A Rolling Stone Vol. II
‘Not yet, O friend! not yet—
All is not true;
All is not ever as it seemeth now;
Soon shall the river take another blue,
Soon dies you light upon the mountain brow,
What lieth dark, O love! bright day will fill:
Wait for thy morning be it good or ill—
Not yet, O love! not yet.’
Mrs. Meade was an indolent woman, even in the matter of entertaining visitors. Generally she preferred to make them free of the house and leave them to themselves, and with the majority this answered very well. To Randall, however, as he had been recommended to her kindness, she determined to be very gracious. She talked to him, and tried to draw him out, fancying she was succeeding whenever he said more than a dozen words at a time. She was much delighted with his talent for music, and thought to encourage him by incessantly urging him to cultivate it: nor did she neglect to praise his painting, which she could do without insincerity, as the faults were not apparent to her.
Mrs. Meade therefore, chose to be agreeable to him, but Miss Desmond was of another mind. It page 233 was necessary that they should meet sometimes, and occasionally they were obliged to speak to each other; but beyond this there was no approach to intimacy. At first he had accepted this as for the best, but very soon he began to vex himself with it. To every one else her manner invited frankness and cordiality: he alone must not dare to speak to her as a friend. He knew by a hundred little signs which no one else would have detected that his presence in that house was distasteful to her. He knew he had better not have come, that, it was his duty to escape from the false position he was placed in, and yet he was bound to the work he had undertaken, and must stay till it was finished. It would not take long, and meanwhile he would keep out of her sight as much as possible.
But they must meet—at meals, for example, and that was not so bad; for then others were present who, in their own unrestrained flow of conversation, would never observe that they did not speak to each other. At such times, also, he could see no wrong in looking at her across the table, and it is possible he may have derived a melancholy pleasure from this indulgence, even though her manner seemed to tell him that he might sit opposite to her for years, and yet never detect her eyes turning in his direction.
He had known years ago that this was a haughty young lady, and a wilful one too, who had a great constancy to her own opinion. Of course he had page 234 liked her none the worse, and it is a matter for thankfulness that the whole sum of human failings will seem as nothing in our eyes when it is our will to be pleased with the possessor. Once or twice, in the midst of the misfortunes that had come between them, he had wondered if she would be haughty to him should they ever meet again. He had acknowledged to himself that it was very probable, and now he saw that he had been right.
There may be people so lofty and high-minded that they cannot be moved by neglect or disdain. The approval of their own heart, doubtless, is quite sufficient for them. They are not the nicest kind of people, however. Most of us are much more anxious about the approval of some one else's heart. If her manner meant anything at all, surely it must mean that he had fallen so low in her esteem that she could not endure even to look down on him. It made him ashamed, if it did not anger him, that she should pass him in the hall or on the stairs with an averted face, that she should be ill at ease in his company, that, as more than once he had noticed, she should turn back abruptly as if she had forgotten something, rather than enter a room in which he was alone. All this he could have borne from another: from her it was unendurable.
The week after Mrs. Meade's return was marked by a sudden influx of visitors. It was the beginning of the shooting season, in which the mildest of men will yield to the passion for killing something, which, page 235 it has been argued, is a remnant of the old savage nature common to our ancestors who clothed themselves in skins, and hunted birds and beasts in the vast forests of their age. Very likely this is true, and, in any case, it is convenient to lay the responsibilities of our little peccadilloes on the shoulders of our remote grandparents.
Mr. Wishart had held out delusive hopes of fine sport to his friends. Pheasants abounded; wild ducks were particularly found of the neighbourhood; and, descending to commoner game, pukekos, or swamp hens, in their flaring attire of bright blue, matched by red legs and bill, were always stalking about boldly, and the voice of the weka never was mute.
It might have been so during the time of their protection: it assuredly was not so three days after shooting had begun. The sportsmen went out hopefully every morning, but too often returned at night with limp game-bags. They abused the country for its deficient supply of insect food—on which account the bird population could not increase,—and much more abused the settlers, who, it was suspected, had slain and eaten the few pheasants billeted on the district. Nevertheless, by hook or by crook, they would sometimes succeed in making a tolerably good bag; and great joy was made over wood-pigeons, and even over little quail, mites though they were. And, as a man with a gun is bound to fire it off at something or other, one misguided page 236 sportsman, in a delirium of joy at finding game in great quantity at last, shot seven of what he supposed to be a flock of wild turkeys, and was cut to the heart when he learned that he had carried the war into his host's poultry-yard.
There were, besides this party, two guests who were very indifferent to the attractions of sport, and made no complaint about the scarcity of pheasants. Professor Crasher had come into the country on a piano-tuning expedition. He had put new life into all the old jangling pianos within thirty miles of Mr. Wishart's; for he had made that hospitable gentleman's house his headquarters, and had beat up the country round about so vigorously that it was doubtful if a single piano had escaped being strung up to concert pitch. In fact, to quote the words of that oracle, the gifted person who was the newspaper correspondent for the settlement,—‘A flood of harmony had poured into the district.’
Things had gone hard with him lately, Professor Crasher told his friends, or he would not have been found in the humble position of an itinerant piano-tuner. People (chiefly tradesmen who were tired of being paid for their goods with promises only) would bully him. In the peaceful country, however, he could forget all that, and be happy in the knowledge that neither baker, butcher, grocer, nor tailor knew where he was. On the very day that ought to have been his last at Mr. Wishart's, he managed to disable himself by catching his foot in a rod of the stairs carpet, and page 237 half falling, half sliding down a dozen steps. His fall, according to Mrs. Grigsby, who was prone to exaggerate, shook the house to its foundations. Mr. Wishart insisted on keeping him till his bruises and sprains were cured, and the Professor had no objection. He was in clover. For the first time in a dozen years he had perfect rest from music-teaching, and nothing in the world to do, when he was not playing, but to sit in an easy-chair on the verandah and nurse his swollen foot. He was so constant to this easy-chair that Harry mischievously sewed his coat to the cushion. He recognised Randall with delight, but reproved him for neglecting music for painting. He himself showed no such neglect, for after he had tuned the piano, he nearly ruined it by thundering upon it, to his own delight if not always that of other people.
The other visitor was Stephen Langridge. He had never been known to neglect coming to this house as often as he conveniently could, and whether it were in season or out of season, no one supposed that he came to shoot pheasants. He also knew Randall again, and though he was very polite to him, he thought it a very strange thing to find him in such a place. This was about all the thought he deigned to give to a person who could not possibly affect him in any way. And as, generally speaking, Mr. Langridge preferred spending his time with the ladies, more especially with one of them, Randall was seldom favoured with his company.page 238
Mr. Wishart, who at first had been very pleased with his artist's work, now noticed that he was not painting so well. It seemed as if his only desire was to finish his pictures as quickly as possible; he hurried over them; he was careless and impatient. The artist himself was conscious of this, and was thoroughly dissatisfied, which, doubtless, was the reason why at last, going from bad to worse, he began to paint atrociously. In reality, he had gone as far in painting as he was likely to make his way. He had what is called a taste for it, but not a talent.
He began a picture—it was the last—in a place chosen by Mr. Wishart, near the creek, at a short distance from the house. It was a view looking down the stream to a part where it widened, and then suddenly turned; so that, shut in by steep banks, with trees dropping to the water's edge, it seemed a quiet lake when the tide was in. For this was a tidal river.
‘She's a daughter of the Sea,
Weary of home splendour,
Running to the hills to be
Hid by shadows tender;
Whispering yet along her flight
Snatches of his story;
Trailing on blue breadths of light
His abundant glory.
Twice a day the shores are glad
With the guest so royal;
Twice a day she leaves them sad;
Desolate yet loyal.'
In this spot it was always warm and still. In spring here the kowhais and the clematis flowered most abundantly, and the peach-trees were masses of bloom. Pink and white, gold and green—here was colour enough to madden and æsthete. And this was a favourite haunt of birds. A visitor of quiet habits might see either a heron in sober ashen-gray, standing on a stone, keeping his patient watch for a quarter of an hour at a time, or, in the autumn, kingfishers, like flashes of blue and orange, darting across the water. Amongst the trees the intrusive blackbird, whose impertinences were driving the native birds farther into the bush, chuckled over his clumsy nest, right in the face of the old-established families, pigeons, tuis, and kakas.
Inadvertently Randall had come to the place which had been chosen by Miss Desmond as a pleasant retreat. However, as the creek was pretty wide, and as he had taken the side opposite to the house, while she preferred the nearest one, their conflicting interests did not clash. He painted away, only looking at the trees and the water, and she calmly read her book, each unconscious that the other was near at hand.
But one morning, when it was very hot, and as profoundly still, the splash of oars caused him to push aside a branch, and look up the stream. There was a boat, in which Maud was using the oars, and Harry was leaning over the side, bathing his hands in the water. They came slowly on till they were page 240 just underneath him, when the lady pushed the boat close in shore, drew in the oars, and taking a book, began to read. Harry, tired and hot, laid his flushed little face against her knee and fell asleep.
Then the only one who saw her gave way to an alluring temptation, and discarding his half-finished picture began to paint another which pleased him better. He sketched it with a fearful haste, in which minutes seemed to grow into hours, he finished it afterwards from memory, and he hid it when he was finished, as a thing which he dared not let another person see. But after that day he went to the same place no more’; he would not trespass there unknown to her.
It is strange—like many a true thing—that what we have hidden will come to light sooner or later. It often happens, too, that it is discovered by the very person whom it most concerns. Now, although Miss Desmond affected to be unconscious of the existence of Randall, she knew all about his paintings, and though he had not presumed to show them to her, she had seen them all, and had watched their progress with some interest. Once when he had gone out, she happened to pass the open French window of the room he worked in, and seeing that it was empty, took that way of entering the house. A pile of loose sketches was on the table, and underneath was a portfolio filled with others of the same kind, she thought. Every one was accustomed to look at his sketches; they had been turned over page 241 and over dozens of times. It was natural enough that she should linger for a few minutes and idly turn them over once more.
In the portfolio she found some she had not seen before. They were old ones, which had been done in England.
Curious to look at these, she sat down and took them on her knee. One after the other, she drew them from the case, with a pleased light on her face. They were views of places she had known. There was one which bore no name, but on the margin was written ‘From Memory.’ She knew this also. No wonder he could draw it from memory; he knew every winding of that gently flowing river, and in that house he had been born.
But what was this? Something precious, no doubt, for it was in a pocket of the case, and had a wrapper round it, which heightened her curiosity. Ah! see now the reward of peeping and prying into other people's business. She let it fall from her hands, and all the colour rushed into her face. ‘Why,’ she said,—as we often do in spite of our teachers,—‘why, this is me!’ Yes, and a very charming me.
She was startled; not only that, she was vexed and ashamed, and the result of such mingled feelings was that tears came into her eyes, and she impatiently pushed the picture away from her, to think for a moment. Then her eyes stole’ towards it again. Without wishing any one to think that this young page 242 lady was not handsome, it must be admitted that the portrait was a flattering one. She knew herself that the colouring was softer and richer; the features finer in their outline than her own. Yet the artist had caught the expression of her face, and it was an unmistakable likeness. Also he had painted it about twice as well as anything else he had done—such is the difference between naughty work which we like to do and that which duty, and not our own will, imposes on us.
She sat there, resting her cheek on her hand, and the colour faded again from her face to the pale rose tint that was always there, and her eyes had only a dreamy softened light, instead of the cold brightness with which they had glittered when she was out of temper a few minutes before. Suddenly she looked up with a start. The offending artist was before her.
She felt almost choked with mortification. To be caught looking at her own portrait, and not looking so very displeased with it either! It was with the coldest, most repelling manner she could assume that she turned to speak to him.
‘I did not know portraits were painted without leave,’ she said.’ ‘Was it worth the trouble to watch me, and to spend such labour over this?’
‘Yes, it was worth a great deal more,’ he answered, for it has made you speak to me at last.’
‘Why should I speak to you?’ said the lady beginning to speak very plainly, in her indignation, ‘why did you come here at all?’page 243
‘Perhaps I should not have come if I had known it was your home. I never knew your brother in England. I never heard his name, or if so i had forgotten it. I could not be expected to guess that you were here, in his house, when I had not even heard that you had such a relative. As for the other charge,’—and he was audacious enough to smile,—I did not watch you. I might as well accuse you of watching me, when for a whole afternoon your boat was mored close to where I was sketching. It may have been wrong to take your portrait without leave; but I didn't wait to think whether it were right or wrong, and I did not intend that you should be offended with a sight of it.’
There was a pause, and the lady timidly said, ‘I beg your pardon. Ma I ask one thing—will you give me the portrait?’
‘Do not beg my pardon.’ he rejoinde, ‘and do not ask me for what i cannot give you.’
‘You are not courteous,’ said Miss Desmond petulantly: she was not used to be denied. ‘Why cannot you?’
‘Because,’ he said, ‘if I am not to look at or speak to the original withour offence, it is too much surely to ask that I should give her portrait away, miserable one though it may bem and though I have taken it b stealth.’ page 244 offended with me, or that you should feel I have no right to be here. I know I am too deeply disgraced in your sight, to be worthy of your notice. Do not be afraid I shall ever seek it again. I have been working hard that I might go all the sooner. It is only for a short time we shall be in the same house, and afterwards there will be nothing to prevent you from forgetting me and this.’ He replaced the picture in the case.
Her anger was melting away. The thought came into her mind that once it would not have been a great crime in her eyes if he had stolen her protrait for himself. She might be cold and haughty sometimes, but she could be generous in making reparation or in acknowledging a fault.
‘I am sorry,’ she said, in a low voice. ‘Was it likely I could be the same to you as to any chance acquaintance? It is unkind and untrue to say that you were disgraced in my sight. Listen—I never believed it—never! They were all against you; they would not let me write to tell you; but I knew you couldn't have done it, and now, tell me yourself that it wasn't true.’
She waited for him to speak. Would he tell her now that it had been a mistake; that he had been misjudged and slandered? He could tell her no such thing. He shrunk away from her in his abasement. He had borne uncomplainingly with much that his fault had brought in its train, with undeserved suspicion, with taunts and reproaches, page 245 but this of all was the most severe—this was harder than all, that she should have trusted in his innocence for years, and now he himself was obliged to undeceive her.
‘I would give the world to be able to tell you that!’ he said bitterly. ‘Yes; it is true.’
He felt rather than knew by sight that she had drawn herself farther away, and that she was not looking at him, but beyond him, out of the window. She tried to speak, but her voice quavered into something like a sob. Without looking at him still, she rose from her chair and left the room.
A succession of heavy thuds and the shuffling of a slipper announced the approach of Professor Crasher, dragging his lame foot after him. He opened the door wide enough to admit of the insertion of his round florid face, and said in his sweetest tones, ‘My dear Randall, oblige me with your opinion on this inspiration.’ The inspiration was three pages of manuscript music.
‘Certainly,’ said Randall, wishing that the inspiration had been taken elsewhere. He followed the Professor into the next room, and listened to a thunderous piece with as much equanimity as he could call to his aid.
The Professor was smirking over something funny, which he did not impart to his friend. Though he was slow in his, movements, he was quick of hearing. There had been people talking in that room before he opened the door. When he page 246 looked in—presto! there was only one person to be seen. Also, and on this point he was certain, one of the voices had been the voice of Miss Desmond, and he had heard the rustle of her dress as she escaped by way of the verandah. But how it came to pass that Miss Desmond and Randall, who, when in the company of others, seemed to utterly ignore each other, should be alone here, talking confidentially was a riddle, which after some thought the Professor found no difficulty in guessing. He was mightily pleased with his own penetration, and much amused at the blindness of other people.
The Professor was not the only one who had received sudden enlightenment. The fragrance of a cigar might have warned Maud and Randall, if they had been able to give thought to such things, that some one was near them. That cigar had no soothing effect on Mr. Stephen Langridge. He wished he had not strolled into the shrubbery by himself; he wished very much that he had not unluckily turned his eyes in the direction of that window. He was so surprised that a somewhat sickly hue overspread his usually fresh-coloured face. What did it mean? The answer to this question, in Stephen's opinion, explained all the rebuffs and refusals he had endured within the last twelve months. He was savagely angry. ‘A fellow like that!’ he muttered to himself. ‘He must be deceiving her; he hasn't a penny in the world, and, of course, he knows she is rich. But page 247 he shan't have it all his own way; even if she won't look at me I'll spoil his little plans.’
He felt calmer after he had smoked another cigar. Then it appeared to him that he had an undoubted right to interfere. Maud must be protected at all hazards from such danger as he anticipated, but it behoved him to move discreetly. A blunderer would do more harm than good. To be sure, he was quite disinterested. A man who had been refused twice by the lady could have no interested motives. It was only an intense anxiety for her welfare that moved him. It was his duty—yes, his duty to find out all about this Randall. He knew he had done something amiss; he had been reduced to the direst straits; he had seen him working in the harvest-field. He a fitting match for the rich and proud Miss Desmond! Stephen's lip curled with scorn. What if he once had the position and education of a gentleman? There could be nothing more contemptible than a disgraced and broken-down gentleman.
At dinner that evening he could not help watching Maud and Randall. He could not detect that they spoke so much as one word to each other. Yet their manner had changed in some degree. Maud, who usually was lively, talked very little, and seemed absent-minded. Randall, who had got the credit of being a taciturn and reserved man, was thought to be brilliant in his conversation on this occasion. As for Stephen himself, he made but a page 248 poor dinner, and avenged his wrongs on Professor Crasher, who good-naturedly tried to amuse him, and whose overtures of friendship were most ungraciously received.
‘You are not interested in music?’ said the Professor, with the innocent childlike smile which accompanied most of his remarks.
‘I hate it said Stephen, and he thought he did just then. He had heard a great deal of music during the last three days, and he had disliked Crasher's because it deafened him, and Randall's because he was not disposed to see any good either in him or his performances.
‘Hate it!’ said the Professor his round blue eyes dilated in amazement. ‘But the same talent is not given to every one. Since I have had the freedom of your library, Mr. Wishart, I have been reading an extremely interesting account of the musical instruments of the ancient Egyptians. We actually find that they had that incomparable instrument the violin—in a rude and imperfect state, of course—flutes and pipes of all kinds; an instrument also, like a large tambourine, which must have sounded as loud as a gong.’
‘Thank goodness that's out of date!’ said Stephen.
‘And a beautifully-finished lute was found in the tomb of one of the Pharaohs,’ said Professor Crasher.
‘Of the Pharaohs, Professor Grasher?’ said Mrs. page 249 Meade. ‘I thought you told me it was in an Assyrian tomb.’
‘Did I really?’ said the Professor. ‘I beg your pardon—an Assyrian tomb. I am not quite certain now what ancient nation I was reading about. My memory is so untrustworthy. Only, I believe that large gong or tambourine I have just mentioned, Mr. Langridge, was found in the ruins of either Nineveh or Babylon. The workmanship was very fine, and it was three feet in diameter.’
‘I should think it must have been heard from one end of the hanging gardens of Babylon to the other,’ said Stephen.
‘And had you good sport to-day?’ said the Professor, addressing Mr. Wishart.
‘It was of a mixed kind,’ said that gentleman. ‘Three pheasants and three-quarters—one was torn to pieces by my dog—five quail, two pigeons, two pukekos—and I don't know how you will bear it, Maud, but Mr. Holmsby has unfortunately shot your peacock.’
‘Oh, Mr. Holmsby, how could you!’ said Maud.
‘I am very sorry, I am sure,’ said the distressed Mr. Holmsby, turning very red. I thought it was wild. I believe I have heard of wild peacocks in this country.’
‘Another loss! and only last week half my turkeys were sacrificed,’ said Mrs. Meade. ‘I suppose I can mention it without hurting any one's feelings, as the gentleman who made the mistake is not present.’page 250
‘I think, you know,’ said Mr. Wishart, commiserating the repentant and bashful Mr. Holmsby, ‘that it's a very good thing, this popping over of your peacock, Maud. He was a great nuisance with his wild unearthly cries. You are all aware that they cry before rain; and, as it rains pretty often here, there was hardly a day on which that bird did not make me as owspirited as himself with his lamentations. Besides, we can resuscitate an old dish that was once set before kings. We will have him served up, in all the glory of his plumage—that is, if we can get our cook to do it.’
‘And then we shall all feel grateful to Mr. Holmsby,’ said Mrs. Meade, smiling at the young gentleman, who had only lately arrived from England, and was much puzzled with his colonial experiences.
There was a little dance that evening, as there had been before once or twice during the fortnight. Some of those invited had ridden or driven over many miles of rough country roads; a few had come by the afternoon train from town; and, as all were expected to tarry until another day, beds were made in all kinds of strange places, and the house was like a caravanserai.
The city visitors had remarked to one another that there was no knowing whom you might meet at Wishart's. He was generally thought to be too lax in his hospitalities. People whom one never saw anywhere else in society were tolerated in his house page 251 —odd people; old fashioned and shabbily-dressed people, whose manners as well as their clothes were out of date. One might pardon the introduction of a profoundly learned, a travelled, or a famous man, though he might be both eccentric and disagreeable, and trample on all the rules of etiquette; but it was impossible to understand what he could want with horrid people who knew no science but the commonplace one of agriculture. It was absurd to say they were asked because they were neighbours. But all this came of going out into a desert where there was no society.
One friend had ventured to say this to Mr. Wishart, and, with a smile, he had quoted the census returns for the district. ‘Where there are men and women there must be society,’ he said.
‘Yes, of a certain kind,’ replied the friend cautiously, ‘but will it be such as you would like to mix with?’
He thought of this word ‘mix,’ because in his old days he had been accustomed to mixing’ behind the counter of a bar-room. Most people had forgotten this; he had almost forgotten it himself; for, since he had made his fortune, he had with great labour transformed himself into as close an imitation of a gentleman as could be hoped for, considering the materials provided.
It could not be denied that these little parties were always delightful, possibly because the company was so carelessly brought together. What dances page 252 they had! People never seemed to tire; they began early, and left off early also—in the morning. There was a story and it was generally believed, being nothing extraordinary for colonial people, that one party of visitors had danced for two consecutive nights, played croquet and lawn tennis on the intervening day, and ridden to their own homes (a goodly distance) on the day after that, feeling, not worse, but better for their exertions.
Violet had come to the dance in high spirits and in handsome attire—perhaps a little too handsome for a country dance. Certainly that thin soft silk which was just the same tint as a pale wild rose, was excessively becoming to her; but Mrs. Meade, with the frankness of an old friend and a sister-in-law elect, hinted that a plainer dress would have been more suitable.
‘Oh, I am so sorry if you think it is not suitable,’ said Violet, and then she pouted, as she turned away, and thought, I'm not going to be a dowdy in a worn-out grenadine to please any one.’
‘Well, Queen Mab,’ said Mr. Wishart, looking at her admiringly—she was so pretty that no one could help doing that—‘did you come in your chariot of a nut-shell?’
‘Ah,’ she replied, and the pout had changed into a smile by this time, ‘I came in a close and crowded train, and it jerked so, I think I'm too tired to dance to-night.’
‘We shall se,’ said Mr. Wishart, staring across page 253 the room with his short-sighted eyes at Professor Crasher, who had found it impossible to sit still.
‘One is never too old to dance!’ cried the Professor, as he plunged through a polka.
‘But doesn't it hurt your foot?’ slyly asked Maud.
‘My dear young lady, what would you have? pleasure is always mingled with pain. Besides, my foot is almost cured now, and I am sorry, because that means I must leave you all. I could bear it over again gladly!’
‘You can fall downstairs again, you know, if you like, Crasher,’ said Mr. Wishart.
‘I declare I'm almost tempted to do it!’ answered the Professor, conducting Mrs. Meade, who had been his partner, to a seat. It was a peculiarity of that lady that when she had found a comfortable resting-place she did not care to leave it again very soon, and as Professor Crasher had made the dance they had taken part in a thing of uncertainty and terror, she was quite contented to dispense with more exercise of the same kind for the remainder of the evening. A watchful wallflower sees many things; and, as she had no novel in her hand, Mrs. Meade was unusually observant. Two things she saw which puzzled and irritated her. First, that Maud, who had not noticed Randall on other evenings, was talking to him for a very long while, and very earnestly. Secondly, that naughty girl Violet—she was no favourite with Mrs. Meade—oh! how shock- page 254 ingly she was flirting with that simple Mr. Holmsby, who seemed to like it very well. Violet passed her with Mr. Holmsby, and Mrs. Meade saw with disapproval that they were betaking themselves to the verandah.
‘It is so nice and cool outside,’ Violet had just said, ‘but what a pity it isn't so nice and cool outside,’ Violet had just said, ‘but what a pity it isn't moonlight. Don't you think we have beautiful moonlight evenings here, Mr. Holmsby?’
‘Oh, beautiful!’ assented the gentleman. ‘But, you know I ve been told it's very injurious to the complexion.’
‘Is it really, I wonder? But is it true that the moonlight is brighter here than in England?’
‘Oh, twice as bright!’ declared Mr. Holmsby. ‘I think it's magnificent in New Zealand.’
‘But you don't like New Zealand—no; it's the people you don't like. You must have found us very disagreeable, or you would not talk of going away again.’
‘I assure you, Miss Palmer, I never said so. Or course there is a want of society here.’
‘It must be so nice to live in England where there is plenty of good society,’ said Violet. ‘What a pity you had to leave it all! We haven't much here.’
‘But, Miss Palmer, I am afraid you misunderstand me,’ blundered poor Mr. Holmsby, wondering whether the young lady were sarcastic or only innocent. ‘There must be some people here accustomed to good society.’page 255
‘Oh, certainly,’ agreed Violet. ‘They come out sometimes, I suppose. I am sure I know a good many.’
‘But colonial society, as a whole, wants tone,’ said Mr. Holmsby positively.
‘Indeed,’ said Violet, wondering what ‘tone’ was. ‘Perhaps we shall get it in time.’
‘Probably, as the country grows older, and a better class of people come to it the first settlers, I believe, were generally of the lower classes.’
‘There was papa, you know,’ gently corrected Violet. ‘He came out a long while ago.
‘Oh yes,’ said Mr. Holmsby, wishing he could get done with the subject. ‘I was speaking generally. There are many exceptions to the rule. I have seen some colonists who would be an ornament to any society.’
‘Oh, Mr. Holmsby, what nice things you say!’ cried the young lady, with a musical little laugh.
These words were overheard by Mrs. Meade. ‘Nice things,’ was her indignant comment, ‘yes, my dear, but if you were my daughter, you would not have so many opportunities of listening to them.’
It was just like that incorrigible blunderer, Professor Crasher, to come and sit beside her at this moment, and to direct her attention to the other thing that disquieted her.
‘One does not like to be premature in congratulations,’ he said, with a broad smile, waving his hand in the direction of the two persons he referred page 256 to; ‘but I think we may soon have a chance of offering ours to some one—you understand, my dear Mrs. Meade?’
Mrs. Meade looked at him with a strong stare, and the Professor felt as if he had committed a crime, but he blundered on. ‘The best fellow I ever knew, and clever too—a great deal cleverer than he knows himself. We shall hear of him distinguishing himself some day.’
‘Mr. Randall is clever, no doubt,’ said Mrs. Meade, thinking, ‘I really must stop this ridiculous man;’—‘but you mistake. We are all accustomed to see Miss Desmond admired and noticed by every one—it would be strange if it were not so—but I assure you there is not the slightest chance of—what you hinted at.’
She thought this would convince the Professor; but he actually giggled because he was so well-informed, and she knew so little of what was going on before her eyes. ‘My dear lady,’ he said, ‘I venture to think that there is no mistake about it, and I am very glad, very glad indeed.’
‘Professor, Crasher’—the lady was very serious —‘I do not know what reason you may have for being very glad; but I should be extremely sorry if I thought there could be anything of the kind between my sister and Mr. Randall. I hope she may make a better choice than that. Let me beg of you to say no more about it; at least not to any one else.’page 257
‘Not a word, if such is your wish. I'm sorry the subject is unpleasant. But’ (he prepared to do battle for his friend) ‘what fault have you to find with Mr. Randall?’
‘No fault, except that he has no position to offer to his wife (supposing he wishes to marry) and hardly a penny in the world.’
‘Yes; it's money, I suppose,’ said the Professor. ‘Upon my word, Mrs. Meade, money is a great stumbling-block; one is always coming full tilt upon it, and breaking one's head. Because the money is all on one side, ought it to make any difference? For my part, I don't see why a man shouldn't marry the woman he likes best, even though she may have a million, if they are equal in other things. Ah, what would have become of me if my dear Selina—But I beg your pardon: we will say no more on this unfortunate subject.’
And he left her very much annoyed, and angry almost, because she saw that Maud was still talking to Randall. What would have been her state of mind if she had seen a little more—if she had seen all that was connected with the matter that troubled her?
If she had seen her step-sister, for instance, going out of the room in which she had made the discovery of her own portrait, holding her head very high, and with a very stately carriage; but, for all that, feeling as if she were going to break down ignominiously. She went into her brother's sitting- page 258 room, because she thought it would be empty, and she might hide there while she could recover herself. ‘I hate to cry!—I won't cry over this!’ she said to herself. Nevertheless, her eyes slowly filled with tears which one after another stole down her cheeks.
Again had she made a most unlucky choice of a room, if privacy were what she most desired. Mr. Wishart was there, quietly reading in a corner. He came out of it, after he had gazed in astonishment for some minutes. Maud crying! why, what in the world could she have to cry for? He did not remember ever having seen her in tears; she was not given to such weakness. It could be no trifle which distressed her in this way. He sat down beside her, and took upon himself the office of consoler. For a time his kind words seemed to make matters worse. But at last—for this uncompromising young lady hated denials and subterfuges even more than she hated to cry—she told him the simple truth, and was comforted a little by his sympathy.
Later that evening, when she was sitting apart from the others, too listless and out of spirits to take much interest in their amusements, she heard some one coming towards her, and without turning her head to look, knew that it was Randall. ‘May I speak to you for one moment?’ he asked, and she said, ‘Yes.’
‘I am going away to-morrow.’page 259
‘To-morrow,’ she repeated.
‘Yes. I have decided to go. I, think I ought. You were not pleased that I should keep the portrait. I feel now that you were right. May I give it to you, as you asked me for it?’
She had been displeased when he had refused it to her; now, like an incomprehensible woman, she was displeased because he was so ready to give it away.
‘I would rather not see it again,’ she said. ‘I don't care for it now.’
‘Very well,’ he answered, getting a little out of patience himself; for, as may be easily perceived, neither of these two persons was angelical in temper. ‘I only wish to please you. Will you tell me what I am to do with it?’
‘I don't care what becomes of it!’ she said impetuously. ‘It is not that I care for.’
‘No; I ought not to expect you to care for it,’ he answered slowly. ‘Perhaps I have forgotten myself again in speaking to you. Forgive me that: it is the last time I shall transgress in that way. It is not likely we shall ever meet again after to-morrow. But before I go, let me thank you for one thing—for what you told me, that you had believed in me all these years. I shall never forget that—it was more than I hoped; more than I deserved.’
He was going, but something—her look or her manner—stopped him. ‘Am I then so hard to please, and so unforgiving?’ she said. ‘You judge page 260 me too harshly. It will seem now as if I had driven you away, and I have behaved meanly. My brother saw I was troubled; he asked what it was, and I could not help telling him. Now, he thinks you have deceived him, while I know you only kept silence on my account.’
She had not intended to say a word of this, but intentions are slippery things; we can seldom hold them fast. So also he had only intended to say one or two words. He found himself saying many more, and he could hardly believe that, in the midst of his bitter self-accusations, he should feel her hand laid gently upon his arm and hear her speaking to him, not like one who despised him, though he had told her the worst about himself. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I could not have all those hard and unpitying thoughts of any one. How could you fancy them of me? It was right you should tell me, and it grieved me very much; but we have spoken of it for the last time. Now, all we have to do is to forget it.’
Nor did they speak of it again. But they found other things to talk about. Well might Mrs. Meade watch them and be amazed. They neither saw her nor any one else. They passed by the elder Mr. Langridge as if her had held the receipt of fern-seed and had been as invisible as air, instead of being a very noticeable and substantial person. He saw them, however, and drew his own conclusions from their blindness. A glance at his son confirmed him page 261 in these. Stephen was evidently, as his parent observed, without seeking for a choicer expression, ‘in the doldrums.’
The farmer hastened to his wife, who, with a sweet complacency of countenance, was watching the vigorous dancing of the four amiable and blooming Misses Langridge.
‘Polly,’ he whispered, ‘it's all up with Steve.’
‘Edward,’ said the lady, drawing up her fine figure and fixing upon him a pair of blue eyes that were still very pretty ones, ‘you had far better wait till we get home if you have anything to say about that. Remember that your whisper is nearly as loud as the voice other people usually speak in.’
‘He's a rival,’ said Mr. Langridge in the lowest whisper he could manufacture; it sounded like a hoarse croak.
‘Didn't I tell you so long ago?’ asked Mrs. Langridge, who, however, had said nothing of the kind. ‘Very likely he has a dozen, if the truth were known.’
‘Ay, but this is the principal one,’ said Mr. Langridge. ‘I'm not blind any more than you are I'm afraid she's throwing herself away.’
‘Well, it's no business of ours,’ said Mrs. Langridge, rising with dignity and taking a seat close to Mrs. Meade, where she knew her husband dare not whisper to her.
Mr. Langridge wandered about disconsolately. ‘Well, Steve,’ he said, as he approached his son, page 262 ‘you're not dancing to-night; what's amiss—not well, eh?’
‘Oh, I'm well enough,’ said Stephen moodily.
‘But some one else isn't?’ said his father jocularly. ‘Keep up your spirits, my boy; nothing's worse than depression of spirits. Bless me! a young man has no right to be depressed. I shouldn't allow these things to prey on me if I was you. You know I and your mother always thought you'd a poor chance in that quarter.’
‘Oh, really, father!’ exclaimed the unhappy Stephen, rushing away, ‘don't let us talk of it.’
‘Consolation's no use just now,’ reflected Mr. Langridge, dropping into an easy-chair and going to sleep almost immediately.
It was late when the dance was over, and had Mrs. Meade been in her ordinary state of mind she would have sought repose as soon as possible. But she was too excited at the discoveries she had made. She could not nurse her indignation until the morrow.
‘Algernon,’ she said gravely—it was too solemn an occasion for the familiar shortening of her brother's name—‘I have something to say to you.’
‘Say on’, he replied, ‘but consider that it is two in the morning.’
‘I must say it now or not at all. You have been shamefully deceived. I was always afraid something like this would happen. You are careless in asking people we know nothing about to page 263 stay with us—young people too; it would not matter if they were old and sensible.’
‘Oh, oh,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘We have only three staying with us who have not reached the golden prime of thirty-five. There are only young Holmsby, Stephen Langridge, and Randall, who can be supposed to be liable to the follies of youth.’
‘Precisely,’ said Mrs. Meade stiffly. ‘I don't want to speak of Mr. Langridge or of Mr. Holmsby; he is only a simple boy, I don't suppose he is of age yet—but your favourite Mr. Randall. Do you know who or what he is?’
‘Well, not exactly,’ said Mr. Wishart.
‘Not exactly!’ repeated Mrs. Meade, with something like horror.
‘How could I? He doesn't go about placarded with his rank, condition, and estate, and one doesn't like to ask for such details from a gentleman.’
‘Has he told you anything about himself?’
‘No. He is one of those rare people who will talk about anything rather than themselves. I haven't asked him to tell me anything.’
‘Because,’ said Mrs. Meade, ‘I really am afraid there must be something between him and Maud. They must have known each other before. He has deceived you.’
‘I happen to know there is something between them,’ said Mr. Wishart, ‘for Maud has told me herself. You see, my dear, it is no news to me, and I advise you to go to bed with as calm a mind page 264 as possible, and not to agitate yourself with thoughts of deception where possibly none exists.’
‘Algy!’ cried Mrs. Meade, ‘what will be said of us if we let Maud throw herself and her fortune away on such a man?’
‘Eleanor, think of herself, not the fortune. You may not know perhaps that it's quite impossible for her to throw that away.’
‘Because her uncle, old Mr. Desmond, was, I am sorry to say, a very mean man. The last proof of his meanness that such a man gives to the world is generally his will, and he conformed to the rule in that respect. He was determined that Maud should marry a cousin, and so keep the money in the family; she wouldn't marry the cousin, so she loses every penny of her fortune on her wedding-day, if she marries any other man. Perhaps he excused himself for this by thinking that she would most likely make what is called a good match.’
‘But she has what her mother left her surely?’
‘That was little enough. Mrs. Desmond could only leave what she had saved from her income; she could no more touch the principal than Maud can use hers. The Desmonds were a close-fisted family—to their women, at least. They believed in tying up everything in the hands of trustees. Maud has spent what her mother left her. She is a woman who likes to use money, not to keep it, and I don't blame her for that. So you see her page 265 money will not gladden any fortune-hunter, but will only go to a cousin five times removed, to some charitable institutions, and to an asylum, whither, I think, the man ought to have gone who devised such a condition.’
‘And Maud is so headstrong,’ lamented Mrs. Meade. ‘She had better far marry poor Stephen Langridge, who would wait twenty years, I believe, with a little encouragement now and then.’
‘I am afraid he would have to wait longer even than that,’ said Mr. Wishart.
‘You must speak to Mr. Randall,’ said Mrs. Meade. ‘I should let him see that you had found out his deception.’
‘I don't feel quite so shocked at that as you may do,’ observed Mr. Wishart, looking longingly at his bedroom candlestick. ‘We know that the human heart is deceitful, so we may expect to find affairs of the heart to be full of deception.’
‘That may be intended for a joke, Algernon; but I see nothing to laugh at in this affair. What will you do?’
‘Can't say till my ideas are cleared by a little sleep.’
Mr. Wishart took his candlestick and escaped.