to find favour in a girl's sight, and his wealth made him a grand parti in the parents' eyes. At present he had bestowed equal attention on Sara and Lesbia, though close observers might have noticed that he lingered longest by Sara's side.
'How do you do, Colonel Ferguson?' said Sara, nodding to him in her bright, unconcerned way, as she finished her valse. 'Mother is over there talking to Fraeulein: you will find your coffee ready for you.' And her glossy little head bent over the keys again, while the lazy music trickled through her fingers. Though Colonel Ferguson did as he was told, I fancied he would keep a close watch over the young performer.
The inner drawing-room had heavy velvet hangings that closed over the archway; on cold evenings the curtains would be drawn rather closely; there would be a bright fire, and a single lamp lighted. Very often Uncle Brian would retire with his book or paper when Sara's valses wearied him or the room filled with young officers. Since Ralph's death he had certainly become rather taciturn and unsociable. Aunt Philippa, who loved gaiety, never accompanied him, but now and then Jill would creep from her corner, when her mother was not looking, and slip behind the ruby curtains. I have caught her there sometimes sitting on the rug, with her rough head against her father's knee; they would both of them look a little shamefaced, as if they were guilty of some fault.
'Go to bed, Jill; it is time for little girls to be asleep,' he would say, patting her cheek. Jill would nestle it on his coat-sleeve for a moment, as she obeyed him. Her father had the softest place in her heart. She always would have it that her mother was hard on her, but she never complained of want of kindness from her father.
'Colonel Ferguson comes very often,' remarked Lesbia, a little peevishly, as she walked to the fireplace to warm herself: she was a chilly being, and loved warmth. 'His name is Donald, is it not? some one told me so: Donald Ferguson. Well, he is not bad; he may do for Sara. She has plenty of quicksilver to balance his gravity.'
I was rather surprised at this beginning; but without waiting for any answer, she went on.
'What is this Mr. Cunliffe tells me?' she asked, fixing her blue eyes on my face with marked interest. 'You are going to carry out your old scheme, Ursula, about nursing poor people and singing to them. He tells me you have chosen Heathfield for your future home, and that he is to find you lodgings. Sit down, dear, and tell me all about it,' she went on eagerly. 'I thought you had given up all that when—when—' but here she stopped and her lips trembled; of course she meant when Charlie died, but she rarely spoke his name. I would not let her see my astonishment,—she had never seemed so sisterly before,—but I took the seat close to her and talked to her as openly as though she were Jill or Uncle Max; now and then I paused, and we could hear Colonel Ferguson's deep voice: he was evidently turning over the pages of Sara's music.
'Go on, Ursula; I like to hear it,' Lesbia would say when I hesitated; she was not looking at me, but at the fire, with her cheek supported against her hand.
'What do you think of it?' I asked, presently, when I had finished and we had both been silent a few minutes listening to one of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words that Sara was playing very nicely.
'What do I think of it?' she replied, and her voice startled me, it was so full of pain. 'Oh, Ursula, I think you are to be envied! If I could only come with you and work too!—but there is mother, she could not do without me, and so we must just go on in the same old way.'
I was so shocked at the hopelessness of her tone, so taken aback at her words, that I could not answer her for a moment: it seemed inconceivable to me that she could be saying such things. Poor pretty Lesbia, whom Charlie had loved and whom I considered a mere fragile butterfly. She was quite pale now, and her eyes filled suddenly with tears.
'You do not believe me, Ursula; no, I was right—you never understood me. I often told dear Charlie so. You think, because I laugh and dance and do as other girls do, that I have forgotten—that I do not suffer. Do you think I shall ever find any one so good and kind in this world again? Oh, you are hard on me, and I am so miserable, so unhappy, without Charlie. And I am not like you: I cannot work myself into forgetfulness; I must stop with mother and do as she bids me, and she says it is my duty to be gay.'
I was so ashamed of myself, of my mean injustice, that I was very nearly crying myself as I asked her pardon.
'Why do you say that?' she returned, almost pettishly, only she looked so miserable. 'I have nothing to forgive. I only want you to be good to me and not think the worst, for I'm really fond of you, Ursula, only you are so reserved and cold with me,'
'My poor dear,' I returned, taking the pretty face between my hands and kissing it. 'I will never be unkind to you again. Forgive me if I have misunderstood you: for Charlie's sake I want to love you.' And then she put her head down on my shoulder and cried a little, and bemoaned herself for being so unhappy; and all the time I comforted her my guilty conscience owned that Uncle Max was right.
UNCLE MAX BREAKS THE ICE
Uncle Max was one of those men who like to take their own way about things; he never hurried himself, or allowed other people's impatience to get the better of him. 'There is a time for everything, as Solomon says,' was his favourite speech when any one reproached him with procrastination; 'depend upon it, the best work is done slowly. What is the use of so much hurry? When death comes we shall be sure to leave something unfinished.'
So for two whole days he just chatted commonplaces with Aunt Philippa, rallied Sara, who loved a joke, and talked politics with Uncle Brian, and never mentioned one word about my scheme; if I looked anxiously at him he pretended to misunderstand my meaning, and, in fact, behaved from morning to night in a most provoking way.
At last I could bear it no longer, and one wet afternoon, when I knew he was in the drawing-room, making believe to write his letters, but in reality getting a deal of amusement out of Sara's sprightly conversation, for she was never silent for two minutes if she could help it, I shut myself up in my own room, and would not go near him. I knew he would ask where Ursula was every half-hour, and would soon guess that I was out of humour about something; and possibly in an hour or two his conscience would prick him, and he would feel that I deserved reparation.
This little piece of ill-tempered artifice bore excellent fruit, for before I had nearly finished the piece of plain sewing I had set myself as a sort of penance, there was a tap at the door, and Sara came in, looking very excited, with her bright eyes full of wonder.
'Oh, Ursula, there is such a fuss downstairs! Uncle Max has been telling us all about your absurd scheme. Mother is as cross as possible; she is so angry, and yet half crying at the same time.'
'And Uncle Brian,' I exclaimed eagerly,—'what does he say?'
'Oh, you know father's way. He just smiled as though the whole thing were beneath his notice, and went on reading his paper, and when mother appealed to him he said, coolly, that it was none of his business or hers either if Ursula chose to make a fool of herself; she had the right to do so,—something like that, you know.'
'How very pleasant!' I remarked satirically, for I hated the way Uncle Brian put down his foot on things that displeased him. I preferred Aunt Philippa's voluble arguments to that.
'To make things worse,' went on Sara cheerfully, 'Mrs. Fullerton and Lesbia have come in, and mother and Mrs. Fullerton are trying which can talk the faster. Lesbia asked for you, and then did not speak another word. What shall you do, Ursula, dear?'
'I shall just go down and ask Aunt Philippa for a cup of tea,' I returned coolly, folding up my work. Sara looked half frightened at my boldness, and then she began to laugh.
'It is so absurd, you know,' she returned, linking her arm in mine affectionately. 'What ever put such nonsense in your head? you are so comfortable here with us, and you have your own way, and I never tease you now about going to balls. It is so silly of you trying to make yourself miserable, and living in poky lodgings. You might as well be a fakir, or a dervish, or a Protestant nun, or anything else that is unpleasant.'
'My dear, you do not know anything about it,' I answered rather angrily. 'You and I are different people, Sara; we shall never think the same about anything.'
'Well, I don't know,' she returned, half affronted: 'when people try to be extra good I always find they succeed in making themselves extra disagreeable. It is far more religious, in my opinion, to be pleasant to every one, and make them believe that there is something cheerful in life, instead of pulling a long face and doing such dreadfully bad things.' And after this little fling, in which she tried to be very severe, only as usual her dimples betrayed her, she begged me quite earnestly to smooth my hair, as though I were breaking one of the commandments by keeping it rough; and, having obliged her in this particular, and allowed her to peep at her own pretty face over my shoulder, we went down to the drawing-room as though we were the best of friends.
It was impossible to quarrel with Sara; she was as gay and irresponsible as a child; one might as well have been angry with a butterfly for brushing his gold-powdered wings across your face; the gentle flappings of Sara's speeches never raised a momentary vexation in my mind. I was often weary of her, but then we do weary of children's company sometimes; in certain moods her bright sparkling effervescence seemed to jar upon me: but I never liked to see her sad. Sadness did not become Sara; when she cried, which was as seldom as possible, and only when some one died, or she lost a pet canary, all her beauty dimmed, and she looked limp and forlorn, like a crushed butterfly or a draggled flower.
I do not think I was quite as cool and unconcerned as I wished to appear when I marched into the drawing-room, and, after greeting Mrs. Fullerton and Lesbia, asked Aunt Philippa for a cup of tea.
Quite a hubbub of voices had struck on my ear as I opened the door, and yet complete silence met me. Lesbia, indeed, whispered 'Poor Ursula' as I kissed her, but Mrs. Fullerton looked at me with grave disapproval. Aunt Philippa was sitting bolt upright behind the tea-tray, and handed me my cup, rather as Lady Macbeth did the dagger. I received it, however, as though it were my due, and glanced at Uncle Max; but he was too wise to look at me, so I said, as coolly as possible, 'Why are you so silent, and yet you were talking loudly enough before Sara and I came into the room?' For there is nothing like taking the bull of a dilemma by the horns; and I had plenty of, let us say, native impudence, only, personally, I should have given it another name; and then, of course, I brought the storm upon me.
Sara was right. Aunt Philippa certainly talked the faster; Mrs. Fullerton tried her best to edge in a word now and then,—a very scathing word, too,—but there was no silencing that flow of rapid talk. I quite envied her pure diction and the ingenious turn of her sentences; she made so much of her own admirable foresight and care of me, and so little of my merits.
'I always said something like this would happen, Ursula. I have told your uncle often,—Brian, why don't you speak?—yes, indeed, I have told him often that I never met any one so strong-minded and self-willed. You need not laugh, Sara,—unless you do it to provoke me,—but I have been like a mother to Ursula. Thank heaven, my daughters are not of this pattern! they do not mistake eccentricity for goodness, or flaunt ridiculous notions in the faces of their elders.'
This was too bad of Aunt Philippa; only she had lost her temper, and was feeling utterly aggrieved, and Mrs. Fullerton, who was a meddlesome, good-humoured woman, and who had nothing of which to complain in life except a little over-plumpness and too much money, was agreeing with her like a good neighbour and friend.
Uncle Max was smiling, and pulling his beard behind his paper; but he made no attempt to check the flow of feminine eloquence. He had said his say like a man, and had taken my part behind my back, and he knew women were like new wine,—very sound and sweet, but they must find their vent. Aunt Philippa would be kinder ever after if we let her scold us properly, and took our scolding with a good grace.
Once or twice Uncle Brian let his eye-glasses dangle, and spoke a peevish word or two.
'Nonsense, my dear! have I not said over and over again that this is none of our business? Ursula is old enough to know her own mind; if she chooses to be eccentric we cannot hinder her. All this talk goes for nothing.'
'Ah, but, Mr. Garston, young people want guidance,' observed Mrs. Fullerton impressively, for Aunt Philippa was beginning to sob, partly from the effects of wasted eloquence, and perhaps with a little shortness of breathing: anyway, her anger was working itself out. 'If you were to advise Ursula as you would Sara, your influence might induce her to change her mind.'
'I cannot endorse your opinion, Mrs. Fullerton,' returned Uncle Brian drily. 'I am far too keen an observer of human nature to think we can talk sense to deaf ears with any benefit.—Ursula, my child,' turning to me with a smile that might have been kinder, but perhaps he meant it to be so, 'there is not a grain of sense in your scheme: in spite of Cunliffe's eloquence, it will not hold water; in fact, in a little while you will be glad to come back to us again. When you do, I think I can promise that we will not laugh at you more than once a day, and then moderately.'
Now, this speech of Uncle Brian's made me very angry. No doubt he meant to be kind, and to show me that if my scheme failed I might come home to them again; but I was so much in earnest that his satire and his laughing at me hurt me more than all Aunt Philippa's hard speeches. So I flushed up, and for the first time tears came into my eyes; for he had prophesied failure, and I could not bear that, and I might have said words in my sudden irritation for which I should have been sorry afterwards, only Lesbia, who had sat behind me all this time, as silent and soft-breathed as a mouse, got up quickly and took my hand and stood by me.
'I think you have all said plenty of hard things to Ursula, and no one has been kind to her. I think she deserves praise and not all this blame; if she cannot lead the comfortable life we do, thinking how we are to get the most pleasure and enjoy ourselves, it is because she is better than we are, and thinks more about her duty. Mrs. Garston,—I do not mean to be rude, I am far too fond of you all, because you have all been so good to me,'—and here Lesbia's while throat swelled,—'but I cannot bear to hear Ursula so blamed. Mr. Cunliffe, I know you agree with me, you said so many nice things when Ursula was out of the room.'
This little burst of eloquence surprised us all. Uncle Max said afterwards that he was quite touched by it. Lesbia was generally so quiet and undemonstrative that her words took Aunt Philippa by storm. She might have been offended by Lesbia saying that I was better than the rest of them,—a fact that my conscience most emphatically contradicted; but when Lesbia kissed her, and begged her to think better of things, she cried a little because Charlie was not there to see how pretty she could look, and then cheered up, and made overtures that I might come and kiss her too, which I did most willingly, and with a full heart, remembering she was my father's sister and had been good to me according to her lights.
When Uncle Max saw that reconciliation was imminent, and that by Lesbia's help I was likely to have the best of it, my own way, and a good deal of petting to follow,—for they would all make more of me during the short time I would be with them,—he threw down his paper in high good-humour and joined us.
'That is what I call sensible, Mrs. Garston,' he said, paying her a compliment at once, as she sat flushed and fanning herself, 'and Ursula ought to feel herself very grateful to you for your forbearance and acquiescence in her plan.'
I do not believe he knew any more than myself where the forbearance had been, but he took it all for granted.
'Nothing puts heart into a person more than feeling sure of one's friends' sympathy. Now, we all of us, even Garston, in spite of his disapproval, wish Ursula good success in her scheme; some of us think better of it than others; for my own part, I am so convinced that she will have so many difficulties and disappointments to hamper her that I cannot bear to say a discouraging word.' And yet he had said dozens, only I was magnanimous and forgave him.
This settled the matter, for Aunt Philippa grew so sorry for me that she was almost out of breath again pitying me. 'I do not believe she can help it,' she said, in rather an audible aside to Mrs. Fullerton; 'her mother had a sort of craze about these things, and seemed to think it part of her religion to make herself uncomfortable; and poor Herbert was quite as bad, only he was a clergyman, and it did not matter so much with him; so I suppose the poor child inherits it. This sort of thing runs in families,' went on Aunt Philippa, in an awe-struck voice, as though it were a species of insanity. 'I am only thankful that my own girls have not got these notions.'
Mrs. Fullerton found out now that it was time to go home and dress for dinner, so Lesbia came round to me and whispered that I must come and see her soon, for she wanted to talk to me, and not to Sara, who was always running in and out.
'I am very fond of Sara, and like to see her, she amuses me so; but when I want advice or sympathy I feel I must come to you now, Ursula.' And though she had never said so much to me before, I knew she meant it; that there was some change in her, some want of nature or heaven knows what feminine need, when she missed me, and wanted me, and found some comfort in the thought of me.
There was no time for more discussion, and indeed we were all a little weary of it; but after dinner Uncle Max, who seemed in excellent spirits, as though he had done something wonderful and was proud of his own achievements, beckoned me into the inner drawing-room under pretence of showing me some engravings, and when we found ourselves alone, he said pleasantly, though abruptly—
'Well, Ursula, I thought you would be glad to have an opportunity of thanking me, for of course you feel very grateful to me for all the trouble I have taken.'
'Oh, indeed!' I returned scornfully, for it would never do to encourage this vainglorious spirit. 'I should have felt more disposed to thank you if you had not kept me for two days in suspense!'
'That is the result of doing a woman a good turn,' shaking his head mournfully. 'The moment she gets her own way, she turns upon you and rends you. Fie, fie on you, little she-bear!'
'Oh, Max, do be quiet a moment.'
'Max, indeed! Where are your manners, child? What would Garston say if he heard your flippancy?' But by the way he stroked his beard and looked at me, I saw he was not displeased. No one would have taken him for my uncle who had seen us together, for he was a young-looking man, and I was old for my age.
'I do want you to be serious a moment,' I went on plaintively. 'I am really very obliged to you for having broken the ice: after all, I have not been badly submerged. I soon rose to the surface when Lesbia held out a helping hand.'
'Well, now, Ursula, do you not agree with me?—was not Lesbia a darling?'
'She was very nice and sisterly,' I confessed. 'She has more in her than I ever thought. Poor little thing! I am afraid she is very unhappy, only she hides it so.'
'Just so. That shows her good sense: the world is very intolerant of a protracted grief; its victims must learn to dry their eyes quickly.'
Uncle Max was becoming philosophical: this would never do.
'Never mind about Lesbia,' I observed impatiently, 'we can talk about her in the next room; what I want to know is, how soon I may come to Heathfield.' For I knew how dilatory men can be about other people's business, and I fully expected that Uncle Max would put me off to the summer.
'You may come as soon as you like,' he returned, rather too carelessly. 'Shall we say next week, or will that be too early?'
I suppressed my astonishment cleverly, but was down on him in a moment.
'I should like to have some place found for me first,' I remarked sententiously; 'you must take lodgings for me first, and then I can settle my plans.'
'Oh, that is done already,' he observed cheerfully. 'I have spoken to Mrs. Barton about you, and she has very nice rooms vacant. I wanted them for Tudor, until I mooted the vicarage plan. It is a tidy little place, Ursula, and I think you will be very comfortable there.'
I felt that Uncle Max deserved praise, and I gave it to him without stint or limit; he took it nobly, like a man who feels he has earned his reward.
'I fancy I have done a neat thing,' he said modestly.
'Directly I read your letter and saw that you were in earnest, I went down to Mrs. Barton and had a long talk with her. Do you remember the White Cottage, Ursula, that stands just where the road dips a little, after you have passed the vicarage? It is on the main road that leads to the common: there is a field, and one or two houses, and on the right the road branches off to Main Street, where my poorer parishioners live. Oh, I see that you have forgotten. Well, there is a low white cottage, standing far back from the road, with rather a pretty garden, and a field at the back: people call it the White Cottage; though it is smothered in jasmine in the summer; and there is a nice little parlour with a bedroom over it. That will do capitally, I fancy. Old Mrs. Meredith lived there until her death, and she left her furniture to Mrs. Barton.'
I expressed myself as being well pleased at this description, and then inquired a little anxiously if there were room for my piano and my books.
'Oh yes, it is quite a good-sized room; that is why I wanted it for Tudor. You will not mind it being a little low: it is only a cottage, remember. There is a nice easy couch, I spotted that at once, and a capital easy-chair, and some corner cupboards that will, hold a store of good things; you can make it as pretty as possible.'
'And Mrs. Barton, Max,—is she a pleasant person?'
'There could not be a pleasanter. You will find yourself in clover, Ursula, you will indeed; she is a nice little woman, and has all the cardinal virtues, I believe; she is a widow and has a big son who works at Roberts's, the builder's. Nathaniel is very big, very big indeed, so much so that I feel it my duty to warn you of his size, for fear you should receive a shock. The cottage just holds him when he sits down, and his mother's one anxiety is that he should not bring down the kitchen ceiling more than once a year, as it hurts his head and comes expensive; he has a black collie they call Tinker, the cleverest dog in the place, so Nathaniel says; and these three constitute the household of the White Cottage.'
I was charmed with Uncle Max's account; the cottage seemed cosy and homelike. I knew I could trust his opinion; he was a good judge of character, and was seldom wrong in his estimate of a man, woman, or child, and he would be especially careful to intrust me to a thoroughly reliable person. I begged him therefore to close with Mrs. Barton at once; she asked a very moderate price for her rooms, and I could have afforded higher terms. It would not take me long to pack my books and other treasures: some of them I should be obliged to leave behind, but I must take all Charlie's books and my own, and my favourite pictures and bits of china, and a store of fine linen for my own use. I was somewhat demoralised by the luxury at Hyde Park Gate, and liked to make myself comfortable after my own way. Poor Charlie used to laugh at me and say I should be an old maid, and, as I considered this fact inevitable, I took his teasing in good part.
I told Uncle Max that I thought I could be ready in another week, and that I saw no good in delay. He assented to this, and was kind enough to add that the sooner I came the better. I was a little dismayed to find that he had not considered himself bound to keep my counsel; he had talked about my plan to his curate, Mr. Tudor, and I gathered from his manner, for he refused to tell me any more, that he had discussed it with another person.
This was too bad, but I would not let him see that this vexed me. I wanted to settle in and begin my work quietly before the neighbourhood knew of my existence; but if Uncle Max published my intended arrival in every house he visited, I felt I could not even worship in comfort, for fear the congregation should be eying me suspiciously.
I thought it better to change the subject: so I began to question him about Mr. Tudor and Mrs. Drabble, the latter being the ruling power at the vicarage; and he fell upon the bait and swallowed it eagerly, so my vexation passed unnoticed.
Uncle Max did not live quite alone. His house was large, far too large for an unmarried man, and he was very sociable by nature, so he induced his curate to take up his abode with him; but the two men and Mrs. Drabble, the housekeeper, and the maid under her, could not fill it, and several rooms were shut up. Lawrence Tudor had been a pupil of Uncle Max, and the two were very much attached to each other. Uncle Max had brought him up once or twice to Hyde Park Gate, and we had all been much pleased with him. He was not in the least good-looking, but I remember Sara said he was gentlemanly and pleasant and had a nice voice. I knew his frank manner and evident affection for Uncle Max prepossessed me in his favour; he had been very athletic in his college days, and was passionately fond of boating and cricket, and he was very musical and sang splendidly.