Edited by Charles Aldarondo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A Life’s Morning
AN UNDERGRADUATE AT LEISURE
Wilfrid Athel went down invalided a few days after the beginning of Trinity term. The event was not unanticipated. At Christmas it had been clear enough that he was overtaxing himself; his father remarked on the fact with anxiety, and urged moderation, his own peculiar virtue. Wilfrid, whose battle with circumstances was all before him, declined to believe that the body was anything but the very humble servant of the will. So the body took its revenge.
He had been delicate in childhood, and the stage of hardy naturalism which interposes itself between tender juvenility and the birth of self-consciousness did not in his case last long enough to establish his frame in the vigour to which it was tending. There was nothing sickly about him; it was only an excess of nervous vitality that would not allow body to keep pace with mind. He was a boy to be, intellectually, held in leash, said the doctors. But that was easier said than done. What system of sedatives could one apply to a youngster whose imagination wrought him to a fever during a simple walk by the seashore, who if books were forcibly withheld consoled himself with the composition of five-act tragedies, interspersed with lyrics to which he supplied original strains? Mr. Athel conceived a theory that such exuberance of emotionality might be counterbalanced by studies of a strictly positive nature; a tutor was engaged to ground young Wilfrid in mathematics and the physical sciences. The result was that the tutor’s enthusiasm for these pursuits communicated itself after a brief repugnance to the versatile pupil; instincts of mastery became as vivid in the study of Euclid and the chemical elements as formerly in the humaner paths of learning; the plan had failed. In the upshot Wilfrid was sent to school; if that did not develop the animal in him, nothing would.
He was not quite three-and-twenty when the break-down removed him from Oxford. Going to Balliol with a scholarship, he had from the first been marked for great things, at all events by the measure of the schools. Removal from the system of home education had in truth seemed to answer in some degree the ends aimed at; the lad took his fair share of cricket and football, and kept clear of nervous crises. At the same time he made extraordinary progress with his books. He acquired with extreme facility, and his ambition never allowed him to find content in a second place; conquest became his habit; he grew to deem it the order of nature that Wilfrid Athel’s name should come first in the list. Hence a reputation to support. During his early terms at Balliol he fagged as hard as the mere dullard whose dear life depended upon a first class and a subsequent tutorship. What he would make of himself in the end was uncertain; university distinctions would probably be of small moment to him as soon as they were achieved, for already he spent the greater portion of his strength in lines of study quite apart from the curriculum, and fate had blessed him with exemption from sordid cares. He led in a set devoted to what were called advanced ideas; without flattering himself that he was on the way to solve the problem of the universe, he had satisfaction in reviewing the milestones which removed him from the unconscious man, and already clutched at a measure of positive wisdom in the suspicion that lie might shortly have to lay aside his school-books and recommence his education under other teachers. As yet he was whole-hearted in the pursuit of learning. The intellectual audacity which was wont to be the key-note of his conversation did not, as his detractors held, indicate mere bumptiousness and defect of self-measurement; it was simply the florid redundancy of a young mind which glories in its strength, and plays at victory in anticipation. It was true that he could not brook the semblance of inferiority; if it were only five minutes’ chat in the Quad, he must come off with a phrase or an epigram; so those duller heads who called Athel affected were not wholly without their justification. Those who shrugged their shoulders with the remark that he was overdoing it, and would not last out to the end of the race, enjoyed a more indisputable triumph. One evening, when Athel was taking the brilliant lead in an argument on ‘Fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute,’ his brain began to whirl, tobacco-smoke seemed to have dulled all the lights before his eyes, and he fell from his chair in a fainting-fit.
He needed nothing but rest; that, however, was imperative. Mr. Athel brought him to London, and the family went down at once to their house in Surrey. Wilfrid was an only son and an only child. His father had been a widower for nearly ten years; for the last three his house had been directed by a widowed sister, Mrs. Rossall, who had twin girls. Mr. Athel found it no particular hardship to get away from town and pursue his work at The Firs, a delightful house in the midst of Surrey’s fairest scenery, nor would Mrs. Rossall allow that the surrender of high season cost her any effort. This lady had just completed her thirty-second year; her girls were in their tenth. She was comely and knew it, but a constitutional indolence had preserved her from becoming a woman of fashion, and had nurtured in her a reflective mood, which, if it led to no marked originality of thought, at all events contributed to an appearance of culture. At the time of her husband’s death she was at the point where graceful inactivity so often degenerates into slovenliness. Mrs. Rossall’s homekeeping tendencies and the growing childhood of her twins tended to persuade her that her youth was gone; even the new spring fashions stirred her to but languid interest, and her music, in which she had some attainments, was all but laid aside. With widowhood began a new phase of her life. Her mourning was unaffected; it led her to pietism; she spent her days in religious observance, and her nights in the study of the gravest literature. She would have entered the Roman Church but for her brother’s interposition. The end of this third year of discipline was bringing about another change, perhaps less obvious to herself than to those who marked her course with interest, as several people did. Her reading became less ascetic, she passed to George Herbert and the ‘Christian Year,’ and by way of the decoration of altars proceeded to thought for her personal adornment. A certain journal of society which she had long ago abandoned began to show itself occasionally in her rooms, though only as yet by oversight left to view. She spoke with her brother on the subject of certain invitations, long neglected, and did not seem displeased when he went beyond her own motion to propose the issuing of cards for a definite evening. Then came Wilfrid’s break-down. There was really no need, said Mr. Athel, that she should transfer herself immediately to the country, just when everybody was well settled in town. But Mrs. Rossall preferred to go; she was not sure that the juncture had not some connection with her own spiritual life. And she maintained, on the whole, a seemly cheerfulness.
Mr. Athel was an Egyptologist of some distinction. Though not in person or manner suggestive of romantic antecedents, he had yet come by this taste in a way which bordered on romance. Travelling in Southern Europe at about the age which Wilfrid had now reached, he had the good fortune to rescue from drowning an Italian gentleman then on a tour in Greece. The Italian had a fair daughter, who was travelling with him, and her, after an acquaintance of a few weeks, Athel demanded by way of recompense. Her father was an enthusiastic student of Egyptian antiquities; the Englishman plied at one and the same time his wooing and the study of hieroglyphics, with marked success in both directions. The Mr. Athel who at that time represented parental authority, or at all events claimed filial deference, was anything but pleased with the step his son had taken; he was a highly respectable dealer in grain, and, after the manner of highly respectable men of commerce, would have had his eldest son espouse some countrywoman yet more respectable. It was his opinion that the lad had been entrapped by an adventurous foreigner. Philip Athel, who had a will of his own, wedded his Italian maiden, brought her to England, and fought down prejudices. A year or two later he was at work in Egypt, where lie remained for some twelve months; his studies progressed. Subsequently he published certain papers which were recognised as valuable. Wilfrid found the amusement of his childhood in his father’s pursuit; he began to decipher hieratic not much later than he learned to read English. Scarabs were his sacred playthings, and by the time of his going to school he was able to write letters home in a demotic which would not perhaps have satisfied Champollion or Brugsch, but yet was sufficiently marvellous to his schoolfellows and gratifying to his father.
For the rest, Philip Athel was a typical English gentle. man. He enjoyed out-of-door sports as keenly as he did the pursuit of his study; he had scarcely known a day’s illness in his life, owing, he maintained, to the wisdom with which he arranged his day. Three hours of study was, he held, as much as any prudent man would allow himself. He was always in excellent spirits, ever ready to be of service to a friend, lived with much moderation on victuals of the best quality procurable, took his autumnal holiday abroad in a gentlemanly manner. With something of theoretic Radicalism in his political views, he combined a stout respect for British social institutions; affecting to be above vulgar prejudices, he was in reality much prepossessed in favour of hereditary position, and as time went on did occasionally half wish that the love he had bestowed on his Italian wife had been given to some English lady of ‘good’ family. He was liberal, frank, amiably autocratic in his home, apt to be peppery with inferiors who missed the line of perfect respect, candid and reasonable with equals or superiors. For his boy he reserved a store of manly affection, seldom expressing itself save in bluff fashion; his sister he patronised with much kindness, though he despised her judgment. One had now and then a feeling that his material circumstances aided greatly in making him the genial man he was, that with beef and claret of inferior quality he might not have been altogether so easy to get along with. But that again was an illustration of the English character.
We find the family assembling for breakfast at The Firs one delightful morning at the end of July. The windows of the room were thrown open, and there streamed in with the sunlight fresh and delicious odours, tonics alike of mind and body. From the Scotch firs whence the dwelling took its name came a scent which mingled with wafted breath from the remoter heather, and the creepers about the house-front, the lovely bloom and leafage skirting the lawn, contributed to the atmosphere of health and joy. It was nine o’clock. The urn was on the gleaming table, the bell was sounding, Mr. Athel stepped in straight from the lawn, fresh after his ten minutes’ walk about the garden. Wilfrid Athel appeared at the same moment; he was dark-complexioned and had black, glossy hair; his cheeks were hollower than they should have been, but he had not the aspect of an invalid. Mrs. Rossall glided into the room behind him, fresh, fair, undemonstrative. Then came the twins, by name Patty and Minnie, delicate, with promise of their mother’s English style of beauty; it was very hard to distinguish them, their uncle had honestly given up the pretence long ago, and occasionally remonstrated with his sister on the absurdity of dressing them exactly alike. The last to enter the room was the governess, Miss Emily Hood.
Mr. Athel, having pronounced a grace, mentioned that he thought of running up to town; did anybody wish to give him a commission? Mrs. Rossall looked thoughtful, and said she would make a note of two or three things.
‘I haven’t much faith in that porridge regimen, Wilf,’ remarked the master of the house, as he helped himself to chicken and tongue. ‘We are not Highlanders. It’s dangerous to make diet too much a matter of theory. Your example is infectious; first the twins; now Miss Hood. Edith, do you propose to become a pervert to porridge?’
‘I have no taste for it,’ replied his sister, who had become absent-minded.
‘There’s a certain dishonesty about it, moreover,’ Mr. Athel pursued. ‘Porridge should be eaten with salt. Milk _and_ sugar–didn’t I hear a suggestion of golden syrup, more honestly called treacle, yesterday? These things constitute evasion, self-deception at the least. In your case, Miss Hood, the regimen is clearly fruitful of ill results.’
‘Of what kind, Mr. Athel?’
‘Obviously it leads to diminution of appetite. You were in the habit of eating a satisfactory breakfast; at present some two ounces of that farinaceous mess–‘
‘My dear Philip!’ interposed Mrs. Rossall, still absently.
I hold that I am within my rights,’ asserted her brother. ‘If Miss Hood goes down into Yorkshire in a state of emaciation–‘
Wilfrid and the twins showed amusement.
‘To begin with,’ pursued Mr. Athel, ‘I hold that sweet food the first thing in the morning is a mistake; the appetite is checked in an artificial way, and impaired. Even coffee–‘
‘You would recommend a return to flagons of ale?’ suggested Wilfrid.
‘I am not sure that it wasn’t better dietetically.’
Mrs. Rossall had taken an egg, but, after fruitlessly chipping at the shell throughout this conversation, put down her spoon and appeared to abandon the effort to commence her meal. Presently she broke silence, speaking with some diffidence.
‘I really think I will go to town with you, Philip,’ she said. ‘I want some things you can’t very well get me, and then I ought to go and see the Redwings. I might persuade Beatrice to come to us for a day or two.’
‘Do so by all means. You’re quite sure,’ he added with a smile, ‘that I couldn’t save you the trouble of the journey? I have no objection to visiting the Redwings.’
‘I think it will be better if I go myself,’ replied Mrs. Rossall, with a far-off look. ‘I might call on one or two other people.’
Having decided this point, she found herself able to crack the egg. The anticipation of her day in London made her quite gay throughout the meal.
The carriage was at the door by ten o’clock, to drive to Dealing, the nearest station, some four miles away. The twins had gone upstairs with Miss Hood to their lessons, and Wilfrid was sauntering about the hall. His father paused by him on the way to the carriage.
‘What do you propose to do with yourself, Wilf?’ lie asked.
‘Ride, I think.’
‘Do. Go over to Hilstead and lunch there. Capital lunch they give you at the inn; the last time I was there they cooked me one of the best chops I ever ate. Oberon wants exercise; make a day of it.’
‘You’re not looking quite so well, I’m afraid,’ remarked his father, with genuine solicitude in his tone. ‘Haven’t been reading, have you?’
‘No imprudences, mind. I must stop that porridge regimen; it doesn’t suit you. Ready, Edith?’ he shouted heartily at the foot of the stairs.
Mrs. Rossall came down, buttoning her gloves.
‘If I were you, Wilf,’ she said, ‘I’d go off somewhere for the day. The twins will only worry you.’
‘I am going to eat unexampled chops at the “Waggoner” in Hilstead,’ he replied.
‘That’s right. Good-bye, my dear boy. I wish you’d get fatter.’
‘Pooh, I’m all right.’
The landau rolled away. Wilfrid still loitered in the hall, a singular look of doubt on his face. In a room above one of the twins was having a music lesson; a certain finger-exercise was being drummed with persistent endeavour at accuracy.
‘How can she bear that morning after morning?’ the young man murmured to himself.
He took his straw hat and went round to the stables. Oberon was being groomed. Wilfrid patted the horse’s sleek neck, and talked a little with the man. At length he made up his mind to go and prepare for riding; Oberon would be ready for him in a few minutes.
In the porch Patty ran to meet him.
‘Truant!’ Wilfrid exclaimed. ‘Have I caught you in the act of escape?’
‘I was going to look for you,’ said the child, putting her arm through his and swinging upon him. ‘We want to know if you’ll be back for lunch.’
‘Who wants to know?’
‘I and Minnie and Miss Hood.’
‘Oh, you are Patty, then, are you?’
This was an old form of joke. The child shook her dark curls with a half-annoyed gesture, but still swung on her cousin as he moved into the house. Wilfrid passed his arm about her playfully.
‘Can’t you make up your mind, Wilf?’ she asked.
‘Oh yes, my mind is quite made up,’ he replied, with a laugh.
‘And won’t you tell me?’
‘Tell you? Ah, about lunch. No, I shall not be back.’
‘You won’t? Oh, I am sorry.’
‘Why are you sorry, indistinguishable little maiden?’ he asked, drawing out one of her curls between his fingers, and letting it spring back again into its circling beauty.
‘We thought it would be so nice, we four at lunch.’
‘I am warned to avoid you. The tone of conversation would try my weak head; I am not capable yet of intellectual effort.’
The little girl looked at him with puzzled eyes.
‘Well, it can’t be helped,’ she said. ‘I must go back to my lessons.’
She ran off, and Wilfrid went up to his dressing-room. When he came down, Oberon was pawing the gravel before the door. He mounted and rode away.
His spirits, which at first seemed to suffer some depression, took vigour once more from the air of the downs. He put Oberon at a leap or two, then let the breeze sing in his ears as he was borne at a gallop over the summer land, golden with sunlight. In spite of his still worn look, health was manifest in the upright vigour of his form, and in his eyes gleamed the untroubled joy of existence. Hope just now was strong within him, a hope defined and pointing to an end attainable; he knew that henceforth the many bounding and voiceful streams of his life would unite in one strong flow onward to a region of orient glory which shone before him as the bourne hitherto but dimly imagined. On, Oberon, on! No speed that would not lag behind the fore-flight of a heart’s desire. Let the stretch of green-shadowing woodland sweep by like a dream; let the fair, sweet meadow-sides smile for a moment and vanish; let the dark hill-summits rise and sink. It is the time of youth and hope, of boundless faith in the world’s promises, of breathless pursuit.
Hilstead was gained long before lunch could be thought of. Wilfrid rode on, and circled back towards the hostelry famous for chops about the hour of noon. He put up his horse, and strayed about the village till his meal was ready; after he had eaten it he smoked a cigar among hollyhocks and sunflowers. Then impatience possessed him. He looked at his watch several times, annoyed to find that so little of the day was spent. When he at last set forth again, it was to ride at walking pace in the direction of home. He reached a junction of roads, and waited there for several minutes, unable to decide upon his course. He ended by throwing the reins on Oberon’s neck.
‘Go which way you will,’ he said aloud.
Oberon paced forward to the homeward route.
‘So be it. On, then! An hour will bring us to The Firs.’
The house was all but reached, when Wilfrid caught a glimpse of a straw hat moving into a heath-clad hollow a hundred yards from the road. He pressed on. At the gate stood a gardener.
‘James,’ he cried, leaping down, ‘take the horse to the stable, will you?’
And, instead of going up to the house, he walked back in the direction he had come till he reached the hollow in which the straw hat had disappeared. Miss Hood sat on the ground, reading. She was about to rise, but Wilfrid begged her not to move, and threw himself into a reclining posture.
‘I saw you as I rode past,’ he said, in a friendly way. ‘I suppose the twins are straying?’
‘They are at Greenhaws,’ was the reply, ‘Mrs. Winter called for them immediately after lunch. She will bring them back early in the evening.’
He plucked sprigs of heather. Miss Hood turned to her book.
‘I’ve had a magnificent ride,’ Wilfrid began again. ‘Surely there is no country in England so glorious as this. Don’t you enjoy it?’
‘I have never seen the Yorkshire moors. The scenery, of course, is of a much wilder kind?’
‘I have not seen them myself,’ said the governess.
‘I thought you might have taken your holidays sometimes in that direction.’
‘No. We used to go to a seaside place in Lincolnshire called Cleethorpes. I suppose you never heard of it?’
‘I think not.’
Wilfrid continued to pluck heather, and let his eyes catch a glimpse of her face now and then. Miss Hood was a year younger than himself, and had well outgrown girlishness. She was of very slight build, looked indeed rather frail; but her face, though lacking colour, had the firmness of health. It was very broad at the forehead, and tapered down into narrowness; the eyes seemed set at an unusual distance from each other, though the nose was thin and of perfect form, its profile making but a slight angle away from the line of the brows. Her lips were large, but finely curved; the chin was prominent, the throat long. She had warm brown hair.
Few would at first sight have called her face beautiful, but none could deny the beauty of her hands. Ungloved at present, they lay on the open pages of the book, unsurpassable for delicate loveliness. When he did not venture to look higher, Wilfrid let his eyes feed on the turn of the wrist, the faint blue lines and sinuous muscles, the pencilling about the finger-joints, the delicate white and pink nails.
Miss Hood was habitually silent when in the company of others than the children. When she replied to a question it was without timidity, but in few, well-chosen words. Yet her manner did not lack cheerfulness; she impressed no one as being unhappy, and alone with the twins she was often gay enough. She was self-possessed, and had the manners of a lady, though in her position this was rather to be observed in what she refrained from doing than in what she did. Wilfrid had, on first meeting her, remarked to himself that it must imply a Certain force of individuality to vary so distinctly from the commonplace even under the disadvantage of complete self-suppression; he had now come to understand better the way in which that individuality betrayed itself.
‘Shall you go to Cleethorpes this year?’ was his next question.
‘I think not. I shall most likely pass the holidays at home.’
‘And study electricity?’
In a former conversation she had surprised him by some unexpected knowledge of the principles of electricity, and explained the acquirement by telling him that this subject was her father’s favourite study. Wilfrid put the question now with a smile.
‘Yes, very likely,’ she replied, smiling also, but faintly. ‘It gives my father pleasure when I do so.’
‘You have not a keen interest in the subject yourself?’
‘I try to have.’
Her voice was of singular quality; if she raised it the effect was not agreeable, owing possibly to its lack of strength, but in low tones, such as she employed at present, it fell on the ear with a peculiar sweetness, a natural melody in its modulation.
‘The way in which you speak of your father interests me,’ said Wilfrid, leaning his chin upon his hand, and gazing at her freely. ‘You seem so united with him in sympathy.’
She did not turn her eyes to him, but her face gathered brightness.
‘In sympathy, yes,’ she replied, speaking now with more readiness. ‘Our tastes often differ, but we are always at one in feeling. We have been companions ever since I can remember.’
‘Is your mother living?’
Something in the tone of the brief affirmative kept Wilfrid from further questioning.
‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘what you think of the relations existing between myself and my father. We are excellent friends, don’t you think? Strange–one doesn’t think much about such things till some occasion brings them forward. Whether there is deep sympathy between us, I couldn’t say. Certainly there are many subjects on which I should not dream of speaking to him unless necessity arose; partly, I suppose, that is male reserve, and partly English reserve. If novels are to be trusted, French parents and children speak together with much more freedom; on the whole that must be better.’
She made no remark.
‘My father,’ he continued, ‘is eminently a man of sense if I reflect on my boyhood, I see how admirable his treatment of me has always been. I fancy I must have been at one time rather hard to manage; I know I was very passionate and stubbornly self-willed. Yet he neither let me have my own way nor angered me by his opposition. In fact, he made me respect him. Now that we stand on equal terms, I dare say he has something of the same feeling towards myself. And So it comes that we are excellent friends.’
She listened with a scarcely perceptible smile.
‘Perhaps this seems to you a curiously dispassionate way of treating such a subject,’ Wilfrid added, with a laugh. ‘It illustrates what I meant in saying I doubted whether there was deep sympathy between us. Your own feeling for your father is clearly one of devotedness. You would think no sacrifice of your own wishes too great if he asked it of you.’
‘I cannot imagine any sacrifice, which my father could ask, that I should refuse.’
She spoke with some difficulty, as if she wished to escape the subject.
‘Perhaps that is a virtue that your sex helps to explain,’ said Wilfrid, musingly.
‘You do not know,’ he added, when a bee had hummed between them for half a minute, ‘how constant my regret is that my mother did not live till I was old enough to make a friend of her. You know that she was an Italian? There was a sympathy taken out of my life. I believe I have more of the Italian nature than the English, and I know my mother’s presence would be priceless to me now that I could talk with her. What unsatisfactory creatures we are as children, so imperfect, so deficient! It is worse with boys than with girls. Compare, for instance, the twine with boys often. What coarse, awkward, unruly lumps of boisterousness youngsters mostly are at that age! I dislike boys, and more than ever when I remember myself at that stage. What an insensible, ungrateful, brainless, and heartless brat I was!’
‘You must be wrong in one respect,’ she returned, watching a large butterfly. ‘You could not have been brainless.’
‘Oh, the foundation of tolerable wits was there, no doubt; but it is just that undeveloped state that irritates me. Suppose I were now ten years old, and that glorious butterfly before me; should I not leap at it and stick a pin through it–young savage? Precisely what a Hottentot boy would do, except that he would be free from the apish folly of pretending a scientific interest, not really existing. I rejoice to have lived out of my boyhood; I would not go through it again for anything short of a thousand years of subsequent maturity.’
She just glanced at him, a light of laughter in her eyes. She was abandoning herself to the pleasure of hearing him speak.
‘That picture of my mother,’ he pursued, dropping his voice again, ‘does not do her justice. Even at twelve years old–(she died when I was twelve)–I could not help seeing and knowing how beautiful she was. I have thought of her of late more than I ever did; sometimes I suffer a passion of grief that one so beautiful and lovable has gone and left a mere dumb picture. I suppose even my memory of her will grow fainter and fainter, founded as it is on imperfect understanding, dim appreciation. She used to read Italian to me–first the Italian, then the English– and I thought it, as often as not, a bore to have to listen to her! Thank Heaven, I have the book she used, and can now go over the pieces, and try to recall her voice.’
The butterfly was gone, but the bee still hummed about them. The hot afternoon air was unstirred by any breeze.
‘How glad I am,’ Wilfrid exclaimed when he had brooded for a few moments, ‘that I happened to see you as I rode past! I should have wandered restlessly about the house in vain, seeking for some one to talk to. And you listen so patiently. It is pleasant to be here and talk so freely of things I have always had to keep in my own mind. Look, do look at that bastion of cloud over the sycamore! What glorious gradation of tints! What a snowy crown!’
‘That is a pretty spray,’ he added, holding to her one that he had plucked.
She looked at it; then, as he still held It out, took it from him. The exquisite fingers touched his own redder and coarser ones.
‘Have you friends in Dunfield?’ he asked.
‘Any real friend, I mean–any girl who gives you real companionship?’
‘How shall you spend your time when you are not deep in electrics? What do you mean to read these holidays?’
‘Chiefly German, I think. I have only just begun to read it.’
‘And I can’t read it at all. Now and then I make a shot at the meaning of a note in a German edition of some classical author, every time fretting at my ignorance. But there is so endlessly much to do, and a day is so short.’
‘Isn’t it hateful,’ he broke forth, ‘this enforced idleness of mine? To think that weeks and weeks go by and I remain just where I was, when the loss of an hour used to seem to me an irreparable misfortune. I have such an appetite for knowledge, surely the unhappiest gift a man can be endowed with it leads to nothing but frustration. Perhaps the appetite weakens as one grows in years; perhaps the sphere of one’s keener interests contracts; I hope it may be so. At times I cannot work–I mean, I could not–for a sense of the vastness of the field before me. I should like you to see my rooms at Balliol. Shelves have long since refused to take another volume; floor, tables, chairs, every spot is heaped. And there they lie; hosts I have scarcely looked into, many I shall never have time to take up to the end of my days.’
‘You have the satisfaction of being able to give your whole time to study.’
‘There is precisely the source of dissatisfaction My whole time, and that wholly insufficient. I have a friend, a man I envy intensely; he has taken up the subject of Celtic literature; gives himself to it with single-heartedness, cares for nothing that does not connect itself therewith; will pursue it throughout his life; will know more of it than any man living. My despair is the universality of my interests. I can think of no branch of study to which I could not surrender myself with enthusiasm; of course I shall never master one. My subject is the history of humanity; I would know everything that man has done or thought or felt. I cannot separate lines of study. Philology is a passion with me, but how shall I part the history of speech from the history of thought? The etymology of any single word will hold me for hours; to follow it up I must traverse centuries of human culture. They tell me I have a faculty for philosophy, in the narrow sense of the word; alas! that narrow sense implies an exhaustive knowledge of speculation in the past and of every result of science born in our own time Think of the sunny spaces in the world’s history, in each of which one could linger for ever I Athens at her fairest, Borne at her grandest, the glorious savagery of Merovingian courts, the kingdom of Frederick II., the Moors in Spain, the magic of Renaissance Italy–to become a citizen of any one age means a lifetime of endeavour. It is easy to fill one’s head with names and years, but that only sharpens my hunger. Then there is the world of art; I would know every subtlest melody of verse in every tongue, enjoy with perfectly instructed taste every form that man has carved or painted. I fear to enter museums and galleries; I am distracted by the numberless desires that seize upon me, depressed by the hopelessness of satisfying them. I cannot even enjoy music from the mere feeling that I do not enjoy it enough, that I have not had time to study it, that I shall never get at its secret…. And when is one to live? I cannot lose myself in other men’s activity and enjoyments. I must have a life of my own, outside the walls of a library. It would be easy to give up all ambition of knowledge, to forget all the joy and sorrow that has been and passed into nothingness; to know only the eternity of a present hour. Might one not learn more in one instant of unreflecting happiness than by toiling on to a mummied age, only to know in the end the despair of never having lived?’
He again raised his eyes to her face. It was fixed in a cold, absent gaze; her lips hardened into severity, the pose of her head impressive, noble. Athel regarded her for several moments; she was revealing to him more of her inner self than he had yet divined.
‘What are your thoughts?’ he asked quietly.
She smiled, recovering her wonted passiveness.
‘Have you not often much the same troubles?’
‘They arc only for the mind which is strong enough to meet and overcome them,’ she replied.
‘But look, my mind has given way already! I am imbecile. For ever I shall be on the point of a break-down, and each successive one will bring me nearer to some final catastrophe–perhaps the lunatic asylum–who knows?’
‘I should think,’ she said gravely, ‘that you suggested a truth. Very likely your mind will contract its range and cease to aim at the impossible.’
‘But tell me, have you not yourself already attained that wisdom? Why should you make pretences of feebleness which does not mark you? You have a mind as active as my own; I know that perfectly well. What is your secret of contentment? Won’t you help me in this miserable plight?’
‘No, Mr. Athel, I have none but very ordinary powers of mind, and perhaps it is my recognition of that which keeps me contented. There is indeed one principle of guidance which I have worked out for myself–‘
‘Ah! And that?’
‘It will not enlighten you, for it is only the choice of a natural and easy course, seeing that difficult ones are closed. The literature of learning is out of my reach, so I limit myself to the literature of beauty, and in this I try to keep to the best.’
‘You are right, you are right! To know the masterpieces of literature, pure literature, poetry in its widest sense; that is the wise choice. Think; we feed ourselves with the secondhand wisdom of paltry philosophisers and critics, and Shakespeare waits outside the door with the bread of life. From Homer–Alas! you do not read Greek?’
She shook her head.
‘And you work at German! In Heaven’s name change your language forthwith! Why should you not know Greek? You _must_ know Greek! I will give you books, I will advise you, show you the essentials to begin with. There are still a few days before you go into Yorkshire; you can work during the holidays on lines I shall set you; you can write and tell me your–‘
He paused, for her face had lost its smile, and wore again that coldly respectful look which she seldom put off save in her privacy with the children. For the last quarter of an hour he had marked in her quite another aspect; the secret meanings of her face had half uttered themselves in eye and lip. His last words seemed to recall her to the world of fact. She made a slight movement and closed the book on her lap.
‘Greek is more than I can undertake, Mr. Athel,’ she said in a quietly decided tone. ‘I must be content with translations.’
‘Translations You would not say that so calmly if you knew what you were renouncing. Everything, everything in literature, I would give up to save my Greek. You will learn it, I know you will; some day I shall hear you read the hexameters as beautifully as you read English poetry to the girls. Will you not begin if I beg you to?’
The elbow on which he rested moved a few inches nearer to her. He saw the pearly shadows waver upon her throat, and her lips tremble into rigidity.
‘My time in the holidays will be very limited,’ she said. ‘I have undertaken to give some help to a friend who is preparing to become a teacher, and’–she tried to smile–‘I don’t think I must do more work whilst at home than is really necessary.’
‘No, that is true,’ Wilfrid assented unwillingly. ‘Never mind, there is plenty of time. Greek will be overcome, you will see. When we are all back in town and the days are dull, then I shall succeed in persuading you.’
She looked about her as if with thought of quitting her place. Her companion was drawn into himself; he stroked mechanically with his finger-tips the fronds of bracken near him.
‘I suppose I shall go up again in October,’ he began. ‘I wish there were no necessity for it.’
‘But surely it is your one desire?’ the other replied in genuine surprise.
‘Not to return to Oxford. A few months ago it would have been, but this crisis in my life has changed me. I don’t think I shall adapt myself again to those conditions. I want to work in a freer way. I had a positive zeal even for examinations; now that seems tame–well, boyish. I believe I have outgrown that stage; I feel a reluctance to go back to school. I suppose I must take my degree, and so on, but it will all be against the grain.’
‘Your feeling will most likely alter when you have thoroughly recovered your health.’
‘No, I don’t think it will. Practically my health is all right. You don’t,’ he added with a smile, ‘regard me as an irresponsible person, whose feeble remarks are to be received with kind allowance?’
‘No, I did not mean that.’
He gazed at her, and his face showed a growing trouble.
‘You do not take too seriously what I said just now about the weakness of my mind? It would be horrible if you thought I had worked myself into a state of amiable imbecility, and was incapable henceforth of acting, thinking, or speaking with a sound intellect. Tell me, say in plain words that is not your way of interpreting me.’
He had become very much in earnest. Raising himself to a position in which he rested on one hand, lie looked straight into her face.
‘Why don’t you reply? Why don’t you speak?’
‘Because, Mr. Athel, it is surely needless to say that I have no such thought.’
‘No, it is not needless; and even now you speak in a way which troubles me. Do not look away from me. What has my aunt told you about me?’
She turned her face to him. Her self-command was so complete that not a throb of her leaping heart betrayed itself in vein or muscle. She even met his eyes with a placid gaze which he felt as a new aspect of her countenance.
‘Mrs. Rossall has never spoken to me of your health,’ she said.
‘But my father’s jokes; he has a way of humorous exaggeration. You of course understand that; you don’t take seriously all he says?’
‘I think I can. distinguish between jest and earnest.’
‘For all that, you speak of the recovery of my health as if I were still far from the wholly rational stand-point. So far from my being mentally unsound, this rest has been a growing-time with me. Before, I did nothing but heap my memory with knowledge of hooks; now I have had leisure to gather knowledge of a deeper kind. I was a one-sided academical monster; it needed this new sense to make me human. The old college life is no longer my ideal; I doubt if it will be possible. At any rate, I shall hurry over the rest of my course as speedily as may be, that I may begin really to live. You must credit what I am saying; I want you to give me distinct assurance that you do so. If I have the least doubt, it will trouble my mind in earnest.’
Miss Hood rose to her feet in that graceful effortless way of which girls have the secret.
‘You attribute a meaning to my words that I never thought of,’ she said, again in the distant respectful manner.
Wilfrid also rose.
‘And you give me credit for understanding myself, for being as much master of my mind as I am of my actions?’
‘Surely I do, Mr. Athel.’
‘You are going to the house? It is nearly five o’clock your conscience tells you that a civilised being must drink tea. I think I shall walk over to Greenhaws; I may as well save Mrs. Winter the trouble of bringing back the children.’
He hesitated before moving away.
‘How little that cloud has changed its form! I should like to stay here and watch it till sunset. In a week I suppose I shall be looking at some such cloud over Mont Blanc. And you, in Dunfield.’
‘No, there we have only mill-smoke.’
She smiled, and passed from the hollow to the road.
Midway in breakfast next morning, at a moment when Mrs. Rossall was describing certain originalities of drawing-room decoration observed on the previous day at a house in town, the half-open door admitted a young lady who had time to glance round the assembled family before her presence was observed. In appearance she was very interesting. The tints of her fine complexion were warmed by exercise in the morning air, and her dark eyes brightened by pleasurable excitement; she carried her hat in her hand, and seemed to have been walking bare-headed, for there were signs of wind-play in her abundant black hair. But neither face nor attire suggested rusticity: the former was handsome, spirited, with a hint of uncommon things in its changeful radiance; the latter was the result of perfect taste choosing at will among the season’s costumes. At her throat were fastened two blossoms of wild rose, with the dew still on them, and the hand which held her lace-trimmed sunshade carried also a spray of meadow-sweet.
Mr. Athel, looking up from the end of the table, was the first to perceive her.
‘_Guardami ben: ben son, ben son Beatrice_!’ he exclaimed, rising and moving from his place. ‘But how in the world has she got here?’
‘Beatrice!’ cried Mrs. Rossall, following the general direction of eyes. ‘Here already! But you surely haven’t come from town this morning?’
‘But indeed I have,’ was the reply, in a joyous voice, whose full, rich quality took the ear captive. ‘Will you let me sit down just as I am? Patty, here’s a rose for you, and, Minnie, another for you.’ She took them from her dress. ‘How do you do, Mr. Wilfrid?’
The governess was mentioned to her by name; Beatrice looked at her steadfastly for a moment.
‘But how have you got here?’ inquired Mrs. Rossall. ‘You must have left London at an unheard-of hour; and how have yen come from Dealing?’
‘Clearly she has walked,’ said Mr. Athel. ‘Don’t you see the spoils of her progress?’
‘Oh yes, I have walked,’ replied the girl. ‘I suppose I’m in a dreadful state towards the end I almost ran. I was so afraid lest I should miss breakfast, and you can’t imagine how hungry I am. Is that oatmeal porridge you are eating, Mr. Wilfrid? Oh, do let me have some; how delicious it will be!’
‘Nonsense, Beatrice,’ interposed Mrs. Rossall. ‘Let Mr. Athel give you some of that pate, or will you have–‘
‘I’ve been a vegetarian for a month,’ was the reply.
‘You don’t mean it?’
‘Most strictly. No–eggs are not permitted; only the feebler school allows them. You can’t think how much better I have been in body and mind since I adopted the new diet.’
‘But Whatever train did you start by?’ pressed Mrs. Rossall.
‘Half-past six. I never can sleep these short summer nights. I was up about five o’clock, and just as I was going to read I saw the railway time-table. I looked for the first train and determined to come by it. I wrote a short note to let mother know what had become of me, then in a minute or two I got my things packed, and last of all stole out of the house to find a cab. Luckily, a policeman was just passing the door; he found one for me in no time. Not a soul was up, so I dragged the trunk out on to the landing, and then made the cabman creep upstairs like a, burglar to fetch it. Of course he thought I was running away; he enjoyed the joke wonderfully; you should have seen his smile when I paid him at the station. Perhaps you’ll let them fetch my luggage before lunch?’
‘But won’t your mother be alarmed?’ asked Mrs. Rossall.
‘Why should she? She knows I am very capable of taking care of myself. I wouldn’t have missed this walk for anything. I only lost my way once, and then, luckily, a farmer came driving along: he told me I had half a mile more. I trebled his distance, which made it about right.’
‘It’s a good four miles from the station,’ remarked Mr. Athel.
‘Is it? If I hadn’t been so hungry I shouldn’t have minded as much again. You’re not angry with me, Mrs. Rossall, for coming before I was expected?’
A curious note of irresponsible childishness came out now and then in her talk, as in this last question; it was the more noticeable for the air of maturity and self-possession which on the whole characterised her. She continued to talk with much vivacity, making at the same time a hearty meal. Her place at the table was between Wilfrid and Patty; on the opposite side sat Miss Hood and Minnie. As often as her eyes fell upon the governess’s face, they rested there for a moment, searchingly, as if with endeavour to recall some memory.
‘Who is responsible for your vegetarianism?’ Wilfrid asked. ‘Is Mr. Cresset preaching the doctrine?’
‘No, Mr. Cresset is not preaching the doctrine,’ was the reply, in a tone which evidently contained reference to previous dissensions.
‘Surely there is nothing offensive in the suggestion?’ remarked the young man mildly.
‘Yes, there is something offensive. Your references to Mr. Cresset are always offensive.’
‘You do me injustice. Aunt, I take you to witness, didn’t I praise ungrudgingly a sermon of his we heard last Christmas?’
‘I remember quite well,’ said Beatrice; ‘you regarded it as extraordinary that anything good could come from that source, Mr. Athel, I take you to witness, wasn’t that his tone?’
‘Patty,’ interposed Mrs. Rossall, ‘do change your place and sit between those two; they never can be next each other without quarrelling.’
Breakfast drew out to unusual length. Miss Redwing was full of the season’s news, and Mrs. Rossall’s reviving interest in such vanities scarcely affected concealment. Mr. Athel, too, though he supported a jesting tone, clearly enjoyed listening to the girl’s vivacious comments on the world which amuses itself. Wilfrid talked less than usual.
He and his father strolled together into the garden an hour later, and found Beatrice reclining in a hammock which had recently been suspended in a convenient spot. She had one hand beneath her head, the other held a large fan, with which she warded off stray flakes of sunlight falling between the leaves.
‘Isn’t this exquisite?’ she cried. ‘Let no one hint to me of stirring before lunch-time. I am going to enjoy absolute laziness.’
‘I thought you would have preferred a gallop over the downs,’ said Mr. Athel.
‘Oh, we’ll have that this afternoon; you may talk of it now, and I shall relish it in anticipation. Or, better still, sit down and tell us old stories about Egypt, and let us forget the age we live in.’
‘What is amiss with the age?’ inquired Mr. Athel, who stood smoking a cigar and was in his wonted state of satisfaction with himself and the universe.
‘Everything is amiss. If you had been with me yesterday in a street I was visiting, not a quarter of a mile from home–But I’m going to forget all that now. How deliciously warm it is here in the shade! I must have a ham. mock in our garden at Cowes.’
‘When do you go back?’ Mr. Athel asked.
‘In about a fortnight. It has done mother no end of good; don’t you think she looks remarkably well, Mrs. Rossall? I’m afraid she finds it a little dull though.’
When his father had returned to the house, Wilfrid sat en the grass and rested his head against the arm of the low garden chair in which Mrs. Rossall was reclining. The sound of a grass-cutter alone mingled with the light rustling of the trees. It was one of those perfect summer mornings when the sun’s rays, though streaming from a cloudless sky, are tempered by a gentle haze in the upper regions of the air, when the zenith has a tinge of violet and on the horizon broods a reddish mist. From this part of the garden only a glimpse of the house was visible; an upper window with white curtains, cool, peaceful. All else on every side was verdure and bloom.
‘Is it possible,’ Beatrice asked, when there had been silence for a few moments, ‘that I can have met Miss Hood anywhere before to-day? Her face is strangely familiar to me.’
‘She has never been in London before she came to us,’ said Mrs. Rossall.
‘But you have relatives in Dunfield, I think?’ remarked Wilfrid.
‘To be sure,’ said his aunt; ‘she comes from Dunfield, in Yorkshire. Do you think you can have met her there?’
‘Ah, that explains it,’ Beatrice cried eagerly. ‘I knew I had seen her, and I know now where it was. She gave lessons to my uncle’s children. I saw her when I was staying there the last time, three–no, four years ago. I can’t recall her by her name, but her face, oh, I remember it as clearly as possible.’
‘What a memory you have, Beatrice!’ said Mrs. Rossall.
‘I never forget a face that strikes me.’
‘In what way did Miss Hood’s face strike you?’ Wilfrid asked, as if in idle curiosity, and with some of the banter which always marked his tone to Beatrice.
‘You would like some deep, metaphysical reason, but I am not advanced enough for that. I don’t suppose I thought much about her at the time, but the face has stayed in my mind. But how old is she?’
‘Two-and-twenty,’ said Mrs. Rossall, smiling.
‘A year older than myself; my impression was that she was more than that. I think I only saw her once; she was with us at lunch one day. We spoke of her shyness, I remember; she scarcely said a word all the time.’
‘Yes, she is very shy,’ assented Mrs. Rossall.
‘That’s a mistake, I think, aunt,’ said Wilfrid; ‘shyness is quite a different thing from reticence.’
‘Reticent, then,’ conceded the lady, with a smile to Beatrice. ‘At all events, she is very quiet and agreeable and well-bred. It is such a good thing to have a governess who really seems well-bred; it does make it so much easier to treat her with consideration.’
‘Do the children like her?’ Beatrice asked.
‘Very much indeed. And it’s wonderful how she controls them; they are scatter-brained little creatures.’
‘Will she go abroad with you?’
‘Oh, no, I don’t think that necessary.’
Wilfrid presently left the two to their gossip. The conversation naturally turned to him.
‘How is his health?’ Beatrice asked.
‘He seems quite recovered. I don’t think there was ever anything to occasion much alarm, but his father got frightened. I expect we shall bring him back from Switzerland as well as ever he was.’
‘What ever has he done with himself the last two months?’ mused the girl.
‘Well, it has been rather hard to keep him occupied away from books. He has been riding a good deal, and smoking a good deal.’
‘And talking a good deal?’
‘Well, yes, Wilf is fond of talking,’ admitted Mrs. Rossall, ‘but I don’t think he’s anything like as positive as he was. He does now and then admit that other people may have an opinion which is worth entertaining. Celia Dawlish was with us a fortnight ago; she declared him vastly improved.’
‘She told him so?’
‘No, that was in private to me.’
‘But I think Celia and he always got on well together,’ said Beatrice in an idly meditative tone, moving the edge of her fan backwards and forwards a few inches above her face.
A few minutes later, after a silence, she said–
‘Do you know what I am thinking?’
‘What?’ asked Mrs. Rossall, with an air of interest.
‘That if I were to close my eyes and keep quiet I should very soon be fast asleep.’
The other laughed at the unexpected reply.
‘Then why not do so, dear? It’s warm enough; you couldn’t take any harm.’
‘I suppose the walk has tired me.’
‘But if you had no sleep last night? How is it you can’t sleep, I wonder? Is it the same when you are at Cowes?’
‘No, only in London. Something troubles me; I feel that I have neglected duties. I hear voices, as distinct as yours now, reproving me for my idle, frivolous life.’
‘Nonsense! I am sure you are neither idle nor frivolous. Do doze off, if you can, dear; I’ll go and get something to read.’
‘You won’t be angry with me?’ the girl asked, in the tone of an affectionate weary child.
‘I shall if you use ceremony with me.’
Beatrice sighed, folded her hands upon the fan, and closed her lids. When Mrs. Rossall returned from the house with a magazine and a light shawl, the occupant of the hammock was already sound asleep. She threw the shawl with womanly skill and gentleness over the shapely body. When she had resumed her seat, she caught a glimpse of Wilfrid at a little distance; her beckoned summons brought him near.
‘Look,’ she whispered, pointing to the hammock. ‘When did you see a prettier picture?’
The young man gazed with a free smile, the expression of critical appreciativeness. The girl’s beauty stirred in him no mood but that. She slept with complete calm of feature the half-lights that came through the foliage made an exquisite pallor on her face, contrasting with the dark masses of her hair. Her bosom rose and fell in the softest sighing; her pure throat was like marble, and her just parted lips seemed to need a protector from the bees….
While she sleeps, let us learn a little more of her history. Some five-and-twenty years previously, Alfred Redwing was a lecturer on Greek and Latin at a small college in the North of England, making shift to live on a beggarly stipend. Handsome, pleasing, not quite thirty, he was well received in such semblance of society as his town offered, and, in spite of his defects as a suitor, he won for his wife a certain Miss Baxendale, the daughter of a well-to-do manufacturer. She brought him at once a few hundreds a year, and lie pursued his college work in improved spirits. His wife had two brothers; one had early gone to America, the other was thriving as a man of business in the town of Dunfield. With Laurence Baxendale, who dated his very occasional letters from various parts of the United States, the family might be said to have parted for good; before leaving England he had got on ill terms with his father and brother, and it was only a persistent affection for his sister that caused him to give any sign of himself year after year. When this sister had been Mrs. Redwing for about two years, she one day received an intimation from solicitors that Laurence was dead and had left her the whole of a very considerable fortune, the product, mainly, of dealings in lumber. Mr. and Mrs. Redwing in fact found themselves possessed of nearly fourteen thousand a year, proceeding from most orderly investments. This would naturally involve a change in their mode of life. In the first place they paid a visit to America; then they settled in London, where, about the same time, their only child, Beatrice was born. A month after the child’s coming into the world, the father withdrew from it–into a private lunatic asylum. He had not been himself from the day when he heard of the fortune that had come to him; such an access of blessedness was not provided for in the constitution of his mind. Probably few men of his imaginative temperament and hard antecedents could have borne the change without some little unsettling of mental balance; we are framed to endure any amount of ill, but have to take our chance in the improbable event of vast joy befalling us. Poor Redwing conceived a suspicion that his wife desired to murder him; one night as she was following him into their bedroom, he suddenly turned round, caught hold of her with violence, and flung her to the ground, demanding the knife which he protested he had seen gleam in her hand. It was no longer safe to live with him; he was put under restraint, and never again knew freedom. In less than a year he died, a moping maniac.
Mrs. Redwing was an invalid thenceforth; probably it was only the existence of her child that saved her life. An affection of the heart in course of time declared itself, but, though her existence was believed to hang on a thread, she lived on and on, lived to see Beatrice grow to womanhood. She kept a small house in London, but spent the greater part of the year at home or foreign health-resorts. Her relatives had supposed that she would return to her own country, but Mrs. Redwing had tastes which lacked gratification in a provincial manufacturing town. Without having achieved much positive culture, she had received from her husband an impulse towards the development of certain higher possibilities in her nature, and she liked the society of mentally active people. The state of her health alone withheld her from a second marriage; she was not a very patient invalid, and suffered keenly in the sense of missing the happiness which life had offered her. In the matter of her daughter’s education she exercised much care. Doctrinal religion had a strong hold upon her, and it was her solicitude that Beatrice should walk from the first in the ways of Anglican salvation. She dreaded the ‘spirit of the age.’ With a better judgment in pure literature than falls to the lot of most women–or men either–she yet banished from her abode, wherever it might be anything that remotely savoured of intellectual emancipation; her asthetic leanings she deemed the great temptation of her life, for she frankly owned to her friends that many things powerfully attracted her, which her con science bade her shun as dangerous. Her generosity made her a shining light in the world which busies itself in the dispensing or receiving of ecclesiastical charity. The clerical element was very strong in the circle that surrounded her. At the same time her worldly tastes did not go altogether ungratified. She was very fond of music, and her unlimited powers in the provision of first-rate musical entertainment brought to her house acquaintances of a kind that would not otherwise have been found there. The theatre she tabooed, regarding this severity as an acceptable sacrifice, and not troubling to reflect what share her ill-health had in rendering it a fairly easy one. In brief, she was a woman of a genial nature, whose inconsistencies were largely due to her inability to outgrow early conditions.
Beatrice inherited her mother’s mental restrictions, but was endowed with a subtlety of nature, which, aided by her circumstances, made her yet more a being of inconsistencies and contradictions. Iii religion it was not enough for her to conform; zeal drove her into the extremest forms of ritualistic observance. Nor did care for her personal salvation suffice; the logic of a compassionate nature led her on to various forms of missionary activity; she haunted vile localities, ministering alike to soul and body. At the same time she relished keenly the delights of the masquerading sphere, where her wealth and her beauty made her doubly welcome. From praying by the bedside of a costermonger’s wife, she would speed away to shine among the brightest in phantasmagoric drawing-rooms; her mother could seldom accompany her, but there was always some one ready to chaperon Beatrice Redwing. Once in the world from which thought is banished, she seemed as thoughtless as any. Her spiritual convictions put no veto even upon dancing. Yet her mood at such times was not the entire self-abandonment of the girl who is born but to waltz. In spite of the sanction of custom, she could not wholly suppress her virginal instincts, and, however unconsciously, something in her nature held itself aloof. She led a life of indecision. Combining in herself such contradictory elements, she was unable to make close friendships. Her intimacy with Mrs. Rossall, which dated from her late childhood, was not the perfect accord which may subsist between women of very different characters, yet here she gave and received more sympathy than elsewhere. It was her frequent saying that she came to Mrs. Rossall’s house when she wanted to rest. Here she could be herself, could pass without interval from pietistic argument to chatter about her neighbours, could indulge in impulses of confession as with no one else, could put off the strain of existence which was the result of her conflicting impulses. But it was only during a portion of the year that she could have Mrs. Rossall’s society at other times, though no one suspected it, she suffered much from loneliness. With her mother she was in accord on the subjects of religion and music, but even natural affection, blending with these sympathies, could not bring about complete unity in her home there was the same lack that she experienced in the outer world. For all her versatility, she was not in appearance emotional; no one seemed less likely to be overcome by passion. Her enthusiasms fell short of the last note of sincerity. Perhaps it was on this account that she produced no strong impression, in spite of her beauty. Her personality suffered on acquaintance from defect of charm. Was it a half-consciousness of this that led her now and then into the curious affectation of childishness already remarked? Did she feel unable to rely for pleasing upon those genuine possessions which for sonic reason could never advantageously display themselves?….
For more than an hour she slept. At her waking she found Minnie standing by her side.
‘Are your lessons over?’ she asked, passing at once into full consciousness, without sign of having slept.
The child replied that they were.
‘Where is Miss Hood?’
‘In the summer-house.’
Beatrice rose, and they walked towards the summer-house together. It was in a corner of the garden, hidden among acacias and laurels, a circular hut in the ordinary style. Patty and the governess were seated within. Beatrice entered, and took a scat with them.
‘Is your memory as good as my own, Miss Hood?’ she said pleasantly. ‘Do you remember our meeting four years ago?’
The other regarded her with quiet surprise, and said she had no recollection of the meeting.
‘Not at Mr. Baxendale’s, my uncle’s, one day that you lunched with us when I was staying there?’
Miss Hood had wholly forgotten the circumstance. It served, however, for the commencement of a conversation, which went en till Mrs. Rossall, finding the hammock deserted, was guided by the sound of voices to where the two girls and the children sat.
In the afternoon there was a setting forth into the country. Mr. Athel drove his sister and the children; Wilfrid and Beatrice accompanied them on horseback. The course to be pursued having been determined, the riders were not at pains to keep the carriage always within sight.
‘Why did Miss Hood decline to come?’ Mr. Athel inquired, shortly after they had started.
She gave no reason, Mrs. Rossall replied. ‘It was her choice to stay at home.’
‘Of course you asked her in a proper way?’
‘Why, Philip, of course I did.’
‘Miss Hood never alters her mind,’ remarked Patty.
‘Never,’ exclaimed the other twin with decision.
‘An admirable characteristic,’ commented their uncle, ‘provided her decision is right to begin with.’
Beatrice had just led off at a gallop; Wilfrid necessarily followed her. When the pace slackened they began to talk of Indifferent things. On the crest of a hill, whence the carriage could be seen far away on the white road, the girl reined in, and, turning to her companion, asked abruptly–
‘What is your opinion of Miss Hood?’
‘Why do you ask such a question?’
‘Because I should like to know. She interests me, and you must have had opportunities enough lately of studying her character?’
‘Why does she interest you?’
‘I can’t say. I thought you might help me to discover the reason. You have often said that you liked women of strongly marked character.’
‘How do you conclude that she is one?’
‘I feel it; we were talking together before lunch. I don’t think I like her; I don’t think she has principles.’
‘Principles! The word is vague. You mean, no doubt, that she doesn’t seem to have commonplace prejudices.’
‘That’s just what I wanted you to say.’
She let her horse move on. The young man followed, his eyes gazing absently before him, a smile fixed upon his lips.
Beatrice looked over her shoulder.
‘Does she read the same kind of books that you do?’
‘Unfortunately I read no books at all.’
She paused again to let him get to her side.
‘What a pity it can’t continue!’
‘Your inability to read.’
‘That is the kindest remark I have heard for a long time!’ exclaimed Wilfrid with a good-natured laugh.
‘Very likely it is, though you don’t mean it. When you read, you only poison your mind. It is your reading that has made you what you are, without faith, without feeling. You dissect everything, you calculate motives cynically, you have learnt to despise everyone who believes what you refuse to, you make your own intellect the centre of the world. You are dangerous.’
‘What a character! To whom am I dangerous?’
‘To anyone whom it pleases you to tempt, in whom you find the beginnings of disbelief.’
‘In brief, I have no principles?’
‘Of course you have none.’
‘In other words, I am selfish?’
It was hard to discover whether she were in earnest. Wilfrid examined her for a moment, and concluded that she must be. Her eyes were gleaming with no mock seriousness, and there was even a slight quiver about her lips. In all their exchanges of banter he had never known her look and speak quite as she did now. As he regarded her there came a flush to her cheek. She turned her head away and rode on.
‘And what moves you to visit me with this castigation at present, Miss Redwing?’ he asked, still maintaining his jesting tone.
‘I don’t know,’ she answered carelessly. ‘I felt all at once able to say what I thought.’
‘Then you do really think all this?’
‘Assuredly I do.’
He kept silence a little.
‘And you can’t see,’ he began, rather more seriously, ‘that you are deplorably lacking in the charity which surely should be among _your_ principles?’
‘There are some things to which charity must not be extended.’
‘Let us say, then, discretion, insight.’ He spoke yet more earnestly. ‘You judge me, and, in truth, you know as little of me as anyone could. The attitude of your mind prevents you from understanding me in the least; it prevents you from understanding any human being. You are consumed with prejudice, and prejudice of the narrowest, most hopeless kind. Am I too severe?’
‘Not more so than you have often been. Many a time you have told me how you despised me.’
He was silent, then spoke impulsively.
‘Well, perhaps the word is not too strong; though it is not your very self that I despise, but the ignorance and bigotry which possess you. It is a pity; I believe you might be a woman of quite a different kind.’
‘Of pronounced character?’
‘Precisely. You are neither one thing nor another. You have told me what you think of me; shall I be equally frank and speak as if you were a college friend? For at all events we _are_ friends.’
‘I am not sure of that.’
‘Oh, but I am; and we shall be friends none the worse for ingenuousness on both sides. Look at the position in which you stand. One moment you arc a woman of the world, the next you run frantic with religious zeal, another turn and you are almost an artist, at your piano; when you are tired of all these you become, or try to become, a sort of _ingenue_. In the name of consistency, be one thing or another. You are quite mistaken in thinking that I despise religious enthusiasm in itself. Become a veritable Beatrice, and I will venerate you infinitely. Give up everything to work in London slums, and you shall have my warmest admiration. But you are not sincere.’
‘I am sincere!’ she broke in, with more passion than he had ever imagined her capable of uttering.
‘I cannot call it sincerity. It is impossible that you should be sincere; you live in the latter end of the nineteenth century; the conditions of your birth and education forbid sincerity of this kind.’
‘I am sincere,’ she repeated, but in a low voice, without looking at him.
‘On the other hand,’ lie proceeded, ‘surrender yourself entirely to the life of society, and I will still respect you. You are a beautiful woman; you might be inexpressibly charming. Frankly recognise your capabilities, and cultivate your charm. Make a study of your loveliness; make it your end to be a queen in drawing-rooms.’
‘You insult me.’
‘I can’t see that I do. There is nothing contemptible in such an aim; nothing is contemptible that is thorough. Or you have the third course. Pursue music with seriousness. Become a real artist; a public singer, let us say. No amateur nonsense; recognise that you have a superb voice, and that by dint of labour you may attain artistic excellence. You talk of getting up concerts in low parts of London, of humanising ruffians by the influence of music. Pshaw! humanise humanity at large by devotion to an artistic ideal; the other aim is paltry, imbecile, charlatan.’
He tried to see her face; she rode on, holding it averted.
‘Follow any one of these courses, and you will make of yourself a true woman. By trying to be a bit of everything you become insignificant. Napoleon the Great was a curse to mankind, but one thinks more of him than of Napoleon the Little, who wasn’t quite sure whether to be a curse or a blessing. There is a self in every one of us; the end of our life is to discern it, bring it out, make it actual. You don’t yet know your own self; you have not the courage to look into your heart and mind; you keep over your eyes the bandage of dogmas in which you only half believe. Your insincerity blights the natural qualities of your intellect. You have so long tried to persuade yourself of the evil of every way of thinking save ecclesiastical dogmatism, that you cannot judge fairly even those to whom you are most friendly. Cannot you see that the world has outgrown the possibility of one universal religion? For good or for evil, each of us must find a religion in himself, and you have no right whatever to condemn before you have understood.’
‘You cannot say that you have any religion,’ she said, facing him. He saw to his astonishment that there had been tears in her eyes.
‘You cannot say that I have none. The radical fault of your uninstructed way of looking at things is that you imagine mankind and the world to be matters of such simple explanation. You learn by heart a few maxims, half a dozen phrases, and there is your key to every mystery. That is the child’s state of mind. You have never studied, you have never thought. Your self-confidence is ludicrous; you and such as you do not hesitate to judge offhand men who have spent a long life in the passionate pursuit of wisdom. You have no reverence. It is the fault you attribute to me, but wrongly; if you had ever brought an open mind to our conversations, you would have understood that my reverence even for your ideal is not a wit less than your own; it is only that I see it in another light. You say that I have no religion: what if I have not? Are one’s final conclusions to be achieved in a year or two of early manhood? I have my inner voices, and I try to understand them. Often enough they are ambiguous, contradictory; I live in hope that their bidding will become clearer. I search for meanings, try to understand myself, strive after knowledge.’
‘You might as well have been born a pagan. One voice has spoken; its bidding is the sufficient and only guide.’
‘Say rather that so it seems to you. Your inheritance of conviction is not mine; your mode of reasoning and my own have nothing in common. We inhabit different worlds.’
Beatrice let her eyes turn slowly to his face. The smile with which he met her found no reflection on her countenance; her look was that of one who realises a fatality.
‘Shall we join them?’ she asked in a moment, nodding towards the far-off carriage which was about to hide itself among trees.
Wilfrid mused instead of answering. She began to ride on.
‘Stay one minute,’ he said. ‘I have been anything but courteous in my way of speaking to you, but it was better to put off idle forms, was it not ?’
‘Yes; I shall know henceforth what you think of me.’
‘Not from this one conversation, if you mean that.’
‘Well, it does not matter.’
‘Perhaps not. Difference of opinion has fortunately little to do with old-standing kindness.’
‘I am not sure that you are right, at all events when it has expressed itself in words of contempt.’
It was not resentment that her voice conveyed, but some thing which Wilfrid found it harder to bear. Her drooped eyelids and subdued tone indicated a humble pride, which the protest of her beauty made pathetic.
‘We will never speak of such things again,’ he said gently. ‘Let me have your forgiveness. When we join them down there, they will laugh at us and say we have been quarrelling as usual; in future I think we mustn’t quarrel, we are both of us getting too old for the amusement. When you sing to us to-night, I shall remember how foolish I was even to pretend contempt.’
‘You will be thinking,’ she said, ‘that I am a mere amateur.’
‘If I do, I shall be an ungrateful wretch–and an insensible one, to boot.’
She rode down the hill without replying.
Miss Hood did not, of course, dine with the family. Though, as Mrs. Rossall said, it was a distinct advantage to have in the house a governess whom one could in many respects treat as an equal, yet there was naturally a limit, in this as in all other matters. We have not yet, either in fact or in sentiment, quite outgrown the social stage in which personal hiring sets on the hired a stigma of servitude. Mrs. Rossall was not unaware that, in all that concerned intellectual refinement, her governess was considerably superior to herself, and in personal refinement not less a lady; but the fact of quarterly payments, spite of all this, inevitably indicated a place below the salt. Mr. Athel, though, as we have seen, anxious to indulge himself in humane regard whenever social regulations permitted, was the last man to suffer in his household serious innovations upon traditional propriety.
So Miss Hood–Emily, as she was called by the little group of people away in Yorkshire, to whom she was other than a governess; Emily; as we will permit ourselves to call her henceforth–always had the meal of tea with the children. After that the evening was her own, save that the twins kept her company until their hour of bedtime. The school-room was also her sitting-room. After half-past eight in the evening she had it to herself, and there she passed many an hour of quiet content, playing softly on the piano, reading, dreaming. In the matter of books she was well off; Mr. Athel and his sister had subscriptions at several London libraries, and of these the governess was invited to make free use. It was some restraint upon her that her choice of reading always passed under Mrs. Bossall’s eyes, but not so much after the first few weeks. The widow was by this time well advanced in the resumption of purely mundane literature, and the really liberal tone which prevailed in the house removed apprehension in the pursuit of modern studies. For it was rather an ideal towards which she was working than an attainment in fact, that eclecticism of which she spoke to Wilfrid Athel. The monthly library lists which came under her eyes offered many a sore temptation. She was true on the whole to her system; she did not read at random, and never read frivolously; but a taste strongly directed to the best in literature will find much in the work of our day, especially its criticism, which is indispensable as guidance, or attractive by its savour. This was not Emily’s first access, fortunately, to the streams of contemporary thought; already she had enjoyed and largely used opportunities of the most various reading. She was able now to choose with discretion, and in a great degree to make her study serve directly the scheme of culture which she had devised for herself.
Few governesses had so pleasant a life. Mrs. Rossall, supported by her brother’s views, imposed on her children a minimum of brain-work. Bodily health was after all the first thing, especially in the case of girls. A couple of hours’ school in the morning, one hour given to preparation of lessons after tea–this for the present was deemed quite enough. ‘Your companionship throughout the day will always be forming their minds,’ Mrs. Rossall said in one of her earliest conversations with Emily; it was pleasantly put, and truer than it would have been in the ease of many instructresses. The twins were not remarkably fond of their lessons, but in Emily’s hands they became docile and anxious to please. She had the art of winning their affection without losing control over them; had Mrs. Bossall’s rather languid habits of mind allowed her to give attention to the subject, she would have been struck with the singular combination of tenderness and reverence which the two entertained towards their teacher. Little laxities of behaviour arid phrase upon which their mother’s presence would be no check, they did not venture to allow themselves when with Emily; her only reproof was a steady gaze, eloquent of gentleness, but it proved quite sufficient. The twins were in truth submitting to the force of character. They felt it without understanding what it meant; one ether person in the house experienced the same influence, but in his case it led to reflection.
Wilfrid was at Balliol when Miss Hood first arrived; he saw her for the first time when he came to town after his collapse. All hastened away to The Firs together. Wilfrid suffered no positive illness; he shared in the amusements of the family, and, with the exception of a good deal of pishing and pshawing at the restraints put upon him, had the appearance of one taking an ordinary holiday. There was undeniable truth in Beatrice Redwing’s allusion to his much talking; without social intercourse he would soon have become ill in earnest; association with intelligent–all the better if argumentative–people was an indispensable condition of his existence. In his later school, and early college, days this tendency to give free utterance to his thoughts made him not altogether the most delightful of companions to such as were older than himself; his undeniable cleverness and the stores of knowledge he had already acquired needed somewhat more of the restraint of tact than his character at that time supplied. People occasionally called him a prig; now and then he received what the vernacular of youth terms ‘a sitting upon.’ The saving feature of his condition was that he allowed himself to be sat upon gracefully; a snub well administered to him was sure of its full artistic, and did not fail in its moral, effect: there was no vulgar insolence in the young fellow. What he received he could acknowledge that he deserved. A term or two at Balliol put this right; in mingling with some that were his equals, and one or two who were his superiors, he learned prudence in the regulation of his speech.
For a brie. time he perhaps talked not quite so much. When his ‘set’ was formed, the currents of argument and rhetoric had once more free course, but they were beginning to flow less turbidly. His nature, as we know, was not merely vehement; he had the instincts of a philosophical inquirer, and his intellect speedily outgrew the stage of callowness. When he came down for his first ‘long’ the change in him was so marked that it astonished all who met him; that he appeared wholly unconscious of the ripening he had undergone only made his development more impressive. He had gone away a boy, and returned a man. He talked no less than ever, but in a markedly improved tone. He was graver, more seemly in the buoyant outbreaks in which he still occasionally indulged. One reason of his rapid maturing no doubt lay in the fact that he was already working too hard; his sprightliness was in a measure subdued by wear of tissue. His father was shrewd enough to suspect something of this, but it was difficult to interfere in any way. A month in Switzerland seemed to set things right. On the present more serious occasion, it had been deemed better not to set forth on a journey forthwith; perfect repose at the house in Surrey was all that was advised in the first instance. But it was clear that Wilfrid must have some one to talk with. A succession of visits from such friends as were available was speedily arranged. By the end of the first week, Wilfrid had accommodated himself to his circumstances. His fretting at the regulations imposed for his health almost ceased. At first this change was viewed with suspicion, especially when he became more absorbed in reflectiveness, and seemed to have less taste for conversation. However, he was perfectly cheerful; there were no further symptoms to excite alarm. Nor did the brooding period last very long. The only permanent change was that he ceased to grumble at his hard lot, and appeared to find his position very tolerable.
‘It is the physical reaction,’ observed Mr. Athel to his sister. ‘The body is indulging itself; recovery of health absorbs his energies.’
Opportunities for anything like sustained converse with Miss Hood, Wilfrid found very few and far between; only once before the long talk in the hollow had he been able to gratify his curiosity–perhaps already some other feeling–in a dialogue of any intimacy. In a situation such as this, delicacy prescribed a very rigid discretion; Emily, moreover, was not facile of approach. Throughout the day she was scarcely away from the children; of course he could and did often exchange words with her in the presence of. the twins, but he felt himself held at a distance by a tact which was perfect; without undue reserve, without a shadow of unrefined manoeuvring, Emily limited their intercourse in precisely the way that Mr. Athel or Mrs. Rossall would have deemed becoming. Then there were almost always guests at the house. With prudent regard to the character of these visitors, Mrs. Rossall chose opportunities for inviting the governess to the drawing-room during the evening, but Emily was not wholly at her ease under such conditions, and Wilfrid was withheld by only half-conscious motives from talking with her at these times. He shrank from subjecting himself to examination whilst encouraging her to speak on the subjects he would naturally choose; he felt, too, that she desired him not to address her, though this perception came to him in subtle ways of which he could render to himself no account. For all this, their acquaintance, nay their intimacy, grew. If ever eyes habitually expressed a self-respecting frankness, if ever any were incapable of ignoble artifice, they were Emily’s; yet as time went on Wilfrid began to long for the casual meeting with her glance for the mere reason that he felt it as an exchange of words between her and himself. Thus it was that, when at length the first real conversation came, it seemed the sequel of many others, seemed so to both of them. They had divined each other; speech did but put the seal of confirmation on knowledge gained by mutual sympathy.
It may be presumed that neither Mr. Athel nor Mrs. Rossall was altogether regardless of possibilities suggested by the abiding beneath the same roof of an impetuous young man, forced into idleness, and a girl who was above the average in mental endowments, whilst, on the whole, she might be considered interesting in appearance. They exchanged no remark on the subject; it was scarcely likely they should; but during the first few weeks both were observant. Their observations were reassuring to them. And indeed they had not anticipated trouble, for the simple reason that both believed Wilfrid’s affections to tend already in a marked direction, and one of which they altogether approved. That he would some day take for his wife Beatrice Redwing was a conclusion upon which father and aunt had settled their minds; the conclusion was reasonable enough, and well supported by such evidence as the ease admitted. Mr. Athel had at an earlier period entertained certain misgivings as to the desirability of such a marriage; misgivings which had reference to the disastrous story of the Redwing household; the conception of hereditary tendencies has become a strong force in our time, and pronounced madness in a parent cannot as easily be disregarded as it once was. But the advantages of the alliance were so considerable, its likelihood so indisputable, that prudence had scarcely fair play; besides, Beatrice had reached her twenty-first year without any sign of mental trouble, and seemed as sound a girl as could anywhere be discovered. The habitual sword-crossing between her and Wilfrid was naturally regarded as their mode of growing endeared to each other; their intellectual variances could not, by a sober gentleman of eight-and-forty and by a young widow whose interest in the world was reviving, be regarded as a bar to matrimony. ‘Family,’ Beatrice would not bring, but she was certain to inherit very large fortune, which, after all, means more than family nowadays. On the whole it was a capital thing for Wilfrid that marriage would be entered upon in so smooth a way. Mr. Athel was not forgetful of his own course in that matter; he understood his father’s attitude as he could not when resisting it, and was much disposed to concede that there might have been two opinions as to his own proceeding five-and-twenty years ago. But for Beatrice, the young man’s matrimonial future would have been to his father a subject of constant apprehension; as it was, the situation lost much of its natural hazard.
In Emily there was nothing that suggested sentimentality; rather one would have thought her deficient in sensibility, judging from the tone of her conversation. She did not freely express admiration, even in the form of assent to what was said by others. To interpret her reticence as shyness was a misunderstanding, or a misuse of words, natural in the case of an inexact observer like Mrs. Rossall. Four years ago, when Beatrice met her in Dunfield, her want of self-confidence was pronounced enough; she had at that time never quitted her provincial home, and was in the anomalous position of one who is intellectually outgrowing very restricted social circumstances. The Baxendales were not wrong in discussing her as shy. But that phase of her life was now left far behind. Her extreme moderation was deliberate; it was her concession to the fate which made her a governess. Courtesy and kindliness might lead those whose bread she ate to endeavour occasionally to remove all show of social distinction; neither her temperament nor her sense of comeliness in behaviour would allow her to shrink from such advances, but she could not lose sight of the unreality of the situations to which they led. Self-respect is conditioned by the influence of circumstance on character; in Emily it expressed itself as a subtle sensitiveness to grades of sympathy. She could not shut her eyes to the actuality of things; sincerity was the foundation of her being, and delicate appreciation of its degrees in others regulated her speech and demeanour with an exactitude inappreciable by those who take life in a rough and ready way. When engaged in her work of teaching, she was at ease; alone in the room which had been set apart for her, she lived in the freedom of her instincts; but in Mrs. Rossall’s drawing-room she could only act a part, and all such divergence from reality was pain. It was not that she resented her subordination, for she was almost devoid of social ambitions and knew nothing of vulgar envy; still less did it come of reasoned revolt against the artificial ordering of precedences; Emily’s thoughts did not tend that way. She could do perfect justice to the amiable qualities of those who were set above her; she knew no bitterness in the food which she duly earned; but, by no one’s fault, there was a vein of untruth in the life she had to lead. To remind herself that such untruth was common to all lives, was an outcome of the conditions of society, did not help her to disregard it; nature had endowed her with a stern idealism which would not ally itself with compromise. She was an artist in life. The task before her, a task of which in these days she was growing more and more conscious, was to construct an existence every moment of which should serve an all-pervading harmony. The recent birth within her of a new feeling was giving direction and vigour to the forces of her being; it had not as yet declared itself as a personal desire; it wrought only as an impassioned motive in the sphere of her intellectual aspirations, She held herself more persistently apart from conventional intercourse; she wished it had been possible to keep wholly to herself in the hours when her services were not demanded. Mr. Athel, who liked to express himself to young people with a sort of paternal geniality, rallied her one day on her excessive study, and bade her be warned by a notorious example. This had the effect of making her desist from reading in the presence of other people.
She had known much happiness during these two months at The Firs, happiness of a kind to dwell in the memory and be a resource in darker days. Though mere personal ease was little the subject of her thoughts, she prized for its effect upon her mind the air of graceful leisure, of urbane repose, which pervaded the house. To compare The Firs with that plain little dwelling on the skirts of a Yorkshire manufacturing town which she called her home, was to understand the inestimable advantage of those born into the material refinement which wealth can command, of those who breathe from childhood the atmosphere of liberal enjoyment, who walk from the first on clean ways, with minds disengaged from anxiety of casual soilure, who know not even by domestic story the trammels of sordid preoccupation. Thus it was with a sense of well-being that she stepped on rich carpets, let her eyes wander over the light and dark of rooms where wealth had done the bidding of taste, watched the neat and silent ministering of servants. These things to her meant priceless opportunity, the facilitating of self-culture. Even the little room in which she sat by herself of evenings was daintily furnished; when weary with reading, it eased and delighted her merely to gaze at the soft colours of the wall-paper, the vases with their growing flowers, the well-chosen pictures, the graceful shape of a chair; she nursed her appreciation of these Joys, resisted the ingress of familiarity, sought daily for novel aspects of things become intimately known. She rose at early hours that she might have the garden to herself in all its freshness; she loved to look from her window into the calm depth of the summer midnight. In this way she brought into consciousness the craving of her soul, made the pursuit of beauty a religion, grew to welcome the perception of new meaning in beautiful things with a spiritual delight. This was the secret of her life, which she guarded so jealously, which she feared even by chance to betray in the phrasings of common intercourse. Wilfrid had divined it, and it was the secret influence of this sympathy that had led her to such unwonted frankness in their latest conversation.
Mrs. Rossall had spoken to her of Beatrice Redwing’s delightful singing, and had asked her to come to the drawing-room during the evening; having declined the afternoon’s drive, Emily did not feel able to neglect this other invitation. The day had become sultry towards its close; when she joined the company about nine o’clock, she found Beatrice with Mrs. Rossall sitting in the dusk by the open French windows, Mr. Athel in a chair just outside, and Wilfrid standing by him, the latter pair smoking. The sky beyond the line of dark greenery was still warm with after-glow of sunset.
Emily quietly sought a chair near Mrs. Rossall, from whom she received a kind look. Mr. Athel was relating a story of his early wanderings in Egypt, with a leisurely gusto, an effective minuteness of picturing, the result of frequent repetition. At the points of significance he would pause for a moment or two and puff life into his cigar. His anecdotes were seldom remarkable, but they derived interest from the enjoyment with which he told them; they impressed one with a sense of mental satisfaction, of physical robustness held in reserve, of life content among the good things of the world.
‘Shall we have lights?’ Mrs. Rossall asked, when the story at length came to an end.
‘Play us something first,’ said Beatrice. ‘This end of twilight is so pleasant.’
Mrs. Rossall went to the piano, upon which still fell a glimmer from another window, and filled the room with harmony suiting the hour. Wilfrid had come in and seated himself on a couch in a dark corner; his father paced up and down the grass. Emily watched the first faint gleam of stars in the upper air.
Then lamps and candles were brought in. Beatrice was seen to be dressed in dark blue, her hair richly attired, a jewelled cross below her throat, her bosom and arms radiant in bare loveliness. Emily, at the moment that she regarded her, found herself also observed. Her own dress was of warm grey, perfectly simple, with a little lace at the neck and wrists. Beatrice averted her eyes quickly, and made some laughing remark to Mr. Athel.
‘I know you always object to sing without some musical preparation,’ said Mrs. Rossall, as she took a seat by the girl’s side. ‘I wonder whether we ought to close the windows; are you afraid of the air?’
‘Oh, leave them open!’ Beatrice replied. ‘It is so close.’
Her cheeks had a higher colour than usual; she lay back in the chair with face turned upwards, her eyes dreaming.
‘You are tired, I am afraid,’ Mrs. Rossall said, ‘in spite of your sleep in the hammock. The first day in the country always tires me dreadfully.’
‘Yes, I suppose I am, a little,’ murmured Beatrice.
‘Not too tired, I hope, to sing,’ said Wilfrid, coming from his couch in the corner to a nearer seat. His way of speaking was not wholly natural; like his attitude, it had something constrained; he seemed to be discharging a duty.
‘Observe the selfishness of youth,’ remarked Mr. Athel.
‘Age, I dare say, has its selfishness too in the present instance,’ was Mrs. Rossall’s rejoinder.
‘To whom does that refer?’ questioned her brother, jocosely.
Beatrice turned her head suddenly towards Emily.
‘Shall I sing, Miss Hood?’ she asked, with a touch of her _ingenue_ manner, though the playfulness of her words rang strangely.
‘It will give me much pleasure to hear you,’ was the sober reply, coming after an instant of embarrassment.
Beatrice rose. Her movement across the room had a union of conscious stateliness and virgin grace which became her style of beauty; it was in itself the introduction to fine music. Mrs. Rossall went to accompany. Choice was made of a solo from an oratorio; Beatrice never sang trivialities of the day, a noteworthy variance from her habits in other things. In a little while, Wilfrid stirred to enable himself to see Emily’s face; it showed deep feeling. And indeed it was impossible to hear that voice and remain unmoved; its sweetness, its force, its skill were alike admirable. Beatrice conversing was quite other than Beatrice when she sang; music was her mode of self-utterance; from the first sustained note it was felt that a difficulty of expression had been overcome, and that she was saying things which at other times she could not, disclosing motives which as a rule the complexities of her character covered and concealed, which were not clear to her own consciousness till the divine impulse gave them form. It was no shallow nature that could pour forth this flood of harmony. The mere gift of a splendid voice, wrought to whatever degree of perfection, would not invest with this rare power. In technical qualities she might have much still to learn, but the passionate poetry of her notes was what no training could have developed, and it would never evince itself with more impressiveness than to-night.
It seemed frivolous to speak thanks. Wilfrid gazed out into the dark of the garden; Emily kept her eyes bent downward. She heard the rustle of Beatrice’s dress near her. Mr. Athel began to speak of the piece the sound of Beatrice’s voice replying caused Emily at length to look up, and she met the dark eyes, still large with the joy of song. Her own gaze had a beautiful solemnity, a devout admiration, of which it was impossible to doubt the genuineness; Beatrice, observing it, smiled very slightly before turning away again.
A quarter of an hour after, Emily withdrew. Mrs. Rossall played a little, and talk of an idle kind followed. Wilfrid was not disposed to take his usual part in conversation, and his casual remarks were scarcely ever addressed to Beatrice. Presently Mrs. Rossall wished to refer to the ‘Spectator,’ which contained a criticism of a new pianist of whom there was much talk just then.
‘Have you had it, Wilf?’ Mr. Athel asked, after turning over a heap of papers in vain.
‘Oh, the “Spectator,”‘ Wilfrid replied, rousing himself from absentness. ‘Yes, I had it in the summer-house just before dinner; I believe I left it there. Shall I fetch it?’
‘It would serve you right if I said yes,’ admonished Mrs. Rossall. ‘In the first place you had no business to be reading it–‘
‘I will go,’ Wilfrid said, rising with an effort.
‘No, no; it will do to-morrow.’
‘May as well get it now,’ he said indifferently, and went out by the window.
That part of the garden through which he walked lay in the shadow of the house; the sky was full of moonlight, but the moon itself was still low. A pathway between laurels led to the summer-house. Just short of the little building, he passed the edge of shade, and, before entering, turned to view the bright crescent as it hung just above the house-roof.