Thursday, 19 November 2009

To Whom She Said Yes - chapter Six

A First Attempt

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.............

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