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Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter XV. Mrs. Lennox becomes Confidential

page 151

Chapter XV. Mrs. Lennox becomes Confidential.

Lucy had promised to ride round by Deepdene on her way home the day after the concert, and tell Jeanie all about it. Louis, having some business to transact with Mr. Lennox, had promised to escort her.

They reached the house about five o'clock p.m., just an hour or so before dinner 180 Jeanie was out somewhere in the garden, but Mrs. Lennox came to meet Lucy, and gave her, as usual, a hearty welcome.

The evenings had now begun to grow short and cold. After Lucy had taken off her riding-habit, page 152 they repaired to the drawing-room, and were glad to find a good fire glowing in the grate.

Mrs. Lennox placed two easy chairs before the hearth for herself and her visitor. The room was empty, except for Lucy and herself, and it was fast getting dusk. Neither could see the other's face very distinctly as they sat before the fire; it was, in fact, quite a confidential sort of hour, and, everybody being out of the way, Mrs. Lennox took advantage of it, and settled herself down for a comfortable talk.

“My dear,” she said, after a short pause, during which Lucy, tired with her ride, was beginning to grow drowsy under the combined influence of the luxurious easy chair and the warmth from the red embers. “Lucy, my dear, I want to speak to you about Jeanie—something very particular indeed.”

“Yes?” returned Lucy, rousing up immediately. “About Jeanie? What is it, Mrs. Lennox?”

“It is a matter of very great importance, my dear,” said the elder lady, smoothing down some of page 153 the trimming—black crape, alas!—on her dress as she spoke.

However, in all this she was really doing Mrs. Lennox great injustice, for that lady certainly had something of importance to say.

“Perhaps you have noticed a little yourself, my dear,” Mrs. Lennox went on presently, “and you won't be surprised, I think, at what I am going to tell you. The fact is, that a certain gentleman who page 154 has been here pretty often has really paid Jeanie some marked attentions, and I wanted to consult you as to whether it would be a desirable match for her or not, for I think your father seems to know him well.”

Not the slightest hint of the truth had as yet dawned on Lucy's mind. She ran over in her head the names of half a dozen professed admirers of Jeanie's without being able to discover to which Mrs. Lennox referred.

Several of them had been often at Deepdene, but which had been the most pointed in his attentions she was unable from her own observation to decide. So, with a strong feeling of curiosity growing within her, she inquired, “Who is it, Mrs. Lennox?”

“Then you haven't noticed anything,” said Mrs. Lennox, slightly disappointed; “but perhaps it was not likely. Now I come to think of it, I remember his visits here have never happened to take place at the same time as yours except once … but that was weeks ago … before … before we lost Effie.”

page 155

Still no hint of the truth had flashed upon Lucy. The sudden gravity that had fallen upon her face was caused by the allusion in Mrs. Lennox's last words. She shook her head slightly and said, “I don't recollect. Who is it?”

“I remember you both came over on the same evening then,” went on Mrs. Lennox, still without the slightest notion of returning a straightforward answer to Lucy's question—“Mr. Meredith and you. Don't you recollect now?”

“Who?” returned Lucy hastily, with dilated eyes fixed on her companion's face.

“Mr. Meredith.”

“You surely are not speaking of him?” said Lucy.

“Yes I am,” returned Mrs. Lennox composedly, not noticing the look of perfect horror in the girl's eyes. The fire had grown dull, however, and their faces in that dim light were not clear to each other's vision. “You seem a little surprised, my dear, but you would not be if you had noticed all that I have done. I assure you that young man never comes to page 156 the house now but what I expect he will make Jeanie an offer. I want you to tell me if you know anything of his family and his prospects, and whether I am doing wisely in encouraging his attentions or not.”

Not a word of answer to this appeal came from the easy chair opposite to her. Lucy was sitting in a kind of trance of horror, which for the moment had almost stricken her dumb.

She felt in her inmost heart that Mrs. Lennox was not deceived, and that what she said was perfectly true. Little fragments of doubt, which had found their way into her mind from time to time, hitherto crushed down and despised, all rose up in revolution in a moment, and formed a solid barricade of proof, against which Hope dashed herself once, and then dropped down dead for ever.

Mrs. Lennox, as it happened, had no time to feel surprised at Lucy's silence and apparent apathy concerning Jeanie's prospects in life, so different from her usual ready sympathy on all subjects brought before her notice by either Mrs. Lennox or page 157 her daughter. Just at this moment there was a step in the hall, and a clear voice called out, “Mamma, are you there? and where's Lucy? Has she come yet?”

“We're both here, Jeanie,” her mother answered; and then to Lucy, in a lower tone, “Another time, my dear. We'll finish our talk together quietly some day when there's no one by to interrupt us.”

Jeanie came in, fresh and cold from the evening air, her shawl unfastened and drooping over her shoulders, her large garden hat in her hand. She went up to Lucy and offered her a pink cheek to kiss.

“You look very snug,” she said. “Why didn't you send some one to fetch me in?”

“We did not know where you were,” said Mrs. Lennox, “nor who you might be with,” she added in rather a meaning tone.

“Oh, nonsense!” returned Jeanie, smiling a little to herself, as though she quite understood the allusion. “We have not had any visitors now for two days. They were all at the concert.” Then to Lucy, with a slight hesitation, she added, “Did—did … Mr. Meredith sing, and was he encored?”

Lucy replied to both questions in the affirmative, but somehow not quite in her usual tone.

“I'm sure you're tired,” said Jeanie compassionately, “so I won't bother you now, but you must tell me all about it after dinner. I want to know what every one wore, and which of the glees went off the best. Now I'm going to sit by your side and let you rest until you've had some tea.”

She curled herself on the hearth-rug by the side of Lucy's chair, and kept silence meritoriously for some time. She little dreamt that Lucy, lying back so very still, was drawing a mental comparison between Jeanie and herself, and that the case, in her opinion, was decidedly in Jeanie's favour.

Lucy Cunningham was not beautiful, as I have said before. She was merely a nice-looking girl, with a bright, intelligent expression. The only page 159 claims she could lay to beauty rested on her pretty rippling hair and round, graceful figure.

But Jeanie was, in all respects, unusually pretty. Her little golden head gleamed in the firelight under Lucy's eyes; her soft oval face, from the delicate eyebrows to the dimpled chin, Lucy knew by heart, and knew that it was very fair. The fault of Jeanie's face lay in the forehead, which was too high and not broad enough to please a critical eye; but Lucy did not think of this just then. She weighed herself and Jeanie in the balance and found herself wanting. She was utterly unconscious of one of her own greatest charms—perhaps the one of all others which had most attracted Clinton towards her—her piquant, graceful manners.

It was quite beyond Jeanie's power to keep silence very long. She soon began to talk again as eagerly as ever. She was wild to know everything that had happened the evening before, and especially all that concerned Clinton Meredith. But by this time Lucy had rallied her forces and could answer every question quite steadily. The extreme innocence and page 160 simplicity of both Jeanie and her mother rendered this much easier to her. She soon saw that there was no more likelihood of her secret being discovered by either of them than by two children.

She told Jeanie everything she could remember about the concert, from the lace on Mrs. Prior's dress and Arthur Winstanley's attack of faintness down to the flower in Clinton Meredith's buttonhole; and after awhile the gentlemen—Louis and Mr. Lennox—came in, and they had dinner.

180 DNZE definition states: 'the midday meal whether the main meal of the day (as often in rural New Zealand) or not (as is usual in towns). Also cited: 'As elsewhere and esp. in urban use, a main meal taken at evening'. Also: local hoteliers and dining rooms in Evans' home of Oamaru advertised their dining hours from 12-2 in the afternoon. See North Otago Times 6 October 1874, page 3, http://paperspast.natlib.govt.New Zealand.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]