Wednesday, 13 January 2010
Shivering a little at the change from the warm hall to the northerly wind, Eden drew her scarf closer to her throat, and comforted herself with the thought that she should soon reach the shelter of the plantations.
But ere she had gone more than half way across the open ground she thought she heard a footstep behind her, and looked back, expecting to see Flip.
Her heart bonded joyfully at this proof that she was already missed and sought. it was so pleasant to think that everyone did not despise her because she was poor; but still she resolutely determined not to be induced by any arguments to return and expose herself a second time to Mrs. Merstham's ill nature.
However, it was neither of the Stretbys whom she saw approaching, but Captain Lyssendon, whose long strides were bringing him towards her so rapidly that she saw the impossibility of avoiding him, and, therefore, waited in grave silence until he came up.
"Miss Aubrey, you left us so suddenly that your friends had not time to provide you with an escort," he said, courteously. "Will you permit me to see you home?"
"Thanks; but Flip knows that I am never afraid to go alone. And," thought Eden, with a little touch of pique, "even were I willing to have a companion, you are the last person whose society I should care to accept, until I have learned to guard my tongue a little better."
She wished him good evening, and walked on, as if her civil refusal had settled the question; but still he kept beside her, saying that he could not think of allowing a lady to cross the lonely copses by herself.
"But if I prefer it, sir?" she asked, beginning to feel annoyed at his pertinacity.
"If that means that you expect some one to meet you, and I should be in the way," he retorted, significantly, "why, of course, I will leave you. If not, I may surely be permitted to see you in safety to the entrance of the village."
To this speech Eden made no other reply than a resentful flash of her brown eyes. What business had he - a stranger - to take such a significant tone, and utter insinuations that offended her modesty? He might - may, it seemed that he would - walk beside her if he pleased, and she knew not how to prevent it' but she would be so mute, that he should have no further opportunity of affronting her, nor carry away with him the flattering idea that his society had proved acceptable.
But Frank Lyssendon had seen that resentful glance, and availed himself of it to enter on his defence.
"You are very angry with me, Miss Aubrey, for forcing myself upon you in this way, and so I'll own at once that I followed you from the rink because I owe you an apology. Nay, pray hear me out. I was unpardonably insolent to you the other day. I don't know what evil spirit could have taken possession of me when I made myself so disagreeable. I daresay you have called me a bear and a brute in your thoughts ever since."
"I certainly have thought that you were very cross with me, and I knew I had not done anything - purposely, I mean - to deserve it."
"Of course you had not: the fault was wholly mine; and the only excuse that I can offer is, that something had occurred as my friends and I were on our way to The Beeches that very much vexed me; and when you avowed an intimacy with my cousin Verna -"
Eden's exclamation of astonishment caused him to stop suddenly.
"I did not know that you and Mrs Merstham were related. But I beg your pardon," she added. "Of course that is nothing to me. What I wanted to say is this: you forget that there can be no intimacy between a person in her position and one in mine."
"Yes, Mrs Merstham is my cousin," Captain Lyssendon repeated, speaking with much deliberation; "and some some years since we had a dispute about - money, which ended in a total estrangement. As is frequently the case when people quarrel, she thought herself in the right, while I considered myself so much aggrieved, that I did not wish to see her again; and when you hinted that she had been showing you a silly picture, which she ought to have burned..."
"How you jump at conclusions!" cried Eden saucily. "I could and would have told you, if you had not been too angry to listen, that she did not show me that picture, and that she never made any allusion to the gentleman who figures in it. On the contrary, when I remarked on the careful painting of the Romeo, she gave me to understand by her chilling silence that she considered me impertinent for noticing anything but the likeness of her own beautiful self."
"Every word you say makes me feel more and more ashamed of my diabolical fit of temper!" exclaimed Frank. "I must have been out of my senses - really I must! What! don't you believe me?"
For Eden was looking very much inclined to laugh at him.
"Believe that you think you were foolish to take any notice of my incautious remark? Oh yes! Because if you had only smiled at it, or just said, 'Oh! Indeed! there would have been no necessity for this long apology."
"But you do believe that I am more sorry than I can express for my rudeness to you? No, I don't think you do, for you are laughing again."
"I was thinking of Major Halliss. he told me that you are under his tuition, and I find that he has taught you some of his own - accomplishments, shall I call them?"
"Which of them?" asked Frank, now laughing too. "But no, don't tell me, for I really am neither exaggerating nor fibbing when I say that I have been looking quite anxiously for an opportunity of expressing my deep - my very deep regret -"
"Oh! don't go to the lowest depths of contrition for so slight an offence!" cried the amused Eden. "It has been a silly affair altogether. I ought not to have told my thoughts so hastily, and you - well, we will say no more about your little fit of temper. I have one myself sometimes."
"And so you are going to be merciful and forgive me?"
"If there is anything to forgive. You were cross, it is true; but then I have revenged myself by saying all sorts of spiteful things of you - only mentally of course. I do not mean to speak my thoughts aloud any more."
"Then, it's my turn to be magnanimous; and so, Miss Aubrey, I forgive you; but don't transgress again. When you think of me in future - and may it be often! - Let it be kindly, not spitefully."
"It shall - that is, if I ever do think of you," said Eden, demurely. "One sees so many strange faces at Mr Stretby's now, that it's impossible to remember them all."
"I'll contrive to keep myself in your remembrance somehow or other," was the reply. "Do you carry a note-book? If so, pray lend it to me. I only want to pencil down a few memorandums to assist your very treacherous memory."
"I have a book in my pocket," said Eden; but it contains notes of lessons for my little pupils. If you can give me a few facts concerning minerals and metals, or the British constitution, it is at your service; but not for any more ignoble purpose."
"I'll read up on those subjects, and let you have the results some other time," said Frank. "In the meanwhile, please write from my dictation: 'Mem. Not to forget that at the next skating party E. A. is to rink with F. L. Also, that E. A. is not to be induced to throw him over by any artifices Major Halliss may employ. Also, that she is to greet him at all times with sweetest smiles.'"
"Halte-la!" cried Eden. "It would be a waste of time and paper to write down resolutions that cannot be kept."
"Cannot, Miss Aubrey?"
"No; for I have already made two or three which render them null and void. Firstly, to rink no more."
he looked incredulous.
"I hope this is only a young lady's resolution, made that I may have the pleasure of persuading you to break it."
"If that is your idea of my sex's strength of purpose, I hope to have the pleasure of disappointing you," retorted Eden, with a pout.
"But why should you adhere to a resolve that sounds so - so unkind?" the young officer queried. "Pray tell me."
But Eden shook her head.
"As you despise young lady resolutions, I'm afraid young lady motives would have the same fate at your hands; therefore excuse me."
"Very well, Miss Aubrey," he said, assuming a resolute air. "As you refuse to confide in me, I'll resort to other means of bringing you to reason. I'll consult flip - she and I were sworn allies in bygone days, and we'll renew the alliance. I shall not be able to believe that you have taken me into favour again till we have had another hour together on the skates. It was such a delightful task, teaching you, that I felt quite envious when I saw it taken out of my hands this afternoon by Halliss. he is an officious puppy, and I hope you snubbed him well."
Eden laughed gaily.
"Oh ! he is a most amusing companion. The veracious style with which he tells the most absurd tales renders him an incomparable storyteller."
"Figuratively and literally," added Captain Lyssendon. "I should certainly like to hear you call me a pleasant companion; but I hope it will not be for the same reason. don't be obstinate, Miss Aubrey, but give me a chance of proving that I can be somewhat different from the surly fellow you found me the other day."
Eden put up her finger.
"I thought we had agreed to bury the past? And, while you talk, are you aware that you are getting far beyond the boundaries of Mr Stretby's estate? I'm afraid you will find yourself benighted before you can return to the house."
"I have only to run across this field, and I am at home; so I will bid you good-evening. Many thanks for your protection, although it was, as you perceive, quite unnecessary."
"Pray, don't thank me." he cried, gallantly, "for giving myself a delightful walk with a charming ---"
"Good night, sir," said Eden, so coldly that he hastened to retract what he had just said. she had laughed and chatted with him merrily enough, but he saw that he must not presume on her frankness. She was not so weak as to feel flattered by a compliment, but more disposed to regard it as an impertinence.
"Good-night, Miss Aubrey," he said, in very respectful tones; "but I must be allowed to repeat that I have had one of the most delightful walks I have yet enjoyed in this charming neighbourhood. It must be very pretty in summer."
"Very," said Eden dryly, for the ingenious turn he had given his speech had not deceived her. "I suppose I am not such an enthusiast as yourself, for I think the copses detestable when the paths are so muddy, and the air so raw. As you, however, consider it delightful, I'll not pity you for having to retrace your way. Although it is too dark to avoid the marshy places, you'll find it charming."
"Miss Aubrey, I don't like you when you are sarcastic."
"Captain Lyssendon," was the prompt retort, "I do not like you when you are ungentlemanly."
"Good heavens! what have I said to deserve such a charge as that?" he exclaimed, reddening, and gnawing his lip. "I hope you are not in earnest!"
Eden did not reply, but bestowed on him one quick, steadfast glance, which made him redden still more, hardy soldier and experienced man of the world though he was.
"I'll never plead guilty to having intentionally affronted you," he said softly; "so don't be too hard upon me for a foolish slip of the tongue!"
"You must bear in mind that you will have to turn to the left when you reach the clump of thorn trees," said Eden, coolly ignoring his last speech. "Unless you are careful to take the right path you will find yourself at Mrs Merstham's instead of The Beeches."
"I will remember every word you say to me," he answered, with unusual humility; "but may I not help you across this stile before I turn back?"
"Just as you please," said Eden, with a superb air of indifference.
Dud she know that all those subtle changes of mood, from reproachful to gay, from arch to haughty, made her positively fascinating to the young officer? Verna Merstham was a finished coquette, who enhanced her charms by every aid that dress of the mysteries of the toilet could bestow. Her attitudes were studied, her voice carefully subdued to the tone most likely to thrill her hearers, and her smiles, aided by the sudden raising or lowering of the lids that veiled her glorious eyes, enthralled the gazer. Yet Frank Lyssendon, who knew that those smiles would have rewarded him for holding out the olive branch, preferred to loiter here, and saw more to admire in the fresh, girlish beauty and bewitching frankness of Eden Aubrey.
He retained the hand she would have withdrawn as soon as she had crossed the stile, but it was in too respectful a manner to alarm or offend her.
"Is it peace, Miss Aubrey?"
It was not many who could have resisted the smile and pleading tone of the handsome militaire; but Eden steeled herself against them, and carelessly responded:
"Peace, did you say? I thought that word was hateful to the ears of a soldier. It shall be war if you prefer it."
"But I can assure you that I do not. a civil war is always repugnant to the feelings. And so we part friends, do we not?"
"Immutable ones, of course; for have we not known each other nearly three hours?" she archly queried.
"Is friendship measured by time?" he demanded.
"I suppose so' one couldn't reel it off by the foot or yard; or if we did, how much of mine should I have to award you? not the sixteenth of an inch; so small a particle, that you would lose it in the first puddle you have to wade through as you go back."
"But jesting apart' have you quite forgiven all my misdemeanours? No; I object to be put off with a smile that may mean fifty things. Let me have my acquittal by word of mouth."
"But jesting apart, as you say; perhaps Major Halliss's very promising pupil, like my sister Lottie, only pleads penitence to feel at liberty to transgress again."
"Not in this case, I assure you; so shake hands, and send me away happy."
but instead of complying, Eden retreated from him, and put her hands behind her.
"That last sentence spoiled the effect of your speech. do you have private theatricals at Aldenby? and was that a reminiscence of one of your attempts at the tragic?"
"I was quite serious I assure you."
"Quite? " and Eden looked so arch and incredulous, that he bit his lip again; but this time it was to keep back a smile. "Then I ought to have been very much affected. Why wasn't I? Oh, send me away happy! How exquisitely that was declaimed! I hope you'll give us another specimen of your talents at the Eastham penny readings. We're sadly in want of some one there to evoke our sensibilities."
"Go on," said Frank, resignedly. "I am at your mercy. Laugh at me - taunt me - mock me, I'll not complain; I daresay I deserve it all. The other day I was too rude; this afternoon I am too civil; but never mind, I shall hit the juste-milieu presently, and then, perhaps, Miss Aubrey -"
"And then you would be the first to acknowledge that Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle," retorted Eden, speaking lightly enough, but conscious the while of a pang at her heart.
Was she not speaking sober truth? This young officer - this relative of the wealthy Mrs Merstham - had certainly taken the trouble to follow her, and offer an apology for his ill-humour; but when next she met him, must she forget the wide gulf that the difference of their position placed betwixt them? or would he do so?
"Sobered by these thoughts," she added, in a graver tone, "it will be my turn to offer excuses if I stay her talking nonsense any longer. So once more, Captain Lyssendon, I will wish you adieu."
"Till when - till when?" he demanded, eagerly. "Have I not earned one little concession by my heroic endurance of all the buffets you have dealt me?" If I may not say let us be rinds, I may surely ask for one kind au revoir?"
"If I am not to laugh at you again," cried Eden, hastily, "You must not provoke me to it by attempting the sentimental. Pray go; you will never find your way back, if you let the night overtake you."
"Then you are resolved to be obdurate. do you think that it will drive me away in despair? Do you forget what Shakespere says? You draw me, you hard hearted adamant."
"He also says 'Men were deceivers, ever.' So don't provoke me to give you quotation for quotation; so many apt and bitter ones are crowding into my mind, that you would go back to Aldenby ashamed of your sex."
"But not of myself, if you condone my errors. Miss Aubrey, pray stop one moment" - for she was now waving him a farewell, and hurrying along the narrow field-path. "Will you not give me your hand, and promise to rink with me once - just once more?"
"And if I did?" said Eden, pausing, and looking back.
"If you did, I should be more grateful than I can express."
"Then I will not, for such excessive gratitude would bore me. Adieu, and shall I say au revoir?"
Having winged this parting shaft, Eden ran on again too rapidly to admit of his overtaking her. But when she reached the gate of the cottage garden, she stopped, and leaned against it, not only to recover breath, but to meditate.
"I'm afraid I've been flirting desperately," she avowed; "and with one of those dreadful Aldenby officers, as miss Olivia Tibbetts calls them; I'm sure I don't know why. are they really more wicked and heartless than other men? They are certainly very much nicer."
Oh fie! Eden, if Miss Tibbetts could have heard that!
"Major Halliss, and even this Captain Lyssendon, in spite of a little tendency to be presumptuous - for which I hoped I snubbed him sharply enough - have behaved to me as if were a lady, though only a poor one, and had a claim to their courtesy and respect; but it has been quite the reverse with the two or three of the farmers' sons who have condescended to recognise my existence, for they have made me hot and angry with their boorish ways. Shall I ever forget how indignant I felt when I overheard young Brown confiding to a companion that I wasn't a bad-looking girl, and might have been worth looking after, if I'd had any money. He, or such as he, to speak as if it would be a condescension to woo me!"
Eden stamped her little foot angrily, and clenched her hands with a passionate gesture; then smiled at her own folly.
"How silly I am to dwell upon such a trifle as the mere passing admiration of any man! Have not I mamma, whose love is worth more to me than fifty suitors? I'm afraid, though, she'll be half ashamed of her Eden when she hears how recklessly she has been chattering to a person she has never but once seen before. But I shall not feel easy till I have made confession, and kissed away her reproving hlooks. So, now to make a clean breast of it."
And Eden, who thought her courage might cool if she loitered any longer, darted into the house, threw open the parlour-door, and found herself confronting - not her mother, but a stranger.
to be continued...............
"Why did you run away from us theother afternoon in such a hurry?" asked Flip, as she sat in Mrs Aubrey's parlour, waiting for her sisters to finish the romp into which they had beguiled Lottie after lessons. "I meant to come and inquire the reason yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, but pa has been breaking in a new horse - such a fiery rascal! - and, what with going out with him in case he should meet with an accident - get upset, or something of the sort, in one of these lonely lanes - and stopping at home with ma to keep her up if she was nervous about him, we have all had enough to do."
"So I suppose," said Eden, laughing at this rather incoherent explanation. "and, as I see you here now, I need not ask if the horse-breaking has been successfully accomplished."
"Yes; I think Mazeppa will do when his education is completed. We shall fire off a few cartridges close ot his ears to-morrow. As pa says, it's no use for us to have a brute that shies at a noise, like those stupid little ponies of Mrs Merstham's. She called upon us yesterday. Did I tell you?"
"Is she not a beautiful creature?" cried Eden, enthusiastically' but Flip made a wry face.
"She is what pa calla a re-markably fine woman, and she dresses well, and all that; but she didn't please me; for there's nothing jolly about her. Wasn't she civil to us? Oh! yes; she was civil enough; but those black eyebrows of hers go up every now and then , as if she felt very much astonished, and very much inclined to say so. Of course, it don't signify; if she thinks us odd, she's not the first that's done so; but one don't care to be eye-browed so much in one's own house."
"Still, she is very handsome." Eden persisted; "and the coldness of her manner may be owing to the solitary life she has been leading."
"Handsome! Why, so is our baby; and she never looked at him. Certainly, he wasn't at his best; for the twins had let him slip into the cistern, and we had wrapped him up in some cotton wool we happened to have handy till dry clothes could be aired. I think a sweet tempered face like ma's worth a dozen of your handsome ones. But how I am chattering! You haven't told me why you ran away. Papa scolded because he meant Rifles to have driven you home. You are going back with me now to make up for it."
"Thanks; but I'd rather not," Eden replied. "I have some work I want to finish."
"But you were going out for a stroll; then why shouldn't you walk to The Beeches with us, and take another lesson in rinking? 'The Boys' have promised to come over, so there'll be somebody to help you again."
"I should very much prefer to come when you are alone," said Eden decidedly. She had no desire to encounter the young man whom she had unwittingly contrived to provoke into such a fit of ill-humour.
"Lor. Why?" asked Flip. "Skating isn't half as jolly when there's no one to laugh at, or with you. but if you'd rather not - "
"Stop a minute; I've changed my mind. I will go with you, if you'll have me!" exclaimed Eden, running to the looking-glass to put on her hat in front of it, and give a touch to the coquettish little crimson bow at her throat, that brightened the sober gray of her costume. Why - she had suddenly asked herself, in a spirit of feminine wilfulness - why should she be deprived of an hour's amusement, because this pettish gentleman might chance to come in her way? She had no reason for avoiding him; and it would be pleasant to let him see, by the gay indifference of her manner, that she cared not whether he were pleased or offended.
It was, therefore, with the slightest possible recognition that she passed Frank Lyssendon, who was just donning his skates. Flip bade Rifles attend to Miss Aubrey; but, as the man was busy, and she did not choose to remain in such close proximity to the gentleman whose eyes were endeavouring to meet her own, she walked into the hall. Once there, she soon made her way to a seat beside the organ, around which Mr Stretby was wont to hover, expressing to everyone who came near his admiration of the genius who first hit upon the idea of making music discourse itself.
There was a larger gathering at Mr Stretby's rink than on the previous occasion. The fame of it had spread, and everyone at Aldenby barracks who could claim the slightest acquaintanceship with the hospitable gentleman was finding his way to The Beeches, and manoeuvering for invitations to the skating parties.
Flip and her sisters were quickly surrounded, and Eden smiled to see in what a frank, sisterly way they greeted everyone who approached them. No one ever thought of making love to or even getting up a flirtation with the Stretby girls; they would only have been laughed at for their pains, and teased unmercifully; so one and all fell into the brotherly familiarily, that made an afternoon spent at The Beeches very pleasant.
Besides the gentlemen Eden had previously seen, there were several fresh faces; amongst them Captain Vinson, who had been drawn thither by a hint that the beautiful widow had consented to join the rinkers. Mrs Merstham, her fine figure displayed to advantage by a black velvet skirt and jacket, trimmed with the fur of the silver fox, was gliding leisurely about the hall, with her hands in her muff, and her lip curved, as if she were secretly condemning the sport in which she had suffered herself to be persuaded to take a part.
With girlish curiousity, Eden watched her when Romeo - the only name by which she knew her pettish acquaintance of the preceding day - came near. She saw Verna draw her hand out of her muff, as if to offer it in friendly clasp; but the stiffness of the bow she received evidently deterred her. More than this, when Mrs Merstham dropped her fan, and looked helplessly round, Frank Lyssendon, who was certainly nearest to her, drew back, and let Captain Vinson pick up the costly toy, and restore it to its owner.
"No; they never could have been in love with each other," Eden concluded. "It must have been mere acting after all. Anyhow, the artist must have very much idealised, as Mrs Merstham expresses it, that stern face, to make it wear a look so impassioned and tender as the Romeo of his picture."
But, while Eden thus speculated on feelings to which she had no clue, Ensign Whiting, with a pair of lady's skates in his hand, was whispering to Major Halliss:
"I say Jimmy, no one's attending to that pretty Miss aubrey. I shall go and do the agreeable to her."
"My precious William, don't trouble yourself," said the Major, coolly relieving him of the skates. "I'll go and look after the young lady for you. It is a shame, that she should be neglected. Let me see: what did you call her? Aubrey - Miss Aubrey? thank you."
And the next minute Eden found him standing before her, and glibly apologising for the time that she had been kept waiting for skates, which he insisted on being allowed to buckle on.
"And now I am to have the honour of taking care of you, and to lie under the weight of Miss Flip's displeasure, if I let you come to grief," added the audacious Major.
"But are you quite sure that I may venture to trust myself with a gentleman who has so many falls himself?" asked Eden, half in fun, half in earnest.
"Quite sure," he replied, with his hand on his heart. "When I have only myself to take care of, I may indulge in little flights of fancy and sportive somersaults; but when a lady is on my arm, you'll find me as steady as Old Time. Try me; and if I don't answer to the character you're having with me, send me to the right-about quick march. Our mutual friends," he said presently, when he had so carefully guided Eden round the hall a few times that she had lost all fear - "our mutual friends are rather remiss; for they have not formally introduced us to each other. I know that you are Miss Flip's dear friend, and that you are named Aubrey - "
"And that I am the daughrer of the music mistress, residing at Eastham," added Eden, too proud and too frank to owe the attentions she was receiving to a mistake.
"I thought you had a muscial face!" cried the Major, whom nothing disconcerted - not even the quizzical smile with which his exclamation was heard, and the gravely-put question:
"What constitutes a musical face?"
"If I were to answer, you might, in your modesty, accuse me of flatering you; and, being a very truthful person, there's nothing pains me more than to have doubt cast on my veracity," was the reply. "When you know me better - By the by, do you know me at all? - my name, I mean?"
Eden avowed her ignorance. Flip had been so eager to join in the rinking that she had not stayed to answer the questions her companion would have liked to have put to her.
"Everyone here, except the Stretbys, Mrs Merstham, and our surgeon, are strangers to me," she confessed.
"Then I shall have the pleasure of acting as master of the ceremonies. Those be-whiskered fellows over yonder, whom Miss Lin is piloting, are cousins of mine; Lieutenant Colonel and Captain Lefoy. Observe the elegance of their movements, and the heavenly sweetness of the smiles they exchange as they blunder against each other!"
"Pray don't speak so loud, or you will be overheard," entreated Eden, struggling to control her laughter.
"And challenged to single combat by the afronted heroes? don't be alarmed. We give and take a great deal of chaff in the army. Yes, I know what that inquiring look means. You have a speaking face, Miss Aubrey. By the way, that play on words is original, I assure you. Your look asked if we were all military men. Yes, I too am one of those unhappy fellows who are sworn to die for their country; and I am called Halliss, Major James Hallis, a votre service, mademoiselle. What a happy combination we present Miss Aubrey. Beauty and chivalry."
"Is that gentleman an officer, too?" inquired Eden glancing shyly towards Frank Lyssendon, who was learning some intricate figure under the tuition of Venetia and Flip.
"Which one? The amiable boy who is practising the Dutch roll so perseveringly? Yes, that is Ensign Whiting, and the fellow whom he seems bent on tripping up is Vinson, another of my comrades in arms. Ah! I see now, at whom you are looking. Frank Lyssendon is one of the happy youths who has the benefit of my example and tuition. But I thought you knew him; were you not skating together the other day?"
"Yes; but I did not hear his name. Do you like Aldenby?" she added, hurriedly changing the subject.
"Do I like sand in my boots when I walk, in my food when I eat, in my glass when I drink, in my eyes whenever the wind blows?" he demanded with a shrug of his broad shoulders. "No Miss Aubrey, I do not; and, therefore, I consider Aldenby detestable. I once read of a person who dwelt in some such a district till the sand even pervaded her temper, and made that gritty . Although I am the most placable of men, I'm afraid that it will be my own case, if I'm not removed before long from my present quarters."
"Are you the only sufferer?" inquired the amused Eden.
"No; but the greatest, because I am of a more sensitive disposition than the rest. Now, there's Lyssendon - My dear Frank, get farther away, please; I was just going to abuse you to Miss Aubrey, and it's awkward to do it while you are within hearing."
"I dare say Miss Aubrey thinks that I deserve the worst you can say of me," said Frank trying, as before, to catch her eyes, for he felt that he owed her an apology, and would not have been sorry if a relenting smile had given him the assurance that he was forgiven.
But Eden chose to be blind and deaf to everything but Major Halliss's lively badinage, and she was proceeding to invite more of it by some question or other, when Mrs Merstham stopped before them, and asked Major Halliss to hold her muff, and his companion to assist her in looping up her dress.
Verna Merstham was not actually ill-natured, but she was soured and mortified by the consciousness that she had failed in the object that induced her to be civil to the Stretbys. To have married Frank Lyssendon when they were both poor would have been a sacrifice too great for one so ambitious; but now that she was not only wealthy, but free, she was quite willing to lure back her former captive. Had he been sullen or resentful she would have felt that he still wore her chains, but his studied avoidance of her, and chilling refusal to see her pleading looks, baffled her.
Already irritated by the failure of her efforts to draw him to her side, she was just in the humour to feel spiteful towards the mere child, the obscure girl, whose rippling laughter grated on her ear, and who, without half her own charms, was monopolising one of the gayest, best looking officers on the rink. As far as she was concerned, she did not care a jot for Major Halliss, and possibly would have snubbed him, as she had just snubbed Captain Vinson, if he had presumed to approach her; but she was seized with a fit of angry annoyance that Eden should be so much happier than herself.
What business had she - the music mistress's little daughter - to be here at all? Was it some inexplicable foreboding that made Verna Merstham suddenly resolve that this presumptuous girl must be swept out of her path, and compelled to feel her insignificance?
It is not always possible to analyse the motives of our actions, and the beautiful woman who possessed all the advantages of wealth and station could scarcely have told why she was seized with this longing to sting the innocent girl, whose only crime was that she was happy.
"You have not been to see me lately," she said, in patronising tones. "Have you forgotten that I am in your debt for the hours I employed you as a model? But no; it is not likely you would forget that. I have been thinking that perhaps you would be glad to get more work of the kind, unless you think it pays you better to be a daily governess."
Eden's cheek grew crimson. Although she knew no reason why Mrs Merstham should dislike her, she intuitively comprehended that it was that lady's deliberate intention to humiliate her in the presence of Major Halliss. She also knew that Captain Lyssendon, who had stopped to do something to his skate, was near enough to have heard all she said.
"She thinks that these gentlemen do not know how poor I am and that I ought to be punished for putting myself on an equality with them. My birth may be as good as theirs, but I am poor, and she would set her haughty foot upon me. Oh! She is cruel!"
As these thoughts swiftly passed through the girl's throbbing heart, she was seized with a passionate longing to be able to retaliate; but also had too strong a sense of her womanly dignity to yield to it, and the next moment was gently ansering:
"I will tell mamma what you say. I am sure she will decide what is best for me. I shall never be ashamed to work for her, even as she has worked for me ever since papa died. You were speaking of Aldenby, Major Halliss. Mamma had pupils offered her in the family of one of the officers, but the distance was too great. It is, however, a pretty walk in summer."
He took the cue, and, as he led her away, resumed his gay chat; but Eden now listened to him with but forced smiles. Her enjoyment was at an end. She had been reminded by Mrs Merstham's ill-nature that it was growing late, and that she must hasten, if she would reach home before twilight.
Pleading fatigue, she sat down, and, while he skated away to get her a glass of the wine Rifles was decanting at a side table, she contrived to catch hold of Venetia, say her adieux, and in a very few minutes was walking rapidly across the park by the now well trodden route that led through the copses toward her mother's cottage.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
On that same afternoon, Eden Aubrey sat in the little parlour of her mother's cottage, looking weary and flushed with her efforts to engage the attention of her pupils. Mrs Aubrey had been persauded to consent for the twins to share Lotty's lessons, and H and P, having taken a liking to pretty Miss Aubrey, came with tolerable regularity to receive her instruction.
They were not intractable girls, and they had a fair share of intellect, but the scrambling life, to which they had always been accustomed, made it very difficult to induce them to study with any degree of regularity. Sometimes their minds were so absorbed in the marvellous good qualities of their last new pet - they had them of all kinds - that Eden's lessons were continually interrupted in some such fashion as this:
"The first king of England was - was - oh! Bob the donkey; what do you think he did, Miss Aubrey? he got into the conservatory and kicked up his heels against a tall pile of flowerpots; it was such a jolly smash, you can't think!-"
"Or 'fifty shillings are two pounds ten; that's just what papa gave for the white cockatoo, and she swears so dreadfully that Lin has been obliged to shut her up in a room by herself."
Sometimes they would burst in, loaded with gay pieces of silk and satin, for Lottie to convert into dresses for her dolls. They had taken a great fancy to Eden's quiet, delicate little sister, and regarded her achievements in doll-dressing as marvels of taste and elegance. Or they came accompanied by one or other of the many dogs about Mr Stretby's establishment, and then it would be difficult to say which proved the more unmanageable, the animal or his young mistress. On two occasions they contrived to steal the baby out of the nursery, and brought him with them; and how could Eden teach while they would persist in stopping in the middle of repetition to nod and laugh at their prize, or express their fears that he must have put one of his toys too far down his throat, as he looked as if he were choking.
However, she persevered; and a hint from her amused mother inducing her to introduce story-telling into her routine, they were enthralled by her graphic recitals, for she possessed the gift of telling a story well. They received the instruction thus conveyed with great docility. It is true that they sometimes confused what they had heard, and that Eden was shocked to find them firmly convinced that Oliver Cromwell not only murdered the little princes in the tower, but guillotined Louis the Sixteenth. It often cost her a great deal of pains to unravel the tangled skein of their ideas, but still she had gained their ears; they came to her willingly, and if she could not hope to convert them into clever scholars, she was certainly instilling a little more knowledge into their minds than they had hitherto stood any chance of obtaining.
"You've got to go back with us, this afternoon Miss Aubrey," said Hyacinthe, unceremoniously, as she began to twist herself into her fur jacket. "Flip gave me a message for you, but that's allI remember of it."
"Let me help you, dear; it does not look nice to see you struggling into your clothes in that fashion," said Eden, gently pressing down the arms that were raised above the child's head, as if she were going to draw a sack down upon it. "Does our sister really want me for anything?"
"Oh, yes! and so she did yesterday, only you didn't go to her."
"How coud I? You brought me no message. I saw nothing of you."
"Oh! That was because an old woman's pig got out of it's sty as we were coming through Eastham." Persis explained, "and we gave chase - H and I. You never saw such a pig to run, Miss Aubrey! Away it went over the green, and through a hole in a hedge, and then across a cabbage-garden! We should have had it there, only I fell over a stump and it wasn't caught till it had led us into a bog, where I left one of my boots - the one with the broken lace - and had to hop home the best way I could. So you see it wasn't our fault that we weren't here," she complacently added, in conclusion.
"You'll go back with us, Miss Aubrey?" queried her sister. "Flip and Lin both told us that we were on no account to show orselves without you."
Eden was nothing loth; for there was always a cordial welcome for her at The Beeches. Mrs Merstham, since the day she sat for the picture, merely acknowledged her with the coldest of bows; but the more genial Stretbys never varied in their demeanour. The Misses Tibbetts, amongst the first to call on the new-comers, had hinted to dear Mrs Stretby their surprise that she permitted her daughers to make a companion of Eden Aubrey, whose mother was only a Frenchwoman and a music-mistress, but placid Mrs Stretby either did not or could not understand them, and merely replied that Eden was so nice, that she did not wonder at the girls being so fond of her. That they ought to treat with discourtesy the ladylike, obliging young creature, whose only crime was her poverty, never entered the heads of this unworldly family, and Eden might have spent half her time at The Beeches if she had not had home duties, which her otherwise-indulgent mother would not permit her to neglect.
This afternoon, however, she could go there with a clear conscience. Lotty had an important affair on hand: the ironing of a week's wash for one of her waxen and china babies, and promising to be home in time to make tea for mamma, Eden hastily dressed and accompanied her pupils.
Mrs Stretby was alone in the drawing-room when they entered it, dozing in front of a blazing fire; but she woke up to inform Eden and the twins that they would find everyone else at the rink, which they were trying for the first time.
Across the grounds to the pretty gothic building, which had been hastily patched up and rendered weather-proof, dashed H and P, eager to share in the amusement, and Eden more leisurely followed them. She had never seen anything of the kind, and anticipated some pleasure from looking on, but as soon as she entered the building, Flip, who was waiting her appearance in a king od lobby or ante-chamber, pounced upon her.
"Then here you are at last! Rifles, a pair of skates for Miss Aburey! Sit down, Eden, and let him strap them on. You can't skate? Well, what of that? No more cold I till some one taught me, and I'm going to teach you. It's quite easy, and jolly fun, I can tell you!"
As it was no use resisting, the laughing Eden submitted to have the wheeled-skates buckled on her feet, and then the impetuous Flip again took possession of her.
"Now give me your hands. Steady! don't be afraid."
And skating backwards, she drew Eden into the hall, then suddenly released her, saying: "There, now all you have to do is to slide forward, first on one foot, and then on the other. You'll learn faster if you're left entirely to yourself, so strike out boldly, just as you see me do."
With the ease and grace of a practised skater, away went Flip, and Eden, attempting to follow her example, subsided on to the asphalte. There she sat for a minute or two in too much confusion to stir; but presently struggling to her feet again, she contrived to get as far as one of the slender columns that supported the roof, and clinging there bagan to look around.
The twins darted by, kissing their hands to her as they went, and at the other end of the hall she saw their sisters and Mr Stretby, the Doctor, and his wife - a pleasant, homely young couple - and some gentlemen, who were strangers to her - all engaged in gliding through the figures of a set of quadrilles. They were rinking to the sound of a large, self-acting organ, a purchase on which Mr Stretby very much prided himself, though the works not being in the best of order, it was not always certain whether the tune it was playing could be "Adeste Fideles" or "the Blue Danube Waltzes."
When Eden's eyes had become accustomed to the scene, she found plenty in it to divert her. Venetia Stretby and her sisters had leaned the art of skating long ago in the frostier clime of Canada, and their evolutions were as daring as they were graceful The quadrille over, they began to circle round the hall, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes describing figures of eight, and proving themselves adepts in everything they attempted. Eden thought that she had never seen them appear to so much advantage, though she could not include Mr Stretby in her praises.
He went by her, smiling placidly, it is true, but with his tall angular figure drawn up as at attention, and looking as if skates and all had been cut out of one solid piece, and forgotten to be jointed.
The strangers, though not unaccustomed to the amusement, were evidently troys compared with their host and his daughters. One of them, a tall youth, known to our readers already as Ensign Whiting, was rashly skating backwards in imitation of Flip, whose fearlessness had won his admiration; but the result was not always satisfactory, and his frantic efforts to save himself from the falls that menaced him, his wild grasps at the air, and his look of relief when he succeeded in recovering his equilibrium once more, convulsed Eden with mirth.
His companion, Major Halliss, was even more daring and more unfortunate, for every attempt he made at figure-skating ended in a fall. How many times he measured his length on the asphalte it would be difficult to calculate; but still he proved indomitable. No matter how heavily he came to the ground, still laughing and shaking himself, he would rise again and again, and make fresh starts with a perseverance and stoicism that led Eden to ask at last:
"Is he made of flesh and bones, like ourselves, or India-rubber?"
The words unconsciously spoken aloud were answered by some one who had approached her unseen.
"He is very hardy and persevering. Don't you think so? Does not the sight of his courage inspire you with a little? You have been standing here so long, that Miss Streby bid me tell you that hugging a post was not in the instructions she gave you."
Thus suddenly addressed, and afraid to turn and confront the speaker lest she should find herself at his feet, Eden only knew that it was a gentleman in a grey suit, irreproachable in style and fit, who was standing by her. However, he must be answered, and she conquered her embarrassment to say:
"I think I was very foolish to let myself be persuaded to put these skates on, for this is the first time I have seen rinking practised. If you will be so kind as to ask Rifles to come and take them off for me, I shall feel obliged."
"Before you have made a trial of them? But that would be a pity. I assure you it is very easy."
"To skate or to fall?" querried Eden.
"Well, perhaps, both." was the laughing reply. "But if you will let me help you, I will take care that you shall not do the latter."
"Thanks, but Flip assured me I should learn best by myself," said Eden, hesitatingly.
She longed to accept the assistance thus courteously offered, yet a dread of appearing awkward deterred her.
"Let me prove to you that Ma'amselle Flip is not always right. I am sure you would get on better with a little help from me. Will you not be persauded to try?"
When Frank Lyssendon had skated up to the girl, whom he saw clinging to the column, it was simply to deliver Flip's message, and then return and finish his chat with the doctor, for he was not in a social humour this afternoon, and had already drawn upon himself the reproach of being sulky and lazy from Venetia, who treated him with the careless familiarity she would have bestowed on a brother or cousin. But when he looked down at the pretty and youthful face of Eden Aubrey, and saw her left so entirely to her own resources, he felt as if it would be ungenerous to skate away, and leave her shut out, as it were , from the amusement of the rest.
Another persuasive speech, and she had shyly consented to twine her arms in his, and make the circuit of the hall. She was both light and active, and his firm, yet gentle grasp, soon relieved her of all feeling of insecurity. A little while, and she could balance herself admirably; a little longer and with her lithe form steadied by her partner, she was flying round the rink, and timing her movements to the measured cadences of the music. Major Halliss, who was on the floor again, forgot to pick himself up, as he watched the pair float past, and Ensign Whiting anathematised himself as an idiot, for not having perceived how very pretty the little girl was, and gone to her assistance before Lyssendon robbed him of his chance. Mr Stretby, standing by to rest awhile, clapped his hands approvingly, as soon as Eden and her supporter came near, and Flip and Lin, wheeling round and round their course, predicted that she would soon rival them. The time had fled but too quickly when she was obliged to confess that she ws getting breathless and giddy, and was carefully led to a seat, Captain Lyssendon skating away again to borrow the fan hanging at Venetia's girdle to cool the flushed cheeks of his pretty partner.
It was not till he was returning, that Eden - hitherto so much engrossed in her efforts to preserve her footing as to have scarcely glanced at him - obtained a full view of her new acquaintance. He was as tall as the Ensign, but more robust and his naturally fair complexion had been darkened by exposure to weather. His brown moustache partly concealed his mouth, yet when he smiled, as he met the intent look of Eden, it was by that she recognised him. Yes, there could be no doubt of it; he was the Romeo of Mrs Merstham's water-colour drawing; and, forgetting that he was observing her, and even wondering at her abstraction, she sat, noting the changes that had swept over his face since the artist, availing himself of the moment when it glowed with passionate idolatry for the beautiful Verna, transferred the record of that love to his canvas.
And what were those changes? Ah! Eden Aubrey was too inexperienced to have divined how strangley and sadly the bitterness of a great disappointment, and the gnawing sense of injustice, stamps itself on the character, as well as the features; but she could see that the ingeniousness of youth had vanished from the brow; that the eyes were not only darker, but sterner; and that, if the lips could still smile almost as sweetly as then, it was but seldom. They now closed too firmly over the white teeth, or if they parted, it was more frequently in mockery than mirth; and, handsome though that face must undeniably be called, there was a tinge of recklessness and scorn of the world's opinions, and defiance of the promptings of his better self, that marred its noblest outlines.
In her innocence and ignorance, she guessed but dimly what this meant. He was older than when that sketch had been taken, and graver - ah! yes - and sadder. could it be that Mrs Merstham had not used him well, this Romeo, who must have loved her so dearly?
"Well, and what is the result?" asked Frank, quizzically, as he stood and fanned her.
Eden started from her reverie with a blush.
"The result? Of what? Of the trouble yo are taking? Oh! That I am cooler already."
"Don't affect to misunderstand me. did you think I could not see that you were studying my character? Perhaps all young ladies adopt some favouurite ology, yours may be phrenology. Shall I take off my hat? and if I do, will you tell me which are most prominent, my good organs or my bad ones?"
"You are quizzing me," said Eden "But I daresay I deserve it for being so foolish."
"I never think a young lady foolish for looking at me, provided she looks kindly; but you do not tell me what conclusions you came to."
"That I had seen you before," said Eden, regretting the avowal as soon as it had been uttered. "Telling the truth is my best and only excuse for behaving oddly."
"I think it is I who ought to make excuse," Captain Lyssendon exclaimed, "for not being able to recall the name of a lady whose better memory enables her to tell me that this is not our first meeting. I will fetch one of the Misses Stretby, and she shall introduce me in proper form."
"Oh! no; I beg that you will not!" cried Eden, her embarrassment increasing. "I ought to have told you - or they ought - that I m not a friend of the family, but only the governess of the younger girls; and - and I did not mean that we have really met, but that I have seen your portrait. That is all, I assure you; pray think no more of it!"
But Frank Lyssendon's curiosity was now fully aroused, and he persisted in questioning her.
"You have seen a portrait of me! Indeed! May I ask when, and where?"
But Eden was silent. It was by accident she had beheld that picture, and as the Juliet he had then wooed had become the wife and widow of another, it was not all likely that he would care to be reminded of the past.
"Will you not tell me?" he asked. "Is there any secret attached to this little confession?"
"If there is, it is not mine," she answered, more steadily. "When you hear that it was by chance I saw the portrait, you will acknowledge that I am not justified in saying more."
Suddenly his brow darkened, and the eyes that had been gazing at her with a blending of curiosity and amusement, lost their pleasant light.
"As you have avowed thus much, young lady, you may as well tell me the rest, or I may come to the conclusion that you and the possessor of that picture have been heartlessly amusing yourselves at my expense. I have no doubt that there are women who are coarse and unfeeling enough to preserve every token they can gather together of men's youthful folies, that they may display them to their confidantes, and entertain them with recollections which, had they any womanly feeling, they would be ashamed to revive."
In his excitement he had snapped the sticks of the fan he was holding, and Eden who knew that Venetia valued it, was divided between her anxiety to rescue it from utter destruction, and her regret that her incautious avowal had offended him.
"Were you prompted to remind me of that picture?" he queried, so sternly, that Eden's spirit was roused, and with flashing eyes she retorted upon him.
"Why do you interrogate me in that tone? I told you truly, that I have seen what I believe to be your likeness, but I do not know your name, nor anything concerning you. I have never been in Mrs Merstham's house but twice, nor am I likely to go there again. I am sorry that anything I have said should have annoyed a person who has been kind to me, but I do not think the fault is wholly mine."
She beckoned to Rifles, who relieved her of the skates, and then, bending her head slightly to Captain Lyssendon, she quitted the hall and hurried home.
"Have you had a pleasant afternoon, petite?" Mrs Aubrey inquired, as they sat at tea.
"Yes - and - no, mamma. How is it that your silly daughter contrives to give offence without intending it?"
"If you would not be so impulsive, my Eden!" sighed the mother when she had heard the history of her child's troubles.
But with many promises of amendment, the slight frown was kissed from her brow, and the subject prudently vanished.
To be continued.............
Friday, 13 November 2009
When the barracks at Aldenby were full, the last comers were generally drafted into tents, in the summer, and long rows of huts in the winter - low wooden erections dating from the Crimean war, and certainly neither comfortable nor picturesque; although many efforts were made to redeem their ugliness by laying out the surrounding space in flower beds, and covering the walls with climbing plants.
In one of these huts, of which the furniture was sparse, and all of that portable nature which is handiest to a military man, sat the original of Verna Merstham's sketch of Romeo. His American folding-chair was tilted back to enable him to rest his legs on the table; his eyes were riveted on the novel he had santched up half an hour earlier when he had come in from a long morning on the parade ground, and he was smoking a quaint little pipe, the gift of an Indian chief.
His dress was as degagé as his attitude, for his sword-belt had been unbuckled and tossed aside with his cap; his tunic was unbuttoned, and his boots exchanged for slippers. He might have sat there till it was time to dress for dinner, if his solitude had not been noisily invaded by a brother officer, the Major Halliss, whom Mr Stretby had mentioned while conversing with Mrs Merstham.
"Just as I expected," said the Major, with a twinkle of his merry dark eyes. "If you don't get lazier and lazier every hour of your miserable life. You'll grow to that chair some day. Is this the way you keep your promises?"
"To myself, yes," was the reply, as the young man dropped his book, and, leaning back to yawn more comfortably, folded his arms behind his head. "I made up my mind to have a quiet afternoon, to compensate for all the fagging old Fitz gave us this morning. Why did you come and disturb me?"
"Because you are due at Stretby's in half an hour. I told him to expect us about three o'clock. His rink is ready for use, and we shall have a jolly time of it. Come, Frank, slip into your coloured clothes, and be quick about it."
"But, my good fellow, I never agreed to go," his friend remonstrated, without stirring except to dodge the nutshell flipped at his nose.
"Never mind that. I promised and vowed it for you. I told Stretby I should be obliged to bring you with me, for you were never happy away from your beloved brother-in-arms, and he was quite touched at such a proof that your wits were sprouting as well as your moustache."
"How far is it to The Beeches?" asked Frank Lyssendon, glancing irresolutely at the window, through which the sun of a January day was shining.
"Three miles - not more."
"Not more! The coolness of asking one to walk three miles, and then rink for a couple of hours, after what I have ploughed through today. Get you to some greater flat than myself, Jimmy Halliss, for I'll none of you."
He stretched out his hand for his book, but with a switch of the Major's cane it was jerked beyond his reach.
"Frank, don't be a fool!"
"No - no, my dear boy; I leave that to you."
"Then you're an idiot, and that's worse; do you know the consequences of lounging about like a woman, reading novels, and smoking bad tobacco? Look at me and tremble! I used to indulge in such habits, and now its the trouble of my life to keep my weight down. I'm so horribly plump, that I shall have to starve myself if there isn't an alteration. Neither my daily labours at the gymnasium, nor on my bicycle, nor the rides I take, suffice to reduce my figure to its proper proportions. A little embonpoint is not unbecoming to me; but it would convert you into a fright; so take warning. You're not much to look at now, but you might be worse; so, dress and be thankful that you've a friend at your elbow always ready to point his precepts with example."
"who's going besides you?" inquired Frank, raising himself into a sitting position.
"Sweet William - I like the boy, although he is the greatest blunderer that ever existed - and Vinson. I saw him before his looking-glass, oiling his hair, about an hour and a half ago, so I daresay he's nearly ready by this time. I wish you wouldn't put me to the trouble of talking so much; it makes me thristy, got any soda or seltzer?"
"There's a coule of bottles in that cupboard, and some sherry. Vinson and Whiting going with you? Ah! then you'll not want me. Drink your soapsuds, and depart. Bless you my boy, and farewell! Hand us that book before you go, and let me be happy my own way."
"With pleasure," said Halliss, jerking the volume to the other end of the room; "but I'm not gone yet. As soon as I have swallowed all your sherry, I shall read you a lecture on the sin of ingratitude. Stretby was like a father to you, you young bear! When you first went to Canada; and now you think it too much trouble to walk three miles to shake hands with him."
"Oh, bother!" cried Frank, springing to his feet, and kicking off his slippers; "I suppose I shall have no peace if I don't go with you. but no, I won't!" and he sat down again. "Look here, Jimmy' I like the Stretbys, one and all, and I should be pleased to renew the acquaintances; but there's a relative of mine living in their neighbourhood, whom I don't care to meet."
"Then come with me by all means. Don't you know that if you try to keep out of the way of a bore, you're certain to rush into his arms? but if you go where you make sure of meeting him, it's nine chances to one if you do."
Frank laughed, and began pulling off his regimental tunic. "Yours may be logical reasoning; but it isn't very convincing. However, I'll be guided by it for once; so here goes."
"If it's an affair of money," said the Major, "I've often declared that I'd share my last shilling with you. I'd rather you did not ask me to do so today, because I'm not quite certain whether there's one left in my purse to share! but I shall be in funds again next week, and if a loan - "
"Thanks!" cried Frank Lyssendon, colouring high; "but it's not a question of cash. Say no more. There's those fellows at the door; let them in and I'll be ready in a few minutes."
The Major admitted his friends, and, having accommodated them with the only chairs the hut contained, returned to his own seat on the table; from that post of observation he surveyed them, and admired the camelia in vinson's button-hole, making that gentleman turn pale with suppressed anger by inquiring confidentially if his washerwoman's daughter sent it home in his clean linen. But he did not venture on any further jesting with him, having learned by expereince that it was dagerous.
Captain Vinson was a very polite little man, always precise, always punctual, very moral and discreet, and never in debt or disgrace. Colonel FitzGeorge was wont to say that he was quite a credit to the regiment; yet no one really liked him, and it was well known that an offence given to Basil Vinson was neither forgotten nor forgiven until an opportunity had occurred for repaying it with interest.
But the restless Jimmy, who could bear the sharpest cuts with invincible good humour, and was always the first to laugh at his own mistakes, could not be quiet long; so he turned his attention to the young Ensign, whom he had dubbed Sweet William, asking him seriously if he thought his mamma would approve of his visiting at a house where there were half a dozen unmarried daughters! and if he was aware that Mr Stretby had fought no fewer than twenty duels with presuming youths who had ventured to shake hands with them, and then protested that they had no intentions!
Finding that Ensign Whiting was not to be daunted by these mysterious hints, he was doing his best to make the lad unhappy by discovering that his coat was not cut properly, and that he had seen the ring and breast-pin he had just bought, worn the previous week by a Jew clothesman, when Frank Lyssendon pronounced himself ready to start.
As they quitted the hut, Ensign whiting, encouraged by the sly chuckles of the Major, contrived to get behind Vinson, and mimicked with boyish mischief, the walk and gestures of the apparently unconscious officer. But his mirth was followed by an exclamation of pain and an impromptu dance on one leg, for Vinson suddenly stepped back, affecting to stumble, and planted the heel of his neat boot on the lad's toe with crushing force.
Nothing could be more civil than his apologies. He was so profuse in his expressions of astonishment at his own clumsiness, and his hopes that he had not been as unlucky as to step on a pet corn, that Whiting, after his first wild contortions of agony, stifled his feelings, and heroically declared that it was not worth mentioning - that he was scarcely hurt at all; but as he limped beside frank, he whispered the question:
"Don't you believe that he did it on purpose? I do. I forgot that he could see me in that glass that hangs over Lyssendon's stove. I gave him a poke in the ribs with a foil at the Gym. the other day - just in fun, you know - and he appeared to take it quite pleasantly. But he challenged me yesterday to a bout at singlestick, and I was fool enough to feel flattered by his selecting me; but, by George! I never had such a drubbing before; my bones ache when I think of it and I was so simple as to take it all in good part, till Filder - the Captain, of the Gym., you know - says to me when he'd gone, 'you got it hot and strong, then, young 'un. What had you done to offend him?'"
"He never falls foul of me," said Frank, quietly. "Shall I tell you why? Because I let him alone."
"That's just what I'm not inclined to do," grumbled the Ensign. "There's nothing I should enjoy more than pitching into him."
"Better not. He's too strong for you, and it don't do. We may not always like our brother officers; but we are thrown together, and may as well make the best of each other. Besides, such horseplay as you indulge in is ungentlemanly."
"By George! I've seen you as ready for a spree as anyone!" retorted Whiting.
"I should hope so; but there are sprees and sprees, oh! William, don't you know that yet? Jimmy!" he shouted, to the Major, "look here, my bounding boy! What an excellent constitutuional it would be for you if you were to run Whiting from this gate to yonder oak! It's a capital piece of flat road."
The young men were walking along a quiet country lane, where they were not likely to be interrupted by many passers-by, and the Major, who was proud of his skill in all athletic exercises, immediately agreed to the proposal. But just as they were taking their places for the start, and Captain Vinson's watch was in his hand to time them, the trampling of horses arrested their attention, and a phaeton came in sight, drawn by two ponies, over which the driver - a lady in half-mourning - had lost all control.
Though so frightened that every vestige of colour had fled from both cheek and lip, she steadily kept her place and her hold on the reins; but whither the animals - startled by the sudden firing of a gun on the other side of the hedge - would have borne her, or how she would have escaped severe injury, there is no knowing, if Frank Lyssendon had not rushed forward, and boldly grasped their heads, as they came clattering by.
He did not succeed in retaining his hold, but the check thus given them enabled Captain Vinson to seize the reins, and his firmer hand compelled them, after a short, sharp, struggle, to succumb. Then the lady, who had neither screamed nor spoken, sank back in her carriage, and covered her eyes with her hands for a moment, as if overcome at the thought of the perilous position from which she had just been rescued.
When she looked up again, and tried to smile her gratitude to the gentlemen who had come so promptly to her assistance, Captain Vinson, enthralled by her beauty, pressed forward; but Frank Lyssendon recoiled, muttering to himself;
"Verna! Good Heavens, it is Verna!"
While the others patted and soothed the now trembling ponies, and congratulated the lady, who thanked them with much grace for the aid they had rendered her, he continued to stand aloof, till she caught sight of him, and glanced inquiringly at his face. Then her own grew crimson, and she seemed uncertain whether to appear as if she had not recognised his features, or boldly address him. But his own presence of mind had, by this time, returned, and, lfiting his hat, he courteously accosted her.
"I was just asking myself whether I dared hope that Mrs Merstham wouuld remember an old acquaintance, Frank Lyssendon, of the 160th."
Deeper still grew the flush upon her cheek. Perhaps she would have been better pleased had he manifested more emotion, but trying in vain to emulate his unembarrassed manner, she held out her gloved fingers, saying, in a tremuless whisper:
"I never foret old friends, but I did not know till lately that you were in the neighbourhood."
"We have not been long at Aldenby," he answered, carelessly. "May I introduce to you the gentlemen who have had the pleasure of being of some service to you?"
"I shall be most happy to know any friends of yours," said Verna, softly; but the young man's brows only contracted as he heard this, and he hastened to name his companions in succession; then drew back, while Vinson, whose eagerness contrasted strongly with his own coldness, begged to be permitted to drive Mrs Merstham home; protesting that, unnerved as she must be by what had happened, it would never do to take the reins herself.
Mrs Merstham glanced at Frank, but he would not see that half-entreating look, and sharply biting her lip, she accepted the escort of Vinson, who stepped with alacrity into the phaeton, and seated himself beside her.
"I believe there are a few fine pheasants in my plantations," Verna said, as she bowed her adieux. "If either of you gentlemen feel disposed to come and shoot them, my people will give you any information you require, and my luncheon hour is two o'clock. I hope no one will wait for a more formal invitation. I am a brave soldier's daughter, so I could not regard you as strangers, even if I did not owe you my life."
She looked back to bow and smile once more as she was being driven away, but it was only the Major and Whiting who responded, for Frank Lyssendon was walking along with his hands thrust deeply into his pockets, and his eyes bent on the ground.
"I say, Frank," Major Halliss suddenly exclaimed, "is this lady - this Mrs Merstham, the relative to whom you were alluding?"
"Yes," was the brief and snappish reply.
"Ha! hum! I think I begin to understand the state of affairs."
"I don't think you do; and I'll thank you not to mention her name to me again."
This was said so sharply, that the Major shrugged his shoulders and promised compliance.
to be continued.........
Monday, 9 November 2009
Eden's mind was still busy with the proposal thus abruptly made when she set off on the following morning to keep her appointment at Mrs Merstham's. She had been eager for some time past, to be allowed to give her mother some assistance in providing for their little household; but hitherto Mrs Aubrey had put her off with loving assurances that it was unnecessary - that the profits accruing from her own teaching made a sufficient addition to the small - very small - income she already possessed.
But Eden was too affectionate a daughter to be satisfied with this; and she was too young and inexperienced to comprehend how Mrs Aubrey, who had transferred to her first-born all the passionate love she had felt for her husband, dreaded exposing her child to the annoyances and slights that often fell to her own lot. It was one of her greatest consolations to know that when she returned home she should find Eden awaiting her, with the happy smiles of untroubled girlhood beaming in her eyes. It would be time enough for her darling to go for the an d toil in the cold, rude world when she was no longer able to do so; and thinking thus, she evaded Eden's pleas to be made useful.
Of late, too, more ambitious thoughts for her daughter had begun to fill her mind. Eden's voice promised to be a soprano of exquisite sweetness, and the mother - herself an excellent musician - resolved to train it for a year or two and then take her up to London, and place her under the care of some eminent master, thus enabling her to escape the drudgery of a life like her own. She shuddered whenever she pictured her child doomed, as she had been ever since her early widowhood to be a teacher of music in an obscure country village, where the farmers, whose children she instructed, were incapable of appreciating the refinement and ability of their instructress.
But Eden, who was as yet in ignorance of her mother’s intentions, was beginning to chafe at the inactivity to which she was condemned. What was the use of her practising day after day, week after week, if she were not permitted to make use of what she was attaining? It was true that mamma praised her as the best of housekeepers, and that she had found plenty of occupation, until lately, in nursing and teaching Lotty, who had been a most delicate child. But now that her sister's health was established, and their one servant so thoroughly trained as to be a domestic treasure, Eden's daily avocations did not suffice for the active mind of an intelligent, animated girl, and she hailed with delight the idea of having he dull hours devoted to one slow pupil brightened by the presence of the lively, noisy twins. She was not at all afraid that she should not be able to manage them; and someone to share Lotty's lessons, to tease her a little over her old-fashioned notions, and, in fact, render her more child-like, was just the sort of impetus the little girl required.
On first hearing of the plan, Mrs Aubrey had demurred, and expressed her fears that Eden would find a couple of pupils, whose parents would not properly uphold her authority, very troublesome ones; but her daughter, relying on the naturally good dispositions which all the Stretby's appeared to possess, had begged permission to make the trial, and was now speculating as to what the answer her mother had promised to give in the evening would be.
This subject, and the best method of imparting instructions to such wild damsels, was still uppermost in Eden's thoughts when she was ushered, as before, into Mrs Merstham's studio. She had a tolerably gracious reception, and was encouraged to talk as she sat in the prescribed attitude, while Verna at her easel sketched into her picture the face whose expression had taken her fancy.
For some time the artist worked con amore, amused by Eden's naive but clever comments on the copies from the old masters that hung around.
"I must not forget to show you the portrait of myself that hangs in the green drawing room," she observed, presently. "I should like to hear whether you opinion of it coincides with my own."
"That is putting me to a sharp test, isn't it?" asked Eden. "I am no judge of painting. I merely commend what I see because I like it, perhaps for the sentiment more than the execution; while you have an educated eye and taste, and would be quick to discover defects or beauties which I am too ignorant to descry."
"Don't affect so much humility, Miss Aubrey, or I shall begin to think that you were not in earnest when you honoured that crude water colour drawing with such a long and apparently gratified inspection."
"I was quite in earnest in thinking it charming," Eden assured her. "I have just been reading 'Romeo and Juliette' for the first time, and that picture brought the play before me so vividly, that I could have gazed at it ever so much longer."
"then it was for the its associations you admired it, and not because you thought the Juliet a capital likeness." Verna observed, with an indulgent smile. "Am I not right?"
"I scarcely know," was the frank reply. "It is like you, and yet it is not like you."
"the attitude is bad," Mrs Merstham commented, with a glance at her statuesque form and well-shaped head in the mirror that hung so conveniently near.
"Is it? I did not notice that. The picture pleased me so well that I forgot to criticise the details; but I remember thinking, when I perceived that the principal female figure was intended for you, that the painter must have caught you in one of your happiest moods; the face wears so soft - so sweet an expression."
"I was happy then - in a fool's paradise. I believe," murmured Verna, falling into a reverie, and forgetting for a few moments that she was not alone. "But it would have been madness! and I acted wisely in marrying as I did. Even he must think so now."
Eden, who instinctively knew that these words were not for her ear, stooped to caress and talk to the little spaniel that lay at her feet until Mrs Merstham aroused herself from her day-dream and resumed work.
"I suppose, Miss Aubrey, I ought to be very modest and deprecate your praises of my portrait; but the honest truth is, that I like to be considered beautiful. When I was a child there was at one time a fear expressed that a painful disease, from which I was suffering, would disfigure me; and the anxiety that was manifested by everyone about me, lest it should be so, taught me to value my good looks."
Eden was sympathetic enough to induce the lady to proceed in the same strain.
"I was very young when that little sketch you admire so much was painted. it was just before my marriage, and I was barely nineteen when Mr Merstham proposed. do you think I was handsomer then than now?"
"Oh no!" was the prompt reply. "But -" and then Eden paused, in confusion. In what words could she explain to Mrs Merstham that what her features had gained in beauty of colour and decision of outline they had lost in the half-bashful, half-arch prettiness that must have formerly characterised them? The Juliette of the picture was an opening rosebud in the garden of girls; the lady who awaited her reply with such grave expectancy was a glowing queen rose, superb in her beauty, but not half as sweet as the earlier blossom.
"Pray don't stop at a but, Miss Aubrey!" cried Verna, impatiently, "or you will lose your character for candour. Do you think I have faded since my marriage? I know that Mr Merstham's death, and in the hideous cap I was obliged to wear, I looked quite old and haggard. I had endured enough to make me both. heaven knows the comparative happiness of these last few months has been dearly bought; but I fancied that I had succeeded in nursing myself back to something like the Verna of my girlhood. Tell me honestly what you were about to say."
"I believe I was thinking that many would consider you much more beautiful than you were when that picture was taken."
"But you do not. And why?"
"Take your stand before that glass, Mrs Merstham, and let your features assume the tender, half-pleased, half-frightened expression they were in that picture, and then you will know what I mean."
Verna coloured, laughed, called her a ridiculous child, and then stood idly playing with her pencils and yielding to the spell of memories that made her sometimes frown, sometimes sigh. but at last, with a pettish stamp of her foot, as if angry at her weakness, she dipped her brush in her paint, and made a few more strokes.
"You are a keen observer, Miss Aubrey," she said, presently. "If I had anything to conceal, I should be half afraid of you, but I have no greater fault to confess to than a little more that worldly wisdom most women of my age think it is most romantic to decry. Suppose, as you have given me your opinion of the Juliet of my picture, you now tell me what you think of the Romeo in it? but perhaps," she added, catching her breath slightly and laughing a little affectedly - "perhaps you took no notice of what I have been inclined to think the better drawn and more interesting figure of the two?"
"Oh! yes I did," responded Eden, ingenuously. "I thought it more carefully painted than your own, and I have never seen a face I liked so well. I tried to draw it from memory, but could not succeed."
T this Mrs Merstham made no response, and was silent so long that Eden would have surmised that something in her speech had given offence, if the warmth of the room had not made her so sleepy that when Verna ceased to call upon her to talk, she had some difficulty in keeping her eyes open.
She started perceptibly when the lady threw down her brushes, and coldly informed her that the sitting was over.
"I don't think I need to trouble you to come again. At all events, I cannot ask you to do so, unless you consent to be remunerated for your services."
The distant tone Mrs Merstham had suddenly assumed displeased as much as it surprised Eden Aubrey, who contented herself with simply bowing ash she rose to resume the wraps she had thrown off on her arrival.
"Perhaps you would like to see what I have done?" said Verna, rather more civilly; and, thus invited, the young girl stepped towards the easel, but it was only to recoil and exclaim, impulsively:
"Is this meant for me?"
"I told you I should be obliged to idealise your features very much," Mrs Merstham replied. "Surely, my good child, you were not vain enough to suppose that I should coy them faithfully for a representation of the Madonna."
Eden bit her lips, and stammered something, she knew not what.
Whether purposely, or from want of skill, who shall say? but it was an unpleasant fact, that Mrs Merstham had produced on her canvas a face which could only be called a hideous caricature of the fair one of her model.
"It served me right," was Eden's mental summing up. "What business had I to feel flattered at being selected to sit for such a picture? But I cannot help hoping that in my worst humours I do not resemble this thing."
"Who is that person now crossing the lawn?" Verna exclaimed, as the young girl was about to bid her adieu.
"Mr Stretby, the new tenant of The Beeches," and Eden’s smiles returned, as the ludicrous scenes of the previous day recurred to her memory.
"You know him? then stay till he has gone. It is not pleasant for me to have to receive a stranger alone. I suppose I shall be obliged to advertise for a companion to reside with me."
Eden was half inclined to resent the peremptory manner in which she was directed to remain; but remembering that she need not expose herself to a repetition of it, she sat down again, and when Mr Stretby entered the room, shyly but gracefully, introduced him to Mrs Merstham.
He had called to ask information respecting the boundaries of their several grounds, lest he, in shooting, should trespass on those of his fair neighbour.
Mrs Merstham answered his questions, but it was with such freezing politeness that Eden thought her almost rude, and anyone but Mr Stretby would have been discouraged. he, however, evidently attributed her curt monosyllables to want of spirits, and pitied her heartily and openly.
"A widow, and so young! My dear Mrs Merstham, I can't express how sorry I am for you. Are you living here alone? Dear me! alone! What! no darling little children to enliven you, and give you an interest in life? 'Pon my word, I can't imagine how anyone can live in a house that has no merry children in it."
"I do not like children" he was told.
"I daresay not. Living such a solitary life has made you feel quite nervous and eccentric; unable to like anyone or anything." was the commiserating reply. "Whatever induced you to come to such a secluded place?"
"Perhaps it was to get out of the way of impertinent and over-officious people," said Verna, haughtily.
"Ah! I daresay your grief made you feel irritable," replied her imperturbably visitor; "and then the efforts of your friends to console you had the contrary effect. But you really ought not to be living here - alone too."
"I am very well satisfied with my house, sir," he was told in icy tones.
"Yes, that's where the mischief lies. you have moped till you don't care to exert yourself - till you can't shake off your melancholy; but cheer up - cheer up! I'll bring Mrs Stretby and the girls to see you. Why, my dear, you are but a girl yourself, and ought to be as full of fun and ripe for a frolic as my Flip - bless her. A widow, and so young! Dear - dear - dear!"
Mrs Merstham rose from the chair into which she had thrown herself, and, compressing her lips, swept across the room towards the bell, intending to ring for a servant, and then excuse herself in as few words as possibly, and leave her visitor, whose commiseration annoyed her. Mr Stretby, who fancied that she was going to ring for refreshments, started up to save her the trouble; but happening, as he passed the table, to glance at the open sketch-book, he was transfixed, and stood staring at it, and exclaiming:
"By Jove! What a likeness! It's him - it's his very self! Poor old Frank! That's just how he used to look before he grew a moustache. Bless the boy! How came his picture here?"
"Lunch, and bring with it some of that sherry. I want Mr Stretby's opinion on it," said Mrs Merstham to the servant who answered the summons.
and then, to the astonishment of Eden, who had been both pained and perplexed by the reception she gave the ex-miliataire's well-meant speeches, she returned to his side and accosted him with a winning smile.
"I hope we shall be very good neighbours, although, as I am only just putting off my mourning, you must not be surprised if I still court seclusion."
"Oh! but we must not let you seclude yourself any longer," cried Mr Stretby, patting her shoulder in fatherly fashion. "If you had friends about you I shouldn't take upon myself to interfere, but as it is - being your neighbours - we must do our best to rouse you. We mean to be very jolly here at Eastham. The girls love riding - they shall lend you a horse if you have not one - and dancing; no harm in a carpet dance, though you are a widow - and skating; going to have a rink of our own, you know, in the old banqueting house - excellent exercise for all young people. Yes, yes - you must come to us often. Can't let you be here alone any longer - impossible!"
"I think you were recognising one of the picture in my little collection of scraps," said Mrs Merstham, carelessly, as she turned over the leaves of the sketch book.
"Yes, yes, of course. I know the young fellow for whom it is intended, Frank Lyssendon. He was an ensign in the regiment to which I was attached; joined us while we were quartered at Canada, and made our house his home, as most of the lads used to do, by the bye. Left England, poor boy! because his sweetheart threw him over for a rich man - heartless jilt! Let me see; I did not notice the lady with whom he is sketched. Perhaps -"
But Verna's hand was on his arm.
"Pray come and taste this much be-praised wine, that poor Mr Merstham purchased just before his death. I am no judge of its merits myself. Miss Aubrey, you positively shall not run away till you have had a slice of chicken!"
she played the hostess so charmingly, that Mr Stretby forgot the picture, till she said, carelessly: "I used to know Lieutenant Lyssendon before he went abroad. Is he still in Canada?"
"Captain," Mr Stretby corrected. "He is a Captain Lyssendon now. In Canada? OH! no. I heard yesterday that the regiment is in England - quartered, in fact, at Aldenby, close by."
The glass Mrs Merstham insisted in filling for Eden dropped from her hand with a crash, and she sank back in her chair.
She quickly recovered herself, and turned the conversation to other subjects; but for hours after her visitors left her, there was a strange look upon the face, to which the colour had not returned. Was it triumph? or was it fear?
to be continued............
Monday, 2 November 2009
She had won her consent to sit to Verna for the picture that lady was painting; and on the morning after her adventures - as she merrily styled them - she was sitting patiently helping her younger sister with her lessons when the waggonette of the Stretby's dashed up to the door.
The charioteer was her companion of the preceding evening - that daughter of Mr Stretby who rejoiced in the comical appellation of Flip.
The young lady was quite alone, and after securing her reins to a post, in the methodical manner of a person accustomed to have the sole control of a couple of spirited horses, she came nimbly towards the porch, into which Eden - excited by the prospect of another break in the monotony of her quiet life - had hurried to meet her.
"What a pretty cottage!" was Miss Stretby's first exclamation. "Is this little girl your sister? And how are you? Not too busy, I hope to go with me?"
"Unfortunately, no - I am not busy at all," Eden replied. "But don't think my answer rude. I mean that mamma, who always spends this one day in the week at home, has been obliged to go out; and losing her society, just as we had planned to be so happy together, has made me cross and idle."
"and not able to settle to anything else," said Miss Stretby, with a sagacious nod. "I know the feeling. How lucky it is that I have arrived just as you've nothing better to do than help me! Put on your hat, will you? and come at once. Our horses are soon fidgetty if they're kept standing ' and Rifles was too busy to drive me, so I'm on honour to get home again without any disastors."
"But where do you want me to go?" asked Eden, glancing doubtfully at the pawing, snorting animals.
"To fifty places; but I can explain all that as we go along. No, don't look doubtful. I'll not upset you, and your sister will spare you, I'm sure, if I promise to come some other day, and give her a long country drive."
Lotty who was rather glad than sorry to escape the long chapter of history Eden was inflicting on her, nodded assent, and ran off at once to her dolls, of which, being a shy, peculiar child, she was fonder than of the very few playmates their somewhat isolated dwelling enabled her to have.
And Eden, always willing to oblige, hurriedly donned her outdoor dress, and in a very few minutes pronounced herslef ready to accompany Miss Stretby.
"Now may I know where you are taking me," She said, when, after a little plunging about, the restless steeds permitted themselves to be guided in the direction of the village street.
"That depends on you," was the reply. "I came down here to order in stores for the garrison, and could get scarcely a thing I asked for. In some articles I had exhausted the supply last evening, and others are only to be had when ordered. The butcher, who is also the grocer, only kills beef once a week. Fish must be procured from Alderby, and for eggs, fowls, cream, butter, and cheese, I am directed to the farm houses round about. Now, where is 'round about?' When I inquired which way I had better take, Mrs Butcher - Mr Butcher was out pig-buying - got into a fog. I might go to Smith's farm if I liked, but she wasn't sure whether they'd any butter to spare. Or I might try Brown's, but their fowls was always terrible poor; and as for them Jones's - but I didn't stop to hear any more, for it had just popped into my head that you would be more likely to help me than this slow, stupid woman. Here we are at the cross roads. Which one am I to take?"
Her brisk proceedings almost took Eden's breath away; but after very brief consideration, she had decided where the Stretby's were most likely to get what they needed. Eden Aubrey's bonny face was well known at most of the farmhouses around Eastham, for she was a good walker, and the winning manner inherited from her mother - always so gay and so gracious - made the old women and children her friends wherever she appeared.
With a little aid and advice from her, Miss Stretby transacted her business satisfactorily, and turned her horses' heads homeward, with the carriage filled with provisions, and a regular supply promised to the household at The Beeches by the farmers' wives, to whom her companion had introduced her. She had proved herself such an adept at bargaining, that Eden laughingly expressed a little surprise.
"Lor now, does it strike you as odd?" said Flip, laughing too. 'You see I like buying, but I know no reason why I should pay away more of pa's money for an article than it is worth. We never run bills; it's always, 'how much is it,' and 'here's the cash.' But I once heard somebody say that we are a queer family; and perhaps it's true."
"How did you pass the night? Has your furniture arrived?" were the questions Eden now put to her.
"The night? Oh! We got on very well," was the careless reply. "The old woman came home soon after you had left us, and when she had got over the fright papa's scolding gave her, she was quite useful - found us some delicious home-baked bread, and lent us a feather bed for ma; and we made her sit up with us and tell us all the old ghost stories she could remember, only pa spoiled the effect of the most exciting by snoring his loudest in the middle of it."
"And the furniture?" queried Eden again. "I felt quite uncomfortable when the wind howled towards morning, to think of you all in that empty, desolate house."
Flip opened her eyes to their fullest extent.
"Lor now, did you? Why we had a jolly fire, and were comfortable enough. Lin went into fits of laughter when she woke at daybreak and looked round her. She said she never saw human creatures sleeping in such ridiculous attitudes before. But we jumped up none the worse for it, except one of the twins, I put her to bed on a wide shelf, and she fell off and bruised her nose."
"But your furniture?" said Eden, for the third time.
"Oh, that came in sight just as I started, so we shall be able to give you your luncheon on a table, instead of spreading the cloth on the floor, as we did at breakfast-time. No, indeed, you are not going to leave me yet. Ma wants to ask you something, and made me promise not to go back without you."
So Eden had to keep her seat till they arrived at The Beeches, where they found confusion worse confounded. Huge vans were drawn up in front of the house, and workmen, under the direction of Rifles, were toiling up the staircases with heavy chests of drawers, etc. A buxom cook - who, with half a dozen more servants had just arrived in the roomy carriage of their employers - came out to greet Miss Flip and carry off the contents of the wagonnette. The maids ran to and fro trying to reduce to something like order the chaos around them; and to make the turmoil greater, the younger Stretbys were dancing a sort of war dance around a fat placid baby, the last born, the only boy, who sat in the arms of his nurse chuckling and crowing at his worshippers, to their intense delight.
Eden looked round for Mr Stretby; but, cigar in his mouth, he had sallied forth to have a chat with a man who had offered himself as gardener. Mrs Stretby was reclining on a pile of cushions in one of the bay-windows of the drawing-room, doing nothing but play with the rings on her plump fingers and smile at her daughters whenever one of them rushed in to announce some new discovery, pat up her cushions, and fly off again. There were noises around her that would have distracted some matrons - hammering and knocking, lumbering of heavy feet overhead, a crash of glass down below, and presently a shrill scream so startling to Eden that she offered to go and ascertain what had occasioned it.
"Thank you my love, but I don't think I need trouble you," said Mrs Stretby , calmly. "It isn't baby's voice; I rather think that it is only Priss, our housemaid; she is nervous, poor thing, and is always fancying she sees a mouse or feels a spider. It was annoying till were were used to it, but she's an excellent servant, and a little brandy generally brings her to."
Eden then condoled with her on the confusion that reigned around, but was answered in the same placid strain.
"Ah! yes; I suppose the house does look untidy, but we shall get settled by-and-by, I dare say. Pray sit down. Ah! I forgot that there are no chairs unpacked; do have one of my cushions, unless you prefer the window-seat."
"Thanks, but is there nothing I can do for you? to assist, I mean, in arranging either of the rooms. I shall be so pleased to be of some use."
"You are very good natured, my love," said Mrs Stretby, leaning back to look up into the pretty, animated face of her visitor; "but there really isn't the least occasion for you to tire yourself.
The servants are here, and they will do all that is required. Not today, perhaps we must give them time, poor things! but in the course of a week or two everything will be in its place, I dare say. Have you seen baby? He's somewhere about, I've no doubt. I should like you to see our only boy."
Yes, Eden had caught more than one glimpse of the heir of the Stretby's; sometimes borne on the shoulders of one of his elder sisters, as they wandered about the house watching the workmen, sometimes tucked up under the arm of the more energetic Flip, as she bustled away to point out the place for some piece of furniture; then, for a little while, the object of dispute with the twins who struggled for him till any other infant would have squalled lustily; but beyond screwing up his features and converting his mouth into a round O, Master Stretby bore the pulling and lugging to which he was subjected, as if it were second nature. The last time an opening door enbabled Eden to glance into the hall; he was there, and had been squeezed into a basket and propped up with a hassock, that the young lady who, by dint of greater strength, had gained possession of him might the more conveniently feed him with sugar-plums and bites from a raw apple.
"Venetia darling, I should like Miss Aubrey to see Roderick," said Mrs Stretby, when her eldest daughter came in sight, laden with music books. Down went the pile of large volumes, and away went Venetia in serach of the infant. Eden saw her run across the court-yard with him, possibly in the direction of the pump, because he was in too sticky a condition to be presentable, for when she bore him into the room his rosy little face was still wet, shining with his recent ablutions.
While Eden romped with and tickled the plump baby, it was quite amusing to see the placid complacency with which Mrs Stretby looked on. She roused herself once to proffer a request that Roderick might be allowed to come to his mamma to be nursed, and the child was seated on her knee; but after apostrophising him once or twice with a gentle, "Oh! baby, baby!" she looked helplessly round; and Flip seized her little brother, proclaiming that he was too much for ma. Another contest for possession of him then arose, in which the twin, who had been worsted in the first battle, came off victorious, and danced off with her prize hanging over her shoulders, and only saved from falling by her grasp of his mottled legs.
Feeling that she could not be of any further service, Eden would have departed, but Mrs Stretby entreated her to stay a little longer.
"Pray don't go yet, my love, for there is something I particularly wish to say to you. Venetia, what is it I wanted to ask Miss Aubrey?"
Venetia took hold of the extreme tip of her roman nose, and meditated.
"Was it oatmeal, ma?"
"I think not, love, though somebody did saysomething to me about it being excellent food for children; and I believe I made up my mind to ask some one or other if it were true, but still I don't think it was that."
"Goats?" now queried Venetia.
"For baby's chaise? Ah! Perhaps Miss Aubrey can tell us if they are to be had here; but still, that isn't it."
"Patterns, then, of her dress and jacket? Pa said she dressed better than any girl he had seen for some time - so stylish, and yet so quiet and ladylike."
The blushing Eden hastened to disclaim any credit for this.
"Mamma cuts out and plans my dressed. It is she who has both taste and ingenuity - not me."
"no, it was not patterns," said Mrs Stretby beginning to look hopelessly perplexed, 'though I believe I said I'd ask Miss Aubrey who made for her. Ah! now, I remember: it was the twins and their education. They must be taught something. I'm quite anxious about them; I am indeed!"
"You are in want of a governess?" asked Eden.
"Oh! no; not a resident one. We have tried that plan, but somehow it doesn't answer. Mr Stretby doesn't like to see the poor dears cry over their lessons, or fret at being confined too strictly to the school-room."
"Then you would prefer a daily governess?"
Mrs Stretby meditated.
"I don't know what to say about that. I am afraid it would worry me to have a stranger coming to the house at regular hours; because, you see, she would expect to find her pupils always ready for her, and they are such haram-scarum little creatures, one never knows where to find them."
"Then I don't think I quite underrstand what it is you wish," said Eden, hesitatingly, as she glanced from Mrs Stretby to her daughters.
"It is a difficult question, isn't it?" Murmured the matron. "But I am so anxious that their education shouldn't be neglected, that Flip - where's Flip? - seeing how it harassed me, came to my aid with a proposal. Now, what was it she proposed? Where is she?"
"Here am I, ma," said that young lady wheeling in a small table on which to deposit the luncheon-tray a servant was bringing. "I know what we planned last night. The old woman told us that Miss aubrey is highly accomplished, and regularly teaches her little sister, and I said how nice it would be if she would let H and P share the child's lessons."
"H and P?" repeated Eden, half-laughing, half-bewildered.
"Yes, the twins; don't you know that they are called that in short for Hyacinthe and Persis, just as I am Flip for Philippina, and Lin was christend Ethelinda? Ma always chooses from some romance she has read, but pa hates what he calls crack-jaw names, and curtails them as much as he can. But what do you say to my scheme, Miss Aubrey? Will you agree to it? Pray do; it will be such a relief to poor dear ma! her head quite ached with thinking about it."
Before Eden could make any reply, Mr Stretby came bustling into the room.
"Girls, I've had a visitor, and he's given me an idea," he exclaimed, as soon as he had shaken hands with Eden. "I had walked down to the gates with the new gardener, when who should come riding by but Halliss. You remember him? he was once a lieutenant in ours, and now he's a Major in the 150th - one of the regiments stationed at Aldenby."
"Why didn't you bring him in to luch, pa?" asked Miss Venetia.
"Because, my dear Sneshy, I couldn't be sure that the state of the larder admitted it. Besides, he had an engagement; but I have promised to dine at the mess tomorrow, and then I can tell him and his friends to come over whenever they feel inclined."
This free and easy style of giving invitations was evidently the usual thing, for no remark was made upon it, Flip only inquiring what had been Major Halliss's clever idea.
"Ah! I was forgetting it! He walked with me as far as a building that stands in the grounds - a banqueting hall, or something of the kind, - and what do you think he said?"
"Go on pa!" cried Lin imperiously. "I hate the bother of guessing."
"He said: 'Why don't you lay down some asphalte here, and convert it into a rink? Our fellows are moped to death at Aldenby, which is the dullest, dirtiest hole imaginable; and they'd regard you as their best friend if you'd do this, and let them come and rink with the young ladies.' and by Jove, girls! I don't think I could do better than act upon the suggestion, for an English winter is not like a Canadian one, and you'll terribly miss your skating, and sleighing, and tobogginning. Come and have a look at the place."
Away they ran at his heels, carrying the baby with them, and Eden, who had declined to accompany them, bade Mrs Stretby farewell, having first promised to consult her mother respecting the pupils so suddenly offered to her.
to be continued.........