Monday, 9 November 2009

To Whom she said Yes - Chapter Four

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?"
Eden smiled
"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............

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