Wednesday, 13 January 2010

To Whom She Said Yes - Chapter Seven

For the Second Time

"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."
Flip nodded.
"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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

comments are very welcome, but if you need a reply, please do email me instead because sometimes I am very busy and may miss a comment or two.