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James Rusk, email@example.com.]
[Etext version by James Rusk, firstname.lastname@example.org. Italics are indicated by underscores.]
“I SAY NO.”
by WILKIE COLLINS
BOOK THE FIRST–AT SCHOOL.
THE SMUGGLED SUPPER.
Outside the bedroom the night was black and still.
The small rain fell too softly to be heard in the garden; not a leaf stirred in the airless calm; the watch-dog was asleep, the cats were indoors; far or near, under the murky heaven, not a sound was stirring.
Inside the bedroom the night was black and still.
Miss Ladd knew her business as a schoolmistress too well to allow night-lights; and Miss Ladd’s young ladies were supposed to be fast asleep, in accordance with the rules of the house. Only at intervals the silence was faintly disturbed, when the restless turning of one of the girls in her bed betrayed itself by a gentle rustling between the sheets. In the long intervals of stillness, not even the softly audible breathing of young creatures asleep was to be heard.
The first sound that told of life and movement revealed the mechanical movement of the clock. Speaking from the lower regions, the tongue of Father Time told the hour before midnight.
A soft voice rose wearily near the door of the room. It counted the strokes of the clock–and reminded one of the girls of the lapse of time.
“Emily! eleven o’clock.”
There was no reply. After an interval the weary voice tried again, in louder tones:
A girl, whose bed was at the inner end of the room, sighed under the heavy heat of the night–and said, in peremptory tones, “Is that Cecilia?”
“What do you want?”
“I’m getting hungry, Emily. Is the new girl asleep?”
The new girl answered promptly and spitefully, “No, she isn’t.”
Having a private object of their own in view, the five wise virgins of Miss Ladd’s first class had waited an hour, in wakeful anticipation of the falling asleep of the stranger–and it had ended in this way! A ripple of laughter ran round the room. The new girl, mortified and offended, entered her protest in plain words.
“You are treating me shamefully! You all distrust me, because I am a stranger.”
“Say we don’t understand you,” Emily answered, speaking for her schoolfellows; “and you will be nearer the truth.”
“Who expected you to understand me, when I only came here to-day? I have told you already my name is Francine de Sor. If want to know more, I’m nineteen years old, and I come from the West Indies.”
Emily still took the lead. “Why do you come _here?_” she asked. “Who ever heard of a girl joining a new school just before the holidays? You are nineteen years old, are you? I’m a year younger than you–and I have finished my education. The next big girl in the room is a year younger than me–and she has finished her education. What can you possibly have left to learn at your age?”
“Everything!” cried the stranger from the West Indies, with an outburst of tears. “I’m a poor ignorant creature. Your education ought to have taught you to pity me instead of making fun of me. I hate you all. For shame, for shame!”
Some of the girls laughed. One of them–the hungry girl who had counted the strokes of the clock–took Francine’s part.
“Never mind their laughing, Miss de Sor. You are quite right, you have good reason to complain of us.”
Miss de Sor dried her eyes. “Thank you–whoever you are,” she answered briskly.
“My name is Cecilia Wyvil,” the other proceeded. “It was not, perhaps, quite nice of you to say you hated us all. At the same time we have forgotten our good breeding–and the least we can do is to beg your pardon.”
This expression of generous sentiment appeared to have an irritating effect on the peremptory young person who took the lead in the room. Perhaps she disapproved of free trade in generous sentiment.
“I can tell you one thing, Cecilia,” she said; “you shan’t beat ME in generosity. Strike a light, one of you, and lay the blame on me if Miss Ladd finds us out. I mean to shake hands with the new girl–and how can I do it in the dark? Miss de Sor, my name’s Brown, and I’m queen of the bedroom. I–not Cecilia–offer our apologies if we have offended you. Cecilia is my dearest friend, but I don’t allow her to take the lead in the room. Oh, what a lovely nightgown!”
The sudden flow of candle-light had revealed Francine, sitting up in her bed, and displaying such treasures of real lace over her bosom that the queen lost all sense of royal dignity in irrepressible admiration. “Seven and sixpence,” Emily remarked, looking at her own night-gown and despising it. One after another, the girls yielded to the attraction of the wonderful lace. Slim and plump, fair and dark, they circled round the new pupil in their flowing white robes, and arrived by common consent at one and the same conclusion: “How rich her father must be!”
Favored by fortune in the matter of money, was this enviable person possessed of beauty as well?
In the disposition of the beds, Miss de Sor was placed between Cecilia on the right hand, and Emily on the left. If, by some fantastic turn of events, a man–say in the interests of propriety, a married doctor, with Miss Ladd to look after him–had been permitted to enter the room, and had been asked what he thought of the girls when he came out, he would not even have mentioned Francine. Blind to the beauties of the expensive night-gown, he would have noticed her long upper lip, her obstinate chin, her sallow complexion, her eyes placed too close together–and would have turned his attention to her nearest neighbors. On one side his languid interest would have been instantly roused by Cecilia’s glowing auburn hair, her exquisitely pure skin, and her tender blue eyes. On the other, he would have discovered a bright little creature, who would have fascinated and perplexed him at one and the same time. If he had been questioned about her by a stranger, he would have been at a loss to say positively whether she was dark or light: he would have remembered how her eyes had held him, but he would not have known of what color they were. And yet, she would have remained a vivid picture in his memory when other impressions, derived at the same time, had vanished. “There was one little witch among them, who was worth all the rest put together; and I can’t tell you why. They called her Emily. If I wasn’t a married man–” There he would have thought of his wife, and would have sighed and said no more.
While the girls were still admiring Francine, the clock struck the half-hour past eleven.
Cecilia stole on tiptoe to the door–looked out, and listened–closed the door again–and addressed the meeting with the irresistible charm of her sweet voice and her persuasive smile.
“Are none of you hungry yet?” she inquired. “The teachers are safe in their rooms; we have set ourselves right with Francine. Why keep the supper waiting under Emily’s bed?”
Such reasoning as this, with such personal attractions to recommend it, admitted of but one reply. The queen waved her hand graciously, and said, “Pull it out.”
Is a lovely girl–whose face possesses the crowning charm of expression, whose slightest movement reveals the supple symmetry of her figure–less lovely because she is blessed with a good appetite, and is not ashamed to acknowledge it? With a grace all her own, Cecilia dived under the bed, and produced a basket of jam tarts, a basket of fruit and sweetmeats, a basket of sparkling lemonade, and a superb cake–all paid for by general subscriptions, and smuggled into the room by kind connivance of the servants. On this occasion, the feast was especially plentiful and expensive, in commemoration not only of the arrival of the Midsummer holidays, but of the coming freedom of Miss Ladd’s two leading young ladies. With widely different destinies before them, Emily and Cecilia had completed their school life, and were now to go out into the world.
The contrast in the characters of the two girls showed itself, even in such a trifle as the preparations for supper.
Gentle Cecilia, sitting on the floor surrounded by good things, left it to the ingenuity of others to decide whether the baskets should be all emptied at once, or handed round from bed to bed, one at a time. In the meanwhile, her lovely blue eyes rested tenderly on the tarts.
Emily’s commanding spirit seized on the reins of government, and employed each of her schoolfellows in the occupation which she was fittest to undertake. “Miss de Sor, let me look at your hand. Ah! I thought so. You have got the thickest wrist among us; you shall draw the corks. If you let the lemonade pop, not a drop of it goes down your throat. Effie, Annis, Priscilla, you are three notoriously lazy girls; it’s doing you a true kindness to set you to work. Effie, clear the toilet-table for supper; away with the combs, the brushes, and the looking-glass. Annis, tear the leaves out of your book of exercises, and set them out for plates. No! I’ll unpack; nobody touches the baskets but me. Priscilla, you have the prettiest ears in the room. You shall act as sentinel, my dear, and listen at the door. Cecilia, when you have done devouring those tarts with your eyes, take that pair of scissors (Miss de Sor, allow me to apologize for the mean manner in which this school is carried on; the knives and forks are counted and locked up every night)–I say take that pair of scissors, Cecilia, and carve the cake, and don’t keep the largest bit for yourself. Are we all ready? Very well. Now take example by me. Talk as much as you like, so long as you don’t talk too loud. There is one other thing before we begin. The men always propose toasts on these occasions; let’s be like the men. Can any of you make a speech? Ah, it falls on me as usual. I propose the first toast. Down with all schools and teachers–especially the new teacher, who came this half year. Oh, mercy, how it stings!” The fixed gas in the lemonade took the orator, at that moment, by the throat, and effectually checked the flow of her eloquence. It made no difference to the girls. Excepting the ease of feeble stomachs, who cares for eloquence in the presence of a supper-table? There were no feeble stomachs in that bedroom. With what inexhaustible energy Miss Ladd’s young ladies ate and drank! How merrily they enjoyed the delightful privilege of talking nonsense! And–alas! alas!–how vainly they tried, in after life, to renew the once unalloyed enjoyment of tarts and lemonade!
In the unintelligible scheme of creation, there appears to be no human happiness–not even the happiness of schoolgirls–which is ever complete. Just as it was drawing to a close, the enjoyment of the feast was interrupted by an alarm from the sentinel at the door.
Put out the candle!” Priscilla whispered “Somebody on the stairs.”
BIOGRAPHY IN THE BEDROOM.
The candle was instantly extinguished. In discreet silence the girls stole back to their beds, and listened.
As an aid to the vigilance of the sentinel, the door had been left ajar. Through the narrow opening, a creaking of the broad wooden stairs of the old house became audible. In another moment there was silence. An interval passed, and the creaking was heard again. This time, the sound was distant and diminishing. On a sudden it stopped. The midnight silence was disturbed no more.
What did this mean?
Had one among the many persons in authority under Miss Ladd’s roof heard the girls talking, and ascended the stairs to surprise them in the act of violating one of the rules of the house? So far, such a proceeding was by no means uncommon. But was it within the limits of probability that a teacher should alter her opinion of her own duty half-way up the stairs, and deliberately go back to her own room again? The bare idea of such a thing was absurd on the face of it. What more rational explanation could ingenuity discover on the spur of the moment?
Francine was the first to offer a suggestion. She shook and shivered in her bed, and said, “For heaven’s sake, light the candle again! It’s a Ghost.”
“Clear away the supper, you fools, before the ghost can report us to Miss Ladd.”
With this excellent advice Emily checked the rising panic. The door was closed, the candle was lit; all traces of the supper disappeared. For five minutes more they listened again. No sound came from the stairs; no teacher, or ghost of a teacher, appeared at the door.
Having eaten her supper, Cecilia’s immediate anxieties were at an end; she was at leisure to exert her intelligence for the benefit of her schoolfellows. In her gentle ingratiating way, she offered a composing suggestion. “When we heard the creaking, I don’t believe there was anybody on the stairs. In these old houses there are always strange noises at night–and they say the stairs here were made more than two hundred years since.”
The girls looked at each other with a sense of relief–but they waited to hear the opinion of the queen. Emily, as usual, justified the confidence placed in her. She discovered an ingenious method of putting Cecilia’s suggestion to the test.
“Let’s go on talking,” she said. “If Cecilia is right, the teachers are all asleep, and we have nothing to fear from them. If she’s wrong, we shall sooner or later see one of them at the door. Don’t be alarmed, Miss de Sor. Catching us talking at night, in this school, only means a reprimand. Catching us with a light, ends in punishment. Blow out the candle.”
Francine’s belief in the ghost was too sincerely superstitious to be shaken: she started up in bed. “Oh, don’t leave me in the dark! I’ll take the punishment, if we are found out.”
“On your sacred word of honor?” Emily stipulated.
The queen’s sense of humor was tickled.
“There’s something funny,” she remarked, addressing her subjects, “in a big girl like this coming to a new school and beginning with a punishment. May I ask if you are a foreigner, Miss de Sor?”
“My papa is a Spanish gentleman,” Francine answered, with dignity.
“And your mamma?”
“My mamma is English.”
“And you have always lived in the West Indies?”
“I have always lived in the Island of St. Domingo.”
Emily checked off on her fingers the different points thus far discovered in the character of Mr. de Sor’s daughter. “She’s ignorant, and superstitious, and foreign, and rich. My dear (forgive the familiarity), you are an interesting girl–and we must really know more of you. Entertain the bedroom. What have you been about all your life? And what in the name of wonder, brings you here? Before you begin I insist on one condition, in the name of all the young ladies in the room. No useful information about the West Indies!”
Francine disappointed her audience.
She was ready enough to make herself an object of interest to her companions; but she was not possessed of the capacity to arrange events in their proper order, necessary to the recital of the simplest narrative. Emily was obliged to help her, by means of questions. In one respect, the result justified the trouble taken to obtain it. A sufficient reason was discovered for the extraordinary appearance of a new pupil, on the day before the school closed for the holidays.
Mr. de Sor’s elder brother had left him an estate in St. Domingo, and a fortune in money as well; on the one easy condition that he continued to reside in the island. The question of expense being now beneath the notice of the family, Francine had been sent to England, especially recommended to Miss Ladd as a young lady with grand prospects, sorely in need of a fashionable education. The voyage had been so timed, by the advice of the schoolmistress, as to make the holidays a means of obtaining this object privately. Francine was to be taken to Brighton, where excellent masters could be obtained to assist Miss Ladd. With six weeks before her, she might in some degree make up for lost time; and, when the school opened again, she would avoid the mortification of being put down in the lowest class, along with the children.
The examination of Miss de Sor having produced these results was pursued no further. Her character now appeared in a new, and not very attractive, light. She audaciously took to herself the whole credit of telling her story:
“I think it’s my turn now,” she said, “to be interested and amused. May I ask you to begin, Miss Emily? All I know of you at present is, t hat your family name is Brown.”
Emily held up her hand for silence.
Was the mysterious creaking on the stairs making itself heard once more? No. The sound that had caught Emily’s quick ear came from the beds, on the opposite side of the room, occupied by the three lazy girls. With no new alarm to disturb them, Effie, Annis, and Priscilla had yielded to the composing influences of a good supper and a warm night. They were fast asleep–and the stoutest of the three (softly, as became a young lady) was snoring!
The unblemished reputation of the bedroom was dear to Emily, in her capacity of queen. She felt herself humiliated in the presence of the new pupil.
“If that fat girl ever gets a lover,” she said indignantly, “I shall consider it my duty to warn the poor man before he marries her. Her ridiculous name is Euphemia. I have christened her (far more appropriately) Boiled Veal. No color in her hair, no color in her eyes, no color in her complexion. In short, no flavor in Euphemia. You naturally object to snoring. Pardon me if I turn my back on you–I am going to throw my slipper at her.”
The soft voice of Cecilia–suspiciously drowsy in tone–interposed in the interests of mercy.
“She can’t help it, poor thing; and she really isn’t loud enough to disturb us.”
“She won’t disturb _you_, at any rate! Rouse yourself, Cecilia. We are wide awake on this side of the room–and Francine says it’s our turn to amuse her.”
A low murmur, dying away gently in a sigh, was the only answer. Sweet Cecilia had yielded to the somnolent influences of the supper and the night. The soft infection of repose seemed to be in some danger of communicating itself to Francine. Her large mouth opened luxuriously in a long-continued yawn.
“Good-night!” said Emily.
Miss de Sor became wide awake in an instant.
“No,” she said positively; “you are quite mistaken if you think I am going to sleep. Please exert yourself, Miss Emily–I am waiting to be interested.”
Emily appeared to be unwilling to exert herself. She preferred talking of the weather.
“Isn’t the wind rising?” she said.
There could be no doubt of it. The leaves in the garden were beginning to rustle, and the pattering of the rain sounded on the windows.
Francine (as her straight chin proclaimed to all students of physiognomy) was an obstinate girl. Determined to carry her point she tried Emily’s own system on Emily herself–she put questions.
“Have you been long at this school?”
“More than three years.”
“Have you got any brothers and sisters?”
“I am the only child.”
“Are your father and mother alive?”
Emily suddenly raised herself in bed.
“Wait a minute,” she said; “I think I hear it again.”
“The creaking on the stairs?”
Either she was mistaken, or the change for the worse in the weather made it not easy to hear slight noises in the house. The wind was still rising. The passage of it through the great trees in the garden began to sound like the fall of waves on a distant beach. It drove the rain–a heavy downpour by this time–rattling against the windows.
“Almost a storm, isn’t it?” Emily said
Francine’s last question had not been answered yet. She took the earliest opportunity of repeating it:
“Never mind the weather,” she said. “Tell me about your father and mother. Are they both alive?”
Emily’s reply only related to one of her parents.
“My mother died before I was old enough to feel my loss.”
“And your father?”
Emily referred to another relative–her father’s sister. “Since I have grown up,” she proceeded, “my good aunt has been a second mother to me. My story is, in one respect, the reverse of yours. You are unexpectedly rich; and I am unexpectedly poor. My aunt’s fortune was to have been my fortune, if I outlived her. She has been ruined by the failure of a bank. In her old age, she must live on an income of two hundred a year–and I must get my own living when I leave school.”
“Surely your father can help you?” Francine persisted.
“His property is landed property.” Her voice faltered, as she referred to him, even in that indirect manner. “It is entailed; his nearest male relative inherits it.”
The delicacy which is easily discouraged was not one of the weaknesses in the nature of Francine.
“Do I understand that your father is dead?” she asked.
Our thick-skinned fellow-creatures have the rest of us at their mercy: only give them time, and they carry their point in the end. In sad subdued tones–telling of deeply-rooted reserves of feeling, seldom revealed to strangers–Emily yielded at last.
“Yes,” she said, “my father is dead.”
“Some people might think it long ago. I was very fond of my father. It’s nearly four years since he died, and my heart still aches when I think of him. I’m not easily depressed by troubles, Miss de Sor. But his death was sudden–he was in his grave when I first heard of it–and– Oh, he was so good to me; he was so good to me!”
The gay high-spirited little creature who took the lead among them all–who was the life and soul of the school–hid her face in her hands, and burst out crying.
Startled and–to do her justice–ashamed, Francine attempted to make excuses. Emily’s generous nature passed over the cruel persistency that had tortured her. “No no; I have nothing to forgive. It isn’t your fault. Other girls have not mothers and brothers and sisters–and get reconciled to such a loss as mine. Don’t make excuses.”
“Yes, but I want you to know that I feel for you,” Francine insisted, without the slightest approach to sympathy in face, voice, or manner. “When my uncle died, and left us all the money, papa was much shocked. He trusted to time to help him.”
“Time has been long about it with me, Francine. I am afraid there is something perverse in my nature; the hope of meeting again in a better world seems so faint and so far away. No more of it now! Let us talk of that good creature who is asleep on the other side of you. Did I tell you that I must earn my own bread when I leave school? Well, Cecilia has written home and found an employment for me. Not a situation as governess–something quite out of the common way. You shall hear all about it.”
In the brief interval that had passed, the weather had begun to change again. The wind was as high as ever; but to judge by the lessening patter on the windows the rain was passing away.
She was too grateful to her friend and school-fellow, and too deeply interested in her story, to notice the air of indifference with which Francine settled herself on her pillow to hear the praises of Cecilia. The most beautiful girl in the school was not an object of interest to a young lady with an obstinate chin and unfortunately-placed eyes. Pouring warm from the speaker’s heart the story ran smoothly on, to the monotonous accompaniment of the moaning wind. By fine degrees Francine’s eyes closed, opened and closed again. Toward the latter part of the narrative Emily’s memory became, for the moment only, confused between two events. She stopped to consider–noticed Francine’s silence, in an interval when she might have said a word of encouragement–and looked closer at her. Miss de Sor was asleep.
“She might have told me she was tired,” Emily said to herself quietly. “Well! the best thing I can do is to put out the light and follow her example.”
As she took up the extinguisher, the bedroom door was suddenly opened from the outer side. A tall woman, robed in a black dressing-gown, stood on the threshold, looking at Emily.
THE LATE MR. BROWN.
The woman’s lean, long-fingered hand pointed to the candle.
“Don’t put it out.” Saying those words, she looked round the room, and satisfied herself that the other girls were asleep.
Emily laid down the extinguisher. “You mean to report us, of course,” she said. “I am the only one awake, Miss Jethro; lay the blame on me.”
“I have no intention of reporting you. But I have something to say.”
She paused, and pushed her thick black hair (already streaked with gray) back from her temples. Her eyes, large and dark and dim, rested on Emily with a sorrowful interest. “When your young friends wake to-morrow morning,” she went on, “you can tell them that the new teacher, whom nobody likes, has left the school.”
For once, even quick-witted Emily was bewildered. “Going away,” she said, “when you have only been here since Easter!”
Miss Jethro advanced, not noticing Emily’s expression of surprise. “I am not very strong at the best of times,” she continued, “may I sit down on your bed?” Remarkable on other occasions for her cold composure, her voice trembled as she made that request–a strange request surely, when there were chairs at her disposal.
Emily made room for her with the dazed look of a girl in a dream. “I beg your pardon, Miss Jethro, one of the things I can’t endure is being puzzled. If you don’t mean to report us, why did you come in and catch me with the light?”
Miss Jethro’s explanation was far from relieving the perplexity which her conduct had caused.
“I have been mean enough,” she answered, “to listen at the door, and I heard you talking of your father. I want to hear more about him. That is why I came in.”
“You knew my father!” Emily exclaimed.
“I believe I knew him. But his name is so common–there are so many thousands of ‘James Browns’ in England–that I am in fear of making a mistake. I heard you say that he died nearly four years since. Can you mention any particulars which might help to enlighten me? If you think I am taking a liberty–“
Emily stopped her. “I would help you if I could,” she said. “But I was in poor health at the time; and I was staying with friends far away in Scotland, to try change of air. The news of my father’s death brought on a relapse. Weeks passed before I was strong enough to travel–weeks and weeks before I saw his grave! I can only tell you what I know from my aunt. He died of heart-complaint.”
Miss Jethro started.
Emily looked at her for the first time, with eyes that betrayed a feeling of distrust. “What have I said to startle you?” she asked.
“Nothing! I am nervous in stormy weather–don’t notice me.” She went on abruptly with her inquiries. “Will you tell me the date of your father’s death?”
“The date was the thirtieth of September, nearly four years since.”
She waited, after that reply.
Miss Jethro was silent.
“And this,” Emily continued, “is the thirtieth of June, eighteen hundred and eighty-one. You can now judge for yourself. Did you know my father?”
Miss Jethro answered mechanically, using the same words.
“I did know your father.”
Emily’s feeling of distrust was not set at rest. “I never heard him speak of you,” she said.
In her younger days the teacher must have been a handsome woman. Her grandly-formed features still suggested the idea of imperial beauty–perhaps Jewish in its origin. When Emily said, “I never heard him speak of you,” the color flew into her pallid cheeks: her dim eyes became alive again with a momentary light. She left her seat on the bed, and, turning away, mastered the emotion that shook her.
“How hot the night is!” she said: and sighed, and resumed the subject with a steady countenance. “I am not surprised that your father never mentioned me–to _you_.” She spoke quietly, but her face was paler than ever. She sat down again on the bed. “Is there anything I can do for you,” she asked, “before I go away? Oh, I only mean some trifling service that would lay you under no obligation, and would not oblige you to keep up your acquaintance with me.”
Her eyes–the dim black eyes that must once have been irresistibly beautiful–looked at Emily so sadly that the generous girl reproached herself for having doubted her father’s friend. “Are you thinking of _him_,” she said gently, “when you ask if you can be of service to me?”
Miss Jethro made no direct reply. “You were fond of your father?” she added, in a whisper. “You told your schoolfellow that your heart still aches when you speak of him.”
“I only told her the truth,” Emily answered simply.
Miss Jethro shuddered–on that hot night!–shuddered as if a chill had struck her.
Emily held out her hand; the kind feeling that had been roused in her glittered prettily in her eyes. “I am afraid I have not done you justice,” she said. “Will you forgive me and shake hands?”
Miss Jethro rose, and drew back. “Look at the light!” she exclaimed.
The candle was all burned out. Emily still offered her hand–and still Miss Jethro refused to see it.
“There is just light enough left,” she said, “to show me my way to the door. Good-night–and good-by.”
Emily caught at her dress, and stopped her. “Why won’t you shake hands with me?” she asked.
The wick of the candle fell over in the socket, and left them in the dark. Emily resolutely held the teacher’s dress. With or without light, she was still bent on making Miss Jethro explain herself.
They had throughout spoken in guarded tones, fearing to disturb the sleeping girls. The sudden darkness had its inevitable effect. Their voices sank to whispers now. “My father’s friend,” Emily pleaded, “is surely my friend?”
“Drop the subject.”
“You can never be _my_ friend.”
“Let me go!”
Emily’s sense of self-respect forbade her to persist any longer. “I beg your pardon for having kept you here against your will,” she said–and dropped her hold on the dress.
Miss Jethro instantly yielded on her side. “I am sorry to have been obstinate,” she answered. “If you do despise me, it is after all no more than I have deserved.” Her hot breath beat on Emily’s face: the unhappy woman must have bent over the bed as she made her confession. “I am not a fit person for you to associate with.”
“I don’t believe it!”
Miss Jethro sighed bitterly. “Young and warm hearted–I was once like you!” She controlled that outburst of despair. Her next words were spoken in steadier tones. “You _will_ have it–you _shall_ have it!” she said. “Some one (in this house or out of it; I don’t know which) has betrayed me to the mistress of the school. A wretch in my situation suspects everybody, and worse still, does it without reason or excuse. I heard you girls talking when you ought to have been asleep. You all dislike me. How did I know it mightn’t be one of you? Absurd, to a person with a well-balanced mind! I went halfway up the stairs, and felt ashamed of myself, and went back to my room. If I could only have got some rest! Ah, well, it was not to be done. My own vile suspicions kept me awake; I left my bed again. You know what I heard on the other side of that door, and why I was interested in hearing it. Your father never told me he had a daughter. ‘Miss Brown,’ at this school, was any ‘Miss Brown,’ to me. I had no idea of who you really were until to-night. I’m wandering. What does all this matter to you? Miss Ladd has been merciful; she lets me go without exposing me. You can guess what has happened. No? Not even yet? Is it innocence or kindness that makes you so slow to understand? My dear, I have obtained admission to this respectable house by means of false references, and I have been discovered. _Now_ you know why you must not be the friend of such a woman as I am! Once more, good-night–and good-by.”
Emily shrank from that miserable farewell.
“Bid me good-night,” she said, “but don’t bid me good-by. Let me see you again.”
The sound of the softly-closed door was just audible in the darkness. She had spoken–she had gone–never to be seen by Emily again.
Miserable, interesting, unfathomable creature–the problem that night of Emily’s waking thoughts: the phantom of her dreams. “Bad? or good?” she asked herself. “False; for she listened at the door. True; for she told me the tale of her own disgrace. A friend of my father; and she never knew that he had a daughter. Refined, accomplished, lady-like; and she stoops to use a false reference. Who is to reconcile such contradictions as these?”
Dawn looked in at the window–dawn of the memorable day which was, for Emily, the beginning of a new life. The years were before her; and the years in their course reveal baffling mysteries of life and death.
MISS LADD’S DRAWING-MASTER.
Francine was awakened the next morning by one of the housemaids, bringing up her breakfast on a tray. Astonished at this concession to laziness, i n an institution devoted to the practice of all virtues, she looked round. The bedroom was deserted.
“The other young ladies are as busy as bees, miss,” the housemaid explained. “They were up and dressed two hours ago: and the breakfast has been cleared away long since. It’s Miss Emily’s fault. She wouldn’t allow them to wake you; she said you could be of no possible use downstairs, and you had better be treated like a visitor. Miss Cecilia was so distressed at your missing your breakfast that she spoke to the housekeeper, and I was sent up to you. Please to excuse it if the tea’s cold. This is Grand Day, and we are all topsy-turvy in consequence.”
Inquiring what “Grand Day” meant, and why it produced this extraordinary result in a ladies’ school, Francine discovered that the first day of the vacation was devoted to the distribution of prizes, in the presence of parents, guardians and friends. An Entertainment was added, comprising those merciless tests of human endurance called Recitations; light refreshments and musical performances being distributed at intervals, to encourage the exhausted audience. The local newspaper sent a reporter to describe the proceedings, and some of Miss Ladd’s young ladies enjoyed the intoxicating luxury of seeing their names in print.
“It begins at three o’clock,” the housemaid went on, “and, what with practicing and rehearsing, and ornamenting the schoolroom, there’s a hubbub fit to make a person’s head spin. Besides which,” said the girl, lowering her voice, and approaching a little nearer to Francine, “we have all been taken by surprise. The first thing in the morning Miss Jethro left us, without saying good-by to anybody.”
“Who is Miss Jethro?”
“The new teacher, miss. We none of us liked her, and we all suspect there’s something wrong. Miss Ladd and the clergyman had a long talk together yesterday (in private, you know), and they sent for Miss Jethro–which looks bad, doesn’t it? Is there anything more I can do for you, miss? It’s a beautiful day after the rain. If I was you, I should go and enjoy myself in the garden.”
Having finished her breakfast, Francine decided on profiting by this sensible suggestion.
The servant who showed her the way to the garden was not favorably impressed by the new pupil: Francine’s temper asserted itself a little too plainly in her face. To a girl possessing a high opinion of her own importance it was not very agreeable to feel herself excluded, as an illiterate stranger, from the one absorbing interest of her schoolfellows. “Will the time ever come,” she wondered bitterly, “when I shall win a prize, and sing and play before all the company? How I should enjoy making the girls envy me!”
A broad lawn, overshadowed at one end by fine old trees–flower beds and shrubberies, and winding paths prettily and invitingly laid out–made the garden a welcome refuge on that fine summer morning. The novelty of the scene, after her experience in the West Indies, the delicious breezes cooled by the rain of the night, exerted their cheering influence even on the sullen disposition of Francine. She smiled, in spite of herself, as she followed the pleasant paths, and heard the birds singing their summer songs over her head.
Wandering among the trees, which occupied a considerable extent of ground, she passed into an open space beyond, and discovered an old fish-pond, overgrown by aquatic plants. Driblets of water trickled from a dilapidated fountain in the middle. On the further side of the pond the ground sloped downward toward the south, and revealed, over a low paling, a pretty view of a village and its church, backed by fir woods mounting the heathy sides of a range of hills beyond. A fanciful little wooden building, imitating the form of a Swiss cottage, was placed so as to command the prospect. Near it, in the shadow of the building, stood a rustic chair and table–with a color-box on one, and a portfolio on the other. Fluttering over the grass, at the mercy of the capricious breeze, was a neglected sheet of drawing-paper. Francine ran round the pond, and picked up the paper just as it was on the point of being tilted into the water. It contained a sketch in water colors of the village and the woods, and Francine had looked at the view itself with indifference–the picture of the view interested her. Ordinary visitors to Galleries of Art, which admit students, show the same strange perversity. The work of the copyist commands their whole attention; they take no interest in the original picture.
Looking up from the sketch, Francine was startled. She discovered a man, at the window of the Swiss summer-house, watching her.
“When you have done with that drawing,” he said quietly, “please let me have it back again.”
He was tall and thin and dark. His finely-shaped intelligent face–hidden, as to the lower part of it, by a curly black beard–would have been absolutely handsome, even in the eyes of a schoolgirl, but for the deep furrows that marked it prematurely between the eyebrows, and at the sides of the mouth. In the same way, an underlying mockery impaired the attraction of his otherwise refined and gentle manner. Among his fellow-creatures, children and dogs were the only critics who appreciated his merits without discovering the defects which lessened the favorable appreciation of him by men and women. He dressed neatly, but his morning coat was badly made, and his picturesque felt hat was too old. In short, there seemed to be no good quality about him which was not perversely associated with a drawback of some kind. He was one of those harmless and luckless men, possessed of excellent qualities, who fail nevertheless to achieve popularity in their social sphere.
Francine handed his sketch to him, through the window; doubtful whether the words that he had addressed to her were spoken in jest or in earnest.
“I only presumed to touch your drawing,” she said, “because it was in danger.”
“What danger?” he inquired.
Francine pointed to the pond. “If I had not been in time to pick it up, it would have been blown into the water.”
“Do you think it was worth picking up?”
Putting that question, he looked first at the sketch–then at the view which it represented–then back again at the sketch. The corners of his mouth turned upward with a humorous expression of scorn. “Madam Nature,” he said, “I beg your pardon.” With those words, he composedly tore his work of art into small pieces, and scattered them out of the window.
“What a pity!” said Francine.
He joined her on the ground outside the cottage. “Why is it a pity?” he asked.
“Such a nice drawing.”
“It isn’t a nice drawing.”
“You’re not very polite, sir.”
He looked at her–and sighed as if he pitied so young a woman for having a temper so ready to take offense. In his flattest contradictions he always preserved the character of a politely-positive man.
“Put it in plain words, miss,” he replied. “I have offended the predominant sense in your nature–your sense of self-esteem. You don’t like to be told, even indirectly, that you know nothing of Art. In these days, everybody knows everything–and thinks nothing worth knowing after all. But beware how you presume on an appearance of indifference, which is nothing but conceit in disguise. The ruling passion of civilized humanity is, Conceit. You may try the regard of your dearest friend in any other way, and be forgiven. Ruffle the smooth surface of your friend’s self-esteem–and there will be an acknowledged coolness between you which will last for life. Excuse me for giving you the benefit of my trumpery experience. This sort of smart talk is _my_ form of conceit. Can I be of use to you in some better way? Are you looking for one of our young ladies?”
Francine began to feel a certain reluctant interest in him when he spoke of “our young ladies.” She asked if he belonged to the school.
The corners of his mouth turned up again. “I’m one of the masters,” he said. “Are _you_ going to belong to the school, too?”
Francine bent her head, with a gravity and condescension intended to keep him at his proper distance. Far from being discouraged, he permitted his curiosity to t ake additional liberties. “Are you to have the misfortune of being one of my pupils?” he asked.
“I don’t know who you are.”
“You won’t be much wiser when you do know. My name is Alban Morris.”
Francine corrected herself. “I mean, I don’t know what you teach.”
Alban Morris pointed to the fragments of his sketch from Nature. “I am a bad artist,” he said. “Some bad artists become Royal Academicians. Some take to drink. Some get a pension. And some–I am one of them–find refuge in schools. Drawing is an ‘Extra’ at this school. Will you take my advice? Spare your good father’s pocket; say you don’t want to learn to draw.”
He was so gravely in earnest that Francine burst out laughing. “You are a strange man,” she said.
“Wrong again, miss. I am only an unhappy man.”
The furrows in his face deepened, the latent humor died out of his eyes. He turned to the summer-house window, and took up a pipe and tobacco pouch, left on the ledge.
“I lost my only friend last year,” he said. “Since the death of my dog, my pipe is the one companion I have left. Naturally I am not allowed to enjoy the honest fellow’s society in the presence of ladies. They have their own taste in perfumes. Their clothes and their letters reek with the foetid secretion of the musk deer. The clean vegetable smell of tobacco is unendurable to them. Allow me to retire–and let me thank you for the trouble you took to save my drawing.”
The tone of indifference in which he expressed his gratitude piqued Francine. She resented it by drawing her own conclusion from what he had said of the ladies and the musk deer. “I was wrong in admiring your drawing,” she remarked; “and wrong again in thinking you a strange man. Am I wrong, for the third time, in believing that you dislike women?”
“I am sorry to say you are right,” Alban Morris answered gravely.
“Is there not even one exception?”
The instant the words passed her lips, she saw that there was some secretly sensitive feeling in him which she had hurt. His black brows gathered into a frown, his piercing eyes looked at her with angry surprise. It was over in a moment. He raised his shabby hat, and made her a bow.
“There is a sore place still left in me,” he said; “and you have innocently hit it. Good-morning.”
Before she could speak again, he had turned the corner of the summer-house, and was lost to view in a shrubbery on the westward side of the grounds.
DISCOVERIES IN THE GARDEN.
Left by herself, Miss de Sor turned back again by way of the trees.
So far, her interview with the drawing-master had helped to pass the time. Some girls might have found it no easy task to arrive at a true view of the character of Alban Morris. Francine’s essentially superficial observation set him down as “a little mad,” and left him there, judged and dismissed to her own entire satisfaction.
Arriving at the lawn, she discovered Emily pacing backward and forward, with her head down and her hands behind her, deep in thought. Francine’s high opinion of herself would have carried her past any of the other girls, unless they had made special advances to her. She stopped and looked at Emily.
It is the sad fate of little women in general to grow too fat and to be born with short legs. Emily’s slim finely-strung figure spoke for itself as to the first of these misfortunes, and asserted its happy freedom from the second, if she only walked across a room. Nature had built her, from head to foot, on a skeleton-scaffolding in perfect proportion. Tall or short matters little to the result, in women who possess the first and foremost advantage of beginning well in their bones. When they live to old age, they often astonish thoughtless men, who walk behind them in the street. “I give you my honor, she was as easy and upright as a young girl; and when you got in front of her and looked–white hair, and seventy years of age.”
Francine approached Emily, moved by a rare impulse in her nature–the impulse to be sociable. “You look out of spirits,” she began. “Surely you don’t regret leaving school?”
In her present mood, Emily took the opportunity (in the popular phrase) of snubbing Francine. “You have guessed wrong; I do regret,” she answered. “I have found in Cecilia my dearest friend at school. And school brought with it the change in my life which has helped me to bear the loss of my father. If you must know what I was thinking of just now, I was thinking or my aunt. She has not answered my last letter–and I’m beginning to be afraid she is ill.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Francine.
“Why? You don’t know my aunt; and you have only known me since yesterday afternoon. Why are you sorry?”
Francine remained silent. Without realizing it, she was beginning to feel the dominant influence that Emily exercised over the weaker natures that came in contact with her. To find herself irresistibly attracted by a stranger at a new school–an unfortunate little creature, whose destiny was to earn her own living–filled the narrow mind of Miss de Sor with perplexity. Having waited in vain for a reply, Emily turned away, and resumed the train of thought which her schoolfellow had interrupted.
By an association of ideas, of which she was not herself aware, she now passed from thinking of her aunt to thinking of Miss Jethro. The interview of the previous night had dwelt on her mind at intervals, in the hours of the new day.
Acting on instinct rather than on reason, she had kept that remarkable incident in her school life a secret from every one. No discoveries had been made by other persons. In speaking to her staff of teachers, Miss Ladd had alluded to the affair in the most cautious terms. “Circumstances of a private nature have obliged the lady to retire from my school. When we meet after the holidays, another teacher will be in her place.” There, Miss Ladd’s explanation had begun and ended. Inquiries addressed to the servants had led to no result. Miss Jethro’s luggage was to be forwarded to the London terminus of the railway–and Miss Jethro herself had baffled investigation by leaving the school on foot. Emily’s interest in the lost teacher was not the transitory interest of curiosity; her father’s mysterious friend was a person whom she honestly desired to see again. Perplexed by the difficulty of finding a means of tracing Miss Jethro, she reached the shady limit of the trees, and turned to walk back again. Approaching the place at which she and Francine had met, an idea occurred to her. It was just possible that Miss Jethro might not be unknown to her aunt.
Still meditating on the cold reception that she had encountered, and still feeling the influence which mastered her in spite of herself, Francine interpreted Emily’s return as an implied expression of regret. She advanced with a constrained smile, and spoke first.
“How are the young ladies getting on in the schoolroom?” she asked, by way of renewing the conversation.
Emily’s face assumed a look of surprise which said plainly, Can’t you take a hint and leave me to myself?
Francine was constitutionally impenetrable to reproof of this sort; her thick skin was not even tickled. “Why are you not helping them,” she went on; “you who have the clearest head among us and take the lead in everything?”
It may be a humiliating confession to make, yet it is surely true that we are all accessible to flattery. Different tastes appreciate different methods of burning incense–but the perfume is more or less agreeable to all varieties of noses. Francine’s method had its tranquilizing effect on Emily. She answered indulgently, “Miss de Sor, I have nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do with it? No prizes to win before you leave school?”
“I won all the prizes years ago.”
“But there are recitations. Surely you recite?”
Harmless words in themselves, pursuing the same smooth course of flattery as before–but with what a different result! Emily’s face reddened with anger the moment they were spoken. Having already irritated Alban Morris, unlucky Francine, by a second mischievous interposition of accident, had succeeded in making Emily smart next. “Who has told you,” she burst out; “I insist on knowing!”
“Nobod y has told me anything!” Francine declared piteously.
“Nobody has told you how I have been insulted?”
“No, indeed! Oh, Miss Brown, who could insult _you?_”
In a man, the sense of injury does sometimes submit to the discipline of silence. In a woman–never. Suddenly reminded of her past wrongs (by the pardonable error of a polite schoolfellow), Emily committed the startling inconsistency of appealing to the sympathies of Francine!
“Would you believe it? I have been forbidden to recite–I, the head girl of the school. Oh, not to-day! It happened a month ago–when we were all in consultation, making our arrangements. Miss Ladd asked me if I had decided on a piece to recite. I said, ‘I have not only decided, I have learned the piece.’ ‘And what may it be?’ ‘The dagger-scene in Macbeth.’ There was a howl–I can call it by no other name–a howl of indignation. A man’s soliloquy, and, worse still, a murdering man’s soliloquy, recited by one of Miss Ladd’s young ladies, before an audience of parents and guardians! That was the tone they took with me. I was as firm as a rock. The dagger-scene or nothing. The result is–nothing! An insult to Shakespeare, and an insult to Me. I felt it–I feel it still. I was prepared for any sacrifice in the cause of the drama. If Miss Ladd had met me in a proper spirit, do you know what I would have done? I would have played Macbeth in costume. Just hear me, and judge for yourself. I begin with a dreadful vacancy in my eyes, and a hollow moaning in my voice: ‘Is this a dagger that I see before me–?'”
Reciting with her face toward the trees, Emily started, dropped the character of Macbeth, and instantly became herself again: herself, with a rising color and an angry brightening of the eyes. “Excuse me, I can’t trust my memory: I must get the play.” With that abrupt apology, she walked away rapidly in the direction of the house.
In some surprise, Francine turned, and looked at the trees. She discovered–in full retreat, on his side–the eccentric drawing-master, Alban Morris.
Did he, too, admire the dagger-scene? And was he modestly desirous of hearing it recited, without showing himself? In that case, why should Emily (whose besetting weakness was certainly not want of confidence in her own resources) leave the garden the moment she caught sight of him? Francine consulted her instincts. She had just arrived at a conclusion which expressed itself outwardly by a malicious smile, when gentle Cecilia appeared on the lawn–a lovable object in a broad straw hat and a white dress, with a nosegay in her bosom–smiling, and fanning herself.
“It’s so hot in the schoolroom,” she said, “and some of the girls, poor things, are so ill-tempered at rehearsal–I have made my escape. I hope you got your breakfast, Miss de Sor. What have you been doing here, all by yourself?”
“I have been making an interesting discovery,” Francine replied.
“An interesting discovery in our garden? What _can_ it be?”
“The drawing-master, my dear, is in love with Emily. Perhaps she doesn’t care about him. Or, perhaps, I have been an innocent obstacle in the way of an appointment between them.”
Cecilia had breakfasted to her heart’s content on her favorite dish–buttered eggs. She was in such good spirits that she was inclined to be coquettish, even when there was no man present to fascinate. “We are not allowed to talk about love in this school,” she said–and hid her face behind her fan. “Besides, if it came to Miss Ladd’s ears, poor Mr. Morris might lose his situation.”
“But isn’t it true?” asked Francine.
“It may be true, my dear; but nobody knows. Emily hasn’t breathed a word about it to any of us. And Mr. Morris keeps his own secret. Now and then we catch him looking at her–and we draw our own conclusions.”
“Did you meet Emily on your way here?”
“Yes, and she passed without speaking to me.”
“Thinking perhaps of Mr. Morris.”
Cecilia shook her head. “Thinking, Francine, of the new life before her–and regretting, I am afraid, that she ever confided her hopes and wishes to me. Did she tell you last night what her prospects are when she leaves school?”
“She told me you had been very kind in helping her. I daresay I should have heard more, if I had not fallen asleep. What is she going to do?”
“To live in a dull house, far away in the north,” Cecilia answered; “with only old people in it. She will have to write and translate for a great scholar, who is studying mysterious inscriptions–hieroglyphics, I think they are called–found among the ruins of Central America. It’s really no laughing matter, Francine! Emily made a joke of it, too. ‘I’ll take anything but a situation as a governess,’ she said; ‘the children who have Me to teach them would be to be pitied indeed!’ She begged and prayed me to help her to get an honest living. What could I do? I could only write home to papa. He is a member of Parliament: and everybody who wants a place seems to think he is bound to find it for them. As it happened, he had heard from an old friend of his (a certain Sir Jervis Redwood), who was in search of a secretary. Being in favor of letting the women compete for employment with the men, Sir Jervis was willing to try, what he calls, ‘a female.’ Isn’t that a horrid way of speaking of us? and Miss Ladd says it’s ungrammatical, besides. Papa had written back to say he knew of no lady whom he could recommend. When he got my letter speaking of Emily, he kindly wrote again. In the interval, Sir Jervis had received two applications for the vacant place. They were both from old ladies–and he declined to employ them.”
“Because they were old,” Francine suggested maliciously.
“You shall hear him give his own reasons, my dear. Papa sent me an extract from his letter. It made me rather angry; and (perhaps for that reason) I think I can repeat it word for word:–‘We are four old people in this house, and we don’t want a fifth. Let us have a young one to cheer us. If your daughter’s friend likes the terms, and is not encumbered with a sweetheart, I will send for her when the school breaks up at midsummer.’ Coarse and selfish–isn’t it? However, Emily didn’t agree with me, when I showed her the extract. She accepted the place, very much to her aunt’s surprise and regret, when that excellent person heard of it. Now that the time has come (though Emily won’t acknowledge it), I believe she secretly shrinks, poor dear, from the prospect.”
“Very likely,” Francine agreed–without even a pretense of sympathy. “But tell me, who are the four old people?”
“First, Sir Jervis himself–seventy, last birthday. Next, his unmarried sister–nearly eighty. Next, his man-servant, Mr. Rook–well past sixty. And last, his man-servant’s wife, who considers herself young, being only a little over forty. That is the household. Mrs. Rook is coming to-day to attend Emily on the journey to the North; and I am not at all sure that Emily will like her.”
“A disagreeable woman, I suppose?”
“No–not exactly that. Rather odd and flighty. The fact is, Mrs. Rook has had her troubles; and perhaps they have a little unsettled her. She and her husband used to keep the village inn, close to our park: we know all about them at home. I am sure I pity these poor people. What are you looking at, Francine?”
Feeling no sort of interest in Mr. and Mrs. Rook, Francine was studying her schoolfellow’s lovely face in search of defects. She had already discovered that Cecilia’s eyes were placed too widely apart, and that her chin wanted size and character.
“I was admiring your complexion, dear,” she answered coolly. “Well, and why do you pity the Rooks?”
Simple Cecilia smiled, and went on with her story.
“They are obliged to go out to service in their old age, through a misfortune for which they are in no way to blame. Their customers deserted the inn, and Mr. Rook became bankrupt. The inn got what they call a bad name–in a very dreadful way. There was a murder committed in the house.”
“A murder?” cried Francine. “Oh, this is exciting! You provoking girl, why didn’t you tell me about it before?”
“I didn’t think of it,” said Cecilia placidly.
“Do go on! Were you at home when it happened?”
“I w as here, at school.”
“You saw the newspapers, I suppose?”
“Miss Ladd doesn’t allow us to read newspapers. I did hear of it, however, in letters from home. Not that there was much in the letters. They said it was too horrible to be described. The poor murdered gentleman–“
Francine was unaffectedly shocked. “A gentleman!” she exclaimed. “How dreadful!”
“The poor man was a stranger in our part of the country,” Cecilia resumed; “and the police were puzzled about the motive for a murder. His pocketbook was missing; but his watch and his rings were found on the body. I remember the initials on his linen because they were the same as my mother’s initial before she was married–‘J. B.’ Really, Francine, that’s all I know about it.”
“Surely you know whether the murderer was discovered?”
“Oh, yes–of course I know that! The government offered a reward; and clever people were sent from London to help the county police. Nothing came of it. The murderer has never been discovered, from that time to this.”
“When did it happen?”
“It happened in the autumn.”
“The autumn of last year?”
“No! no! Nearly four years since.”
ON THE WAY TO THE VILLAGE.
Alban Morris–discovered by Emily in concealment among the trees–was not content with retiring to another part of the grounds. He pursued his retreat, careless in what direction it might take him, to a footpath across the fields, which led to the highroad and the railway station.
Miss Ladd’s drawing-master was in that state of nervous irritability which seeks relief in rapidity of motion. Public opinion in the neighborhood (especially public opinion among the women) had long since decided that his manners were offensive, and his temper incurably bad. The men who happened to pass him on the footpath said “Good-morning” grudgingly. The women took no notice of him–with one exception. She was young and saucy, and seeing him walking at the top of his speed on the way to the railway station, she called after him, “Don’t be in a hurry, sir! You’re in plenty of time for the London train.”
To her astonishment he suddenly stopped. His reputation for rudeness was so well established that she moved away to a safe distance, before she ventured to look at him again. He took no notice of her–he seemed to be considering with himself. The frolicsome young woman had done him a service: she had suggested an idea.
“Suppose I go to London?” he thought. “Why not?–the school is breaking up for the holidays–and _she_ is going away like the rest of them.” He looked round in the direction of the schoolhouse. “If I go back to wish her good-by, she will keep out of my way, and part with me at the last moment like a stranger. After my experience of women, to be in love again–in love with a girl who is young enough to be my daughter–what a fool, what a driveling, degraded fool I must be!”
Hot tears rose in his eyes. He dashed them away savagely, and went on again faster than ever–resolved to pack up at once at his lodgings in the village, and to take his departure by the next train.
At the point where the footpath led into the road, he came to a standstill for the second time.
The cause was once more a person of the sex associated in his mind with a bitter sense of injury. On this occasion the person was only a miserable little child, crying over the fragments of a broken jug.
Alban Morris looked at her with his grimly humorous smile. “So you’ve broken a jug?” he remarked.
“And spilt father’s beer,” the child answered. Her frail little body shook with terror. “Mother’ll beat me when I go home,” she said.
“What does mother do when you bring the jug back safe and sound?” Alban asked.
“Gives me bren-butter.”
“Very well. Now listen to me. Mother shall give you bread and butter again this time.”
The child stared at him with the tears suspended in her eyes. He went on talking to her as seriously as ever.
“You understand what I have just said to you?”
“Have you got a pocket-handkerchief?”
“Then dry your eyes with mine.”
He tossed his handkerchief to her with one hand, and picked up a fragment of the broken jug with the other. “This will do for a pattern,” he said to himself. The child stared at the handkerchief–stared at Alban–took courage–and rubbed vigorously at her eyes. The instinct, which is worth all the reason that ever pretended to enlighten mankind–the instinct that never deceives–told this little ignorant creature that she had found a friend. She returned the handkerchief in grave silence. Alban took her up in his arms.
“Your eyes are dry, and your face is fit to be seen,” he said. “Will you give me a kiss?” The child gave him a resolute kiss, with a smack in it. “Now come and get another jug,” he said, as he put her down. Her red round eyes opened wide in alarm. “Have you got money enough?” she asked. Alban slapped his pocket. “Yes, I have,” he answered. “That’s a good thing,” said the child; “come along.”
They went together hand in hand to the village, and bought the new jug, and had it filled at the beer-shop. The thirsty father was at the upper end of the fields, where they were making a drain. Alban carried the jug until they were within sight of the laborer. “You haven’t far to go,” he said. “Mind you don’t drop it again–What’s the matter now?”
“Oh, give me the jug.”
She almost snatched it out of his hand. If she let the precious minutes slip away, there might be another beating in store for her at the drain: her father was not of an indulgent disposition when his children were late in bringing his beer. On the point of hurrying away, without a word of farewell, she remembered the laws of politeness as taught at the infant school–and dropped her little curtsey–and said, “Thank you, sir.” That bitter sense of injury was still in Alban’s mind as he looked after her. “What a pity she should grow up to be a woman!” he said to himself.
The adventure of the broken jug had delayed his return to his lodgings by more than half an hour. When he reached the road once more, the cheap up-train from the North had stopped at the station. He heard the ringing of the bell as it resumed the journey to London.
One of the passengers (judging by the handbag that she carried) had not stopped at the village.
As she advanced toward him along the road, he remarked that she was a small wiry active woman–dressed in bright colors, combined with a deplorable want of taste. Her aquiline nose seemed to be her most striking feature as she came nearer. It might have been fairly proportioned to the rest of her face, in her younger days, before her cheeks had lost flesh and roundness. Being probably near-sighted, she kept her eyes half-closed; there were cunning little wrinkles at the corners of them. In spite of appearances, she was unwilling to present any outward acknowledgment of the march of time. Her hair was palpably dyed–her hat was jauntily set on her head, and ornamented with a gay feather. She walked with a light tripping step, swinging her bag, and holding her head up smartly. Her manner, like her dress, said as plainly as words could speak, “No matter how long I may have lived, I mean to be young and charming to the end of my days.” To Alban’s surprise she stopped and addressed him.
“Oh, I beg your pardon. Could you tell me if I am in the right road to Miss Ladd’s school?”
She spoke with nervous rapidity of articulation, and with a singularly unpleasant smile. It parted her thin lips just widely enough to show her suspiciously beautiful teeth; and it opened her keen gray eyes in the strangest manner. The higher lid rose so as to disclose, for a moment, the upper part of the eyeball, and to give her the appearance–not of a woman bent on making herself agreeable, but of a woman staring in a panic of terror. Careless to conceal the unfavorable impression that she had produced on him, Alban answered roughly, “Straight on,” and tried to pass her.
She stopped him with a peremptory gesture. “I have treated you politely,” she said, “and how do you treat me in return? Well! I am not surprised. Men are all brutes by nature–and you are a man.
‘Straight on’?” she repeated contemptuously; “I should like to know how far that helps a person in a strange place. Perhaps you know no more where Miss Ladd’s school is than I do? or, perhaps, you don’t care to take the trouble of addressing me? Just what I should have expected from a person of your sex! Good-morning.”
Alban felt the reproof; she had appealed to his most readily-impressible sense–his sense of humor. He rather enjoyed seeing his own prejudice against women grotesquely reflected in this flighty stranger’s prejudice against men. As the best excuse for himself that he could make, he gave her all the information that she could possibly want–then tried again to pass on–and again in vain. He had recovered his place in her estimation: she had not done with him yet.
“You know all about the way there,” she said “I wonder whether you know anything about the school?”
No change in her voice, no change in her manner, betrayed any special motive for putting this question. Alban was on the point of suggesting that she should go on to the school, and make her inquiries there–when he happened to notice her eyes. She had hitherto looked him straight in the face. She now looked down on the road. It was a trifling change; in all probability it meant nothing–and yet, merely because it was a change, it roused his curiosity. “I ought to know something about the school,” he answered. “I am one of the masters.”
“Then you’re just the man I want. May I ask your name?”
“Thank you. I am Mrs. Rook. I presume you have heard of Sir Jervis Redwood?”
“Bless my soul! You are a scholar, of course–and you have never heard of one of your own trade. Very extraordinary. You see, I am Sir Jervis’s housekeeper; and I am sent here to take one of your young ladies back with me to our place. Don’t interrupt me! Don’t be a brute again! Sir Jervis is not of a communicative disposition. At least, not to me. A man–that explains it–a man! He is always poring over his books and writings; and Miss Redwood, at her great age, is in bed half the day. Not a thing do I know about this new inmate of ours, except that I am to take her back with me. You would feel some curiosity yourself in my place, wouldn’t you? Now do tell me. What sort of girl is Miss Emily Brown?”
The name that he was perpetually thinking of–on this woman’s lips! Alban looked at her.
“Well,” said Mrs. Rook, “am I to have no answer? Ah, you want leading. So like a man again! Is she pretty?”
Still examining the housekeeper with mingled feelings of interest and distrust, Alban answered ungraciously:
Alban again said “Yes.”
“So much about herself,” Mrs. Rook remarked. “About her family now?” She shifted her bag restlessly from one hand to another. “Perhaps you can tell me if Miss Emily’s father–” she suddenly corrected herself–“if Miss Emily’s parents are living?”
“I don’t know.”
“You mean you won’t tell me.”
“I mean exactly what I have said.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Rook rejoined; “I shall find out at the school. The first turning to the left, I think you said–across the fields?”
He was too deeply interested in Emily to let the housekeeper go without putting a question on his side:
“Is Sir Jervis Redwood one of Miss Emily’s old friends?” he asked.
“He? What put that into your head? He has never even seen Miss Emily. She’s going to our house–ah, the women are getting the upper hand now, and serve the men right, I say!–she’s going to our house to be Sir Jervis’s secretary. You would like to have the place yourself, wouldn’t you? You would like to keep a poor girl from getting her own living? Oh, you may look as fierce as you please–the time’s gone by when a man could frighten _me_. I like her Christian name. I call Emily a nice name enough. But ‘Brown’! Good-morning, Mr. Morris; you and I are not cursed with such a contemptibly common name as that! ‘Brown’? Oh, Lord!”
She tossed her head scornfully, and walked away, humming a tune.
Alban stood rooted to the spot. The effort of his later life had been to conceal the hopeless passion which had mastered him in spite of himself. Knowing nothing from Emily–who at once pitied and avoided him–of her family circumstances or of her future plans, he had shrunk from making inquiries of others, in the fear that they, too, might find out his secret, and that their contempt might be added to the contempt which he felt for himself. In this position, and with these obstacles in his way, the announcement of Emily’s proposed journey–under the care of a stranger, to fill an employment in the house of a stranger–not only took him by surprise, but inspired him with a strong feeling of distrust. He looked after Sir Jervis Redwood’s flighty housekeeper, completely forgetting the purpose which had brought him thus far on the way to his lodgings. Before Mrs. Rook was out of sight, Alban Morris was following her back to the school.
“COMING EVENTS CAST THEIR SHADOWS BEFORE.”
Miss De Sor and Miss Wyvil were still sitting together under the trees, talking of the murder at the inn.
“And is that really all you can tell me?” said Francine.
“That is all,” Cecilia answered.
“Is there no love in it?”
“None that I know of.”
“It’s the most uninteresting murder that ever was committed. What shall we do with ourselves? I’m tired of being here in the garden. When do the performances in the schoolroom begin?”
“Not for two hours yet.”
Francine yawned. “And what part do you take in it?” she asked.
“No part, my dear. I tried once–only to sing a simple little song. When I found myself standing before all the company and saw rows of ladies and gentlemen waiting for me to begin, I was so frightened that Miss Ladd had to make an apology for me. I didn’t get over it for the rest of the day. For the first time in my life, I had no appetite for my dinner. Horrible!” said Cecilia, shuddering over the remembrance of it. “I do assure you, I thought I was going to die.”
Perfectly unimpressed by this harrowing narrative, Francine turned her head lazily toward the house. The door was thrown open at the same moment. A lithe little person rapidly descended the steps that led to the lawn.
“It’s Emily come back again,” said Francine.
“And she seems to be rather in a hurry,” Cecilia remarked.
Francine’s satirical smile showed itself for a moment. Did this appearance of hurry in Emily’s movements denote impatience to resume the recital of “the dagger-scene”? She had no book in her hand; she never even looked toward Francine. Sorrow became plainly visible in her face as she approached the two girls.
Cecilia rose in alarm. She had been the first person to whom Emily had confided her domestic anxieties. “Bad news from your aunt?” she asked.
“No, my dear; no news at all.” Emily put her arms tenderly round her friend’s neck. “The time has come, Cecilia,” she said. “We must wish each other good-by.”
“Is Mrs. Rook here already?”
“It’s _you_, dear, who are going,” Emily answered sadly. “They have sent the governess to fetch you. Miss Ladd is too busy in the schoolroom to see her–and she has told me all about it. Don’t be alarmed. There is no bad news from home. Your plans are altered; that’s all.”
“Altered?” Cecilia repeated. “In what way?”
“In a very agreeable way–you are going to travel. Your father wishes you to be in London, in time for the evening mail to France.”
Cecilia guessed what had happened. “My sister is not getting well,” she said, “and the doctors are sending her to the Continent.”
“To the baths at St. Moritz,” Emily added. “There is only one difficulty in the way; and you can remove it. Your sister has the good old governess to take care of her, and the courier to relieve her of all trouble on the journey. They were to have started yesterday. You know how fond Julia is of you. At the last moment, she won’t hear of going away, unless you go too. The rooms are waiting at St. Moritz; and your father is annoyed (the governess says) by the delay that has taken place already.”
She paused. Cecilia was silent. “Surely you don’t hesitate?” Emily said.
“I am too happy to go wherever Julia go es,” Cecilia answered warmly; “I was thinking of you, dear.” Her tender nature, shrinking from the hard necessities of life, shrank from the cruelly-close prospect of parting. “I thought we were to have had some hours together yet,” she said. “Why are we hurried in this way? There is no second train to London, from our station, till late in the afternoon.”
“There is the express,” Emily reminded her; “and there is time to catch it, if you drive at once to the town.” She took Cecilia’s hand and pressed it to her bosom. “Thank you again and again, dear, for all you have done for me. Whether we meet again or not, as long as I live I shall love you. Don’t cry!” She made a faint attempt to resume her customary gayety, for Cecilia’s sake. “Try to be as hard-hearted as I am. Think of your sister–don’t think of me. Only kiss me.”
Cecilia’s tears fell fast. “Oh, my love, I am so anxious about you! I am so afraid that you will not be happy with that selfish old man–in that dreary house. Give it up, Emily! I have got plenty of money for both of us; come abroad with me. Why not? You always got on well with Julia, when you came to see us in the holidays. Oh, my darling! my darling! What shall I do without you?”
All that longed for love in Emily’s nature had clung round her school-friend since her father’s death. Turning deadly pale under the struggle to control herself, she made the effort–and bore the pain of it without letting a cry or a tear escape her. “Our ways in life lie far apart,” she said gently. “There is the hope of meeting again, dear–if there is nothing more.”
The clasp of Cecilia’s arm tightened round her. She tried to release herself; but her resolution had reached its limits. Her hands dropped, trembling. She could still try to speak cheerfully, and that was all.
“There is not the least reason, Cecilia, to be anxious about my prospects. I mean to be Sir Jervis Redwood’s favorite before I have been a week in his service.”
She stopped, and pointed to the house. The governess was approaching them. “One more kiss, darling. We shall not forget the happy hours we have spent together; we shall constantly write to each other.” She broke down at last. “Oh, Cecilia! Cecilia! leave me for God’s sake–I can’t bear it any longer!”
The governess parted them. Emily dropped into the chair that her friend had left. Even her hopeful nature sank under the burden of life at that moment.
A hard voice, speaking close at her side, startled her.
“Would you rather be Me,” the voice asked, “without a creature to care for you?”
Emily raised her head. Francine, the unnoticed witness of the parting interview, was standing by her, idly picking the leaves from a rose which had dropped out of Cecilia’s nosegay.
Had she felt her own isolated position? She had felt it resentfully.
Emily looked at her, with a heart softened by sorrow. There was no answering kindness in the eyes of Miss de Sor–there was only a dogged endurance, sad to see in a creature so young.
“You and Cecilia are going to write to each other,” she said. “I suppose there is some comfort in that. When I left the island they were glad to get rid of me. They said, ‘Telegraph when you are safe at Miss Ladd’s school.’ You see, we are so rich, the expense of telegraphing to the West Indies is nothing to us. Besides, a telegram has an advantage over a letter–it doesn’t take long to read. I daresay I shall write home. But they are in no hurry; and I am in no hurry. The school’s breaking up; you are going your way, and I am going mine–and who cares what becomes of me? Only an ugly old schoolmistress, who is paid for caring. I wonder why I am saying all this? Because I like you? I don’t know that I like you any better than you like me. When I wanted to be friends with you, you treated me coolly; I don’t want to force myself on you. I don’t particularly care about you. May I write to you from Brighton?”
Under all this bitterness–the first exhibition of Francine’s temper, at its worst, which had taken place since she joined the school–Emily saw, or thought she saw, distress that was too proud, or too shy, to show itself. “How can you ask the question?” she answered cordially.
Francine was incapable of meeting the sympathy offered to her, even half way. “Never mind how,” she said. “Yes or no is all I want from you.”
“Oh, Francine! Francine! what are you made of! Flesh and blood? or stone and iron? Write to me of course–and I will write back again.”
“Thank you. Are you going to stay here under the trees?”
“All by yourself?”
“All by myself.”
“With nothing to do?”
“I can think of Cecilia.”
Francine eyed her with steady attention for a moment.
“Didn’t you tell me last night that you were very poor?” she asked.
“So poor that you are obliged to earn your own living?”
Francine looked at her again.
“I daresay you won’t believe me,” she said. “I wish I was you.”
She turned away irritably, and walked back to the house.
Were there really longings for kindness and love under the surface of this girl’s perverse nature? Or was there nothing to be hoped from a better knowledge of her?–In place of tender remembrances of Cecilia, these were the perplexing and unwelcome thoughts which the more potent personality of Francine forced upon Emily’s mind.
She rose impatiently, and looked at her watch. When would it be her turn to leave the school, and begin the new life?
Still undecided what to do next, her interest was excited by the appearance of one of the servants on the lawn. The woman approached her, and presented a visiting-card; bearing on it the name of _Sir Jervis Redwood_. Beneath the name, there was a line written in pencil: “Mrs. Rook, to wait on Miss Emily Brown.” The way to the new life was open before her at last!
Looking again at the commonplace announcement contained in the line of writing, she was not quite satisfied. Was it claiming a deference toward herself, to which she was not entitled, to expect a letter either from Sir Jervis, or from Miss Redwood; giving her some information as to the journey which she was about to undertake, and expressing with some little politeness the wish to make her comfortable in her future home? At any rate, her employer had done her one service: he had reminded her that her station in life was not what it had been in the days when her father was living, and when her aunt was in affluent circumstances.
She looked up from the card. The servant had gone. Alban Morris was waiting at a little distance–waiting silently until she noticed him.
MASTER AND PUPIL.
Emily’s impulse was to avoid the drawing-master for the second time. The moment afterward, a kinder feeling prevailed. The farewell interview with Cecilia had left influences which pleaded for Alban Morris. It was the day of parting good wishes and general separations: he had only perhaps come to say good-by. She advanced to offer her hand, when he stopped her by pointing to Sir Jervis Redwood’s card.
“May I say a word, Miss Emily, about that woman?” he asked
“Do you mean Mrs. Rook?”
“Yes. You know, of course, why she comes here?”
“She comes here by appointment, to take me to Sir Jervis Redwood’s house. Are you acquainted with her?”
“She is a perfect stranger to me. I met her by accident on her way here. If Mrs. Rook had been content with asking me to direct her to the school, I should not be troubling you at this moment. But she forced her conversation on me. And she said something which I think you ought to know. Have you heard of Sir Jervis Redwood’s housekeeper before to-day?”
“I have only heard what my friend–Miss Cecilia Wyvil–has told me.”
“Did Miss Cecilia tell you that Mrs. Rook was acquainted with your father or with any members of your family?”
Alban reflected. “It was natural enough,” he resumed, “that Mrs. Rook should feel some curiosity about You. What reason had she for putting a question to me about your father–and putting it in a very strange manner?”
Emily’s interest was instantly excited. She led the way back to the seats in the shade. “Tell me, Mr. Morris, exactly what the woman said.” As she spoke,
she signed to him to be seated.
Alban observed the natural grace of her action when she set him the example of taking a chair, and the little heightening of her color caused by anxiety to hear what he had still to tell her. Forgetting the restraint that he had hitherto imposed on himself, he enjoyed the luxury of silently admiring her. Her manner betrayed none of the conscious confusion which would have shown itself, if her heart had been secretly inclined toward him. She saw the man looking at her. In simple perplexity she looked at the man.
“Are you hesitating on my account?” she asked. “Did Mrs. Rook say something of my father which I mustn’t hear?”
“No, no! nothing of the sort!”
“You seem to be confused.”
Her innocent indifference tried his patience sorely. His memory went back to the past time–recalled the ill-placed passion of his youth, and the cruel injury inflicted on him–his pride was roused. Was he making himself ridiculous? The vehement throbbing of his heart almost suffocated him. And there she sat, wondering at his odd behavior. “Even this girl is as cold-blooded as the rest of her sex!” That angry thought gave him back his self-control. He made his excuses with the easy politeness of a man of the world.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Emily; I was considering how to put what I have to say in the fewest and plainest words. Let me try if I can do it. If Mrs. Rook had merely asked me whether your father and mother were living, I should have attributed the question to the commonplace curiosity of a gossiping woman, and have thought no more of it. What she actually did say was this: ‘Perhaps you can tell me if Miss Emily’s father–‘ There she checked herself, and suddenly altered the question in this way: ‘If Miss Emily’s _parents_ are living?’ I may be making mountains out of molehills; but I thought at the time (and think still) that she had some special interest in inquiring after your father, and, not wishing me to notice it for reasons of her own, changed the form of the question so as to include your mother. Does this strike you as a far-fetched conclusion?”
“Whatever it may be,” Emily said, “it is my conclusion, too. How did you answer her?”
“Quite easily. I could give her no information–and I said so.”
“Let me offer you the information, Mr. Morris, before we say anything more. I have lost both my parents.”
Alban’s momentary outbreak of irritability was at an end. He was earnest and yet gentle, again; he forgave her for not understanding how dear and how delightful to him she was. “Will it distress you,” he said, “if I ask how long it is since your father died?”
“Nearly four years,” she replied. “He was the most generous of men; Mrs. Rook’s interest in him may surely have been a grateful