There was always a show of friendship between these two, but no genuine liking. Still, they were now very gracious to each other, and talked together until dinner was announced, when Jack offered his arm to Blanche, to whom he devoted himself so assiduously that Neil was jealous at once, even though for Blanche herself he did not care a penny. And he knew Jack did not either, except as she was surrounded by the golden halo of ten thousand a year. Neil had not made up his mind whether he wanted that ten thousand with the incumbrance, or not; but he certainly did not want Jack to get it, and his brow grew cloudy, and he became very silent, until Jack startled him by saying:
"By the way, Neil, why have you never told me of that pretty little wild blossom hidden away in Wales?"
"Whom do you mean?" Neil asked savagely; and Jack replied:
"I mean your cousin Bessie. I stumbled upon her and her father in the park this afternoon, and told them who some of the people were. I was standing by Miss McPherson's chair when you drove by—"
"And she made that rush at Neil as if she had been a mad thing; it was too absurd!" Blanche chimed in, and turning to Lady Jane, she described the scene with great minuteness of detail. "It was really too ridiculous, to see her standing there waving her handkerchief with her head bare to show her abundant hair, and that old linen gown, which must have seen some years' service. I was intensely mortified to have our friends see her, and so was Neil."
"I beg your pardon, I was not mortified at all; I liked it, and I do not care who saw her," Neil said, rousing up in defense of Bessie, and lying easily and fluently, for Blanche's cruel remarks made him very angry.
"Oh, you did like it, then? Your face told a different story," Blanche retorted; while Lady Jane, forgetting her dignity, commenced a tirade against both Bessie and her mother, the latter of whom she cordially despised. Of the girl she knew nothing, she said, but it was fair to suppose she was like her mother, and she did not blame Blanche for feeling shocked at such unmaidenly advances in public to a young man.
Had Neil been a few years younger he would have called his mother a fool, as he had done more than once in his boyhood; but he could not do that now, and turning to Jack, who had been quietly eating his dinner, he said:
"Jack, what did you think of Bessie? Is she a bold hussy, and ought Blanche to smash her red parasol because Bessie's eyes have rested upon it?"
Thus appealed to, Jack looked up, with an amused smile on his face, and said:
"I don't quite believe Bessie's eyes did rest on Blanche's parasol. I thought they were on you, and envied you as a lucky dog. Seriously, though," he continued, as he saw the thunderous gleam in Neil's eyes, and the look of triumph in Blanche's, "it did not occur to me that there was anything bold or unmaidenly in what the young lady did, and I never saw a more beautiful tableau than she made, standing there in the sunshine, with her bright, wavy hair, and her lovely, eager face. She is very beautiful, and I am so glad I have seen her. They are stopping at—" He hesitated, and looked at Neil, who, grateful for his defense of Bessie, unhesitatingly replied:
"No. —— Abingdon road, near High street"
"Thank you," Jack said, making a mental memorandum of the place, with a view to call, even if Bessie had said he better not.
After this little skirmish the dinner proceeded in peace, so far as Bessie was concerned, for Jack Trevellian was a kind of oracle, whose verdict could raise one to the pinnacle of public opinion, or cast him down to the depths, and if he said Bessie was not bold, nor brazen-faced, then she was not, though Lady Jane and Blanche disliked her just the same.
Neil, on the contrary, forgave her fully for the annoyance he had felt, and immediately after breakfast the next morning he started for Mrs. Buncher's. Bessie was trying on the hat when he entered. She had received the box only a few moments before, and had readily guessed that Neil was the donor, and had in part divined his motive.
"He was ashamed of my old gown and hat; and they are rather the worse for the wear, and looked very shabby among the fine dresses in the park. But they are the best I have, unless I make over those mother sent me—and that I cannot do," she thought, as she remembered, with a pang, the trunkful of half-worn garments of various kinds, which her mother had sent her from time to time, and which she could never bring herself to wear, because of the association. They had been worn in the moral mire of Monte Carlo and other places equally disreputable, and Bessie could no more have put them on than she could have adopted her mother's habits. In her linen dress, which she bought with money paid her for roses by the ladies who frequented the "George," she felt pure and respectable. But this gift from Neil, her cousin, she surely might keep, for her father said so, and, young-girl-like, she was admiring herself, or rather the hat, before the glass, when Neil himself came in.
"Hallo, Dot," he said, coming quickly to her side. "At it, I see, like the rest of your kind; but don't it become you, though! Why, you are sweet and fresh this morning as a rose from the old Stoneleigh garden," and the tall young man stooped and kissed the blushing girl two or three times before she could withdraw herself from him. "Why, Bess," he continued, "what a lump of dignity you are this morning! You did not used to wriggle so when I kissed you. What has happened?"
"Nothing has happened," Bessie replied, though she knew very well there had, for what Jack Trevellian had told her that rumor said of Neil and Blanche had opened a new channel of thought, and made her older far than she was before; too old for Neil to be kissing her as if she were a child.
And then, if what Jack said was true, he had no right to kiss her, even if she were his cousin. But was it true? She wished she knew, and after she had thanked Neil for the dress, and asked if he were very angry with her the day before for trying to attract his attention, and he had assured her that he was not, she burst out:
"Oh, Neil, is it true you are to marry Miss Blanche? Mr. Jack Trevellian stood by us yesterday and told me who the people were, and he said—"
"Jack be hanged!" Neil interrupted her. "What business has he to talk such nonsense to you? Marry Blanche? Never! What do I want of those light eyebrows and that pointed chin—I, who know you?"
Here he stopped, struck by something in Bessie's face which seemed to brighten and beautify it until it shone like the face of some pure saint to whom the gate of Paradise has just been opened. Then it occurred to Neil suddenly that Bessie was not a child. She was a girl of fifteen and more, with an experience which made her older than her years; and, selfish as he was, and much as he would like to have her look at him always as she was looking now, he felt that he must not encourage it. He had told her he should never marry Blanche, but in his heart he thought it possible, for, as there was no money in his own family, and he could not exist without it, he must marry money and forget the sweet face and soft blue eyes which moved him with a strange power and made him long to fold Bessie in his arms, and, young as she was, claim her as something more than a cousin. But, always politic and cautious, he restrained himself, and said to her instead:
"I do not believe I shall ever marry anybody, certainly not for many years, and you and I will be the best of friends always, brother and sister, which is better than cousins. Do you consent?"
"Yes," Bessie answered, falteringly, not quite understanding him, or knowing whether she should like the brother and sister arrangement as well as the cousin.
Then they talked together of what Bessie had seen in the park, and she told him all Jack Trevellian had said, and how kind he was, and how much she liked him, until Neil felt horribly jealous of his cousin, and wished he had staid in Ireland while Bessie was in London.
"Oh, it must be so fine to drive in a handsome carriage with the crowd. I wish I could try it. Does it cost so very much?" she asked, and Neil detested himself because he did not at once offer to take her and her father for the coveted drive.
"Could he do it?" he asked himself many times, deciding finally that he could not face his fashionable friends, and, more than all, his mother and Blanche, with these country cousins—Archie, in his threadbare coat, and Bessie, in her linen gown, with the big puffs at the top of the sleeves.
Had she been less beautiful he might venture it, but everybody would look at that face and turn to look again, and wonder who she was, and question him about her.
No, he couldn't do it, and so he went away at last, deciding to take the underground road to St. James Park, and meeting, as he was entering the station, Jack Trevellian coming out.
"Hallo, Hallo!" was said by each to the other, while both looked a little conscious, and Neil burst out, impulsively, "I say, Jack, what brings you over here?"
"The same which brought you, I dare say," Jack replied. "I am going to call upon your cousin."
"The deuce you are! I thought so," Neil answered, in a tone of voice indicative of anything but pleasure.
"Have you any objections?" Jack asked, and Neil replied:
"No—yes. Jack. You are as good—yes, better than most of the fellows in our set, but—" He hesitated, and Jack rejoined:
"But what? Go on."
"By Jove, I will speak out!" Neil continued, going close to his cousin. "You are a man of the world, accustomed to all sorts of girls—girls who laugh and flirt and let you make soft speeches to them and never think of you again because they know you mean nothing. But Bessie is not that kind; she is innocent and pure as a baby, and believes all you say, and—and—by George, Jack, if you harm a hair of her head I'll beat you into a pomace! You understand?"
"Yes, I rather think I do," Jack answered, with a smile; "and, Neil, you are more of a man than I supposed; upon my soul you are; but never fear, I will not flirt with Bessie, I will not make love to her, unless—I fall in love myself, in which case I cannot promise; but don't distress yourself. The Welsh rose is as safe with me as with you. Good-morning!" and so saying, he walked off in the direction of Abingdon road, while Neil rather unwillingly bought his ticket and went through the narrow way and down the stairs to wait for the incoming train.
JACK AND BESSIE.
Mrs. Buncher had made an effort to brighten up her dingy parlor since her new lodgers took possession of it. She had washed the windows and put up clean muslin curtains, and a white towel on the small table, which was further ornamented by a bowl of lovely roses, which filled the room with perfume and seemed to harmonize so perfectly with the fair young girl sitting near the table and darning what would soon have been a hole in the elbow of her father's coat. She had discovered it that morning, and as soon as Neil left her sat down to her task, with her pretty white apron partially covering her linen dress and greatly improving her appearance. Bessie always wore aprons in the morning at home, though Neil had more than once objected to it, as he said such things belonged to housemaids and not to ladies.
"And I am the housemaid; I wash the dishes and lay the cloth and sweep and dust, and an apron keeps my dress clean," Bessie had answered him, laughingly, and when she came to London she brought her best apron with her, and after Neil was gone put it on and commenced her task of darning.
"Oh, if you could have a new coat; this is so worn and threadbare," she said to her father, who was sitting near her in his dressing-gown. "I wish Neil had sent you a coat instead of that dress to me. I do wish we were rich! I would buy a lot of things, but first of all I would have a drive in the park. Wasn't it grand! I wish Neil would take us, though perhaps he has not the money of his own to pay for the carriage."
"Bessie," her father said, rousing up from the half dozing condition in which he was most of the time when in the house, "you are hugging a delusion with regard to Neil. He is very kind in a way, when it costs him nothing, but he would never sacrifice his comfort or his feelings for you or me. We are his poor relations, from the country; we are not like his world, or that powdered piece of vanity who was with him yesterday. It would cost him nothing to take us for a drive, for the carriage is his mother's, but you couldn't hire him to go round that park with us; he has that false pride, more common in women than in men, which would keep him from it. He likes you very much—at Stoneleigh, where there are none of his set to look on; but here in London it is different. He might take us to many places, if he would; but he dares not, lest he should be seen. He can send you a blue silk dress, which I half wish you had returned; and he can come here and make your pulse beat faster with his soft words and manner, which mean so little; but other attentions we must not expect from him. I tell you this, my child, because you are getting to be a woman. You were fifteen last March. You are very beautiful, and Neil McPherson knows it, and if you had a fortune he might seek to be more than your cousin; but as it is, don't attach much importance to what he says and does, or be disappointed at what he does not do."
Bessie did not reply for the great lump which had risen in her throat as her father put into words what in part she had suspected, but tried to fight down. She did not like to believe that Neil had a fault, and still she felt that her father might be right, and that Neil was ashamed of them. Something in his manner since they came to London, would indicate as much, and her heart was very sore with a sense of something lost, and there were tears on her long eyelashes as she bent over the darn, too much absorbed in her own thoughts to hear the step on the stairs or know that any one was coming until there was a tap at the open door, and looking up she saw Jack Trevellian standing before her. Mrs. Buncher, who was her own waitress, had bidden him "go right up," and as the door was ajar he stood for an instant on the upper landing and heard Archie say:
"You were fifteen last March. You are very beautiful, and Neil McPherson knows it, and if you had a fortune he might seek to be more than your cousin, but as it is don't attach much importance to what he says and does or be disappointed at what he does not do."
"The old cove has hit it," Jack thought; "he understands Neil to a dot. If Bessie had a fortune he would go down before her in dead earnest; and, perhaps, I would too, for, 'pon my soul, she has the sweetest face I ever saw. What a lovely woman she will make."
And then, there arose before him a vision of a stately old house in the north country, the home of the Trevellians, and in the family vault the present owner, a white haired man of seventy-five was lying, and by his side his puny eldest son, and also stalwart Harry, who looked as if a broad-ax could not kill him, and he, Jack Trevellian now the bachelor with only 500 pounds a year, and most extravagant tastes, was there as Sir Jack, and with him this little Welsh maiden, who was bending over the threadbare coat, and trying to force back the tears her father's words had caused her.
"I am a knave and a murderer," Jack thought. "Uncle Paul, and Dick, and Hal would have to die, and little Flossie, whom I like so much, be left alone, before all this could be;" then, with a premonitory cough, he knocked lightly at the open door.
"Oh, Mr. Trevellian!" Bessie exclaimed, springing to her feet and blushing scarlet. "How you frightened me! Pray walk in. I did not expect you. I—I—am mending father's coat."
"Yes, I see," he answered, offering her his hand after he had greeted her father with his most graceful, courtly manner. "I see you are. I wonder now if you are doing it well. I used to have some experience in such matters when I was roughing it in Australia. I am a beautiful darner; let me try my hand, please;" and taking the coat from her before she had time to recover from her astonishment, he seated himself upon a chair and began industriously to ply the needle, while Bessie looked on amazed.
"You see I am quite a tailor," he said, pushing his thick brown hair back from his white forehead, and flashing upon her one of those rare smiles with which he always obtained the mastery and made friends even of his enemies.
How charming he was, and he never seemed to see the humble room, the faded carpet, the dingy oil-cloth, or the coarse hair-cloth furniture which had offended Neil and made him call the place a hole. Of course, Jack did see them all; he could not help that, but he acted as if he had all his life been accustomed to just such surroundings, and was so familiar and affable that both Bessie and her father were more charmed with him than on the previous day.
"By the way," he said at last, when the coat was mended and approved, "I met Neil at the station; he had been here, I suppose?"
"Yes," Bessie replied, a painful flush suffusing her cheeks as she recalled what her father had said of Neil.
"I am half afraid he has forestalled me, then," Jack continued. "I came to ask you and your father to drive with me in the park this afternoon; that is, if Neil is not ahead of me."
"Oh, Mr. Trevellian," Bessie cried, turning her bright face to him, while the glad tears sprang to her eyes, and she forgot that until yesterday she did not know there was such a person as this elegant man making himself so much at home with them; forgot everything except the pleasure it would be to drive with her father in Hyde Park, and "be one of them," as she expressed it to herself.
"Then Neil has not asked you, and you will go with me?" Jack said, addressing himself to Archie, who replied:
"If Bessie likes—yes; and I thank you so much. You are giving my little girl a greater pleasure than you can ever guess."
Meanwhile the color had all faded from Bessie's face, leaving it very pale, as she stood with clasped hands and wide-open eyes, looking first at herself in the glass and then at Jack. She was thinking of her old linen dress and hat, and of her father's clothes. Neil was ashamed of them, her father had said, and she believed him, though it hurt her cruelly to do so. Would not Mr. Trevellian be ashamed of them too, when he came to realize the contrast there was between them and the people of his set who daily frequented the park?
"What do you say, Miss McPherson? Will you go?" Jack asked, and she answered quickly:
"I'd like it, so much; but I thought—I'm quite sure we had better not;" and as she thus gave up the happiness she had so coveted, she burst into tears—tears for her poverty, and tears for Neil, who had not been so kind to them as this stranger was.
"Why, Bessie," her father said, "what is the matter? I thought you wanted to drive."
"I do, I do," she sobbed; then, with a quick, impatient movement she dashed the tears from her eyes which shone like stars as she lifted them bravely to Jack Trevellian and said, with a tinge of pride in her lone: "I should enjoy the drive more than anything else in the world, and it was kind in you to ask us; but, Mr. Trevellian, you don't know what it would be to you to be seen there with father and me—he in his darned coat and I in this gown, the best I have here, or anywhere, for summer; and then, my hat; the ribbons are all faded and poor, just as we are, dear father and I;" and as she talked she stepped to her father's side and wound her arms around his neck.
There was a world of pathos in the low, sweet voice which said so sadly, "dear father and I," and it moved Jack with a strange power, bringing a moisture to his eyes where tears had not been in years.
Mastering his weakness Jack burst into a merry laugh which was good to hear, as he said:
"Is it the gown, and the hat, and the old darned coat? And do you think I care for trifles like these? I tell you honestly, I would rather take your linen gown, to drive this afternoon, with you in it, than the most elegant dress in London and you out of it."
And so it was arranged that they should go, and Jack staid on and on, and read aloud to Bessie, and told her of his travels in the East, and in Australia, and then, he scarcely knew how or why, he spoke of the old Trevellian home in the north of England, near the border. Trevellian Castle it was called, he said, and it had been in the family for years.
"I have two cousins there," he said, "or rather second cousins, Dick and Harry, and I like them both so much, especially Hal, who is six feet three inches high, and well proportioned. Quite a giant, in fact. Then there is a young girl, Florence Meredith, Flossie we call her, she is so like a playful kitten. She is not a cousin, at least to me, though she calls me that. She is a distant relative of Sir Paul's wife, the mother of Dick and Hal, and was adopted by her when a baby, Flossie is lovely, and you remind me of her, except that she is much younger. She will make a lovely woman, and somebody's heart will ache on her account one of these days."
Jack hardly knew why he was taking to Bessie of little frolicsome Flossie Meredith, the Irish lassie, who was not in the least like Bessie McPherson, except that she was sweet, and loving, and true, and said what she thought, and would have darned a coat or scrubbed the floor, if necessary. He only knew that he liked sitting by Bessie and that if he sat he must talk, and so he kept on and only arose to go when he heard the rattling of tea-cups outside and guessed that Mrs. Buncher might be preparing to bring up luncheon.
About half-past four that afternoon Mrs. Buncher was amazed to see a smart carriage, with handsome horses and servants in livery, drive up before her door and still more amazed to see her lodgers take their seats in it, Bessie and her father, side by side, and Jack Trevellian opposite them, with his back to the driver. It was a glorious June afternoon, and the park was, if possible, gayer and more crowed than on the previous day. The excitement incident upon the passing of the princess had subsided, when the carriage turned in at the Marble Arch and joined the moving throng, which Jack scarcely noticed, so absorbed was he in watching Bessie's face as it sparkled and shone with eager joy and excitement. How beautiful she was in spite of the brown linen and the sleeve puffs which had so annoyed Neil, and while watching her Jack felt his heart thrill with a strange feeling he had never experienced before in all his intercourse with women, and found himself mentally subtracting fifteen from thirty, and feeling rather appalled at the result.
After they had been in the park ten minutes or more and were nearing a curve, he saw a sudden flush in Bessie's face and a gleam of triumph in her blue eyes as she looked ahead of her. Neil was coming from the opposite direction, he was sure, and in a moment the McPherson turn-out appeared, with Neil sitting as Jack sat, his back to the horses and his mother and Blanche opposite. The latter saw Bessie first, and giving her a haughty stare, spoke quickly to Lady Jane, whose stare was even more haughty and supercilious. Neither bowed even to Jack, but Neil lifted his hat with such a look of undisguised astonishment and disapproval on his face that Jack laughed merrily, for he understood perfectly how chagrined Neil was to see him there with Bessie. And Neil was chagrined and out of sorts, and called himself a sneak, and a coward, while to Jack he gave the name fool with an adjective prefixed. He did not even hear what his mother and Blanche were saying of Bessie until he caught the words from the former, "She has rather a pretty face;" then he roused up and rejoined:
"Rather a pretty face! I should think she had. It is the loveliest face I ever saw, and I'd rather have it beside me in the park than all the faces in London!"
"Reely!" Blanche replied, with an upward turn of her nose. "Suppose you get out and join them; there is room for you by Jack."
"I wish I could," Neil growled, and then he relapsed into silence and scarcely spoke again until they returned to Grosvenor Square.
As soon as dinner was over he started for Abingdon road, and was told by Mrs. Buncher, who received him with a slight increase of dignity in her manner, as became one before whose door carriages and servants in livery had stood twice in one day, that Mr. McPherson and the young lady had gone to see "Pinafore" with the gentleman who took them to drive.
"The deuce they have!" Neil muttered and hailing a cab he too drove to the theater, and securing the best seat he could at that late hour, looked over the house till he found the party he was searching for, Archie, in his threadbare coat, and high, standing collar, looking a little bored for himself, but pleased for Bessie, whose face was radiant as she watched the progress of the play.
For once Neil forgot the puffs and the linen gown, and thought only of the exquisitely beautiful face and rippling golden hair, for Bessie's head was uncovered, and Neil saw that she received quite as much admiration from the fashionable crowd as did Little Buttercup or the Captain's daughter, and that Jack looked supremely happy and nodded to his friends here and there as if to call their attention to the girl beside him.
"Confound him!" Neil thought. "What business has he to take charge of Bessie in this way? I'll not allow it!"
But Jack had the inside track and kept it, in spite of Neil; and during the ten days Bessie remained in London he took her everywhere, and when she left he knew much more of some parts of the city than he did before. Never in his life had he visited the Tower, which he looked upon as a place frequented only by Americans or country people; but as, after the park, this was the spot of all others which Bessie wished to see, he went there with her, and joining the party waiting for their ranks to be full, followed the pompous beefeater up stairs and down stairs, and into the lady's chamber, and saw the steps by the water-gate where Elizabeth sat down when she landed there a prisoner to her sister, and saw the thumb-screws and other instruments of torture, and more fire-arms and bayonets grouped in the shape of sunflowers and roses than he had supposed were in the world, and climbed to the little room where Guilford Dudley was imprisoned, and stared stupidly at the name of Jane cut upon the wall, and looked down the staircase under which it was said the murdered princes were thrown, and horrified Bessie by asking who all these people were he had been hearing about.
"Of course I knew once," he said. "Such things were thrashed into me at school, but hanged if I have them and their history at my tongue's end, as you have. Are you not tired to death?" he asked, pantingly, and fanning himself with his soft hat as they left the gloomy building, and, after looking at the spot where Ann Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey were beheaded, went back to the office where they dismissed their guide.
It was a scorchingly hot day, and Jack was perspiring at every pore, but Bessie was fresh and bright as ever, and eager to go to the Abbey and the Parliament House, and possibly somewhere else, and Jack obeyed her with an inward groan, and went where she wished to go, and marveled at her knowledge of and interest in everything pertaining to Westminster and its surroundings. Never in his life had Jack Trevellian been as tired as he was that night, with a back which ached so hard that he actually bought a plaster for it next morning, and, thus strengthened and fortified, started again on his mission. Kensington Museum, the British Museum, the National Gallery, Crystal Palace, Hampton Court, and the Queen's Stables were all visited by turn, and then they went for a day to Alexandra Palace, and saw an opera, a play, a ballot, two circuses, and rope-walking, all for a shilling, which to Bessie's frugal mind was best of all.
That night Jack was more worn out than ever, and his back ached worse than after the Tower, and though Bessie was to leave the next day for home, he did not go to Abingdon Road in the evening, but went to bed instead, and deferred his good-by until the morrow. So Neil had the field to himself, and made good use of his opportunity. Together he and Bessie walked in the Kensington gardens until they were tired, and then they sat side by side on one of the many seats in a retired part of the grounds, and Neil told her how sorry he was that she was going home, and how lonely he should be without her.
"Ye-es," Bessie said, doubtfully. "I think you will survive;" and then he burst out, impulsively; "I say, Bessie, I don't want you to think me a cad and a sneak, when you go back to Stoneleigh. Don't you suppose I'd like to have taken you round just as well—yes, better than Jack, confound him?"
"Why didn't you then? I would rather have gone with you," Bessie said, beginning to relent at once toward the handsome, good-for-nothing Neil, who had his arm around her, and was looking into her face with his dark, expressive eyes.
"Why didn't I?" he answered. "I am going to tell you why I didn't, and why Jack did. He is his own master, with money to do as he likes, and no one to question or nag him at home; while I am not my own master at all, and have no money except what mother chooses to give me, and that is not much. Father, you know, is poor, and mother holds the purse, which is not a large one, and keeps me awful short at times, especially after paying my Oxford bills and a few debts I contracted the last year. There would have been no end of a row if I had asked her for money to spend on you and your father."
"Does she then hate us so much?" Bessie asked, and Neil replied:
"She cannot hate you, as she does not know you; but, you see, she is prejudiced against your mother and visits her anger upon your innocent head. I wanted her to call upon you and invite you to our house, and I wanted to take you to drive in the park, but I could not; my hands were tied. Do you suppose it was pleasant for me to see Jack Trevellian doing what I ought to have done?"
"No," Bessie replied, beginning to feel a great pity for Neil, who had suffered so much. "No, and I am glad you have told me, for I thought—I feared you were ashamed of us, and it hurt me a little."
There was a tremor in her voice which made Neil tighten the clasp of his arm around her, while he bent his head so low that his hair touched her forehead, as he exclaimed:
"Ashamed of you, Bessie! Never! How could I be ashamed of the dearest, sweetest little cousin a man ever had? I tell you I am the victim of circumstances!"
And bending his head still lower, "the victim of circumstances" kissed the girlish lips, which kissed him back again in token of reconciliation, and restored faith in him.
Poor, tired Jack, dreaming that night that he was a circus-rider and jumping through a hoop for Bessie's pleasure, would have felt that all his fatigue and back ache, and the plaster which caused him so much discomfort, might have been spared, or at least were wasted on the girl with whom the kiss given in the deepening twilight was more powerful than all he had done for her, could he have known of that scene in the gardens. But he did not know of it, and at a comparatively early hour next morning he was at Mrs. Buncher's, where Bessie greeted him with her sweetest smile and thanked him again for all he had done for them.
"Don't speak of it, I beg; it is so very little, I only wish there was really something I could do to prove my willingness to serve you," he said.
They were standing alone by the window looking into the street, and as Jack said this there came a troubled look on Bessie's face, find after waiting a moment, she said:
"There is something you can do, if you will: something which will please me very much, and prove you the good man I believe you to be."
"Command me, and it is done," Jack said; and Bessie continued:
"If you ever meet mother again at Monte Carlo, or anywhere, don't play with her for money; promise me this."
"I promise," Jack answered, unhesitatingly; and, emboldened by his promptness, Bessie went on:
"And, oh, Mr. Trevellian, if you would never again play with any one for money, even the smallest sum. It is gambling just the same; it is wicked; it leads to so much that is bad. It was my grandfather's ruin, and he knew it and repented bitterly, for it left his son nothing but poverty, and that is why we are so poor, father and I; gambling did it all."
There were tears in Bessie's eyes, and they went straight to Jack's heart. He was not an inveterate gambler, though he had lost and won large sums at Monte Carlo and Baden Baden, when the tables were open there, and, like most Englishmen, he never played whist that something was not staked; it gave zest to the game, which to him would be very insipid without it: but Bessie's eyes could have made him face the cannon's mouth, if need be, and he said to her at once:
"I promise that, too. I will never play again for money with anyone, but for my reward you must let me visit you at Stoneleigh sometime."
"Oh, yes, you may," she answered, "but I warn you it is a poor place to come to, with only old Anthony and Dorothy to do anything. I have to work, and you may have to work, too, and do other things than mending father's coat."
She spoke playfully, and Jack declared his readiness to sift cinders, or scour knives, or do anything, if she would let him come. Just then Neil arrived, not altogether pleased to find Jack there before him, standing close to Bessie, who was looking very happy. The two young men went with her to the station, where they vied with each other in showing her attention. Jack held her traveling-bag, and her parasol and fan, and band-box containing the white chip hat, and Neil held her shawl, and umbrella, and paper bag of biscuits and seed cakes which Mrs. Buncher had given her to eat upon the road, and when at last she was gone, and they walked out of the station into the noisy street, each felt that the brightness of the summer day had changed, and that something inexpressibly sweet had been taken from them.
CHRISTMAS AT STONELEIGH.
Two years and a half after that visit to London, Bessie McPherson, now a young lady of nearly eighteen, stood by the western window of the old house at Stoneleigh reading a letter from Neil. He had been at Stoneleigh several times since that summer in London, and these visits, with his letters always so affectionate and bright, were the only breaks in Bessie's monotonous life. Once Jack had been there for a few days, or rather to the "George," where he slept and took his meals, spending the rest of the time with Bessie, who interested him more and more, and from whom he at last fled as from a positive danger. With his limited income and his habits, he could not hope to marry, even if Bessie would have joined her young life with his matured one, which he doubted, and, with a great pang of regret he left her in the old Stoneleigh garden and did not dare look back at her, sitting there with the troubled look on her face, because he was leaving, lest he should turn back and, taking her in his arms, say the words he must not say.
And so he went his way to busy London, and heard from Blanche that the white-haired old earl in the north of England was dead, and the puny Dick master in his place.
"Only two between you and a fortune," seemed whispered in his ear, and with it came a thought of Bessie sitting under the old yew tree in the summer sunshine and looking after him.
"Murderer!" he said to himself again, "do you wish Dick dead and Hal, too, the finest fellow that ever lived, for the sake of a young girl whose mind is full of a prig like Neil McPherson?"
And so he put all thoughts of Bessie aside, and wore mourning for his great-uncle, and wrote a letter to the new heir, Sir Dick, and sent his love to Flossie, and went no more to Stoneleigh. But Neil was coming again, and his letter to Bessie was as follows:
"LONDON, Dec, 20th, 18—,
"MY SWEETEST COUSIN: and when I say that I mean it, for though Blanche is just as much my cousin as you are, and is in her way sweet as sugar, she bears no comparison to you, my little Dot, as I used to call you when you were a wee thing and let me kiss you as often as I liked. My Welsh rose I call you now, when you wear long dresses and will not let me kiss you, or at least will not kiss me as you did before you made that trip to London two years ago last June. Something happened to you then which shot you up into a woman, and I lost my little Bessie. But how absurdly I am writing, as if I were your lover, instead of your cousin, and as good as engaged to Blanche. I suppose mother would break her heart if I did not marry that L10,000 a year. I used to say I wouldn't, you know; but, nous verrons; what I wish to tell you now is, that I am coming to Stoneleigh for the holidays. Mother wishes me to go with her and Blanche to some stupid place near Edinburgh, and we have had a jolly row about it, but I prefer Stoneleigh and you; so you may expect me the 23rd, on the evening train from Bangor; and please tell old Dorothy to have a roasting fire in my room, which you know is something after the stable order, and oh, if she would have plum-pudding and chicken-pie for dinner! You see, I make myself quite at home at Stoneleigh, and I have a weakness for the good things of this world. I do not believe I was cut out for a poor man. I might be poor and honest, but never poor and happy.
"By the way, I am to bring a friend with me, or rather he is to stop first at Carnarvon, to hunt up somebody by the name of Rogers, whom he is very anxious to find."
"Rogers—Rogers," Bessie repeated, thoughtfully. "Seems to me I have heard that name before. Who is Neil's friend, I wonder? I am sorry he is coming, for that means another fire, and another plate at table, and we are so poor. Neil is right; it is not so easy to be poor and happy as one might think," and the look of care habitual to Bessie's face deepened upon it, for funds were very low at Stoneleigh just then.
It was weeks since they had received anything from Daisy, and Archie's slender income would barely suffice for absolute necessaries, leaving nothing for extra fires and extra mouths to feed with plum-pudding and chicken-pie, and all the etceteras of a regular Christmas dinner such as Neil would expect.
Resuming the letter at last, Bessie read on:
"I have asked him to spend a day at Stoneleigh after he has finished his business in Carnarvon, and he has accepted and will be with us at Christmas. He is an American—Grey Jerrold, from Boston—and the right sort of a fellow, too: not a bit of a cad, if he did thrash me unmercifully the first time I ever saw him. He served me just right, and we are great friends now. He was at Eton with me and at Oxford, too, and took the wind out of all our sails in both places. No sneak about him, and though he seems more English than American from having lived with us so long, he would knock me down now if I were to say a word against his star spangled banner. His father and mother are in Boston, and he has crossed, I don't know how many times, mostly, I think, to see an old Aunt Hannah, whom he seems to worship, and whose photograph he actually kissed the day he got it at Eton. Such an old fashioned woman, too, as she must be, judging from her dress and hair; but such a sweet, patient, sorry face, with an expression about the mouth like you when 'la petite madame' is under discussion. I hear she is at Monte Carlo still. A friend saw her there flirting with and fleecing an Italian count, who has quite cut out that poodle of a Hardy."
"Oh, Neil! oh, mother!" Bessie cried, and the look about her mouth, of which Neil had spoken, was pitiable to see, as the lips quivered and the great tears sprang to her eyes and stood on her long lashes. "Fleecing an Italian count!" she whispered. "If mother were to send us money now, I do not believe I would touch it."
Then she read on:
"You are sure to like Grey Jerrold, and if you do not fall in love with him I shall be surprised. He, of course, will surrender to you at once, and he is worthy of you. I am to make some stupid calls with my mother and Blanche so good-by till Tuesday night. I only live till then.
"Your loving cousin,
For some time after finishing Neil's letter Bessie staid by the window, very still and thoughtful, with a half-pleased, half-troubled look in her young face. She was thinking of Neil's projected visit, and planning how she could make him comfortable, and his friend.
"I can dispense with a fire in my room, and the boots I was going to buy; these are not so very bad, though they do leak at times," and she glanced down rather ruefully at the little shabby boots in which her feet were incased, and which she had worn so long. "I hope Neil will not notice them, he is so fastidious about such things," she said, with a sigh; and then her thoughts went back to the summer when she had visited London and met Jack Trevellian who had been so kind and done so much for her.
Her mother had been home several times since then, and had spoken of Jack as a noble fellow, with nothing small in his nature.
"But he is greatly changed from what he used to be," she said. "When I first knew him at Monte Carlo, he was almost as regular at the tables as I was myself, and a capital partner at cards; but now he never plays at all, and did not even go inside the Casino, notwithstanding I did my best to persuade him. I think there must be some woman concerned in the change. Well she is fortunate if she gets Jack Trevellian. I wish Bessie, you had more tact, for I know he was interested in you. He is worth forty Neil McPhersons."
"Oh, mother, please don't talk like that," Bessie said, thinking to herself that she could tell, if she would, why he did not play as formerly, and feeling a great throb of gladness that he was keeping his promise to her.
If he had been coming to Stoneleigh, Bessie would not have cared for her surroundings, or her shabby shoes for he would not have noticed them, or if he did, he would not have let her know it as Neil was sure to do. Neil was very particular and critical, and had more than once hurt Bessie cruelly with his criticism upon her dress. But then he was just as severe upon Blanche, and that was some comfort, and with a sigh, as she remembered what he had said of being as good as engaged, she put the letter aside, and went to tell Dorothy of the expected guests and to consult with her as to the ways and means of making them comfortable.
"Fortunately I have some money saved, of my own, and you must make it go as far as possible, and be sure that we have a good Christmas dinner, with plum-pudding and whipped cream," she said, as she emptied into the old servant's hand what had been intended for boots and gloves, and a Christmas present for her father.
And now the day when Neil was expected had come, and it lacked but a few minutes of the time for the arrival of the train. Everything was ready, and the old house wore quite a festive appearance with its holiday dress of evergreens and scarlet berries, and all the flowers there were in blossom in the conservatory, which opened from the dining room, and was kept warm without extra expense. Everything which could be spared from other parts of the house had been brought to Neil's room, where a cheerful fire was burning in the grate, and where Bessie's own easy chair, and couch, and bright Afghan were doing duty, and making the place very comfortable and attractive.
During the two years and a half which had elapsed since Bessie's visit to London, she had changed somewhat, and was more a woman than a child, with a matured and, if possible, a sweeter expression in her face, though there still lingered about her mouth that same sorry, patient look which Jack Trevellian had wanted so much to kiss away. It was very apparent this afternoon, as she stood by the window looking out upon the snow which covered the garden and park, and made her shiver a little, and think of the mother who should have been at home, lightening her daughter's burden and cheering her lonely life.
"How happy the girls must be who have real mothers," Bessie thought, and then as if the regret for the mother reflected upon the father, who was so much to her, she went up to him by the fire, and stooping over him kissed him tenderly.
She always did that when her mother was in her mind and by some subtle intuition Archie had come to know it, and now his voice was very tender and loving as he drew her down upon his knee, and stroking her hair, said to her:
"Good little Bessie, what should I do without you? You are very lovely to-night in your finery. Are you glad Neil is coming?"
"Yes, very glad," Bessie replied, blushing a little. "Very glad for Neil, but I do not think I want that American here, too. I wish Neil had left him from the programme."
"Oh, yes; I remember you told me that Neil said he was coming. They are great friends, I believe," Archie said. Then, after a moment, he continued: "I dare say he is a gentleman. You may like him very much."
"No, I shall not," Bessie rejoined, tapping the floor impatiently with her boot, whose shabbiness French blacking could not wholly conceal, "I shall be civil to him, of course, as Neil's friend, but I would rather he did not come, spoiling everything. I see Neil so seldom that I want him all to myself when he is here. He is the only cousin I have, you know."
For a moment Archie was silent, and when at last he spoke, he said:
"Bessie, don't think too much of Neil. As I told you once in London, so I tell you now. He is too selfish by nature, and too ambitious to care particularly for anything which cannot advance his interests. He likes you very much, no doubt, and if you had a fortune, I dare say he would seek to make you his wife; but as you have not he will marry Blanche Trevellian, who has."
"Yes, he will marry Blanche," Bessie said, softly, and the old, tired, sorry look crept into her eyes and deepened about her mouth as she thought: "If I had a fortune! Oh, that if! What a big one it is in my case. And yet it is impressed upon me that somewhere in the world there is a fortune awaiting me; very far from here, it may be, but still somewhere; but then, Neil will be gone before I get it, and I shall not care."
And as it had done more than once before, a sharp pain cut through Bessie's heart as she thought what life would be with Neil making no part of it. So absorbed had she and her father been that neither of them had heard the train as it glided swiftly by, but when, after a few moments had elapsed, there was the stamping of feet outside, and a cheery call to the house dog, who had set up a welcome bark, Bessie sprang from her father's knee, exclaiming:
"That's Neil; he has come, and I am so glad."
She was out in the hall by this time, waiting expectantly, while Anthony opened the door admitting Neil, who kissed Bessie twice, and told her how glad he was to see her again, and how well her stuff dress of dark claret became her, or would, if she had left off that knot of Scotch plaid ribbon at the throat, which marred the effect.
Bessie's checks flushed at this criticism upon the ribbon she liked so much, and had bought for this very occasion, with a view to please her cousin. He was in very high spirits, it seemed to her, as she listened to his gay badinage and laughter. But how handsome he was in his new holiday suit, every item of which was faultless, and of the latest style. If his mother stinted him in other ways, she surely did not where his wardrobe was concerned, and he had the reputation of being one of the best dressed young men in London.
When dinner was over, and he had finished his cigar which he smoked in the presence of Bessie, she asked him of the American, who was coming the next evening.
"Oh, yes, Grey Jerrold," Neil said, "and the finest specimen of a Yankee you ever saw."
"I don't believe I like Yankees," Bessie said curtly, and Neil replied:
"You will like this one; you cannot help it, every body likes him, from the shabbiest old woman in the railway carriage to the prettiest girl in Piccadilly. Perhaps it was a liberty I ought not to have taken, inviting him here without consulting you first, but I wanted you to see him, and him to see you," and there was a vehemence in Neil's voice and manner which Bessie could not understand. "He is rich, or will be by and by," Neil said. "And the most generous chap I ever saw. He was always helping us out of scrapes at school. He has a rich aunt in America, who keeps him well supplied with money, besides what his father gave him when he came of age."
"What did you say he was doing in Carnarvon?" Bessie asked, and Neil replied:
"Hunting up some old woman, or young woman, I don't know which, as I never paid much attention to what he did say about it, I believe, though, there is some money in the case. I wish it was for me," Neil said, and then suddenly he sank into a thoughtful, abstracted mood, from which he did not rouse till the clock struck ten and it was time to say good-night. "I have not been very good company for the last hour, I have been worried lately and am not quite myself," he said to Bessie, when she asked if he were ill and if there was anything she could do for him or send to his room.
And Neil had been worried and exasperated and wrought upon until he was half beside himself. His mother had wished him to accompany her and Blanche to the house of a friend near Edinburgh, and when he refused, saying he preferred to go to Stoneleigh, there had been a jolly row, as he expressed it, and his mother had charged him with his preference for the daughter of that bold adventuress, and had told him decidedly that if he ever dared to marry her he should never touch a shilling of her money either during her life-time or after, for once assured of the marriage she would so arrange her matters that he would be as great a beggar as Archie McPherson himself.
"A family of paupers!" she said, scornfully. "Your father has nothing to give you; absolutely nothing, and you can yourself judge, how, with your tastes and habits, you will like living at Stoneleigh with two meals a day, as I hear they sometimes do, blacking your own boots and building your own fires."
Here Neil winced, for he knew very well that he had no fancy for poverty, even if Bessie shared it with him But he told his mother he had, and consigned Blanche's ten thousand a year to a place where the gold might be melted, and said he loved Bessie McPherson better than anything in life, and should marry her if he pleased in spite of a hundred mothers. But he knew he should not—knew he could not face the reality when it came to the point. He was too dependent upon what wealth would bring him to throw it away for one girl, even if that girl were Bessie, whom he loved with all the intensity of his selfish nature—loved so much that for an hour or so after his interview with his mother, he balanced the two questions, Blanche with ten thousand a year, or Bessie with nothing. Naturally Blanche turned the scale, and then to himself, he said:
"I will go to Stoneleigh and live for a few days in Bessie's presence, and then I will say good-by forever and marry Blanche as mother wishes me to do. She is not so very bad except for her eyebrows and that horrid drawl. But Bessie, oh, Bessie, how can I give her up!" and the young man's heart cried out in pain for the sweet young girl he had loved all his life, and who, he was sure loved him. To do Neil justice, this was the bitterest drop in the cup—the knowing that Bessie, too, would suffer. "She has enough to bear," he said, "without an added drop from me, I wish she would get in love with some one else and throw me overboard. I believe I could bear it better. There's Jack he was awfully sweet on her in London, but he has only been to see her once since. He is too poor to marry, and there is no one else—yes, by Jove, there is!" and Neil started to his feet. "There is Grey Jerrold. He is just the man for Bessie to fall in love with if she could see him, and I'll bring that about."
It may seem strange that one so utterly selfish as Neil McPherson should have devised this plan to help him in his dilemma, but this in fact was only another phase of his selfishness. He knew it was impossible for him to marry Bessie, and felt that it was also impossible to give her up without other aid than his own feeble will. If she could prefer some one else to himself, it would be a help, however much his self-love might be wounded, and if another than himself must taste the sweetness he so coveted he would far rather that other should be Grey Jerrold, an American, even though he bore the rose away to foreign soil, than to have one of his own countrymen flaunting his happiness in his face, Bessie and Grey were suited to each other, he thought, and he would bring them together; so, when he heard from Grey of his intended trip to Carnarvon, he suggested that he defer it until the holidays and spend a day or two at Stoneleigh. Then he wrote to Bessie that he was as good as engaged to Blanche, and that she would probably fall in love with Grey, who was sure to do so with her. This done, he began to anticipate the visit, which he said to himself was to be his last, and from which he meant to get all the happiness possible, he would kiss Bessie as often as he liked; he would hold her hands in his, the dear little hands which had worked so hard, but, which nevertheless, were so soft and pretty; he would look into the innocent blue eyes and see them kindle and droop beneath his gaze, and then there should be one long, never to be forgotten walk by themselves across the suspension bridge, through the straggling old town, and along the road by the river toward Beaumaris, and he would tell her everything, all his love for her and its utter hopelessness because they were both so poor, and he would say good-by forever, and bid her marry Grey Jerrold, and so remove temptation from him and make it easier for him to be true to Blanche.
It was much easier for Neil to form this plan than to be satisfied with it, and during the few days which elapsed before he started for Stoneleigh he was cross and irritable and even rude at times both to his mother and Blanche, the latter of whom finally treated him with a cold indifference which made him fear a little for the ten thousand.
"What if she should take the bits in her teeth and throw me overboard?" he thought, and at the very last, he changed his tactics and devoted himself to the heiress with an assiduity which left her little doubt of his intentions. Still, to her he did not speak, though to his mother he said, half irritably, as if it were something wrung from him against his will:
"Don't trouble yourself. I intend to marry Blanche in my own good time; but I will not be hurried, and am going to Stoneleigh first."
And he went to Stoneleigh and tried all the way there to think of Bessie as she looked in the park, in the old faded gown with the disfiguring puffs; tried to make himself believe that she had no manner, no style, and would not pass for a great lady among people city bred; that she was better suited to some quiet home such as Grey Jerrold might give her, were he happy enough to win her. Neil had no doubt that Grey would try to win her when once he had seen her, and he began at last to feel sorry that he had invited his friend to Stoneleigh, and to have doubts as to his ability to give Bessie up even to him. He was sure of it when he reached Stoneleigh and saw her with the brightness on her face and the sparkle in her eye as she welcomed him. She might not be as elegant or as stylish as Blanche, who had lived in the city all her life, but she was inexpressibly sweet and womanly, and there was in every movement a grace and quiet dignity which stamped her as a lady. And Neil recognized it as he never had before, and fought the battle over again all through the silent night, and was still fighting it in the morning when he went down to breakfast and looked at Bessie as she poured his coffee, in her gray dress and pretty white muslin apron, with the daintily frilled pockets, and just the corner of a blue-bordered handkerchief showing in one of them. Neil liked the dress and the effect of the blue handkerchief but he did not like the apron, it made her look so like a housemaid, and he told her so when breakfast was over and they stood a moment alone by the fire.
Reddening a little, Bessie answered him, laughingly; "Yes, you told me once before that you did not like my apron, and I know it would be out of place on your mother or Blanche, but it suits me, for you see I am housemaid here, and clear my own table and wash my own silver and china. Dorothy is old and has the rheumatism in her feet, and I must help; so, Mr. Aristocrat, if you do not wish to see me degrade myself, just go and take a walk, and when you come back the obnoxious apron shall be laid aside and we will practice that song you brought me."
Neil did not go out and walk, but staid in the dining-room and smoked his cigar, and looked at Bessie as she cleared away the breakfast dishes and washed the silver and china, with her sleeves drawn half-way to her elbows, showing her round, white arms.
"Yes, she is just suited to America, where, I believe, the women all wear aprons and wash their own dishes," Neil thought, as he watched her with a strange feeling in his heart of pain and happiness; happiness that for a few days at least she was his to look at, to love, to caress; pain that the days were so few and so short when he must leave her.
And then there arose before him, as in a vision, a picture of a quiet home amid green hedge-rows and sunny lanes, not a home such as Blanche's would be, with gorgeous surroundings and liveried servants everywhere, but such a home as makes a man better for living in it; a home where the housewifely Bessie was the presiding goddess, flitting about just as she was doing now, putting away the silver and china, brushing up the hearth, moving a chair here and another there, watering her pots of flowers in the conservatory, tea-roses and carnations and heliotrope and lilies all in bloom and filling the room with sweet perfume as if it were the summer-time, instead of chill December with its biting blasts sweeping against the windows.
"There!" Bessie said, at last, removing her apron, pulling down her sleeves, and smoothing her bright wavy hair, "I have dismissed the housemaid, and now I am ready to sing for you, or play chess, or do whatever you like."
But Neil was in no mood for singing or playing chess, or even talking much, and his fit of abstraction lasted all day, or until late in the afternoon, when Bessie began to speak of getting herself in readiness for Grey, who was to come in the evening train from Carnarvon. Then Neil roused, and as if he had nerved himself for the sacrifice, manifested a great deal of interest with regard to Bessie's personal appearance.
"I want you to get yourself up stunningly," he said, "so as to make a good first appearance. I have told Grey so much about you that he must not be disappointed."
"Ridiculous! I shall wear just what I wore yesterday, bow and all, for I like it," Bessie said, with a little defiant toss of her head.
She, too, had been thinking while Neil sat so silent and moody by the fire, and had decided that he had greatly changed for the worse since she had seen him last—that he was hard to please, moody, exacting, and quite too much given to criticising her and her dress.
"As if it is any of his business what I wear," she thought, and she took a kind of exultant satisfaction in fastening on the knot of ribbon he had condemned and which really was very becoming to her plain, dark dress.
"I suppose, Mr. Grey Jerrold, I must waste a clean collar and a pair of cuffs on you, though that will be so much more for me to iron next week," she said, as she stood before the mirror in her room, which was to be given to the coming guest, "I hope, sir, you will appreciate all I am doing for you, for I assure you it is no small matter to turn out from my comfortable quarters into that barn of a room where the wind blows a hurricane and the rats scurry over the floor. Ugh! how I dread it, and you, too!" she continued, shaking her head at the imaginary Grey, who stood before her mind's eye, black-eyed, black-whiskered, black-faced, and a very giant in proportions, as she fancied all Americans to be.
Her toilet completed, she removed from the room everything which she thought would betray the fact that it was her apartment, and carried them with a shiver to the chamber facing the north, where the rats scurried over the floor at night, and the wind blew a hurricane.
"There! I am ready for your Pythias! Do you think I shall pass muster?" she said to Neil, as she entered the dining-room where he was sitting.
It would indeed have been a very censorious, fault-finding man who could have seen aught amiss in the beautiful young girl, plain as her dress might be, and for answer to her question, Neil stood up and kissed her, saying as he did so:
"He will think you perfect, though I don't like the ribbon, I don't like any color about you except your hair and eyes. I wish you would take it off."
"Mr. Jerrold may think differently. I am dressed for him, and as I like it I mean to wear it," Bessie answered, curtly, but with a bright smile, as she looked into Neil's face.
"Oh, well; chacun a son gout," he said, consulting his watch, and adding: "It is time I was starting for the station; the train is due in fifteen minutes."
When he was gone Bessie began to feel a little nervous with regard to the stranger coming among them. Hitherto she had thought only of the extra expense and the trouble he would give old Dorothy, whose feet and ankles were badly swollen and paining her so much.
"I may have to cook and serve the Christmas dinner myself," she said, "and I don't mind the work; only I do not want this American from Boston, where the women are so full of brains, to think me a mere dishwasher and chimney-sweep. I wonder if he is half as nice as Neil says he is, and if I shall like him. Of course I sha'n't, but I shall treat him well for Neil's sake, and be so glad when he has gone."
Then she proceeded to lay the table for supper, as they usually dined in the middle of the day. Dorothy's feet were more active then, and Archie preferred an early dinner. Everything was in readiness at last; the bread and the butter and the jam, with cold chicken and ham, and the kettle singing on the hearth; the curtains drawn and the bright fire making shadows on the wall and falling upon the young girl, who, as her ear caught the sound of footsteps without, ran to the window, and parting the heavy curtains, looked out into the darkness so that the first glimpse Grey Jerrold had of her was of her fair, eager face framed in waves of golden brown hair, and pressed against the window pane in the vain effort to see the dreaded American.
Between the man of twenty-three and the boy of fourteen, who had knelt upon the snow in the leafless woods and asked God to forgive him for his grandfather's sin, and had pledged himself to undo as far as was possible the wrong to others that sin had caused, there was the difference of nine years of growth, and culture, and experience, and knowledge of the world; but otherwise the boy and the man were the same, for as the Grey of fourteen had been frank, and truthful, and generous, and wholly unselfish, with a gentleness in his nature like that of a tender, loving woman, so was the Grey of twenty-three whom we last saw upon the steamer which was taking him away from home and the lonely woman watching so tearfully upon the wharf, and feeling that with his going her joyless life was made more desolate.
Since that time there had been a year's travel upon the Continent with his parents, and then he had entered at Eton, where he renewed his acquaintance with Neil McPherson, between whom and himself there sprung up a friendship which nothing had weakened as yet. Several times he had been a guest in Neil's home, where Lady Jane treated him with the utmost civility, and admitted that for an American he really was refined and gentlemanly. He knew Jack Trevellian, and Blanche, and all Neil's intimate friends, and had the entree to the same society with them, whenever he chose to avail himself of it, which was not very often. He was in Europe for study, he said, and not for society, and he devoted himself to his books with an energy and will which put him at the head of his class in Eton, and won him an enviable reputation for scholarship at Oxford, where he had now been for nearly four years, and where he intended to remain until his Aunt Lucy, and possibly his Aunt Hannah, crossed the sea and joined him for an extended tour.
Then he was going home for good to settle down and marry, he said, for in all Grey's dreams of the future there was always the picture of a happy home with some fair, sweet-faced girl in it, reigning equally as mistress with the dear Aunt Hannah, still living her solitary life in the old farm house, and keeping watch over that hidden grave under the bedroom floor, and laying up year by year the interest on the gold which was one day to go to the heirs of Elizabeth Rogers, of Carnarvon, if they could be found. But could they? That was the question both she and Grey asked themselves as the years went on and no trace was discovered of any such person either in or around Carnarvon, for Grey had been there more than once, and with all due precaution had inquired of everybody for the woman, Elizabeth Rogers, and finally, as he grew a little bolder, for Joel Rogers himself, who went to America many years before. But all to no avail; both Joel and Elizabeth were myths, and the case was getting hopeless.
Still, Grey did not despair, and resolved that during the holidays he would go again to the old Welsh town and try what he could do, and so it came about that he accompanied Neil as far as Carnarvon, where he proposed to spend a day and then go over to Stoneleigh on Christmas Eve, more to please Neil, who had urged him so strongly to stop there, than for any particular satisfaction it would be to him to pass the day with strangers, who might or might not care to see him. He knew there was a cousin Bessie, a girl of wondrous beauty, if Neil was to be believed, and he remembered to have heard of her, years ago, when he was a boy and first met Neil McPherson at Melrose. Faint memories, too, he had of hearing her talked about at the memorable Thanksgiving dinner which had preceded his grandfather's death and his own sickness, when they said he had asked Miss McPherson to send for her and stuff her with mince pie, as a recompense for the many times she had gone hungry to bed because there was not money enough to buy dinner for three. And all this came back to him as he stood in the station in Carnarvon waiting for the train.
"She must be a young lady now seventeen or eighteen years old," he thought; "and Neil says she is beautiful. But I dare say she is like most English girls—with a giggle and a drawl and a supreme contempt for anything outside the United Kingdom. I fancy, too, she is tall and thin, with sharp elbows and big feet, like many of her sisters. I wonder what she will think of me. People say I am more English than American, which I don't like, for if there is a loyal son of Uncle Sam in this world I am he. I can't help this confounded foreign accent which I have picked up from being over here so long, and I do not know as I wish to help it. Perhaps it may help me with Miss Bessie, as well as my English cut generally," and Grey glanced at himself in the dingy little glass to see how he did look.
What he saw was a broad-shouldered, finely-formed young man, who stood so erect, that he seemed taller than he really was. A face which strangers would trust without a moment's hesitancy; large dark-blue eyes, thick brown hair just inclined to curl at the ends; and a smile which would have made the plainest face handsome and which was Grey's chief point of attraction, if we except his voice, which, though rich and full, was very sweet, and expressive of the genuine interest and sympathy he felt for every human being in distress or otherwise. No tired, discouraged mother in a railway car, trying to hush her crying infant, would ever fear that he would be annoyed or wish her and her child in Jericho. On the contrary, she would, if necessary, ask him to hold her baby for a moment, and the child would go to him unhesitatingly, so great was the mesmeric power he exercised over his fellow-creatures. This influence or power was inborn, and he could no more have helped it than he could have helped his heartbeats. But, added to this, was a constant effort on his part to make those with whom he came in contact happy, to sympathize with them in their griefs, to help them in their needs, to sacrifice his own feelings to their pleasure, for in this way he felt that he was in part atoning for the wrong done by the poor old man dead long ago and forgotten by nearly all who had known him.
Such was the Grey Jerrold whom Neil McPherson met at the Menai station and escorted along the road to Stoneleigh.
"I should have driven out for you, only there is no carriage. I think I told you that Mr. Archie McPherson is awfully poor," he explained apologetically as he saw Grey pull his fur cap over his ears, for the wind was blowing a gale and drifting the snow in their faces.
"I do not think you ever told me in so many words that they were very poor, but I had an impression that they were not rich," Grey said, adding, "I prefer to walk, and rather enjoy battling with a north-wester: it takes me back to New England, the very land of snows and storms."
They were in the park by this time, nearing the house, when suddenly the curtains of a window parted, letting out a flood of light into the darkness and Grey saw for an instant pressed against the pane a face which made his heart throb quickly with a kind of glad surprise as if it were a face he had seen before, while with it came a thought of his Aunt Hannah, and the lonely old house in the pasture land in far-off Allington. A moment later, and the face was looking up to his with a half fearful curious expression, which was, however, changed to one of great gladness as Bessie met his winning smile and the kind eyes bent so searchingly upon her. She had no fear or dread of him now, and she gave him her hand most cordially and bade him welcome to Stoneleigh with a warmth which made him feel at home, and put him at his ease.
"Perhaps you would like to go to your room at once, and Neil will show you the way," she said to him; then, in an aside to Neil, "my room, you know, at the head of the stairs."
Neil looked at her in surprise, while a cloud gathered upon his brow. That Bessie should give her room to Grey seemed to him absurd, though he never stopped to ask himself where she could put him if not there Neil knew perfectly well the capabilities of the old stone house, and that spare rooms were not as plenty as blackberries, but so long as he was not incommoded it was no business of his to inquire into matters; nor could he understand that an extra fire even for a day was a heavy drain on Bessie's purse. But Grey's quick ear caught Bessie's whispered words, and before he entered the warm, pretty room at the head of the stairs he knew it belonged to her, and guessed why she had given it to him. Under any circumstances he would have known by certain unmistakable signs that it was a young girl's apartment into which he was ushered, and after Neil left him he looked about him with a kind of awe at the chintz-covered furniture, the white curtains at the window, and the pretty little toilet table with its hanging glass in the center, and its coverings of pink and white muslin.
Just then, through the door, which had inadvertently been left a little ajar, he caught the sound of voices in the hall below, Neil's voice and Bessie's and Neil was saying to her, disapprovingly:
"Why did you give your room to Grey? Was it necessary?"
"Yes, Neil; there was no other comfortable place for him; the north room is so large and the chimney smokes so we could never get it warm," Bessie said, and Neil continued:
"And so you are to sleep there and catch your death-cold?"
"Not a bit of it," Bessie replied. "Dorothy will warm the bed with her big warming-pan and I shall not mind it in the least. I am never cold."
"Well, I think it a shame!" Neil said, feeling more annoyed that Grey was to sleep in Bessie's room, than that Bessie was to pass the night in the great, cheerless north chamber with only old Dorothy's warming-pan for comfort.
But it never occurred to him that he could give Grey his room and himself take the cold and the dreariness of the north room, nor yet that he could share his bed with Grey. He never thought for others when the thinking conflicted with himself, and returning to the dining-room he sat down by the fire with anything but a happy expression on his face, as he wished that he had not invited Grey to Stoneleigh.
Something in the expression of Bessie's and Grey's faces as they looked at each other had disturbed him, for he had read undisguised admiration in the one, and confidence and trust in the other, and knew that there were already sympathy and accord between them, and that they were sure to be fast friends at least, just as he had told himself he wished them to be.
Meanwhile Grey was thinking, as he made his toilet for supper, and as a result of his thoughts he at last rang the bell which brought old Dorothy to him.
"My good woman," he said, flashing upon her the smile which always won those on whom it fell, and drawing her inside the door which he shut cautiously, "My good woman, I do not wish to be particular or troublesome, but really I should like a room without a fire, the colder the better. One to the north will suit me, if there is such a one. No matter for the furniture; a bed and wash-stand are all I require. You see, I have so much health and superfluous heat that I like to be cool; and then I have the—" he stopped short here, for he could not quite deviate from the truth so far as to say he actually had the asthma, so he added, in an undertone, "If I had the asthma I could not breathe, you know, in this small room, pretty as it is, and upon my word it is lovely. Have you no larger chamber which I can take?"
"Ye-es," Dorothy said, slowly, with a throb of joy, as she reflected that her young mistress might not be deprived of her comfortable quarters after all. "There is a big chamber to the north, cold enough for anybody, but Miss Bessie got this ready for you. She will not like you to change. Do you have the tisick very bad?"
Grey did not answer this question, but began to gather up his brushes and his combs, and putting them into his valise, he said, "I want that north room; take me there, please, and say nothing to your mistress."
Dorothy knew this last was impossible; she should be obliged to tell Bessie; but she did not oppose the young man whose manner was so masterful, and whom she led to the great, cheerless room with its smoky chimney down which the winter wind was roaring with a dismal sound, while across the hearth a huge rat ran as they entered it.
"'Tis a sorry place, and you'll be very cold, but I'll warm your bed and give you plenty of blankets and hot water in the morning," Dorothy said, as she hastily gathered up the few articles belonging to Bessie, who had transferred them from her own room to this.
"I shall sleep like a top," Grey replied. "Much better than by the fire. This suits me perfectly, and the cold is nothing to what America can do."
He was very reassuring; and wholly deceived by his manner, Dorothy departed and left him to himself.
"Whew!" he said, as a gust of wind stronger than usual struck the windows and puffed down the chimney, almost knocking over the fire-board. "This is a clipper and no mistake. And what an old stable of a room it is, and what a place for that dainty little Bessie to be in. She would be frozen solid before morning. I guess I shall sleep in my overcoat and boots. What a lovely face she has, and how it reminds me of somebody—I don't know whom, unless it is Aunt Hannah, whose face I seemed to see right side by side with Bessie. They must be awfully poor, and I wish I had brought her something better for a Christmas present than this jim-crack," and opening his valise he took out a pretty little inlaid work-box fitted up with all the necessary appliances, even to a gold thimble.
Remembering the Christmas at home when a present was as much a part of that day as his breakfast, Grey had bought the box in London as a gift to Bessie, and when he caught a glimpse, as he did, of the worn basket, with its spools and scissors and colored yarns for darning, which Dorothy gathered up among other articles belonging to Bessie, he was glad he had made the choice he did. But now, as he surveyed the apartment and felt how very poor his host and daughter must be, he wished that he could give them something better than this fanciful box, which could neither feed nor keep them warm.
As he had finished his toilet in Bessie's room there was nothing now for him to do except to give an extra twist to his cravat, run his fingers through his brown hair and then he was ready for the dining-room, where he found Bessie alone. As a matter of course, Dorothy had gone to Bessie and told her of the exchange, which delighted her far more than it did her mistress.
"Mr. Jerrold in that cold, dreary room!" Bessie exclaimed. "Oh, Dorothy, why did you allow it, and what must he think of us?"
"I could not help myself, darling, for he would have his way," Dorothy replied. "He was that set on the cold room that you couldn't move him a jot. His breathing apparatus is out of killer; he has the tisick awful and can't breathe in a warm room. I shall give him some cubebs to smoke to-morrow. And don't you worry; he won't freeze. I'll put a bag of hot water in the bed. He is a very nice young gentleman, if he is an American."
Bessie knew she could not help herself, but there was a troubled look on her face when Grey came in, and, approaching her as she stood by the fire, made some casual remark about the unusual severity of the weather for the season.
"Yes, it is very cold," she said, adding quickly, as she looked up at him: "Oh, Mr. Jerrold, Dorothy has told me, and I am so sorry. You do not know how cold that north chamber is, and we cannot warm it if we try, the chimney smokes so badly. You will be so uncomfortable there. You might let the fire go down in m—, in the other room, if the heat affects you. Dorothy says you suffer greatly with asthma."
"Yes—no," Grey replied, confusedly, scarcely willing to commit himself again to the asthma. "I shall not mind the cold at all. I am accustomed to it. You must remember I come from the land of ice and snow. You have no idea what blizzards America is capable of getting up, and ought to hear how the wind can howl and the snow drift about an old farm-house in a rocky pasture land, which I would give much to see to-night."
There was a tone of regret in his rich, musical voice, and forgetting that Neil had said he was from Boston. Bessie said to him:
"Is that farm-house your home?"
"Oh, no; my home proper is in Boston," he answered her, "but I have spent some of my happiest days in that house, and the memory of it and the dear woman who lives there is the sweetest of my life, and the saddest, too," he added, slowly; for, right in Bessie's blue eyes, looking at him so steadily, he seemed to see the hidden grave, and for a moment all the old bitter shame and humiliation which had once weighed him down so heavily, and which, naturally, the lapse of years had tended to lighten, came back to him in the presence of this young girl who seemed so inextricably mixed up with everything pertaining to his past.
It was like some new place which we sometimes come suddenly upon, with a strange feeling that we have seen it before, though when we cannot tell; so Bessie impressed Grey as a part of the tragedy enacted in the old New England house many, many years ago, and covered up so long. He almost felt that she had been there with him and that now she was standing by the hidden grave and stretching her hand to him across it with an offer of help and sympathy. And so strong was this impression that he actually lifted his right hand an instant to take in it the slender one resting on the mantel, as Bessie talked to him.
"What would she say if she knew?" he thought, feeling that it would be easy to tell her about it,—feeling that she was one to trust even unto death.
Bessie was interested in Grey, and already felt the wonderful mesmeric influence he exercised over all who came in contact with him. In the salons of fashion, in the halls of Eaton and Oxford, in the railway car, or in the privacy of domestic life, Grey's presence was an all-pervading power, or as an old woman whom he had once befriended expressed it:
"He was like a great warm stove in a cold room."
And Bessie felt the warmth, and was glad he was there, and said to him:
"I wish you would tell me about that house among the rocks and the woman who lives there, I am sure I should like her, and I know so little of America or the American people. You are almost the first I have ever seen."
Before Grey could answer her Neil came in, and as supper was soon after served, no further allusion was made to America until the table was cleared away, and the party of four were sitting around the fire, Archie in his accustomed corner with Bessie at his side, her hand on the arm of his chair and her head occasionally resting lovingly against his shoulder. Neil was opposite, while Grey sat before the fire, with now and then a shiver running down his back as the rising wind crept into the room, even through the thick curtains which draped the rattling windows behind him. But Grey did not care for the cold. His thoughts were across the sea, in the house among the rocks, and he was wondering if his Aunt Hannah was alone that Christmas Eve, and was thinking just how dark, and ghostly and cold was the interior of that bedroom, whose door was seldom opened, and where no one had ever been since his grandfather's death except his Aunt Hannah and himself. As if divining his thoughts, Bessie said to him: "I wish you would tell us about that house among the rocks. Is it very old?"
"Yes, one of the oldest in Allington," Grey replied, and instantly Archie roused from his usual apathetic State and repeated:
"Allington? Did you say Allington, in Massachusetts?"
"Yes," Grey replied. "Allington, in Massachusetts; about forty miles or so from Boston. Do you know the place?"
"My aunt lives there—the woman for whom Bessie was named, Miss Betsey McPherson. Do you know her?"
"Yes, I used to know her well when I was so often in Allington before my grandfather died," Grey replied, and Neil said to him:
"What manner of woman is she? Something of a shrew, I fancy. I saw her once when I was a boy, and she boxed my ears because I called her old Bet Buttermilk, and she said that I and all the English were fools, because I asked her if there were any wildcats in the woods behind her house."
"Served you right," Grey said, laughingly, and then continued; "She is rather eccentric, I believe, but highly respected in town. My Aunt Lucy is very fond of her. Did you ever see her?" and he turned to Bessie, who replied:
"I saw her once at Aberystwyth, when I was a child; and she afterwards sent me this turquois ring, the only bit of jewelry I own," and Bessie held to the light her hand on which shone the ring Daisy had unwillingly given up to her on the occasion of her last visit to Stoneleigh.
For a long time they sat before the fire talking of America and the places Grey had visited in Europe, and it was rather late when the party finally retired for the night, Neil going to his warm, comfortable room facing the south, and Grey to his cheerless one facing the north, with only the cold and the damp, and the rats for his companions, if we except the bag of hot water he found in his bed, on which Dorothy had put woolen sheets and which she had warmed thoroughly with her big warming-pan.
"This is not very jolly, but I am glad I am here instead of Bessie," Grey thought, and undressing himself more quickly than he had ever undressed before, he plunged into the bed which was really warm and comfortable, and was soon wrapped in the deep sleep which comes to perfect health and a good conscience.
When Grey awoke the next morning there was a little pile of snow on the foot of his bed, which stood near a window, and more on the hearth, which had sifted down the chimney, while the wind was, if possible, blowing harder than on the previous night.
"Whew!" Grey said, as he rubbed his cold nose, "I believe this beats Allington! How shall I ever get myself together?"
Just then Anthony came in with jugs of hot water and a huge soapstone on which he said the young man was to stand while he dressed himself.
"Sharp weather this, even for Wales!" he began, as he lingered a little and put back the curtains to admit more light.
"Sorry, sir, I cannot make you a fire. Hope the cold did not keep you awake?"
"Never slept better in my life, I did not mind the cold at all," Grey said, and Anthony continued:
"Yes, you like air, Tisicky my old woman says, and she sent me out last night for a pipe and some cubebs which you are to smoke three times a day. Nothing like cubebs for your disorder. Had it long?"
"Thank you, no, sir; you are very kind," Grey said, with a little groan, as he wondered if the confounded things would make him sick, inasmuch as he had never smoked in his life.
Making his toilet with all speed, and finding the soapstone and hot water great comforts to him, he hastened down to the dining-room, where he found Neil, looking rather tired and worn, and out of sorts, as if there was something on his mind.
Neil had not slept well at all, though, after Archie, he had the best bed and the best room in the house, and, his fire burned all night and was replenished by Anthony, early in the morning. He had been restless, and nervous, and had lain awake for hours, watching the flickering firelight on the wall, thinking of Bessie, and wondering if she would not be frozen stiff before morning.
He had known nothing of the exchange of rooms, and when he heard footsteps in the north chamber, which adjoined his, though it did not communicate with it, he supposed it was Bessie, and was surprised that she stepped so heavily, and moved the chairs with such a jerk.
At last, however, all was still; Bessie was asleep, no doubt, and did not feel the cold or hear the wind as he heard it moaning through the old yew trees, and screaming around the house, as if it were some restless spirit trying to get in. Suddenly, however, there was a sound which made Neil start, and listen, and raise himself on his elbow to make sure he was not mistaken.
"No I am not" he whispered to himself. "It is a snore," and he gave a groan as he thought: "Bessie snoring! and such snores! who would imagine that she could do anything so vulgar and unlady-like! Heavens and earth, it is enough to raise the rafters! If I did not know Bessie was in there. I'd swear it was a man. How can a girl—and Bessie of all girls—go it like that?" and the fastidious Neil stopped his ears with his fingers to shut out the obnoxious sounds which grew louder as Grey's sleep became more profound.
There was a feeling of keen disappointment in Neil's heart, a sense of something lost, or as if in some way he had been wronged, and then he thought of Blanche, and wondered if she snored, and how he could find out.