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A Rolling Stone Vol. II

Chapter II

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Chapter II.

Whose imp art thou, with dimpled cheek,
And curly pate and merry eye,
And arms and shoulders, round and sleek,
And soft and fair, thou urchin sly?
What boots it, who, with sweet caresses,
First called thee his, or squire or hind,
For thou in every wight that passes
Dost now a friendly playmate find.'

Joanna Baillie.

To describe how Mr. Wishart and his sisters gave themselves up to idolatry, pure and simple, the object of their idolatry being the youngest person in the house, would needlessly lower our good characters in the eyes of the reader. To describe fully Harry's mischievous ticks and the scrapes in which he was almost always involved would not only be undesirable—it would be impossible. He was all over the house, from garret to basement, several times a day. Was there a mysteriously closed box, a sealed packet, a jug, jar, pipkin, pitcher, or vessel of any shape?—if on a high shelf, so much the more desirable—he would know what was in that box; he would open that packet; he would attain to the elevated position of that jar, cost what it might. The spirit of discovery animated him to such an extent that nothing, page 19 however carefully hidden, seemed to be safe from his meddlings. The maidservants, for fear lest he should bring to light their treasures of trinkets, ribbons, or love-letters, hid them under their pillows or carried them about in their pockets. Mr. Wishart put his private papers and diary into a strong box; Mrs. Meade kept her false hair when it was not on her head, under lock and key. The apoplectic old lady who acted as housekeeper was not so careful, therefore she almost gasped her last when she descried Harry hanging out of an upstairs window, holding her spectacles in one hand, and in the other proudly waving some long and luxuriant tresses, which were hers by right of purchase, and which finally he dropped outside.

Never was there a child of such an active and inquiring mind. He delighted in experiments, though in most cases they ended in disaster. His scientific investigations with fire and water came near making him a martyr at an early age. Any new or strange thing, the use of which he did not understand, would hold him absorbed in thought for half an hour at a time. So was the found crouching on the floor before the recess which contained a filter and seltzogene, gazing on those unheard of accessories to domestic comfort with eyes that seemed to grow bigger and bigger with astonishment and deep ponderings. A type-writer which he found in Mr. Wishart's room kept him engrossed with his own reflections for the greater part of an afternoon, and was not page 20 improved by his attentions while he was so lost in admiration of a knife-cleaning machine that he had to be forcibly dragged away from it to eat his supper.

All this was as nothing compared to his accidents and hairbreadth escapes. He fell—who can say how often?—he was always falling, and yet always courting danger by recklessly climbing and scrambling into all sorts of perilous places. He had fierce tussles with the dogs and cats, and was a victor in one obstinately contested engagement with an enormous turkey cock who made as if he would gobble him up every time he ventured into the yard. He was lost in the bush of course, and he tumbled into the creek, and, but for the timely intervention of Mr. Bailey, this might have been his last escapade.

He was the hero of the household. Talk about romance! his everyday life was a romance; he could not do anything in a commonplace manner. He grew and throve, in spite of all accidents; and in the astonishingly short space of eight weeks after his introduction to country life, Mrs. Grigsby confided the alarming and important fact to Mrs. Meade that he had worn and torn all his clothes to rags.

‘I never saw such a boy for rending and riving,’ said the awe-stricken housekeeper. ‘So beautifully dressed as he was when he came! He was like a little prince in his black velvet suits.’

‘But has he nothing left?’ asked Mrs. Meade, with incredulous surprise. ‘He had so many clothes’.

‘You must consider what he's come through, page 21 ma'am,’ said Mrs. Grigsby. ‘I often say it's a wonder the boy—bless him!—is alive yet. He must be reserved for something great.’

‘He has distinguished himself already,’ laughed Maud, as the young gentleman referred to careered past the window, torn, sunburnt, and scratched from a recent encounter with one of the domestic animals.

‘I'm afraid he will grow into a rough plain boy,’ said Mrs. Meade plaintively.

‘So much the better’, said Mr. Wishart, ‘I know nothing more undesirable than prettiness in a man.’

‘I'm sure there can't be any particular virtue in ugliness,’ said Mrs. Meade. ‘It can't be pleasant, either for oneself or others.’

‘Nine-tenths of the human race are ugly, and are happy notwithstanding. I don't mean to advocate ugliness, however. Extremes should always be avoided. A moderate plainness is best for man. I am not certain about women; I think they ought to be handsome, one and all. To be sure, most of them are happy in believing that they are so.’

‘You ought to apologise to us for that speech,’ said Maud.

‘Why? what possible connection can it have with you. For myself, I assure you, I look upon my unlovely countenance in the light of a blessing. For ordinary people an ordinary appearance is best.’

‘You are so odd!’ said Mrs. Meade. ‘Why then is beauty admired; why do poets and novelists always make their heroes handsome?’

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‘That is easily answered. They have to please their readers. Who form the great mass of novel readers? Women, my dear sister, women—ladies who, like yourself, think a man ought at least to be worth looking at.’

‘I don't know whether you are in earnest, and I don't care to argue,’ said Mrs. Meade languidly; ‘but I don't believe any one would prefer to be plain-looking. Of course, when a person is very clever or amiable—’

Mrs. Meade had not energy to finish the sentence.

‘It really does not matter what they look like,’ added Maud. ‘Wasn't that what you meant to say?’

‘Oh, it matters a great deal,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘Although it is as preposterous to associated cleverness and plainness as it is to believe that beauty must be accompanied by vanity and frivolity, people will give the great class of the unattractive credit for possessing all the most excellent qualities. Prettiness is at such a disadvantage that a pretty fellow can't get others to think he has anything in him. It has become so general to believe that the good-looking people have no mind to spare beyond what is devoted to laying themselves out for admiration, that they have little or no credit for talent. Whereas, the lucky man who has no features to boast of need only hold his tongue and sit quietly, as if sunk in deep thought, and some one is sure to wonder at the profundity of his wisdom.’

‘So at last we arrive at the reason why it is best page 23 for a man to be moderately plain,’ said Maud. ‘Here is some one coming to continue the argument, if you have not sufficiently expounded your views.’

‘I am satisfied,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘I have made two converts.’

Both ladies instantly contradicted this assertion.

‘It is Mr. Langridge,’ said Mrs. Meade, looking up from her book.

‘The amiable Stephen. He is one of those blessed with moderate plainness, and ought to uphold my doctrine.’

‘He is by no means bad-looking,’ said Mrs. Meade. ‘I think him very passable.’

‘I forgot,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘There is one kind of plainness from which every one may reasonably pray to be delivered. From a thin sensitive skin, which is fanned to a flame-colour by wind, and baked a glowing brick-red by sun, may I and all my family and familiar friends be delivered!’

‘I should like to gag you, Algernon,’ said Mrs. Meade, with unusual vivacity, just as their visitor's feet were heard on the verandah.

Stephen Langridge was a frequent visitor, though he was by no means a near neighbour. In a country district, where houses are sparsely scattered, distances of ten, fifteen, or twenty miles are made light of. Friends will meet though rivers may run and mountains rise between them. As a matter of fact, there were many awkward gullies and wearying hills on the long road that Stephen had ridden that page 24 day; but he had not even cared to reckon their number. It was a road he liked to follow, and he was weak enough to fancy that no one but himself knew why he so often rode that way.

‘He's crazed about Miss Desmond,’ said old Mr. Langridge.

‘I wish he had taken a fancy to some nice colonial girl,’ said Mrs. Langridge.

‘He's a right to marry the best lady in the land,’ said. Mr. Langridge emphatically.

‘If she'll have him’ wisely replied his wife. ‘To my mind her half sister Mrs. Meade is the nicer woman of the two.’

‘What! the one who's always muffled in a woollen shawl, and reading novels,’ exclaimed the farmer. ‘Why, she hasn't a word for a groat. Look at Miss Desmond, the way she holds her head, and how her eyes sparkle when she talks and smiles in her lively way.’

‘She's cold, though she seems to make herself so free with one,’ said Mrs. Langridge, ‘and she's proud too, though it isn't petty pride with her, of silly trifles and common things. Besides,’ said the managing woman, ‘I really am surprised Stephen can think of marrying a woman who is so extravagant.’

‘Why, she's a fortune of her own!’ cried Mr. Langridge. ‘Surely she can spend what's her own.’

‘If she had ten fortunes she ought not to waste. What do you think? they have a housekeeper in their new house. Two grown women, and one of them forty, if she's a day, and they must have page 25 another one to manage for them! I believe they don't know what they have for dinner till it comes on the table. Perhaps, they don't go into their own kitchen more than once a week, if it's that. And that child they have now—mercy on us! how that child is allowed to go on.’

‘Well, you see, there's a great difference in woman,’ said Mr. Langridge. ‘Some are fitted for the drawing-room, and some are only at ease in the kitchen. I think Miss Desmond has no business there. It's all very well to fiddle with some pretty little housekeeping ways; some fine delicate Frenchiness of cookery, or so on, once in a while; but there are plenty without her to fuss and flurry over work. Just think of her burning her complexion red over a fire, or putting her white hands into hot water!’

‘I believe you are as infatuated with her as Stephen is.’

‘Well I'll own I am. I should be proud to call her my daughter-in-law. I'm a plain old fellow, rough in speech, and in manner, too, sometimes. I couldn't expect her to think much of being related to me. But I wouldn't shame them before other folk, if it should come to pass. I'd keep out of their way. I wish Stephen to have everything he wants to make him happy; and, if money's to be spoken of, I think I can make his fortune even with hers.’

‘Money won't influence her.’

‘No. I didn't think that. I meant he shouldn't be beholden to his wife for money. But now I've page 26 something to say to you. Can't we help this match on a bit, hey?’

‘Can't we make ourselves into two old simpletons!’ said Mrs. Langridge, moved to such scorn, and so surprised by this suggestion, that half a dozen stitches went down by the run, and formed a wide Jacob's Ladder in her knitting.

‘What's amiss?’ said her husband. ‘Young people often need help in these affairs. They want bringing together; bringing to the point, one may say.’

‘I've had some experience, I hope,’ said Mrs. Langridge, picking up the stitches, ‘and its this—that whenever young folk's affairs are meddled with they go the opposite way to that the old folks want them to go.’

‘Ay, if we were to let them see we were meddling. But these things can be managed so as they'll never know who's steering. Now Stephen has no opportunity to make himself agreeable to her.’

‘I'm sure he's had opportunity enough to pay court to two young ladies instead of one. I wonder he has the conscience to go so often.’

‘How can he get on, when he never has a chance to have a quiet talk with her alone? He never sees her without Mr. Wishart and Mrs. what-d'ye-call-her, one or both of them, being in the room. And, for some reason or other, she never rides out with him as she used to.’

‘She doesn't like him, I tell you.’

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‘Be quiet, Polly. Laihoa’—the; farmer often used this expressive Maori word—‘I defy you, or any one else, to tell who a young woman does or doesn't like. You may have a guess by judging that they generally mean the contrary of what they say; but that rule even don't always answer. The question is, now can he convince her that he likes her; how can—’

‘Goodness! Do you think she's got no eyes?’

‘You never let me say my say. She's been out in the world, and is accustomed to attention, and she isn't vain or silly, so whatever she sees she'll think nothing of it till it's put into words. How on earth is Steve to express himself when the other lady, wrapped in her shawl, is everlastingly in the way? It makes no difference if she is reading her novel, and as nearly as possible asleep over it: I tell you these things can't be managed before a third person.’

‘But we can't help it,’ said Mrs. Langridge, ‘If you want me to speak for him, I tell you I won't!’

‘Bless you, Polly, how dull you are! How do other women help on matches? There's certain things arranged specially for them, I believe, if people were to own up honestly. Dances are good; so are boating and riding parties; concerts and signing classes are pretty fair; but nothing beats a picnic.’

‘Gracious! you know a sight about it,’ said his page 28 wife, with a laugh of scorn. ‘It puzzles me to guess where you've picked up your information.’

‘From watching you, Polly—ho! ho!—and your little tricks with our girls.’

‘I won't sit and listen to any more of your stuff,’ said Mrs. Langridge indignantly. ‘I never descended to any such doings. My girls may get married without such little tricks, as you call them, or never be married at all.’

‘Well, perhaps you did it without knowing. Now, I want you to do a little in the same way with your eyes open. We've often promised the girls a week at the farm I've bought for Steve. When I was there I saw that the house was comfortable enough to stay in—for a few days, at any rate. You might ask Miss Desmond to go with you and the girls. Steve would be there, of course; and so as it mightn't look as if we'd planned it, I could send him up a long time beforehand, as if to help Wrackstraw to manage, though sure enough he can hardly tell turnips from mangolds. That reminds me, there's a field of turnips there it would do your heart good to look at. Aha! we'll manage it.’

‘Edward,’ said Mrs. Langridge, severely, ‘I believe you're crazy.’

‘Now don't object. Come, come, Polly!’—and his voice was all the more persuasive, because just then he pronounced the words ‘coom, coom.’

‘Well, if you wish it, I don't care,’ said Mrs. Langridge. ‘I feel as if an out would do me good.’

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‘Of course! you've not been off the place for months. You can picnic every day, if you like. The bush is full of ferns, and fern gathering isn't bad for confidential talk. Then there's that big hill close behind the house; there's a view from it that'll astonish you. They can climb that, and I guess they'll find themselves alone at the top. Then there's a long walk—ho! ho! I'd forgotten that: one would think it had been made on purpose; it was cut through the tea-tree last year, and Wrackstraw, who is a bit sentimental, called it the Lovers’ Walk, though it's not a pleasant place, being rather gloomy, and rough under feet with stumps. Altogether, if my idea doesn't succeed, and if Stephen doesn't speak out before the end of the week, he'll be a regular duffer.’

‘Hem’! said Mrs. Langridge, in a tone which showed she had mental reservations.

‘You'd better go to see the ladies, and ask Miss Desmond yourself; it would be politer, wouldn't it? Or would it be best to write a note?’

‘I don't like writing notes,’ said Mrs. Langridge, ‘besides I'm a poor speller. I'll go some day soon.’

‘Yes; and get Steve to drive you.’

‘I'm sure I shan't! He's there too often. Dear me! don't you see that if you don't take care you'll spoil everything. It won't do to be always throwing him at her head; she'll soon see your little plan, and be disgusted with you, as she would be now if she could hear you.’

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‘Well, I don't want to hurt her feelings. Perhaps I'd better leave everything to you. Would it answer, do you think, to praise Steve up to her now and then?’

‘It just depends on how you do it,’ said Mrs. Langridge. ‘If it was done very carefully, perhaps it might.’

‘I think I shall put in a good word for him occasionally,’ said the farmer.