by the author of "Wilful Winnie." "The Bride's Jewels" "Holly and Ivy" "Waiting for the May," "Not to be won," "Positively ugly," etc
(taken from The Young Woman, 1877) A story in 30 chapters.
One of the prettiest rooms in Mrs. Merstham's house was called her studio: although it cannot be said to have borne much resemblance to the apartment in which painters - with true masculine untidiness - contrive to surround themselves with litter while they work.
It is true that there were a few casts from the antique in Mrs. Merstham's studio, but then they stood on polished marble pedestals; there were half-finished pictures against the walls, but they were placed on neat stands, made for that purpose and there were easels, and colour-boxes, and pallets, and pencils, but all of the daintiest make and finish, and all arranged with an eye to effect as well as to order.
Moreover, when Mrs Merstham - who was a handsome young widow, with the eye of a Juno, and the proud gait of a Diana - took it into her head to play at painting, she did not disguise herself with a shapeless blouse; her black robes were exchanged for a crimson tunic, bordered with gold, that was confined at her waist with a zone, from which it swept in voluminous folds to her feet; and her raven hair, of which she was justly proud, was tied back with a crimson fillet, or looped up with diamond-headed arrows that glittered and flashed in its dark waves most picturesquely.
Verna Merstham was standing before her easel one morning when visitors were announced, and though her deeply-curved lip curled scornfully when she glanced at the card her pretty saucy page presented, she gave orders that they were to be admitted. Any society was better than no society. Though she prided herself on her strength of mind, she was in a morbid mood just then - tired of herself, of her surroundings, fair and costly though they were - of the solitary state in which she had passed the year of her widowhood; and was for the first time half inclined to ask herself if the wealth, for which she had wedded an aged, ill-tempered millionaire, had proved worth the price she had paid for it.
But she had composed her features into the haughty calm that generally characterised them when she laid down her brush and maul-stick to greet her guests; two withered, fluttering elderly ladies, like autumn leaves, all brown and yellow in complexion, as well as dress. The Misses Tibbetts were maiden sisters, whose small income, by great care, enabled them to keep up appearances in one of the prettiest but also smallest of the villas in the High Street of Eastham.
"So glad to see you looking so lovely my dear Mrs Merstham," began Miss Olivia Tibbetts, breathlessly. She always was breathless, especially when she had news to tell. "So kind of you to break through your rule, and admit us."
"Flattered!" added Cornelia Tibbetts, who was not given to wasting her words, and therefore contented herself with acting as a sort of appendix to her sister.
"There is no rule to break," said Verna, languidly. "I gave everyone to understand when I came hre4r three months since, that I should not receive any visitors till the year of my mourning had expired. It ended yesterday, and as I have no desire to be considered eccentric, I shall do as other people do, and be civil to my neighbours."
"How brave of you, after such a bereavement!" ejaculated Miss Olivia, admiringly.
"It shows great - great -"
"Fortitude" said her sister.
"Ah! Yes, fortitude. Dear Cornelia has such a head! Such a memory! Then you will receive callers, my dear Mrs Merstham, and pay visits, and all that?"
Verna Merstham smiled at the little lady's eagerness.
"I suppose so; quietly, of course. I came to this house - which my husband had bought and fitted up just before his death to live in the retirement I considered decorous, under the circumstances - and I shall continue to do so till - well, till the London season commences. But you talk of callers, Miss Tibbetts; who is there living in Eastham with whom I could exchange visits?"
The haughty tone in which she spoke disconcerted Miss Olivia. Eastham, though nestled in one of the loveliest of dells, with shady lanes around it that were beautiful in every season, was a pastoral village, with only two good houses in its vicinity: Mrs Merstham's, and a room, old-fashioned mansion, known as The Beeches, and so terribly out of repair, that no one cared to rent it. There were also half-a-dozen neat little eight-roomed semi-detached dwellings at the best end of the village street, known as The Villas: but with these exceptions Eastham was in the hands of burly farmers and hop-growers.
Miss Olivia meditated, coughed, and glanced at her sister, who breathed the word "Doctor!"
"Ah! yes; an excellent man, Mr Snubbs; but you know him already, don't you, Mrs Merstham?"
Again the full lips parted into a scornful smile.
"Yes; and his wife; but I cannot say that I feel disposed to be intimate with either."
"Well certainly they are not quite the sort of people with whom you would care to associate; and Vineton, the lawyer, is the crustiest old bachelor that ever lived, and the rector being gouty and his wife an invalid, and the Aldenby people – Ah! I had forgotten them; but I suppose you have no military acquaintances, Mrs Merstham?”
A dark red flush slowly mounted to Verna Merstham’s brows, and she glanced sharply at the speaker; but Miss Tibbetts looked so unconscious of any intention of giving offence, that, dropping her eyes again, and resuming her former listless attitude, she answered, slowly:
“Military acquaintances! My dear Miss Tibbetts, how very odd a question!”
“Oh I beg pardon, really! I know that many people have a prejudice against the army. We have ourselves, haven’t we, Cornelia? Ever since a most impertinent –“
“Handsome!” interposed Cornelia.
“Well, he certainly wasn’t bad-looking,” her sister admitted. “A handsome, but most impertinent young officer whom we met during out daily constitutional, not only insisted on helping us over a stile, but – you’ll not mention this, my dear Mrs Merstham? – Kissed his hand to us. But still there are, I daresay, men of good character in the British army, although I have heard that the swearing, and the gambling, and the drinking ---“
“Have mercy, Miss Tibbetts!” said Verna, quietly. “My father was a soldier.”
Miss Tibbetts apologised till she was hoarse; and then, timidly, as if afraid of making more mistakes, observed that she had been about to remark that she didn’t suppose Mrs Merstham had any acquaintances amongst the military men at Aldenby.
Now, Aldenby was a busy and extensive town, some three miles away, with large barracks on the outskirts, in which two or three regiments were generally quartered; and occasionally a party of gay militaries and ladies on horseback disturbed the quiet of Eastham by riding along the principal street; but apparently the widow had no predilection for the scarlet or blue of our army; for in her coldest tones, she made answer that she might have met some of them in society but she did not even know what regiments were quartered at Aldenby, and should not care to inquire.
“But you’ll not find it dull here,” cried Miss Olivia briskly. “Oh! dear No! although there certainly is a dearth of society; for we manage to suffice for ourselves, don’t we, Cornelia? There are reading rooms; they are only meant for the gentlemen , you know; but the librarian is a most obliging man, and never makes any remark if we ladies slip in for an hour in the afternoon just to have a peep at Punch and the papers; and there are the Dorcas meetings in the winter, and the annual concert, and the children’s school treat in the summer; and I’m sure you’ll give us a pic-nic in your own beautiful grounds, Mrs Merstham; and good – gracious! Cornelia, how could you let me forget it? – The Beeches is let!”
Verna, who had been stifling a yawn, glanced towards a window, though which there was a distant view of a clump of the above-mentioned trees, and some curiously twisted chimneys peering betwixt them as she murmured an interrogatory:
“It’s quite true; for I had it from the auctioneer himself. Let to a Canadian gentleman with a large family; he intends to come into occupation immediately; was down here a day or two since, to decide upon it; and his name’s Stretby. I was so glad to hear it!”
“And I am sorry,” said Verna coldly. “I liked rambling and sketching in the grounds; for they were wilder and more picturesque than my own; and I detest people with large families; they are worse nuisances than – “ Old maids, she was about to add; but checked herself, and made a diversion by pointing to a figure tripping across her own lawn and asking;
“Who is this?”
Miss Olivia glanced at the figure, and stood on tip-toe, in her astonishment.
“Dear, dear me! It’s Eden Aubrey? Do you know her, Mrs Merstham?”
“I think I’ve seen her at church. Who is she?” asked that lady, as she gave orders for the stranger to be admitted.
“Only the daughter of Mrs Aubrey, the poor thing who gives music-lessons.”
“French woman,” asserted Cornelia
“Yes; I am afraid she is,” sighed Miss Olivia; “and although it may be uncharitable, I never have had much opinion of the French; not but what Mrs Aubrey has behaved very well ever since she came to Eastham. Her husband was a young surgeon, who bought Dr MacMurdo’s practice; but he died when the children were babies; and there was so little for the widow, that she had to take to teaching. But what brings Eden here? – uninvited too! – unless it’s with one of her mother’s circulars.”
“Can Mrs Aubrey expect to find a pupil in me?” asked Verna, who had developed into a brilliant player, under the tuition of some of the most eminent masters. “How absurd!”
“Of course it is – quite absurd!” echoed Miss Tibbetts. “If she had consulted me, I should have told her so; but Mrs Aubrey is very odd, very reserved; never takes anyone into her confidence, and has a – a sort of way when you offer suggestions that is really quite repelling.”
“Faults of her nation,” said Cornelia.
“Well perhaps it is” replied her sister, adding benevolently; “And if so, we mustn’t visit it on the poor children. Oh! here’s Eden – ridiculous name to give her, isn’t it?” You may step forward, my dear. Mrs Merstham will grant you an interview.”
Eden Aubrey, who had just been ushered into the room, opened her soft, gray eyes widely, with a comical air of astonishment at hearing herself thus addressed; then, perceiving the speaker, who was half hidden by Mrs Merstham’s easel, she gave her an amused smile and nod of recognition.
She was, young, impulsive and high spirited, and did not understand being patronised by the fussy officious spinster, who sometimes contrived to arouse even her forebearing mother’s indignation by her ill-timed comments on Mrs Aubrey’s arrangements; and, after thus acknowledging Miss Tibbett’s presence, and replying to Cornelia’s “Good morning,” she took no further notice of the spinsters but moved easily and gracefully towards Mrs Merstham.
Eden Aubrey was not more than seventeen, and was an innocent, inexperienced, lovable girl, with a slight, willowy figure that, in the course of a few years, would be perfect; and a face so riante, so expressive, that Mrs Merstham marvelled that she had not noticed it before: in repose it was so sweet and childlike, and yet, as soon as she spoke or smiled, so arch, so intelligent in its prettiness.
The wild rose tints on her cheeks deepened as she perceived how critically Mrs Merstham was surveying her; but she was not troubled with awkward shyness. Why should she be? she would have asked. Mamma had taught her how to deport herself, and to be either rude or stupid would be to disgrace that dear teacher.
Without the slightest embarrassment, and without appearing to perceive that she had not been invited to seat herself, she laid on the little inlaid table, at Verna’s elbow, a roll of music, and told her errand.
Mr Green the stationer, had been in despair (Eden had picked up some of the foreign phrases as well as the piquante intonation of her Parisian mother) at his inability to procure the songs Mrs Merstham had ordered; and, learning that Mamma had them, he had asked her to part with them. As the gift of a friend, they were valuable to Mrs Aubrey; but she would be much gratified if Mrs Merstham would make use of them or any others in her collection, for as long as she wished.
The offer, so politely made, was accepted, and Eden Aubrey would have withdrawn if Verna had not suddenly aroused herself from her languid indifference, and requested her to stay.
“If you have walked from the further end of the village, I am sure you will be glad of some luncheon. I will ring for the tray, and ask Miss Tibbetts to entertain you for me while I change my dress.”
“A charming room this!” said Miss Olivia seeing that the young girl’s eyes were wandering around it after Mrs Merstham had left them.
“I don’t suppose you have ever seen anything to equal it.”
“No – never” answered Eden, frankly. “I shall ask Mrs Merstham to let me have a closer view of the pictures in the hall or ante chamber thought which they led me; for I had a glimpse of two or three lovely ones.”
“My good child, what are you thinking of?” exclaimed Miss Tibbetts, in accents of severe rebuke. “How can you dream of taking such a liberty?”
“A liberty!” repeated Eden, smiling. “How funny you are, Miss Tibbetts! Do you imagine that Mrs Merstham will feel offended with me for admiring the beautiful things with which she has surrounded herself?”
“But you talk and behave as if you were her equal; and in a young person in your position, I really think its – “
But Eden’s uplifted finger made the spinster pause and Cornelia cough, dubiously.
“I would rather not hear what you think of me, Miss Tibbetts. When I go home, I will ask mamma if I have said or done anything wrong. I always guide myself by her opinions.”
And Eden continued her inspection of some paintings till Mrs Merstham returned, and, seeing that she was interested in them, opened portfolio after portfolio of photographs and engravings, displaying her art treasures long after the Misses Tibbetts, having lunched to their satisfaction had grown as tired of saying “How beautiful!” as their hostess was of hearing it, and gone away.
“I am afraid I have stayed too long!” cried Eden, at last, blushing beautifully, as she started up. “But you have been so kind that I forgot the time.”
“Don’t apologise,” said Verna, letting the sketch book she had been holding slip from her lap, as she leaned back in her velvet chair, a picture herself of luxurious repose. “I wanted to ask you to do something for me; and that is why I kept you. Look here, Miss Aubrey!” and, extending her hand, she drew aside the baize that concealed a half-finished drawing. “I am copying a Holy Family that has taken my fancy. But, as you perceive, the faces of the Virgin is that of a coarse, stolid Dutch peasant, and ruins the effect of the group. My cousin Hilda offered to sit for me, but hers are the stereotyped features of a fine lady, and will not represent a village maiden’s ; but it struck me, as you stood in the doorway, when you first entered the room, that yours was the kind of profile that would suit me.”
Eden glanced towards the mirror, colouring, and smiling very prettily.
“I am afraid my face Is not refined enough.”
“Of course, I shall have to idealise it a great deal,” said Verna in the coldest tones; “but I think it will do. When can you sit for me?”
“I do not know. I will consult Mamma. If she has no objection, I have none.”
Verna raised her finely pencilled brows, as if she had not imagined for a moment that either Mrs Aubrey or Eden could hesitate to accede to her request, and then repeated her question:
“When can you sit for me? To-morrow?”
“Oh! no; it is mamma’s only day at home, and I always devote it to her. But, if I can be spared, I will come to you on Thursday. Will that do?”
“I suppose it must,” said Mrs Merstham, rather ungraciously. “And about remuneration for your trouble, Miss Aubrey?”
Eden, who had stooped for the sketch book, looked up with a little air of surprise and reproach.
“I thought you asked me to do this for you, Mrs Merstham – not for payment.”
“I do not like to be under obligations,” was the haughty response.
“And I should not like to sell the use of my face,” cried Eden merrily. “For leave to paint my eyelids, so much; for one hour at my nose ditto! It sounds comical, doesn’t it? And, seriously, the pleasure of looking at your pictures will amply repay me for the trouble of sitting still for an hour or two.”
“You had better consult your mother about this, too,” said Verna, dryly. “and bring me her answer on Thursday. I will be ready for you by eleven.”
“By eleven,” Eden mechanically repeated, for her eyes were fixed on a water-colour drawing, at which the book she picked up had opened. It represented the ball scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” and the moment in which, at the ardent entreaty of the enamoured Romeo, the beautiful daughter of the Capulets removes her mask.
There was no mistaking the identity of the Juliet. A little younger and more animated, perhaps; yet with the same stately pose and haughty lip, it was an admirable likeness of Verna Merstham.
But it was on the Romeo of the picture that Eden’s gaze was lingering, for it was in this figure the limner had displayed most skill. The attitude of passionate eagerness to behold his lady, the half-parted lips, the entranced eye, were all dashed off crudely, but with excellent effect. This Romeo looked at least two years the junior of Mrs Merstham. His frame, though well knit, had scarcely attained its full proportions. His cheek was smooth, and the down upon his lip was scarcely perceptible. Yet it was a winning, as well as a manly, face; and although too Saxon in its hues and contour to be outwardly a good representation of a fiery Italian youth, it was evident that the actor had thoroughly entered into the character, and that it was with no more semblance of stage-love he was wooing the proud beauty who breathed in his ears the tender speeches of Shakespere’s heroine.
“I beg your pardon, but it is so beautiful,” said Eden, relinquishing the book to Mrs Merstham, when, for the second time, that lady asked what was so engrossing her.
Verna glanced at the drawing, sighed deeply, then pushed the book across the table with such force that it fell on the other side.
“Pshaw! A roughly painted recollection of some private theatricals; that is all. The artist did not do me justice; my attitude is positively ungraceful. When you come again I will show you a far better portrait of myself, but I’ll not detain you now.”
And comprehending directly that this was intended as her dismissal, Eden bade the lady farewell, wondering as she went who the gentleman could be, whose share in the picture and the play Mrs Merstham had chosen to wholly ignore. Not the husband for whom she was just throwing off the crape of widowhood; for his portrait, wrinkled, sallow and peevish, frowned down on the beholder from the wall behind Verna’s chair. What, then, could have become of the ardent, handsome youth who had played the Romeo to her Juliet with such a depth of passionate devotion?