A Rolling Stone Vol.III
‘So you from out my life have swept
One frail illusion, flower sweet.
If I am poorer for the loss,
You shall not know it when we meet.’
Mr. Everard Palmer's feeble health had been recruited by a sojourn of several months in the dry, warm climate of South Australia. He came home in such strength and health as was possible for a man of his weak constitution. One of his first duties, he thought, was to inquire into what had been done on his behalf; for neither Mrs. Palmer's letters, nor even those of the respected Gatherall and Sampson, who were bound to be as a lamp to guide him into ways that were lawful and honest, had been altogether satisfactory. ‘It was no use troubling you about such things when you were so ill,’ Mrs. Palmer said, in excuse for her shortcomings. Mr. Gatherall defended himself in much the same way.
‘Your interests have not been neglected, my dear Mr. Palmer,’ he sweetly remarked, ‘as I am sure you will acknowledge.’
Mr. Palmer mildly assented, though it was not of page 33 sins of omission that he had complained. He inquired after Randall. ‘He behaved so well to my brother,’ he said, ‘that I should like to hear how he is getting on.’
The mention of his name seemed to affect Mr. Gatherall; he half closed his eyes and groaned. Mr. Sampson, who was an imitation of his partner, though a long way after him, mournfully sighed. Mr. Palmer asked the meaning of these manifestations of feeling—very unusual with his legal advisers, who as a rule stuck to business, and were not men of sentiment. Mr. Gatherall told the story, and Mr. Sampson acted the part of chorus, repeating such words as were, in his opinion, particularly choice and expressive. Mr. Gatherall also showed the letter of good advice he had sent to Randall, and the very ungrateful reply he had received.
‘This is the letter of an angry man, certainly,’ said Mr. Everard, when Mr. Gatherall had proclaimed it to be ‘insulting.’ ‘But I think, supposing he was innocent—we may as well give him the benefit of the doubt—it is just such a letter as I should have written if I had been in his place.’
‘Indeed,’ said Mr. Gatherall, at a loss what to think of this speech. ‘For all that, and with all deference to your opinion, I think I shall not try to find Mr. Randall: indeed I believe he has left the country. I was told he had gone to Melbourne. He may do well there.’
Mrs. Palmer gave a garbled account of the same page 34 affair. She saw, however, that her husband was displeased at the way in which Randall had been treated, and did not dare to say much in excuse of it. Besides, it was an unpleasant subject; it was nearly concerned with that secret which she had endeavoured to hide where it could never be found, but which, so her fearful heart told her now, would yet come to light. She was not sure that Palmer's last letter to his brother might not be found again. When she had brought it away from the house she had also taken another, which had been written by her husband's mother, and which therefore she had thought he would wish to preserve. She imagined that she had put this letter amongst Mr. Everard's papers. But a little circumstance which came to her recollection shortly afterwards convinced her that she had made a serious mistake. Palmer's letter had been written on blue paper; the other was on white. As with a sudden flash, she remembered how she had stood for a moment, and watched a folded piece of white paper shrivelling in the flame. Why had she forgotten then that it ought to have been blue? She had destroyed the wrong letter, and the other one was now in her husband's possession though he did not know it.
She searched for it, but never found it. Mr. Everard had rearranged all his papers shortly after his return; it was hardly possible to conjecture where it had been placed. It had no envelope, but was folded with the writing inside; he might easily page 35 mistake it for something else. It might remain in his room for years and never attract his notice, and again any day he might open it and see what it was. Then, she believed, she would be degraded in his eyes. She knew his character; weak though it might be in some respects, it was steadfast in its abhorrence of every species of deceit and dishonesty. ‘Oh!’ she thought, ‘I shall be the most miserable of women if he finds it out. I have nothing to care for but his good opinion, and I know what he would think if he knew all.’
Again and again she was on the point of throwing herself on his compassion, and confessing everything. But the words seemed to choke her; her trembling lips refused to pronounce them. While she believed it could never be known, her fault had been a little thing, a trifle; now that there was a chance of its being found out it seemed enormous. To her this had been no sin so long as it could not shame her in the eyes of others. Whom had she harmed, she asked herself, by keeping back the letter? Oh, no one! no one but herself; for surely, as soon as her husband knew, what little respect her conduct had not destroyed, whatever affection he might have for her, would be utterly lost.
Such harassing thoughts as these were sometimes driven from her mind by another trouble. Violet's conduct made her unhappy. Mrs. Palmer was more than ever anxious that her daughter should be married out of the way; but the engagement, which page 36 had already lasted so long was, so far as she could see, no more likely to attain this desired end than it had been for the last two years. Delayed and postponed from one time to another as it was, Mrs. Palmer began to fear, what other people had long ago foreseen, that the marriage never would take place. Violet hardly deigned to give a reason for the postponements she had begged for. Mrs. Palmer grew tired of remonstrating with her on this subject; but at length she spoke to her again.
‘Violet,’ she said, ‘I was married when I was your age.’
‘So I believe were many other people,’ said Violet; ‘but I know some who are twice as old and are not married yet.’
‘I don't think you are behaving nicely to Mr. Wishart. When he spoke to you a month ago, and seemed to wish that the wedding should be this spring, you ought to have given way, not to have put him off again. This is the third put-off, Violet, since you left school, and if it's an engagement at all I think it ought to come to something. You can't expect him, at his age, to wait years for you.’
‘At his age—yes, he really is frightfully old, compared to me,’ laughed Violet. ‘I believe his hair is actually turning gray. I don't suppose mine ever will; there is too much yellow in it. Only think! persons will be taking him for my grandfather, or something of the kind, when we go about together.’page 37
‘You are a bad girl to talk like that,’ said Mrs. Palmer angrily. ‘I shall speak to Mr. Wishart myself.’
‘Mamma,’ said Violet, abandoning the careless flippancy of her manner, ‘if you do you will put an end to everything between me and Mr. Wishart.’
‘Violet, do you know what you are saying? Do you mean to put it off and off for ever?’
‘I don't know,’ said Violet sullenly. ‘I know one thing, though—that Mr. Holmsby is coming to the door, and if I were you I'd change that dress.’
‘I needn't come in, need I, if you are here?’ said Mrs. Palmer piteously. ‘I am too tired to dress, and I don't feel well. I will go and lie down, if you don't mind. He comes to see you, not me; but I think he ought not to be here so often. It does not look proper, and people say such ill-natured things. Mr. Wishart might hear them.’
‘Oh, perhaps he has heard,’ said Violet, with a little laugh.
Mr. Wishart heard nothing; but something came to the ears of sleepy, novel-reading Mrs. Meade, and aroused her to an unusual state of indignation. She had always thought of the engagement between Violet and her brother as ‘ridiculous.’ She had only feeble dislikes and affections; in most cases she was too lazy to consider whether she liked a person or not; but there was little love lost between her and Violet. She knew that Violet made fun of her openly, and she saw through most of the young page 38 lady's little shams. But, having made up her mind to receive her as a sister-in-law, she was vexed at the unreasonable prolongation of the engagement. If they were to be married at all it would look better to have it over at once. That Violet was an incorrigible flirt every one knew. People had become used to her naughtinesses and smiled at them; she had such a charming way of doing what was not exactly right. Mrs. Meade could not smile at the stories she had heard of her. She read the same things in her novels about interesting and vivacious heroines who were always impulsively rushing into dreadful predicaments and coming out of them again none the worse; but however much it might interest her in a book, in real life she thought such conduct very improper. She resolved to speak to Violet in a kind, motherly way. But cunning little Violet would not allow herself to be advised. Every attempt at serious conversation was skilfully turned aside with some light, airy remark. Mrs. Meade could only sorrow in silence over her frivolity and Mr. Wishart's blindness. He saw nothing in all this but the natural exuberance of youth and high spirits.
‘Dance from night to morning, does she?’ he said. ‘Why, when I was twenty, I danced so much and went to so many parties that I was thought the most rattle-brained youth in the whole country side. And you, may I ask, did you never waltz a little oftener with some one or other, or dress a page 39 little smarter than the old dowagers thought becoming?’
‘Ah, I see it is no use talking,’ said Mrs. Meade resignedly.
She thought out a little scheme. She would ask both Violet and her mother to stay with them for a short time, and she would get Mrs. Palmer on her side. Between them they ought to be able to curb this little coquette.
Mrs. Palmer was much flattered by the invitation; she went from home but seldom. She thought deeply on the subject of dress, and took refuge in that salvation of women who have not learnt how to attire themselves—a black silk. The carriage was waiting for her and Violet at the station, and it seemed so luxurious and delightful to have a drive of several miles—the vehicle Mrs. Palmer was best acquainted with was an omnibus. Violet, of course, was used to better things, and was vexed that her mother should say aloud that ‘it was such a treat to ride in a carriage;’ the servant might have heard. Mrs. Palmer being snubbed, subsided among the cushions. She admired the house, and the large well-kept garden and shrubberies. ‘What a lovely place!’ she cried. ‘Oh, Vi, you ought to be a happy girl to think that you'll be mistress here some day.’
Violet did not hear; she was looking at a group on the verandah who were watching their approach. These were Maud and Mrs. Meade and two gentle- page 40 men. ‘Oh, I believe,’ she said hastily, ‘that is Mr. Holmsby.’
‘Is it?’ said Mrs. Palmer, with an uninterested look. ‘I did not know he was friendly with Mr. Wishart.’
‘Yes; they knew his family in England. Mamma, do put your veil down; it does not suit you drawn away from the face like that.’
‘Don't pull me about, my dear,’ said Mrs. Palmer meekly, feeling that it was a trial to have a daughter who knew how things ought to be done.
Mrs. Meade was extremely annoyed because Mr. Holmsby had come, just when it was most undesirable that he should present himself. She suspected him of having intrigued for an invitation until he had extracted one from Mr. Wishart's good nature. She believed he had known Violet was coming; but she made solemn vows that all his crafty ways should not avail him.
During that week she forswore novel-reading, and displayed a mental activity so preternatural in one of her temperament that her brother was filled with silent wonder at the change. Never had she exerted herself so much in conversation, and she was so kind to Mr. Holmsby as to bestow most of her words upon him; indeed it seemed as if she wanted to begin a dialogue with him whenever he attempted to talk with Violet, which was nearly every time he opened his mouth. Poor fellow, if he expected to have any nice confidential talks with page 41 that young lady while Mrs. Meade was in the same house he was very much mistaken. At dinner there was always the whole length of the table between them; it was very seldom that he found a vacant chair beside her in the drawing-room, or if he did, he was soon ousted from it by her vigilant duenna, on some pretext or other. He could not walk with her, because Mrs. Meade always wanted to walk with him; he could not ride with her but he must ride with Mrs. Meade as well. That unselfish woman would sacrifice her personal comfort rather than fail in her duty. For seven years she had not been on horseback; she was afraid of any horse which was not so broken-spirited as to be above suspicion. But sooner than Violet and Mr. Holmsby should ride alone (for Violet, alas!—so she lamented to herself—did not know better than that) she would accompany them wherever they might go, and keep their pace, cost what it might. She was as tenacious as any leech. Mr. Holmsby, who was warm-tempered, had such a heartful of disappointment, vexation, and resentment, that he could not always behave so politely to his hostess as he should have done. He had a savage pleasure in knowing that she was inexpressibly worried and fatigued.
But, in adopting these extreme measures, Mrs. Meade over-reached herself. At last Mr. Holmsby was exasperated to recklessness, and Violet retaliated by taking advantage of her chaperon on every page 42 opportunity. Do what she would, Violet eluded her surveillance and behaved very much as she pleased; consequently in a manner that shocked Mrs. Meade and caused poor Mrs. Palmer to cry quietly to herself in obscure corners of the drawing-room, or in her own bedchamber when she was very much distressed.
Mrs. Meade had fancied that by means of Mrs. Palmer's influence Violet might be brought to her senses. But she very quickly made the discovery that Mrs. Palmer had no influence whatever over her daughter. Finding that their efforts were of little use, or only served to make matters worse, the two elderly ladies united in wishing that the impressionable Mr. Holmsby would betake himself to some other part of the country. Mrs. Meade even told him that he ought to see more of New Zealand, and that it was just the season of the year in which travelling was most enjoyable; but he replied that he was in no hurry, and that he had not exhausted the place where he was.
‘I believe he sees no harm in it!’ cried Mrs. Meade impatiently.
‘If he doesn't, Violet knows it's wrong,’ said Mrs. Palmer. ‘But she was always a provoking little thing; she likes to tease one. I think, Mrs. Meade, it's a pity to trouble yourself about the foolish young things. What good can we do? I've spoken to Violet till I'm tired.’
‘I've a good mind to astonish them by speaking page 43 out in a manner they won't like,’ said Mrs. Meade, with a sudden flash of energy. She frowned disapprobation at Mr. Holmsby, who was turning over the pages of Violet's music. She got him away from the piano by asking him to wind a skein of cotton in such a state of entanglement that she computed it could not be unravelled in less than half an hour. But Mr. Holmsby, like Alexander, cut all the Gordian knots in his way, declaring that it was useless to attempt to untie them, and in five minutes the skein was transformed into a neatly-wound ball. She tried to detain him, and started many promising topics of conversation; but he was looking out of the window the whole time, and his answers plainly betokened his absent-mindedness. Then Harry ran in with a used-up whip in his hand. ‘Please, Mr. Holmsby,’ he cried, ‘come and mend this.’
Mr. Holmsby was not fond of children, and had not encouraged Harry's advances; but he was glad to seize this opportunity. ‘I'll mend it in a second,’ he said, though he had no idea how it could be done. As might have been expected he mended it in the garden, where Violet was wandering about. But he found it easier to mend the whip than to get rid of Harry when the work was done.
‘What a nuisance spoilt children are,’ he reflected. ‘I say, Harry, suppose you run down to the creek, and shoot at the birds with your catapult.’
‘I haven't got a catapult,’ said Harry, ‘Aunt page 44 Maud took it from me; she said it was cruel to shoot little birds; so now I've to throw stones at them, and it's not such good fun.’
‘Cruel—bosh!’ said Mr. Holmsby. ‘I used to shoot scores, and get the eggs too.’
‘Let's go and get some eggs now,’ proposed Harry.
‘Oh, too much bother—too hot,’ said the gentleman. ‘If I were you I'd go inside and look at pictures.’
‘I will, if you'll show me them,’ said Harry, of which remark Mr. Holmsby took no notice.
Harry cracked his whip seven or eight times inconveniently near to his companion, and then, in a confidential manner, said, ‘I say, Mr. Holmsby, what makes Mrs. Meade so cross with you?’
‘Oh, I don't know,’ said Mr. Holmsby, with a stare. ‘Perhaps she isn't cross.’
‘Yes, she is, because she looks cross at you, and last night when I went to say good night to her, she said to Mrs. Palmer that you ought to be ashamed of yourself, and you weren't doing anything wrong, only walking on the verandah and talking.’
‘Look here, little fellow,’ said Mr. Holmsby, with dignity, ‘don't you repeat everything you hear. It doesn't do for little boys to talk of things they don't understand.’
‘I'm not such a very little boy,’ said Harry. ‘But had you been doing wrong?’
‘Don't care if I had,’ said Mr. Holmsby, ‘and you page 45 can repeat that to Mrs. Meade, if you like, Master Harry.’
‘Mrs. Grigsby whipped me once when I said I didn't care,’ said Harry reflectively.
‘She ought to whip you oftener,’ returned Mr. Holmsby, and, to his great pleasure, this speech was so offensive to Harry that he instantly left him. Perhaps he would not have been so pleased had he known that Harry's next action was to go to Mrs. Meade and report exactly what had been said, and what he, the much-watched Mr. Holmsby, was doing. Harry's sharpness made him very disagreeable to the persons concerned in the little comedy he was studying with all a child's eager interest. It annoyed Mrs. Meade to have him rushing in every now and then with, ‘Aunt, don't you want to know where Mr. Holmsby is?’ or, ‘Aunt, Mr. Holmsby has gone down to the boathouse with Miss Palmer. I said you wouldn't like it;’ or, as it was at last, ‘Aunt, I told Mr. Holmsby he ought to come in, because you wanted him, and I think he said he wouldn't; but he didn't speak plain.’ This being the culminating point, Mrs. Meade took Harry's hand and led him away to another room, where, after a severe lecture, she left him to occupy his too active mind with a whole column of his spelling-book.
She was reading the last sentence of Tancred, which, as will be remembered, breaks off when the Duke and Duchess arrive at Jerusalem, just as Tancred has made himself comfortable in the Holy page 46 City. Her ears, being now open to sounds of earth, began to be aware of two voices which assuredly spoke not of Jerusalem nor of anything connected therewith.
‘I don't mean to be tutored and driven about as if I were a child,’ said one voice. ‘I don't see why we should be afraid of these people.’
‘Oh; but how are we to tell them; what will they think of me?’ said the other.
‘Well, does it matter what they think? Of course we shan't stay here, Violet. I daresay my people at home will be a little restive; but they are sure to be reconciled to it when they see you. As for my father, I expect he won't be pleased, but I can tell you I wasn't pleased when he took it into his head to marry again, and he never consulted me about that. Perhaps he'll cut off my allowance; if he does, I shall have to go at my profession in earnest, that's all. It won't matter much anyway, for I'm to have my grandmother's property; and though I wouldn't have you think that I wish the dear old lady's days shortened, in the natural course of things you know that must come into my hands soon, and then, Vi, we can afford to laugh at them all.’
Mrs. Meade almost groaned in her retreat beside the open window. ‘If I were your grandmother,’ she said, ‘I'd cut you off with a penny.’
‘Oh,’ said a low voice which faltered a little, ‘such horrid things will be said of me. I can see what Mrs. Meade thinks of me already.’page 47
‘Mrs. Meade is a nuisance—a meddling, novel-reading old woman!’ The voice that said this was quite a loud one; but it gradually sank to pianissimo, and employed itself in consoling the owner of the other voice, and in proving by very specious arguments that a certain course was the right one to take. Then was heard, in broken sentences: ‘Oh, it'll all come right. Why shouldn't we please ourselves? Ridiculous to expect you to carry out a thing of that kind, arranged for you when you were a child—ought to have known better—serve them right. If you're afraid of Mrs. Meade I'm not—don't see why we should go in just yet.’
Mrs. Meade could bear it no longer. ‘Violet!’ she cried, in a voice pitched so high it sounded like a scream. ‘I must insist on your coming inside; you take cold so easily, my dear. Mr. Holmsby, I hope you will catch cold to punish you for being so careless.’ She was very sincere in this wish.
‘Oh, I'm proof against colds,’ carelessly answered Mr. Holmsby. ‘The evening is quite balmy. You should come out yourself, Mrs. Meade.’
Mrs. Meade leaned over to Mrs. Palmer, who was sitting near her, and whispered, ‘Did you hear anything?’
‘Everything,’ was the reply. ‘Oh, that Violet! she breaks my heart. I shall take her home tomorrow. Does Mr. Wishart—’
‘Not he!’ said Mrs. Meade. ‘Algy is still in his blindness. I believe he's so used to seeing Violet page 48 noticed and admired that even the infatuation of this silly young man only seems a thing of course to him. He laughs at me when I say anything.’
Mrs. Meade sighed, and returned to her novels. It was much pleasanter to study life by means of these than to go to the fountain-head and perplex herself with the actions and motives of incomprehensible men and women.
Mrs. Palmer went home wearied and dispirited. She was angry with Violet, and for some days hardly a word passed between the mother and daughter. This could not last with two persons who were both of that shallow nature which must pour forth all its feelings or be crushed by them.
Mrs. Palmer began to reason with and entreat her daughter.
‘You mustn't throw away all your prospects in life,’ she said. ‘Think of your father and me, how we've looked forward to your marriage. And, Violet,’ she added, with a smile, ‘I don't know whether I ought to tell; but Miss Desmond wishes to give your wedding-dress: she persuaded me to let her do so. It's to be beautifully made, and to cost, I don't know how much; but we've nothing to do with that.’
‘It is very kind of them to arrange everything for me, even to choosing my wedding-dress; but I don't think it will be of much use. I shall not wear it.’
‘Not wear it! Why, Violet, don't you see how good they are? How could you have dressed so page 49 well, and gone into society, if Mr. Wishart hadn't educated you, and given you everything suitable for a lady. If you'd had no more than we could have spared you would always have been plain and shabby like the other children.’
‘I think I'd better tell you at once,’ said Violet, in a voice strangely altered from its usual soft tones. ‘This can't go on any longer. I have written to Mr. Wishart and told him.’
Mrs. Palmer excitedly threw up her hands, and burst out into passionate sobbing and crying. ‘Violet—oh, my girl, you are crazed! How can you behave like that after all he has done for us? You don't know what we owe to him. Aren't you ashamed—don't you blush for yourself—all these years you've been dependent on him, and—why! even the clothes you have on were bought with his money.’
‘Yes, I have the grace to be ashamed,’ said Violet; ‘but you made that bargain, not I. I have been bought with presents and fine clothes, you think, and I am to marry him out of gratitude.’
‘I thought you were so pleased with it till just lately,’ sobbed Mrs. Palmer.
‘I suppose I was for a time,’ said Violet. ‘Oh yes, it seemed very nice at first, and the girls at school thought I was to be envied because I should be married, and be rich, and have a house of my own, as soon as I pleased. But I have changed my mind.’page 50
‘Yes, some one else has made you change it,’ said Mrs. Palmer. ‘It is Mr. Holmsby, isn't it? I don't want to make you angry, but I have a right to know.’
‘I would rather not be questioned, if you please,’ answered her daughter.
‘I won't hear of it, Violet. Remember he has nothing but what his father gives him, and you oughtn't to marry a poor man—your habits are too expensive.’
‘I have no intention of marrying a poor man,’ said Violet. ‘Don't be afraid of that. I am satisfied with what I have seen of poverty in your house, mamma. Mr. Holmsby will be rich some day,’ she added, thrown off her guard.
‘Then it is him!’ cried Mrs. Palmer. ‘Violet, you bad, wicked girl! I shall never be able to look Mr. Wishart or any one belonging to him in the face again.’
Violet turned away impatiently. ‘Don't be violent, please,’ she said; ‘don't let us have a scene.’
‘It will break your father's heart,’ said Mrs. Palmer.
‘Poor papa!’ said Violet. She seemed softened, and a tear stole into her eye. ‘But, no; it won't break his heart; he was against it; he would not have bound me in that way if it hadn't been for you.’
‘Oh, I did it for the best!’ Mrs. Palmer said, in a choked voice. ‘Oh, poor Mr. Wishart!’page 51
‘And I'm doing this for the best,’ rejoined Violet; ‘and let me assure you of one thing, my dear mother, that it won't break Mr. Wishart's heart; so you need not sorrow for him.’
She flirted out of the room on tiptoe, as was her habit, and her mother looked after her with eyes dimmed with tears. She could not help contrasting herself with her daughter. Her own dress was coarse and plain, and soiled with work; her hands were brown and rough; her light hair, as beautiful and abundant as Violet's, was untidily twisted up under a cap of rusty black lace. She had had no time to dress, she told herself, since the first toilet made at six that morning, when Violet's rosy face was still resting on her pillow. She had nearly everything to do now; for she had lost that invaluable Rosa, and the house had returned to its former state. She also had gone back; the orderly ways that her young housekeeper had led her into had been soon given up. Again had she become the ill-dressed drudge who worked harder than her own maid-of-all-work. And her daughter, so graceful, so ladylike, Mrs. Palmer said, in her pretty cambric morning dress. How many hours had her mother spent in ironing those cambric dresses! How often had she worked when she felt tired and unwell lest Violet's white hands should be spoiled, or lest she should not have sufficient time for her ladylike accomplishments or her visitings! She cried more and more as she thought of these things, till at last, ashamed page 52 of her swollen eyes and flushed face, she went into the fresh air to recover herself.
Mrs. Palmer was afraid that when her husband knew what had happened, he would say, as Violet had said, that but for her the engagement now broken would never have been made. But Mr. Everard was incapable of making such a remark. He had never been guilty of the meanness of seeking to cover his own faults with those of another person. He was deeply grieved, but he was not angry with any one; experience had taught him the uselessness of anger. He spoke very gently to Violet, and he did not encourage Mrs. Palmer in the passionate upbraidings with which she inveighed against her daughter, herself, and even Mr. Wishart.
‘We have all done wrong,’ she cried; ‘but it is his own fault, Everard; he allowed the marriage to be put off and off on the slightest excuse. If I had done as I ought, and insisted on its taking place when Violet was eighteen, as was settled at first, this wouldn't have happened.’
‘Surely, Alice, we were not going to force our daughter into a marriage she disliked? I never dreamed till now that she wished to break the engagement or it should not have lasted so long.’
‘You see nothing, Everard—you take so little notice of your family,’ replied Mrs. Palmer, with a pettish turn of the head. ‘It is only that Mr. Holmsby, and very likely he means nothing. Oh, page 53 I'm miserable! other women haven't such trouble with their daughters.’
‘I'm afraid we haven't done well by our daughter,’ said Mr. Everard sadly. He crept away quietly in his slippers, coughing as he went down the draughty passage to his room, where he shut himself in with his books and microscope.
Mr. Wishart answered Violet's letter in person. He held that if a thing could be written it could be spoken far better, unless people were foolishly afraid of plain common sense. Violet could not detect any change in him; he spoke to her as kindly as ever, and in the same old manner which both had grown used to. It seemed even more indulgent, as if he were talking to the child of eight or nine years ago. It is doubtful whether he had ever ceased to think of this little Violet, whose head even now did not reach to his shoulder, otherwise than as a winsome but spoilt child, whom only a hard, sour-tempered person could hold accountable, or chide for her freaks and caprices.
‘What's amiss?’ he said, looking at her face. ‘I never saw you so pale. This won't do, Miss Violet; you are to come for a drive with me. I am not going away without you.’
He would listen to no excuse; so she complied unwillingly: for the first time she felt shy and uncomfortable in his company. When they were driving he talked of almost everything except the subject that was uppermost in her thoughts, and page 54 most likely in his as well. His gaiety seemed natural enough; he made all sorts of absurd jokes and startling assertions, as it seemed, merely for the pleasure of seeing her smile at them. But not one word of what she had written to him about. For a time she forgot it herself, and with a sudden reaction her spirits rose as high as his own appeared to be. It was strange that then he should become silent and thoughtful in his turn. When they were coming home, all at once, she perceived that he was going to speak on the subject that hitherto had been avoided, and she felt frightened and nervous immediately.
‘So you were afraid to tell me sooner, Violet,’ he said. ‘I did not know any one was afraid of me. Why, all my life I have had so little dignity that people have been accustomed to tell me their minds pretty freely. I'm bullied by my own gardener, and my servants generally do as they please. One word of Maud's goes as far as ten of mine. Why should you be afraid of me? no one else is.’
‘I was ashamed,’ she said; and she felt too much so just then to meet his eye.
‘Poor little girl!’ he said. ‘Never mind, you won't be bored by a prosy old fellow like me any more. I ought to have known long ago. We're a little selfish, we middle-aged people; we think ourselves so interesting to every one, so estimable, and I'm not sure whether we don't think ourselves always young as well. It was right of you to tell me, Violet, for I was not likely to find it out.’page 55
‘Oh! why don't you say what you really think?’ she exclaimed, with an earnestness she seldom showed. ‘You know I've done wrong. Why don't you say, like other people, that I've been ungrateful and selfish? You've been too good to me from the beginning; you have given me everything.’
‘Oh, hush! if you please,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘I can't listen to anything about such ugly subjects as ingratitude and selfishness. Whoever thought of them? As for what other people say—well, it really does not pay to be always listening to them and treasuring up their words.’
‘But when one knows it's true,’ said Violet, and her voice trembled. ‘I know what they will say of me.’
‘Perhaps they'll say something about me as well,’ said Mr. Wishart, assuming a rueful expression. ‘I expect they'll say “Serve him right, stupid old fellow!” But’—and he smiled at her—‘if they say anything about you, Vi, that comes to my hearing, I think they'd better look to themselves.’
‘Then,’ she said, feeling the kindness of his manner too much for her, ‘you really are not angry with me? I thought you would despise me.’ She was on the point of bursting into tears. Had he been displeased with her she could have preserved her calmness, and answered him with the same cool ease which she had opposed to her mother's passionate reproaches. But his forbearance touched what little heart she had.page 56
‘Angry with you Was I ever angry with you?’
She did not answer. In that moment there passed through her mind memory after memory of his constant kindness and care. Perhaps, as her mother had said, she was throwing her best chance away. But that worldly little heart of hers had not much room to spare for such feelings. It had been filled with other fancies lately, dazzling visions of a rich luxurious home, of success in London society, of being something there—a fashionable beauty perhaps; to be flattered, followed, and imitated by the crowd. Mr. Holmsby had painted all this in brilliant colours. How dull the even level of colonial life seemed in comparison! Could she have endured for a week the quietness of that country house which had so nearly been hers? Could she have entered into the way of life to which he had been accustomed for so long that the idea of change or variety in it never came into his mind? She had taken off her glove and her eye fell on the ring which he had given her years ago, and which she still wore.
‘I ought to return this to you,’ she said, in a low voice.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘not now, nor at any other time, if you wish to please me in one little thing. Do not return anything I have given you.’
The carriage stopped. ‘Good-bye,’ she said, as she gave him her hand in farewell. ‘I never knew till now how good and kind you are.’page 57
‘Good-bye, little Violet,’ he answered. He was accustomed to call her ‘little Violet’; and when in future he spoke of her it was most often as ‘little Violet,’ even years afterwards, when he was undoubtedly an old man, and those dreadful ‘other people’ had forgotten all about his romantic scheme of training up a wife for himself.