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Herb of Grace
by Rosa Nouchette Carey
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"What on earth is that noise?" he asked in a puzzled tone. And Anna, drawing her dainty white skirts closely round her, stood still to listen.

It was certainly an extraordinary combination of sounds. It seemed at first as though two people were singing a duet in different tunes and without any regard to time; there was persistent melody and yet there was utter discord, and it seemed accompanied by the clanging of fire-irons.

Presently Anna began to laugh. "Do let us go in and see what it means," she whispered. "Somebody—a man, I think—is singing 'Rule Britannia' and 'Hark, hark, my soul' by turns, and there is a woman talking or scolding at the same time."

"I believe you are right," was Malcolm's answer. "Take care of that last step, child, it is quite worn away." And then, as they stood side by side in the dismal little area, he looked vainly for a bell. Finally, he rapped so smartly at the door with Anna's sunshade that they distinctly heard an irate voice say, "Drat their imperence," and a tall, bony-looking woman, in a flowered gingham dress and a very red face, bounced out on them.

She was so tall and so excessively bony, and so altogether aggressive-looking, that Anna felt inclined to hide herself behind Malcolm. Indeed, he remarked afterwards himself, that he had never seen a finer specimen of a muscular Christian, barring the Christianity, in his life.

"What's your pleasure?" observed the Amazon, folding her arms in a defiant manner, while through the open door they could now hear distinctly the cobbler's subdued and singularly toneless voice meandering on—"O'er earth's green fields, and ocean's wave-beat shore."

"Deuce take the man!" continued the woman wrathfully. "Will you hold your old doddering tongue, Caleb, and let the gentlefolk speak!" But there was no cessation of the dreary, dirge-like sounds. They found out afterwards that Caleb always worked with cotton-wool in his ears, so his wife's remonstrance failed to reach him.

"You see, it is like this, sir," he observed to Malcolm afterwards, when they became better acquainted with each other: "Ma'am's tongue is like a leaking water-butt. It is bound to drip, drip from week's end to week's end, and there's no stopping it. It is a way she has, and Kit and me are bound to put up with it. She means no harm, doesn't Kezia; she is a hard-working crittur, and does her duty, though she is a bit noisy over it; she is good to us both in her way, and I am not quarrelsome by nature, so, as I like to work in peace, I just stop my ears and hum to myself, and if she scolds I mind it no more than I do the buzzing of the blue-bottles on the glass."

"But the child Kit?" questioned Malcolm a little anxiously. Then a queer little twisted smile came to Caleb's face.

"She is used to it, is Kit, and she don't take it to heart much. I have heard her cheek Ma'am sometimes. Ma'am wouldn't hurt a hair of her head, for all her bouncings and flinging of pots and kettles when she is in a temper. It is the basement tries her, poor soul. She says she has never been used to it. Her first husband was in the tin trade, and they had a tidy little shop in the Borough."

"Oh, Mrs. Martin has been married before," observed Malcolm. He was rather surprised at this piece of intelligence.

"Lord love you, yes, sir; and when she became Josh Leggett's widow she just took up with me because she said she felt lonesome. She did it with her eyes open as I often tell her, but she has never got over the basement. It does not agree with her constitution, and it never will."

"I suppose Kit is Mrs. Martin's child?" asked Malcolm, as he digested this information.

Then Caleb gave a dry little laugh.

"Bless you, no, sir. Kezia never had any family. That was always a sore point with her. She said that was why she was so lonesome, and I believe she married me mostly on Kit's account. Oh, she has a good heart, has Ma'am," continued Caleb in his slow, ruminative way, "though she would talk a dozen men stupid, one after another, and be as fresh as paint herself." And with this graphic description of the second Mrs. Martin, Caleb touched his old hat and slouched away.



CHAPTER VI

YEA-VERILY AND BABS

We will have a swashing and a martial outside. —As You Like It.

The direct influence of good women is the greatest of all forces under Divine Grace for making good men. —KNOX LITTLE.

Never had that much-loved hymn "The Pilgrims of the Night" sounded so flatly and discordantly in Anna's ears as when she listened to Caleb's monotonous croak; but her sense of irritation changed to alarm when Mrs. Martin suddenly shook her fist at the open door and vanished. Malcolm, who promptly followed her, was just in time to see her shaking the cobbler by his coat-collar, much after the fashion of a terrier shaking a rat.

"Are you a born natural?" she screamed. "Pilgrims of the night, indeed! I'll pilgrim you, you chuckle-headed idiot. Here are your betters trying to make themselves heard." Then Caleb slowly unstopped his ears, and rose rather stiffly to his feet.

"You have got no call to be so violent, Kezia," he returned meekly. "Oh, it is the gentleman who lent us the umbrella. Kit and I were going to bring it back this afternoon, sir, but I had to finish a job I had in hand."

"There is no hurry," returned Malcolm. "We were in this direction, so I thought I would save you the trouble." Malcolm looked curiously round the room as he spoke.

He was not surprised when he learnt afterwards that the second Mrs. Martin objected to the basement. It was certainly a gloomy little place, though scrupulously clean and neat. The sunshine of a July day filtered reluctantly through the small, opaque-looking window. Caleb's bench and tools were placed just underneath it, and above his head a linnet hopped and twittered in a green cage. Kit's perambulator occupied one corner, while Kit herself, seated at the table in a high chair, was busily engaged in ironing out some ragged doll-garments with a tiny bent flat-iron. Anna regarded her pitifully—the small shrunken figure and sunken chest, and the thin white face with its halo of red curls. But Kit was almost too absorbed with her endeavour to get the creases out of a doll's petticoat to heed her scrutiny. She only paused to nod at Malcolm in a friendly way.

"I wasn't wet one little bit, though Ma'am scolded dad so," she exclaimed in her high shrill voice. "I was like a queen in a big tent, wasn't I, dad? I was awful comfortable."

"She might have been drowned dead for all the care he took," returned Mrs. Martin with a contemptuous sniff, as she planted her arms akimbo in her favourite attitude. Her elbows were so sharp and bony that Anna thought of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. "If it weren't for me that blessed lamb would be a corpse every day of her life—though I beg and pray him on my bended knees not to run her into danger."

She was only a coarse-tongued virago, but even Anna, who had shrunk from her, felt a little mollified and touched as she saw how tenderly the rough hand rested on the child's curls. But Kit pushed it pettishly away. "Don't, Ma'am, you've been and gone and spoiled Jemima's ball dress, and she is going to wear it to-night," and Kit held up a modicum of blue gauze which certainly did not bear the slightest resemblance to a garment, and regarded it anxiously. Jemima herself, a mere battered hulk of a doll, lay in a grimy chemise staring with lack-lustre eyes at the ceiling.

"I suppose Kit is not able to walk?" asked Anna, looking rather timidly at the formidable Mrs. Martin; but to her surprise the rugged, forbidding features softened and grew womanly in a moment.

"Law bless you, miss, the poor lamb has never stood on her feet in her life, and never will as long as she lives. The doctors at the hospital yonder say that when she gets older and stronger she will be able to use crutches; but she is as weakly as a baby now, for all she has turned eight."

"Kit's a slight stronger than she was last year," interposed Caleb, laying down the boots he was cobbling; but Ma'am was down on him in a moment.

"You may as well shut your mouth, Caleb, if you have got nothing better to say than that, and if you have not eyes to see the dear lamb is dwindling more and more every day in this cellar of a place. 'Plenty of fresh air and light,' says the doctor, 'and as much nourishment as you can get her to swallow,' and all the winter we have to burn gas or sit in darkness through the livelong day, and the fog choking the breath out of one."

"It is our misfortune, sir, as Kezia knows," began Caleb feebly; but his pale blue eyes grew watery as he spoke; "it is not much of an 'ome when one has seen better days, but to my thinking Solomon was in the right when he talked of that dinner of herbs. If Kezia had a contented mind we should maybe all of us get on better."

"A contented fiddlestick!" exclaimed Mrs. Martin, so angrily that Malcolm thought it wise to make a diversion, especially as a warm fishy odour in the adjoining kitchen heralded the near arrival of the noontide repast. When he saw more of the Martins he invariably noticed the smell of fish; it seemed to be their principal diet—fish broiled or fried or boiled, or even at tea-time shrimps or periwinkles. He saw that Anna found the atmosphere oppressive, and determined to beat a hasty retreat.

"Well, we must be going," he observed. "Good-day, Kit. Now I wonder, if I were to give you a doll, what sort you would like?" Then Kit, who had been frowning fiercely over the ball dress, looked up at him with astonished blue eyes.

"A real new dollie for me," she said breathlessly. "Oh my, Ma'am, do you hear that? Oh please may I have a baby that shuts its eyes, and that I can love?"

"Oh yes, I think we can manage that very well, Kit. You may look for your new baby in a few days." And then Anna kissed the sharp little face, and Mrs. Martin smiled at her quite affably.

"She'll talk of nothing else from morning to night. Thank you kindly, sir—and you too, young lady."

"Who is she?" whispered Kit, so loudly that both Malcolm and Anna overheard her. "Who is that nice lady, dad, in the white dress? Is she the gentleman's wife?"

Malcolm laughed in amused fashion as he assisted Anna up the crazy steps, but for once the girl did not respond. "It was so hot in that room," she said rather impatiently, putting up her hands to her burning cheeks. "Oh, Malcolm, what a dreadful woman and what a miserable place!"

"Oh I don't know," he returned. "Mrs. Martin's bark's worse than her bite, and one can see she is fond of the child. We may as well buy that doll, Anna, and then we will have some luncheon. There is a place I know where they do cutlets remarkably well, and their ices are capital," and then they set out in search of a toy-shop.

The shop where Malcolm proposed they should eat their luncheon had an upper window overhanging Piccadilly. Here they secured a small table to themselves.

At first Anna seemed a little thoughtful and abstracted. Kit's innocent suggestion had startled her out of her maidenly unconsciousness. It was such a strange thing to say. It was so terrible that people could think such things, and that Malcolm should only laugh as though he were amused. Somehow that laugh seemed to hurt her more than anything.

Malcolm was quite aware of the girl's discomposure; his gentlemanly instincts were never at fault. He knew that many of his mother's friends often hinted that his position with regard to her adopted daughter must be somewhat difficult. At such times he was given to affirm that no tie of blood could be stronger. "She is my sister in everything but name," he would say.

His influence over her was so great that he charmed her out of her quiet mood, and they were soon laughing and chatting in their old way.

They got into a hansom presently and drove to Cheyne Walk. As they passed Cheyne Row, and looked up at the grim old figure of the Sage of Chelsea, looking so gray and weather-beaten, Malcolm proposed that they should make a pilgrimage to No. 5, but Anna refused.

"We have been there three times," she objected, "and I do so dislike that dismal, dreary old house. I don't wonder that bright, clever Mrs. Carlyle was moped to death there."

"Hush, you little heretic," returned Malcolm good-humouredly. "To me No. 5 Cheyne Row is a shrine of suffering, struggling genius. When I stand in that bare, sound-proof room and think of the work done there by that tormented, dyspeptic man with such infinite labour, with sweat of brow and anguish of heart, I feel as though I must bare my head even to his majestic memory." Malcolm had mounted his favourite hobby-horse, but Anna listened to him rebelliously. They had been over this ground before, and she had always taken Mrs. Carlyle's part. "Think of a handsome, brilliant little creature like Jane Welsh," she would say indignantly, "thrown away on a learned, heavy peasant, as rugged and ungainly as that 'Hill of the Hawk,' that Craigen-puttoch, where he buried her alive. Oh, no wonder she became a neurotic invalid, shut up from week's end to week's end with a dyspeptic, irritable scholar in an old dressing-gown." Indeed, it must be owned, in spite of all Malcolm's eloquence, Anna was singularly perverse on this subject, and absolutely refused to burn incense to his hero.

As Anna must have her way on her birthday, Malcolm said no more, and the next moment they arrived at their destination—a gray, dingy-looking old house, somewhat high and narrow, overlooking the river.

The first floor windows opened on a balcony, which had an awning over it. Two or three deck-chairs had been placed there, and on summer evenings Malcolm loved to sit there, either alone or with a congenial spirit, enjoying the refreshing breezes from the river.

The house belonged to his friend Amias Keston, and some years before he had built himself a studio in the back garden. As his income was remarkably small, and his work at that time far from remunerative, he was obliged to let the upper floor. The situation charmed Malcolm, and the society of his old friend was a strong inducement, so they soon came to terms. Malcolm was an ideal lodger; he gave little trouble, beyond having his bath filled and his boots well polished. He breakfasted in his own apartment, but he always dined with the Kestons. A solitary chop eaten in solitude was not to his taste, and he much preferred sharing his friends' homely meals. "Plain living and high thinking suit me down to the ground," he would say—"a laugh helps digestion;" but in spite of his philosophic theories, many secret dainties found their way into the Keston larder, and were regarded doubtfully and with awe by an anxious young housekeeper.

Anna felt a little quickening of excitement as they walked up the flagged path—she could not look indifferently at the house where Malcolm lived. It seemed an age to both of them before the door was opened. Malcolm had knocked twice, and was meditating a third assault, when they heard footsteps, and the next moment a little brown girl appeared on the threshold with a child in her arms.

"I am so sorry, Mr. Herrick, but Hepsy has just gone for the milk," she whispered to Malcolm, who did not seem a bit surprised by the intelligence.

He had grown used to these domestic episodes. The milkman was generally late, and Hepsy, otherwise Hephzibah, was for ever on his track with a yellow jug in her hand; they called it the "Hunting of the Snark," for they were wont to treat the minor accidents of life in a playful fashion.

"Anna, this is Mrs. Keston," observed Malcolm—"my friend Verity, and Babs." Then Anna, in some confusion and much astonishment, shook hands with this very singular young person.

Verity! could this be the Verity that Malcolm had eulogised with such enthusiasm—this little brown girl who was regarding her so gravely and fixedly?

Anna was obliged to own afterwards that her appearance had given her a shock. She was so small and sallow and insignificant, and her short curly hair was parted on one side like a boy, and cropped quite closely behind. The baby was small and brown too, a tiny edition of herself, and they both had dark eyes that looked preternaturally solemn; Babs, indeed, wore an injured expression, and a puckered look of anguish spoke of the pangs of hunger and the delinquencies of milkmen.

"Babs wants her tea," observed Verity cheerfully; "I am going to give her a crust to amuse her. Will you bring Miss Sheldon into the studio, Mr. Herrick? Amias will be so pleased to see her, though he is very busy. I know your name," she continued smilingly to Anna—she had a fresh clear voice that sounded pleasantly on Anna's ear; "I have heard so much about you, that of course I recognised you directly, though Mr. Herrick did not introduce you properly."

Verity spoke with so much ease and frankness that Anna began to feel interested in her; she seemed so utterly oblivious of her shabby cotton dress and ridiculous bib-apron. Babs presented a far more imposing appearance in a white frock and pink ribbons, underneath which the bare little brown feet were peeping. Anna would willingly have made friends with her, but Verity advised her to wait. "Babs will not be sociable until she has had her tea," she remarked; "we had better take no notice of her for the present," and indeed that much-enduring and long-suffering infant was at that moment so reduced by famine as to attempt swallowing her own dimpled fist.

"What a capital boy she would make!" thought Anna as she followed Mrs. Keston into the dining-room; for the dark, closely-cropped head and a certain boyish freedom of step and bearing gave her this idea.

The dining-room was rather a gloomy apartment; the front windows were high and narrow, and the overhanging balcony rather obscured the light; the folding-doors had been taken away, but though this added to the size of the room, there was no additional cheerfulness gained, as the glass door in the inner room, which once had opened into a pleasant garden, now merely led into a covered way to the studio.

This sombre apartment was furnished in a curious manner, which made people open their eyes with astonishment until they found out that Amias Keston had acquired his household goods at second-hand sales.

The table of good Spanish mahogany had been a bargain, but it hardly harmonised with a Sheraton cabinet and a light oak sideboard, though both were good of their kind. Then the chairs had been picked up singly, and were of all sizes and patterns. Amias always sat in a grandfather chair of carved dark oak at the bottom of the table, and Verity in a high-backed chair in light oak and red morocco, while others were rosewood, mahogany, or Sheraton. Nothing matched, nothing harmonized; it was merely a curiosity shop in which they stored their purchases. So there were plush curtains and Japanese screens, a bronze Mazeppa, and an alabaster boy and butterfly, while blue dragon china and some lovely bits of Chelsea were in a corner cupboard. Anna, who knew there was no other living room, looked vainly round for some feminine occupation, and Verily, who was as sharp as a needle, seemed to guess her thought.

"Oh, I never sit here," she said confidentially, "it is too dark; Babs and I prefer the studio," and Anna did not wonder at the preference. The studio was a delightful room, high and well-proportioned, and with plenty of light. The part used by Amias Keston as his workshop was quite bare with the exception of the sitter's throne and an easel or two; this could at any time be curtained off to secure privacy.

The rest of the studio was fitted up as a sitting-room, with rugs, easy-chairs, and a couch, and a table with work and writing-materials. Here, in a retired nook behind an old screen, stood "Babs's" bassinette, where she took her mid-day naps.

"This is Verity's and Bab's playroom," explained Malcolm with a patronising air; "here the Martha of the establishment takes her well-earned rest." Then Verity flashed a sudden look at him which expressed unmitigated indignation.

"Hit one of your own size, Malcolm, my boy," observed a voice genially from the distance; and then, as Verity drew back a curtain, Anna saw a big, burly-looking man, with shaggy hair and a fair moustache, painting at an easel.

He was so big, so colossal in fact, that he seemed to shake the floor as he walked; everything was big about him, his hands and feet, his voice and his laugh, and when he whispered his words were audible at the other end of the room. This giant among men wore an old brown velvet coat, very frayed about the elbows, and though he was by no means handsome, there was such a pleasant, kindly expression on his face that Anna felt drawn to him at once.

"How do you do, Miss Sheldon?" he said, as Malcolm introduced them; "my wife and I have long wished to make your acquaintance," and here his big hand seemed to swallow Anna's up.

"Go on with your painting, Goliath," interrupted Malcolm. "He is working against time, Anna, and every daylight hour is of consequence to him; it was Verity who drew that curtain that he might not be disturbed;" and then Amias Keston stretched his huge arms and gave himself a shake.

"The Philistines are upon thee, Samson! Yea-Verily, my child, if the Snark is back, you had better tell her to bring us some tea." But here Malcolm again interposed. Goliath was far too busy, they would have tea upstairs, and then sit on the balcony afterwards; and Verity understood him at once. "Hepsy is back," she said composedly; "please take Miss Sheldon upstairs, and then Amias will go on with his work, and I will send up tea as soon as possible;" but before they were out of the studio Goliath was back at his easel and painting away for dear life.



CHAPTER VII

MORE ANCIENT HISTORY WITH VERITY

Heart, are you great enough For a love that never tires? Oh heart, are you great enough for love? I have heard of thorns and briers? —TENNYSON.

As the studio door closed behind them, Anna said regretfully, "I wish we could have stayed longer, Malcolm, I wanted to see more of that nice Mr. Keston; and I did so long to peep at his picture."

"Did you?" observed Malcolm in a surprised tone, but he was evidently gratified at this expression of interest. "Well, we will go back there presently, when he has finished that bit of drapery that is bothering him. Goliath is as nervous as a cat when he is working against time. He and Verity have arranged a regular code of signals," he went on: "when the curtain is drawn right across the arch, it means no admittance except on business, and all loafers and trespassers will be prosecuted. On these occasions Verity is a perfect dragon, and he would be an audacious man who would try to force his way in."

Anna nodded as though this explanation satisfied her, and then she followed Malcolm up the steep, narrow staircase into a pleasant, well-furnished room, with two windows opening on to the balcony.

Everything was in good taste and thoroughly well chosen. The dark oak bureau and writing-table, the book-shelves filled with well-bound volumes, the proof engravings on the walls, and a handsome bronze group on the mantelpiece; while the deep easy-chairs and couch gave it an air of comfort.

Anna had been there before, but she always reiterated her first remark on seeing it, "that it was the most comfortable room she had ever entered. You have such good taste, Malcolm," she would say; "even your paperweight and the coal-scuttle are artistic."

"I am a lover of the picturesque," he would return solemnly, "and anything ugly or unsuitable would jar on me. I like subdued tints and mellow rich tones; that is why I bind my books in buff-coloured Russian calf. They harmonise so splendidly with the dark oak and the faded russet and brown and blue of the rug. Take my advice, Anna, cultivate your eye, and you will add much to the pleasures of life."

When Anna had inspected the latest engraving and tested the Chesterfield couch—a recent purchase—they went out on the balcony until tea was ready. A red-haired, buxom-looking maid brought it in.

It was evident that the mistress of the establishment was not without resources, for quite a pretty, tempting little meal was spread on the oval table. There was sponge-cake and shortbread, a dish of fruit, and delicious bread-and-butter. The beautiful teacups were Malcolm's own property, and had been picked up by him at a fabulous price in Wardour Street, and the little melon-shaped teapot had been a present from his mother. Verity always washed up these teacups herself. She said it was just for the pleasure of handling such lovely things, but in reality she knew Hepsy's clumsy fingers were not to be trusted.

Anna had only taken her place at the tea-tray, and was manipulating the curiously-shaped sugar-tongs rather carefully, when Malcolm looked at her a little searchingly. "Hurry up," he said severely; "how long do you suppose I am going to wait for your opinion of the Keston family?"

Then Anna, who had been vaguely alarmed by his judicial tone, filled up the teacups with a reassured air and in a leisurely manner. "You can hardly expect me to judge of any human being in five minutes," she answered with some show of reason.

"That sounds very plausible, my dear, but I can read you like print," and here Malcolm looked at her squarely. "You may as well confess, Anna, you are far more struck with Goliath than with poor little Verity."

Anna looked rather guilty; as usual, Malcolm's penetration had not deceived him. She had been most favourably impressed with the good-humoured giant, with his honest face and kindly blue eyes; but Verity, a brown slip of a girl with big solemn eyes, how was she to perjure herself by pretending that she was attracted by such a unique little piece of eccentricity.

"I wish she did not look so like a boy," she observed in a deprecating voice. But Malcolm took this remark in good part.

"Oh, you mean her hair," he replied coolly. "Oh, poor girl, that is the result of brain fever. She had the most wonderful hair you ever saw. When she let it down it quite swept the floor, and though it was so dark it had such splendid shades in it. Have you ever seen Keston's 'Leah and Rachel at the Well'?" Then, as Anna shook her head, "Well, Verity was his model for Leah. Leah is filling her pitcher and looking down into the well, so the eyes are hidden, but it is Verity's small brown face to the life. I always say that was his best picture. His Rachel was marvellous, but I liked Leah best; she was more human somehow, and those dark plaits of hair escaping from her turban were so beautiful. Poor little Leah! a month later they robbed her of her chief beauty by cutting off her hair. Old Goliath nearly sobbed as he told me."

Anna's face was full of sympathy. "Mr. Keston must be very fond of her," she returned in such a surprised and dubious tone that Malcolm laughed outright.

"You are not very flattering to poor little Verity," he observed, "but I can assure you that Goliath worships the ground she walks on. They are the happiest couple in the world. Amias is a good fellow and a fine artist, who will make his mark some day when he has got rid of his cranks, but he has not an ounce of his wife's brains; she is the cleverest and brightest little woman I ever met, and she has a heart big enough to hold the whole world."

Anna pondered over this splendid eulogium with some surprise; then she said quickly—

"You must allow me a little time before I can fairly judge of your friends, Malcolm. I know so little about Mrs. Keston. I remember you once promised to tell me about her early life, but somehow there has been no opportunity."

"Let us go out on the balcony and have our talk there, while I enjoy a cigarette," was Malcolm's answer to this. "We must not go back to the studio for another hour;" and then Anna took possession of one deck-chair while Malcolm occupied the other.

There was a short silence while Malcolm lighted his cigarette. Anna looked down on the broad gray river and a passing steamer with eyes shining with happiness. To her the hour was simply perfect. Malcolm was beside her, and in his kindest and most brotherly mood. What did it matter on what subject they talked? Verity or Cedric or Lincoln's Inn—anything that interested him would interest her. When Malcolm held forth on his favourite theories, Anna would listen with unflagging attention, and never once hint at her lack of comprehension, although the effort to understand him had made her head ache. The very sound of his voice was music in her ears, and this unconscious flattery was very soothing to his masculine intellect.

Malcolm, who had masterful ways of his own, was bent on convincing Anna that she was wrong in her estimate of Verity Keston, and he was very willing at this moment to tell her all he knew of her.

"I have heard all about things from Goliath," he began, "and Verity often talks about her old life to me. Neither of them make any secret about it. She was only seven or eight when he first saw her; she had just lost her mother. Her father's name was Westbrook; he was a scene-painter, a thriftless ne'er-do-weel, whose intemperate habits had brought them to poverty and broken his wife's heart; but in his sober moments he was good to the child, and she certainly seemed devoted to him."

"Oh dear, how sad it sounds, Malcolm!"

"My dear, it was far sadder in reality. Think of that lonely little creature, with no one to guide and befriend her except the woman of the house."

"In her rough way Mrs. Parker kept watch over the child, but she had children of her own and a sick husband, and had to drudge and slave for her family and lodgers from morning until night. Oh, I must tell you her answer to a well-meaning district visitor one day, Anna. The lady had just said very sweetly, 'It is so good for us to count our blessings, Mrs. Parker; we are so apt to forget our thanksgivings.'"

"'Humph,' returned Mrs. Parker, 'I don't reckon that I shall take long in counting mine—unless backaches and singing in your ears are amongst them. But then we have got something to look forward to in t'other world—there'll be no wash-tubs and no district visitors there, with their texts and high-falutin' nonsense.'"

Anna laughed merrily. In her quiet way she had a strong sense of humour.

"I think I like Mrs. Parker, Malcolm."

"Verity liked her too; she always says that she owes a great deal to her motherly care. 'I got a few cuffs sometimes,' she once said to me, 'but I daresay I deserved them, and, poor woman, she had troubles of her own to bear. But on cold nights I can't forget how she would come upstairs to tuck me up, and see if I were warm enough; and once, when I could not sleep for shivering, she brought me up some hot drink, and covered me up in an old shawl of her own;' and as long as Mrs. Parker lived Verity never forgot her.'"

"I am beginning to feel interested in her, Malcolm."

"My dear child, if you could only hear Goliath talk on this subject your heart would ache for many a day. Think of that poor child growing up to womanhood in such surroundings; spending her days in a dirty, bare studio, with only rough, dissipated men for her companions—though to do them justice they treated her with respect and kindness. Somehow she picked up a desultory education among them. One broken-down old scene-painter taught her to read and write, and another, a French artist, taught her the rudiments of French, and also to play on the violin. 'They all treated me as a plaything,' she once said to me, 'and poor as they were, they would bring me toys and sweets. I think, nay, I am sure, that they were careful of their talk before me, but it was a strange life for a child. Very often I could not see their faces for the cloud of tobacco smoke, and sometimes the atmosphere was so stifling that I preferred to sit outside on the cold dark landing.'"

"Poor mite, what a life!"

"Amias told me once that he should never forget the first time he saw her. He was a mere lad himself of sixteen or seventeen, and a student in a life academy."

"Some errand had brought him to Westbrook's lodgings. It was a dull, cold January afternoon, and though it was only three o'clock, he said the light was so dim that he nearly stumbled over the child. She was sitting huddled up in the doorway of the studio, with an old red shawl over her head to protect her against the draughts, and a tiny black kitten was mewing piteously in her arms."

"'Kitty's crying for her mother pussy,' she said, looking at him without the least shyness, 'but I want her to keep me company out here. It is not kind of her to cry.'"

"'But it is too cold for you and Kitty too,' observed Amias; 'you had better come in with me.' But the child shook her head."

"'No, I durst not,' she whispered; 'daddy's drunk, and he is flinging things about so hard that Kitty and me might get hurt; so I am making believe we are the Prince and Princess in the enchanted forest. Will you stop and play with me?' and actually Amias—he was always a good fellow—squatted on the ground beside her and entered into the game. From that day they were the best of friends, and he was Verity's favourite playmate. On Sunday afternoons he took her out to feed the ducks in St. James's Park, or to watch the boys sail their boats on the pond in Kensington Gardens. He was only a poor art student, but he would forego a meal cheerfully to provide some little treat for his protegee. As the days grew darker with trouble, and Westbrook grew more hopeless and degraded in his habits, the neglected child turned to Amias for help and sympathy. There were terrible scenes towards the last, but I will spare you the fearful details; it was a miracle how any girl of fifteen could endure what Verity had to bear. For some months Westbrook's friends were fully aware that he was hardly accountable for his actions, and there was an attempt made to shut him up in an asylum. It was certain that the man was insane, and that his daughter was not safe from his violence. Amias concurred in this opinion, and the necessary steps were taken. Unfortunately, either the thing was bungled or Westbrook was too cunning for them, but before they could secure him he had hidden himself in Verity's room, and when the poor child entered he thought she was his keeper and felled her brutally to the ground. They were only just in time to save her. Don't look so pale, Anna, I am not going to harrow up your feelings. It is not a nice story. Westbrook was raving in a strait waistcoat before night, but he did not live many months afterwards;" and then Malcolm related the rest of the story.

It was after that terrible experience that Verity had brain fever and lost her beautiful hair. She had only just left the hospital when the news of her father's death reached her. It was Amias who told her.

The good fellow had visited her constantly, and as soon as she was strong enough to be moved, he took lodgings for her in a farmhouse in Kent where he had often stayed. The woman of the house was a simple, kindly creature who had grown-up daughters of her own, and Amias knew he could safely trust Verity to her care.

No environment could have been better for the girl: the beautiful air, the fresh country sights and sounds, soothed and strengthened her worn nerves. When Verity woke in the morning, instead of the rumbling of carts and wagons, she heard the fluting of blackbirds and thrushes in the orchard below, and the lowing of cows for their pastures. Everything was new and fresh to her; every flower in the hedgerow, every bird singing in the copse, was a miracle and revelation; the old miserable life had slipped away from her like a disused and faded garment, and her soul seemed new-born and steeped in beauty. "Oh, the peace and the loveliness of it all!" she would say to Amias when he came down for his Sunday visit. "Am I really Verity—Verity Westbrook, who used to live in that dreadful Montagu Street?" And then she would look wistfully at him—for she had grown strangely timid and self-distrustful. But he would only laugh at her in his kindly way. "Yea-Verily, my child, it is certainly you yourself," he would answer; "when Nature made you she broke her mould, there could not be two editions of Verity." Sometimes, when she was low and weak, and memories of the past horrors were too vivid, and even his big laugh and little jokes failed to drive them away, she would cling to his arm and entreat him not to send her back. "If I see that place again I shall die," she once said, and the look in her eyes, and the way her small hand went to her throat, as though the very thought impeded her breathing, told him that she spoke the truth.

What was he to do with her? That was the question that occupied him for many a day. The summer had passed, and autumn was well advanced before he found the right answer.

One October afternoon he had taken her out for a walk as usual, and they had sat down to rest on a bench under a wide-spreading chestnut tree overlooking a village green. An aged donkey and some geese were feeding near them, but there was no one in sight. The old gammers and gaffers of the village were sitting by their firesides, for, in spite of the sunshine, the air was cold, and more than once Verity shivered as she sat.

"This wind is too cold for you, my child," he said presently; "let us walk on." But she shook her head.

"No, please let us stay a little longer. I do so love this village. If I were an artist I would paint it. Amias," interrupting herself, "there is something I want to say to you. I have been at dear Colbrook seven months—seven happy, beautiful months—but I am well now, and quite strong, and it is time for me to work and get my own living."

Verity spoke with great determination, but he noticed that her lips were white and drawn, and that there was a strained look in her eyes, and a sort of pitiful feeling came over him, such as a mother would feel for a suffering child. In spite of her brave words, he knew how she dreaded to face the world, though her womanly pride and spirit would prevent her from telling him so. More than once she had hinted to him that she felt herself a burden on his generosity; but at the first word he had checked her.

"How old are you, dear?" he asked by way of answer to her remark. The question seemed to surprise her.

"Oh, Amias, don't you remember I was seventeen on the first of May, and Mrs. Craven gave us a syllabub in honour of the occasion?" and Verity's dark eyes were a little reproachful. It seemed so strange to her that he could have forgotten that day. But Amias only tugged at his moustache and pondered deeply.

"I have it," he said briskly. "Verity, you shall be married on your eighteenth birthday, and you shall marry me." Then, as the girl shrank from him, and her thin face was covered with a burning blush at these unexpected words, his manner changed and grew very gentle. "Darling, you need not be afraid of me. Every hair of your head is sacred to me, for I love you dearly. I will take such care of you, my little Verity, You will be my child as well as my wife. You can trust your old friend Amias, can you not?" and though such an idea had never entered her head, Verity's confidence in him was so great that she actually put her hand in his and promised to marry him.

Never for one moment did she repent her resolution, and before the wedding day arrived she had learned to love him dearly. Amias had not long lost his mother, and the old house at Chelsea was empty when he took Verity there after their brief honeymoon. She was almost frightened at its magnificence until her husband explained to her that they would be too poor to keep it all for themselves, and that a friend of his had taken the drawing-room floor and would live with them.

Such were the outlines of the story related by Malcolm, but in reality much of it was only learnt later on from Verity's lips; but even the slight sketch as Malcolm told it affected Anna almost to tears.

"Oh, how she must have loved him!" were her first words when he had finished. "Malcolm, I know you will laugh at my enthusiasm, but I think Mr. Keston is one of the grandest and noblest of men. What a friend he has been to her all her life—she owes her life and peace and happiness to him! What would have become of her when she left the hospital if he had not cared for her and placed her with those kind people at the farm?"

"One can easily answer that question," returned Malcolm; "she would not have been alive now. Her nerves were fearfully shattered, Anna, and she was as weak as a baby when she arrived at the Hill Farm. Amias told me himself that he carried her into house like an infant. There, dry your eyes, lady fair, all's well that ends well. Now, as our hour is up, I think we may safely venture into the studio again."



CHAPTER VIII

THE RECORD OF AN IMPOTENT GENIUS

And whether you climb up the mountain or go down the hill to the valley, whether you journey to the end of the world or merely walk round your house, none but yourself shall you meet on the highway of fate.—MAETERLINCK.

The door of the studio was slightly ajar, and the sound of a singularly sweet voice crooning out a lullaby was plainly audible. Malcolm, who was about to knock, changed his mind and peeped in through the aperture; then he beckoned to Anna to do likewise.

It was certainly a pretty picture before them. Verity was sitting in her low nursery chair, in the shadow of the heavy, ruby-coloured curtains, hushing her child to sleep, while her husband, at a little distance, stood before his easel; but she was so utterly transformed that Anna would not have known her.

She wore the dress of a Roman peasant; heavy gilt beads were clasped round her throat and fell over her white pleated chemisette, a gay-coloured scarf was arranged picturesquely on her head and gave warmth and colour to the small brown face. On her lap lay Babs, open-eyed and rebellious, kicking up her bare little feet and humming baby fashion in pleased accompaniment.

"Oh, Amias," exclaimed Verity at last in a laughing voice, "what am I to do with this naughty girlie, who refuses to go to sleep and only laughs in her mother's face? Oh, you darling, you darling!" and here Verity smothered the little one with kisses.

"Behold the stern parent!" observed Malcolm mockingly at this point. "Verity, that rogue of a Babs is a match for you already. Why don't you put her in her cot and order her to go to sleep, instead of crooning absurd ditties over her? Oh, I thought so," severely, as Babs grasped her toes with her dimpled hands in the practised style of an acrobat, and gurgled defiantly in his face; "she is just exulting over her own victory as an emancipated daughter."

"Babs takes after her great-grandmother," observed Amias cheerfully from the background; "it is the law of heredity, you see. Her name was also Barbara—Barbara Allen, and she was remarkable for her brown skin, her gipsy beauty, and her incorrigible self-will. She had lovers by the score, and flouted them all except my great-grandfather, whom I have reason to believe wished himself dead before he had been married a week. She was the mother of fifteen, and lived to a good old age, and was a pride and terror to the neighbourhood, and the mantle of her self-will has fallen upon Barbara Maud Keston. Yea-Verily, my child, the oracle has spoken," and Amias went on with his work, while Babs gurgled at him in delighted appreciation of these paternal sentiments.

"Would Miss Sheldon care to see my picture, Malcolm?" he asked the next minute in his usual voice; "it is nearly finished, and I shall be glad of an opinion;" and then he drew back from the canvas, and Malcolm and Anna took his place.

It was one of those little studies from life that appeal so strongly to the popular taste, and in spite of its simplicity and absence of breadth, it was exquisitely painted. It was only a couple of organ-grinders resting during the noontide heat. The man was sitting on the curb with a short pipe in his mouth—a handsome rascal of a fellow, evidently an Italian, with gold rings in his ears. The woman, in peasant costume, looked heated and weary, and had a baby in her arms. Both mother and child were painted from life.

"How beautiful!" whispered Anna, looking reverently at the giant beside her.

"It is one of your best pictures, Goliath," observed Malcolm, "but I suppose you do not intend to exhibit it next year?"

"Oh no," he returned, "it is already bespoken by a rich Australian. Rainsford brought him here to see if he would give me an order, and he fell in love with my organ-grinders at once. I had a sort of idea that I would keep it myself, for the sake of Verity and the kid; but with a family"—here Amias smoothed his yellow moustache proudly—"one is bound to keep the pot boiling."

"I did not want it to go," sighed Verity, who had just then sidled up to her husband—she looked a mere child beside him—"it is such a perfect likeness of Babs." And then she withdrew with the rebel, while the others made a turn round the studio; and Amias showed them sketches, and also a more important picture that was to be exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year. Verity was the model again—this time as a sick gipsy girl lying on a heap of straw in a barn, while the caravan and encampment were painted most realistically, even to the old horse and shaggy donkey hobbled to the trunk of a tree, with a thin yellow cur near them. When completed it would be a striking picture: the smoky sunset tints of a November afternoon were faithfully depicted; and a woodman's hut, just falling into decay, with golden lichen on the rotting roof, was marvellously painted. Malcolm stood before it in a rapt mood of ecstasy, then he struck himself dramatically on the breast.

"Goliath," he said sorrowfully, "I am the most miserable of men, a 'mute inglorious Milton' is nothing to me. Nature has created me a lover of the picturesque. In heart and soul I am an artist, I dabble in colours, I dream of lights and shades and glorious effects; but the power of working out my ideas is denied me. If I try to paint a tree my friends gibe at me. I am a poor literary hack; but I give you my word, my dear old Philistine, that I would willingly change places with you." Anna smiled, she was accustomed to this sort of talk; but to her surprise Verity, who had just rejoined them, looked grave.

"I am always so sorry for Mr. Herrick when he says this sort of thing," she observed in a low voice aside to Anna. "He means us to laugh, but he is quite serious. Amias and I just know how he feels. It must be so sad to love the beautiful with all one's heart and not have the power to create—to be just a thought and word painter and nothing else."

"Perhaps if Malcolm took lessons he might be able to paint in time," suggested Anna. She felt rather culpable, as though all these years she had not sympathised enough with him; but then it was so difficult for any one to know when he was serious.

It was evident that Verity understood him.

"Oh no, it is too late now," she remarked; "besides, the gift has been denied him. But he helps Amias so much by his clever suggestions. He would not tell you, of course, but this caravan scene is all his idea. He came upon a gipsy encampment in a Kentish lane one afternoon, and he made Amias go down the next day and see it. There was the woodman's hut, and the barn, and the hobbled horse and donkey. Amias was down there at the inn three days, making sketches for the picture, and getting some of the gipsies to sit to him. There was one woman ill in the tent, but Amias declared she looked more like a sick ape, she was so ugly—so I had to be the model."

"Isn't it rather tiring work, Mrs. Keston?"

"Oh dear, no," returned Verity smiling; "it never tires me to do things for Amias; and then he lets me talk to him all the time. I like to feel I am useful to him, and can help him a little with his work."

"Oh yes, I can understand that," returned Anna softly. She thought Verity looked quite beautiful as she spoke; perhaps the costume of a Roman peasant suited her, but Anna, who was standing quite close to her, noticed the wonderful softness of the brown eyes and the length of the curling lashes. Babs had grown drowsy at last, and Verity had placed her in the cot. Then they all sat down for a brief chat before it was time for Malcolm to take Anna home.

They had been talking about Amias Keston's unfinished picture, and, as usual, Malcolm had been holding forth in his role of art critic, when one of those sudden pauses which seem to drop softly between intimate friends followed his concluding speech. Verity held up her finger with the hackneyed allusion to a passing angel, at which Malcolm laughed scornfully.

"You are too poetical, my dear Verity," he observed; "it was no white-robed celestial vision brushing past us in the twilight and fanning us with plumed and balmy wings; the gliding shadow that moved between us was merely the guardian genius who presides over my destiny. But as he passed I touched his mantle"—and here Malcolm regarded his audience with infinite meaning.

No one hazarded an observation. Amias, who had been filling his pipe with tobacco, looked at it longingly and returned it to his pocket. This process he repeated at intervals from sheer force of habit. With his pipe alight he was an ideal listener; without it his attention wandered and grew drowsy. But Malcolm, wrapt up in his own visionary conceits, did not see the pathos of the action.

He was on his favourite hobby-horse—life, and its limitations, its enforced denials and futile sacrifices, was opening before his eyes.

"I am going to write a book," he announced abruptly. "I mean to take the world by storm—to say my say—for once. It will not be a novel. The public is inundated by the flood of fiction that threatens to engulf it. We have biographies by the ton, in two, three, or four volumes; in every public place in England we set up our golden image, and we bid men, women, and children fall down and do it homage. Hero-worship is our favourite cult; woe to that man who refuses to burn incense before it!"

"I suppose you intend to bring out a volume of essays?" queried Amias lazily.

"No, my dear fellow," returned Malcolm rather mendaciously, for he was planning a series of essays at that very time. "No trifles and syllabubs for me—froth above and sweetness and jam beneath. Every one writes essays nowadays, and tries to stir with his little Gulliver pen the yeasty foam raised by a Carlyle or an Emerson. One might as well watch the effort of a small hairy caterpillar to follow in the wake of a sea-serpent. Oh ye gods and little fishes, could anything be more grotesque!"

"But the book?" growled Amias, with a surreptitious glance at his pipe.

"Oh, the book," returned Malcolm loftily, "it is a sudden inspiration, but I feel the grip of my Frankenstein already; I have not yet let go the mantle of my guardian genius. It will be autobiographical, expansive, and deep as human nature itself, and I shall call it 'The Record of an Impotent Genius.'"

"Good lack!" observed Amias in a disgusted tone, "what a drivelling title! Why impotent, in the name of all that is rational?"

"My dear old Philistine," returned his friend in a measured voice, "I use the word impotent in the meaning attached to it in Holy Writ, and as my beloved and well-thumbed Thesaurus uses it: impotent, powerless, unarmed, weaponless, paralytic, crippled, inoperative, ineffectual, inadequate. Think of the strong man bound for a lifetime, Goliath—of a dumb and palsied genius gazing out of a prison-house. Could even a blinded Samson equal the pathos of such a picture?"

Amias shook his head mutely, and felt a third time for his pipe, and plugged the tobacco tenderly with his finger. In some moods he never argued with Malcolm.

"I shall write the autobiography of this poor tormented soul," went on Malcolm—"this dumb poet, this crippled artist, to whom the birthright of failure has descended, who has to look on for a lifetime at other men's labours, and to whom the power of expression and creation is denied, who has been gifted with the seeing eye in vain."

"Oh that seeing eye!" groaned Amias, who had heard this observation at least a hundred times. Then Verity began to laugh, and, to Anna's surprise, Malcolm followed suit. Then he clapped Amias heavily on the shoulder.

"Where's your pipe, Goliath? Poor old Philistine, he is a gone coon without his baccy. Fetch him a match somebody." And as Amias feebly protested against this, he went on—"Anna is quite a Bohemian, and rather likes the smell of tobacco. I will have a cigarette to keep you company," and in another minute Amias's broad countenance wore its usual expression of placid enjoyment.

The conversation turned on Cedric Templeton, and Malcolm asked Verity if she could transform the lumber-room into a bedroom for two or three nights for the use of his friend. This she at once cheerfully undertook to do, and promised to have it ready by the following evening, and then he informed them of his intended visit to Staplegrove.

Verity's eyes at once challenged her husband. "Staplegrove," she said in a surprised voice, "do you mean Staplegrove in Surrey? Why, that is the very place where the Logans live."

"Are you speaking of Matt Logan?" asked Malcolm.

"Of course he lives down there; but I heard the other day that he had come in for some money, and had gone abroad for his wife's health."

"Oh, that's right enough," returned Amias. "Verity and I saw them off two days ago. They have gone to the Black Forest. I meant to have told you before, but something put it out of my head—that he has lent us his cottage."

"What a piece of good luck! Upon my word, I am inclined to envy you, Goliath."

"There is no need for you to do that," returned Amias cordially. "There will be a 'prophet's chamber' ready for you when you feel inclined to run down. It is a nice little place enough. 'The Crow's Nest' they call it, though I am not sure there are any crows about. Verity and I ran down to have a look at it. The house is a mere cottage, only just room to swing two cats and a kitten—not a corner for any impotent genius to woo the drowsy god in," and here Amias gave a great laugh; "but there is a queer sort of garden room Logan has built which he calls his workshop, and part of it is partitioned off as a bedroom. It is a bit airy in the winter, he says, but simply perfect in the summer. You can sleep with your window wide open, and great tea-roses nodding in at you, and now and then a night-jar or a black-winged bat flitting between you and the moon."

"It is a little bare certainly," observed Verity, "but so pleasant, and I think I could make it comfortable for you, Mr. Herrick. The side window looks out on a flower-border. There are great yellow clumps of evening primroses and milky white nicotiana, and the roses are simply everywhere."

"How long shall you stay?" asked Malcolm in an interested voice.

"Well, the Logans have offered it to us until the end of October," returned Verity; "and as it is so hot in town, Amias proposed this morning that we should try and get off in another ten days. I think we shall stay there until the end of summer."

"And what am I to do without you both—a lonely bachelor?" exclaimed Malcolm. "For selfishness and want of feeling commend me to married people. With regard to their less fortunate fellows they have simply no conscience."

"My dear fellow, you will be as right as a trivet," returned Amias. "You will have the Snark to attend to your comforts, and the maternal Snark—a sad-faced but most respectable woman—to attend to her daughter's. We have the Logan's servant, and a slip of a girl besides, a sort of Marchioness, who answers to the name of Miranda. Verity will find her a comfort with Babs."

"And I am to run down to the Crow's Nest when I like?" Then Amias nodded a cheerful assent.

"We shall expect you from Saturday till Monday, and as many more days as you like to give us. You are part of the household, my dear fellow. I wish we could offer a room to Miss Sheldon; but we shall have to turn the spare room into a nursery. By the bye, Malcolm, I strolled down the road with Logan and passed the Wood House. It looks a charming place, and it is only a stone's throw from the Crow's Nest."

Malcolm felt vaguely interested. What a small world it was after all! He was going to make acquaintance with Cedric's people in this remote corner of Surrey, and lo and behold, Goliath and his belongings were following him.

Well, he was sick of the heat and turmoil of town, and it would not be a bad plan to take possession of the garden room, and make Verity find a quiet nook where he could write undisturbed. He really had a brilliant scheme in his head—some essays which should interlace and overlap each other like a linked chain of curious workmanship. He had already accumulated his material, and he only wanted leisure to write. He knew his trade well, and his strong, vigorous style, his admirable choice of words, his pure English, and above all, his complete knowledge of his subject, were already bringing him into notice with the critics.

Yes, his summer holiday should be spent at the Crow's Nest, and he would work and play at his own sweet will. It was a pity Anna could not join them for a week or two. She and Verity would have become such friends; and then he remembered his mother's prejudices. Besides, she was thinking of going to Whitby, and if so she would expect Anna to accompany her.

It was time for them to go now; but, as they drove home in a hansom, Malcolm suddenly laid his hand on Anna's. "You are very quiet, dear," he said gently. "Have I tired you, or has your day disappointed you?" But he was amazed when the girl turned her face to him, for he saw her eyes were full of unshed tears.

"Oh no, it has been perfect—you and your friends have been so good to me, Malcolm. It will be like a beautiful picture—the river and the studio and the sunset. But why must pleasant things come to an end?" And then she sighed, and said half to herself, "There will be no Wood House or Crow's Nest for me;" and Anna's voice was so sad as she said this that Malcolm felt quite a pang of pity cross him. Why was Anna's life so dull, and his so full of interest?



CHAPTER IX

THE WOOD HOUSE

Without love there is no interior pleasantness of life. —SWEDENBORG.

It was a lovely July afternoon when Malcolm Herrick and his friend arrived at Earlsfield. A smart dog-cart, Cedric's own especial property, was waiting for them at the station. As they mounted to their places, and Cedric took the reins from the groom, he pointed out the good points of the mare with an air of complacency and satisfaction that somewhat amused Malcolm; but the next moment he said in a boyish manner, "You see, Herrick, I have not got quite used to my new toy. My sisters gave me the trap on my last birthday. I have had Brown Becky for two years. She is good for either driving or riding; but I dropped a hint once, in Dinah's hearing, that I longed for a dog-cart, and though she said nothing at the time, she and Elizabeth put their heads together, and they got Mr. Brodrick, a neighbour of ours, to choose it."

"Your sisters are very good to you," observed Malcolm in rather a patronising manner. He even smiled to himself furtively at the thought of the two gentle spinsters. "A good-looking boy like Cedric is always spoilt by his womankind," he said to himself. "If I ever get on intimate terms with them, which is very unlikely, I shall tell them that all this petting and spoiling is not good for the lad, and will only unfit him for his work in life. Women have no sense of proportion," he continued rather irritably; "they either do too much or too little, and the Misses Templeton seem to be no exceptions to the rule."

They had left Earlsfield behind them, and were now climbing the long, winding ascent that led to Staplegrove. As the road grew steeper, Brown Becky slackened her pace.

The heavy storms had tempered the great heat, and though the sky was cloudless and the sunshine brilliant, the trees meeting overhead gave them a pleasant shade, and a soft, refreshing breeze blew in their faces. Malcolm drew a long breath of delight.

"There is nothing like the country after all," he observed. "When I have made my pile, I shall pitch my tent or build myself a hut far from the madding crowd, and bid good-bye to Lincoln's Inn, and Piccadilly, and club-land, and all the delights of modern civilisation."

"Not you, old fellow," returned Cedric sagaciously. "Why, you would be bored to death in no time." But Malcolm shook his head.

"Am I not a lover of the picturesque, my dear boy? Nature intended me for a country gentleman." Malcolm so dearly loved argument for its own sake that he did not always consider it necessary to weigh the accurate truth of his words. He liked to take different views of the same subject. On more than one occasion in Cedric's hearing he had compared himself with Charles Lamb.

Custom had made the presence of society, streets and crowds, the theatre and the picture-gallery, an absolute necessity. Why, in some moods he would take this as his text, and discourse most eloquently on what he called the spectacle of the streets. "There are few days when there are not groups of Hogarth-like figures," he would say—"sketches from the life, abounding in humour or infinite pathos. There is a blind beggar and his dog over in a corner by the Temple station," he continued, "that I never can pass without putting a penny in the box. The dog's face is perfectly human in its expression. The eyes speak. I gave him a bone once—a meaty bone it was, too"—and here Malcolm looked a little ashamed of himself—"in fact, it was a mutton chop, and I stole it off the luncheon table. I kept the beggar in conversation while he ate it. Sir," for he was addressing Amias Keston at that moment, "that dog positively grovelled at my feet with affection and gratitude."

"How many mutton chops has he had since?" asked his friend.

"He never had another," responded Malcolm sadly. "The carriage of a greasy paper full of meat is too much even for my philanthropy; but I take him dry biscuits—sometimes Spratt's meat biscuits—and tobacco for the beggar. He is an old soldier and wears his medal; and the dog—Boxer is his name—is like Nathan's ewe lamb to him. He has got a crippled son—a natural he calls him—who fetches him home in the evening. I saw him once," went on Malcolm, puffing slowly at his cigarette, "an uncouth sort of chap on crutches; and when Boxer saw him he nearly knocked him down, jumping on him for joy; and they all went home together, quite a cheerful family party."

"You would not be happy away from town, Herrick," persisted Cedric; "that's such a jolly crib of yours at Cheyne Walk;" for he had been greatly struck by the Keston menage, and had quite fallen in love with his quaint little hostess; while Verity, on her side, had taken very kindly to the handsome lad, and made much of him for Malcolm's sake.

"Oh, I am comfortable enough," returned Malcolm. "Chelsea is sacred ground to me. Did not Carlyle live and die there! Besides, there is the river and the bridges, and Battersea Park in the distance, and the house where Gabriel Dante Rossetti lived, and an old historical church, and the grand old Hospital, and all sorts of gray secluded old nooks and corners over which I can gloat when I take my walks abroad."

"What a queer chap you are, Herrick," Cedric returned in a puzzled tone. He felt rather like the bewildered Satyr when the traveller blew hot and cold. But Malcolm was perfectly sincere. No man loved the country more truly and sincerely. Nevertheless, the town was equally necessary to him; and if he had been compelled to choose between them, his casting vote would have been for town.

"We are at the top of the hill now," observed Cedric presently, with a jerk of the reins to remind Brown Becky that she must not go to sleep, and then they bowled swiftly down a wide-open road. They had just passed a cross-road, which, as Cedric informed Malcolm, led to Rotherwood, where the nearest church and shops were, when Malcolm's attention was attracted by a house they were passing. It was a small gray house, standing rather back from the road, with a garden at the side full of gay flower-borders.

"Oh, that's the Crow's Nest," observed Cedric, "where the Logans live; that is where your friends the Kestons are coming. Oh, there is no need of looking at it now," as Malcolm craned his neck in his effort to see more of it;, "we can go over it any day we like. Here we are at the Wood House," and Cedric drove in at an open gate.

Malcolm looked round in pleased surprise. At that moment the house was not visible. They seemed driving through a little wood—only the carriage road winding between the fir trees was beautifully kept. Now and then there was an open glade, but the greater part was thickly fringed with heather, bracken, and whortleberry bushes.

The next moment Cedric turned a corner sharply, and a low gray house and a well-kept tennis lawn were before them.

"What a charming place!" exclaimed Malcolm. "It certainly merits its name—it is indeed a Wood House."

"Dinah is going to build a lodge next year," returned Cedric. "Lots of people refuse to believe there is a house in the wood, and lose themselves a dozen times before they find it. Ah, there's Dinah on the look-out for us. Jump down, Herrick; I will follow you directly. I want to speak to Forbes about the mare."

Malcolm did as he was told, and entered the long, softly-lighted hall. Perhaps the sunshine had dazzled his eyes a little, but at that instant he thought it was a young girl who was advancing to meet him. The figure was so rounded and graceful, and there was such alertness and youthfulness in the bearing; but as she came closer to him he saw that her hair was quite gray.

"I am very pleased indeed to see you, Mr. Herrick," she observed in a pleasant voice. "We have heard so much of you from Cedric that you seem quite an old friend. I am afraid you will find us very quiet, homely people; but I daresay Cedric will have prepared you for that. He grumbles dreadfully, poor boy, at our old-fashioned, humdrum ways."

"I can assure you, Miss Templeton, that the quiet will be very restful after the turmoil of town," returned Malcolm seriously; "and, as far as I can judge at present, Staplegrove seems a perfect paradise;" and then Miss Templeton smiled and led the way into a pleasant, cosy-looking drawing-room, with three windows opening on to a terrace, below which lay a charming garden. On this side of the house the wood ended abruptly; but in the distance, beyond a rose arch, Malcolm caught sight of a little rustic bridge which seemed to span a sort of green ravine.

Miss Templeton had taken her place at the tea-table; but Malcolm did not at once follow her. "After all, town has its drawbacks," he said half to himself; but Miss Templeton understood him.

"You mean one has to do without gardens there," she returned. "That would never suit either my sister or myself; our garden is very dear to us. You have not seen all its beauties yet, Mr. Herrick," she continued brightly; "it is full of surprises. When I have given you some tea we will go in search of my sister. She is sure to be down at the Pool—we call it Ophelia's Pool, because it reminds us so of a picture we have seen in the Royal Academy. It is our favourite haunt on a hot summer's afternoon."

Malcolm made an appropriate reply, and for the next few minutes they talked pleasantly of Staplegrove, and the short cut that led to Rotherwood church and village; and then Cedric joined them, and began chatting volubly to his sister; and Malcolm drank his tea and watched them both. He owned to Anna afterwards that Dinah Templeton was a revelation to him, and that all his preconceived notions of her fell as flat as a pack of cards.

The demure and somewhat stately spinster he was expecting to see was certainly not en evidence in this gray-haired, radiant-looking woman; the soft, girlish bloom and the silvery hair were wonderfully attractive; and yet what struck him most, with a sort of indefinable surprise, was the mingled gentleness and brightness of expression; there was such a wonderful clearness in the eyes—it somehow reminded him of the innocent look of a happy child.

And it was to this sweet woman that Cedric was talking in that cavalier fashion—with much affection certainly, but little reverence, after the manner of the nineteenth-century youth. More than once Malcolm muttered "Jackanapes" under his breath, and once he interposed.

"Our young friend is too modern in his notions, Miss Templeton," he observed. "Young Oxford is so cock-sure of everything under the sun—it is a fault of the age."

"Oh, do you think so?" and Miss Templeton looked relieved; for the moment her serenity had seemed slightly clouded with what her sister always called her "hen and duckling look."

"Oh, you may laugh, Cedric," looking at him fondly, "but I intend to believe Mr. Herrick, he is older and more experienced. Oh, we have such arguments sometimes," turning to Malcolm. "Cedric will have it that we are not sufficiently up-to-date. We are mediaeval or in the Dark Ages, according to him, but how is one to alter one's nature or to talk unknown languages? My sister and I are very conservative, and we cling to the beliefs and loves of the past."

"I don't believe Cedric wants to change you in the least, Miss Templeton; he is only posing a bit for your edification, and trying to make you think that he is as clever as he looks."

"Come now, draw it mild," growled Cedric. And then he looked discontentedly round the room. "Where's Dick and the rest of the fellows? I bet you anything you like, Die, that they are down with Elizabeth at the Pool."

Dinah smiled as she rose from the table. "You are right, dear," she returned composedly, "I saw the whole train following her as usual. Dick wanted to go with the dog-cart,—he knew his master was expected, but Forbes said it was too hot for the run. If you are ready, Cedric, we might go down to the Pool now." And as Cedric graciously intimated his readiness, Dinah led the way through the flower-garden, only pausing on the rustic bridge to let Malcolm lean over and admire the hanging gardens below, the sides of the little ravine being clothed from the top to the bottom with wild-flowers and plants of every description. The traveller's joy had even gained a footing on the bridge itself. To add to the beauty, a tiny rivulet, which seemed to take its rise from some invisible source, flowed through the flowery ravine like a silver thread.

"What a charming spot!" observed Malcolm in a tone of such sincere admiration that Miss Templeton looked quite gratified.

"It was my sister's idea," she said softly; "she originates most of our improvements. Now, as you see, we have come to the end of our garden and are going down that little woodland path. We are both passionately fond of flowers, and like to see them from the house, but in our hearts I believe we love our wild garden best."

"And you are right—one could never be tired of this," and Malcolm glanced at the slender sterns of the firs and the soft green light between the tree-boles. Just here the ground was bare except for the carpet of brown needles, but the next moment the path became more tangled and sloped rather steeply. They could distinctly hear a dog bark. "Take him to the peep-hole," whispered Cedric in his sister's ear, and Miss Templeton nodded and stepped off the path; then she beckoned Malcolm to look through some interlacing branches which formed a natural arch.

It was a charming little sylvan scene that met his eyes. The spot had been fitly called Ophelia's Pool. The small pond was shut in with rowans and thickets of alder and blackberry bushes, and on the pond itself some water-lilies and other aquatic plants were growing. Two or three rough boulders, cushioned with moss, made comfortable seats, and were at the present moment occupied by two people—one of them evidently the second Miss Templeton, and the other a young man in a rough serge suit, whom at first sight Malcolm certainly did not take for a clergyman; and round them, in various attitudes of waiting and expectancy, dogs of all sorts and conditions—from a handsome brown retriever to Cedric's little fox-terrier, Dick.

"My word, there's Carlyon," observed Cedric in rather an aggrieved tone; "why, the fellow lives here;" and then he put his hands to his mouth and gave a view-hallo so lustily that all the dogs began barking like mad. Only Dick—who was a knowing fellow and up to tricks—rushed up the path and began dancing excitedly round his master.

"What barbarians boys are!" observed the other Miss Templeton somewhat coolly to her companion, and then she rose from the boulder and walked rather majestically towards her sister and their guest.

Her manner was friendly, and she greeted Malcolm kindly enough, but it was less soft and winning than her sister's, and did not impress him so favourably. Then she introduced Mr. Carlyon, and the two young men shook hands; and afterwards the dogs passed in review, and Elizabeth gravely named each one, ending up with her sister's little dachshund Mike.

Malcolm, who was a dog-lover, although he had none of his own, was soon making friends with all the animals; but as he praised and caressed them, he was telling himself over and over again that the second Miss Templeton could not hold a candle to her sister.

Malcolm was terribly critical with regard to women; Anna had often blamed him for his severity.

"It is a mistake to expect perfection," she would say; "it is so easy to find fault and pick holes in people;" but though Malcolm agreed with her, he still remained fastidious and hard to please. So he at once decided that Miss Elizabeth Templeton was not to his taste. In the first place, he did not admire big women—and she was tall, and decidedly massive. Her dress, too, was singularly unbecoming—a big woman in a cotton blouse and a battered old hat was a spectacle to make him shudder. Miss Templeton's blue muslin and dainty ruffles were a pleasing contrast.

"It is a woman's duty to set herself off as much as possible," he would say to the long-suffering Anna, and then he transposed a certain saying, "If you can't be handsome, be as handsome as you can;" and he would hold forth on the immorality of slovenliness.

"I daresay Miss Elizabeth Templeton would not be bad-looking if she only took a little pains with herself," he thought, as they all grouped themselves comfortably on the boulders. After a moment's hesitation, Elizabeth placed herself beside him and begun to talk to him. Somehow her voice pleased him. It was not so sweet as her sister's, and there was a sort of burr in it, and when he knew her better he discovered that when she was eager or excited about anything there was a slight hesitation, as though her words tripped each other up; but with all its defects it was a voice to linger in the memory. She was so close to him now that he could judge of her better. She was certainly not handsome, her features were irregular and her mouth decidedly too wide for beauty; but the gleam of faultlessly white teeth and a certain brightness in the dark Irish-gray eyes redeemed her face from plainness; her skin, too, was clear and naturally fair, but was evidently embrowned by air and sunshine.

Nature had formed her in a generous mould, for even her hands and feet were large; and then Malcolm thought of Anna's pretty little hands, and again he said to himself that in his opinion Elizabeth Templeton was not an attractive woman.



CHAPTER X

WHAT THE FERN-OWL HEARD

There is but one thing that can never turn into suffering, and that is the good we have done. —MAETERLINCK.

It takes two to speak truth—one to speak and another to hear. —THOREAU.

While Malcolm was trying to make himself agreeable to the second Miss Templeton, and not succeeding as well as he could wish, he more than once broke off the conversation to listen with some amusement to the bantering by-play going on between Cedric and the young clergyman, Mr. Carlyon.

They were evidently on intimate terms, for Cedric addressed him as David or Davie in the most unceremonious manner. Mr. Carlyon appeared to be quite young, certainly not more than six-or seven-and-twenty, and had an odd, characteristic, but most pleasant face, that somehow took Malcolm's fancy at once. It was rather thin and pale, and the mouth a little receding, but the broad forehead and kindly, frank-looking eyes somewhat redeemed this defect. There was so much life and animation in his expression; and a boyish eagerness in his manner, a curious abruptness in his speech, a certain quick clipping of words and sentences, only added to his marked individuality, and was by no means disagreeable when one had become accustomed to it.

Malcolm soon found out that he was the curate belonging to Rotherwood, the church attended by the Templeton family; and it was soon evident to him that the sisters, Miss Elizabeth especially, took a great interest in parochial matters.

"How is old Dr. Dryasdust?" asked Cedric presently, but he spoke in a jeering tone. Then Elizabeth laughed, but Dinah looked shocked, and Mr. Carlyon threw a dry clod at him.

"It really is not such a bad name," observed Elizabeth softly, as though to herself, and then her eyes encountered Mr. Carlyon's—it was evident that he agreed with her.

"The vicar is not a lively person, certainly," he rejoined, "but all the same I have a great respect for him. He is a trifle too mediaeval for these days, and his environment does not suit him a bit."

"He ought to be a fellow of his college—spending his days in disinterring dusty old folios in the Bodleian," pursued Cedric, "instead of being vicar of Rotherwood."

"I think very highly of Mr. Charrington," and Dinah spoke rather gravely. "He is not only a very learned man, but he is such a thorough gentleman. Poor man, it is a blessing that he has you near him, Mr. Carlyon, for his life is very lonely."

"Why does he not get married then?" growled Cedric. "I bet you he is not much over fifty." Then again Elizabeth and Mr. Carlyon exchanged glances.

"I don't think the vicar ever intends to enter the holy estate of matrimony," returned Mr. Carlyon. "He is an old bachelor by choice, and in my humble opinion is likely to remain so; and then his worthy housekeeper, Mrs. Finch, makes him so thoroughly comfortable."

"I heard something once from one of our fellows," observed Cedric, with a mischievous glance at Dinah—he knew well her objection to gossip. "He was not always a woman-hater. Palgrave of Lincoln told me that he had been engaged to a lady, and that just before the wedding-day the engagement was broken off; no one seemed to know the rights of it, but ever since he has been a little shy of petticoats."

"Cedric, I am sure it is time for us to dress for dinner, the gong must have sounded long ago. Will you show Mr. Herrick his room?" Dinah spoke with gentle decision, and as she evidently expected Malcolm to join her, he rose from his seat. As he did so he heard Elizabeth say in a low voice to Mr. Carlyon, "I wonder if Cedric's story is a true one." "Very possibly—why not?" was the answer; "he looks like a man with a past," and then they dropped behind and he heard no more.

It is never well to form an opinion too soon; before the next half-hour had passed Malcolm had been compelled to readjust his ideas on the subject of Miss Elizabeth Templeton. When he saw her again he would hardly have recognised her. Her massive but well-proportioned figure looked to its best advantage in the black evening dress; the transparent material only set off the round white throat and finely-moulded arms to perfection. The coils of brown hair were effectively arranged, and the shape of the head was beautiful. Before the evening was over Malcolm, in sheer honesty, was obliged to confess to himself that Miss Elizabeth Templeton was a very attractive woman, and would cast many prettier and younger faces into the shade. "I wonder where her charm lies," he soliloquised when he had retired to his bedroom that evening; "her sister is really almost beautiful, but, with the exception of a pair of very bright and expressive eyes, Miss Elizabeth has not a single good feature, and yet one is compelled to admire her. She is a little dignified and reserved with a stranger, and yet she is not shy; even while she talked to Mr. Carlyon, who certainly seems a sort of tame cat at the Wood House, I could see her looking at me as though she regarded me with interest, but we have broken the ice now with a vengeance."

"One thing I have discovered," he went on, as he looked dreamily down into the scented darkness of the garden, "she is a woman of large sympathies, with an excellent sense of humour, which her good heart and kindly nature keeps in good control; and if I do not mistake, she is the leading spirit of the house. The sisters seem to be devoted to each other; and the way they spoil that boy—" and here Malcolm shook his head in strong disapproval, without being in the least aware that he was not free from that fault himself. He had just sent the lad away proud and happy by his delicately implied praise of the Wood House and its inmates.

"I am quite sure that I shall get on with your sisters, Cedric," he had said with good-natured condescension; "they seem to me such thoroughly good, kind-hearted women, and very superior to the generality of folk. How beautifully your sister Elizabeth sings! I have seldom heard a voice that pleased me better."

"They both like you," returned Cedric shyly. "Dinah told me so at once; and though Elizabeth did not actually say so, I could see by her manner how she enjoyed talking to you;" and indeed Malcolm had never been in better form.

It had been a very pleasant evening; the small oval dinner-table, with its flowers exquisitely arranged, the open windows, with the dogs lying out on the terrace, were all to Malcolm's taste. Everything was so well-appointed and so well-managed. The servants were evidently old retainers, and took a warm interest in their mistress's guests.

After dinner they had their coffee on the terrace, and watched the sun setting behind the fir woods, and when the last yellow gleam had faded away from the sky, at Dinah's suggestion Elizabeth went into the drawing-room, where two pink-shaded lamps were already lighted, and seated herself at the piano.

"There is no occasion for us to go in," observed Dinah, who had noticed Malcolm's evident enjoyment of his cigarette; "we shall hear her perfectly out here, and Mr. Carlyon will turn over for her."

Such is human nature, for one instant Malcolm felt strongly impelled to throw away his cigarette and oust Mr. Carlyon from his snug corner, if only to teach him his place; but indolence prevailed: his cigarette was too delicious, the air was so refreshing and balmy, and the pale globes of the evening primroses and the milky whiteness of the nicotianas gleamed so entrancingly in the soft dusk, that he felt himself unwilling to move. Even the curious notes of the night-jar seeking its prey in the dim light had a strange fascination for him, and he spoke of it more than once to Dinah. "It is like the humming of a spinning-wheel," he remarked; "it is very weird and uncanny."

"So people always say," she returned. "It is the goat-sucker, you know; they are very fond of feeding on that sort of beetle called the gnat-chafer; in fact, it is their favourite food. It has another name, the fern-owl."

"So I have heard;" and then, as a rich strong voice broke suddenly on his startled ears, he leant back in his hammock chair and composed himself to listen.

It was a wonderful voice, so sweet and true and full of expression; there was such tenderness and depth in it, that it seemed in some mysterious way to touch the very recesses of the heart, and to play on the whole gamut of human feeling. Malcolm found himself thinking of his lonely childhood, and of his father, then he recalled his youthful aspirations and his old ideals. "The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts," he said to himself, "and the wind's will is a boy's will;" and then, as the last lingering notes died away, he flung his cigarette aside and rose abruptly from his seat.

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