Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Beginners Projects, Martin Agren and the Online Distributed
Behind a Mask _or_ A Woman's Power By A.M. Barnard
"Has she come?"
"No, Mamma, not yet."
"I wish it were well over. The thought of it worries and excites me. A
cushion for my back, Bella."
And poor, peevish Mrs. Coventry sank into an easy chair with a nervous
sigh and the air of a martyr, while her pretty daughter hovered about
her with affectionate solicitude.
"Who are they talking of, Lucia?" asked the languid young man lounging
on a couch near his cousin, who bent over her tapestry work with a happy
smile on her usually haughty face.
"The new governess, Miss Muir. Shall I tell you about her?"
"No, thank you. I have an inveterate aversion to the whole tribe. I've
often thanked heaven that I had but one sister, and she a spoiled child,
so that I have escaped the infliction of a governess so long."
"How will you bear it now?" asked Lucia.
"Leave the house while she is in it."
"No, you won't. You're too lazy, Gerald," called out a younger and more
energetic man, from the recess where he stood teasing his dogs.
"I'll give her a three days' trial; if she proves endurable I shall not
disturb myself; if, as I am sure, she is a bore, I'm off anywhere,
anywhere out of her way."
"I beg you won't talk in that depressing manner, boys. I dread the
coming of a stranger more than you possibly can, but Bella _must_ not be
neglected; so I have nerved myself to endure this woman, and Lucia is
good enough to say she will attend to her after tonight."
"Don't be troubled, Mamma. She is a nice person, I dare say, and when
once we are used to her, I've no doubt we shall be glad to have her,
it's so dull here just now. Lady Sydney said she was a quiet,
accomplished, amiable girl, who needed a home, and would be a help to
poor stupid me, so try to like her for my sake."
"I will, dear, but isn't it getting late? I do hope nothing has
happened. Did you tell them to send a carriage to the station for
"I forgot it. But it's not far, it won't hurt her to walk" was the
"It was indolence, not forgetfulness, I know. I'm very sorry; she will
think it so rude to leave her to find her way so late. Do go and see
to it, Ned."
"Too late, Bella, the train was in some time ago. Give your orders to me
next time. Mother and I'll see that they are obeyed," said Edward.
"Ned is just at an age to make a fool of himself for any girl who
comes in his way. Have a care of the governess, Lucia, or she will
Gerald spoke in a satirical whisper, but his brother heard him and
answered with a good-humored laugh.
"I wish there was any hope of your making a fool of yourself in that
way, old fellow. Set me a good example, and I promise to follow it. As
for the governess, she is a woman, and should be treated with common
civility. I should say a little extra kindness wouldn't be amiss,
either, because she is poor, and a stranger."
"That is my dear, good-hearted Ned! We'll stand by poor little Muir,
won't we?" And running to her brother, Bella stood on tiptoe to offer
him a kiss which he could not refuse, for the rosy lips were pursed up
invitingly, and the bright eyes full of sisterly affection.
"I do hope she has come, for, when I make an effort to see anyone, I
hate to make it in vain. Punctuality is _such_ a virtue, and I know this
woman hasn't got it, for she promised to be here at seven, and now it is
long after," began Mrs. Coventry, in an injured tone.
Before she could get breath for another complaint, the clock struck
seven and the doorbell rang.
"There she is!" cried Bella, and turned toward the door as if to go and
meet the newcomer.
But Lucia arrested her, saying authoritatively, "Stay here, child. It is
her place to come to you, not yours to go to her."
"Miss Muir," announced a servant, and a little black-robed figure stood
in the doorway. For an instant no one stirred, and the governess had
time to see and be seen before a word was uttered. All looked at her,
and she cast on the household group a keen glance that impressed them
curiously; then her eyes fell, and bowing slightly she walked in. Edward
came forward and received her with the frank cordiality which nothing
could daunt or chill.
"Mother, this is the lady whom you expected. Miss Muir, allow me to
apologize for our apparent neglect in not sending for you. There was a
mistake about the carriage, or, rather, the lazy fellow to whom the
order was given forgot it. Bella, come here."
"Thank you, no apology is needed. I did not expect to be sent for." And
the governess meekly sat down without lifting her eyes.
"I am glad to see you. Let me take your things," said Bella, rather
shyly, for Gerald, still lounging, watched the fireside group with
languid interest, and Lucia never stirred. Mrs. Coventry took a second
survey and began:
"You were punctual, Miss Muir, which pleases me. I'm a sad invalid, as
Lady Sydney told you, I hope; so that Miss Coventry's lessons will be
directed by my niece, and you will go to her for directions, as she
knows what I wish. You will excuse me if I ask you a few questions, for
Lady Sydney's note was very brief, and I left everything to her
"Ask anything you like, madam," answered the soft, sad voice.
"You are Scotch, I believe."
"Are your parents living?"
"I have not a relation in the world."
"Dear me, how sad! Do you mind telling me your age?"
"Nineteen." And a smile passed over Miss Muir's lips, as she folded her
hands with an air of resignation, for the catechism was evidently to be
a long one.
"So young! Lady Sydney mentioned five-and-twenty, I think, didn't
"No, Mamma, she only said she thought so. Don't ask such questions. It's
not pleasant before us all," whispered Bella.
A quick, grateful glance shone on her from the suddenly lifted eyes of
Miss Muir, as she said quietly, "I wish I was thirty, but, as I am not,
I do my best to look and seem old."
Of course, every one looked at her then, and all felt a touch of pity at
the sight of the pale-faced girl in her plain black dress, with no
ornament but a little silver cross at her throat. Small, thin, and
colorless she was, with yellow hair, gray eyes, and sharply cut,
irregular, but very expressive features. Poverty seemed to have set its
bond stamp upon her, and life to have had for her more frost than
sunshine. But something in the lines of the mouth betrayed strength, and
the clear, low voice had a curious mixture of command and entreaty in
its varying tones. Not an attractive woman, yet not an ordinary one;
and, as she sat there with her delicate hands lying in her lap, her head
bent, and a bitter look on her thin face, she was more interesting than
many a blithe and blooming girl. Bella's heart warmed to her at once,
and she drew her seat nearer, while Edward went back to his dogs that
his presence might not embarrass her.
"You have been ill, I think," continued Mrs. Coventry, who considered
this fact the most interesting of all she had heard concerning the
"Yes, madam, I left the hospital only a week ago."
"Are you quite sure it is safe to begin teaching so soon?"
"I have no time to lose, and shall soon gain strength here in the
country, if you care to keep me."
"And you are fitted to teach music, French, and drawing?"
"I shall endeavor to prove that I am."
"Be kind enough to go and play an air or two. I can judge by your touch;
I used to play finely when a girl."
Miss Muir rose, looked about her for the instrument, and seeing it at
the other end of the room went toward it, passing Gerald and Lucia as if
she did not see them. Bella followed, and in a moment forgot everything
in admiration. Miss Muir played like one who loved music and was perfect
mistress of her art. She charmed them all by the magic of this spell;
even indolent Gerald sat up to listen, and Lucia put down her needle,
while Ned watched the slender white fingers as they flew, and wondered
at the strength and skill which they possessed.
"Please sing," pleaded Bella, as a brilliant overture ended.
With the same meek obedience Miss Muir complied, and began a little
Scotch melody, so sweet, so sad, that the girl's eyes filled, and Mrs.
Coventry looked for one of her many pocket-handkerchiefs. But suddenly
the music ceased, for, with a vain attempt to support herself, the
singer slid from her seat and lay before the startled listeners, as
white and rigid as if struck with death. Edward caught her up, and,
ordering his brother off the couch, laid her there, while Bella chafed
her hands, and her mother rang for her maid. Lucia bathed the poor
girl's temples, and Gerald, with unwonted energy, brought a glass of
wine. Soon Miss Muir's lips trembled, she sighed, then murmured,
tenderly, with a pretty Scotch accent, as if wandering in the past,
"Bide wi' me, Mither, I'm sae sick an sad here all alone."
"Take a sip of this, and it will do you good, my dear," said Mrs.
Coventry, quite touched by the plaintive words.
The strange voice seemed to recall her. She sat up, looked about her, a
little wildly, for a moment, then collected herself and said, with a
pathetic look and tone, "Pardon me. I have been on my feet all day, and,
in my eagerness to keep my appointment, I forgot to eat since morning.
I'm better now; shall I finish the song?"
"By no means. Come and have some tea," said Bella, full of pity
"Scene first, very well done," whispered Gerald to his cousin.
Miss Muir was just before them, apparently listening to Mrs. Coventry's
remarks upon fainting fits; but she heard, and looked over her shoulders
with a gesture like Rachel. Her eyes were gray, but at that instant they
seemed black with some strong emotion of anger, pride, or defiance. A
curious smile passed over her face as she bowed, and said in her
penetrating voice, "Thanks. The last scene shall be still better."
Young Coventry was a cool, indolent man, seldom conscious of any
emotion, any passion, pleasurable or otherwise; but at the look, the
tone of the governess, he experienced a new sensation, indefinable, yet
strong. He colored and, for the first time in his life, looked abashed.
Lucia saw it, and hated Miss Muir with a sudden hatred; for, in all the
years she had passed with her cousin, no look or word of hers had
possessed such power. Coventry was himself again in an instant, with no
trace of that passing change, but a look of interest in his usually
dreamy eyes, and a touch of anger in his sarcastic voice.
"What a melodramatic young lady! I shall go tomorrow."
Lucia laughed, and was well pleased when he sauntered away to bring her
a cup of tea from the table where a little scene was just taking place.
Mrs. Coventry had sunk into her chair again, exhausted by the flurry of
the fainting fit. Bella was busied about her; and Edward, eager to feed
the pale governess, was awkwardly trying to make the tea, after a
beseeching glance at his cousin which she did not choose to answer. As
he upset the caddy and uttered a despairing exclamation, Miss Muir
quietly took her place behind the urn, saying with a smile, and a shy
glance at the young man, "Allow me to assume my duty at once, and serve
you all. I understand the art of making people comfortable in this way.
The scoop, please. I can gather this up quite well alone, if you will
tell me how your mother likes her tea."
Edward pulled a chair to the table and made merry over his mishaps,
while Miss Muir performed her little task with a skill and grace that
made it pleasant to watch her. Coventry lingered a moment after she had
given him a steaming cup, to observe her more nearly, while he asked a
question or two of his brother. She took no more notice of him than if
he had been a statue, and in the middle of the one remark he addressed
to her, she rose to take the sugar basin to Mrs. Coventry, who was quite
won by the modest, domestic graces of the new governess.
"Really, my dear, you are a treasure; I haven't tasted such tea since my
poor maid Ellis died. Bella never makes it good, and Miss Lucia always
forgets the cream. Whatever you do you seem to do well, and that is
_such_ a comfort."
"Let me always do this for you, then. It will be a pleasure, madam." And
Miss Muir came back to her seat with a faint color in her cheek which
improved her much.
"My brother asked if young Sydney was at home when you left," said
Edward, for Gerald would not take the trouble to repeat the question.
Miss Muir fixed her eyes on Coventry, and answered with a slight tremor
of the lips, "No, he left home some weeks ago."
The young man went back to his cousin, saying, as he threw himself
down beside her, "I shall not go tomorrow, but wait till the three
days are out."
"Why?" demanded Lucia.
Lowering his voice he said, with a significant nod toward the governess,
"Because I have a fancy that she is at the bottom of Sydney's mystery.
He's not been himself lately, and now he is gone without a word. I
rather like romances in real life, if they are not too long, or
difficult to read."
"Do you think her pretty?"
"Far from it, a most uncanny little specimen."
"Then why fancy Sydney loves her?"
"He is an oddity, and likes sensations and things of that sort."
"What do you mean, Gerald?"
"Get the Muir to look at you, as she did at me, and you will understand.
Will you have another cup, Juno?"
"Yes, please." She liked to have him wait upon her, for he did it to no
other woman except his mother.
Before he could slowly rise, Miss Muir glided to them with another cup
on the salver; and, as Lucia took it with a cold nod, the girl said
under her breath, "I think it honest to tell you that I possess a quick
ear, and cannot help hearing what is said anywhere in the room. What you
say of me is of no consequence, but you may speak of things which you
prefer I should not hear; therefore, allow me to warn you." And she was
gone again as noiselessly as she came.
"How do you like that?" whispered Coventry, as his cousin sat looking
after the girl, with a disturbed expression.
"What an uncomfortable creature to have in the house! I am very sorry I
urged her coming, for your mother has taken a fancy to her, and it will
be hard to get rid of her," said Lucia, half angry, half amused.
"Hush, she hears every word you say. I know it by the expression of her
face, for Ned is talking about horses, and she looks as haughty as ever
you did, and that is saying much. Faith, this is getting interesting."
"Hark, she is speaking; I want to hear," and Lucia laid her hand on her
cousin's lips. He kissed it, and then idly amused himself with turning
the rings to and fro on the slender fingers.
"I have been in France several years, madam, but my friend died and I
came back to be with Lady Sydney, till--" Muir paused an instant, then
added, slowly, "till I fell ill. It was a contagious fever, so I went of
my own accord to the hospital, not wishing to endanger her."
"Very right, but are you sure there is no danger of infection now?"
asked Mrs. Coventry anxiously.
"None, I assure you. I have been well for some time, but did not leave
because I preferred to stay there, than to return to Lady Sydney."
"No quarrel, I hope? No trouble of any kind?"
"No quarrel, but--well, why not? You have a right to know, and I will
not make a foolish mystery out of a very simple thing. As your family,
only, is present, I may tell the truth. I did not go back on the young
gentleman's account. Please ask no more."
"Ah, I see. Quite prudent and proper, Miss Muir. I shall never allude to
it again. Thank you for your frankness. Bella, you will be careful not
to mention this to young friends; girls gossip sadly, and it would annoy
Lady Sydney beyond everything to have this talked of."
"Very neighborly of Lady S. to send the dangerous young lady here,
where there are _two_ young gentlemen to be captivated. I wonder why
she didn't keep Sydney after she had caught him," murmured Coventry to
"Because she had the utmost contempt for a titled fool." Miss Muir
dropped the words almost into his ear, as she bent to take her shawl
from the sofa corner.
"How the deuce did she get there?" ejaculated Coventry, looking as if he
had received another sensation. "She has spirit, though, and upon my
word I pity Sydney, if he did try to dazzle her, for he must have got a
"Come and play billiards. You promised, and I hold you to your word,"
said Lucia, rising with decision, for Gerald was showing too much
interest in another to suit Miss Beaufort.
"I am, as ever, your most devoted. My mother is a charming woman, but I
find our evening parties slightly dull, when only my own family are
present. Good night, Mamma." He shook hands with his mother, whose pride
and idol he was, and, with a comprehensive nod to the others, strolled
after his cousin.
"Now they are gone we can be quite cozy, and talk over things, for I
don't mind Ned any more than I do his dogs," said Bella, settling
herself on her mother's footstool.
"I merely wish to say, Miss Muir, that my daughter has never had a
governess and is sadly backward for a girl of sixteen. I want you to
pass the mornings with her, and get her on as rapidly as possible. In
the afternoon you will walk or drive with her, and in the evening sit
with us here, if you like, or amuse yourself as you please. While in the
country we are very quiet, for I cannot bear much company, and when my
sons want gaiety, they go away for it. Miss Beaufort oversees the
servants, and takes my place as far as possible. I am very delicate and
keep my room till evening, except for an airing at noon. We will try
each other for a month, and I hope we shall get on quite comfortably
"I shall do my best, madam."
One would not have believed that the meek, spiritless voice which
uttered these words was the same that had startled Coventry a few
minutes before, nor that the pale, patient face could ever have kindled
with such sudden fire as that which looked over Miss Muir's shoulder
when she answered her young host's speech.
Edward thought within himself, Poor little woman! She has had a hard
life. We will try and make it easier while she is here; and began his
charitable work by suggesting that she might be tired. She acknowledged
she was, and Bella led her away to a bright, cozy room, where with a
pretty little speech and a good-night kiss she left her.
When alone Miss Muir's conduct was decidedly peculiar. Her first act was
to clench her hands and mutter between her teeth, with passionate force,
"I'll not fail again if there is power in a woman's wit and will!" She
stood a moment motionless, with an expression of almost fierce disdain
on her face, then shook her clenched hand as if menacing some unseen
enemy. Next she laughed, and shrugged her shoulders with a true French
shrug, saying low to herself, "Yes, the last scene _shall_ be better
than the first. _Mon dieu_, how tired and hungry I am!"
Kneeling before the one small trunk which held her worldly possessions,
she opened it, drew out a flask, and mixed a glass of some ardent
cordial, which she seemed to enjoy extremely as she sat on the carpet,
musing, while her quick eyes examined every corner of the room.
"Not bad! It will be a good field for me to work in, and the harder the
task the better I shall like it. _Merci_, old friend. You put heart and
courage into me when nothing else will. Come, the curtain is down, so I
may be myself for a few hours, if actresses ever are themselves."
Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant
braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several
pearly teeth, and slipping off her dress appeared herself indeed, a
haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least. The metamorphosis was
wonderful, but the disguise was more in the expression she assumed than
in any art of costume or false adornment. Now she was alone, and her
mobile features settled into their natural expression, weary, hard,
bitter. She had been lovely once, happy, innocent, and tender; but
nothing of all this remained to the gloomy woman who leaned there
brooding over some wrong, or loss, or disappointment which had darkened
all her life. For an hour she sat so, sometimes playing absently with
the scanty locks that hung about her face, sometimes lifting the glass
to her lips as if the fiery draught warmed her cold blood; and once she
half uncovered her breast to eye with a terrible glance the scar of a
newly healed wound. At last she rose and crept to bed, like one worn out
with weariness and mental pain.
A GOOD BEGINNING
Only the housemaids were astir when Miss Muir left her room next morning
and quietly found her way into the garden. As she walked, apparently
intent upon the flowers, her quick eye scrutinized the fine old house
and its picturesque surroundings.
"Not bad," she said to herself, adding, as she passed into the adjoining
park, "but the other may be better, and I will have the best."
Walking rapidly, she came out at length upon the wide green lawn which
lay before the ancient hall where Sir John Coventry lived in solitary
splendor. A stately old place, rich in oaks, well-kept shrubberies, gay
gardens, sunny terraces, carved gables, spacious rooms, liveried
servants, and every luxury befitting the ancestral home of a rich and
honorable race. Miss Muir's eyes brightened as she looked, her step grew
firmer, her carriage prouder, and a smile broke over her face; the smile
of one well pleased at the prospect of the success of some cherished
hope. Suddenly her whole air changed, she pushed back her hat, clasped
her hands loosely before her, and seemed absorbed in girlish admiration
of the fair scene that could not fail to charm any beauty-loving eye.
The cause of this rapid change soon appeared. A hale, handsome man,
between fifty and sixty, came through the little gate leading to the
park, and, seeing the young stranger, paused to examine her. He had only
time for a glance, however; she seemed conscious of his presence in a
moment, turned with a startled look, uttered an exclamation of surprise,
and looked as if hesitating whether to speak or run away. Gallant Sir
John took off his hat and said, with the old-fashioned courtesy which
became him well, "I beg your pardon for disturbing you, young lady.
Allow me to atone for it by inviting you to walk where you will, and
gather what flowers you like. I see you love them, so pray make free
with those about you."
With a charming air of maidenly timidity and artlessness, Miss Muir
replied, "Oh, thank you, sir! But it is I who should ask pardon for
trespassing. I never should have dared if I had not known that Sir John
was absent. I always wanted to see this fine old place, and ran over the
first thing, to satisfy myself."
"And _are_ you satisfied?" he asked, with a smile.
"More than satisfied--I'm charmed; for it is the most beautiful spot I
ever saw, and I've seen many famous seats, both at home and abroad," she
"The Hall is much flattered, and so would its master be if he heard
you," began the gentleman, with an odd expression.
"I should not praise it to him--at least, not as freely as I have to
you, sir," said the girl, with eyes still turned away.
"Why not?" asked her companion, looking much amused.
"I should be afraid. Not that I dread Sir John; but I've heard so many
beautiful and noble things about him, and respect him so highly, that I
should not dare to say much, lest he should see how I admire and--"
"And what, young lady? Finish, if you please."
"I was going to say, love him. I will say it, for he is an old man, and
one cannot help loving virtue and bravery."
Miss Muir looked very earnest and pretty as she spoke, standing there
with the sunshine glinting on her yellow hair, delicate face, and
downcast eyes. Sir John was not a vain man, but he found it pleasant to
hear himself commended by this unknown girl, and felt redoubled
curiosity to learn who she was. Too well-bred to ask, or to abash her by
avowing what she seemed unconscious of, he left both discoveries to
chance; and when she turned, as if to retrace her steps, he offered her
the handful of hothouse flowers which he held, saying, with a gallant
bow, "In Sir John's name let me give you my little nosegay, with thanks
for your good opinion, which, I assure you, is not entirely deserved,
for I know him well."
Miss Muir looked up quickly, eyed him an instant, then dropped her eyes,
and, coloring deeply, stammered out, "I did not know--I beg your
pardon--you are too kind, Sir John."
He laughed like a boy, asking, mischievously, "Why call me Sir John? How
do you know that I am not the gardener or the butler?"
"I did not see your face before, and no one but yourself would say that
any praise was undeserved," murmured Miss Muir, still overcome with
"Well, well, we will let that pass, and the next time you come we will
be properly introduced. Bella always brings her friends to the Hall, for
I am fond of young people."
"I am not a friend. I am only Miss Coventry's governess." And Miss Muir
dropped a meek curtsy. A slight change passed over Sir John's manner.
Few would have perceived it, but Miss Muir felt it at once, and bit her
lips with an angry feeling at her heart. With a curious air of pride,
mingled with respect, she accepted the still offered bouquet, returned
Sir John's parting bow, and tripped away, leaving the old gentleman to
wonder where Mrs. Coventry found such a piquant little governess.
"That is done, and very well for a beginning," she said to herself as
she approached the house.
In a green paddock close by fed a fine horse, who lifted up his head and
eyed her inquiringly, like one who expected a greeting. Following a
sudden impulse, she entered the paddock and, pulling a handful of
clover, invited the creature to come and eat. This was evidently a new
proceeding on the part of a lady, and the horse careered about as if
bent on frightening the newcomer away.
"I see," she said aloud, laughing to herself. "I am not your master, and
you rebel. Nevertheless, I'll conquer you, my fine brute."
Seating herself in the grass, she began to pull daisies, singing idly
the while, as if unconscious of the spirited prancings of the horse.
Presently he drew nearer, sniffing curiously and eyeing her with
surprise. She took no notice, but plaited the daisies and sang on as if
he was not there. This seemed to pique the petted creature, for, slowly
approaching, he came at length so close that he could smell her little
foot and nibble at her dress. Then she offered the clover, uttering
caressing words and making soothing sounds, till by degrees and with
much coquetting, the horse permitted her to stroke his glossy neck and
smooth his mane.
It was a pretty sight--the slender figure in the grass, the
high-spirited horse bending his proud head to her hand. Edward Coventry,
who had watched the scene, found it impossible to restrain himself any
longer and, leaping the wall, came to join the group, saying, with
mingled admiration and wonder in countenance and voice, "Good morning,
Miss Muir. If I had not seen your skill and courage proved before my
eyes, I should be alarmed for your safety. Hector is a wild, wayward
beast, and has damaged more than one groom who tried to conquer him."
"Good morning, Mr. Coventry. Don't tell tales of this noble creature,
who has not deceived my faith in him. Your grooms did not know how to
win his heart, and so subdue his spirit without breaking it."
Miss Muir rose as she spoke, and stood with her hand on Hector's neck
while he ate the grass which she had gathered in the skirt of her dress.
"You have the secret, and Hector is your subject now, though heretofore
he has rejected all friends but his master. Will you give him his
morning feast? I always bring him bread and play with him before
"Then you are not jealous?" And she looked up at him with eyes so bright
and beautiful in expression that the young man wondered he had not
observed them before.
"Not I. Pet him as much as you will; it will do him good. He is a
solitary fellow, for he scorns his own kind and lives alone, like his
master," he added, half to himself.
"Alone, with such a happy home, Mr. Coventry?" And a softly
compassionate glance stole from the bright eyes.
"That was an ungrateful speech, and I retract it for Bella's sake.
Younger sons have no position but such as they can make for themselves,
you know, and I've had no chance yet."
"Younger sons! I thought--I beg pardon." And Miss Muir paused, as if
remembering that she had no right to question.
Edward smiled and answered frankly, "Nay, don't mind me. You thought I
was the heir, perhaps. Whom did you take my brother for last night?"
"For some guest who admired Miss Beaufort. I did not hear his name, nor
observe him enough to discover who he was. I saw only your land mother,
your charming little sister, and--"
She stopped there, with a half-shy, half-grateful look at the young man
which finished the sentence better than any words. He was still a boy,
in spite of his one-and-twenty years, and a little color came into his
brown cheek as the eloquent eyes met his and fell before them.
"Yes, Bella is a capital girl, and one can't help loving her. I know
you'll get her on, for, really, she is the most delightful little dunce.
My mother's ill health and Bella's devotion to her have prevented our
attending to her education before. Next winter, when we go to town, she
is to come out, and must be prepared for that great event, you know," he
said, choosing a safe subject.
"I shall do my best. And that reminds me that I should report myself to
her, instead of enjoying myself here. When one has been ill and shut up
a long time, the country is so lovely one is apt to forget duty for
pleasure. Please remind me if I am negligent, Mr. Coventry."
"That name belongs to Gerald. I'm only Mr. Ned here," he said as they
walked toward the house, while Hector followed to the wall and sent a
sonorous farewell after them.
Bella came running to meet them, and greeted Miss Muir as if she had
made up her mind to like her heartily. "What a lovely bouquet you have
got! I never can arrange flowers prettily, which vexes me, for Mamma is
so fond of them and cannot go out herself. You have charming taste," she
said, examining the graceful posy which Miss Muir had much improved by
adding feathery grasses, delicate ferns, and fragrant wild flowers to
Sir John's exotics.
Putting them into Bella's hand, she said, in a winning way, "Take them
to your mother, then, and ask her if I may have the pleasure of making
her a daily nosegay; for I should find real delight in doing it, if it
would please her."
"How kind you are! Of course it would please her. I'll take them to her
while the dew is still on them." And away flew Bella, eager to give both
the flowers and the pretty message to the poor invalid.
Edward stopped to speak to the gardener, and Miss Muir went up the steps
alone. The long hall was lined with portraits, and pacing slowly down it
she examined them with interest. One caught her eye, and, pausing before
it, she scrutinized it carefully. A young, beautiful, but very haughty
female face. Miss Muir suspected at once who it was, and gave a decided
nod, as if she saw and caught at some unexpected chance. A soft rustle
behind her made her look around, and, seeing Lucia, she bowed, half
turned, as if for another glance at the picture, and said, as if
involuntarily, "How beautiful it is! May I ask if it is an ancestor,
"It is the likeness of my mother" was the reply, given with a softened
voice and eyes that looked up tenderly.
"Ah, I might have known, from the resemblance, but I scarcely saw you
last night. Excuse my freedom, but Lady Sydney treated me as a friend,
and I forget my position. Allow me."
As she spoke, Miss Muir stooped to return the handkerchief which had
fallen from Lucia's hand, and did so with a humble mien which touched
the other's heart; for, though a proud, it was also a very generous one.
"Thank you. Are you better, this morning?" she said, graciously. And
having received an affirmative reply, she added, as she walked on, "I
will show you to the breakfast room, as Bella is not here. It is a very
informal meal with us, for my aunt is never down and my cousins are very
irregular in their hours. You can always have yours when you like,
without waiting for us if you are an early riser."
Bella and Edward appeared before the others were seated, and Miss Muir
quietly ate her breakfast, feeling well satisfied with her hour's
work. Ned recounted her exploit with Hector, Bella delivered her
mother's thanks for the flowers, and Lucia more than once recalled,
with pardonable vanity, that the governess had compared her to her
lovely mother, expressing by a look as much admiration for the living
likeness as for the painted one. All kindly did their best to make the
pale girl feel at home, and their cordial manner seemed to warm and
draw her out; for soon she put off her sad, meek air and entertained
them with gay anecdotes of her life in Paris, her travels in Russia
when governess in Prince Jermadoff's family, and all manner of witty
stories that kept them interested and merry long after the meal was
over. In the middle of an absorbing adventure, Coventry came in,
nodded lazily, lifted his brows, as if surprised at seeing the
governess there, and began his breakfast as if the ennui of another
day had already taken possession of him. Miss Muir stopped short, and
no entreaties could induce her to go on.
"Another time I will finish it, if you like. Now Miss Bella and I should
be at our books." And she left the room, followed by her pupil, taking
no notice of the young master of the house, beyond a graceful bow in
answer to his careless nod.
"Merciful creature! she goes when I come, and does not make life
unendurable by moping about before my eyes. Does she belong to the
moral, the melancholy, the romantic, or the dashing class, Ned?" said
Gerald, lounging over his coffee as he did over everything he attempted.
"To none of them; she is a capital little woman. I wish you had seen her
tame Hector this morning." And Edward repeated his story.
"Not a bad move on her part," said Coventry in reply. "She must be an
observing as well as an energetic young person, to discover your chief
weakness and attack it so soon. First tame the horse, and then the
master. It will be amusing to watch the game, only I shall be under the
painful necessity of checkmating you both, if it gets serious."
"You needn't exert yourself, old fellow, on my account. If I was not
above thinking ill of an inoffensive girl, I should say you were the
prize best worth winning, and advise you to take care of your own heart,
if you've got one, which I rather doubt."
"I often doubt it, myself; but I fancy the little Scotchwoman will not
be able to satisfy either of us upon that point. How does your highness
like her?" asked Coventry of his cousin, who sat near him.
"Better than I thought I should. She is well-bred, unassuming, and very
entertaining when she likes. She has told us some of the wittiest
stories I've heard for a long time. Didn't our laughter wake you?"
"Yes. Now atone for it by amusing me with a repetition of these
"That is impossible; her accent and manner are half the charm," said
Ned. "I wish you had kept away ten minutes longer, for your appearance
spoilt the best story of all."
"Why didn't she go on?" asked Coventry, with a ray of curiosity.
"You forget that she overheard us last night, and must feel that you
consider her a bore. She has pride, and no woman forgets speeches like
those you made," answered Lucia.
"Or forgives them, either, I believe. Well, I must be resigned to
languish under her displeasure then. On Sydney's account I take a slight
interest in her; not that I expect to learn anything from her, for a
woman with a mouth like that never confides or confesses anything. But I
have a fancy to see what captivated him; for captivated he was, beyond a
doubt, and by no lady whom he met in society. Did you ever hear anything
of it, Ned?" asked Gerald.
"I'm not fond of scandal or gossip, and never listen to either." With
which remark Edward left the room.
Lucia was called out by the housekeeper a moment after, and Coventry
left to the society most wearisome to him, namely his own. As he
entered, he had caught a part of the story which Miss Muir had been
telling, and it had excited his curiosity so much that he found himself
wondering what the end could be and wishing that he might hear it.
What the deuce did she run away for, when I came in? he thought. If she
_is_ amusing, she must make herself useful; for it's intensely dull, I
own, here, in spite of Lucia. Hey, what's that?
It was a rich, sweet voice, singing a brilliant Italian air, and singing
it with an expression that made the music doubly delicious. Stepping out
of the French window, Coventry strolled along the sunny terrace,
enjoying the song with the relish of a connoisseur. Others followed, and
still he walked and listened, forgetful of weariness or tune. As one
exquisite air ended, he involuntarily applauded. Miss Muir's face
appeared for an instant, then vanished, and no more music followed,
though Coventry lingered, hoping to hear the voice again. For music was
the one thing of which he never wearied, and neither Lucia nor Bella
possessed skill enough to charm him. For an hour he loitered on the
terrace or the lawn, basking in the sunshine, too indolent to seek
occupation or society. At length Bella came out, hat in hand, and nearly
stumbled over her brother, who lay on the grass.
"You lazy man, have you been dawdling here all this time?" she said,
looking down at him.
"No, I've been very busy. Come and tell me how you've got on with the
"Can't stop. She bade me take a run after my French, so that I might be
ready for my drawing, and so I must."
"It's too warm to run. Sit down and amuse your deserted brother, who has
had no society but bees and lizards for an hour."
He drew her down as he spoke, and Bella obeyed; for, in spite of his
indolence, he was one to whom all submitted without dreaming of refusal.
"What have you been doing? Muddling your poor little brains with all
manner of elegant rubbish?"
"No, I've been enjoying myself immensely. Jean is _so_ interesting, so
kind and clever. She didn't bore me with stupid grammar, but just talked
to me in such pretty French that I got on capitally, and like it as I
never expected to, after Lucia's dull way of teaching it."
"What did you talk about?"
"Oh, all manner of things. She asked questions, and I answered, and she
"Questions about our affairs, I suppose?"
"Not one. She don't care two sous for us or our affairs. I thought she
might like to know what sort of people we were, so I told her about
Papa's sudden death, Uncle John, and you, and Ned; but in the midst of
it she said, in her quiet way, 'You are getting too confidential, my
dear. It is not best to talk too freely of one's affairs to strangers.
Let us speak of something else.'"
"What were you talking of when she said that, Bell?"
"Ah, then no wonder she was bored."
"She was tired of my chatter, and didn't hear half I said; for she was
busy sketching something for me to copy, and thinking of something more
interesting than the Coventrys."
"How do you know?"
"By the expression of her face. Did you like her music, Gerald?"
"Yes. Was she angry when I clapped?"
"She looked surprised, then rather proud, and shut the piano at once,
though I begged her to go on. Isn't Jean a pretty name?"
"Not bad; but why don't you call her Miss Muir?"
"She begged me not. She hates it, and loves to be called Jean, alone.
I've imagined such a nice little romance about her, and someday I shall
tell her, for I'm sure she has had a love trouble."
"Don't get such nonsense into your head, but follow Miss Muir's
well-bred example and don't be curious about other people's affairs. Ask
her to sing tonight; it amuses me."
"She won't come down, I think. We've planned to read and work in my
boudoir, which is to be our study now. Mamma will stay in her room, so
you and Lucia can have the drawing room all to yourselves."
"Thank you. What will Ned do?"
"He will amuse Mamma, he says. Dear old Ned! I wish you'd stir about and
get him his commission. He is so impatient to be doing something and yet
so proud he won't ask again, after you have neglected it so many times
and refused Uncle's help."
"I'll attend to it very soon; don't worry me, child. He will do very
well for a time, quietly here with us."
"You always say that, yet you know he chafes and is unhappy at being
dependent on you. Mamma and I don't mind; but he is a man, and it frets
him. He said he'd take matters into his own hands soon, and then you may
be sorry you were so slow in helping him."
"Miss Muir is looking out of the window. You'd better go and take your
run, else she will scold."
"Not she. I'm not a bit afraid of her, she's so gentle and sweet. I'm
fond of her already. You'll get as brown as Ned, lying here in the
sun. By the way, Miss Muir agrees with me in thinking him handsomer
"I admire her taste and quite agree with her."
"She said he was manly, and that was more attractive than beauty in a
man. She does express things so nicely. Now I'm off." And away danced
Bella, humming the burden of Miss Muir's sweetest song.
"'Energy is more attractive than beauty in a man.' She is right, but how
the deuce _can_ a man be energetic, with nothing to expend his energies
upon?" mused Coventry, with his hat over his eyes.
A few moments later, the sweep of a dress caught his ear. Without
stirring, a sidelong glance showed him Miss Muir coming across the
terrace, as if to join Bella. Two stone steps led down to the lawn. He
lay near them, and Miss Muir did not see him till close upon him. She
started and slipped on the last step, recovered herself, and glided on,
with a glance of unmistakable contempt as she passed the recumbent
figure of the apparent sleeper. Several things in Bella's report had
nettled him, but this look made him angry, though he would not own it,
even to himself.
"Gerald, come here, quick!" presently called Bella, from the rustic seat
where she stood beside her governess, who sat with her hand over her
face as if in pain.
Gathering himself up, Coventry slowly obeyed, but involuntarily
quickened his pace as he heard Miss Muir say, "Don't call him; _he_ can
do nothing"; for the emphasis on the word "he" was very significant.
"What is it, Bella?" he asked, looking rather wider awake than usual.
"You startled Miss Muir and made her turn her ankle. Now help her to the
house, for she is in great pain; and don't lie there anymore to frighten
people like a snake in the grass," said his sister petulantly.
"I beg your pardon. Will you allow me?" And Coventry offered his arm.
Miss Muir looked up with the expression which annoyed him and answered
coldly, "Thank you, Miss Bella will do as well."
"Permit me to doubt that." And with a gesture too decided to be
resisted, Coventry drew her arm through his and led her into the house.
She submitted quietly, said the pain would soon be over, and when
settled on the couch in Bella's room dismissed him with the briefest
thanks. Considering the unwonted exertion he had made, he thought she
might have been a little more grateful, and went away to Lucia, who
always brightened when he came.
No more was seen of Miss Muir till teatime; for now, while the family
were in retirement, they dined early and saw no company. The governess
had excused herself at dinner, but came down in the evening a little
paler than usual and with a slight limp in her gait. Sir John was there,
talking with his nephew, and they merely acknowledged her presence by
the sort of bow which gentlemen bestow on governesses. As she slowly
made her way to her place behind the urn, Coventry said to his brother,
"Take her a footstool, and ask her how she is, Ned." Then, as if
necessary to account for his politeness to his uncle, he explained how
he was the cause of the accident.
"Yes, yes. I understand. Rather a nice little person, I fancy. Not
exactly a beauty, but accomplished and well-bred, which is better for
one of her class."
"Some tea, Sir John?" said a soft voice at his elbow, and there was Miss
Muir, offering cups to the gentlemen.
"Thank you, thank you," said Sir John, sincerely hoping she had
As Coventry took his, he said graciously, "You are very forgiving, Miss
Muir, to wait upon me, after I have caused you so much pain."
"It is my duty, sir" was her reply, in a tone which plainly said, "but
not my pleasure." And she returned to her place, to smile, and chat, and
be charming, with Bella and her brother.
Lucia, hovering near her uncle and Gerald, kept them to herself, but
was disturbed to find that their eyes often wandered to the cheerful
group about the table, and that their attention seemed distracted by
the frequent bursts of laughter and fragments of animated conversation
which reached them. In the midst of an account of a tragic affair which
she endeavored to make as interesting and pathetic as possible, Sir
John burst into a hearty laugh, which betrayed that he had been
listening to a livelier story than her own. Much annoyed, she said
hastily, "I knew it would be so! Bella has no idea of the proper manner
in which to treat a governess. She and Ned will forget the difference
of rank and spoil that person for her work. She is inclined to be
presumptuous already, and if my aunt won't trouble herself to give Miss
Muir a hint in time, I shall."
"Wait until she has finished that story, I beg of you," said Coventry,
for Sir John was already off.
"If you find that nonsense so entertaining, why don't you follow Uncle's
example? I don't need you."
"Thank you. I will." And Lucia was deserted.
But Miss Muir had ended and, beckoning to Bella, left the room, as if
quite unconscious of the honor conferred upon her or the dullness she
left behind her. Ned went up to his mother, Gerald returned to make his
peace with Lucia, and, bidding them good-night, Sir John turned
homeward. Strolling along the terrace, he came to the lighted window of
Bella's study, and wishing to say a word to her, he half pushed aside
the curtain and looked in. A pleasant little scene. Bella working
busily, and near her in a low chair, with the light falling on her fair
hair and delicate profile, sat Miss Muir reading aloud. "Novels!"
thought Sir John, and smiled at them for a pair of romantic girls. But
pausing to listen a moment before he spoke, he found it was no novel,
but history, read with a fluency which made every fact interesting,
every sketch of character memorable, by the dramatic effect given to it.
Sir John was fond of history, and failing eyesight often curtailed his
favorite amusement. He had tried readers, but none suited him, and he
had given up the plan. Now as he listened, he thought how pleasantly the
smoothly flowing voice would wile away his evenings, and he envied Bella
her new acquisition.
A bell rang, and Bella sprang up, saying, "Wait for me a minute. I must
run to Mamma, and then we will go on with this charming prince."
Away she went, and Sir John was about to retire as quietly as he came,
when Miss Muir's peculiar behavior arrested him for an instant. Dropping
the book, she threw her arms across the table, laid her head down upon
them, and broke into a passion of tears, like one who could bear
restraint no longer. Shocked and amazed, Sir John stole away; but all
that night the kindhearted gentleman puzzled his brains with conjectures
about his niece's interesting young governess, quite unconscious that
she intended he should do so.
PASSION AND PIQUE
For several weeks the most monotonous tranquillity seemed to reign at
Coventry House, and yet, unseen, unsuspected, a storm was gathering.
The arrival of Miss Muir seemed to produce a change in everyone, though
no one could have explained how or why. Nothing could be more
unobtrusive and retiring than her manners. She was devoted to Bella,
who soon adored her, and was only happy when in her society. She
ministered in many ways to Mrs. Coventry's comfort, and that lady
declared there never was such a nurse. She amused, interested and won
Edward with her wit and womanly sympathy. She made Lucia respect and
envy her for her accomplishments, and piqued indolent Gerald by her
persistent avoidance of him, while Sir John was charmed with her
respectful deference and the graceful little attentions she paid him in
a frank and artless way, very winning to the lonely old man. The very
servants liked her; and instead of being, what most governesses are, a
forlorn creature hovering between superiors and inferiors, Jean Muir
was the life of the house, and the friend of all but two.
Lucia disliked her, and Coventry distrusted her; neither could exactly
say why, and neither owned the feeling, even to themselves. Both watched
her covertly yet found no shortcoming anywhere. Meek, modest, faithful,
and invariably sweet-tempered--they could complain of nothing and
wondered at their own doubts, though they could not banish them.
It soon came to pass that the family was divided, or rather that two
members were left very much to themselves. Pleading timidity, Jean Muir
kept much in Bella's study and soon made it such a pleasant little nook
that Ned and his mother, and often Sir John, came in to enjoy the music,
reading, or cheerful chat which made the evenings so gay. Lucia at first
was only too glad to have her cousin to herself, and he too lazy to care
what went on about him. But presently he wearied of her society, for she
was not a brilliant girl, and possessed few of those winning arts which
charm a man and steal into his heart. Rumors of the merry-makings that
went on reached him and made him curious to share them; echoes of fine
music went sounding through the house, as he lounged about the empty
drawing room; and peals of laughter reached him while listening to
Lucia's grave discourse.
She soon discovered that her society had lost its charm, and the more
eagerly she tried to please him, the more signally she failed. Before
long Coventry fell into a habit of strolling out upon the terrace of an
evening, and amusing himself by passing and repassing the window of
Bella's room, catching glimpses of what was going on and reporting the
result of his observations to Lucia, who was too proud to ask admission
to the happy circle or to seem to desire it.
"I shall go to London tomorrow, Lucia," Gerald said one evening, as he
came back from what he called "a survey," looking very much annoyed.
"To London?" exclaimed his cousin, surprised.
"Yes, I must bestir myself and get Ned his commission, or it will be all
over with him."
"How do you mean?"
"He is falling in love as fast as it is possible for a boy to do it.
That girl has bewitched him, and he will make a fool of himself very
soon, unless I put a stop to it."
"I was afraid she would attempt a flirtation. These persons always do,
they are such a mischief-making race."
"Ah, but there you are wrong, as far as little Muir is concerned. She
does not flirt, and Ned has too much sense and spirit to be caught by a
silly coquette. She treats him like an elder sister, and mingles the
most attractive friendliness with a quiet dignity that captivates the
boy. I've been watching them, and there he is, devouring her with his
eyes, while she reads a fascinating novel in the most fascinating
style. Bella and Mamma are absorbed in the tale, and see nothing; but
Ned makes himself the hero, Miss Muir the heroine, and lives the love
scene with all the ardor of a man whose heart has just waked up. Poor
lad! Poor lad!"
Lucia looked at her cousin, amazed by the energy with which he spoke,
the anxiety in his usually listless face. The change became him, for it
showed what he might be, making one regret still more what he was.
Before she could speak, he was gone again, to return presently,
laughing, yet looking a little angry.
"What now?" she asked.
"'Listeners never hear any good of themselves' is the truest of
proverbs. I stopped a moment to look at Ned, and heard the following
flattering remarks. Mamma is gone, and Ned was asking little Muir to
sing that delicious barcarole she gave us the other evening.
"'Not now, not here,' she said.
"'Why not? You sang it in the drawing room readily enough,' said Ned,
"'That is a very different thing,' and she looked at him with a little
shake of the head, for he was folding his hands and doing the
"'Come and sing it there then,' said innocent Bella. 'Gerald likes your
voice so much, and complains that you will never sing to him.'
"'He never asks me,' said Muir, with an odd smile.
"'He is too lazy, but he wants to hear you.'
"'When he asks me, I will sing--if I feel like it.' And she shrugged her
shoulders with a provoking gesture of indifference.
"'But it amuses him, and he gets so bored down here,' began stupid
little Bella. 'Don't be shy or proud, Jean, but come and entertain the
poor old fellow.'
"'No, thank you. I engaged to teach Miss Coventry, not to amuse Mr.
Coventry' was all the answer she got.
"'You amuse Ned, why not Gerald? Are you afraid of him?' asked Bella.
"Miss Muir laughed, such a scornful laugh, and said, in that
peculiar tone of hers, 'I cannot fancy anyone being _afraid_ of your
"'I am, very often, and so would you be, if you ever saw him angry,' And
Bella looked as if I'd beaten her.
"'Does he ever wake up enough to be angry?' asked that girl, with an air
of surprise. Here Ned broke into a fit of laughter, and they are at it
now, I fancy, by the sound."
"Their foolish gossip is not worth getting excited about, but I
certainly would send Ned away. It's no use trying to get rid of 'that
girl,' as you say, for my aunt is as deluded about her as Ned and Bella,
and she really does get the child along splendidly. Dispatch Ned, and
then she can do no harm," said Lucia, watching Coventry's altered face
as he stood in the moonlight, just outside the window where she sat.
"Have you no fears for me?" he asked smiling, as if ashamed of his
"No, have you for yourself?" And a shade of anxiety passed over her
"I defy the Scotch witch to enchant me, except with her music," he
added, moving down the terrace again, for Jean was singing like a
As the song ended, he put aside the curtain, and said, abruptly, "Has
anyone any commands for London? I am going there tomorrow."
"A pleasant trip to you," said Ned carelessly, though usually his
brother's movements interested him extremely.
"I want quantities of things, but I must ask Mamma first." And Bella
began to make a list.
"May I trouble you with a letter, Mr. Coventry?"
Jean Muir turned around on the music stool and looked at him with the
cold keen glance which always puzzled him.
He bowed, saying, as if to them all, "I shall be off by the early train,
so you must give me your orders tonight."
"Then come away, Ned, and leave Jean to write her letter."
And Bella took her reluctant brother from the room.
"I will give you the letter in the morning," said Miss Muir, with a
curious quiver in her voice, and the look of one who forcibly suppressed
some strong emotion.
"As you please." And Coventry went back to Lucia, wondering who Miss
Muir was going to write to. He said nothing to his brother of the
purpose which took him to town, lest a word should produce the
catastrophe which he hoped to prevent; and Ned, who now lived in a sort
of dream, seemed to forget Gerald's existence altogether.
With unwonted energy Coventry was astir seven next morning. Lucia gave
him his breakfast, and as he left the room to order the carriage, Miss
Muir came gliding downstairs, very pale and heavy-eyed (with a
sleepless, tearful night, he thought) and, putting a delicate little
letter into his hand, said hurriedly, "Please leave this at Lady
Sydney's, and if you see her, say 'I have remembered.'"
Her peculiar manner and peculiar message struck him. His eye
involuntarily glanced at the address of the letter and read young
Sydney's name. Then, conscious of his mistake, he thrust it into his
pocket with a hasty "Good morning," and left Miss Muir standing with
one hand pressed on her heart, the other half extended as if to recall
All the way to London, Coventry found it impossible to forget the
almost tragical expression of the girl's face, and it haunted him
through the bustle of two busy days. Ned's affair was put in the way of
being speedily accomplished, Bella's commissions were executed, his
mother's pet delicacies provided for her, and a gift for Lucia, whom
the family had given him for his future mate, as he was too lazy to
choose for himself.
Jean Muir's letter he had not delivered, for Lady Sydney was in the
country and her townhouse closed. Curious to see how she would receive
his tidings, he went quietly in on his arrival at home. Everyone had
dispersed to dress for dinner except Miss Muir, who was in the garden,
the servant said.
"Very well, I have a message for her"; and, turning, the "young master,"
as they called him, went to seek her. In a remote corner he saw her
sitting alone, buried in thought. As his step roused her, a look of
surprise, followed by one of satisfaction, passed over her face, and,
rising, she beckoned to him with an almost eager gesture. Much amazed,
he went to her and offered the letter, saying kindly, "I regret that I
could not deliver it. Lady Sydney is in the country, and I did not like
to post it without your leave. Did I do right?"
"Quite right, thank you very much--it is better so." And with an air of
relief, she tore the letter to atoms, and scattered them to the wind.
More amazed than ever, the young man was about to leave her when she
said, with a mixture of entreaty and command, "Please stay a moment. I
want to speak to you."
He paused, eyeing her with visible surprise, for a sudden color dyed her
cheeks, and her lips trembled. Only for a moment, then she was quite
self-possessed again. Motioning him to the seat she had left, she
remained standing while she said, in a low, rapid tone full of pain and
"Mr. Coventry, as the head of the house I want to speak to you, rather
than to your mother, of a most unhappy affair which has occurred during
your absence. My month of probation ends today; your mother wishes me to
remain; I, too, wish it sincerely, for I am happy here, but I ought not.
Read this, and you will see why."
She put a hastily written note into his hand and watched him intently
while he read it. She saw him flush with anger, bite his lips, and knit
his brows, then assume his haughtiest look, as he lifted his eyes and
said in his most sarcastic tone, "Very well for a beginning. The boy has
eloquence. Pity that it should be wasted. May I ask if you have replied
to this rhapsody?"
"And what follows? He begs you 'to fly with him, to share his fortunes,
and be the good angel of his life.' Of course you consent?"
There was no answer, for, standing erect before him, Miss Muir regarded
him with an expression of proud patience, like one who expected
reproaches, yet was too generous to resent them. Her manner had its
effect. Dropping his bitter tone, Coventry asked briefly, "Why do you
show me this? What can I do?"
"I show it that you may see how much in earnest 'the boy' is, and how
open I desire to be. You can control, advise, and comfort your brother,
and help me to see what is my duty."
"You love him?" demanded Coventry bluntly.
"No!" was the quick, decided answer.
"Then why make him love you?"
"I never tried to do it. Your sister will testify that I have endeavored
to avoid him as I--" And he finished the sentence with an unconscious
tone of pique, "As you have avoided me."
She bowed silently, and he went on:
"I will do you the justice to say that nothing can be more blameless
than your conduct toward myself; but why allow Ned to haunt you evening
after evening? What could you expect of a romantic boy who had nothing
to do but lose his heart to the first attractive woman he met?"
A momentary glisten shone in Jean Muir's steel-blue eyes as the last
words left the young man's lips; but it was gone instantly, and her
voice was full of reproach, as she said, steadily, impulsively, "If the
'romantic boy' had been allowed to lead the life of a man, as he longed
to do, he would have had no time to lose his heart to the first
sorrowful girl whom he pitied. Mr. Coventry, the fault is yours. Do not
blame your brother, but generously own your mistake and retrieve it in
the speediest, kindest manner."
For an instant Gerald sat dumb. Never since his father died had anyone
reproved him; seldom in his life had he been blamed. It was a new
experience, and the very novelty added to the effect. He saw his fault,
regretted it, and admired the brave sincerity of the girl in telling him
of it. But he did not know how to deal with the case, and was forced to
confess not only past negligence but present incapacity. He was as
honorable as he was proud, and with an effort he said frankly, "You are
right, Miss Muir. I _am_ to blame, yet as soon as I saw the danger, I
tried to avert it. My visit to town was on Ned's account; he will have
his commission very soon, and then he will be sent out of harm's way.
Can I do more?"
"No, it is too late to send him away with a free and happy heart. He
must bear his pain as he can, and it may help to make a man of him," she
"He'll soon forget," began Coventry, who found the thought of gay Ned
suffering an uncomfortable one.
"Yes, thank heaven, that is possible, for men."
Miss Muir pressed her hands together, with a dark expression on her
half-averted face. Something in her tone, her manner, touched Coventry;
he fancied that some old wound bled, some bitter memory awoke at the
approach of a new lover. He was young, heart-whole, and romantic, under
all his cool nonchalance of manner. This girl, who he fancied loved his
friend and who was, beloved by his brother, became an object of interest
to him. He pitied her, desired to help her, and regretted his past
distrust, as a chivalrous man always regrets injustice to a woman. She
was happy here, poor, homeless soul, and she should stay. Bella loved
her, his mother took comfort in her, and when Ned was gone, no one's
peace would be endangered by her winning ways, her rich accomplishments.
These thoughts swept through his mind during a brief pause, and when he
spoke, it was to say gently:
"Miss Muir, I thank you for the frankness which must have been painful
to you, and I will do my best to be worthy of the confidence which you
repose in me. You were both discreet and kind to speak only to me. This
thing would have troubled my mother extremely, and have done no good. I
shall see Ned, and try and repair my long neglect as promptly as
possible. I know you will help me, and in return let me beg of you to
remain, for he will soon be gone."
She looked at him with eyes full of tears, and there was no coolness in
the voice that answered softly, "You are too kind, but I had better go;
it is not wise to stay."
She colored beautifully, hesitated, then spoke out in the clear, steady
voice which was her greatest charm, "If I had known there were sons in
this family, I never should have come. Lady Sydney spoke only of your
sister, and when I found two gentlemen, I was troubled, because--I am so
unfortunate--or rather, people are so kind as to like me more than I
deserve. I thought I could stay a month, at least, as your brother spoke
of going away, and you were already affianced, but--"
"I am not affianced."
Why he said that, Coventry could not tell, but the words passed his lips
hastily and could not be recalled. Jean Muir took the announcement oddly
enough. She shrugged her shoulders with an air of extreme annoyance, and
said almost rudely, "Then you should be; you will be soon. But that is
nothing to me. Miss Beaufort wishes me gone, and I am too proud to
remain and become the cause of disunion in a happy family. No, I will
go, and go at once."
She turned away impetuously, but Edward's arm detained her, and Edward's
voice demanded, tenderly, "Where will you go, my Jean?"
The tender touch and name seemed to rob her of her courage and calmness,
for, leaning on her lover, she hid her face and sobbed audibly.
"Now don't make a scene, for heaven's sake," began Coventry impatiently,
as his brother eyed him fiercely, divining at once what had passed, for
his letter was still in Gerald's hand and Jean's last words had reached
her lover's ear.
"Who gave you the right to read that, and to interfere in my affairs?"
demanded Edward hotly.
"Miss Muir" was the reply, as Coventry threw away the paper.
"And you add to the insult by ordering her out of the house," cried Ned
with increasing wrath.
"On the contrary, I beg her to remain."
"The deuce you do! And why?"
"Because she is useful and happy here, and I am unwilling that your
folly should rob her of a home which she likes."
"You are very thoughtful and devoted all at once, but I beg you will not
trouble yourself. Jean's happiness and home will be my care now."
"My dear boy, do be reasonable. The thing is impossible. Miss Muir sees
it herself; she came to tell me, to ask how best to arrange matters
without troubling my mother. I've been to town to attend to your
affairs, and you may be off now very soon."
"I have no desire to go. Last month it was the wish of my heart. Now
I'll accept nothing from you." And Edward turned moodily away from
"What folly! Ned, you _must_ leave home. It is all arranged and cannot
be given up now. A change is what you need, and it will make a man of
you. We shall miss you, of course, but you will be where you'll see
something of life, and that is better for you than getting into
"Are you going away, Jean?" asked Edward, ignoring his brother entirely
and bending over the girl, who still hid her face and wept. She did not
speak, and Gerald answered for her.
"No, why should she if you are gone?"
"Do you mean to stay?" asked the lover eagerly of Jean.
"I wish to remain, but--" She paused and looked up. Her eyes went from
one face to the other, and she added, decidedly, "Yes, I must go, it is
not wise to stay even when you are gone."
Neither of the young men could have explained why that hurried glance
affected them as it did, but each felt conscious of a willful desire to
oppose the other. Edward suddenly felt that his brother loved Miss Muir,
and was bent on removing her from his way. Gerald had a vague idea that
Miss Muir feared to remain on his account, and he longed to show her
that he was quite safe. Each felt angry, and each showed it in a
different way, one being violent, the other satirical.
"You are right, Jean, this is not the place for you; and you must let me
see you in a safer home before I go," said Ned, significantly.
"It strikes me that this will be a particularly safe home when your
dangerous self is removed," began Coventry, with an aggravating smile of
"And _I_ think that I leave a more dangerous person than myself behind
me, as poor Lucia can testify."
"Be careful what you say, Ned, or I shall be forced to remind you that I
am master here. Leave Lucia's name out of this disagreeable affair, if
"You _are_ master here, but not of me, or my actions, and you have no
right to expect obedience or respect, for you inspire neither. Jean, I
asked you to go with me secretly; now I ask you openly to share my
fortune. In my brother's presence I ask, and _will_ have an answer."
He caught her hand impetuously, with a defiant look at Coventry, who
still smiled, as if at boy's play, though his eyes were kindling and his
face changing with the still, white wrath which is more terrible than
any sudden outburst. Miss Muir looked frightened; she shrank away from
her passionate young lover, cast an appealing glance at Gerald, and
seemed as if she longed to claim his protection yet dared not.
"Speak!" cried Edward, desperately. "Don't look to him, tell me truly,
with your own lips, do you, can you love me, Jean?"
"I have told you once. Why pain me by forcing another hard reply," she
said pitifully, still shrinking from his grasp and seeming to appeal to
"You wrote a few lines, but I'll not be satisfied with that. You shall
answer; I've seen love in your eyes, heard it in your voice, and I know
it is hidden in your heart. You fear to own it; do not hesitate, no one
can part us--speak, Jean, and satisfy me."
Drawing her hand decidedly away, she went a step nearer Coventry, and
answered, slowly, distinctly, though her lips trembled, and she
evidently dreaded the effect of her words, "I will speak, and speak
truly. You have seen love in my face; it is in my heart, and I do not
hesitate to own it, cruel as it is to force the truth from me, but this
love is not for you. Are you satisfied?"
He looked at her with a despairing glance and stretched his hand toward
her beseechingly. She seemed to fear a blow, for suddenly she clung to
Gerald with a faint cry. The act, the look of fear, the protecting
gesture Coventry involuntarily made were too much for Edward, already
excited by conflicting passions. In a paroxysm of blind wrath, he caught
up a large pruning knife left there by the gardener, and would have
dealt his brother a fatal blow had he not warded it off with his arm.
The stroke fell, and another might have followed had not Miss Muir with
unexpected courage and strength wrested the knife from Edward and flung
it into the little pond near by. Coventry dropped down upon the seat,
for the blood poured from a deep wound in his arm, showing by its rapid
flow that an artery had been severed. Edward stood aghast, for with the
blow his fury passed, leaving him overwhelmed with remorse and shame.
Gerald looked up at him, smiled faintly, and said, with no sign of
reproach or anger, "Never mind, Ned. Forgive and forget. Lend me a hand
to the house, and don't disturb anyone. It's not much, I dare say." But
his lips whitened as he spoke, and his strength failed him. Edward
sprang to support him, and Miss Muir, forgetting her terrors, proved
herself a girl of uncommon skill and courage.
"Quick! Lay him down. Give me your handkerchief, and bring some water,"
she said, in a tone of quiet command. Poor Ned obeyed and watched her
with breathless suspense while she tied the handkerchief tightly around
the arm, thrust the handle of his riding whip underneath, and pressed it
firmly above the severed artery to stop the dangerous flow of blood.
"Dr. Scott is with your mother, I think. Go and bring him here" was
the next order; and Edward darted away, thankful to do anything to
ease the terror which possessed him. He was gone some minutes, and
while they waited Coventry watched the girl as she knelt beside him,
bathing his face with one hand while with the other she held the
bandage firmly in its place. She was pale, but quite steady and
self-possessed, and her eyes shone with a strange brilliancy as she
looked down at him. Once, meeting his look of grateful wonder, she
smiled a reassuring smile that made her lovely, and said, in a soft,
sweet tone never used to him before, "Be quiet. There is no danger. I
will stay by you till help comes."
Help did come speedily, and the doctor's first words were "Who
improvised that tourniquet?"
"She did," murmured Coventry.
"Then you may thank her for saving your life. By Jove! It was capitally
done"; and the old doctor looked at the girl with as much admiration as
curiosity in his face.
"Never mind that. See to the wound, please, while I ran for bandages,
and salts, and wine."
Miss Muir was gone as she spoke, so fleetly that it was in vain to call
her back or catch her. During her brief absence, the story was told by
repentant Ned and the wound examined.
"Fortunately I have my case of instruments with me," said the doctor,
spreading on the bench a long array of tiny, glittering implements of
torture. "Now, Mr. Ned, come here, and hold the arm in that way, while I
tie the artery. Hey! That will never do. Don't tremble so, man, look
away and hold it steadily."
"I can't!" And poor Ned turned faint and white, not at the sight but
with the bitter thought that he had longed to kill his brother.
"I will hold it," and a slender white hand lifted the bare and bloody
arm so firmly, steadily, that Coventry sighed a sigh of relief, and Dr.
Scott fell to work with an emphatic nod of approval.
It was soon over, and while Edward ran in to bid the servants beware of
alarming their mistress, Dr. Scott put up his instruments and Miss Muir
used salts, water, and wine so skillfully that Gerald was able to walk
to his room, leaning on the old man, while the girl supported the
wounded arm, as no sling could be made on the spot. As he entered the
chamber, Coventry turned, put out his left hand, and with much feeling
in his fine eyes said simply, "Miss Muir, I thank you."
The color came up beautifully in her pale cheeks as she pressed the hand
and without a word vanished from the room. Lucia and the housekeeper
came bustling in, and there was no lack of attendance on the invalid. He
soon wearied of it, and sent them all away but Ned, who remorsefully
haunted the chamber, looking like a comely young Cain and feeling like
"Come here, lad, and tell me all about it. I was wrong to be
domineering. Forgive me, and believe that I care for your happiness more
sincerely than for my own."
These frank and friendly words healed the breach between the two
brothers and completely conquered Ned. Gladly did he relate his love
passages, for no young lover ever tires of that amusement if he has a
sympathizing auditor, and Gerald _was_ sympathetic now. For an hour did
he lie listening patiently to the history of the growth of his brother's
passion. Emotion gave the narrator eloquence, and Jean Muir's character
was painted in glowing colors. All her unsuspected kindness to those
about her was dwelt upon; all her faithful care, her sisterly interest
in Bella, her gentle attentions to their mother, her sweet forbearance
with Lucia, who plainly showed her dislike, and most of all, her
friendly counsel, sympathy, and regard for Ned himself.
"She would make a man of me. She puts strength and courage into me as no
one else can. She is unlike any girl I ever saw; there's no
sentimentality about her; she is wise, and kind, and sweet. She says
what she means, looks you straight in the eye, and is as true as steel.
I've tried her, I know her, and--ah, Gerald, I love her so!"
Here the poor lad leaned his face into his hands and sighed a sigh that
made his brother's heart ache.
"Upon my soul, Ned, I feel for you; and if there was no obstacle on her
part, I'd do my best for you. She loves Sydney, and so there is nothing
for it but to bear your fate like a man."
"Are you sure about Sydney? May it not be some one else?" and Ned eyed
his brother with a suspicious look.
Coventry told him all he knew and surmised concerning his friend, not
forgetting the letter. Edward mused a moment, then seemed relieved, and
said frankly, "I'm glad it's Sydney and not you. I can bear it better."
"Me!" ejaculated Gerald, with a laugh.
"Yes, you; I've been tormented lately with a fear that you cared for
her, or rather, she for you."
"You jealous young fool! We never see or speak to one another scarcely,
so how could we get up a tender interest?"
"What do you lounge about on that terrace for every evening? And why
does she get fluttered when your shadow begins to come and go?"
"I like the music and don't care for the society of the singer, that's
why I walk there. The fluttering is all your imagination; Miss Muir
isn't a woman to be fluttered by a man's shadow." And Coventry glanced
at his useless arm.
"Thank you for that, and for not saying 'little Muir,' as you generally
do. Perhaps it was my imagination. But she never makes fun of you now,
and so I fancied she might have lost her heart to the 'young master.'
Women often do, you know."
"She used to ridicule me, did she?" asked Coventry, taking no notice of
the latter part of his brother's speech, which was quite true
"Not exactly, she was too well-bred for that. But sometimes when Bella
and I joked about you, she'd say something so odd or witty that it was
irresistible. You're used to being laughed at, so you don't mind, I
know, just among ourselves."
"Not I. Laugh away as much as you like," said Gerald. But he did mind,
and wanted exceedingly to know what Miss Muir had said, yet was too
proud to ask. He turned restlessly and uttered a sigh of pain.
"I'm talking too much; it's bad for you. Dr. Scott said you must be
quiet. Now go to sleep, if you can."
Edward left the bedside but not the room, for he would let no one take
his place. Coventry tried to sleep, found it impossible, and after a
restless hour called his brother back.
"If the bandage was loosened a bit, it would ease my arm and then I
could sleep. Can you do it, Ned?"
"I dare not touch it. The doctor gave orders to leave it till he came in
the morning, and I shall only do harm if I try."
"But I tell you it's too tight. My arm is swelling and the pain is
intense. It can't be right to leave it so. Dr. Scott dressed it in a
hurry and did it too tight. Common sense will tell you that," said
"I'll call Mrs. Morris; she will understand what's best to be done." And
Edward moved toward the door, looking anxious.
"Not she, she'll only make a stir and torment me with her chatter. I'll
bear it as long as I can, and perhaps Dr. Scott will come tonight. He
said he would if possible. Go to your dinner, Ned. I can ring for Neal
if I need anything. I shall sleep if I'm alone, perhaps."
Edward reluctantly obeyed, and his brother was left to himself. Little
rest did he find, however, for the pain of the wounded arm grew
unbearable, and, taking a sudden resolution, he rang for his servant.
"Neal, go to Miss Coventry's study, and if Miss Muir is there, ask her
to be kind enough to come to me. I'm in great pain, and she understand
wounds better than anyone else in the house."
With much surprise in his face, the man departed and a few moments after
the door noiselessly opened and Miss Muir came in. It had been a very
warm day, and for the first time she had left off her plain black dress.
All in white, with no ornament but her fair hair, and a fragrant posy of
violets in her belt, she looked a different woman from the meek, nunlike
creature one usually saw about the house. Her face was as altered as her
dress, for now a soft color glowed in her cheeks, her eyes smiled shyly,
and her lips no longer wore the firm look of one who forcibly repressed
every emotion. A fresh, gentle, and charming woman she seemed, and
Coventry found the dull room suddenly brightened by her presence. Going
straight to him, she said simply, and with a happy, helpful look very
comforting to see, "I'm glad you sent for me. What can I do for you?"
He told her, and before the complaint was ended, she began loosening the
bandages with the decision of one who understood what was to be done and
had faith in herself.
"Ah, that's relief, that's comfort!" ejaculated Coventry, as the last
tight fold fell away. "Ned was afraid I should bleed to death if he
touched me. What will the doctor say to us?"
"I neither know nor care. I shall say to him that he is a bad surgeon to
bind it so closely, and not leave orders to have it untied if necessary.
Now I shall make it easy and put you to sleep, for that is what you
need. Shall I? May I?"
"I wish you would, if you can."
And while she deftly rearranged the bandages, the young man watched her
curiously. Presently he asked, "How came you to know so much about
"In the hospital where I was ill, I saw much that interested me, and
when I got better, I used to sing to the patients sometimes."
"Do you mean to sing to me?" he asked, in the submissive tone men
unconsciously adopt when ill and in a woman's care.
"If you like it better than reading aloud in a dreamy tone," she
answered, as she tied the last knot.
"I do, much better," he said decidedly.
"You are feverish. I shall wet your forehead, and then you will be quite
comfortable." She moved about the room in the quiet way which made it a
pleasure to watch her, and, having mingled a little cologne with water,
bathed his face as unconcernedly as if he had been a child. Her
proceedings not only comforted but amused Coventry, who mentally
contrasted her with the stout, beer-drinking matron who had ruled over
him in his last illness.
"A clever, kindly little woman," he thought, and felt quite at his ease,
she was so perfectly easy herself.
"There, now you look more like yourself," she said with an approving nod
as she finished, and smoothed the dark locks off his forehead with a
cool, soft hand. Then seating herself in a large chair near by, she
began to sing, while tidily rolling up the fresh bandages which had been
left for the morning. Coventry lay watching her by the dim light that
burned in the room, and she sang on as easily as a bird, a dreamy,
low-toned lullaby, which soothed the listener like a spell. Presently,
looking up to see the effect of her song, she found the young man wide
awake, and regarding her with a curious mixture of pleasure, interest,
"Shut your eyes, Mr. Coventry," she said, with a reproving shake of the
head, and an odd little smile.
He laughed and obeyed, but could not resist an occasional covert glance
from under his lashes at the slender white figure in the great velvet
chair. She saw him and frowned.
"You are very disobedient; why won't you sleep?"
"I can't, I want to listen. I'm fond of nightingales."
"Then I shall sing no more, but try something that has never failed yet.
Give me your hand, please."
Much amazed, he gave it, and, taking it in both her small ones, she sat
down behind the curtain and remained as mute and motionless as a statue.
Coventry smiled to himself at first, and wondered which would tire
first. But soon a subtle warmth seemed to steal from the soft palms that
enclosed his own, his heart beat quicker, his breath grew unequal, and a
thousand fancies danced through his brain. He sighed, and said dreamily,
as he turned his face toward her, "I like this." And in the act of
speaking, seemed to sink into a soft cloud which encompassed him about
with an atmosphere of perfect repose. More than this he could not
remember, for sleep, deep and dreamless, fell upon him, and when he
woke, daylight was shining in between the curtains, his hand lay alone
on the coverlet, and his fair-haired enchantress was gone.
For several days Coventry was confined to his room, much against his
will, though everyone did their best to lighten his irksome captivity.
His mother petted him, Bella sang, Lucia read, Edward was devoted, and
all the household, with one exception, were eager to serve the young
master. Jean Muir never came near him, and Jean Muir alone seemed to
possess the power of amusing him. He soon tired of the others, wanted
something new; recalled the piquant character of the girl and took a
fancy into his head that she would lighten his ennui. After some
hesitation, he carelessly spoke of her to Bella, but nothing came of
it, for Bella only said Jean was well, and very busy doing something
lovely to surprise Mamma with. Edward complained that he never saw
her, and Lucia ignored her existence altogether. The only intelligence
the invalid received was from the gossip of two housemaids over their
work in the next room. From them he learned that the governess had
been "scolded" by Miss Beaufort for going to Mr. Coventry's room; that
she had taken it very sweetly and kept herself carefully out of the
way of both young gentlemen, though it was plain to see that Mr. Ned
was dying for her.
Mr. Gerald amused himself by thinking over this gossip, and quite
annoyed his sister by his absence of mind.
"Gerald, do you know Ned's commission has come?"
"Very interesting. Read on, Bella."
"You stupid boy! You don't know a word I say," and she put down the book
to repeat her news.
"I'm glad of it; now we must get him off as soon as possible--that is, I
suppose he will want to be off as soon as possible." And Coventry woke
up from his reverie.
"You needn't check yourself, I know all about it. I think Ned was very
foolish, and that Miss Muir has behaved beautifully. It's quite
impossible, of course, but I wish it wasn't, I do so like to watch
lovers. You and Lucia are so cold you are not a bit interesting."
"You'll do me a favor if you'll stop all that nonsense about Lucia and
me. We are not lovers, and never shall be, I fancy. At all events, I'm
tired of the thing, and wish you and Mamma would let it drop, for the
present at least."
"Oh Gerald, you know Mamma has set her heart upon it, that Papa desired
it, and poor Lucia loves you so much. How can you speak of dropping what
will make us all so happy?"
"It won't make me happy, and I take the liberty of thinking that this is
of some importance. I'm not bound in any way, and don't intend to be
till I am ready. Now we'll talk about Ned."
Much grieved and surprised, Bella obeyed, and devoted herself to Edward,
who very wisely submitted to his fate and prepared to leave home for
some months. For a week the house was in a state of excitement about his
departure, and everyone but Jean was busied for him. She was scarcely
seen; every morning she gave Bella her lessons, every afternoon drove
out with Mrs. Coventry, and nearly every evening went up to the Hall to
read to Sir John, who found his wish granted without exactly knowing how
it had been done.
The day Edward left, he came down from bidding his mother good-bye,
looking very pale, for he had lingered in his sister's little room with
Miss Muir as long as he dared.
"Good-bye, dear. Be kind to Jean," he whispered as he kissed his sister.
"I will, I will," returned Bella, with tearful eyes.
"Take care of Mamma, and remember Lucia," he said again, as he touched
his cousin's beautiful cheek.
"Fear nothing. I will keep them apart," she whispered back, and
Coventry heard it.
Edward offered his hand to his brother, saying, significantly, as he
looked him in the eye, "I trust you, Gerald."
"You may, Ned."
Then he went, and Coventry tired himself with wondering what Lucia
meant. A few days later he understood.
Now Ned is gone, little Muir will appear, I fancy, he said to himself;
but "little Muir" did not appear, and seemed to shun him more carefully
than she had done her lover. If he went to the drawing room in the
evening hoping for music, Lucia alone was there. If he tapped at Bella's
door, there was always a pause before she opened it, and no sign of Jean
appeared though her voice had been audible when he knocked. If he went
to the library, a hasty rustle and the sound of flying feet betrayed
that the room was deserted at his approach. In the garden Miss Muir
never failed to avoid him, and if by chance they met in hall or
breakfast room, she passed him with downcast eyes and the briefest,
coldest greeting. All this annoyed him intensely, and the more she
eluded him, the more he desired to see her--from a spirit of opposition,
he said, nothing more. It fretted and yet it entertained him, and he
found a lazy sort of pleasure in thwarting the girl's little maneuvers.
His patience gave out at last, and he resolved to know what was the
meaning of this peculiar conduct. Having locked and taken away the key
of one door in the library, he waited till Miss Muir went in to get a
book for his uncle. He had heard her speak to Bella of it, knew that she
believed him with his mother, and smiled to himself as he stole after
her. She was standing in a chair, reaching up, and he had time to see a
slender waist, a pretty foot, before he spoke.
"Can I help you, Miss Muir?"
She started, dropped several books, and turned scarlet, as she said
hurriedly, "Thank you, no; I can get the steps."
"My long arm will be less trouble. I've got but one, and that is tired
of being idle, so it is very much at your service. What will you have?"
"I--I--you startled me so I've forgotten." And Jean laughed, nervously,
as she looked about her as if planning to escape.
"I beg your pardon, wait till you remember, and let me thank you for the
enchanted sleep you gave me ten days ago. I've had no chance yet, you've
shunned me so pertinaciously."
"Indeed I try not to be rude, but--" She checked herself, and turned her
face away, adding, with an accent of pain in her voice, "It is not my
fault, Mr. Coventry. I only obey orders."
"Whose orders?" he demanded, still standing so that she could not
"Don't ask; it is one who has a right to command where you are
concerned. Be sure that it is kindly meant, though it may seem folly
to us. Nay, don't be angry, laugh at it, as I do, and let me run
She turned, and looked down at him with tears in her eyes, a smile on
her lips, and an expression half sad, half arch, which was altogether
charming. The frown passed from his face, but he still looked grave and
said decidedly, "No one has a right to command in this house but my
mother or myself. Was it she who bade you avoid me as if I was a madman
or a pest?"
"Ah, don't ask. I promised not to tell, and you would not have me break
my word, I know." And still smiling, she regarded him with a look of
merry malice which made any other reply unnecessary. It was Lucia, he
thought, and disliked his cousin intensely just then. Miss Muir moved as
if to step down; he detained her, saying earnestly, yet with a smile,
"Do you consider me the master here?"
"Yes," and to the word she gave a sweet, submissive intonation which
made it expressive of the respect, regard, and confidence which men find
pleasantest when women feel and show it. Unconsciously his face
softened, and he looked up at her with a different glance from any he
had ever given her before.
"Well, then, will you consent to obey me if I am not tyrannical or
unreasonable in my demands?"
"Good! Now frankly, I want to say that all this sort of thing is very
disagreeable to me. It annoys me to be a restraint upon anyone's liberty
or comfort, and I beg you will go and come as freely as you like, and
not mind Lucia's absurdities. She means well, but hasn't a particle of
penetration or tact. Will you promise this?"
"It is better as it is, perhaps."
"But you called it folly just now."
"Yes, it seems so, and yet--" She paused, looking both confused and
Coventry lost patience, and said hastily, "You women are such enigmas I
never expect to understand you! Well, I've done my best to make you
comfortable, but if you prefer to lead this sort of life, I beg you
will do so."
"I _don't_ prefer it; it is hateful to me. I like to be myself, to have
my liberty, and the confidence of those about me. But I cannot think it
kind to disturb the peace of anyone, and so I try to obey. I've promised
Bella to remain, but I will go rather than have another scene with Miss
Beaufort or with you."
Miss Muir had burst out impetuously, and stood there with a sudden fire
in her eyes, sudden warmth and spirit in her face and voice that amazed
Coventry. She was angry, hurt, and haughty, and the change only made her
more attractive, for not a trace of her former meek self remained.
Coventry was electrified, and still more surprised when she added,
imperiously, with a gesture as if to put him aside, "Hand me that book
and move away. I wish to go."
He obeyed, even offered his hand, but she refused it, stepped lightly
down, and went to the door. There she turned, and with the same
indignant voice, the same kindling eyes and glowing cheeks, she said
rapidly, "I know I have no right to speak in this way. I restrain myself
as long as I can, but when I can bear no more, my true self breaks
loose, and I defy everything. I am tired of being a cold, calm machine;
it is impossible with an ardent nature like mine, and I shall try no
longer. I cannot help it if people love me. I don't want their love. I
only ask to be left in peace, and why I am tormented so I cannot see.
I've neither beauty, money, nor rank, yet every foolish boy mistakes my
frank interest for something warmer, and makes me miserable. It is my
misfortune. Think of me what you will, but beware of me in time, for
against my will I may do you harm."
Almost fiercely she had spoken, and with a warning gesture she hurried
from the room, leaving the young man feeling as if a sudden thunder-gust
had swept through the house. For several minutes he sat in the chair she
left, thinking deeply. Suddenly he rose, went to his sister, and said,
in his usual tone of indolent good nature, "Bella, didn't I hear Ned ask
you to be kind to Miss Muir?"
"Yes, and I try to be, but she is so odd lately."
"Odd! How do you mean?"
"Why, she is either as calm and cold as a statue, or restless and queer;
she cries at night, I know, and sighs sadly when she thinks I don't
hear. Something is the matter."
"She frets for Ned perhaps," began Coventry.
"Oh dear, no; it's a great relief to her that he is gone. I'm afraid
that she likes someone very much, and someone don't like her. Can it be
"She called him a 'titled fool' once, but perhaps that didn't mean
anything. Did you ever ask her about him?" said Coventry, feeling rather
ashamed of his curiosity, yet unable to resist the temptation of
questioning unsuspecting Bella.
"Yes, but she only looked at me in her tragical way, and said, so
pitifully, 'My little friend, I hope you will never have to pass through
the scenes I've passed through, but keep your peace unbroken all your
life.' After that I dared say no more. I'm very fond of her, I want to
make her happy, but I don't know how. Can you propose anything?"